The 2014 World Cup kicks off on June 12 in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and with the domestic football season now all but over eyes are fully focused on the tournament.
Provisional squads have been named and training camps have commenced as the managers of the best 32 national teams in the world attempt to whittle down their playing staff to a final 23-man selection by June 2.
All that then remains is to win the trophy.
But the first step is to successfully navigate the group stage by finishing first or second. Below we look at the schedule for the 2014 World Cup and predict the most likely second-round fixtures.
*Knockout stage times available at FIFA.com
Most Likely Second-Round Fixtures
- Brazil vs. Chile
- Mexico vs. Spain
- Colombia vs. Uruguay
- Italy vs. Cote d'Ivoire
- France vs. Nigeria
- Argentina vs. Switzerland
- Germany vs. Russia
- Belgium vs. Portugal
Hosts and favourites Brazil are once again under the control of 2002 World Cup-winning manager Luiz Felipe Scolari and should have no trouble topping Group A. Although Mexico struggled in qualifying and sacked their coach, under new boss Miguel Herrera El Tri came through a play-off against New Zealand, are a team in form and should pip Cameroon and Croatia to second place.
Defending champions Spain are still ranked No. 1 in the world, per FIFA.com, and they went through UEFA qualifying unbeaten. They may not be considered the team they once were, with star players Andres Iniesta and Xavi both the wrong side of 30, but they should easily win the group to face Mexico.
Second place is tough to call between free-scoring Chile and three-time runners-up (1974, 1978 and 2010) the Netherlands. The Dutch only really dominated the weaker sides in UEFA qualifying while Chile (28) were only outscored by Argentina (35) in the CONMEBOL section. That should be key in pipping Louis van Gaal's side to a showdown with Brazil.
Radamel Falcao is the headline act for Colombia in Group C, but the €60 million Monaco striker has not played since sustaining a knee injury in January. However, Group C is a weak one and CONMEBOL's second-place qualifiers should still have enough to take the group, with or without their top scorer.
If Ivory Coast can finally fulfil their potential, then second place is there for the taking—ahead of Greece and Japan. It's time for players such as Didier Drogba and Yaya Toure to deliver.
With the mercurial talent of Mario Balotelli in attack, it's tricky to predict what Italy might achieve in Brazil. But with seasoned campaigners and World Cup winners like Andrea Pirlo in the squad, winning Group D shouldn't be too much of a stretch for a team unbeaten in qualifying.
World Cup 2010 semi-finalists and reigning Copa America champions Uruguay struggled through qualifying before cruising through a play-off against Jordan. But in CONMEBOL top scorer Luis Suarez they have one of the most in-form strikers in the world, per Jamie Carragher of the Daily Mail, and they should have enough to see off an England team with low expectations.
France are the stand-out name in a poor Group E and anything less than first place would be a disappointment for a squad that can boast players such as Franck Ribery, Karim Benzema and Olivier Giroud, while omitting Premier League title-winners Samir Nasri and Gael Clichy, as the BBC points out. Ecuador failed to win away from the high altitude of their home stadium in Quito on a single occasion in qualifying, and Honduras are also poor away from their home comforts. So a Switzerland team that won all their qualifying games has a great chance to claim second place.
Argentina are clear favourites to take Group F and—with four-time World Player of the Year Lionel Messi, who has agreed a record salary to match, per Reuters, finally delivering his club form for the national team under coach Alejandro Sabella—possibly the whole tournament, too. Nigeria were big in name and little in impact on world football prior to their 2013 Africa Cup of Nations victory, but Stephen Keshi's squad should have what it takes to beat Bosnia and Iran to second spot.
Group G has been labelled by many as the "Group of Death," but it’s tough to see past Germany topping the group and Portugal taking second spot. The Germans have one of the best midfields in the world and were top scorers (36) in UEFA qualifying. But it could be the Germans that beat the Germans, writes Kit Holden in the Daily Mail:
There will be goals a plenty, the question is simply if the side can keep their heads – and their lungs – in the game. Lack of fitness and concentration saw them fail in 2012, but the renewed youth in this squad may help that this time around.
With World Player of the Year Cristiano Ronaldo in their ranks, the Portuguese will have too much for Ghana and the USA. Yet the accusations of being a one-man team will be tested further down the line.
Belgium's current crop of players—which includes Vincent Kompany, Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku—have been earning rave reviews and their talent should make up for any lack of World Cup experience, at least against limited opposition in the group stages. Marc Wilmots' side are tipped as dark horses to make a deep run at the finals. Under Fabio Capello, Russia have the nous to take a few scalps and won their UEFA qualifying group ahead of Portugal. Securing a second-round clash against the Germans should not be beyond them.
If matches run true to form then the above picks are likely to make up the final 16 at the 2014 World Cup, but as ever, things don't always go to plan.
What kind of World Cup would it be if they did?