It must be said even the most bland of this year’s World Cup groups offer us a fair degree of intrigue. And besides, with as many as three groups vying for the useless tag of ‘Group of Death’ drama and terror will be in no short order in Brazil 2014. So here goes… I have Brazil and Argentina meeting in the final, but for that to happen, so too, must this.
Brazil’s to lose obviously. I have no doubt that Big Phil’s squad have the all the necessary parts to win the World Cup, but can they cope with the pressure? Only a Brazilian really knows what this tournament means to that nation, and despite the political issues (of which there are many) this country will be counting on—demanding, in fact—that their team lifts the trophy on July 13th. My belief is that the team will deal just fine, these are professionals competing at the highest level on the biggest stages in the world, they know pressure and they revel in it. How else to explain why Neymar has saved his best soccer for his country over the past 12 months.
As for who will join Brazil in the next round? It will be a hotly contested battle between Mexico and Croatia. A disrupted Mexico continues to learn under a new coach and a new formation, that and the world class abilities of Luka Modric, Mario Mandzukic and the emergence of Ivan Rakitic will be enough to see Croatia through. Croatia vs Mexico in the final match day will be one to watch.
Prediction: 1) Brazil, 2) Croatia, 3) Mexico, 4) Cameroon
Why isn't Group B being considered the Group of Death? I don't get it. What an unbelievable group, with the supposed cannon-fodder, Australia not one to ever lie down. Yes, they'll get beaten, but Spain, Netherlands and Chile will know they've been in a football match.
Spain, of course, are favourites and rightly so, perhaps this is the end of the road for some of these campaigners, but although Xavi may be into his mid-thirties, it is not as as if Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets and Gerard Pique are not still very much in their prime. Maybe the magic is not as potent as it was four years ago, but a healthy Diego Costa would provide this team with the one ingredient it was missing at Euro 2012 (a tournament Spain won, by the way).
The Netherlands are not the Dutch that brutalized their way to the final four years ago. There are very legitimate fears that Robin Van Persie, Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder are not able to play so many games in so little time, and the kids? They will be good, but forgive me for sounding ignorant here, but these names are not likely to strike fear into the Spain... or even Chile. The Chileans could be that team that stuns those who haven't seen them play. If I am to pick a dark horse, then it would be them. They're a joy to watch, if nothing else, and Arturo Vidal and Alexis Sanchez might be in line for team of the tournament.
Prediction: 1) Spain, 2) Chile, 3) Netherlands, 4) Australia
This is a group I'd keep my money away from. Seriously, I do not know what will happen here, and the fact that Colombia are now down one Radamel Falcao just makes things even more complicated. Carlos Bacca could well step up, and certainly Colombia should likely remain group favourites.
That said, they'll be meeting a Greek side that has a little more flair than usual but is still built around suffocating defence. Things will get interesting.
Ivory Coast remains Africa's big hope, and with Yaya Toure it boasts one of the world's greats. I'm also excited to see Wilfred Bony on this stage, yet part of me feels the Golden Generation is gone, and even with Didier Drogba still kicking around, I feel Greece might have enough to extinguish the hopes of a continent.
Prediction: 1) Colombia, 2) Greece, 3) Ivory Coast, 4) Japan
Another with the right to boast a 'group of death' label. Yes Italy are the best side, with the only question mark being up front and who will partner Mario Balotelli? To be honest I still feel a little ripped off Giuseppe Rossi isn't that man, but whether Antonio Cassano gets the chance at his first World Cup or whether Ciro Immobile gets the opportunity to star, Italy have only themselves to overcome if they are to top this group.
Not that I'm entirely discounting England and Uruguay. For once England is underrated entering a major tournament, but the reality is this is a testing ground for future squads. The youth is exciting, but if anyone try's to tell you Wayne Rooney is not still the main man, please educate them. Whether he is playing up top, in the No. 10 spot or on the left wing, he is the key. As Wazza goes, so goes England.
Uruguay has star power of course, however one of those starts is coming off knee surgery. Luis Suarez is renowned for returning from sabbaticals seamlessly, and he'll need to do that in Brazil. Uruguay will terrorize defences, but their own defence looks mechanical and worn. Pacey attackers will cause that back four nightmares.
Prediction: 1) Italy, 2) England, 3) Uruguay, 4) Costa Rica
At first glance the overriding emotion is anger and jealousy pointed towards to France. After stumbling into the World Cup, they luck out as a non-seed in the draw and end up in a group that let's be honest, isn't to be confused with the Group of Death. However, it is a tight group, and in Switzerland and Ecuador we have two decent teams that might just test the French resolve, and when that is tested, implosions tend to happen.
That being said, the worst of the bad boys are gone, Samir Nasri and Nicolas Anelka are no longer welcome. Nasri from a skill stand point would likely walk into the squad but as Didier Deschamps says, this is the best team, not perhaps the best 23 players. France might indeed blow up and fall at the first hurdle, or they might reach the final, that's the type of team they are.
Switzerland will be tough to break down, as are all Ottmar Hitzfeld teams, and have a young wave of talent who have succeeded at youth levels. While Ecuador is never to be dismissed and can kill on the counter. Suddenly a poor-looking group doesn't look so bad, does it?
Prediction: 1) France, 2) Switzerland, 3) Ecuador, 4) Honduras
Will it be Lionel Messi's World Cup? Will he get to shut-up the ignorant naysayers who demand a World Cup win for him to truly be considered the best ever? We all know how Messi is entering the tournament coming off a troubled season. It might be the perfect tonic. Enough about Messi though, as Jerrad Peters wrote on Sportsnet.ca last week, Angel Di Maria may end up being Argentina's key player. I suspect it stays as Messi's domain, but Di Maria has quietly enjoyed a breathtaking season at Real Madrid. And if not one of those two, maybe Sergio Aguero? Gonzalo Higuain? Enough said.
I like Bosnia-Herzegovina to progress as runners-up. If nothing else they will be fun at their first World Cup. An exciting attack blended with a sub-par defence means en-ter-tain-ment. Iran will push them, as will Nigeria, however I am not sure I fully understand the love-in with Nigeria.
Prediction: 1) Argentina, 2) Bosnia-Herzegovina, 3) Nigeria, 4) Iran
Now for the so-called Group of Death. Germany are no longer the young hopefuls about to break through on the big stage, they are already there, they are a contender. It is tough to find a weak spot, but do they have that one star who can win a game on his own? It was thought Mesut Ozil would be that man, but his form in the Premier League season has been disappointing at best. As much as Germany looks like it will be Europe's big hope, are we honestly going to have to witness Miroslav Klose breaking the legendary Ronaldo's goal scoring record? I'm not sure I can stomach that.
Portugal have every reason to have as much hope for Brazil as the Figo/Rui Costa golden generation had in previous tournaments. Whereas Germany might lack that true all-dominating force, the Portuguese have the best player in the world. If Cristiano Ronaldo's knee injury is fixable, he can carry this team deep into the tournament, although to dismiss Portugal as a one trick pony is a big mistake. Solid throughout don't be surprised to see a Joao Moutinho or Migel Veloso emerge as a world force. Sadly a quarterfinal with Argentina could loom... which on the other hand is pure gold for us neutrals.
The USA and Ghana will battle for the scraps, both enter this World Cup hugely overrated, nice teams with fighting spirit, but there will only be two winners in Group G.
Prediction: 1) Germany, 2) Portugal, 3) United States, 4) Ghana
Belgium is the hot new blond on the block. Everyone just loves Belgium. However when you consider the likes of Fellaini, De Bruyne, Vermaelen, Vertonghen, Chadli and even Kompany are hardly coming off great seasons, then the shine is somewhat scuffed. Could Belgium be that team that destroys its huge hopes early? Or will Eden Hazard and Romelo Lukaku lift their games to the World Cup level? Can't wait to find out.
Fortunately (for them) the Belgians finds themselves in a relatively soft group, with Russia as the main competition. However injuries are a concern and we have yet to see Alan Dzagoev evolve into the can't-miss-prospect he suggested he was at Euro 2012. That being said Fabio Capello has melded a strong unit together.
South Korea could be the banana skin in this group, however, though.
Prediction: 1) Russia, 2) Belgium, 3) South Korea, 4) Algeria
*Coin flips: I will stick with my predictions until my last gasp, however if you are foolishly using my suggestions to base your own pools around I'd suggest a coin flip on Groups C, D and H might be wise!