The World Cup is just around the corner and the hype that always surrounds it is starting to escalate.
With only eight teams left to book their place in Brazil, the tournament seems to be taking shape. Along with the usual contenders such as Argentina, England and the Netherlands there are already some surprise inclusions such as Iran and Bosnia. The dark horses would include an exceptionally strong Belgium squad and a Japanese side which showed their control and skill on the ball during the Confederations Cup.
A few surprises could still be sprung in qualifying - none greater than the French possibly having their dreams slashed by the Ukrainians. And there is still the ultimate Ibrahimovic vs Ronaldo battle to behold. Ghana seem to be safely through after a first leg 6-1 thrashing of Egypt. Mexico and Uruguay share the same sense of comfort going into their second legs against New Zealand and Jordan respectively.
With the draw set to be on 6 December, fans all over the world will be excited to see which challenges lie ahead for their nation. As usual there are some favourites for the trophy with three teams having the most realistic chance of winning the World Cup: Germany, Spain and Brazil. In the following, each of these teams will be analysed and their strengths, weaknesses and star players will be looked at.
Strengths: Germany's strength undoubtedly lies in their talented midfield and their ability to play for and with each other. With one of - if not THE - best goalkeepers in the world, a solid defence, a midfield packed with quality and a choice between the ever-green Klose or Mario Gomez up front, the team looks very strong. Low has also trained his side to play a fluid striker-less formation which is built on speed, movement and quality on the ball.
Defenders find it impossible to pick up an attacker and this allows them to remain unpredictable and deadly. German fans will be hoping that 2014 is their year after too many "so close but yet so far" moments in the last decade. Many think that the squad is now at the point where they can fulfill their huge potential.
Weaknesses: Germany have two "problem positions". Their defence is solid but the left back position is not covered by the same quality as other areas of the pitch. The two main candidates for the left-back role are Marcel Schmelzer and Marcell Jansen. Both are good players but neither is reliable and both are prone to mistakes in defence.
The second position is the striker role. Mario Gomez and Miroslav Klose are quality but the former blows hot and cold and is injury prone whilst not fitting into the playing style of the new Germany. The latter is a proven goal scorer and one more goal will mean he becomes Germany's all time leading scorer but he is 35-years-old now and is becoming more and more susceptible to injury and will see this tournament as his last big goodbye.
Star Men: Neuer, Lahm, Schweinsteiger, Ozil
Strengths: Brazil have come a long way under "Big Phil" Scolari. Young players have come through the ranks and players who were previously under-performing were suddenly realising their potential. The Brazil team is set up very well. Luiz and Thiago Silva form a solid central defensive partnership. They are protected by Paulinho and one of either Ramires or Gustavo.
In front of them is Oscar - Brazil's number eleven creates everything going forward. The centre forward is flanked by Hulk and Neymar. The team is so full of quality that one starts worrying about how bad the beating will be - as opposed to whether there will be one at all. This pure talent and the fact that Scolari lets his team just go out and play to their abilities is Brazil's biggest strength.
Weaknesses: Brazil's fluency in attack comes at a cost. They are often caught on the break and concede the majority of goals this way. With Hulk and Neymar preferring to cut inside, the full-backs Alves and Marcelo are expected to provide width. This, coupled with the fact that none of the four above mentioned players track back successfully, means that the defending falls on the shoulders of the defensive midfielders and the centre-backs.
This is alright against a team without a major attacking threat but players like Ronaldo would exploit these gaps in an instant. Brazil's team are very young and if they do not start the tournament well and the home fans get on their back, then they will find it very difficult to bounce back. Expectations are huge and anything less than a sixth star on their crest will be considered a failure.
Star Men: Thiago Silva, Oscar, Neymar
Strengths: If nothing else, Spain knows how to win major tournaments. Winners of Euro 2008, World Cup 2010 and Euro 2012, they have developed a style of football and stand by it proudly. Their short passing and dominating style of play means they often finish games with over 70% of possession.
With Xavi and Iniesta running the show and almost effortlessly holding on to the ball and finding gaps in every defence, Spain will be confident of retaining their trophy. Spain's almost telepathic way of playing with each other comes from a majority of their players playing together at either Barcelona or Real Madrid. Xavi, Busquets, Iniesta and Fabregas know each others style of play like the back of their hand and this translates into amazing interplay on the field.
Weaknesses: If there was anything to criticise Spain for, it is their predictable football. Like with Barcelona, teams have learnt how to play against them and counter the possession game. Teams like Germany could have a field day pinching the ball and then thundering forward on the counter - a perfect example of this is the Confederations Cup final against Brazil.
A difficult decision that Spain coach Vicente del Bosque needs to make is whether to stick with captain Casillas or replace him with Victor Valdes. It seems a ridiculous thing to consider but then again, who thought Casillas would ever sit on Madrid's bench? His lack of game time is a worry and Del Bosque will have to decide whether he keeps his faith in his captain or whether he goes with someone else.
Star Men: Ramos, Xavi, Iniesta
Each of these teams have a huge chance to win the World Cup but with the general quality of the teams participating in the tournament, it will not be easy for anyone to get their chance on the hugely coveted trophy.
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