Group A: South Africa and Mexico teams to beat

JOHANNESBURG - South Africa's dramatic improvement over the last six months, Mexico's new-found self belief and France's erratic build-up will make Group A one of the closest fought in the opening stage of the World Cup.

With inconsistent and unpredictable Uruguay completing the quartet, Friday's World Cup opener between the hosts and Mexico at Soccer City, already the focus of the world's attention, has assumed even greater importance for both sides.

South Africa's fortunes have changed completely since Brazilian Carlos Alberto Parreira returned as coach in November.

Last week's 1-0 win over Denmark in their final warm-up, stretched their unbeaten run to 12 matches and speculation that Bafana Bafana would become the first host nation not to survive the opening round is beginning to fade.

Parreira said on Sunday his team now "fear nobody."

"Everyone has to respect us. I believe the team has shown itself ready for the World Cup. We will go into the tournament with confidence and now we can start to dream about a position, about achieving something," he said.

But they will face a severe test against Mexico who have also been impressive in the final stages of their preparations.

Although they lost 3-1 to England at Wembley Stadium last month, the Mexicans played some superb football and gave another solid performance when they beat world champions Italy 2-1 in Brussels last Thursday.

Coach Javier Aguirre has confidently said in recent weeks: "This is the best Mexico squad we have ever had at a World Cup."

SELF-CONFIDENCE

Victory over South Africa in the opener would give Mexico's growing self-confidence extra steel and set them up for an intriguing second match against France in Polokwane on June 17.

France and Uruguay will also be in action on the opening day when they meet in an 1830 GMT kickoff in Cape Town.

France, world champions 12 years ago on home soil and beaten finalists in 2006 in Germany, have had a topsy-turvy build-up ending with a 1-0 defeat by China last week which is not ideal so close to the start of the tournament.

Their unpopular coach Raymond Domenech, who leaves his post after the tournament, claims France are playing far better than their results suggest and their new attacking 4-3-3 formation will prove successful.

However, few French fans expect their team to succeed and many across the world believe they should not even be here because of the part Thierry Henry's hand played in the build-up to the goal that led to their play-off success against Ireland.

Uruguay's World Cup successes came long ago - they won the tournament in 1930 and 1950 - and while their ambitions are now more modest they will do well to make it past the group stage.

Striker Diego Forlan had an outstanding season with Atletico Madrid and is a danger up front in tandem with Luis Suarez.

But coach Oscar Tabarez needs to see a big improvement in his side, who have two tough games to start against France and the hosts in Pretoria on June 16.

The group reflects the composition of Group A in 1966 when the host nation, England, also faced France, Mexico and Uruguay. England, of course, went on to win the tournament.

The hosts may not triumph this time but at least they have a far better chance of getting out of the group than seemed likely six months ago and could well go through as the second-placed team behind Mexico.

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