World Cup Groups 2014: Predictions, Key Players, Form Guide and Dark Horses

Danny CollinsFeatured ColumnistMay 12, 2014

UNSPECIFIED - JULY 12:  (L-R) Sergio Ramos, Xavi Hernandez, Pedro Rodriguez, Carles Puyol, Fernando Llorente and Fernando Torres celebrate with the World Cup trophy during the Spanish team's flight home on board a plane from Johannesburg to Madrid following their victory in the 2010 FIFA World Cup on July 12, 2010 in flight, Unspecified.  (Photo by Jasper Juinen/Getty Images)
Jasper Juinen/Getty Images

Strap yourselves in, the World Cup 2014 in Brazil is just 31 days away, and with the participants naming their squads and national leagues reaching their finale, attention can finally focus on football's showpiece event. 

Let's take a look at how we think the eight groups will pan out, who the key players will be and who will be the dark horses.

Group A
NationPositionKey Player
Croatia2ndLuka Modric
Mexico3rdJavier Hernandez
Cameroon4thSamuel Eto'o
BBC Sport

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA - MARCH 05:  Neymar of Brazil and Bongani Zungu of South Africa during the International Friendly match between South Africa and Brazil at FNB Stadium on March 05, 2014 in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photo by Lefty Shivambu/Gal
Gallo Images/Getty Images

Brazil are a dangerous opposition on foreign soil; on their own they dominate. Expect to see Neymar and Oscar run the show in typical samba style. 

Don't write off Croatia. A technically gifted bunch, led by Real Madrid's new hero, Luka Modric, they'll be pushed close by the perpetually competitive Mexican side, but they'll have enough to edge into the last 16. 

The fanfare will be for Neymar, the golden boy of Brazilian football; but it will be Oscar, the understated and magnificently talented Chelsea star who'll run proceedings for the hosts. 

Group B
NationPositionKey Player
Spain1stAndres Iniesta
Chile2ndAlexis Sanchez
Netherlands3rdRobin van Persie
Australia4thMile Jedinak
BBC Sport

Themba Hadebe/Associated Press

What a group we have here. Last year's two finalists in the same group, and yet don't back them both to qualify. Spain may be World and European champions, but they are a team in the early stages of decline. Back them to top the group, however. 

It'll be the Dutch that struggle. Chile are a strong side, as the English found out when suffering a 2-0 home loss to the Chileans in November 2013. Every World Cup has a first-round shock, and we think the Dutch just might be the victims this time 'round. Keep an eye on Chile as one of this tournament's dark horses. 

Group C
NationPositionKey Player
Colombia1stRadamel Falcao
Ivory Coast2ndYaya Toure
Japan3rdKeisuke Honda
Greece4thSokratis Papastathopoulos
BBC Sport

Geert Vanden Wijngaert/Associated Press

A delicately poised group. Any of these teams could emerge victorious, but Colombia, led by Radamel Falcao, should have enough to edge into top position. 

Yaya Toure has been in such scintillating form in the Premier League for Manchester City that it would be a travesty for him to miss out on the knockout stages. The Ivory Coast continue to produce world-class talent, and accompanied by some old heads they should have enough nous to slip in ahead of Greece and Japan.

It will be Didier Drogba's last World Cup, and the old man has a habit of winning games through his sheer force of will. The former Chelsea striker will want an Indian summer to his career. Don't bet against him taking the Ivorians to the quarter-finals. 

Group D
NationPositionKey Player
Italy1stAndrea Pirlo
England2ndAdam Lallana
Uruguay3rdLuis Suarez
Costa Rica4thBryan Ruiz
BBC Sport

Alastair Grant/Associated Press

It says much about the decline of England that they will be considered the dark horses in this group. But underestimate them at your peril. A new breed of young English player is emerging: Adam Lallana, Ross Barkley, Luke Shaw and Daniel Sturridge. 

Still, Italy should prevail in this finely poised group. Uruguay will push England very hard, with Luis Suarez tormenting his club captain, Steven Gerrard. All should beat Costa Rica, so it will come down to who prevails in the three head-to-head encounters. 

England to edge Uruguay for second owing to the South Americans' suspect defence. 

Group E
NationPositionKey Player
France1stFranck Ribery
Switzerland2ndXherdan Shaqiri
Ecuador3rdAntonio Valencia
Honduras4thWilson Palacios
BBC Sport

Christophe Ena/Associated Press

There's no plainer way to put it than FIFA's world rankings are incorrect. France are not the world's 16th-best side, and the Swiss are not eighth. But on FIFA world rankings World Cups are not decided. 

Providing a second successive camp mutiny is avoided, the French should prevail in this group. Ecuador are the weakest of the South American sides, but should push the Swiss close for the second qualifying spot. 

This tournament is Franck Ribery's opportunity to prove that he should have been named World Player of the Year. 

Group F
NationPositionKey Player
Argentina1stLionel Messi
Nigeria2ndJohn Obi Mikel
Bosnia and Herzegovina3rdEdin Dzeko
Iran4thJavad Nekounam
BBC Sport

STOCKHOLM, SWEDEN - FEBRUARY 06:  Lionel Messi of Argentina in action during the International Friendly match between Sweden and Argentina at the Friends Arena on February 6, 2013 in Stockholm, Sweden.  (Photo by Jamie McDonald/Getty Images)
Jamie McDonald/Getty Images

A European side has never prevailed in South America, so much expectation is being levelled at the hosts Brazil, and Argentina. And rightly so. 

Lionel Messi, despite a disjointed season, is at the peak of his powers. La Albiceleste should easily emerge from this group. The interesting question lies in who will take the second qualifying spot. 

Nigeria are the in-form African side, a team on the ascendancy having won the Africa Cup of Nations in 2013. But they will face stiff competition from a Bosnia and Herzegovina side led by the clinical Edin Dzeko. If Nigeria are to progress, they must ensure they are tactically disciplined enough the subdue the Eastern European side, who are playing at their first World Cup. Key to that task will be talisman and Chelsea stalwart John Obi Mikel.

Group G
NationPositionKey Player
Germany1stBastian Schweinsteiger
Portugal2ndCristiano Ronaldo
United States3rdJozy Altidore
Ghana4thKevin-Prince Boateng
BBC Sport

STOCKHOLM, SWEDEN - NOVEMBER 19:  Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal runs with the ball during the FIFA 2014 World Cup Qualifier Play-off Second Leg match between Sweden and Portugal at Friends Arena on November 19, 2013 in Stockholm, Sweden.  (Photo by Martin
Martin Rose/Getty Images

All four of these sides should be worthy of a place in the second round. Unfortunately, only two will progress. 

Only a fool would expect Germany not to progress. An ever-improving unit based on the core that made waves in South Africa four years ago, they could become the first European side ever to prevail in South America.

First they must negotiate Cristiano Ronaldo, et al. Portugal's progression is by no means assured, but Ronaldo's presence in the knockout stages is essential for the enthusiasm for the tournament. Both Ghanaians and Americans could snatch second place, but Portugal should have just about enough to go through. 

Group H
NationPositionKey Player
Belgium1stEden Hazard
Russia2ndAlan Dzagoev
South Korea3rdJung Sung-Ryong
Algeria4thMadjid Bougherra
BBC Sport

BRUSSELS, BELGIUM - NOVEMBER 19: Eden Hazard of Belgium runs with the ball during the international friendly match between Belgium and Japan at King Badouin stadium on November 19, 2013 in Brussels, Belgium.  (Photo by Christof Koepsel/Getty Images)
Christof Koepsel/Getty Images

Belgium are no longer the dark horses of world football; they're the real deal. A defence to die for: Vincent Kompany, Thomas Vermaelen and Jan Vertonghen; a midfield to make you go weak at the knees: Eden Hazard, Marouane Fellaini and Axel Witsel; a world-class goalkeeper in Thibaut Courtois; and a powerhouse striker in Romelu Lukaku. They'll progress with ease. 

Second place will be a tightly fought affair between Russia and South Korea. The Koreans are more experienced at the World Cup than Russia and will cope better with the intense heat. But Russia offer greater technical ability and should just edge the Koreans in their Group H encounter.