England and Sweden are expected to be the top two teams in Group B when the World Cup gets under way in Germany on June 9. But an injury to 20-year-old star England striker Wayne Rooney could shift the balance of power in a group that also includes Paraguay and Trinidad and Tobago.
Wayne Rooney fractured his right foot playing for his English club team Manchester United in late April and could miss the entire World Cup. Rooney appears to be healing well and England coach Sven-Goran Eriksson is still hoping the young star will be fit enough to play by some stage of the tournament.
Even without Rooney, England has a strong squad, which includes players such as David Beckham, Steven Gerrard, Michael Owen and Frank Lampard. International football expert commentator Derek Rae sizes up Group B.
"England are the favorites and I would think it would be either Sweden or Paraguay fighting for the second spot," he says. "It would be a massive surprise if Trinidad and Tobago were to get out of the group."
England and Sweden are both hoping to clinch second round berths before they meet each other. They face Paraguay and Trinidad and Tobago first, and wins against both would give them the six points they need to guarantee advancement to the knockout round. But Rae says Sweden will not make things easy for England.
"They have this dreadful record against Sweden," he explains. They haven't defeated them going back to 1968, that was the last time, and of course England are managed by a Swede in Sven-Goran Eriksson."
The experienced Swedish team has consistently been tough to beat early in the World Cup, gaining draws against both England and Argentina at the 2002 World Cup before losing to Senegal on an extra time "golden goal." The Swedes' attack is led by strikers Henrik Larsson of Spanish side FC Barcelona and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who plays for Italy's Juventus.
Germany is Paraguay's third straight World Cup, and it reached the second round in the last two, losing to eventual champion France in 1998 and to finalist Germany in 2002. The South American side plays England in its first match and Derek Rae says Paraguay will not be a pushover.
"Paraguay are England's first opponents and that could be a sticky proposition. They are a funny team, Paraguay; very dogged and well organized," he says. "They do not have too many stars. They will be hoping Roque Santa Cruz is ready to go come that first match in Frankfurt."
Bayern Munich striker Santa Cruz returned to action in April after being sidelined for five months with torn ligaments in his right knee.
Derek Rae says even lightly regarded teams like Trinidad and Tobago can be the source of a World Cup surprise.
"Trinadad and Tobago are the wild cards in the group," he notes. "Many people have speculated that they are simply there to enjoy themselves. But they do have some quality in their ranks. They have Dwight Yorke, of course, the Caribbean's most successful footballing export. And they have a very wiley coach in Dutchman Leo Beenhakker."
Yorke, a former striker for English clubs Aston Villa and Manchester United, was convinced to come out of retirement to help the island team reach its first World Cup by beating Bahrain in a playoff. Though he is joined by several experienced international players, most agree Trinidad and Tobago has little chance of making it to the second round.