With the start of the FIFA World Cup 2014 less than a week away, I take a look at each group, the teams, the key players and matches and offer my predictions.
Here, I take a look at Group A, containing hosts Brazil, Croatia, Mexico and Cameroon.
Host nation and tournament favourites with most bookmakers, Brazil will be hoping home advantage and support will help them to a sixth World Cup success and a first since 2002. Coach Luiz Felipe Scolari doesn’t have a vintage Brazil squad at his disposal, but he will be hopeful his side can repeat their Confederations Cup success 12 months ago on home turf.
Having played so little competitive football in the last three years, Brazil face a tricky task in the group stages. They will expect to progress and do so by winning all three matches, but in Croatia and Mexico in particular Scolari will be grateful to face tough opposition that should prepare his side for the tougher challenges that lay ahead in the knockout stages.
Key player: Neymar
After starring in last summer’s Confederations Cup, much is expected of Neymar in this tournament and the host nation will be hoping he can inspire the ‘Selecao’ in the same way the likes of Pele and Ronaldo have done in the past.
After securing a move to Barcelona last summer, it has been a complicated season for the 22-year old. His form has been up and down, there has been a widespread consensus about a lack of chemistry on the pitch between Neymar and his Argentinian club-mate Lionel Messi, not to mention the off-field controversy concerning his move from Santos.
Neymar arrived on the world stage at the Confederations Cup and briefly galvanised a country divided by social unrest. Brazil’s football supporters and tournament officials will be hoping he can do the same again, but the pressure on Neymar’s slight shoulders will be huge.
If he can take on the mantle and the responsibility of leading this fairly average Brazil squad to final victory, he will no doubt go down in the World Cup annuls alongside the likes of Diego Maradona, Pele & Zinedine Zidane.
World Cup best
Winners: 1958, 1962, 1970, 1994 & 2002
Despite finishing ahead of rivals Serbia in their group, Croatia made hard work of qualification; earning their place in Brazil through the back-door with a 2-0 aggregate victory over Iceland in the play-offs.
Led by former national captain Niko Kovac, Croatia will arrive in Brazil as firm underdogs with few expecting them to repeat their third place finish from France 1998. However, in Real Madrid playmaker Luka Modric and Bayern Munich forward Mario Mandzukic, they have players of the highest pedigree.
Despite a tradition of producing talented, technical players, Croatia have struggled to show a killer instinct in major tournaments and their modest performance in qualifying (including losing home and away to Scotland) will not inspire many.
They will be hoping to spring a surprise when they take on hosts Brazil in the tournament’s opening match, but will probably target their final group game against Mexico as the key encounter.
Key player: Darijo Srna
While Modric is the main creative force in the Croatian team, it is captain Srna who provides the heartbeat with his energetic performances along the right flank.
Kovac will be looking for the 113-cap right back to lead from the front and provide the drive that will be needed if Croatia are to successfully navigate a tough group. Expect Southampton defender Dejan Lovren to also play a big part if Croatia are to reach the knockout phase.
World Cup best
3rd place: 1998
In the past two decades, Mexico have been perennial World Cup participants, reaching the knockout stages at every tournament since 1994 as the best team in the CONCACAF region. That position has now been usurped by the United States, however, and Mexico only just scraped through the qualifying campaign.
Winning the the gold medal at the London Olympics two years ago promised some potential for Brazil 2014, but Mexico endured a difficult journey to Brazil.
Winning just two of ten CONCACAF fourth-round qualifying matches, Mexico required an intercontinental playoff against New Zealand - gained only after the United States defeated Panama to give Mexico fourth place.
Mexico did see off New Zealand comfortably 9-3 on aggregate, but the manner of their qualification and a disappointing performance at last summer’s Confederations Cup will not be giving too many at the World Cup sleepless nights.
What Mexico will be hoping for is that the ‘home’ conditions will give them an advantage, especially over anticipated second-place rivals Croatia. ‘El Tricolor’ will also be hoping Manchester United striker Javier Hernandez can rediscover his best poaching form and that Villarreal forward Giovani dos Santos can finally deliver his potential on the big stage.
Key player: Oribe Peralta
While most may consider Mexico’s hopes to rest on players more familiar in European football such as Hernandez and Dos Santos, 30-year old striker Peralta could be one of the surprise packages in Brazil.
Peralta starred in Mexico’s Olympic success in London, scoring twice in the final against Brazil and was top scorer for ‘El Tri’ during CONCACAF qualification, bagging five of the nine Mexico goals in the play-off win against New Zealand.
Having missed out on previous World Cup squads, Peralta, who secured a Mexican record transfer to Club Mexico a month ago, will be out to make his mark on the biggest stage of all.
World Cup best
Quarter-Finalists: 1970 & 1986
As Africa’s most successful World Cup nation (having qualified seven times, more than any other African nation), Cameroon were once tipped as most likely to deliver Africa’s first-ever World Cup triumph. However, there will be few takers if you offered up that possibility this time around.
Despite easing through their CAF qualification (losing just one game in eight matches), the draw hasn’t been kind to Cameroon and with a lack of spark in the midfield and no world-class bite in attack, it is unlikely they will make it through the group stages.
Captain Samuel Eto’o will once again be the focus of the team and after being released by Chelsea, the four-time African Footballer of the Year may see the World Cup as a wonderful audition for one last pay day.
However, Eto’o is well past his prime, as his mediocre season in the Premier League proved, and is unlikely to provide the cutting edge required for Cameroon to make much of a mark.
The ‘Indomitable Lions’ may spring a single surprise in what will surely be Eto’o’s last World Cup hurrah, but it is very unlikely they will find three performances capable of earning them an improbable place in the knockout stages.
Key player: Samuel Eto’o
The ‘Indomitable Lions’ will be looking to their captain and all-time record goalscorer to provide almost all of the inspiration going forward. Eto’o may still have one great performance left in him and if he can lead the team to one victory in the group it will probably go down as a decent tournament for Cameroon.
World Cup best
Brazil v Croatia (June 12, Sao Paulo 17.00 local time)
The tournament’s opening match and hosts Brazil will be hoping to make a big statement in front of an expectant nation. Croatia will no doubt have designs on spoiling the party and do have match-winning players capable of silencing the home crowd.
It will be vital for Brazil to get off to a winning start as momentum could be everything for the hosts in this competition.
Croatia v Mexico (June 23, Recife, 17.00 local time)
With Brazil expected to qualify top of the group and Cameroon set to struggle, this could well be the most important game of the group.
Both teams will target this as the must-win match in terms of qualifying for the final 16 and expect a tense and tough encounter.
Brazil to make the most of home advantage and take the group’s top spot. In more familiar conditions, I expect Mexico to see off Croatia in their decisive encounter and take second place.
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