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FIFA World Cup 2014: Preview and Predictions - Group A

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A Winter's Tale

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This evening, the 20[sup]th[/sup] FIFA World Cup will get underway in Sao Paulo with host nation and the tournament favourites Brazil taking on Croatia. Four years on from a well deserved victory for the great Spanish side who defeated the Netherlands 1-0 in a stop/start final at Soccer City in South Africa, hopefully Brazil – a nation who has embraced this sport like no other – during the next month will display and dazzling festival of football on the football field and hopefully off the field aswell despite the protests. The last world cup to have taken place in South America was back in 1978 in Argentina and on each of the five occasions the championships have been held in this part of the world the eventual champions have all been South American. And it is hard to look beyond Brazil winning it for a record sixth time, however, this current team is not on the scale as past Brazilian sides. Of course, since 1978 the game has developed and evolved a fair bit and perhaps one can assume that subsequently the preparations for a World Cup by current European sides is far more ideal and suitable to that of many decades ago. A European can’t be ruled out and Spain still remain as the best side in international football – and have been so for around the past 6 years. So now that it is here, the FIFA World Cup, we can all whet our appetite for lots of goals, classic games and stunning shocks, defining performances by the elite players and enthralling emergences of new starts, and, of course the making of football history.

Group A includes the much fancied hosts, Brazil, who will be against presumably unspectacular but decent international outfits in Croatia, Mexico and Cameroon.

Brazil squad is made up of players based in 9 countries: 6 from England (4 from Chelsea, 1 from Manchester City and Tottenham); 4 from Brazil (2 from Athletico Mineiro, 1 from Fluminense and Botafogo); 3 from Spain (2 from Barcelona and 1 from Real Madrid); 3 from Italy (1 from Napoli, Inter and Roma); 2 from Germany (1 from Bayern Munich and Wolfsburg); 2 from France (2 from PSG); and 1 from Russia (Zenit), Ukraine (Donetsk) and Canada (Toronto). This generally young squad is probably better than four years ago (with more attacking prowess behind the strikers) but like many of their teams of the past 20 years (since Brazil adapted to a more defence aware style) this team (even if they go on to win) won’t be regarded interms of personnel and style in the same regard as the sides of 1982 and the golden era of 1958-1970. Brazil haven’t reached a semi-final since 2002 (when they won their 5[sup]th[/sup] title under current manager Scolari). All that matters for people and media of Brazil is victory and anything other than that would be a disaster, losing it as host nation would make the agony even worse. And both Brazil and Scolari have had experiences of such pain with the infamous Brazil defeat inflicted by Uruguay in 1950 and Scolari’s Portugal beaten by Greece in 2004. Brazil should comfortably progress to the knock-out rounds with their opponents not being the toughest in the competition but certainly not the very weakest aswell. Given the way Brazil played in last summer’s confederations cup I would expect Brazil to take all 9 points. Brazil rely very heavily on the much hyped forward Neymar who has just finished his first season in Europe with FC Barcelona – overall, an underwhelming debut season away from South America. However, despite a poor season with his club, it has been clear in the past that Neymar tends to live up to his responsibilities when wearing his nation’s colours. Given the lack of potent, reliable forwards (the expected no.9, Fred, who played fairly well in last year's confederations cup has had misfortune with injuries ever since) it is vital that Neymar comes up with the goods he's expected to deliver. Brazil do have other players who conjure up chances and goals with attacking midfielders such as oscar - who will be a vital player for Brazils chances - and the hit or miss, specimen that is zenit's hulk. Away from the architects of Neymar and oscar, and Brazil have attacking full-backs - however, with dani alves in particular his end product is unreliable. In midfield, Paulinho - who could surprise at this World Cup - will also add to the attack whilst Wolfsburg and former Bayern player Luis Gustavo should sit back and act as a sweeper. In defence, the psg centre-half thiago silva is a world class player in his field whilst david luiz who despite his qualities, always has a mistake or two in him. When not in possession, as a team, Brazil will commit to smothering the opposition. A team that will play high intensity football with good technical ability should progress easily and in the process, I expect Brazil to score quite a few goals as well as conceding not many or any goals before proceeding into a trickier round of 16 tie.

It will be a scrap for 2nd place between the remaining teams in group a. Croatia on paper should do it but I have little faith in them and Cameroon are a team I'm not expecting too much from but they could be a surprise and perhaps book a place in the last 16 if they play to the best of their abilities. The team I'm expecting to grab second place is the less than inspiring Mexico. This Mexico team certainly isn't the greatest side in their history - more like a team in transition - following on from a disastrous qualifying campaign in central america in which Panama blew their opportunity to knock Mexico out - subsequently Mexico went on to defeat New Zealand in a play-off. In the space of 6 weeks Mexico had at least 4 different managers! However, despite how Mexico aren't a much fancied and nor are they expected to play entertaining football, they have reached the knock-out rounds for 5 world cups in a row - and I expect them to negotiate a way into the last 16 for a 6th time in a row. The squad is mainly comprised of Mexican based players, 15 out of the 23 man squad: (4 from America, 3 from Leon and Toulca, 2 from UANL and Cruz Azul and 1 from Santos Languna); 3 from Spain (2 from Sevilla and 1 from Espanyol); 2 from Portugal (Porto); 1 from England (Manchester United), 1 from Germany (Bayer Leverkusen) and 1 from France (Ajaccio). Mexico should play a 5-3-2 formation (defensive but the wing-backs would be extra attacking options). Rafael Marquez, at 35, the former Barcelona player will attending his 4th world cup finals but despite his experience, his inconsistency or unreliability could become a liability. Javier Herandez of Manchester United may not feature much as he has scored barely any goals for Mexico in the last 12 months. Nevertheless, in a South American world cup I expect Mexico to pragmatically find a way through.

If Croatia play to the levels they are capable of then they should progress ahead of Mexico. However, the last year hasn't been great for Croatia with a change in manager following poor performances and results. I watched Scotland to be only the second team ever to win home and away against Croatia in qualifying. The away game in Zagreb, Croatia had plenty of the ball but no pace, width or penetration and their strikers poorly finished the few chances they had. Igor Stimac's final game in charge saw a stronger Croatia team play in Glasgow but Scotland convincingly won 2-0 and could have scored a goal or two more. Stimac was sacked and was soon replaced by Niko Kovac. It seemed clear that Croatia had technically ability but there was a lack of pace, a lack of quality in the wide areas, their star strikers failing to convert chances and some defensive errors too. Croatia do have the quality to progress but I'm that the next 3 times I watch them play is better than the 2 previous. Their squad is made up of: 4 from Ukraine (2 from Dynamo Kiev and Shakhtar Donetsk, Germany (2 from Wolfsburg, 1 from Bayern Munich and Hamburg); 3 from Italy (Inter, Genoa, Florientina), Spain (Sevilla, Real Madrid, Getafe); 2 from Greece (Panathonikos), England (Southampton and Hull), Croatia (Dinamo Zagreb, Lokomotiva), Russia (Rostov, Lokomotiv Moscow) and 1 from France (Monaco). Under their coach, perhaps Croatia will be attack minded rather than basing their game on possession. Their star striker, Mario Mandzukic of Bayern Munich, will be suspended for the opening game. Without doubt the play makers Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic will be their two main players at this summer's finals. Perhaps the 20 year old Mateo Kovacic from Inter could emerge as a star. With Croatia, it is unclear just what sort of performance we are going to see from them but if they plays as well as they can do then they should reach the last 16.

The team who on paper should finish bottom and are least likely to progress are Cameroon. Certainly with some or most of the African teams we are aware of their qualities and star players but it is easy to be skeptical of how cohesive and well-organised and coached their teams are and they would get on against teams from other parts of the world. For sure, over the past 25 years we've seen African nations deliver at World Cups and some have gone as far as the quarter-finals. But I don't think it will be Cameroon this year, but you never know, they are a somewhat unknown quantity after all. But it does seem that this Cameroon side is poorer than teams from years gone by. They've had a fairly lack-luster couple of years and some of their star players such as Sammuel Eto'o are past their best. But they are a highly motivated group with some talent at their disposal and if Croatia and Mexico fail to impress then the last 16 isn't beyond Cameroon. The Cameroon squad includes: 7 from France (1 from Marseille, Rennes, Lens, Bordeaux, Nancy, Lyon, Lorient); 6 from Turkey (1 from Besiktas, Galatasaray, Fenerbanche, Konyaspor, Antaylaspor, Fethieyespor); 3 from Spain (1 from Barcelona, Granada, Sevilla); 2 from Cameroon (Cotton Sport), England (Chelsea, QPR), Germany (Mainz, Schalke) and 1 from Belgium (Zulte Waregem). Sevilla and on-loan midfielder Stephane Mbia could be a key man with his athletic prowess and ability to win balls. If their attacking assets perform well at this World Cup then Cameroon could sneak a route into the last 16 but I expect a similar and disappointing campaign like 2010.

Key and standout games:

Brazil v Croatia, 12th June - 9pm: The opening game which will hopefully deliver an exciting start to the World Cup or plenty of goals (and great ones) as we saw back in 2006 with Germany v Costa Rica.

Croatia v Mexico, 23rd June - 9pm: Potential decided for 2nd place.

Predictions:

[font=calibri][size=2]Brazil[/size][/font][font=calibri][size=2] 2-0 Croatia, 12[sup]th[/sup] June @ 9pm[/size][/font]
[font=calibri][size=2]Mexico[/size][/font][font=calibri][size=2] 1-0 Cameroon, 13[sup]th[/sup] June @ 5pm[/size][/font]
[font=calibri][size=2]Brazil[/size][/font][font=calibri][size=2] 3-1 Mexico, 17[sup]th[/sup] June @ 8pm[/size][/font]
[font=calibri][size=2]Cameroon[/size][/font][font=calibri][size=2] 1-2 Croatia, 18[sup]th[/sup] June @ 11pm[/size][/font]
[font=calibri][size=2]Cameroon[/size][/font][font=calibri][size=2] 0-3 Brazil, 23[sup]rd[/sup] June @ 9pm[/size][/font]
[font=calibri][size=2]Croatia[/size][/font][font=calibri][size=2] 0-1 Mexico, 23[sup]rd[/sup] June @ 9pm[/size][/font]

[font=calibri][size=2]Brazil[/size][/font][font=calibri][size=2] 9pts[/size][/font]
[font=calibri][size=2]Mexico[/size][/font][font=calibri][size=2] 6pts[/size][/font]
[font=calibri][size=2]Croatia[/size][/font][font=calibri][size=2] 3pts[/size][/font]
[font=calibri][size=2]Cameroon[/size][/font][font=calibri][size=2] 0pts[/size][/font]
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