Who will be the key player in each World Cup group? Rod J has his say...
Ivan Rakitić (Croatia)
The home nation Brazil should be able to comfortably coast through the group stages and progress far into the tournament, with or without their best player Neymar. The same applies for most players on the home team who simply have too much depth and talent for one single player to be the outright difference between a fantastic performance and an abysmal one.
With Brazil almost guaranteed top spot, Croatia and Mexico will be confident of the chances of landing the second spot in the group that grants them passage into the knockout stages, and no player on both teams will me more crucial to their country's aspirations than Ivan Rakitić.
After an amazing season with a Sevilla team in which he was at the heart of everything positive in their march to an unlikely Europa League triumph, Rakitić will be looking to continue his fine form for his national team. If Croatia are to make it past the group stages, it will be vital for Rakitić be at his creative best, linking up with midfielder partner in crime Luka Modrić (Real Madrid), and Bayern Munich’s Mario Mandžukić up front.
Honorable mentions: Giovani dos Santos (Mexico), Luka Modrić (Croatia)
Alexis Sánchez (Chile)
More so than Cameroon in Group A, the Australians are not expected to make it out the group stages in Brazil, and so there is no pressure on their players. The same could be said of Chile, who had the unfortunate luck of being paired in this group with holders Spain, and 2010 finalists the Netherlands. The good news for Chile is that the Netherlands have looked a shadow of their old self through much of the qualifiers and friendlies.
Chile, who have been absolutely devastating since the appointment of new coach Jorge Sampaoli, will be buoyed by their performances in the CONMEBOL, as well as in their friendlies, especially against Germany to whom they fell 1-0. Chile do not have many or arguably any world class players on their roster, but they play as a unit, with Barcelona’s Alexis Sánchez at the heart of everything creative.
Throughout the qualifiers and during Chile’s friendlies, Sánchez has been in mesmerizing form, and if Chile are to shock Spain or the Netherlands in Group B, they need their star man to be in form, and he will be under pressure to perform after a mixed season with Barcelona.
Honorable mentions. Andrés Iniesta (Spain), Arturo Vidal (Chile).
Yaya Touré (Ivory Coast)
Colombia are widely expected to easily top Group C, but the second spot in this group is up for grabs. Greece always go into major tournaments with little expectation but much to play for, and would make for an exciting team to watch in the World Cup. However, Ivory Coast are under the most pressure to perform in this group.
Much like Nigeria, the Elephants have been handed a glorious chance at progression into the knockout stages, and they certainly have the talent to do just that. With massive expectations heaped on this nation by their fans, and the whole African continent, no one will be feeling the heat more than Yaya Touré. Even though he’s not the captain of the squad, Africa’s most talented player, Touré will be tasked with and expected to lead a team of stars such as Roma’s Gervinho, Galatasaray’s Didier Drogba, Lille’s Salomon Kalou, Swansea’s Wilfried Bony, and Newcastle’s Cheick Tioté.
Daniel Sturridge (England)
Let’s face it, for a nation prides itself in being the founding nation of football, England's record in the World Cup is not exactly stellar. For England, there’s always been a massive amount of hype that quickly transforms to a pool of disappointment in the World Cup. This time around, if England are going to progress out of the group stages and make some noise, Daniel Sturridge, not Wayne Rooney, is the man who will most definitely have to step up.
Good news for England is he just came of the back of a sensational season with Liverpool, and should he continue with such form in the World Cup, they will have a good shot at progression into the knockout stages. Groupd D also involves the likes of Costa Rica, Uruguay, and Italy, as well as some of the deadliest strikers in world football, in Uruguay’s Luis Suarez and Italy’s Mario Balotelli.
Honorable mentions: Luis Suarez (Uruguay), Wayne Rooney (England).
Karim Benzema (France)
With bad boy Samir Nasri left out of Didier Deschamps' 23-man squad, and Franck Ribéry forced out of the World Cup with back problems, France will be looking to get past their disgraceful tournament meltdown four years ago in South Africa. The pressure will be on Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema to reinstate Les Bleus to the respectable footballing nation they have always been. But questions will undoubtedly loom over his ability to deliver for his nation, but the expectations will be high on the Frenchman nonetheless.
Honorable mentions: Xherdan Shaqiri (Switzerland)
Lionel Messi (Argentina)
Who else could it be from Group F, other than the man under the most pressure at the World Cup to perform? There has been an extraordinary amount of hype Lionel Messi and the 2014 World Cup, and the world’s best player must win it all if he is to single out himself in the realm of football gods, as downright the best football player of all time.
Harshly and constantly criticised for his performances for the national team, Messi stepped up in the qualifiers and was arguably the best player in the qualifiers for any qualifying region. His recent surge in form for the national team, including a goal yesterday against Slovenia during his 30 minute cameo, would suggest that Messi is ready to shut his critics up and dazzle in Brazil. The expectations are great for the little man who can do it all, and his form will certainly determine how far Argentina advance in the World Cup.
Honorable mentions: John Obi Mikel (Nigeria), Edin Džeko (Bosnia and Herzegovina)
Michael Bradley (U.S.A)
Michael Bradley is not captain America, as that honour is reserved for Seattle Sounders FC forward Clint Dempsey, but he will be most crucial to the USA's World Cup aspirations. With Germany being by far the favourites to win this group, the US will feel that the second spot is up for grabs and even though Portugal will feel they have the advantage, do not write the Americans off.
Toronto FC midfielder Bradley will be charged with the pivotal role of linking up play between the defence and the forwards for the Americans in a group where you have to feel that the midfield battle will decide the outcome of all games.
Honorable mentions: Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal), Kevin-Prince Boateng (Ghana).
Eden Hazard (Belgium)
Belgium could shock everyone in the World Cup, and will definitely be an exciting team to watch. Belgium should theoretically win their group, but the prospect of them progressing past the quarter finals of this showpiece event depend hugely on the performance of Chelsea wonder boy Eden Hazard. Arguably the finest youngster in world football, Hazard will have to bring the very best of his youthful explosiveness and elusiveness to Brazil if Belgium are to upset some heavy hitters.
Honorable mentions: Sofiane Feghouli (Algeria), Ki Sung-yueng (South Korea)
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