Thursday, February 11, 2016

Brazil's Neymar heads the ball during an official training session the day before the group A World Cup soccer match between Brazil and Croatia in the Itaquerao Stadium, Sao Paulo , Brazil, Wednesday, June 11, 2014. (AP Photo/Andre Penner) (AP)
World Cup 2014 preview: Groups A and B

Posted on June 4, 2014 at 12:14 p.m.

Dustin George-Miller is a life-long soccer fan, a sports blogger and a Goshen College staffer. His community blog on The Elkhart Truth, The Corner Flag: World Cup 2014, will cover the 2014 FIFA World Cup.

In the first stage, World Cup teams are divided into eight groups of four teams. Each team plays the other team in its group once, accumulating three points for a win and one point for a draw. Once the round-robin is complete, the top two teams from each group advance to a knock-out tournament. We’ll begin our World Cup preview by taking a look at each group and briefly examining the teams.


Brazil • Croatia • Mexico • Cameroon

Group A of the FIFA World Cup traditionally features the tournament hosts, and Brazil slides neatly into a collection of teams that shouldn’t produce too much difficulty for them. It’s nice to be the hosts sometimes. There isn’t much drama in this group – Brazil is the heavy favorite and much of the intrigue will come from the battle for second place.


Brazil (FIFA World Ranking - 4)
World Cup titles - 5 [1958, 1962, 1970, 1994, 2002]
Last qualified: 2010 (quarterfinals)

As hosts of this year’s World Cup, Brazil automatically qualified for the tournament, but it didn’t really need the help. Perennially one of the best teams in the world, the Seleção is practically an assembly line for outstanding footballing talent. This Brazil squad may not have the depth of some of the other favorites (see Spain and Germany) but it’s loaded with very good players, and the tournament being in Brazil makes it the favorite to win the whole thing. There’s gobs of pressure for Brazil, though – anything less than a World Cup title would be a massive disappointment.

Player to watch: On a side packed with good footballers, the biggest star for Brazil is Neymar, a 22-year old, insanely talented winger who signed for Spanish club team giants Barcelona last summer. He’s stunningly quick with the ball at his feet and should be the poster-boy for not just the Brazilian squad, but the entire tournament.


Croatia (FIFA World Ranking - 20)
World Cup titles - 0 
Last qualified: 2006 [group stage]

Croatia returns to the World Cup this summer after missing the 2010 tournament. The Croats are recognized for a solid showing in the Euro 2008 tournament (a mini World Cup for European countries), but struggled to qualify for Brazil, barely making it through European qualification. The team has surprised in international competition before and could surprise again, advancing out of the group if it can put a couple of good runs together.

Player to watch: Luka Modric is not a player who will score a lot of goals, but as an outstanding deep-lying midfielder, he’ll be the player who makes the pass that sets up the assist that leads to the goal. Watch Modric’s movement and passing ability carefully - his performances will be one of the keys to Croatia’s success.


Mexico (Fifa World Ranking - 19)
World Cup titles - 0
Last qualified: 2010 (Round of 16)

Mexico is a team that will command a lot of local interest this summer, but it had an awful time in World Cup qualifying. El Tri struggled mightily and qualified by the skin of its teeth, coming in fourth in its region behind USA, Costa Rica and Honduras. That’s not to say Mexico isn’t a good team – it is, and it’s made the Round of 16 each of the last five World Cups. The team has the attacking nous and quality to get out of Group A, if it can solidify under new manager Miguel Herrera. The questions that surround it from qualifying haven’t gone away, though: it could blaze into the knock-out rounds, or flame out hilariously, but no-one in Group A should take Mexico lightly.

Players to watch: Arguably the most recognizable players in Mexico’s lineup, speedy striker Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez might not even start due to his lack of playing time at Manchester United, his club team. Eyes then turn to 35-year-old defender and Mexico captain Rafa Marquez, in his fourth and final World Cup, who will provide invaluable experience and leadership for the Mexican defense.


Cameroon (Fifa World Ranking - 50)
World Cup titles - 0
Last qualified: 2010 (group stage)

Cameroon is historically one of Africa’s stronger footballing nations, having made nine of the last 11 World Cups, but this Cameroon squad is possibly the weakest team in this group. Age and depth plague the team: beyond its starting 11, there really isn’t much there to be too excited about, and its stars are beginning to show some signs of age. Cameroon will face a tough task to get enough against the other three teams in this group to squeak into second.

Player to watch: Samuel Eto’o was once one of the most feared strikers in Europe, and while he’s showing some wear on the tires at age 33, he’s still got a fantastic finishing touch as indicated by his very good campaign with Chelsea last season.


FEARLESS PREDICTIONS: It’d be pretty dumb to bet against Brazil advancing from this group. I’m not the brightest bulb in the chandelier, but I know better than that. I think it’ll be close thing between Mexico and Croatia for second and either could take it, but in the end I give the edge to El Tri. With the talent on that squad, it should be the second best team in the group. And for whatever reason, Mexico always seems to find a way to advance. Regardless of the final results, Mexico’s match against Brazil on June 17 should be must-see TV. Dustin’s picks: Brazil and Mexico.



Spain • The Netherlands • Chile • Australia

It’s unusual to have the finalists of the last World Cup drawn into the same group in the following tournament, but that’s what happened this time. Spain and the Netherlands faced off in the 2010 World Cup finals in Johannesburg in what turned out to be an extremely ugly and physical match eventually won by Spain in extra time. Spain and the Dutch are World Cup powers, and with the addition of rising the underrated Chile, as well as the Socceroos of Australia, this makes for one of the strongest groups in the tournament.


Spain (FIFA World Ranking - 1)
World Cup titles - 1 (2010)
Previously qualified: 2010 (champions)

No international team has dominated international football quite like Spain the past six years. Once a team dismissed as “chokers” on the world’s biggest stage, Spain’s golden generation, which included luminary talents such as Xavi, Xabi Alonso, David Villa and Andres Iniesta, has steamrolled to consecutive Euro 2008, World Cup 2010 and Euro 2012 titles, and are among the favorites to win again. Spain is very deep and talented, but is aging. While the short “tiki-taka” passing style so favored by the Spanish is now going out of vogue, it would be foolish to think that the La Roja doesn’t have what it takes to make it back to the finals.

Player to watch: If you can only watch one player for Spain (and that’ll be tough), keep an eye on midfielder Andres Iniesta. He’s the engine to the Spanish soccer machine, and while he doesn’t score many goals, he’s instrumental in setting them up for everyone else.


The Netherlands (FIFA World Ranking - 15)
World Cup titles - 0
Previously qualified: 2010 (runners-up)

Beautiful football and the Dutch national team go hand in hand. Go back to the Johan Cruyff-led Orange teams of the 1970s, and you see a progression of tactically astute, free-flowing, attacking football that continues to this day. Holland blitzed through its UEFA qualifying campaign, only dropping two points in 10 matches, but there are concerns with its defense and its young players’ readiness for big matches on an even bigger stage. Don’t sleep on the Dutch, but it’s unlikely that the team will make a return trip to the World Cup finals this time.

Player to watch: If the Netherlands is going to make it out of this group, it’ll need big-time goals out of forward Robin Van Persie. A highly technical and intelligent player, Van Persie has deadly finishing but is a bit off the boil after a somewhat lackluster season at Manchester United.


Chile (FIFA World Cup Ranking - 13)
World Cup titles - 0 
Previously qualified: 2010 (Round of 16)

This Chile team is darned good, but it’s in a tough group. It also didn’t help when midfielder Arturo Vidal had surgery recently to repair a bum knee. Vidal is one of Chile’s primary creators in midfield, and his presence will be sorely missed. He’s expected to be back in time for the tournament, but the concerns about his fitness will linger. Chile plays exciting, dynamic football, and it should give Spain and the Dutch real problems. It could well advance out of this group and deservedly so.

Players to watch: Alexis Sanchez is of the best young players in Europe, currently plying his trade at Barcelona. He’s already an established star for Chile, having scored 22 goals for his country at age 25. He can play up top as a striker or on the wing as an inside forward. Sanchez is Chile’s main offensive weapon, though he will assuredly miss the service from Vidal if Vidal is sidelined for any length of time.


Australia (FIFA World Cup Ranking - 59)
World Cup titles - 0
Previously qualified: 2010 (group stage)

Pity the poor Socceroos. They’re not a terrible side, but they had the misfortune to be drawn into this powerhouse of a group. With elimination a near certainty, the best the team can hope for now is the role of spoiler... and possibly kingmaker. If it can nick a point off one of the other three teams, it could have a huge impact on who actually ends up in the top two.

Player to watch: The Socceroos aren’t loaded with quality international talent — their best player, 34-year old vice-captain and current New York Red Bulls striker Tim Cahill, has 31 goals in 67 caps for Australia, but thrives on good service into his area, something that may be hard to come by.


FEARLESS PREDICTIONS: If Spain doesn’t advance out of the group, I’ll eat my 2006 Malaysian-made counterfeit La Roja jersey I purchased off of eBay for $10. However, I don’t think it’ll be a cake walk, either. The Dutch aren't pushovers, but in the end I’m betting on Chile to make some noise in this tournament... quite possibly beyond the Round of 16.   Dustin’s picks: Spain and Chile

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