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World Cup 2014: The 11 Favorites to Lift the Trophy in Brazil

Frank WagnerCorrespondent IMarch 1, 2012

World Cup 2014: The 11 Favorites to Lift the Trophy in Brazil

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    As we approach the midpoint between the 2010 and 2014 World Cups, it's time to take a look to the future.

    Sure, it's a bit early on to predict the starting XI's come 2014, but it's never too early to start prognosticating as to who has a chance.

    This list takes the 133 national teams who still have a shot at playing in the finals, cuts them down to 11, and ranks them on the likelihood that they will be hoisting the cup in Rio.

    Note that I attempted to include every confederation in this list.

    Sorry, New Zealand.

11. Japan

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    Japan is the only Asian representative on this list.

    The Samurai Blues made a nice impression in the 2010 World Cup, scoring some beautiful free-kick goals, advancing from their group and giving Paraguay all they could handle in a loss on penalties in the round of 16.

    Keisuke Honda was a revelation in the tournament, scoring twice (and a third time in the shootout).

    Japan has since already won the 2011 AFC Asian Cup.

    With the other Asian teams on a bit of a decline (what with South Korea losing Park Ji Sung), Japan's path to the finals is even easier this time.

     

    Player to Watch: Shinji Kagawa

    The 22-year-old midfielder for Borussia Dortmund is definitely someone to watch over the next few years.

    Kagawa is a fantastic young talent who led Dortmund to the Bundesliga title in 2010-11 and has been highly sought after by bigger clubs.

    Kagawa just missed a trip to South Africa in 2010 when he was left off the 23-man roster.

    This time around, he has the ability to be a difference maker for Japan.

10. Mexico

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    Mexico are the only representatives of CONCACAF on this list.

    El Tri had a good showing in the 2010 World Cup, advancing out of the group stage past the hosts and playing a tough 3-1 loss to Argentina that featured an opener by Tevez that should have been ruled offside.

    Since then, Mexico cruised to victory at the 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup, coming back from 2-0 down in the final to defeat U.S.A., 4-2.

     

    Player to Watch: Giovani dos Santos

    Giovani, the 22-year-old striker, could be a fantastic player for Mexico, as evidenced by his performance in the Gold Cup final.

    However, he has struggled to find consistent form because his club, Tottenham, has seemingly refused to play him.

    For dos Santos to reach his full potential and pose as much of a threat as he should for Mexico in 2014, either Tottenham needs to start playing him or he needs to look for a transfer.

9. Ivory Coast

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    The Ivory Coast is the only representative from CAF on this list.

    Les Elephants have been threatening large tournaments for a few years now with the loads talent that have been honing their craft in the Premier League.

    However, they have fallen short in tournaments, including two World Cup group stage exits (albeit in "Groups of Death") and, most recently, a loss in the final of the African Cup of Nations.

    2014 will likely be the last hurrah for some of their best players, so they should be pushing hard for a big run at the tournament.

     

    Player to Watch: Didier Drogba

    He's not getting any younger, so it is questionable whether or not he will be able to keep up his form from years past.

    However, it cannot be understated how Drogba is the heart and soul of the Ivory Coast, so it is very important to the club that he be in good enough form to include.

    Drogba has already started to lose favor at Chelsea. One goal from Torres (which seems harder than it sounds) could knock him out of the squad completely.

    If that were to happen, Drogba would then probably have to change clubs in order to keep his form, thus his World Cup hopes, alive.

8. England

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    England is at a crossroads right now.

    Because of all of the drama surrounding their manager and captain, England has little chance to win the Euros this summer.

    However, I think that if they were to stabilize the situation soon (an if, I know), a deep run at the World Cup is not beyond them.

    Wayne Rooney has been consistently sparkling since his disappointing form at the 2010 World Cup, and their young talent (Phil Jones, Kyle Walker, Tom Cleverley, Danny Welbeck, Daniel Sturridge) will all have more experience under their belts.

    This mix of experienced veterans and semi-experienced young talent always translates well into the World Cup.

     

    Player to Watch: Daniel Sturridge

    The Chelsea striker wows with his pace and ability right now.

    However, his decision making and pure finishing have been somewhat lacking.

    At only 22 years old, though, he could find a way to quickly improve those two aspects of his game.

    If he were to do that, England could have a partner for Rooney and a legitimate goal-scoring threat.

7. Netherlands

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    The Netherlands have a great amount of talent.

    Sneijder, van Persie, Robben, van der Vaart and Kuyt speak for themselves.

    However, many of these players often struggle for form due to injuries and slumps.

    In 2010, they were all at top form and played amazing football in reaching the final.

    However, the likelihood of them repeating this and having all of their top forms coincide is very unlikely.

    On the bright side, they have an embarrassment of riches at goalkeeper, with Maarten Stekelenburg backed up by Tim Krul and Michel Vorm.

     

    Players to Watch: Wesley Sneijder and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar

    Sneijder was arguably the best player in the world in 2010 in leading Inter to the Champions League title and Netherlands to the World Cup final.

    However, he has struggled for form since, and has reached a low point this season.

    Huntelaar, on the other hand, has suddenly hit the best form of his career at Schalke, scoring goal after goal after goal.

    His performance at Wembley yesterday was fantastic.

    Getting these two at top form at the same time could be enough to make the Dutch champions.

6. Argentina

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    It is tough putting Argentina so low.

    I mean, their striking talent is unmatched: just thinking about facing Messi, Tevez and Aguero at the same time surely makes defenders queasy.

    However, the problem with Argentina is two-fold, in defense and in tactics.

    The defense has been porous, evidenced by their 4-0 loss to Germany in 2010.

    Additionally, no manager has been able to find a good set of tactics for using their incredible strike force to the best of their ability, as evidenced by their performances in the 2011 Copa America.

    If they could figure those two things out, they would jump to the top of this list. However, these are huge ifs.

     

    Player to Watch: Lionel Messi

    Messi has been proclaimed the greatest player in the world, and possibly ever, several times in the past few years.

    However, he has yet to translate his great form for Barcelona to the national stage.

    Can he be the difference maker for Argentina?  No doubt.

    Will he be?  Well, we'll just have to see.

5. Portugal

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    In their 2010 World Cup run, Portugal displayed an incredible defensive prowess in letting up only one goal in the entire tournament.

    That goal was by David Villa and proved to be the winning goal in Portugal's round of 16 match with eventual champions Spain (although video shows Villa was offside).

    However, what Portugal did not display was the attacking prowess that their lineup boasts.

    This time around, with Cristiano Ronaldo, Fabio Contreao, Nani and some young striking talent, it is highly unlikely that Portugal will employ the same negative tactics that they did in South Africa.

    If they do come forward a bit more, Portugal can be a huge threat at the World Cup. Goals will not be hard to come by in that incredible strike force and with defensive enforcers such as Pepe, they will probably not lose much in their defensive prowess.

     

    Player to Watch: Nelson Oliveira

    The 20-year-old Benfica striker impressed immensely at the U-20 World Cup, leading Portugal to be runners-up and scoring a goal that almost won it in the final.

    He won his first cap for the senior side yesterday.

    If he continues to improve at this rate, he and Ronaldo could form a deadly combo in Brazil.

4. Uruguay

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    Uruguay has impressed immensely in the past few years.

    Their 2010 semi-final run was impressive, especially given their 3-2 loss to a Dutch side at the top of their game.

    Their Copa America title in 2011, though, was even better.

    Luis Suarez and Diego Forlan have been fantastic, and Fernando Muslera has probably been the best keeper in the world on the international level.

    On paper, their defense is not the best, but they have played adequately in tournaments.

    If Uruguay can ride the momentum of past tournaments, they could soon find themselves hoisting the World Cup in their home continent.

     

    Player to Watch: Edinson Cavani

    Cavani is still somewhat young at 25, but he has already proven himself to be a big-game player.

    His form this season for Napoli has been amazing, especially in the Champions League.

    Diego Forlan's form has been more up and down, and with him reaching a more advanced age, Uruguay could need Cavani to step up and be Suarez's new striking partner.

    If he can keep his form of this season, he will be a more than adequate replacement.

    If Forlan finds his form again, then Uruguay will have three great options at striker.

3. Germany

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    Over the past few years, Germany has established themselves as a well-oiled footballing machine that is certainly the biggest threat to Spain in European football.

    Their open play and counter-attacking goal-scoring ability matches perfectly with their strong defense.

    Manuel Neuer has quickly established himself as one of, if not the best, goalkeeper in the world through his performances with Germany and Bayern Munich.

    Miroslav Klose may not have much time left in his amazing career, but with Lukas Podolski, Mario Gomez and Thomas Muller all having many years ahead of them, Germany's strike-force is well equipped to handle his loss.

    The one problem is that Germany's counter-attacking tactics can sometimes backfire in big matches, as evidenced by their 1-0 losses to Spain in the 2010 World Cup semifinals and Euro 2008 finals.

    Their performance at Euro 2012 will be a great indicator of whether or not they will be ready to take the World Cup in 2014.


    Players to Watch: Mario Gotze and Mesut Ozil

    Both are fantastic young talents with huge potential.

    As each play attacking midfield roles, it is possible that only one will be able to play.

    Gotze's form has been incredible for Borussia Dortmund while Ozil's has flagged with Real Madrid.

    Together, they could form an incredible midfield partnership. If not, they will create an interesting decision for Jogi Loew.

2. Spain

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    Spain will be the defending World Cup champions in 2014.

    So why are they at No. 2?

    Well, the problem I see is that their fantastic squad from 2010 will be a bit long in the tooth come time for Brazil.

    By the time the World Cup rolls around, Carles Puyol will be 36, Andres Iniesta will be 30, Xavi will be 34, Xabi Alonso will be 32 and David Villa will be 32.

    Now, of course Spain has incredible young talent that can take these players' roles on paper, but it will just be a different team.

    However, with Casillas still in goal, even if those older players are forced into a more peripheral role, you have to love Spain's chances to become the third team ever, and the first since Brazil in 1962, to lift the World Cup trophy in consecutive tournaments.

     

    Player to Watch: David Villa

    Villa was key to Spain finally figuring out how to win a World Cup.

    His five goals, including the winners and only goals against Portugal and Paraguay in the round of 16 and quarterfinals, respectively, were tied for the most in the tournament.

    However, after sustaining a broken tibia while playing for Barcelona in the Club World Cup, his participation at Euro 2012 is in doubt.

    In fact, at his age and sustaining the leg injury he did, it is questionable as to whether he will be able to get back to the form he had from 2009 through 2011.

    The loss of Villa would be a huge blow for Spain, especially given Fernando Torres' struggles being as they have been for the past year or so.

    His form upon return from injury will certainly be a storyline to follow ahead of 2014.

1. Brazil

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    Brazil, the five-time World Cup champions, are playing in their own backyard.

    This may make it sound like a cinch, but the only other time the World Cup was in Brazil (1950), the hosts finished as runners-up (there was no final match, however).

    What does make Brazil the most likely to walk away with the title, however, is their young talent.

    The Brazilian U-20 team won the World Cup in 2011. Hence, these youths may be looking to make runs at a World Cup spot in 2014.

    Already, Brazil has incredible depth at almost every position, with keeper Julio Cesar seemingly the only shoo-in to the squad.

    In defense, two players are possible at almost every position, with Dani Alves or Maicon at right-back, Marcelo or Andre Santos at left-back, and Thiago Silva, David Luiz, Luisao, or Lucio all at centre-back.

    The midfield is so stacked that Kaka has had trouble finding a spot.

    And young strikers Neymar and Leandro Damiao are giving Hulk, Alexandre Pato and Robinho trouble finding a spot.

    And I still haven't even mentioned those U-20 players.

    There could very well be a huge party in Rio come July, 2014.

     

    Players to Watch: Neymar and Leandro Damiao

    The two young strikers are already making strong pushes for the squad.

    They each have incredible potential (at 20 and 22 years of age, respectively).

    If they were to even reach part of these potential abilities come 2014, they could easily make Brazil unbeatable.

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