World Cup 2014: Intriguing Group Stage Scenarios

Ed Dove@EddydoveContributor IIINovember 30, 2013

World Cup 2014: Intriguing Group Stage Scenarios

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    The eight World Cup groups will be revealed Friday, Dec. 6. The live draw will be broadcast worldwide as fans in the 32 competing nations learn of their opponents for next summer’s showpiece.

    Beyond the hope and despair that will greet the outcome, the arrangement of the teams into groups will likely throw up several fascinating matchups and numerous intriguing subplots.

    These may come in the form of long-awaited rematches, big-name ties between international giants or the reunion of old team-mates who still guard lingering, smouldering resentment.

    The nature of the seedings means that at least one Group of Death is on the cards, but will any teams benefit from being placed in a Group of Life?

    This editorial presents some intriguing World Cup draws that could potentially become reality. While every competing team has been featured in this article, the outcomes are mutually exclusive—not all of these alternative suggestions can come to pass!

    Comment down below and let us know what you think of these World Cup scenarios. Also, have a go at the ESPN World Cup draw simulator and reveal how you hope to see things work out.

Brazil and Italy: Beginning with a Bang

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    On June 12, the World Cup will kick off in Sao Paulo, Brazil, as the hosts take to the field.

    The occasion will be a euphoric event that unites a nation, if not a watching world. However, what could make this day all the more special?

    Imagine, if you will, that when those groups are drawn, Brazil are joined in Group A by European giants Italy. It would certainly be the kind of clash that could magnify the spectacle of that opening day.

    The pair are the world’s most successful national sides, the undisputed kings of world soccer. Brazil have won five championships, while Italy have four to their name.

    The duo have clashed numerous times at the World Cup, including in 1982 when they contested a match considered by many to be the greatest in the competition’s history, and the final in 1970.

    What better way to kick off Brazil 2014 than with another classic between these two behemoths of the international scene?

Underachievers Ready to Ignite

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    With France dropping into the third pot, there exists the potential for a very tricky group—a Group of Death if you will.

    I think the most intriguing scenario would be to see Argentina, France, Portugal and Mexico meet in the first round. Certainly, it would be a shame to see two of these three fall at the first hurdle, but it would make for a terrific selection of opening bouts…and provide enormous potential for public meltdown.

    All four sides have established themselves as major underachievers in recent times.

    The Argentina side that travelled to the 2002 World Cup, for example, was laced with stars but spluttered and fell at the first hurdle.

    Since winning their first world title in 1998, it has either been feast or famine for the French. Their run to the final in 2006 was sandwiched between two exceptionally poor displays and two group-stage eliminations.

    As for Mexico, they have persistently failed to realise their potential on the world stage and only qualified for this tournament following an intercontinental play-off victory over New Zealand. Their recent malaise must surely be the nadir of an incredibly disappointing 18 months.

    If these four sides were drawn together, audiences would be guaranteed six heavyweight clashes, moments of genuine drama and the likely combustion of two big-name teams.

    An intriguing subplot, perhaps the most fascinating narrative of the whole tournament, would be the meeting of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in the international arena. A day for cameras, certainly, but also the chance to witness an intensely personal battle, played out in a different context, before the entire globe.

Jurgen's Compatriots

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    One of the most intriguing subplots of the 2014 World Cup will be the progress of the USA on the global stage, under the tutelage of Jurgen Klinsmann.

    The former international enjoyed a fine tournament as Germany manager in 2006, but his reputation hasn’t always been gleaming in the intervening eight years.

    He will, however, head to Brazil with momentum behind him. The side have won recent matches against Mexico and Italy, while their Gold Cup triumph seemed to help Klinsmann settle into the role.

    One bone of contention during the German’s reign with the USMNT has been his proclivity for using German-based talent at the expense of domestic-based players. Jermaine Jones, despite his disciplinary problems, has been Klinsmann’s key man in the heart of the midfield. The likes of Tim Chandler, Danny Williams and Fabian Johnson have all been drafted in, with mixed results.

    I would be intrigued to see Germany and the United States pooled together this summer. It would be fascinating to witness Klinsmann—a player so synonymous with Germany’s World Cup triumph in 1990go head-to-head with his countrymen.

    The match would be a fine gauge of his progress and may, should the result be favourable to Americans, afford the national side a modicum of revenge following their quarter-final elimination at German hands in 2002.

    There would be many fascinating subplots to this one!

New World Order

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    Belgium, along with Colombia, have been tipped by many to be the World Cup’s dark horses.

    The Red Devils don’t necessarily have a superb international pedigree, but with the exceptional generation of talent Marc Wilmots has to call upon, they have to be taken seriously.

    Could this finally be the year when a nation with minimal experience in the business end of the tournament finally lifts the globe’s greatest prize?

    If Belgium are to travel deep into the competition, it would be advantageous for them to get off to a good start. Being drawn with Costa Rica and Ecuador, two of the weaker sides in their respective pools, would surely guarantee progression.

    I have included Holland in this group for several reasons.

    The Dutch, despite never having won the World Cup, remain one of international football’s biggest names. However, defensive frailties often undermine their exceptional attacking talent, and the likes of Christian Benteke and Romelu Lukaku may fancy their chances against Ron Vlaar and Stefan de Vrij.

    Victory over Holland would not only be a celebrated triumph over antagonistic neighbours, it could well be the kind of euphoric win that provides Belgium with the impetus to do something special in the latter stages of the tournament.

Friends Reunited

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    The Three Lions, like Italy and Holland, will be hoping for perceived weak seeds, Switzerland. However, in the past, England fans have received soft first group stage draws, only to struggle for intensity and momentum as the competition has worn on.

    In 2010, Fabio Capello’s men only managed five points and two goals from a pool containing Slovenia, Algeria and the United States—the infamous E.A.S.Y. group—only to crumble when the going got tough against Germany in the last 16.

    Four years earlier, morale was undermined as Sven-Goran Eriksson’s troops made hard work of battles with Paraguay and tournament minnows Trinidad and Tobago. They only truly recovered against Portugal, when the pressure almost spurred the side onto the semi-finals.

    Perhaps this year, England ought to be hoping for a group that stretches them to the limits, in order to begin the tournament at pace. And this is where Germany fit in.

    The Nationalmannschaft would surely welcome England as first-round opponents, not least considering the Germans’ second-string triumph over the Three Lions at Wembley, as well as their dissection of their old enemies at the last World Cup.

    Defeating the English in the opening round would prove to the world that Germany mean business—it could well propel them on their way to their first World Cup triumph for 24 years.

The Group of Life

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    The nature of the seeding system put in place ahead of this draw makes a "Group of Death" or two a distinct possibility. However, it also opens the door for a "Group of Life"—a pool where every team involved has a decent chance of progressing.

    I envisage the most interesting combination, in this regard, being Colombia, Bosnia, Nigeria and Japan.

    The South Americans, under the tutelage of Jose Pekerman, have returned to the top table for the first time in 16 years and, if circumstances are right, they have the talent to make a big splash.

    The Radamel Falcao/James Rodriguez connection could well hit the ground running among this collection of teams, and a good start might give the Colombians the momentum to make a major impact on the tournament.

    Bosnia may be tournament debutants, but you would be foolish to assume they will amble to Brazil naively, primed to be whipping boys. If they were to find themselves in a friendly group, the talented bunch of Edin Dzeko, Miralem Pjanic, Asmir Begovic, et al could well surprise a few.

    Eastern Europe has provided a few shocks in World Cups past, and Bosnia may well be in line to continue this proud lineage. Nigeria, however, would also be encouraged to find themselves in such a pool.

    Stephen Keshi is building an exciting team in West Africa, and the continent’s reigning champions will travel to Brazil fearing nobody. Their recent tournament experience, as well as the momentum gained over a terrific 2013, could make them potential group winners from such a Group of Life.

    Finally, I include Japan. They, like Nigeria, are continental champions and would provide a stern test for anybody who should cross their path.

    Finding themselves in Pot 4 ahead of the draw, Japan, despite their immense talent, will have their work cut out to escape the group stage. However, if they were to find themselves in such a clement pool, then the stage would be set for the Asian champions to impress.

    Whoever were to advance, such a Group of Life would guarantee that two talented dark horses advanced into the knockout rounds and would also ensure an exciting, open collection of matches where all teams sought the initiative.

Remembering Soccer City

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    Excluding the very best teams in the world, those that meet each other fairly regularly in the intense environment of a tournament’s latter stages, it is rare that two nations from different continents can forge such a fierce rivalry.

    However, Luis Suarez’s split-second decision to raise a hand in Soccer City has resulted in Ghana and Uruguay being the bitterest of foes.

    The Liverpool man’s actions prevented the Black Stars from scoring the goal that would make them Africa’s first-ever World Cup semi-finalists. Asamoah Gyan missed the resulting penalty, and the rest is history.

    The contest will be remembered as one of the most dramatic battles in a World Cup quarter-final. Uruguay’s progression to the semis will be remembered as one of the tournament’s greatest injustices.

    Uruguay are seeds this year, while Ghana are in Pot 3. There is no reason why they couldn’t be drawn together in the opening round.

    Such a clash would definitely have an edge, as many of the players present in 2010 are still around—including Suarez, "The Most-Hated Person in Ghana" according to the Daily Mail. It would doubtless be a match with much more than mere points on the line.

Instant Karma, and the Golden Generation’s Last Hurrah

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    As an aficionado of the African game, I have often marvelled at the extent to which the Golden Generation of the Ivory Coast have failed—so dramatically—to deliver on their undoubted potential.

    In fairness, they have been uncomfortably unfortunate with two devilishly difficult World Cup draws. In 2006, they were pooled with Holland, Argentina and Serbia. Four years ago, they found themselves up against Portugal and Brazil.

    Karma dictates that the Cote d’Ivoire are due some luck in the draw this time around. If they were to be drawn alongside Switzerland, Honduras and Russia, this eclectic mix would suit all parties.

    The Swiss would be delighted to have avoided one of the bigger European sides in pool two, while Honduras would fancy their chances of picking up a first-ever World Cup win.

    This outcome would also suit Russia who, after besting Portugal to qualify automatically from UEFA Group F, would not fear Switzerland, the selection’s nominal seeds.

    Most of all, however, it would favour the Elephants.

    Such a selection would afford Didier Drogba, Gervinho, Yaya Toure and Co. ample opportunity to finally escape the group stage.

    With momentum behind them, and perhaps liberated by playing in a tournament where they are not the favourites, the Ivorians might be able to conjure something special.

Summoning Daejeon

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    The Korean Peninsula has a fine World Cup relationship with Italy. Arguably Asia’s two greatest World Cup moments were against Italian sides.

    In 1966, North Korea achieved one of the greatest upsets in World Cup history by besting an Italian side containing Giacinto Facchetti, Gianni Rivera and Sandro Mazzola 1-0 at Ayresome Park.

    Thirty-six years later, when South Korea co-hosted the tournament with Japan, Italy were again the victims of another giant killing.

    In the second-round bout with the hosts, an Italian side featuring Francesco Totti, Paolo Maldini and Christian Vieri was defeated, in extra time, by an Ahn Jung-Hwan goal. Guus Hiddink’s side went on to overcome Spain in the quarter-final, but it was perhaps the dramatic victory over the Italians that left the lasting legacy.

    The current crop of Koreans lacks the personality and the talent of the 2002 generation, but perhaps if they find themselves drawn with the Italians, those most unlikely of World Cup foes, then an unlikely trilogy of upsets might be completed in Brazil.

Hope for the Holders

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    Spain will head to next summer’s event as one of the favourites.

    It’s not hard to see why; La Roja are the current holders and, after winning Euro 2012, became the first side to win two European Championships and a World Cup consecutively.

    However, despite these successes, there are concerns that Vicente del Bosque’s men may be getting a little predictable. The ageing legs of the World Cup-winning collection don’t possess the zip that they used to, and their defeat to Brazil at the Confederations Cup exposed some of the weaknesses in the current set-up.

    Management’s recent decision to turn to the likes of Diego Costa and Michu to fill the central attacking berth betrays del Bosque’s concerns about his side in front of goal. While La Roja bagged 10 against Tahiti in Brazil this summer, they failed to score against Italy over 120 minutes and against the hosts in the final.

    Similarly, they recently failed to score against a decidedly average South African side in a recent friendly.

    Should Spain come up against some defensively robust teams in the opening round, they may well struggle. I am not predicting a collapse a la France in 2002 or Italy in 2010, but the holders would at least need to be innovative with their approach or rediscover the tempo of their early triumphs.

    Greece are, arguably, international football’s most reactive side; they won Euro 2004 following numerous dogged, reactive displays and only conceded four goals in 10 games in their UEFA qualifying group.

    Cameroon may be struggling for a creative spark, but they can boast of a defensive unit that will be among the tournament’s most ominous. The likes of Nicky N’Koulou, Aurelien Chedjou, Alex Song and Stephane Mbia are all solid figures, but they are not ponderous and would present the Spanish offensive with a major challenge.

    Finally, Iran, who ensured their spot in Brazil after some resolute and disciplined 1-0 victories, particularly against South Korea, Lebanon and Qatar.

Settling Old Scores

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    What better place than a World Cup to settle a few stagnant political scores?

    Iran’s battle with the United States at the 1998 World Cup is perhaps the finest example of this, while between European and African nations, potential exists to reignite a few colonial-era tussles.

    Senegal, who took on France in the opening game of the 2002 competition, is the best example of how former colonial subjects can usurp the past masters.

    Angola, who faced Portugal four years later, were unable to repeat the feat, while England have already met both Nigeria and the USA on the grandest stage of all, and Portugal met Brazil in 2010.

    Algeria were under French dominion for roughly 130 years, a much longer period than the majority of other colonial associations. This is a "relationship" that has enormous dimensions and depths.

    Over three percent of the French population are of Algerian origin, and having lived in France myself, the passion that envelops the streets when Algeria play is immense.

    A clash between these two would take on monumental proportions within L’Hexagone not least because a number of the current Desert Lions squad played for France’s youth teams.

Worlds Apart

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    According to the Australian foreign office, “Relations between Australia and Croatia are strong and forward-looking, based on the personal links built by the large Croatian community in Australia which has contributed positively to Australian society.”

    There has been a growing Croatian population within Australia since the middle of the 19th century, when immigrants arrived in search of gold.

    There are few intercontinental relationships that exist and have developed in such a fashion, and this has translated to sport.

    When the two sides met at the World Cup in 2006, for example, a number of players involved that day, including Zeljko Kalac and Josip Simunic, had connections in both countries.

    That day, a pulsating 2-2 draw saw Australia sneak through to the knockout rounds. Three players were sent off—testament to the passion and fire that accompanied the meeting.

    It would be fascinating to see such riches rest upon a clash between these two intercontinental comrades once again.

Anything Is Possible

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    Chile are another side who have the potential to leave a big impression in Brazil.

    They are a multitalented outfit who could be considered the chameleons of international football. They have the quality and the versatility to adapt to the demands of a specific contest or a specific opposition.

    They are capable of terrorising opponents with swift attacking football but can also slow down the rhythm of a contest and frustrate teams with impressive ball retention and positive, disciplined movement.

    Similarly, they are improving their defensive play, to the point that they will not allow anyone, even the most revered opponents, the chance to settle and dominate a contest.

    The South Americans were unlucky to lose to Spain at the last World Cup, and I would be fascinated to see a rematch this time around.

    The pairing would doubtless produce a mesmerising tactical battle, with both Vicente del Bosque and Jorge Sampaoli relishing the prospect of going head-to-head.

    The former colonial relationship between the two sides, as well as the presence of an electric Alexis Sanchez competing against many of his Barcelona team-mates, would make for one of the most intriguing fixtures of the first round.