On the day of the 20th edition of the FIFA World Cup in football’s spiritual home of Brazil, GiveMeSport writer James Charuka re-looks at his predictions made just after the draw in December 2013 and remarkably, sees no reason to alter his predictions.
Brazil are still the odds-on favourites not just for the group but to go all the way. Questions still remain over their central defence but expect the wily Scolari to fashion a method of ensuring that their dazzling attack overpowers any stubborn opposition. Their Confederations Cup thrashing of Spain on home soil in 2013 will no doubt give confidence to a team that is under more pressure from their own fans than from the opposition.
Expect a three-way tussle for second place but Croatia’s sublime midfield pairing of Ivan Rakitic and Luka Modric may possess too much for the other opponents in the group and may even give Brazil a scare. It does not bode well for Africa’s representative Cameroon that they were involved in a squabble for bonuses before departure but though hardworking and efficient, this is a team that will need to do wonders if they are to come out of this group. Mexico are neat tidy and competent, but will fall short unless they can beat the Croats.
Another interesting group with the tournament’s second favourites Spain up against their 2010 opponents Netherlands. With the Spanish possessing the strongest and best team on paper, they are expected to top a group that will however, test them to the full. Despite only taking two recognised strikers, Vicente Del Bosque’s side have a side packed to the peel with experience, artistry, invention and is also highly resolute when they need to be. They will do well however, to remember the fate of Europe’s last two winners of the football showpiece who fell spectacularly at the first hurdle as holders.
Much will depend on the group’s first game when Del Bosque’s armada takes on the Dutch in a repeat of the last final. A win for either side will take the pressure off the victors and conversely leave the loser probably needing to beat Chile, who are expected to make light of an Australia side in transition. I still tip the Dutch to progress after Spain.
Probably the hardest group to predict, especially with Colombia’s star player Radamel Falcao set to miss out due to injury. In James Rodriguez, Colombia possesses a potential tournament star and their attack-minded side should still prove too good for the other group’s teams.
Greece are obdurate and will rely on their team spirit, while Japan plays pretty football at the best of times but often struggle upfront. Cote’d ‘Ivoire will be happier for a group that is relatively easier compared to their last 2 tournaments but their ageing squad may come unstuck against a tough-as-teak Greek outfit and a Honda-inspired Japan.
It will be a three-way fight behind Colombia but on the back of pure adventure, I will back the Japanese to shade it.
One of the tournament’s two groups of death, but though England’s record in such groups is impressive, Roy Hodgson’s tactically bereft side may well be left wanting at the end. England generally struggle to break down solid and less spectacular sides and in Italy and Uruguay, they are up against two street-wise opponents who play to win first with style becoming secondary.
Even so, perhaps the weight of expectations which is notably low this time may work in their favour. Hodgson’s system does not seem to bring the best out of Wayne Rooney in big games and unless he sparkles, England can expect an early flight home.
Italy are the renowned artisans, if not artists in navigating their way through tough groups (2010 aside) and will top the group just as long as they come through the first game against the English. That game will determine just how far England go, and with their next match against Luis Suarez’s Uruguay, there is little margin for error. Even their last opponents Costa Rica are no pushovers and my feeling is England may well rue the draw as the decisive factor in sealing their fate.
An open group which may well spring a surprise but for Didier Deschamps’ France, an excellent opportunity to book their place in the next round. They will not have it all their own way with a plucky Ecuador, an unpredictable Honduras and the group’s seeded side Switzerland, who are coached by 2-time UEFA Champions league winning coach Ottmar Hitzfield.
Ecuador will relish the conditions, Honduras will depend on the underdog tag and the Swiss will bank on Hitzfield’s meticulous preparation and tactical nous.
How Deschamps handles all this in a squad that has often in the past imploded due to unchecked egos will be interesting, but the 1998 FIFA World Cup winning captain has dealt ruthlessly with this as evident by the surprise omission of Manchester City’s Samir Nasri, while the absence of Bayern Munich stalwart Franck Ribery due to injury may actually free up his tactical options.
France are expected to top the group while Ecuador’s opening humdinger against the Swiss will decide who accompanies the French. Based on their quicksilver wingers and mode of attack, I tip them to overcome the Swiss.
One of Africa’s 'big five' Nigeria will look upon this group with confidence. Pitted against Asians Iran and debutants Bosnia-Herzegovina in their first two games, they can expect to collect crucial points before engaging old group foes Argentina. The two clashed at USA ’94 and Korea-Japan 2002 in the group stages and were not disgraced in defeat, but therein lies the problem: Nigeria tend to be their own worst enemies though as such tournaments are often preceded by rows over bonuses and player unrest. Whilst the latter has been dealt with quite well by coach Steven Keshi, the former has only just been resolved – hopefully.
If the Africans can collect at least 4 points from those two games, then a tie against Lionel Messi’s Argentina will hold no fears, but an age-old naivety in defence, particularly after scoring may well put paid to what would have been a golden opportunity to progress to the knock-out stages. Argentina will top the group in familiar surroundings while Bosnia should settle a high-scoring encounter with Nigeria to leave the Africans in agony once again.
Germany are renowned masters of the game and even in a group of death like this one are still hotly tipped to go through. With Cristiano Ronaldo only just recovering from injury, Portugal will have their work cut out from their very first encounter against the group’s seeds.
As is the case in such groups the first match normally determines the destiny of the victors and if the 51-goal (in the just ended season) Ronaldo is truly fit, then this is well within their reach. Otherwise the Portuguese, who are expected to be the locals’ second team of choice after the hosts, may end up facing Ghana in desperate need of a win to go through.
Before that, the USA will provide a test of stamina and resilience with their physicality and team spirit.
All of which should work out well for another of Africa’s Big Five Ghana, who must win their opening encounter against the USA to exact pressure on their European opponents. And with a star-studded side for whom most are at their peak, Ghana are my tip to accompany the Germans to the second round. For arguably the world’s best player CR7, this will be very hard to take.
The last (but certainly not least) of Africa’s 'big five' Algeria have a reasonable draw and if their collection of French Algerians, i.e. players born and raised in France but loyal to their original motherland, can play to their maximum, a spot in the second round is certainly there for the taking. Again, their first encounter against the seeded Belgians will set the tone and they should not be overawed by the imposing Belgium team whose mixture of silk and steel makes them one of the tournament’s dark horses.
Fabio Capello’s Russia are in a league of their own – well literally and figuratively: they are the only team to field a team as well as possess an entire squad based in their own nation. A good tournament will serve as a good advert for their league as well as provide redemption for their Italian coach who has been criticised in England and in his homeland, despite a distinguished coaching CV. For South Korea, the other team in the group, enthusiasm, energy and team spirit will not be enough to take them through as this squad is a far cry from the one that rode on good fortune and fervent home support to finish fourth in 2002.
The South American sides of Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina are likely to face tough tests against the Netherlands, Colombia and Ecuador, with the latter two (Argentina and Uruguay) in tough derbies but I tip the afore-mentioned to progress to the quarter-finals. Meanwhile, Spain should see off Croatia, Italy overcome Japan, while France and Germany are likely to edge out Bosnia-Herzegovina and Belgium to make the quarters. The closest tie of the round could pit Russia against African stalwarts Ghana, and like the last tournament, the Black Stars will make it to the quarter-finals, this time with a point to prove.
In the quarter-finals, it’s anybody’s game as all contestants are of equal strength, but Brazil may have to negotiate a tricky-looking derby against Uruguay, while there will be good old-fashioned European derbies as France likely meet Germany and Italy face the might of Spain. Expect possible shoot-outs as I tip Germany and Italy to triumph. With Brazil just about edging it against Uruguay, the tie of the round may well be Argentina’s likely meeting with the Black Stars. I will stick my neck out and go for Ghana to make history, without the hand of God (or the devil) to affect them this time.
In the penultimate stage, it may well be a renewal of acquaintances for Germany and Brazil and with emotions likely at melting point; Brazil should reach the final to set the stage for the biggest party at the Maracana on 13 July. They will need all their wits about them though as Germany are likely to push them all the way.
The other semi-final will be a tie of the romantic versus the pragmatic as Ghana face the cold realism of Italy. Italy’s record against African teams will see them through, much to the expected anguish of a whole continent.
Winners & Nearly Men
I tip Brazil to triumph in the Maracana against a steely Italy as a nation revels in hosting and winning the World Cup while Germany will clinch third position – yet again! For Ghana, disappointment may well be assuaged by the feats of the previous matches and the history they will have created.
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