2014 World Cup host Brazil will begin its bid for a record sixth World Cup title on Thursday in the opening group stage match against Croatia.
Led by gifted goalscorer Neymar, the Selecao are the odds-on favorite to hoist the FIFA World Cup trophy on July 13 inside the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro.
But despite having the odds in their favor, it's been 16 years since a team has won the World Cup on its home soil and the last time the World Cup was held in Brazil, the South American giants suffered an upset loss in the final.
Will history repeat itself in 2014?
Read on to find my latest projections for this year's group stage.
|2014 World Cup Group Stage Projections|
|Source: FIFA.com. Odds via Oddsshark.com|
*Click here to view the complete 2014 World Cup group stage schedule via FIFA.com.
Brazil are without a doubt the class of Group A and a lock to advance to the knockout stage. The only question is whether it'll be Croatia or Mexico joining them in the round of 16. For now, the edge has to go to the Europeans, who possess tremendous balance and dynamic talents in midfield.
Not to mention El Tri's qualifying struggles are worrisome given the quality of their group.
Group B should belong to reigning champions Spain, but again, who will join them in the knockout stage. Australia are clearly over-matched in this group and will be lucky to come away with a point.
Chile are a legitimate dark horse playing on South American soil and the Netherlands were finalists in 2010. Given the quality Robin van Persie and company boast, the slight edge goes to the Dutch.
Meanwhile, with the injury to Colombia's Radamel Falcao, Group C appears to be wide open. The South Americans look to be the strongest team in this group, but each of the three others are good enough to advance to the knockout stage.
You could argue that the second spot in the group is up for grabs, and seeing as Japan was the only team from Group C to qualify for the knockout stage in 2010, they shouldn't be counted out.
Like Group C, there's certainly no consensus favorite in Group D, where England, Italy and Uruguay each have a shot to advance and make a deep run through the knockout stage. Based on the experience gained during their fourth place finish in 2010, Uruguay appear poised to make it out. Luis Suarez is a stud at the top of La Celeste's lineup and should provide them with enough offense to survive.
Italy have the slight edge over England for the second berth. The Azzurri won the World Cup eight years ago, have a firm identity and always seem to play to their strengths. On the other hand, the Three Lions have been a bit unpredictable and their leading man, Wayne Rooney routinely shrinks on the World Cup stage.
Rooney's struggles have even sparked criticism from former Manchester United teammate and England international Paul Scholes, via The Telegraph's Paul Hayward:
He’s got a brilliant scoring record for his country with 38 goals in 89 internationals, but he’s played in eight World Cup games without a goal. You expect more of him.
I’m not saying Wayne needs to be dropped, but if his form doesn’t get up to scratch in the warm-ups, or in the first game of the World Cup, it’ll be interesting to see if the England management team has the balls to make that decision. We have quality forwards in the squad this time. That should give Wayne the competition he needs to spur him on a little more.
In Group E, the two European nations, France and Switzerland appear set to advance. The French were miserable in 2010 but despite losing Bayern Munich midfielder Franck Ribery to injury still boast an endless amount of firepower (Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema and PSG midfielder Blaise Matuidi, to name two).
For the Swiss, the concern is that they can sometimes be disorganized at the back. Still, this team is young, talented and will be bustling with confidence in Brazil.
Group F is all about Lionel Messi and Argentina, who will be heavy favorites to prevail on South American soil and advance to the knockout stage for the third straight World Cup.
Watch for Bosnia-Herzegovina to emerge as the second team from Group F. Although the tiny European nation lacks World Cup experience, their strong back line and ability to feed striker Edin Dzeko (10 goals in 10 qualifying matches) up top gives them a chance to beat anyone, especially weaker opponents like Nigeria and Iran.
Bosnia-Herzegovina, which is making their World Cup debut, will also be looking to inspire their countrymen back home, who have been suffering from severe flooding, as Dzeko discussed last month, via CNN's Ben Wyatt and James Masters:
"I think it's important for the people, for the world, to know this is not a game. This is something serious. So many people have lost their lives, lost their homes. They were trying to build something for themselves and for their kids over the past 20 years and they've lost it just like that."
Finally, we arrive at Group G, better known as the Group of Death. World Cup favorite Germany appear to be locks to make it out of the group, but Portugal, the United States and Ghana each have a legitimate shot to make the round of 16. Unfortunately, two of those teams will be headed home early.
Seeing as reigning FIFA Ballon d'Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo is playing out of his mind at the moment, the Portuguese are most likely to emerge behind the Germans.
Team USA certainly has the talent and coaching to surprise football pundits this summer, but their suspect back line is likely to derail their chances.
Belgium and Russia look to be the final two teams to advance to the knockout stage this summer. The two European powers are the top dogs in Group H and should be no match for South Korea and Algeria.
From there, it's onto the knockout stage, where every match for every team will be do-or-die.
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