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2014 World Cup Draw: Title Challengers with Toughest Road in Group Stage

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2014 World Cup Draw: Title Challengers with Toughest Road in Group Stage
Scott Heavey/Getty Images

Who's going to be the title favorite at the 2014 World Cup bounced in the group stage?

It happens every tournament. Either three or more good teams are drawn into one group, or a team simply underperforms. In 2010, defending champions Italy finished bottom of their group, while France, another favorite, did the same.

Looking at the draw for 2014, you know some big names are going to fall early. Aside from Group E with Switzerland and France, you wouldn't say that any of the major European powers are a lock to make it through to the knockout stages. Germany have a tough draw, while Spain will do well just to escape Group B.

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Those two don't look to be in the most danger. The teams whose positions are those capable of winning the tournament but not considered one of the top four or five teams. They've got plenty of talent, yet glaring question marks.

If you're looking to which of the giants will get felled, these three European sides look like good bets.

 

Netherlands

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You never know with the Dutch. If anything, the 2012 European Championships established that you shouldn't go into an international tournament with the Netherlands listed as one of the favorites. The track record of disappointment is too long.

There's no question the Netherlands are playing better under Louis van Gaal.

However, in what is a tough group, that weak back line could be exposed.

Jetro Willems has matured since Euro 2012, but he remains a liability on the left flank. Against high-quality attacks, his failings could be exposed in a big way. The rest of the defense is young and inexperienced in international tournaments. Bruno Martins Indi has had a terrible season, while Stefan de Vrij, Daley Blind and Daryl Janmaat don't inspire a ton of confidence.

Plus, there's that opening fixture with Spain. Should the Dutch lose, the finger-pointing could begin, and by then, it's already too late to salvage anything. That loss to Denmark in Ukraine was the beginning of the downward spiral.

Chile will be an extremely tough game, with the way they're constantly pressing and ability to strike quickly. The Chileans also have the continental advantage. The Dutch will do well just to advance.

 

Portugal

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By now, the narrative of Portugal has been discussed ad nauseam. It's Cristiano Ronaldo and then 10 other guys who aren't Cristiano Ronaldo.

Portugal have plenty of talent—Bruno Alves, Pepe and Fabio Coentrao in defense; Miguel Veloso, Joao Moutinho and Raul Meireles in midfield.

However, their fortunes remain strongly tethered to the performance of Ronaldo. The Sweden game demonstrated that he can carry the team through almost single-handedly. There were also poor performances, such as the home draws against Israel and Northern Ireland that make you question if this team is complete enough to survive in the World Cup.

It doesn't help that Portugal have the toughest group of the tournament. Germany are one of the favorites to win the whole thing and neither Ghana nor the United States are pushovers. You can see a future where Germany get nine points and then either Ghana beats the United States, or vice versa, draws with Portugal and then advances on goal differential.

 

Italy

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Speaking of a team's fortunes hinging on one player.

Italy will need the Euro 2012 version of Mario Balotelli, rather than the 2013 Serie A version of Mario Balotelli. A.C. Milan have been a big disappointment, and the talented forward hasn't been able to rise above the morass in the San Siro this season.

Balotelli's performance in Ukraine and Poland demonstrated how pivotal he can be for the Azzurri. When Super Mario is at his best, defenders can't handle his combination of speed and power.

Of course, when Balotelli's bad, he can be very bad. His petulance can cause friction on the pitch and he's one stupid decision away from a red card.

It doesn't help that Italy have been drawn with Uruguay and England. Uruguay will be extremely tough with the tournament in South America, while Roy Hodgson isn't afraid to have the Three Lions play for the draw and live to fight another day.

The Azzurri should finish second in the group, at the very least, but their position is far from safe.

 

Follow @JosephZucker on Twitter.

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