Germany | Costa Rica | Poland | Ecuador
When the gaze of the world is fixed on the World Cup Stadium Munich on June 9th, the start of the ultimate game of chess will begin in earnest.
With months to prepare for each game, the coaches taking part in Germany 2006 can have no excuses when it comes to setting out battle plans for the task ahead and for the coach of the hosts, the already underfire Jurgen Klinsmann, the stakes could not be higher.
Having got his headline-grabbing decision out of the way by naming Arsenal stopper Jens Lehmann as his first choice keeper in April, the coach whose insistence on living Stateside is a national scandal now gets his chance to prove his numerous critics wrong when it matters most.
A coaching novice, Klinsmann looks certain to employ the 4-4-2 formation he has stayed loyal to throughout a warm-up programme hampered by the lack of a competitive qualifying environment.
He experimented with a 4-3-3 line-up in the early stages of the recent international against Bruce Arena's USA, but it wasn't until he brought on Koln striker Lukas Podolski and switched to his first-choice formation that the side clicked into gear and stormed to an impressive 4-1 win.
Relying heavily on Michael Ballack to provide creative flair, Klinsmann's most obvious quality in his turbulent spell as Germany boss must be his determination to make big decisions in the face of opposition from media and fans alike.
It may be that his willingness to give youngsters their head will stand him in good stead in this tournament as the likes of Chelsea defender Robert Huth and Bayern Munich's Bastian Schweinsteiger have the raw exuberance that is often lacking in some German sides.
'There is no such thing as old and young players, just good and bad ones,' is the Klinsmann mantra. 'A young team is one that will get better and that's why I will play guys in the World Cup who may lack a little experience.'
The opening game of the World Cup should see two sides adopt a 4-4-2 formation, with Costa Rica boss Alexandre Guimaraes also an advocate of the traditional system.
He has used 3-5-2 at other stages during his coaching career and that means he has the flexibility to change when required, yet for a game where he would readily accept a point, the more stable first-choice line-up will take centre stage.
A master motivator, Guimaraes is already considered a hero for rescuing Costa Rica's faltering qualifying effort, yet he may not be able to do anything about a leaking defence that should provide their first three opponents with chances to hurt the South American outsiders.
Klinsmann and company will be wise to study videos of goals the Ticos have conceded of late as with a back line lacking in aerial ability, they are vulnerable to a well-delivered set play.
That flaw should play into the hands of a Poland side who lack nothing in height in the offensive third. With plenty of big men joining the attack from set plays, coach Pawel Janas also has a pair of tricky forwards who should give the Costa Ricans plenty to worry about when the teams clash in Dortmund on June 20th in the shape of Celtic's Maciej Zurawski and Wolverhampton Wanderers man Tomas Frankowski. In addition, the Poles have the towering Grzegorz Rasiak to call from the bench if required.
Another 4-4-2 fan, Janas likes to use his wingers as the chief supply line to complement the ever-threatening playmaker, Trabzonspor's Miroslaw Szymkowiak. With Jacek Krzynowek and Euzebiusz Smolarek out wide, they are better going forward than they are defending as those three are not renowned for their ability to track back when they lose the ball.
The final member of Group A's quartet is Ecuador, whose reliance on a solid defensive wall means they may prove to be a tough obstacle for their higher profile opponents in the opening phase. Coach Luis Fernando Suarez has already highlighted his key areas for concern and it seems that like with Costa Rica, a lack of aerial presence in defensive positions is a worry.
'We have arranged our friendly games to try and work on this area,' states the coach who has his own website to communicate with his adoring public.
'Defensively, high balls into the box are not what we deal with in South American football, but when you go to Europe to play a World Cup, it can be crucial and we have to be prepared for this.'
Suarez's chief concern at the back may be the lack of confidence his first-choice keepers have when dealing with high balls and crosses and their reliance on defensive maestro Giovanny Espinoza to bail them out of trouble must be a concern. If he picks up an injury or suspension, their hopes may fade rapidly.
However, Ecuador can be consoled that they have wide players who can test the best of back lines. Bringing a sound tactical plan, they look to close down their opponents in central areas and use their wingers, with Edison Mendez a key man, while Suarez also encourages his forwards to get into attacking positions whenever possible, with Aston Villa's Ulises de la Cruz a threat bursting down the flanks.
While the coach prefers a 4-4-2 formation, he is flexible enough to switch to a 4-5-1 when required, which provides additional avenues for his wide players.
Germany might be favourites, but don't be surprised to see a shock or two thrown up in Group A. The first match of the tournament is a traditionally tricky test for the favoured nation and all four teams will fancy their chances of stealing a qualifying finish.
MAN TO WATCH: Jens Lehmann
With so much debate over who should fill the German goal for this World Cup, the Arsenal No.1 will need to deal with plenty of scrutiny when the action gets underway. One slip and the Oliver Kahn fan club will tear him apart.
A SAFE BET: By the time Ecudaor take on Germany in Berlin on June 20th, it may be that the South Americans have already seen their dreams shattered, so putting a few euros on the hosts winning that game right now may be a shrewd move.
THE DARK HORSE: Poland compiled an impressive record in qualifying and their solid defensive base means they are more than capable of ruffling a few feathers in Germany.
COACHES CORNER: Germany's Jurgen Klinsmann lacks the experience to compete at the highest level and the likes of Ecuador's Suarez and Costa Rica's Guimaraes may fancy their chances of outsmarting the novice.
VERDICT: Germany will get through to the latter stages, yet their passage will not be without a scare along the way. Klinsmann was fortunate to avoid some of the bigger names in the draw and while the South America's should bring flair to the Group A party, they may be the two heading home early.