When the draw for the 2014 FIFA World Cup took place on Dec. 6, 2013, it put together some of the most intriguing group-stage combinations in recent memory.
There is plenty of debate as to which teams will be heading into the knockout stages and which will be flying home at the earliest opportunity.
Some favourites will handle these challenges adeptly, but there are set to be some who do not justify their short odds. Below are four of the tightest groups to call at the World Cup and predictions for how they will turn out.
Group A Prediction
There is little to suggest that Brazil will not stroll to the top of Group A, but the real battle will be who will finish as runners-up behind them.
Rarely are the FIFA World Rankings of much use, but in this case, they provide a good indication as to where these teams are. Neither Mexico (19) nor Croatia (20) are going to win the tournament, but they are evenly matched and significantly better than Cameroon (50).
Mexico went through some turmoil, in terms of team selection in the recent past, per Reuters, via Eurosport, but they appear to have overcome this under coach Miguel Herrera. The manager guided the side through the play-offs and has not lost since in three friendlies.
Croatia, similarly, were not inspiring in qualification and needed a play-off against weak opponents in Iceland to progress. They, like Mexico, have some talented players but are inconsistent.
The final standings in this group will come down to the clash between Mexico and Croatia, and the Mexicans just about have the edge. Their record against European teams has been good in recent years, per Soccerway.
Going back to the 2010 World Cup, Mexico have taken on European opposition eight times and are yet to lose. This includes games with the likes of France, Spain and Denmark, so they are certainly more than capable of edging out Croatia.
Group B Prediction
In this group, one very good team are going to be eliminated at the first stage, with Spain, Netherlands and Chile all having the talent to compete at the business end of the World Cup.
Spain have proved over the last six years that they are the best side on the planet. They have, perhaps, tailed off a little, but the heartbeat of their great side is still there in Xavi and Andres Iniesta, so they will not flop on the big stage.
Per Kristian Dyer Yahoo Sports, World Cup legend Pele certainly sees Spain strolling through this group. The Brazilian identifies Spain and one other team when asked which are the strongest in the tournament:
It is difficult to say, it is difficult because the World Cup is a box of surprises. There are teams that are there all the time like Italy, England, Argentina. All those countries – France too. In the moment, I've seen a lot of games. I follow some teams. Today, one month and a half, two months out – to me – the two best teams are Spain and Germany.
Netherlands, however, could be the ones who fail to live up to their expectation on the game’s biggest stage. In all likelihood, per The Independent, their manager, Louis van Gaal, is set to leave directly after the tournament. This does not have as much impact on an international side as it would on a club team, but it does not help the focus of the group, or the concentration of the manager, who will be under increased pressure from the media as a result.
The Dutch may have steamrolled through qualification, but they have shown frailties since then in draws with Japan and Colombia followed by a loss to France. The majority of their hopes in front of goal lie with Robin van Persie, and given the disappointing season he has had with Manchester United, they may be blunt in attack this summer.
Chile have shown themselves to be a threat to any of the big European teams. They comfortably beat England at Wembley last year and have only narrowly lost to Brazil and Germany since. Their set-up is different to what most teams are used to, and they have a serious threat in attack in Alexis Sanchez.
Chile face Netherlands in the final game of the group, and qualification could well come down to this match. Much will depend on what has gone before, but on the face of things, there is little to suggest the Chileans could not oust the Dutch.
Group D Prediction
Of all the groups, Group D could just be the toughest one to call of the lot. England’s chances of winning the tournament have been, quite rightly, written off, but their hopes of making it out of the group should not be ridiculed just yet.
In reality, there is not a great deal between the three big names in this group. All have prodigious talent within their teams but all have weaknesses as well. The games between them will be tight and there will not be much in it in the final standings in this group.
Uruguay boast the dangerous strike-force of Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, but even with that pair, they needed to go through a play-off to make it to Brazil. They finished fifth in their qualifying group, losing five times, including a 4-1 hammering in Bolivia and conceding 25 times in 16 games, which shows they are susceptible at the back. They have only played once since qualifying came to an end and that was an uninspiring 1-1 friendly draw with Austria.
Italy had no such problem in qualifying, and while they are without a win in their last five outings, they are proving difficult to beat. There will not be loads of goals in the heat of Brazil so an ability to defend well will be key. Italy have that talent.
Per the AFP, via Yahoo Sports, Italian coach Cesare Prandelli said of Group D: "We know we're in a particularly tough group, our first objective is to qualify from it and then we'll see."
This leaves England, who, per Oddschecker.com, are not expected by the bookies to get out of the group. The Three Lions often lack goals in the big tournaments, and this one will be no different. The pressure will be on the defence as a result, and this is one of the weakest back fours England has produced in the last 20 years.
England will not be embarrassed in Brazil, but they will be falling at the first hurdle.
Group G Prediction
Group G is one that has the potential to produce some upsets, but in reality, it will not. Germany are by far the strongest side of the four and they will not be stopped en route to the last 16; that is, unless Cristiano Ronaldo works his magic against them.
He is the man on whom Portugal’s hopes rest. If he performs at his best, then he has the ability to defeat USA and Ghana, almost by himself. Ghana were quarter-finalists four years ago, and USA reached the last 16, so these are tricky group stage teams. However, Portugal should have enough to dispatch them and at least avoid defeat against them.
Ghana’s problem, heading into the World Cup, appears to be a lack of firepower. Incredibly, they have not scored more than one goal in their last nine matches and have not scored at all in their last three. They did reach the African Nations Championship final during this spell, which is testament to their strong defence, but this will be tested much more severely in Brazil.
GhanaSoccerNet seemed to get a bit excited about the lack of a German team in the final of the Champions League, believing this is a sign Ghana will prosper at the World Cup:
The current pitiful state of German teams in the Champions League bodes well for Ghana with the 2014 World Cup clash between the two countries looming.
The Spanish armada is ruling the Champions League waves once again. After a brief spell of German dominance, vast fleets of Madridistas will converge on Lisbon in three weekends’ time threatening another period of Spanish rule.
This shows that the much-feared Germany World Cup team players who mainly come from Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund can be defeated by Ghana in their group clash in Brazil.
USA are a tough team to predict under Jurgen Klinsmann. In 2013 they defeated Germany and drew away to Russia; however, in the months following they lost away to Austria and Ukraine, which took them back down a peg or two.
While Portugal and Germany have the ability to break down the Ghanaian defence, USA lack that threat, and that is why they are set to finish bottom of the pile.