Group A: Brazil’s Neymar In The Spotlight
BRAZI: The Confederations Cup victory placed the hosts as favourites for the real deal in 2014. Scolari will attempt to become the second coach to win two World Cups. Only Vittorio Pozzo, with Italy in 1934 and 1938, managed that feat. There is little point in looking beyond Neymar as the expected star, though he has a fine supporting cast. One weakness may be the lack of a striker in the finest traditions of Careca or Ronaldo, but expect Brazil to breeze through this group. Beyond that, they must win a sixth title on home soil. Or else.
CROATIA: They needed a playoff to get to Brazil and were the bad guys in holding off the romantics? choice of Iceland. For such a young nation, they are experienced campaigners in this competition, though only the fervent patriot would suggest they have the strength to match the third place they reached in 1998. The absence of star Mario Mandzukic with a probable two-game suspension may prove costly, but they still have the skills of midfielder Luka Modric to call on. Former captain Niko Kovac replaced Igor Stimac but is perhaps the least-experienced coach in the tournament.
MEXICO: Just like last time, they are drawn in the same group as the host. Brazil clearly represent a far greater challenge than South Africa did. Mexico almost missed out on their habitual place in the finals during a ruinous qualifying campaign and had to rely on a playoff with New Zealand to make it. Mexican football looked on the rise when they won the Olympic final at Wembley in 2012, beating a Brazil team made up of many of the expected squad for the finals. Getting past the last 16 is, as ever, their goal.
CAMEROUN: The Indomitable Lions no longer live up to their name. And in their seventh World Cup, they are no longer the wild cards they were in 1990, when they announced Africa?s challenge on the world stage. They will need to improve on their hugely disappointing performance in South Africa, where they were the first team to exit. The star remains Samuel Eto?o, back after a very public fallout with the Cameroon authorities that was resolved only when the government stepped in. Eto?o is not the player he was, and neither are Cameroon as enticing a prospect.
Group B: Spain Face Tough Title Defence
SPAIN: They already have breached new horizons by winning three championships in a row. To win in Brazil would take them beyond immortality. They would have to become the first European team to win in the Americas, and the first team to retain the title since Brazil in 1962. One thing in their favour is that they cannot meet the host until the final if they win the group as expected. Brazil humiliated them in the final of the Confederations Cup.
NETHERLANDS: The previous time the World Cup was held in South America, they lost in the final. They return with a similar status, and have something to prove after their behaviour in 2010?s final besmirched what had previously been a fine tournament. Coach Louis van Gaal has at least made up for the embarrassment of failing to make it to 2002?s final, but in his second spell, he is working with a squad that is undergoing a regeneration. Euro 2012 was an utter disaster.
CHILE: In 2010, they were a delight to watch, and continue to be so. Coach Jorge Sampaoli has revived the practices of Argentine compatriot Marcelo Bielsa, and his team are a danger to anyone, as England found out last month at Wembley. Barcelona star Alexis Sanchez is the key man, just as he was four years ago, and he is finding form at his club after two seasons of doubt. Premier League followers will recognise Gary Medel, Cardiff City?s dastardly anchorman. Three wins from four secured their place in the final 32 after Sampaoli replaced the more defensive Claudio Borghi.
Australia: Being in the final 32 is becoming a happy habit after those years in the wilderness from 1974 to 2006. They enter their third straight World Cup with a third different coach and after some upheaval. Unlike the previous two times, the coach will not be a Dutchman, or a German, after Holger Osieck was removed following consecutive friendly defeats to Brazil and France. In came Ange Postecoglou, who is the first A-League boss to get the national job, and the first Australian to manage them in the World Cup.
Group C: Colombia In Tricky Group
COLOMBIA: A hugely formidable side that combines physicality with awesome forward power, most conspicuously in the rampaging Radamel Falcao. Most eyes will be on him, but that in itself creates other avenues for the Colombian attack. If opposition sides can weather that, however, Jose Pekerman?s side does have flaws that ensures they were just seeds but not quite favourites. Issues at centre-back remain.
GREECE: Fernando Santos?s team remain as resilient and resolute as ever, but have added one quality they have lacked since 2004: a prolific forward. Konstantinos Mitroglou has been in free-scoring form for both Olympiakos and through qualifying. It ensures that teams who have generally dominated play against the Greeks now have to be a little more cautious not to leave an abundance of space behind.
IVORY COAST: They may have moved on from the perceived golden generation of 2006 and lost some of that squad?s stars, but they have at least ? and at last ? also lost their capacity to be drawn in the Group of Death. This is a much more inviting pool for the Ivorians than either 2006 or 2010. With a player like Toure at the absolute peak of his career, and Didier Drogba still so dangerous, they should finally feel confident of the end of an unfortunate run.
JAPAN: At first glance, they are not one of the two sides you would expect to get through this pool, but a deeper look also reveals some real substance to their squad. In the respected Alberto Zaccheroni, they have a manager well capable of tactical flexibility and who also has already won an Asian Cup. In the likes of Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda, they have a fine technical team.
Group D: Brutal Draw For England
URUGUAY: The feeling is that they?re not quite the side that enjoyed such a successful run over 2010 and 2011, but one still well capable of forging a route to the semifinals, as they did in South Africa in 2010. An attack featuring Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani certainly indicates that. The question will be over how they?re backed up by the rest of the team, given that the Confederations Cup revealed some issues, not to mention how they navigate a tough group. A status as seeds did not do too many favours.
COSTA RICA: They qualified rather easily, and largely because their back line is rock-hard. A run of 476 minutes without conceding a goal helped them claim the best defensive record in CONCACAF. Their main weakness is at the other end, where they lack much flair or forward capacity beyond Bryan Ruiz, who was their top scorer in 10 games of qualification with just three goals.
ENGLAND: An awkward side but quite far from an excellent one. Hodgson has constructed a framework that has made England hard to beat, but also ensured they often find actually claiming victory rather difficult. That could be a particular issue in what would be considered the most winnable game, against Costa Rica. Yes, they have two or three players who are world-class level, such as Wayne Rooney and Jack Wilshere, not to mention some valuable different options up front, but there is a reticence to their play. They?ll need to develop something more rousing here.
ITALY: The 2006 champions may not have the youth structures of countries such as Spain and Germany, or the fundamental star quality of Argentina or Brazil, but they do retain this supreme coaching school that has produced a manager of the caliber of Prandelli. The manner in which he overcame some of Italy?s squad imbalances to reach the final of Euro 2012 was an illustration, and means that they remain a very dangerous side, if no longer one of the domineering favourites.
Group E: France Get Lucky
TEAM BY TEAM
SWITZERLAND: It is hard to believe that in Ottmar Hitzfeld?s first competitive game as Switzerland boss, the Nati suffered a humiliating loss to Luxembourg in qualifying for World Cup 2010. Switzerland have huge strength in the goalkeeping department with Diego Benaglio and Yann Sommer, and some of the world?s brightest midfield players in captain Gokhan Inler, Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri.
ECUADOR: Reinaldo Rueda?s side have had a rough year, struggling for form and mourning the tragic death of striker Chucho Benitez. Their greatest strength ? much as with the Swiss ? lies in midfield, with Manchester United?s Luis Antonio Valencia and Dynamo Moscow?s Christian Noboa adding quality and penetration. Felipe Caicedo and Jefferson Montero are dangerous up front, although neither has really built on the early promise shown in European club football.
FRANCE: Having scraped into the draw for Brazil by the skin of their teeth, France have the quality to go deep in this competition, with members of the long-feted 1987 generation such as Karim Benzema and Samir Nasri expected to step up. There are doubts over whether Didier Deschamps really knows what his best team is, and their defending can be occasionally shambolic, so expect captain Hugo Lloris to see a bit of action between the posts, too.
HONDURAS: They will not be fancied but are used to holding their own in competitive fixtures against Mexico, the U.S. and Costa Rica, so they are no pushovers. There is creativity and industry in Wilson Palacios and Roger Espinoza, while Maynor Figueroa is well-known as a doughty competitor. The reliable Carlo Costly and New England Revolution?s Jerry Bengtson will be required to chip in with some goals.
Group F: Favorable Draw For Messi
ARGENTINA: Undoubtedly one of the favourites to win the entire tournament, the Lionel Messi factor is enough to put an almighty fear into most opponents in a tournament that the Barcelona man hopes will help define his incredible career. Yet to focus solely on him would be foolish. Argentina have probably the greatest attacking arsenal on the planet, with Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Aguero and Ezequiel Lavezzi among those in tow, with Javier Mascherano and Angel Di Maria among the midfield talents. There are defensive doubts, though, with no obvious choice at left-back ? Sporting Lisbon defender Marcos Rojo is the current favourite.
BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA: Susic?s squad may not have Argentina?s illustrious personnel, but Bosnia-Herzegovina aren?t slouches in the attacking department, with Edin Dzeko and Vedad Ibisevic capable of scoring goals against anyone, and cultured players like Miralem Pjanic of Roma and Hoffenheim?s Sejad Salihovic in midfield. Bosnia-Herzegovina don?t have too much depth in defence, so goalkeeper Asmir Begovic might be busy in a tournament that could act as a springboard to his joining one of Europe?s biggest clubs.
IRAN: Many will look at Queiroz?s mainly home-based squad and expect an easy ride for the other three teams in the group, but if Iran finish bottom of this group, it will not be for their own lack of quality. Led by experienced midfielder Javad Nekounam ? a popular figure at Osasuna after his spell in La Liga ? Iran have a good mix of youth and experience, and some cutting edge in the final third. Ashkan Dejagah of Fulham provides pace on the flank, and Standard Liege striker Reza Ghoochannejhad could be one of the surprise hits of the tournament.
NIGERIA: Stephen Keshi?s side have strength wherever you look, beginning with formidable goalkeeper and captain Vincent Enyeama, who has been outstanding for Lille in France this season. He also takes penalties ? and has 18 career goals ? which could be interesting in a shootout come the knockout rounds. Anchored by John Obi Mikel in midfield, there are also numerous goal scorers available to Keshi, including Emmanuel Emenike of Fenerbahce and Brown Ideye of Dynamo Kiev ? plus Newcastle United?s Shola Ameobi, who has recently joined the Nigeria squad.
Group G: USA Draw Group Of Death
GERMANY: They should have enough to top the group. A goal from Mesut Ozil helped them overcome Ghana in the 2010 group stage and one from Mario Gomez saw off Portugal at Euro 2012. Portugal finished as runners-up to Brazil in the 2010 group stage. That experience, you feel, will stand both the Germans and Portuguese in good stead. The U.S. seem more likely than Ghana to make things difficult.
PORTUGAL: They have made a habit of making life difficult on themselves in qualifying ? often reaching major tournaments through playoffs ? and there?s a tendency to wonder where they?d be without Cristiano Ronaldo. Though dependent on him, they?re more than a one-man team and tend to perform better than expectation once they qualify. A robust back line and a skillful Joao Moutinho-orchestrated midfield, plus pace and trickery on the wings ? with the favourite for the 2013 Ballon d?Or on one of them or up front ? mean encounters with Portugal can get uncomfortable.
GHANA: The Ghanaian FA has set coach Kwesi Appiah a target of reaching the semifinals, but that seems unrealistic. No African nation has ever reached the last four of a World Cup, and while Ghana deserved to get that far in South Africa four years ago ? remember the Luis Suarez handball, the subsequent penalty miss and shootout despair ? it?s unlikely they?ll go as far. Their midfield ? comprising the unretired Kevin-Prince Boateng, Kwadwo Asamoah, Sulley Muntari and Michael Essien ? is a powerful one, and their attack has pace and skill in the Ayew brothers, Christian Atsu and Asamoah Gyan. However, one fears the back line won?t hold up to much scrutiny.
UNITED STATES: They have come a long way since the last World Cup in Brazil in 1950, when they finished bottom of their group but famously shocked England 1-0. Qualifiers for every tournament from 1990 onward, they are an established World Cup nation now. Under Jurgen Klinsmann, their play has become more expansive; there?s greater depth, and mentally they seem prepared. Question marks remain, though: Has Klinsmann really transformed them? And how much can really be expected of a team that lost to Jamaica, Costa Rica and Honduras in recent memory, not to mention a near defeat to Panama?
Group H: Belgium Can Go Far
BELGIUM: Like Colombia, they are a team blessed with a golden generation, but Belgium?s feels more complete. They have a top goalkeeper in Thibaut Courtois; excellent centre-backs in Jan Vertonghen and Vincent Kompany; a dynamic midfield featuring Marouane Fellaini, Axel Witsel and Mousa Dembele; pace and invention wide and between the lines in Eden Hazard, Dries Mertens and Kevin Mirallas; then Romelu Lukaku and Christian Benteke up front. There?s depth too. Qualifying was a breeze and there?s a lot of hype. You just question whether to believe it. On paper, there?s no reason they can?t make the last four as they did in 1986.
ALGERIA: The future looks relatively bright. Granted, they don?t have a Rabah Madjer, but Nabil Ghilas, who has followed in his footsteps by joining Porto, was a powerhouse of a goal scorer in Portugal last season and poses a threat. Ishak Belfodil is the proverbial big man with a good touch, who broke through at Parma last season and won a move to Inter, where he?s joined by his former Bologna teammate, midfielder Saphir Taider. Algeria are known for pulling off World Cup shocks. Remember they stunned eventual finalists West Germany in 1982, narrowly fell to Brazil in 1986 and held England in 2010.
RUSSIA: After the disappointment he had with England in South Africa, a sensation Fabio Capello has not felt too often over a successful career, will things be better with Russia in Brazil? He?s been impressive enough for there to be a new four-year contract on the table. How so? Well, by making Russia hard to break down. Their defence has been a weakness in the past, but only conceded five goals in qualifying and is now a strength. Roman Shirokov, Igor Denisov and Viktor Fayzulin form a balanced midfield, while their attack is movement-based and can be a handful. Were they to have the Andrey Arshavin of Euro 2008, who inspired them to the semifinals, perhaps there?d be more confidence around them.
SOUTH KOREA: Two knockout appearances in the past three World Cups suggest we should expect South Korea to get out of their groups. Capable of playing neat and tidy football, there are some fine technicians in the middle of the park, notably Cardiff City?s Kim Bo-Kyung and Sunderland?s Ki Sung-Yueng, who can even play as a ball-playing centre-back as he did for Swansea in last season?s League Cup final. The most talented of them all, however, is undoubtedly Son Heung-Min, Bayer Leverkusen?s record transfer, a forward that rivals Japan, bereft of a goal scorer, would surely love to have in their own ranks.