Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Guide to the Groups (A - E)

With the greatest show on earth about to begin tomorrow, in my latest blog I look at the groups, consider which players will make their mark on the tournament, and put my balls on the block with my predictions as to how it'll pan out in the early stages.

This is part one. The second part will be up tomorrow in readiness for the opening match.


Clearly there is a huge weight of expectation on the host nation going into this competition. The Selecao are favourites, and indeed expected, at least by their people, to lift the trophy come July. They have been handed a fairly comfortable group, and despite a tricky opening match, I expect them to come though with maximum points.
Neymar is the poster boy of the country and will be the focus of all the cameras. Despite an indifferent debut season with Barcelona, where he lives in the shadows of Messi, I fully expect him to live up to the hype. With an outstanding 31 goals in 48 games at just 22, he seemingly does not let the pressure get to him, and appears to thrive at international level. If he can score goals of the class that he did last summer at the Confederations Cup, then all the better.
Brazil aren't a side in the mould of their traditional, sexy elders, more a pragmatic, functional team, with elements of flair in attack. That ex Everton forward Jo gets anywhere near the side says it all. With David Luiz in their defence, there is always potential of a dreadful error, a penalty or a sending off. And in goal they have Cesar, of undoubted quality, but a bench warmer for much of the season with his mercenery team mates at QPR, before lighting up the MLS (effectively League One standard football) at Toronto. Despite this, with home support behind them, I expect them to go the distance.
Croatia will provide stern competition in the opening game, and are likely to finish second in the group. Having had a wonderful season at Real Madrid, diminutive playmaker Luka Modric will come into the tournament high on confidence, and will be pulling the strings in midfield. Bayern striker Mario Mandzukic leads the line. And my tip for the player to watch, Ivan Rakitic, the exciting attacking midfielder who recently led sevilla to Europa League glory. Croatia will certainly be no push overs.

Croatia's Rakitic; one to watch
Mexico and Cameroon make up the group. Mexico are led by an ageing Rafael Marquez, with 'The Little Pea' Javier Hernandez and Spurs flop Giovanni dos Santos up front.
47 year old Samuel Eto'o is Cameroon's main goal threat. And they also boast Alex Song in midfield, who whilst at Arsenal was rated by their fans as one of the best midfielders in the Premier League (he wasn't), who now picks up the GDP of his country in wages each week for sitting on his arse at the Nou Camp. Their goalkeeper will be absolutely terrible.

Prediction: Brazil, Croatia, Cameroon, Mexico


'The Group of Death'. Apart from Australia, who are going to get hammered. Long gone are the days where the Soceroos could count on luminaries such as Brett Emerton, Kevin Muscat and Craig Moore, they are now basically solely dependent on Tim Cahill, who is way past his best. I don't expect to see Cahill showing off his boxing skills (his goal scoring celebration) at any point during the tournament, unless of course they all get lashed up on Castlemaine XXXX and go on the rampage after they get knocked out, which wouldn't be a huge surprise given his brothers history.
The top of the group is a 3 way split, and a lot will depend on the result of the opening match between Spain and Holland. Hopefully, a football match will break out amidst the fighting, at some point. No, on second thoughts, I'd be quite happy seeing Holland kick the crap out of the dimunitive tika-taka merchants. It'd be more exciting than watching a team pass the ball a million times, maintaining 85% possession in the process, yet only having 2 shots in 90 minutes.

More of this please Nigel
Spain in my opinion have been found out (they almost came unstuck in the final last time around), and the adopted pressing style of Barcelona will be difficult to put into practice in the heat and humidity of Brazil. We saw last summer that they are going to have to go for a different style if they want to win their unprecedented third international tournament in a row. There is no leader in retired Carlos Puyol this time, and so Pique and Ramos will have to step up. In midfield they will have the ageing but class midfield duo of Xavi and Iniesta, and up front an untested and hamstrung Brazilian striker in Diego Costa (who is bound to be given a tough time by the crowd). Of course, as back up, they have the worst ever big money signing, Fernando Torres to bring on should they need to shank any balls over the bar from 3 yards, or sulk around in the centre circle. How Llorente and Negredo have been overlooked following great debut seasons at Juventus and Manchester City respectively, I'll never know?
Will the Dutch have their usual implosion following in squad argument? There's always a good chance with a seeemingly volatile group of players. With their dominating captain Markus Van Bommel gone, they will be heavily reliant on Robin Van Persie's goals, and Arjen Robben's probing runs.
All eyes will be on Luis Van Gaal, ahead of his summer move to Manchester United, and it will be interesting to see if he can get more in this competition out of Van Persie than his out of depth club boss, Moyes, who he clearly had no respect for. If he were to get injured, which is fairly likely, they will struggle for goals. At the back, and in goal, Holland don't look particularly inspiring, and I expect this to be their downfall. Possibly their weakest squad for many a year.
Chile are many peoples (including mine) dark horses. I expect them to get out of this group at the expense of Holland, and who knows how far they'll go then? With the excellent Vidal, and the lightning fast Alexis Sanchez in their side they are going to be a match for most. They of course recently taught England a football lesson at Wembley, and on their own continent I am expecting them to have the correct tactics to succeed. I wouldn't be at all surprised if they get something against Spain.

Prediction: Spain, Chile, Holland, Australia (on nil points)


This is the group from which England will face their next opponent, should we progress beyond our group.
Ivory Coast are a squad full of names familiar to us from the Premier League. From Drogba to Eboue, Tiote, Kalou and Bony, via Gervinho and his five-head (which perhaps should have counted as an extra squad player?). The Elephants can boast one of the stand out midfielders in Yaya Toure, who is great in a star studded Manchester City side, but can he dominate in a lesser team such as this? His brother Kolo (inlcuded in the squad despite having malaria!!) will no doubt do his best to cock things up for them at the back as he did for Liverpool throughout the last league campaign. Drogba is naturally the star of the team, and an icon for his country, but seems the unthinkable chance that he will be replaced by an increasingly impressive Bony. Their goalkeeper will be dreadful.

Gervinho; Biggest forehead in football
I expect them to get out of the group, and they could await England in the next round?
Japan have made great strides in recent times, and technically are as competent as any of the other teams in the competition. However, their smaller stature and lack of physical presence does hold them back, and with no star names I don’t fancy their chances much.
Colombia are without their talisman, the prolific Falcao, and this will no doubt cost them dearly. Without him, Jackson Martinez, his free scoring replacement at Porto, will carry the hopes of a nation. A big ask.
In the fantastically titled Faryd Mondragon, Colombia possess the oldest player, at 42, at the competition. This will be the goalkeepers 3rd World Cup spanning 14 years, and many will fondly remember him picking the ball out of the net from Anderton and Beckham in France '98. Hopefully his back will hold up should he need to do the same against England in the 2nd round. Their squad also contains Pablo Armero, the awful defender West ham had on loan in the back half of last season. Colombia are a bit of an unknown quantity, but I'd suggest they'll progress through to the next round, but that'll be where they exit.
The winners of Euro 2004, Greece, have given all other countries hope that the impossible can be achieved, with a quite superb rearguard action. Fulham's Giorgos Karagounis remains from that side. I'll be amazed if they can even get out of a weak group, let alone win the thing this time.

Prediction: Ivory Coast, Colombia, Japan, Greece


The key group. Unless of course you're not English, but I think that's unlikely among my readership.
I don't go along with this talk about what a threat Uruguay are. Clearly they have an enviable striker force, but outside of this, not so much. Will Suarez have even recovered from his recent knee surgery? If he does, it'll be miraculous, and some cynics might even suggest that the severity of the injury was a publicity stunt (I'm suggesting that it was a publicity stunt). Despite his goalscoring record, and huge transfer fees, I am yet to see Cavani make an impact on a game. In fact, he was pretty pathetic over the two legs against Chelsea in the Champions League. He'll need a big tournament.
In the heart of their defence, they have Liverpool sub Seb Coates, and West Brom donkey Diego Lugano, hardly a frightening prospect. Expect Uruguay to try every trick in the book to win. Which hopefully they won't. There'll be little more satisfying than Suarez and his rat face looking dejected after slumping out of the tournament in the group.
It's not a vintage Italian side by any means, but underestimate them at your peril. Despite a run of 7 matches without a win leading up to this tournament, they are the ultimate World Cup team when it comes to grinding out results. In the pearless Pirlo, they have in my opinion the greatest midfielder in world football. How teams mimimise his threat will be key. Give him space and time and he will punish you. If I were Roy, I'd have Jordan Henderson man mark him throughout our match with them, and kick him at every opportunity until he has to go off.

Coolest man in football?
Of course, Italy have many other top class players, the wonderful Daniel De Rossi, Giorgio Chiellini marshalling the defence, and the mercurial Mario Balotelli, from whom you just don't know what you’re going to get?! The legendary veteran Gianluca Buffon is still in goal, and remains as good a keeper as you'll see in the tournament.
After a great season in Serie A, in which he scored 22 in 33 league appearances, much is expected of Ciro Immobile up front, and it seems that Prandelli may be willing to drop Balotelli in favour of the rookie youngster? I find that hard to believe, but time will tell.
Costa Rica are expected to make up the numbers in a group with 3 teams of similar quality. I'm sure they'll put up more of a fight than people are giving them credit for, and I'll be very glad if they can get something from their opening match against Uruguay. However, they recently drew in a warm up friendly against the Republic of Irelend, so they must be rubbish.
In their ranks, they have ex Fulham player Bryan Ruiz at their disposal. Unfortunately Paulo Wanchape retired in 2007, and so we will not be blessed with his drunken gazelle like play.
I've covered England in depth elsewhere, so I'll not waste your time further.

Prediction (slightly led by my heart): England, Italy, Uruguay, Costa Rica


A particularly boring group, one which I would imagine will throw up some uninspiring fare to watch/endure. Ecuador v Honduras at 11pm on Friday 20th looks particularly uninviting. Everyone will no doubt be rushing back from the pub to catch that one!
Switzerland currently sit 6th in the FIFA world rankings, which quite frankly makes a complete mockery of the system, not that anyone pays much attention to it anyway (we were 3rd a couple of years back, whereas Brazil have been outside the top 10 due to a lack of competitive matches for some years). They don’t possess any world beaters, but rather are renowned as playing as unit, making is tough to beat them (lest we forget that they actually overcame Spain in the last World Cup). They do have two exciting attackers in Gokhan Inler on Napoli and Xherdan Shaqiri of Bayern. I am a partcular fan of the latter from his time at Basel, and feel it is a real waste of his talent sat on the bench for the German champions. Expect both to be their stand out players.
France have gone for a young, untested squad with the notable omission of Samir Nasri. Ribery has been ruled out with a bad back, but he never delivers on the big stage, so I'd suggest that it's no big loss, and I'd rather not have to look at him anyhow. In Hugo Lloris they possess one of the best goalkeepers, particularly with regards shot stopping. Raphael Varane is one of the most promising talents in world football at the back. And alongside him, one of the most overrated players in the Premier League, Laurent Koscielny, which means there is a good chance of a penalty being given or a monumental cock up happening. Sakho of Liverpool is in reserve, so God help them if he plays as well! Big things are fancied from Paul Pogba, the sulky teenager who left Manchester United and lit up Serie A this season with Juventus. I saw him play for United at Aldershot, where he ran the show, and if he can do it in front of a packed to the rafters (8000 odd) Recreation Ground on a cold winter evening, he should be able to deal with the rigours of the World Cup I'd think. Up front they are reliant on Benzema, a player I personally don't think is from the top table as he misses too many chances (a gallic Andrew Cole if you like), and Olivier Giroud, a player who polarises opinion. In Antoine Greizmann they might have one of the tournaments young starlets, but this will depend on how much game time he gets? They should breeze through the group, but I don't fancy them to have enough to go far beyond that.

And first place in the Mario Balotelli look alike competition goes to...
The only thing I know about Honduras is that they are a good bet for the most yellow cards in the group stages.
And Ecuador are similarly a bit of a mystery. Their recent match against England suggest they are quite good going forward but suspect at the back. Their place in the tournament has as much to do with their home matches being played at altitudes where mear mortals are unable to breathe let alone run, and as such their form is exemplary.

Prediction: France, Switzerland, Ecuador, Honduras

So, there you have it. Now you know who to bet on to get through the groups, and which players will be lighting up the tournament over the next few weeks.

Do you disagree with my picks? Have I overlooked any players who could make an impression?
Leave your comments below and please follow me on Twitter: @russellheaps

1 comment:

  1. I'm really excited to watch Colombia. I'm convinced they will join the top table of footballing nations in the next decade or two. They had an excellent team in Italia 90, and were only eliminated after Rene Higuita decided to dribble past Roger Milla on the half way line. That team hit their heights in 1993 when they famously beat Argentine 5-0 in Buenos Aires, inflicting the Argies' first ever home defeat in a World Cup Qualifier. It was some team with Valderrama and Asprilla running the show. They finally won the Copa America about 10 years ago. Now they have an exciting new generation. It's South America's second most populous country (after Brazil) and is football mad. Their time is coming.

    I remember Tim Vickery saying at the time that Falcao's injury wasn't as bad as many people thought. Pekerman, the Argie coach in 2006 and current Colombia boss, struggled to incorporate Falcao into the system. Falcao is a goal poacher. But it is widely believed he needs to play up front alongside a partner, which isn't the system the manager wants the team to play. In his absence, Pekerman has several other options and can now play his preferred five-man midfield.

    Their weakness clearly lies at the back. The first choice center back pairing of Perea and Yepes have a combined age of 73! Personally I'm excited to see if Balanta gets a game. I remember listening to weekly reports when he made his debut for River Plate a couple of years ago. He was picking up man-of-the-match awards at will. Barca have been sniffing around him for some time. He's strong and powerful with a nice touch. I call him the Colombian Sol Campbell although I'm not sure about his aspirations to be captain of the national side.