amNewYork's soccer columnist, Andrew Keh, is previewing two World Cup groups per week this month. This week: Groups C and D.

Group C

Mark your calendars, all, for June 12, the day the United States faces England in one of the most anticipated games in American soccer history.

The match, loaded with intrigue, opens play for Group C, which otherwise appears to be one of the World Cup’s weakest divisions. (A British tabloid smirkingly called it “The best English group since The Beatles.”)

After embarrassingly failing to qualify for Euro 2008, England has been whipped into shape by their coach, Fabio Capello. The team, deep with world-class talent, went 9-1-0 in qualifying.

Once again, the health of Wayne Rooney, one of the planet’s elite players, has become a national obsession. His groin is the concern this time around. But regardless of Rooney’s health, England should win the group.

If all goes well, then, the U.S. will finish second.

The team’s preparations have been hindered by an unfortunate spate of injuries to key players — Charlie Davies, most notably — which has left coach Bob Bradley with question marks all over the field.

But the squad, led by Landon Donovan and keeper Tim Howard, will be confident after a great run in last year’s Confederations Cup. The team’s trademark vim and vigor alone should suffice to get them to the knockout stage.
Slovenia impressively defeated Russia in a two-legged playoff to earn a place in South Africa. But the squad is inexperienced and unspectacular.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

Keeper Samir Handanovic, who plays for Udinese in Italy’s Serie A, anchors Slovenia’s defense, which allowed only four goals in the team’s qualifying campaign.

Algeria, like Slovenia, qualified after a tough playoff — it defeated archrival Egypt 1-0 in a tense match played in Sudan, sending thousands of fans back home into the streets for wild celebrations.

But Algeria’s looked shaky since then, and the team will struggle to earn a point in the group.

Group D

Group D is considerably more difficult to predict; each of the four teams appears capable of advancing.

Germany, of course, excels in international tournament play and is favored to finish first.

Michael Ballack, the captain, continues to cut a regal figure in midfield, and strikers Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski, despite having rough seasons for their respective clubs, are quality players. Look out especially for Mesut Ozil, an attacking dynamo who could break out on the big stage.

Coach Joachim Low, however, could be without his first-choice keeper, Rene Adler, who may be unavailable after suffering a rib injury last week.
Like England, Serbia missed out on Euro 2008. But they have top-level talent playing in all of Europe’s big leagues.

Manchester United’s Nemanja Vidic is a rock in Serbia’s central defense, scrappy on the ground and menacing in the air, and he forms a formidable partnership with Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanovic. The young winger Zoran Tosic has scored five goals in his last six games for FC Cologne and will try to stay hot through the summer.

The June 13 meeting in Pretoria between Serbia and Ghana is the group’s key match, and Serbia seems to have the edge.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

Ghana’s coach, Milovan Rajevac, is Serbian, which gives the match an extra allure. But his squad has been roiled by injury. Michael Essien, who has been hurt since January, is racing to get fit for the Cup, but it’s not looking good.

Australia made a surprise run in 2006 and is an easy team to root for. The Socceroos rely heavily on their keeper Mark Schwarzer, who has been fantastic this season for Fulham, and Tim Cahill, a midfielder with a knack for scoring goals. But their lack of firepower will leave them in last.