The draw for the 2014 World Cup has been completed and what a mouthwatering month we can expect in South America next summer.
To some the draw has been kind: France in particular could be forgiven for feeling quite smug having been paired with Ecuador, Honduras and arguably the weakest of all the seeds, Switzerland, while Argentina will perhaps be expecting to progress to the knockout stages without having to go past third gear, having found themselves in Group F with Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iran and Nigeria.
Others meanwhile will find themselves needing to hit the ground running, knowing that they cannot afford any slip-ups. Group B, featuring Spain, Netherlands, Chile and Australia, Group D, with Uruguay, Costa Rica, England and Italy and Group G, encompassing Germany, Portugal, Ghana and United States all look well-matched.
Some of the matches that catch the eye in the opening round include a repeat of the 2010 final, Spain vs. Netherlands, the Euro 2012 quarter-final repeat, England vs, Italy, a fascinating Group C encounter between Colombia and Ivory Coast, as well as Germany vs. Portugal in Group G.
As such, all of this plays its part not only in which sides are more/less likely to find their way into the knockout stages, but also which individuals have become more likely to find their way to the Golden Boot, won in 2010 by Germany's Thomas Mueller.
Here's a look at where the smart money could be heading and who might just offer a decent long shot:
All odds subject to change and courtesy of oddschecker.com.
In 2010 under Diego Maradona, the Albiceleste had plenty of firepower but lacked balance and were promptly hammered 4-0 in the quarter-final by Germany.
Now, under Alejandro Sabella, Argentina have far greater balance in defence and midfield and have been powering the goals in. They romped to qualification by topping South American qualifying and central to everything was captain Lionel Messi.
The Barcelona man had 10 goals in qualifying—only Luis Suarez had more—and has taken an increasingly important role in Sabella's starting XI. When Gonzalo Higuain (himself a best price 25-1) is fit and firing to deserve his place leading the line as a No. 9, Messi has been withdrawn into a No. 10 role, free to drift and drive as and where he sees fit.
When Sabella has seen fit to leave Higuain out, Messi has moved into a false-nine position in a 4-3-3 formation, most often flanked by Sergio Aguero and Ezequiel Lavezzi/Rodrigo Palacio, controlling matches and exploiting opposing defences with breathtaking pace.
However, in essence, whether it's 4-2-3-1, 4-4-1-1 or 4-3-3, it doesn't change; it all revolves around Messi.
Arsène Wenger: “If Lionel Messi wins 2014 World Cup, he will be the best player ever.” http://t.co/HARyvJ9gzF— Sportive23.net (@Sportive23_) December 6, 2013
Of his 37 international goals, Messi has 18 of them since the beginning of 2012.
He remains Argentina's greatest hope of landing the trophy, and in a group containing Bosnia, Iran and Nigeria, he'll be expected to run riot and find goals.
The Portugal skipper almost single-handedly dragged his nation to the finals with a stupendous showing in the second leg of their play-off against Sweden; his three-goal showing in Solna was arguably the individual performance of 2013.
Now, having sent his country to Brazil, the Real Madrid superstar (who has 25 goals in 18 matches for Los Blancos so far this season) will be the man looked upon to get the goals once more.
Nominally playing from the left side of the attack in Paulo Bento's 4-3-3 formation, his pace and power are pretty much unmatched, while his finishing (amazingly) continues to improve. Throw in his aerial ability and movement off-the-ball and he is perhaps the most complete forward in world football today.
The question for Bento is how best to utilise the man and to ensure he receives the ball in positions where he can do the most damage, particularly in a tough group with Germany (to whom they lost 1-0 at Euro 2012), the United States and Ghana.
Joao Moutinho's incisive passing will prove important to Ronaldo's quest for goals, as will the work of whoever plays centre-forward and the wing play of Nani and Real Madrid colleague Fabio Coentrao.
When the tournament rolls around next June, Ronaldo will be 29 and perhaps at the peak of his powers.
He's Portugal's main hope of goals and for success.
The Colombian hitman may be undergoing a somewhat difficult time in French football with Monaco at present, but his poaching qualities are undeniable.
And while he may have struggled to find his best form in the principality, he has still netted nine times in 14 league starts, to go with the 52 (67 appearances) and 41 (51) he notched in league football at previous clubs Atletico Madrid and Porto.
His scoring record at international level is a little more modest, with 20 in 50 caps, but he had nine goals in qualifying for Jose Pekerman's excellent side, acting as the chief No. 9—a role he'll be expected to continue in next summer (leaving Jackson Martinez to most likely contend with a place on the bench)—with James Rodriguez, Teo Gutierrez and Juan Cuadrado offering the service.
Los Cafeteros may not have been presented with the easiest of groups, but they have not been thrust into one of the most difficult either. Ivory Coast, Greece and Japan will all prove testing, but if Pekerman's men are on their game, they're a test for the very best with their aggressive attacking thrusts—just ask Belgium, who were beaten 2-0 in November.
Chances should come the way of El Tigre in Group C.
As clinical a finisher in the 18-yard box as you'll find, goals are to be expected from Radamel Falcao.
Everyone's dark horse who are no longer a dark horse, Belgium have been handed a group from which they will expect to progress when they arrive in Brazil in June, having been paired with Algeria, Russia and South Korea.
For much of the qualifying campaign, it was the Aston Villa man who appeared to be in pole position of the shirt. And although it was Benteke who was given the nod for the recent friendly defeat by Colombia, given what has happened for club and country since the start of the 2013-14 campaign, it perhaps may not be too long for the on-loan Everton star who is the favoured choice.
For while Benteke has struggled for form with his club (just four goals in 12 matches) and missed a couple of crucial qualifiers through injury, the 20-year-old Lukaku has taken his game up a notch once more this season. He has eight goals in 11 games for Everton and struck twice as Belgium won crucially in Croatia.
Mixing brute strength with deceptive pace and intelligent movement, Lukaku is full of promise, and in the years to come, it will be a major shock if he doesn't considerably improve on his international goal return of just five in 24 caps.
And with the likes of Eden Hazard, Dries Mertens, Kevin de Bruyne and Axel Witsel supplying the chances next summer, it may just prove the perfect time to start.
Winner of the Golden Boot in 2010, Thomas Mueller continues to be a consistent source of goals both for club and country.
The 24-year-old has fulfilled a number of roles over the course of the last two years for Jogi Loew, operating on either flank or in a central role, and while Die Mannschaft are blessed with an outstanding array of attacking talent, Mueller offers them something different.
Germany: Scored more goals than any other team in 2014 World Cup qualifying (36) #WorldCupDraw— WhoScored.com (@WhoScored) December 6, 2013
He's an excellent interpreter of space in between the lines and someone who time and again finds himself in good goalscoring positions. He isn't perhaps as interested in the initial phases of attacking play as Messrs, Goetze, Ozil and Reus, but he offers a more direct and considered goal threat.
And having gone 13 internationals without a goal in 2012, the Bayern forward has his six in eight for his country in 2013. For his club, his goal output in their all-conquering 2012-13 campaign constituted 23 in 47 appearances, while he has thrived once more under Pep Guardiola in 2013-14, registering 14 goals already.
Germany face a difficult group next summer: Portugal are tough and organised and have Cristiano Ronaldo getting better and better, Ghana were difficult opponents in 2010 (Germany winning 1-0) and will expect to be again, while Jurgen Klinsmann's United States can be hit and miss but did beat them 4-3 in a friendly in June.
But in Muller they have a reliable big-match goalscorer, someone capable of scoring all kinds of goals. As he was nearly four years ago, he could prove worth his weight in gold once again.
Greece find themselves in a difficult Group C with Ivory Coast, Colombia and Japan, but they'll also think to themselves that it could have been much worse.
Though they aren't the most creative or goal-friendly of nations (just 12 in 10 qualifying matches before their play-off win over Romania), the Ethniki are a strong-willed, well-organised side.
And in striker Konstantinos Mitroglou, Fernando Santos may have found his razor-sharp edge who can make the difference in the matches their resolute defensive setup helps to keep tight.
The best Greek player would probably be Kostas Mitroglou, if he takes his good form to the World Cup, Greece might even make it through,not.— Ibrahim Nabeeh (@iboonabyh) December 6, 2013
This term has seen the Olympiacos striker fire 17 goals in 15 matches already, after 20 in 42 during 2012-13. And while international football may be a major step up, his three goals in the play-off against Romania, showed his clinical ability in the penalty area.
His awareness in and around the box, not to mention his excellent finishing have reportedly brought him to the attention of Liverpool ahead of the January transfer window, according to David Maddox of the Mirror.
In that respect, a good World Cup will only see his value rise. And if Greece can present him with opportunities in their three group encounters, their chances of making the knockout stages will only improve, as will his chances of being top scorer.
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