World Cup predictions: Players
Here we break down the predictions, drawing on the experience from all of Soccernet's finest: the players to watch and the players to flop.
• Harry Harris
Player to watch: Wayne Rooney. If England are going to win the World Cup then Rooney has to recapture his best goalscoring form before his late season injuries. If Rooney gets it right, England will get it right.
Player to flop: Cristiano Ronaldo. I suspect that one of the really big names, one of the world's elite, such as Lionel Messi, Kaka or Ronaldo, will not live up to expectations in South Africa. Ronaldo has the confidence and the brilliance, but he might not have the team to back him up. Maybe this World Cup the roles will be reversed and Rooney can wink back at Ronaldo!
• Richard Jolly
Player to watch: Joe Cole. It took Cole a while to convince Fabio Capello but, thankfully, he finally seems to have done it. Sparkled against Japan and, after spending some of the season on the sidelines, seems to be peaking at the right time for England. Could play a pivotal role, either behind Wayne Rooney if the latter is a sole striker, or wide on the left. A very un-English type of player could be just what England need.
Player to flop: Emile Heskey. His selection was a reward for past deeds, rather than recent form, as Aston Villa fans can testify. If Heskey can reprise his partnership with Rooney from the qualifying campaign, it will be justified. The danger is that England have been burdened with a forward who does not score and who thus puts more pressure on team-mates to come up with the goals.
• Phil Ball
Player to watch: Jesus Navas. Spain's my remit, so I would have to say Sevilla's midfielder. The principal players need no introduction, and whereas Bilbao's Fernando Llorente and Barcelona's Pedro may well make a splash, Navas is the sort of hyper-active traditional right-winger who will give Spain yet another dimension, and further open up the options for their elite cabal of central midfielders.
Player to flop: Fernando Torres. It'll probably be Navas because I've just tipped him for greatness, but if not him then I'd go for Fernando Torres. Great player though he is, I just feel that he's short of big-match practice and short of a season's rough and tumble. It might not be a problem for Spain, given the wealth of alternatives, but it's hard to see him making the same waves as in the European Championships.
• Uli Hesse:
Player to watch: Bastian Schweinsteiger. Joachim Low will be glad that he and his predecessors have been showering Schweinsteiger with caps in the past six years. Now, with Ballack injured and many established players struggling to find their form, Schweinsteiger is suddenly the most important player in the side - and he's got the experience and the acceptance to cope with this situation.
Player to flop: Miroslav Klose: Following the loss of Ballack, many people expected Joachim Low to name Klose the new captain. He didn't. I think one of the reasons is that Low is no longer confident that Klose will regain his form in time. And you can't give somebody the captain's armband and then bench him after the opening game.
• Roberto Gotta
Player to watch: Claudio Marchisio. Not an unknown, but he has the skills, tenacity and motivation, after a bad year with Juventus, to earn a starting place in midfield and link defence with attack with some of his runs. Decent eye for goal, too.
Player to flop: Fabio Cannavaro. Questions, if any, about Italy's defence centre around Fabio Cannavaro, hardly a great performer in the past couple of years, although his partner Giorgio Chiellini has improved a lot. The captain will somehow have to restore his 2006 form, but don't bet on it.
• Eduardo Alvarez
Player to watch: David Villa. Fernando Torres recovering from injury + coach Del Bosque preferring the single striker formation = Villa scoring plenty of goals. Simple.
Player to flop: Sergio Ramos. The unlikely key to Spain's success, he's in his best shape of the season, but is usually the source of overconfidence and serious defensive mistakes.
• Ernst Bouwes:
Player to watch: Robin van Persie. He is back from injury and will be up front. The Mexicans were the first to find out as the Arsenal man scored two beautiful goals against them and he'll be as fit as Marco van Basten in 1988, who also came back from injury. The others will forget their fatigue of the 60-odd game seasons when Robin starts banging them in.
Player to flop: Arjen Robben. A superstar at Bayern Munich, but will now be in every coach's book and they will all copy Jose Mourinho's tactics to stop the quicksilver forward. With most defences heading to the right to contain Robben's dangerous left foot, there will be all the more space for the Dutch to attack from other angles.
• Paul Marshall:
Player to watch: Hugo Lloris. It's not often that a goalkeeper gets the starring role, but Lyon's 23-year-old show-stopping shot-stopper certainly deserves top billing. Despite his youth, Lloris manages to marry above-the-norm agility with remarkable calm, and, with France's defence porous at best, he will get ample opportunity to show it.
Player to flop: Djibril Cisse. The man whose first touch is as sure as a politician's election pledge has had a good season in Greece, but if the Panathinaikos forward gets the chance to show off any of his new tattoos in South Africa - and it's a big 'if' - don't expect it to be pretty.
• Andy Brassell:
Player to watch: Arjen Robben. He always had the potential to be one of the world's greatest players but fitness concerns stopped him from finding consistency. In the form of his life right now, and will be able to flourish with a highly-creative Dutch line-up in more temperate conditions that are usual for a World Cup.
Player to flop: Thierry Henry. France's record goalscorer and talisman seemed undroppable, but leave him out is exactly what coach Raymond Domenech has done in the warm-up games. Henry's form at Barcelona has not merited a first XI place and he seems unlikely to be able to summon up anything in his international swansong.
• Sam Kelly:
Player to watch: Lionel Messi. If the words of Argentina's players are true, and they really are coming together more as a team during the concentración prior to the tournament, Messi could do wonderful things. But please, let's not pressure him too much. The Maradona comparisons all mention Mexico '86 - but in terms of where he is in his career and his age, this is Messi's Spain '82. Watch him by all means, but let's enjoy.
Player to flop: Gabriel Heinze. In fairness to Maradona, his more bizarre selections are unlikely to get much playing time. And much as he shouldn't be there, whatever Martin Palermo does, it would be harsh on him to say he'd flopped. If anyone's going to embarrass themselves to the point of a mistake costing the team big, I'd expect it to be Gabriel Heinze or one of the other players in vital positions who don't have a lot of cover if something goes wrong.
• Matthias Krug:
Player to watch: Keisuke Honda. The CSKA Moscow man has speed and acceleration to match his surname, and a left boot which reminds me of the brilliance of one Uruguayan playmaker of old: Alvaro Recoba. If Honda can conjure up that kind of magic in Japan's group games he will surely become a new national hero.
Player to flop: Harry Kewell. The Australian superstar is virtually untouchable in his home country, but having hardly played this season for his Turkish team, Kewell will struggle to make his mark on the World Cup finals in a tricky group. If Kewell does pull off an Aussie wonder, the Asian confederation's youngest member must really construct some more statues of the former Leeds and Liverpool winger.
• James Martin:
Player to watch: Gonzalo Higuain. When Argentina plays, all eyes will be on the M&M boys, Messi and Maradona. But ignore Gonzalo Higuain at your own risk. A poacher at heart, Higuain has an instinct for finding the back of the net, something he did 27 times for Real Madrid this season. Only his countryman Messi had more goals in La Liga.
Player to flop: If you're looking for a sure-fire flop, just give anyone from England the opportunity to take a penalty. Whether it's a team mental block, bad karma or the yips, England's best ball strikers miss the target when it's placed on a silver platter. It's been a problem through the years, most recently in 2006 when England were sent packing after losing on penalties 3-1 to Portugal.
• Jeff Carlisle
Player to watch: Clint Dempsey. The Fulham man will help deliver the goals the U.S. need to reach their avowed target of advancing out of the group stages, at which point the transfer talk will heat up considerably. Whether he'll leave the Cottagers or not is a different matter entirely.
Player to flop: Jonathan Spector. Given the way he's been playing lately, the West Ham defender may not even get on the field. Still, it's a far cry from the Confederations Cup when Spector was ever present, and was one of the few U.S. defenders capable of playing the ball out of the back.
• Andrew Hush
Player to watch: Katlego Mphela. If South Africa are to continue the trend of host nations reaching the knockout stages, he must maintain the goalscoring form which has seen him emerge as an important man for Bafana Bafana in the last year. The 25-year-old has 11 goals in his last 15 international appearances.
Player to flop: Ghana's midfield. Not so much an individual as a collection of players. In a group of strong midfields, Ghana's men in the engine room may struggle to pick up the slack in the absence of Michael Essien. The Black Stars need Sulley Muntari and Stephen Appiah to bounce back from difficult individual club seasons while also hoping their younger compatriots can make the step up.
• Michael Da Silva
Player to watch: Yoann Gourcuff. The void left by Zinedine Zidane is not easily filled but, in Gourcuff, France have an elegant and skilful playmaker whose vision from attacking midfield could be central to a successful World Cup campaign. He is also capable of the occasional wonder strike, as he has shown for Bordeaux this season.
Player to flop: Cristiano Ronaldo. Ronaldo has failed to score in 15 months for Portugal and often looks isolated, even disinterested, in international colours. He was ineffective in qualifying and with difficult games against Brazil and Ivory Coast ahead, Ronaldo will do well to reach the high standards he has set himself, let alone inspire an ageing Portugal side to avoid first phase elimination
• Jayaditya Gupta
Player to watch: Wesley Sneijder. He played a huge role in Inter's triumphant season and will be crucial, in a more attacking Dutch formation, if he can replicate the skills he showed at Euro 2008. His intelligent passes upfield will help Holland mount quick counter-attacks. Only concern is over his stamina after a long season.
Player to flop: Lionel Messi. He may yet be the best of the 736 players on view but Messi will fail simply because he will find it hard to live up to his own exacting standards. He flopped in their qualifying campaign and I don't feel the basic issue - adjusting to Argentina's style - will be solved in South Africa.
• John Brewin:
Player to watch: Luis Fabiano. If Brazil are to have a great tournament then they need a great goalscorer. Look at their previous successes. Someone needs to follow in the tradition of Pele, Vava, Jairzinho, Romario and Ronaldo. That burden falls on Luis Fabiano, whose name is not as heralded as those predecessors yet who is coach Dunga's choice to get the goals. He was a great success in qualifying, yet injury marred his season at Sevilla. Should those problems strike again or he misfire, then Brazil's chances are significantly lessened.
Player to flop: Fabio Cannavaro. The best player of Germany 2006 is now four years older and has said this is his last World Cup. He may end up thinking that it would have been better to bow out in Berlin. Pace was never his best attribute but time's march has made it a definite shortcoming. He has never been able to recover his club form in the time since the last World Cup - he never impressed at Real Madrid and Juventus have been granted a pale imitation of his imperious best. The old ones are not always the best.
• Jon Carter
Player to watch: Robin van Persie. After months on the sidelines, the Dutch striker is fully fit and will be raring to go for his country. Two brilliant goals in the warm-up match against Mexico, and some tidy link play in the hammering of Ghana, suggests that the Arsenal man will be firing on all cylinders in South Africa.
Player to flop: Samuel Eto'o. The Cameroon man will be in spotlight as the World Cup arrives in Africa, but he has played second fiddle to Diego Milito for Inter Milan and made a fool of himself by threatening to walk out of the tournament after criticism from Roger Milla over his commitment. Having also been sent off a friendly, it can't get much worse, and fans should expect a lot better from one of the best strikers in the world.
• Dale Johnson
Player to watch: Lucas Barrios A prolific striker with Borussia Dortmund in Germany (19 goals in 30 starts) and Colo Colo in Chile (49 goals in 53 games), Argentina-born Barrios only gained nationality for Paraguay in April. Three goals in three games later and The Panther could have a similar impact as Italy's Toto Schillaci in 1990. Well, in terms of goalscoring.
Player to Flop: Franck Ribery. It could be claimed that Ribery's failure may not solely be a fault of his own, considering the malaise in the French side. Ribery played in six of France's seven World Cup matches four years ago as they lost to Italy in the final, but such a repeat appears improbable. If Ribery gets lost in South Africa then any slim hopes France have of progressing far will go with him.
• Tom Adams
Player to watch: Angel Di Maria. A graduate of the sides that won the FIFA Under-20 World Cup in 2007 and the Olympics in 2008, Di Maria looks destined to leave Benfica for one of Europe's biggest clubs after a tremendous season at Estadio da Luz. A talented winger with all manner of tricks, he could light up the tournament.
Player to flop: Fabio Cannavaro. He may have been Player of the Tournament in 2006, but the intervening four years have not been kind to Italy's captain. At 36, Cannavaro approaches the tournament after a nightmare season with Juventus and without a contract. He looks incredibly vulnerable to pace and skill.
• Brett Taylor
Player to watch: Mark Schwarzer. Fulham's Europa League finalist goalkeeper has hit career-best form in his late thirties and he is perhaps Australia's only player in the 'world-class' bracket. His ability to keep Australia in the tight games will be crucial to the Socceroos' chances to progress from a tough group.
Player to flop: Harry Kewell. The Socceroos' pin-up boy seems to be eternally fighting injuries and his latest setback, a groin problem, has severely hampered his World Cup preparation. Pim Verbeek's system has never got the best out of Kewell and this just may not be his tournament.
• Dom Raynor
Player to watch: Luis Fabiano. He is not the most glittering name at the World Cup, or even in the Brazil squad, but his time to shine has arrived. He will lead the line for the Selecao, supported by the likes of Robinho and Kaka, and could well scoop the Golden Boot.
Player to flop: Cristiano Ronaldo . He did not score or assist a single goal in seven games for Portugal during qualifying and he could well be this summer's biggest flop. His country are in awful form and with Brazil and Ivory Coast, along with North Korea, in Group G they will do well to reach the next stage.
• Mark Lomas
Player to watch: Marek Hamsik Slovakia are not fancied to do well ahead of the finals, but in a group containing New Zealand, Paraguay and an Italy side far from the level of their World Cup winning outfit four years ago, Vladimir Weiss's boys should at least progress to the second round. Spearheading their charge will be talented playmaker Hamsik. A player who can both create and finish opportunities, he knows all about getting the better of some of the world's best defenders, having been Napoli's top scorer for the past three seasons.
Player to flop: Lionel Messi All the signs point to this being the World Cup where Lionel Messi shines on the biggest stage of all, but that's what everyone was saying about Ronaldinho in 2006. It could be a similar story for the current World Player of the Year this time round; Messi has struggled to consistently transfer his scintillating club form to the international stage and he may find himself lost among Argentina's plethora of attacking talent.