The group stage of the FIFA 2014 World Cup will be dominated by the usual suspects. But amid nations such as Brazil, Argentina and Germany dominating their respective groups, some squads will be stronger than expected.
As the hosts, a well-balanced Brazil squad should take top spot in Group A. However, they will be pushed all the way by Croatia. But Croatia won't be the only unheralded nation to give a group favorite a tougher time than expected.
Meanwhile, a usual tournament favorite, not expected to do much in this year's competition, will prove the pundits wrong.
Here are three predictions for the group stage, including the eventual winners. But first, here's a look at the full draw and how each group breaks down:
Croatia Will Be Brazil's Strongest Competition in Group A
Croatia should be fascinating and thrilling to watch in Brazil. Manager Niko Kovac fields a team loaded with creative playmakers who love to attack via classy possession and clever, subtle movement.
Kovac can call on pass masters like Real Madrid star Luka Modric and Sevilla talisman Ivan Rakitic. With those two owning the ball and dictating the flow of play, Croatia will create a plethora of opportunities every game.
The only negative Kovac and his group face headed to the tournament concerns their star striker, Mario Mandzukic. The towering target man will miss the team's opening group match against Brazil on June 12, through suspension, per FIFA.com.
Yet the FC Bayern Munich man's absence shouldn't completely blunt Croatia's attacking edge too much. Don't rule out Eduardo da Silva making an impact in the opener.
The ex-Arsenal man can still find the net at any level. It would be ironic if the assimilated Brazilian tormented the hosts in the tournament's first match.
Croatia will certainly push Brazil all the way, signalling the start of a tougher slog through the group for the hosts than many anticipate.
Meanwhile, the return of Mandzukic will herald a serene ascent to second place and qualification for Kovac's men. The squad won't match the exploits of the 1998 semi-finalists, but Croatia will be one of the treats of this tournament.
France Will Dominate Group E
In the odds for tournament favorites, France are ranked sixth, per Oddschecker.com. The French are one place behind geographic neighbours Belgium and just two spots ahead of England.
But France can exceed relatively meagre expectations by establishing some dominant form against its Group E opponents. That's something coach Didier Deschamps' team can manage, thanks to a potentially awesome midfield.
The French will be especially strong in the middle. That's where Deschamps can rely on ultra-talented young star Paul Pogba.
But as good as the Juventus ace is, he'll have to share plaudits in Brazil with Paris Saint-Germain talisman Blaise Matuidi. An intelligent and active midfielder, Matuidi is a dynamic runner who enables the French to quickly and smoothly transition from defence to attack.
He and Pogba will be the key figures for a squad now more reliant on bright young things than in previous tournaments. Writing for the Guardian, Amy Lawrence pointed out that France is relying on its emerging young talents to carry it in this and forthcoming major competitions:
France have a crop of young players whose integration into the national team will next year become a subject for debate. A handful of promising ones have been serving a long ban from the international scene after they were punished for an unauthorised night-out in Paris when on under-21 duty.
Soon Antoine Griezmann, the tricky Real Sociedad winger, M'Baye Niang, the powerful Milan striker, and Yann M'Vila, the midfield anchor, will become available again. Potentially, all of them could be part of an exciting new generation, so the decision whether or not to give them big tournament experience in Brazil (and if so, at whose expense) needs careful deliberation.
Of the names Lawrence highlighted in her article from late 2013, Griezmann is the one that stands out. A nominal wide player blessed with a capacity for devilishly sly movement, the Real Sociedad ace could be a vital source of goals.
What's clear is that the French boast some intriguing potential match-winners. If this squad is unified, it will go far. It will certainly boss Group E.
Ivory Coast Can Spring a Few Surprises
The Ivory Coast contains plenty of goal-getters well-known to fans of the English Premier League. Striker Wilfried Bony was excellent for Swansea City this season, while midfield linchpin Yaya Toure dominated for eventual champions Manchester City.
The Ivorians also feature prolific former Chelsea pair Didier Drogba and Salomon Kalou. This is a group that can spring a few surprises and upset some fancied teams.
The big question will be whether the nation's premier players can remain focused on the tournament. Toure is embroiled in a strange spat with his club and recently appeared to talk up a move to PSG, per Jamie Jackson of the Guardian.
Similarly, promising defender Serge Aurier is constantly being linked with a switch to Arsenal, per Sky Sports. But if this team gives its full commitment to this competition, the Ivorians could beat Colombia to first in Group C.
Predicted Group Winners and Qualifiers
There won't be any major shocks in the respective groups. But the most interesting tussles will come in Group C between Colombia and Ivory Coast, while Group D's three-way tangle between Italy, Uruguay and England will keep entertainment levels high.
Of the second-place teams, Croatia and the Netherlands will be the most fun to watch. By contrast, Portugal and Switzerland will toil through to the next phase.