World Cup 2014: Early Prediction for the Best XI Players in Brazil
Exactly one year from today, Brazil will kick the first ball of the 20th World Cup finals in front of 68,000 fans—and a global audience of billions—at the Arena Corinthians in São Paulo.
Most of the 31 berths have yet to be decided, but that doesn't mean we can't speculate about the players who will shine the brightest in South America.
Here's B/R's early prediction for the 11 players who will steal the show next summer...
GK: Manuel Neuer
Expecting the best goalkeeper in the world to do well at a World Cup may not seem like a big stretch, but it's hard to imagine anyone matching Manuel Neuer's performances in Brazil next summer.
German goalkeepers have a knack for stealing the show in showpiece World Cup matches. Remember the 2006 quarterfinal in which Jens Lehmann stole the show with his shootout heroics? The German secret is in the preparation; Lehmann famously had detailed notes about every penalty-taker stuffed in his sock.
LB: Jordi Alba
Based on his form this season and his home-field advantage, some might suggest Marcelo will be the standout left-back in Brazil, but this spot belongs to Jordi Alba.
One of Barcelona's best signings in recent years has enjoyed another excellent season, and after becoming first choice for La Roja in Euro 2012—in a defence that leaked a single goal—the 24-year-old will enjoy another successful tournament in 2014.
CB: Raphael Varane
Full disclosure: I'm a little bit obsessed with Raphael Varane. After watching his Messi-silencing displays against Barcelona in the Copa del Rey, I wrote a piece declaring him to be Real Madrid's standout player of the season. And I stick by this.
Varane is only 20 years old and, provided France qualify for the tournament, he will be instrumental in shutting down Les Bleus' opponents.
Even though they are the bookmakers' favorites, I believe there is nothing to suggest Brazil will win their sixth World Cup next summer.
Yet they will have home-field advantage and their noncohesive midfield will be buoyed by a defence that is solidified by Dante, the centre-back who has enjoyed a treble-winning season with Bayern Munich.
At 29 years old, this may be his last shot at World Cup glory, and he will make it count.
RB: Mattia De Sciglio
With money troubles, a depleted team and a half-empty stadium, most of us assumed Milan would have a dismal 2012-13 campaign. But they didn't, thanks in no small part to Mattia De Sciglio, who has worked his way through the Rossoneri ranks to earn a regular first-team place.
The 20-year-old broke into the Italian first team in March, and all signs suggest he will maintain his place and flourish in next summer's competition.
LM: Eden Hazard
To counter the European bias that is starting to overwhelm this XI, it's tempting to say that a player like Ezequiel Lavezzi will be the best left-sided midfielder next year. But I'm going to stick with Chelsea's precocious winger, Eden Hazard.
Along with Juan Mata and Jose Mourinho, he is the reason Chelsea will win the Premier League next season, and he is just one of the reasons Belgium will be a dark horse in Brazil.
CM: Miralem Pjanić
Bosnia and Herzegovina have never qualified for a major tournament, but they are currently undefeated at the top of UEFA Qualifying Group G, with their sights set firmly on Brazil.
The relatively new footballing nation has been helped in qualifying by three goals from attacking midfielder Miralem Pjanić.
Despite being just 23 years old, the Roma star has represented the national team at the highest level for five years and 40 appearances. He is their free-kick specialist, and he also has a penchant for Frank Lampard-style long-range golazos.
CM: Cheick Tioté
The Ivory Coast's "golden generation" may have seen its glory days, but according to the bookmakers, The Elephants will be African football's strongest representative at the 2014 tournament.
With Didier Drogba recently excluded from the national team, it's hard to tell exactly who will feature next summer, but midfield enforcer Chieck Tioté is a safe bet.
The 26-year-old's stock may have tumbled a little at Newcastle lately, but the opportunity to take on some of the best players in the world in his national livery will surely be enough to bring out the best in him once more.
RW: Jesus Navas
Jesus Navas enjoyed a "super sub" role during Spain's 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012 victories, but Manchester City's latest acquisition could play a bigger part in the Spanish midfield next summer.
The Seville native has been picked for the 23-man Confederations Cup squad, which may give us a good indication of his future role with La Roja.
It may be hard for a star like Navas to shine in a galaxy like the Spanish national team, but his role could become more pronounced as his profile rises in the Premiership.
F: Leo Messi
They say that Leo Messi will never be mentioned in the same conversation as a legend like Pele until he leads his national team to World Cup glory. There's a very good chance that 2014 will be the year when the Atomic Flea moves to the next level.
When a World Cup is held in the Americas, a South American team always wins. Considering Brazil's current form—and the talents of Angel Di Maria, Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Aguero and Ezequiel Lavezzi—it could be the Albiceleste who lift their third World Cup in their neighbor's backyard. Leading the charge will be Captain Messi.
F: Romelu Lukaku
Having scored 17 goals for West Brom last season, 20-year-old Romelu Lukaku is starting to hit his stride as a world-class striker.
The Chelsea forward will be partnered with fellow Premier League talisman Christian Benteke next summer, so defenders will certainly have their hands full when they face Belgium.
The Belgians are going to have a great tournament, and the man dubbed "the new Drogba" will be their top scorer.