|Date with Destiny: Celtics Set to Face Lebron, Cavs in Return to Playoffs||2015 NBA Playoffs Expert Picks: First Round||Will the Real Clay Buchholz Please Stand Up?||Connelly’s Top Ten: Patriots Day Weekend!|
Thursday afternoon at 4PM EST, Planet Earth will turn it’s attention to Arena Corinthians in São Paulo, Brazil. It is here where the 2014 FIFA World Cup Finals will kick-off with the host nation taking on Croatia. For the next month after that, the world will be consumed by the planet’s best sports tournament.
This edition of the World Cup is loaded with story-lines, and could be legacy defining tournaments for a number of players. There are also multiple groups of death, and several darkhorse teams who could be playing in the final four. I’ll be offering coverage here throughout the tournament.
Now, let’s get on to previewing each group.
Teams: Brazil, Croatia, Mexico, Cameroon
Names to Know: Neymar (Brazil), Luka Modric (Croatia), Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez (Mexico), Samuel Eto’o (Cameroon)
Game to Watch: Croatia vs Mexico, June 23rd.
Analysis: Group A has been underrated immensely by most leading up to this World Cup. All four of these teams could potentially advance, but Brazil’s presence makes it a three team race between Croatia, Mexico, and Cameroon for second place. The host nation should not have a problem advancing from, and winning this group. If Brazil can (and they should) secure three points with a victory over Croatia in the opening game, they should be able to breeze to a group win.
Croatia is popular choice for second place, and they boast an impressive lineup of tacticians including Real Madrid’s Luka Modric, and Bayern Munich’s Mario Manduzkic. Their chief competition will come from Mexico, who seem very far removed from an Olympic Gold Medal in London. El Tri have been a team in flux for the past year and a half, and their best player, Chicharito, has not scored for his country since last summer; he may start the tournament on the bench.
Who Will Go Through: Brazil (winner), Croatia (runner-up)
Teams: Spain, Netherlands, Chile, Australia
Names to Know: Xavi (Spain), Robin Van Persie (Netherlands), Arturo Vidal (Chile), Tim Cahill (Australia)
Game to Watch: Spain vs Netherlands, June 13th.
Analysis: If any group can challenge Group G for the title of Group of Death, its this one. In 2010, Spain and the Netherlands faced off in the final game. In 2014, the two will begin the tournament against one another. While Spain remains a favorite despite their golden generation being on the wrong side of the prime of their careers, the Netherlands is going through somewhat of a rebuild. They still have Van Persie, Arjen Robben, and Wesley Sneijder, but they lack experience in the back, and that could ultimately be their undoing.
Chile is one of the tournament’s darkhorse teams. and Juventus’ Arturo Vidal could emerge as one of the tournaments dominant players by the end of the group stage. While Spain, the Netherlands, and Chile will challenge for the top two spots, Australia will just be happy if they can win a point in this daunting group.
Who Will Go Through: Spain (winner), Chile (runner-up)
Teams: Colombia, Greece, Ivory Coast, Japan
Names to Know: James Rodriguez (Colombia), Kostas Mitroglu (Greece), Yaya Toure (Ivory Coast), Keisuke Honda (Japan)
Game to Watch: Colombia vs Ivory Coast, June 19th.
Analysis: This is perhaps the hardest group to predict in this year’s tournament. If not for the injury to world-class striker Radamel Falcao, Colombia would be the odds-on-favorite to win the group. However, with Falcao out of the picture, all four of these teams have a realistic shot at winning the group. Ivory Coast will look to finally get out of their group after failing to do so at the past two world cups. Greece lacks big-names, but was impressive in qualifying and has people thinking of their 2004 squad which improbably won the European Championship.
Lurking in the shadows is another darkhorse, Japan. The Blue Samurai have an impressive roster that boasts creative wingers Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa. Most pundits haven’t given enough credit to Japan (who advanced out of their group in 2010), but I think they’ll sneak out of this group as the winners (perhaps with as few as four points).
Who Will Go Through: Japan (winner), Ivory Coast (runner-up)
Teams: Costa Rica, England, Italy, Uruguay
Names to Know: Joel Campbell (Costa Rica), Daniel Sturridge (England), Andrea Pirlo (Italy), Luis Suarez (Uruguay)
Game to Watch: England vs Italy, June 14th.
Analysis: Group D is another impressive one. England, Italy, and Uruguay will be looking to win the group, and Costa Rica will share the same goal as Australia as they’ll be lucky to secure a point. Both Italy and England had disappointing 2010 World Cups, and both nations are transitioning to a new generation of stars. Italy’s players will face tremendous pressure following their disastrous showing in 2010 where they finished dead-last in perhaps the weakest group of the tournament. England on the other hand, has fairly low expectations at home, and perhaps they’ll be able to shock the world with a deep run.
Uruguay is the under-appreciated heavyweight of the group. They boast perhaps the best striking duo in the tournament with Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, and they even have 2010 Golden Ball (MVP) winner Diego Forlan coming off the bench. Uruguay is a disciplined team who will be managed by “El Maestro” Oscar Tabarez, who led the team to an improbable final four run in South Africa.
Who Will Go Through: Uruguay (winner), Italy (runner-up)
Teams: France, Ecuador, Honduras, Switzerland
Names to Know: Karim Benzema (France), Antonio Valencia (Ecuador), Wilson Palacios (Honduras), Xherdan Shaqiri (Switzerland)
Game to Watch: Switzerland vs Ecuador, June 15th.
Analysis: This group seemed like France’s to lose until they received news that their star winger Franck Ribery will be unable to suit-up in Brazil. Like Colombia with Falcao, this injury complicates things. While France still remain favorites, they may lack creativity on the wing with no Ribery, and Manchester City’s Samir Nasri left off the roster entirely. Still, Les Bleus should be able to win this group, and they should be thankful they were drawn into the group with the tournaments weakest seeded-team: Switzerland.
The Swiss will be intriguing to watch in Brazil. While they lack star-power, they were dominant in qualifying. They could finish anywhere from first to third in this group, and their opening game against Ecuador will set the table for the rest of the group.
Who Will Go Through: France (winner), Switzerland (runner-up)
Teams: Argentina, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iran, Nigeria
Names to Know: Lionel Messi (Argentina), Edin Dzeko (Bosnia), Reza Ghoochannejad (Iran), Victor Moses (Nigeria)
Game to Watch: Nigeria vs Bosnia, June 25th.
Analysis: Among teams considered to be true championship contenders, Argentina has the easiest path through the group stage. Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero, and Angel Di Maria should be able to steamroll through a group filled with suspect defenses. Their opening match with Bosnia may be a shootout, but should they secure three points there, they’ll coast past Iran and Nigeria.
The battle for second will be between Nigeria and Bosnia. The Bosnians will be a fun team to watch, as they attack, attack, and attack when they have the ball. Nigeria was uninspiring during their warm-up friendly against the United States, but they have a number of talented players who should be able to quell the Bosnian attack.
Who Will Go Through: Argentina (winner), Nigeria (runner-up)
Teams: Germany, Ghana, Portugal, United States
Names to Know: Mesut Ozil (Germany), Kevin-Prince Boateng (Ghana), Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal), Clint Dempsey (United States)
Game to Watch: United States vs Portugal, June 22nd.
Analysis: We now arrive at the Group of Death. This group is LOADED with story-lines. Can Ronaldo lead Portugal on a deep-run and secure the title of Greatest Player on the Planet? Will Germany struggle without an elite striker? Can the United States avenge their past two losses to Ghana?
While the Americans drew an incredibly unlucky group, they also drew an incredibly favorable schedule. Should they earn either a victory or draw against Ghana, they will control their own destiny, and won’t have to face the Germans until their final group game (where Germany could have already secured a group victory).
Germany boasts perhaps the most talented roster in the tournament, but they lack an elite center forward. 36-year-old Miroslav Klose looks like he will begin the tournament at striker for Germany, and he needs just two goals to become the all-time leading scorer in World Cup history. Germany shouldn’t have any problems advancing from the group, but American fans better hope that Ronaldo doesn’t lead Portugal to an upset victory when he meets Germany on June 16th.
Who Will Go Through: Germany (winner), United States (runner-up)
Teams: Algeria, Belgium, Russia, South Korea
Names to Know: Hillal Soudani (Algeria), Eden Hazard (Belgium), Aleksandr Kokorin (Russia), Park Chu-Young (South Korea)
Game to Watch: Russia vs South Korea, June 17th.
Analysis: Undoubtedly the worst group of the tournament, Belgium should be able to roll through to the knockout round where they will meet Group G’s second place team (possible the United States).
The battle for second will be a three team race, and it should be an interesting one. Whoever wins the opening-game between Russia and South Korea should be in the drivers seat to advance to the knockout round.
Who Will Go Through: Belgium (winner), South Korea (runner-up)
I’ll be saving a preview of the knockout rounds until after the group stage, but here are my predictions for the final four and championship game.
Semi-Finals: Argentina over Uruguay; Germany over Brazil
Final: Argentina over Germany