World Cup Preview 2014: Top Teams, Star Players and Groups to Watch

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World Cup Preview 2014: Top Teams, Star Players and Groups to Watch
Silvia Izquierdo/Associated Press

With 32 teams and around 736 players heading to Brazil for the World Cup this summer it's going to be tough to keep track of everything once the tournament kicks off on June 12.

Below is a handy guide on which headline acts to focus on and some of the key battlegrounds to keep an eye on during the opening-group phase.

 

Teams to Watch 

Felipe Dana/Associated Press
Luiz Felipe Scolari has already won the World Cup with Brazil once, in 2002.

Brazil

As hosts and favourites to win the World Cup, per Oddschecker.com, it's going to be hard to ignore Brazil. Anything other than victory will be seen as a failure for a nation that has already won the trophy on five occasions. The Selecao last lifted the cup at Korea/Japan 2002 under manager Luiz Felipe Scolari, and "Big Phil," as he is affectionately known, is back at the helm and he will be the leading man in what is sure to be a gripping telenovela.

 

Spain

The holders will not easily relinquish the trophy they won at South Africa 2010 and, although key members of the squad are ageing, the likes of midfield duo Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta remain among the best in the business. Their tika-taka possession-based style is seen as metronomic and dull by some critics, but it's effective: La Roja have won the last three major championships at Euro 2008, World Cup 2010 and Euro 2012. 

 

Argentina

The Albiceleste became something of a joke under manager Diego Maradona at the last World Cup, but under the stewardship of Alejandro Sabella their opponents are no longer laughing. Argentina were top scorers in CONMEBOL qualifying as they secured top spot, and the fact that Sabella's side rarely managed to keep a clean sheet at the other end highlights their commitment to attack. Argentina would like nothing better than to secure their third title on Brazilian soil and poop the party of their arch-rivals.

 

Germany

Joachim Low's team have one of the best midfields in the world, and in Philipp Lahm and Bastian Schweinsteiger, they have two players with 100 caps who are still at the peak of their powers. The Germans topped the goalscoring charts in UEFA qualifying, with 36 in 10 matches, and they will test any defence. Die Mannschaft rarely struggle at the World Cup, having won it on three occasions and finishing third in 2006 and 2010.

 

Players to Watch

Cristiano Ronaldo

The Portugal skipper is at the peak of his powers, having finally wrestled the FIFA Ballon d'Or from the clutches of Lionel Messi and also winning the Champions League with Real Madrid. The forward has scored 55 goals in just 45 appearances for club and country in 2013-14 and heads into the World Cup having scored a hat-trick in Portugal's 3-2 play-off win against Sweden to get them there.

 

Lionel Messi

Barcelona's four-time World Player of the Year has struggled to repeat his record-breaking club form for Barcelona with the national team, but that is beginning to change under Sabella.

Messi now has an excellent supporting cast in Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain and Angel di Maria. An injury-hit campaign with Barca, in which he still scored 36 goals, means he should be relatively fresh and eager at the World Cup. As Sabella told ESPN FC:

There is a team which must help Messi. We cannot put all the responsibility on his shoulders. He is happy. He feels sheltered by his team-mates. He has a different leadership role, in his own way. Leo is the leader with his footballing exuberance, which makes the whole world fall at his feet.

 

Neymar

Question marks hang over the forward's form and focus following a high-profile tax-related investigation into his transfer to Barcelona along with the Catalan club's failure to hold on to the Liga title. However, Neymar is back on Brazilian soil, where he starred for Santos until his move in May 2013, and he remains Brazil's key man with his creativity and goals.

 

Groups to Watch

Bleacher Report

Most of the groups are fairly easy to predict when it comes to who will finish in the top two places and progress to the next round, but not so groups B and D.

 

Group B

At the time of writing, defending champions Spain are still ranked No. 1 in the world, per FIFA.com, and they are expected to win the group. But the battle for second place between free-scoring Chile and three-time runners-up the Netherlands (1974, 1978 and 2010) could be fascinating.

The Dutch only really dominated the weaker sides in UEFA qualifying while Chile netted 28 times and were only outscored by Argentina (35) in the CONMEBOL section. Throw an Australian team that are capable of causing an upset into the mix and this one is really tough to call.

 

Group D

First place is Italy's to loseand with the mercurial talent of Mario Balotelli in attack that could happenleaving England and Uruguay to battle it out for the final qualifying place. Uruguay may be World Cup 2010 semi-finalists and reigning Copa America champions, but they struggled through qualifying and CONMEBOL top scorer Luis Suarez—one of the most in-form strikers in the world—is an injury doubt.

Expectations are low for England, but Roy Hodgson's team came through qualifying unbeaten and scored 30 goals, a tally only bettered by the Netherlands and Germany. Costa Rica should be the whipping boys of the group.

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