The 2014 World Cup is wide open, which is why there are so many difficult groups that even the top national teams will need to navigate carefully over the next few weeks. It should make for a very intriguing tournament from start to finish.
Above all else, the increased parity makes early form very important. Teams that arrived to Brazil playing at levels below their best during warm-up matches could very easily be taking a plane home without ever playing up to their full potential.
With that in mind, let's check out some of the teams worth watching very closely in the weeks ahead. The first group features the two sides with the best chance to walk away with the trophy. The second group highlights teams who may fall short of high expectations.
The Selecao would be among the contenders regardless of where the tournament was being held. That said, the fact they are serving as the hosts for this year's event is an added boost because the amount of crowd support should be sky high for every match.
Head coach Luiz Felipe Scolari guided the team to a World Cup title in 2002 and he was brought back in 2012 to match that result. He's remained extremely confident about the side's chances since taking over, as illustrated in comments passed along by the Associated Press (via Fox Sports):
I wouldn't accept to coach Brazil if I didn't think I could win the World Cup. I took the job because I'm 100 percent sure that I will win the World Cup with Brazil.
His faith is not misplaced. Brazil has a deep squad with enough talent at every level of the pitch to make a deep run in the tournament. Winning the Confederations Cup last year illustrated what the side is capable of when it's in peak form. Now it must replicate it for a second straight summer.
Respect for the greatness of the German squad was on display after the draw. The Mannschaft were drawn into the "Group of Death" alongside Portugal, Ghana and the United States. Yet, there still wasn't any talk of an early exit and they remained among the top contenders.
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Perhaps the only question heading into play is whether Germany has that one go-to player that it can rely on to create a goal in a key moment. There's certainly no shortage of talent on the roster, but the Mannschaft don't have that marquee forward in the likes of Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo.
The overall strength of the side's starting 11 should be enough to overcome that, though. More specifically, the ability of Manuel Neuer and the German defense to prevent goals should take a lot of pressure off an attack that should control possession.
Belgium is a side with a lot of potential and, thanks to a relatively mundane group, it should advance to the knockout rounds. Alas, the enormous amount of hype the Rode Duivels have received has gone a bit overboard in terms of their chances to win the entire tournament.
Heading into the event, they are ranked fifth by the oddsmakers behind only Brazil, Germany, Argentina and Spain, according to Odds Shark. As Men in Blazers points out, those high expectations have remained despite question marks that have developed in recent months:
Benteke out of World Cup. Fellaini now crap. Vermaelen and Vertonghen inconsistent. Belgium downgraded from Dark Horse to Little Horse?— Men in Blazers (@MenInBlazers) April 3, 2014
Make no mistake, Belgium has a lot of young players with bright futures, giving the nation plenty of reason for optimism. The championship expectations seem like they are four years early, though. It would be a surprise if it won the title this time around.
The Swiss squad generated a lot of attention after making its way through UEFA qualifying without dropping a match (7-3-0). Yet, a lot of that had to do with drawing a very favorable group as opposed to be a truly dominant side.
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Switzerland does feature a talented midfield, led by Gokhan Inler and Xherdan Shaqiri, which should keep it in most matches. The back line wasn't really tested during the impressive qualifying run, however, and the forward group lacks star power.
The Schweizer Nati are in a group with France and one of the tournament's most underrated teams in Ecuador as well as Honduras. It will be a struggle for Switzerland to reach the knockout stages and it probably won't last long even if it was fortunate enough to move on.