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What better place to begin than by offering a preview of the upcoming World Cup; football’s biggest event. The World Cup is one of only a few sporting events that can truly pull everyone together and gets a nation fully engaged in what is set to unfold. This year’s edition, if you didn’t already know, is based in Brazil. With some of the footballing world’s biggest stars on show, it is sure to be full of thrills, spills, tension and excitement and is not to be missed. In this first part of our World Cup preview we will survey groups A through D and offer predictions as to how far they could go.
The hosts, and most decorated side in the history of the World Cup, are one of the favourites to win the tournament and for good reason. They have a wealth of talent at their disposal with attacking threats such as Neymar and Hulk but also boast some of the best defenders in the world in the form of Thiago Silva and Daniel Alves, not to mention a tireless midfield engine with players like Ramires and Fernandinho seemingly having endless amounts of energy. Manager Luis Felipe Scolari has already once masterminded a World Cup victory and there is no obvious reason why he can’t do so again. Brazil won the Confederations cup back in 2013 and you should expect to see them make at least the semi-finals in this competition.
Key man: Neymar- The weight of the nation rests upon their talisman’s shoulders despite him being only 20 years of age. Having starred at the Confederations cup and guiding his side to victory, the expectation levels have been raised even higher. Can the Barcelona forward handle the pressure?
Issues: As they are hosting the competition, they have been largely starved of competitive football whilst the other nations have been going through qualifying. Moreover, the continuous protests being held by the fans over the organisation and general detriment of the competition toward the country mean that an early exit for Brazil is unthinkable. This only adds to the pressure for the players to bring home the trophy. Can they handle it?
Prediction: Brazil to handle the pressure, top the group without dropping a point and reach the semi-finals or final.
The African side who have featured the most times in World Cup history will be hard pushed to find a way out of their group. They can cling on to the fact that they have reached the quarter finals in 1990, however, judging from their recent poor showing at the World Cup in South Africa, where they finished bottom of their group with 0 points, you would struggle to find someone who would back them to go far in this competition. Expect an early exit.
Key man: Samuel Eto’o- The former multiple-time winner of African player of the year is perhaps past his best but can still be a deadly source of goals on his day and they will need him on song if they are to find a way through this testing group.
Issues: Alex Song, another key player, has been largely on the periphery at Barcelona over the past two seasons and lack of game time could be viewed as an issue for them. Furthermore, the Cameroonians like to deploy him in a more advanced role, which highlights their lack of ingenuity and attacking threat as he is widely regarded as a deep lying midfielder.
Prediction: They will struggle to do any better in Brazil than they managed in South Africa. Expect them to finish bottom of the group.
Croatia boast a strong side and should be able to negotiate their way through this group behind Brazil. There is a strong spine to the team with Dejan Lovren of Southampton marshalling the defence, creativity in the midfield in the form of Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic and Bayern Munich centre forward Mario Mandzukic leading the line. They were placed in a tough group in Euro 2012 with both Spain and Italy and endured a tough route to the World Cup being in the same group as dark horses Belgium but should have more joy in this competition and find a way through to the last 16.
Key man: Luka Modric- A player widely regarded by many as being Real Madrid’s player of the season, not bad in a side containing players such as Ronaldo and Bale, and has added real tenacity alongside his unquestionable quality on the ball to make him one of the world’s best centre midfielders.
Issues: They weren’t wholly convincing in qualification and had to qualify via a two-legged play off against Iceland to reach the finals. There are still question marks on depth of their squad if they encounter injury to Modric, Rakitic or Mandzukic.
Prediction: A likely last 16 match against Spain means that they are unlikely to progress much further than that, although they are capable of a surprise on their day. Coach Niko Kovac and co should make it out the group.
Qualification to the World Cup is usually a straightforward task for Mexico in a qualification group where they normally battle the USA for the top spot but it was anything but straightforward this time around and, in honesty, they are rather fortunate to be here. They endured a torrid run to the finals where they were very lucky to get past the first qualifying stage. In the end, however, they comfortably dispatched of New Zealand to reach the finals. If they replicate the form they did in qualifying then they will be battling Cameroon for bottom spot but don’t be surprised if they manage to pip Croatia to the second qualifying spot as they normally do reach the last 16. Miguel Herrera, who was only hired just before the play-off games, has a decent squad at his disposal and one that should push Croatia all the way for second place.
Key man: Javier Hernandez- Due to having a relatively new coach it is hard to know exactly what style or system they will play but the Manchester United man should be an important player if they are expected to get out of the group.
Issues: As the coach was appointed so late into the qualifying campaign, it will be difficult to predict exactly how the players will take to his methods and whether they will adapt to his system. One could argue that they could spring a surprise as no one will know what to expect but the squad doesn’t appear to have enough of a wow factor to go deep into the competition.
Prediction: They will challenge Croatia for that coveted second place finish but will, ultimately, fall short.
Most people won’t give Australian fans much hope of qualifying, and we won’t either. They are the lowest ranked side in the tournament and are stuck in arguably the toughest group in the competition. Their best performance in a World Cup is reaching the last 16 but they will need nothing short of a miracle to even come close to that this time around. They qualified automatically behind Japan but expect them to fall very much short in their attempts to qualify from this group. There are some familiar faces in their ranks such as Tim Cahill, the former Everton man, and Mile Jedinak of Crystal Palace but there are few names that would strike genuine fear into an opposition.
Key man: Mile Jedinak- One of Crystal Palace’s most consistent performers in the Premier League this season, they will need him to be at his battling best if they are to have even a sniff of a chance at qualification.
Issues: Coach Ange Postecoglou’s biggest issue is the fact that his squad is, frankly, not even close to the standards of the other three sides in the group. This will lead to their downfall.
Prediction: In a group oozing with quality, Australia will fall horribly short. Expect them to be bottom of the group with no points to show for their efforts.
Chile are a very dangerous side, as England saw at Wembley back in November, who should be viewed as a serious danger to both Spain and the Netherlands’ qualifying hopes. Jorge Sampaoli was drafted in to rescue their stalling qualifying campaign where they finished 3rd behind Argentina and Colombia. They boast a great spine to the side through Gary Medel, Arturo Vidal and Alexis Sanchez but questions will be asked of whether they have enough strength in depth to make a serious run at the competition. Expect them to push Spain and the Netherlands hard.
Key man: Arturo Vidal- One of the most sought after players in the world, the Juventus midfielder is an extremely talented and hardworking footballer that has genuine game changing qualities he can call upon.
Issues: They perhaps can be viewed as slightly short in the backup department. If there is an injury to one of Vidal, Alexis Sanchez or Medel then Chile will find it hard to replace them.
Prediction: This is one of the hardest groups to predict but Chile will just fall short. Could come down to goal difference.
The Netherlands are generally seen as one of the sides that could go the whole way in Brazil, despite having never won the competition. They possess a strong squad, full of attacking prowess and a manager in Louis Van Gaal that is one of the world’s most respected coaches. Attacking players such as Robin Van Persie, Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder are not to be sniffed at and can make match winning contributions in any given moment. They were, however, desperately disappointing in Euro 2012 where they crashed out bottom of their group but write them off at your peril.
Key man: Arjen Robben- Currently one of the world’s best players and scored the winning goal in the Champions League final in 2013. A player with an abundance of talent who can impact the big games in the big moments.
Issues: As is often the case with this side, for all their attacking strengths they can often be caught short at the back as they are not blessed with defensive options.
Prediction: Finishing 2nd in this group will most likely lead to meeting Brazil in the last 16 so expect the Netherlands to really go for it and try and win the group. However, they will finish second and, ultimately, be avenged by the side that they knocked out in the last World Cup. Expect them to fall at the last 16.
Spain, the current world and European champions, are spoilt for choice with such a depth and breadth of talent that they can call upon. They are one of the clear favourites for the tournament and will hope to be the first European side to win the competition on South American soil. Only a brave few would bet against them reaching the semi-finals because, if they can win their tricky group, their path looks relatively unproblematic. With a side containing the likes of Sergio Ramos, Andres Iniesta and Diego Costa, Spain will be a match for anyone if they perform to the best of their ability. Expect them to progress deep into the competition and possibly win it.
Key man: Diego Costa- A new world class addition to a squad already brimming with talent, Diego Costa could provide the cutting edge that at times appeared to be lacking at Euro 2012.
Issues: On paper it is pretty difficult to find any issues with this crop of players, however, the recent loss in the Confederation’s Cup to Brazil may have removed the “unbeatable” feel about this Spanish side and other teams might be more willing to have ago at Vicente Del Bosque’s men.
Prediction: One of 4 teams who could win the competition. It would be a great shock for them not to progress to at least the semi-finals.
Despite being ranked 5th in the world, Colombia could easily be the first seeded casualty of the World Cup. Radamel Falcao has been ruled out of the tournament due to a knee injury and he is undoubtedly the star player in the side. Colombia do have other talented players in their side, particularly in the form of James Rodriguez, Falcao’s teammate at Monaco, but whether they can cope without their talisman is another question. One major argument for the Colombian’s to come through without him is the fact that they will be used to playing in these conditions but they could have been drawn against better teams in that regard. This is arguably one of the hardest groups to predict and any of the four could easily come through so don’t be surprised if we’re wrong betting against Jose Pekerman’s men.
Key man: James Rodriguez- In Falcao’s absence, the weight of Colombian expectation will now fall on James Rodriguez’s shoulders. The Monaco star is the creative force in the side and will be crucial to Colombia’s World Cup ambitions.
Issues: The injury to Radamel Falcao is the obvious issue that faces Colombia but the pace (or lack of it) of veteran centre back and captain Mario Yepes could easily be exploited.
Prediction: This is easily one that could come back to haunt us: Colombia to finish 3rd in the group stages.
The Greeks are always a dangerous side who, in recent times, have seemed to bring their best form to the bigger stages. The lost out narrowly to an impressive Bosnia and Herzegovina side to finish 2nd in their qualifying group and in Euro 2012 they impressively progressed in a group containing the Czech Republic, Russia and Poland. One consistently impressive feature of the Greek side is that they operate wholly as a unit and always prove difficult to break down, even if they don’t have the attacking riches available to other sides. This will be an extremely close group where any of the four sides could qualify and those who are knocked out will only be in virtue of a few points. On paper they will finish bottom of this group, but never write off the Greeks!
Key man: Sokratis Papastathopoulos- Probably their only player playing at a really top club, the Borussia Dortmund centre back is a solid performer and will be vitally important to marshal their back line.
Issues: Firepower, or lack of it, is a real issue facing the Greeks. They will be reliant on players such as Georgios Samaras and Kostas Mitroglu for goals who have had inconsistent seasons. The latter had an ill-fated move to the Premier League in January and it remains to be seen if he can recover the form that persuaded Fulham to part with £11 million to secure his services. There are also doubts over his fitness and coach Fernando Santos will be hopeful that these don’t reoccur during the course of the tournament.
Prediction: This group will be so close but expect to see Greece finish bottom of group C.
The Elephants have finally avoided a “group of death” scenario at a World Cup having previously been drawn with Brazil and Portugal in 2010 and Argentina and the Netherlands in 2006 so expect them to come out all guns blazing. This is by no means an easy group, and the Ivorians are notoriously poor at performing on the big stages, but with world superstars such as Yaya Toure and Didier Drogba at coach Sabri Lamouchi’s beck and call along with pacey wide-men Solomon Kalou and Gervinho they should be able to negotiate their way through and as group winners. This will most likely be Didier Drogba’s final tournament in an Ivorian shirt so expect him to be fired up and causing numerous problems for opposition defences.
Key man: Yaya Toure- Arguably the best centre midfielder in the world right now, he is unstoppable on his day. If he performs to the best of his abilities he will blow away the opposition in this group.
Issues: Defensively the Ivorians look very frail. Kolo Toure, who is well past his best, is the key centre back and they often deploy Didier Zokora, the former Tottenham Hotspur defensive midfielder, at centre back as well. If they allow teams to get at their defence then they could easily head for an early exit.
Prediction: Expect the Elephants to top the group and don’t be surprised to see them reach the quarter-finals but the last 16 is more likely.
The Japanese are always a very entertaining side to watch and their 4-3 defeat to Italy at the Confederation’s Cup was arguably the match of the tournament. They finished bottom of the group in that competition but they did manage to negotiate their way through a tough group in South Africa so expect them to do so again here. Players such as Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa are extremely talented and creative footballers and will both shoulder the responsibility of creating openings for Alberto Zaccheroni’s side.
Key man: Keisuke Honda- The AC Milan midfielder is a vital component of this Japanese side, if he performs the rest of the side will follow suit. He is also more than capable of performing the spectacular so expect sides to man mark him.
Issues: They lack a world-class defender and striker and rely heavily on Honda and Kagawa to inspire them. If either of those players falls to injury or lack form then Japan could have problems.
Prediction: Honda and Kagawa to guide them through to the last 16 narrowly but don’t expect them to go any further.
A side who performed above all expectations in qualifying for the tournament have now been drawn in possibly the toughest group at the tournament. The Costa Ricans won’t be pushovers though so expect them to give the more fancied trio of England, Italy and Uruguay a good game but, ultimately, fall short. Coach Jorge Luis Pinto will be disappointed that key man, and Everton player, Brian Oviedo has not made it to the competition after suffering a broken leg but he has formed a tight knit group and one that will continue to fight for one another. Joel Campbell fired a warning shot against Manchester United in this season’s Champions League to show that shocks can happen in a shock 2-0 win for Olympiakos and England, Italy and Uruguay will have to guard against complacency to avoid a repeat performance.
Key man: Keylor Navas- One of the finest goalkeepers in La Liga, the Levante shot-stopper is highly sought after and don’t be surprised to see him at one of the world’s biggest sides in the not too distant future.
Issues: The overwhelming issue facing this Costa Rica side is the competition set out in front of them. They have been desperately unlucky in drawing such difficult opponents at this stage but they must remember that each of these sides has weaknesses and they are not completely infallible.
Prediction: Tough group for this side so expect them to finish bottom but could easily spring a surprise.
A lot has been made of this young up and coming England side who seem to have a good balance of inexperienced and talented youth combined with steady and experienced tournament know-how. Roy Hodgson will be more than aware of the challenges that face his side in getting out of this tough group but the key for England will be tactical nous and knowing when to really go for it. If England can get draws against both Italy and Uruguay and beat Costa Rica then they will more than likely find a way through if one of the other two beat the other. A tough opening game in the testing climate of Manaus has had a lot made of it but Italy are in exactly the same boat so expect a tentative draw in that match with neither side going for it too much. If Hodgson is bold with his selection and utilises players such as Lallana, Sterling and Barkley at the right moments then there is no reason why England should not reach the quarter-finals.
Key man: Wayne Rooney- Often touted to be England’s saviour in the big tournaments; it has yet to really happen for him. He will be fired up and keen to go deep into the tournament that sees him in his prime.
Issues: England have big defensive worries if either Gary Cahill or Phil Jagielka get injured as either Phil Jones or Chris Smalling, who have both had very poor seasons, will have to step in to replace them. If England can keep their first choice defence fit then they should be fine.
Prediction: England could easily be knocked out at this stage but are more than capable of finding a way through and if they do so there is no reason why they can’t reach the quarter-finals after a favourable last 16 draw.
Italy may not be as strong as they once were but they have an incredible knack of finding a way through in the big tournaments. They managed to reach the final of Euro 2012 against the odds and don’t bet against them having a good run again this time around. Despite not being the strongest Italian side in years gone by they do still have a great pool of talent such as Andrea Pirlo, Mario Balotelli, Gianluigi Buffon and Giorgio Chiellini for Cesare Prandelli to play with. This could be the final World Cup for big name Italian stars like Pirlo and Buffon so they will be keen to give one final push and try and secure their 5th World Cup title.
Key man: Andrea Pirlo- The man who pulls the strings for Italy, a player who’s won just about everything a player can win in football and will hope to have on final hurrah here in Brazil.
Issues: A strong squad that on the face of it doesn’t seem to have too many weaknesses but with a strong squad comes high expectation and added pressure that could get to a temperamental squad. Balotelli can also be prone to moments of madness that could land the Italians in hot water.
Prediction: The Italians have everything at their disposal to have a strong run in this competition. Expect them to top the group and reach the quarter-finals.
Semi-finalists in the World Cup in South Africa, they are another very strong side that will make this group very interesting. They are currently ranked 6th in the world and coach Oscar Tabarez has a large amount of attacking options to deploy such as Luis Suarez, Edison Cavani and the aging Diego Forlan. This squad has aged together and isn’t particularly different from the previous World Cup just four year older. They previously lifted the only other World Cup hosted in Brazil so if you believe in omens then they could be the side for you to back. Having said that, we believe they could be another shock early exit for a seeded team.
Key man: Luis Suarez- There are doubts that Suarez will be fit for the start of the tournament but Uruguay will be praying that he is. He has been in scintillating form this season and ended up as the top goal scorer in the Premier League and is a genuinely special talent.
Issues: Uruguay’s aging back line is a cause for concern and could ultimately be their undoing. Whilst Diego Godin has had a great season for Athletico Madrid he usually plays alongside the pacey Miranda for cover whereas for Uruguay he will most likely partner Diego Lugano who is even slower than Diego Godin and has not enjoyed a great season for West Brom. Their lack of pace could really be exploited.
Prediction: They could easily prove us wrong and have a good run to the quarter-finals but expect Uruguay to finish a close 3rd in the group of death.
Teams to qualify (in order of 1st and 2nd):
Group A: Brazil & Croatia
Group B: Spain & Netherlands
Group C: Ivory Coast & Japan
Group D: Italy & England