Cameroon-Denmark should be key game
The E stands for eclectic. The group has a colorful set of teams that span from North to South and East to West and range from attack-minded to more defensively oriented. There's a clear favorite in the Netherlands and a team clearly expected to bring up the rear in Japan, with Denmark and Cameroon expected to fight for advancement.
Indeed, although neither Denmark nor especially Cameroon will necessarily be pleased to settle for second place, the match between the two at Pretoria on June 19th does figure to be the key to the group. Were Denmark to draw -- or defeat -- the Netherlands in its opening match, it might give the Danes more license to dictate the pace against Cameroon, figuring a tie would suit them well enough with the match against Japan left. But were Denmark to lose the opening match, there would be more pressure on Denmark to open up its game, a pace that would figure to favor the Indombitable Lions.
Netherlands (76 percent to advance, 49 percent to win group). Balance is the concept here: the Dutch have the third-best defense in the world, according to SPI, but also the sixth-best attack. And they've played about as well as they could of late, compiling a perfect record in World Cup qualifying (albeit from a fairly uncompetitive group) and allowing just two goals. They arguably do not have a superstar, especially among the forwards, but their discipline and versatility should serve them well against this mish-mashed group and SPI may be a bit conservative in estimating their advancement chances.
Cameroon (52 percent chance to advance, 22 percent to win group). Cameroon, on the other hand, does have a star in the form of Samuel Eto'o, and he'd appear to be essential to a successful run, with the Lions having gone 7-0-0 when he scored during their two rounds of World Cup qualifying, but looking far more pedestrian when he didn't. After failing to qualify for Germany, Cameroon will be hungry and Eto'o will be fed the ball. Cameroon looked a bit off-kilter in the African Nations Cup, especially on defense, and will play tough friendlies against Portugal and Serbia in June to get into form.
Denmark (46 percent chance to advance, 19 percent to win group). Denmark, having failed to qualify for Germany as well as EURO 2008, burst out of the gates in World Cup qualifying with a 5-0-1 record in its first six matches but cooled down thereafter, taking two draws and a home defeat in its last four games. What may be missing here is a striker in his prime, as standby Jon Dahl Tomasson is now 33 and Nicklas Bendtner, just 22, is still coming into his own.
Japan (26 percent to advance, 9 percent to win group). Japan is one of those teams that seems to know its place, dominating inferior opponents but seldom challenging stronger ones, as a 3-1 loss to South Korea in the East Asian Championship and a 3-0 loss to Serbia in the Kirin Cup attest. That's an inauspicious record for a team that will probably need two upsets to advance. The opening match against Cameroon probably represents the best opportunity: For whatever reason, Japan has matched up well against African teams, going 5-0-1 against them since 2007 while outscoring them 16-4.
Nate Silver is a renowned statistical analyst who was named one of "The World's 100 Most Influential People" by Time Magazine in 2009. He gained acclaim for outperforming the polls in the 2008 U.S. presidential elections and created baseball's popular predictive system, PECOTA.