In the first half of this World Cup preview, Groups A to D will be analysed to find out who will be the first eight teams in to the Round of 16. Brazil and Spain will have the highest hopes, but Croatia, Chile, Columbia, Uruguay and even England could be looking to be the tournament’s dark horses. A preview for Groups E-H will follow soon.
Hosts Brazil kick off the tournament tomorrow against Croatia and are widely expected to claim a full nine points. Much of the pressure will be on Neymar, as he is expected to carry his nation to the trophy. Mexico, Croatia and Cameroon will all be fighting for the second spot, and with the Africans only arriving in Brazil a couple of days ago due to pay disputes, it seems that they won’t be gone for long. Croatia have the makings of a really strong side, with Modric, Mandzukic, Rakitic, Kovacic and Lovren all performing well in Europe’s top divisions. Mexico narrowly qualified for the finals, and are without the likes of Carlos Vela in their squad. Much of the Mexican goalscoring hopes will rest on Javier Hernandez, who has had a dismal year at Manchester United.
Qualifiers: Brazil (9 points), Croatia (6 points)
Group B is certainly a contender for the ‘Group of Death’ title, boasting Spain, Netherlands, Chile and Australia. Many are writing Spain off, and with a front line containing Fernando Torres, David Villa and a not fully fit Diego Costa goals might be hard to come by. Spain’s possession football should see them conserve energy in the tropical heat, which may be an advantage. The Netherlands squad contains a lot of players from the Eredivisie, especially defenders. This could be an advantage with the players knowing each other, but the strength of the Dutch division can be questioned. There will also be fitness concerns over talisman and captain Robin Van Persie and Wesley Sneijder. Chile showed their credentials last year as they stunned England 2-0 at Wembley. They have the potential to be dark horses in this World Cup, however Arturo Vidal may not be fully fit, resting much of the pressure on Alexis Sanchez. Australia have picked a relatively young side, with Mark Bresciano and Tim Cahill the obvious exceptions. In this way, this tournament will just be a learning experience for the Aussies, so expect them to take a few hidings.
Qualifiers: Spain (9 points), Netherlands (4 points – on goal difference)
Group C is possibly the most open group, as any of the teams could realistically hope to qualify. Columbia are the favourites, even without the injured Falcao. They will instead call on Jackson Martinez and James Rodriguez to carry the team, with a potential star Juan Fernando Quintero (above) of Porto tipped to be one of the tournament’s golden boys. It could be argued that the Ivory Coast’s golden generation is no past it’s peak, but they too could still qualify from this group. An ageing Drogba could be replaced by Wilfred Bony or Seydou Doumbia up front, whilst Yaya Toure is coming to Brazil on the back of his best season ever. Japan have the potential to spring a surprise or two. Playmakers Shinji Kagawa and Kensuke Honda will be looking to put their indifferent seasons behind them, whilst Shinji Okazaki scored 15 goals for Mainz last season in the Bundasliga. Greece are the outsiders of the group. They scored just 12 goals in 10 games a qualifying group that contained Latvia, Lithuania and Liechtenstein. Samaras and Mitroglou will have the unenviable job of trying to get Greece scoring, but they will probably rely on getting three 0-0 draws.
Qualifiers: Columbia (9 points), Ivory Coast (6 points)
Much of England’s hopes in Group D will rely on the mental strength of Roy Hodgson, and whether he is prepared to drop the likes of Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck should they not be on form – which they aren’t. Despite the low expectations, England’s squad has more than enough talent to beat anyone on their day, but with the nation behind them the question is: will they crumble? The likes of Sterling, Lallana and Barkley (above) could all be bright sparks in Brazil, but will Roy utilise them? Italy could go far at this tournament, with a very talented squad. The possible frontline of Balotelli and Immobile is a mouthwatering prospect, and with Pirlo and Verratti pulling the strings, Italy pose a serious threat. However they are slow starters, so England have the best chance of beating them by playing them first. The defence is also beginning to slow up, so the pace of Sturridge and Sterling could prove a vital weapon. Uruguay are much fancied to go far in this tournament, but they really have not shown any reason for this. With Luis Suarez an injury doubt, the only real threat they pose is through Edison Cavani, with an ancient Diego Forlan and Palermo’s Abel Hernandez joining him up front. In defence Uruguay look ropey at best, with West Brom bench-warmer Diego Lugano and Liverpool’s injury prone defender Sebastian Coates at the back. They struggled through to a play-off with Jordan to qualify, and again will struggle in this group. Costa Rica proved strong at home during CONCACAF qualifying, but struggled when playing away. Brian Oviedo will be missing due to injury, whilst English fans will recognise Arsenal’s Joel Campbell and Fulham’s Bryan Ruiz.
Qualifiers: England (7 points), Italy (5 points)