By: Chris Dagonas
The World Cup is a few short weeks away, so we will be running a three-part preview, by examining and predicting four groups at a time for two weeks. On the third week, I will predict the full tournament, as well as award winners. Today, we start with Groups A to D.
Group A features the hosts and favourites Brazil, along with three potential dark horse teams in Cameroon, Croatia, and Mexico.
Brazil has plenty of attacking firepower, as they always do, and have been playing much more disciplined defensively under returned coach Luiz Felipe Scolari. They just won last year’s Confederations Cup, and Neymar might just be ready to become the international superstar we’ve all expected. Playing at home, look for the Selecao to advance past the group stage, and far beyond that as well. PREDICTION: FIRST IN GROUP
Cameroon features the talented Chelsea striker Samuel Eto’o and former Arsenal and Barcelona midfielder Alex Song. Beyond that, however, there is not much depth in this team. They have struggled even to qualify for the African Cup of Nations, a tournament that I just assumed they would dominate. I don’t expect them to go past the group stage. PREDICTION: ELIMINATED IN GROUP STAGE
Croatia is a team I’ve always enjoyed watching. It could be their rugged, defend-and-counter-attack style. It could be their checkered jerseys. Whatever it is, I often find myself watching their games and rooting them on. This year, they have one of the world’s most talented central midfielders in Real Madrid’s Luka Modric, a maestro who conducts possessions with perfect rhythm. He is a treat to watch. Croatia’s collection of strikers, including the Brazilian-born Eduardo, Mario Mandzukic, Ivica Olic, and Nikica Jelavic, are all skilled players and tireless workers, and could catch enough fire to carry the former Yugoslav Republic through the group stage. PREDICTION: SECOND IN GROUP
Most of Mexico‘s players play their club soccer domestically, which says two things: One, they will probably have great chemistry; Two, they are not as talented as some of the Mexico teams of the past. Javier Hernandez and Giovani Dos Santos are excellent speedsters with finishing ability, but they lack a playmaker who can create the space, or play the right ball, they need to put their speed to use. A lot of soccer writers are picking Mexico for a dark horse run. I don’t buy it. Look for them to finish in a close third, and head home early in June. PREDICTION: ELIMINATED IN GROUP STAGE
Ouch. Group B is ruthless. It features defending World Cup champions Spain, 2010 World Cup finalist Netherlands, up-and-coming Chile, and plucky Australia.
Australia is definitely the team to pity in this group. They enter the tournament with only one EPL player, Mile Jedniak, who is good-but-not-that-good. Tim Cahill, Australia’s 2010 star player, will be more of an accessory to Jedinak this year. Australia will likely be out in short order. PREDICTION: ELIMINATED IN GROUP STAGE
I grew up with a guy everyone nicknamed Chile. His family is from Chile. We nicknamed him Chile because his government name is Chris, and there could not be two Chris’s on my street! Anyway, Chile (the person) tells me that Chile (the soccer team) qualified third in South America with an impressive goal scoring record, and everyone who watches the beautiful game knows that Juventus’ Arturo Vidal is a monster in midfield. On the other hand, will Chile be able to keep the ball out of their own net? They surrendered 25 goals in qualification, and Spain and Netherlands are not exactly offensive slouches. If the defense can surrender less than 2 goals per game, they might just be able to score enough to make it through. If not, they’ll be going home early. PREDICTION: ELIMINATED IN GROUP STAGE
The Netherlands are very fun to watch, and not just for those blazing orange jerseys. You’re always guaranteed a few goals whenever the Oranje take the field. They feature a pair of the world’s best attacking players, in Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben. However, the Dutch team gets worse and worse the further back you go on their half of the pitch. Defense is not the Dutch treat (sorry), and this year’s group is no exception. Their most seasoned defender, Aston Villa’s Ron Vlaar, is 29 years old and only has 22 caps. (By comparison, midfielder Wesley Sneijder is also 29, and has 97 caps). It won’t be enough to hurt them in this group, but it will probably bite them in the ass at some point not long after. PREDICTION: SECOND IN GROUP
What else can you say about Spain that hasn’t been said already? They are the odds-on favourite to win the group, will likely blow by Group A’s second-place finisher, and not face a real tough challenge until the quarter-finals. Just when many critics were gearing up to suggest that Spain’s run of dominance was over, the UEFA Champions’ League was an all-Spanish final, and one that was incredibly exciting until somewhere around the 115th minute. The throne is still very much Red and Yellow. Spain should make a deep run into the semis, at least. PREDICTION: FIRST IN GROUP
The Benetton of Groups, featuring four teams from four different continents.
Colombia is fresh off a very impressive qualifying campaign in which they finished second in South America (OK, granted, Brazil did not have to qualify), and allowed the fewest goals on the continent. When healthy, striker Radamel Falcao is the one of the most creative and intimidating finishers around – when healthy. He recently said that he was not sure he’d be at 100% at the World Cup (a February knee injury caused him to miss the latter part of the club season with Monaco), but would give it a go regardless. If he’s ready to play 90 minutes, Colombia has a very good chance at going through, and having a great run deep into the tournament. If not, they could be on their way home after three matches. PREDICTION: FIRST IN GROUP
The Ivory Coast did not lose a game in the qualifying rounds, and feature one of the game’s most dominant central midfielders in Yaya Toure, who just finished an incredible season with Manchester City by winning the Premier League trophy. Alongside captain Didier Drogba, the Ivorians can trot out any number of lightning-quick wingers from high-profile club teams (Roma’s Gervinho, Lille’s Salomon Kalou, and Swansea’s Wilfried Bony), all of whom can give defenders nightmares, particularly late in games. Their defence is experienced (over 300 caps between the three oldest defenders), but might struggle to keep up with fast-paced attacks. If they can score enough goals, they can go through. Still, a weak defence can be easily exposed on such a big stage. Ivory Coast is probably headed home after round one. PREDICTION: ELIMINATED IN GROUP STAGE
Japan has a reputation as a well-organized and tough team to break down. They also feature some excellent creative talent in the forms of Manchester United’s Shinji Kagawa and AC Milan’s Keisuke Honda. Up top, expect Shinji Okazaki to reap the most benefits from playing with a strong, aggressively-minded midfield. Their defence is undersized (only two of the group stand taller than 6 feet), and will be tested by big, strong forwards, the type that Ivory Coast, Colombia and even Greece favour. If they are able to defend set pieces, they can certainly cause enough havoc in the opponent’s half to create a goal or two per game. They look like a dark horse candidate to make it through. PREDICTION: SECOND IN GROUP
Greece won the EURO CUP IN 2004!!! IT WAS AMAZING!!! IMPOSSIBLE IS NOTHING!!! ELLAS 2014!!! ELLAS 2014!!! Ahem… On the other hand, the Greek team is far from an attacking force, averaging less than two goals per game in qualifying, including 1-goal games against weak opponents like Liechtenstein and Lithuania. The midfield is filled with the creaky old bones of Kostas Katsouranis (34) and Robert DeNiro look-alike Giorgos Karagounis (37!!) Their defence is as stingy as ever, but will miss the contributions of experienced centre back Avraam Papadopoulos, who was not included in the final roster. As much as it pains me to say it, I can’t see this team getting two wins out of this group, and that might be what it takes to escape. PREDICTION: ELIMINATED IN GROUP STAGE
Ah, Costa Rica. I had one of my grade 6 students prepare a report about Costa Rica. Here is what she found: “Costa Rica’s main exports are Integrated Circuits, which means, like, computer parts… ummmm… Office Machine Parts, so, like, parts of printers and stuff, and Tropical Fruits, like bananas :D. Costa Rica’s main imports are Petroleum, which means, like, oil; Cars, and Computers. Costa Rica is a Unitary Presidential Constitutional Republic, which, like, means they have a president, and they vote for their president, and stuff, kinda like Canada. The language of Costa Rica is Spanish. I hope you liked my presentation about Costa Rica :P” Well done, kid. You get an A. Costa Rica’s chance of advancing, on the other hand, gets an F. PREDICTION: ELIMINATED IN GROUP STAGE
England‘s defence will be anchored by Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka. That is not a great place to start. With the retirements of John Terry and Rio Ferdinand, England is lacking a star defender for the first time since I can remember. Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard return for one more run through, this time on the wrong side of 30 (in Lampard’s case, the wrong side of 35), but will have to summon the tireless energy that made them so effective in their club and international teams for so long. Wayne Rooney again leads a striker corps that is nothing special, with Liverpool’s Daniel Sturridge likely being his running mate for the majority of the tournament. There is not much here to write home about, and I don’t see a team this average making much noise. PREDICTION: ELIMINATED IN GROUP STAGE
Italy enters this tournament determined to make up for an absolutely embarrassing showing in 2010 in South Africa, where the Azzurri failed to win a game for this first time in World Cup History. Back then, Mario Balotelli was just a 19-year-old kid setting fire to his own house in Manchester. These days, he’s a 23-year-old world-class striker (Neymar is just two years younger), with two consecutive double-digit goal totals for AC Milan, and a tally of 7 goals for the national team in the past calendar year. In short, Balotelli has arrived and is every bit the talented striker the world expected him to be. Andrea Pirlo is still the king of the midfield, but Daniele De Rossi is the de facto ruler, and Giorgio Chiellini is arguably the world’s greatest central defender (much to Paul Andreacchi’s chagrin). PREDICTION: FIRST IN GROUP
You gotta love Uruguay. They have some of the most… interesting players in this World Cup. None is more interesting that Liverpool’s Luis Suarez. All he does is bite people and score goals, and this season, he wasn’t hungry. What does that mean? THAT MEANS HE SCORED LOTS OF GOALS! When he returns from injury, Uruguay will partner him with the red-hot Edinson Cavani, which could create the most dangerous forward pairing in the tournament. Uruguay also boasts an impressive, if underrated, defense. If Suarez is able to recover from knee surgery early enough, Uruguay will make it past the group stage. PREDICTION: SECOND IN GROUP
If all goes as predicted, the round-of-16 matchups would look like this:
Brazil (A1) vs. Netherlands (B2)
Colombia (C1) vs. Uruguay (D2)
Spain (B1) vs. Croatia (A2)
Italy (D1) vs. Japan (C2)
Join us in this spot next week, where I thread a delicate through ball from groups E to H. Meanwhile, get your car flags ready, book your time off work as required, and stock up on plenty of Heineken and Carlsberg, soccer’s favourite beers.