Is anybody signaling the death of international football now?
While the Champions League has undoubtedly overshadowed almost everything else that happens during the football calendar, nothing quite galvanizes supporters like the World Cup.
And with this summer featuring one of the deepest fields in years, the 2014 World Cup should be a marked improvement from the lackluster 2010 iteration and what many see as the steady decline of the event since 1986.
Here's a look at the eight groups at the 2014 World Cup:
|2014 World Cup—Group Stage|
|Group A||Group B||Group C||Group D|
|Group E||Group F||Group G||Group H|
Below is the bracket for the knockout stages:
Group A is Brazil's to lose.
The Confederations Cup proved how good this squad can be. Brazil's physical, pressing, counter-attacking style is the tactical system that's in vogue at the moment, and the Selecao's decimation of Spain in the Confederations Cup final was reminiscent of Bayern's dispatching of Barcelona in the Champions Cup two seasons ago as well as Real Madrid's elimination of Bayern this past campaign.
Considering his sky-high expectations and price tag, Neymar's first season in Spain wasn't a rousing success, but he played very well and should be much more prepared to handle top international competition than he would have been if he had stayed in the Brasileirao.
The second spot in Group A will likely come down to the final match of the group between Croatia and Mexico.
Cameroon have been plagued by too many issues behind the scenes, and Samuel Eto'o can't be the spearhead of the attack as he has been in years past.
Mario Mandzukic's one-match suspension should hurt Croatia too much, since the match that he'd miss will come against Brazil. As long as the Croatians can beat Cameroon and follow up with three points against El Tri, they'll be perfectly fine.
Although Niko Kovac's back line raises some serious questions, his midfield is among the best at the tournament. Luka Modric is a key figure on the European champions, and Ivan Rakitic was one of the most dynamic players in La Liga this past season.
Croatia should be able to overcome what has been an inconsistent Mexico squad throughout the qualifying campaign.
Spain have firmly earned the benefit of the doubt at this point. Until they stumble at a major international tournament—the Confederations Cup doesn't count—La Roja should be penciled in as the favorites in Group B, no matter how difficult the group is.
The potential loss of Diego Costa will be a major blow, but coach Vicente del Bosque has said that he won't hesitate to call in a replacement, per AS:
What looked to be a tough battle between Netherlands and Chile is becoming easier and easier to predict.
First, the Dutch lost Kevin Strootman to a torn ACL. His importance to the side can't be understated. Strootman was the lynchpin in midfield, linking the defence and the attack. No other player offers available to Louis van Gaal offers his versatility.
Then came the news that Rafael van der Vaart will miss the World Cup as well, after suffering a calf injury, per BBC Sport:
Midfield was one of the Netherlands' biggest areas of weakness at Euro 2012, and without the services of either Strootman or Van Der Vaart, it will be a major issue once again.
Chile didn't need much help, but those two injuries may have given them everything they need in order to finish second in the group.
La Roja are one of the most intriguing teams in the tournament. Jorge Sampaoli has brought the fun back to the side, and Chile's fast-paced, pressing style will make them very hard to play against, especially in the Brazilian heat.
Alexis Sanchez and Eduardo Vargas are an intimidating duo up top, so while Chile won't rely on a typical No. 9 leading the line, those two should provide enough goals.
The Radamel Falcao injury still weighs heavily on Colombia's chances.
Los Cafeteros have a strong squad overall, but so much hinges on the health and performance of Falcao. Any team would be much better off with one of the world's best finishers at 100 percent.
In what is a somewhat weak group, Colombia should be able to finish as the top team in the group.
Cote d'Ivoire, Greece and Japan are in a three-way fight for second. Greece will be defensively organized but lack a reliable No. 9 after Kostas Mitroglou's disastrous spell at Fulham. Cote d'Ivoire have to get over their own failures at international tournaments.
For Japan, it's the same story it's often been: Although they have a very good midfield, they lack a top-notch forward to finish the chances created by Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa.
Although Les Elephants are still a little too reliant on 36-year-old Didier Drogba, they at least have other forwards who can shoulder the scoring load. This isn't like Cameroon, who have Eto'o and little else up top.
Cote d'Ivoire should also get one more good tournament out of Didier Zokora, with Serge Aurier providing some youth out right.
Runner-up: Cote d'Ivoire
The Confederations Cup will prove to be an invaluable experience for Italy. The players understand what it's like to play 90 minutes in the sweltering heat of Brazil, and they'll have come to grips with what will likely be a partisan Brazilian crowd.
In the June issue of FourFourTwo, Matt Barker interviewed manager and Italy international star Gianluca Vialli. Of the Confederations Cup preparations, Vialli said:
There's so much that they would have taken from that experience, everything from logistical information to the way that the grass is in Brazil—how the ball rolls on the surface out there. They would have got some idea of how it feels playing in that sort of heat and humidity as well. All of that information will have been looked at and worked on, to be used to their advantage in June.
Cesare Prandelli has the magic touch when it comes to Mario Balotelli. The volatile striker is often on his best behavior with the national team, so he's a strong shout to take home the Golden Boot.
The midfield is also one of the best in Brazil, as Andrea Pirlo can still pull the strings, while Daniele De Rossi remains one of the best defensive midfielders in the world.
A first-place finish is well within reach.
The other top contenders to advance are dealing with some major issues.
Uruguay haven't done much to integrate youth into the squad that finished fourth in 2010. Diego Forlan, in particular, has proven hard to phase out, as Edinson Cavani has failed to carry his club form over to the national team.
England, meanwhile, may have a hard time utilizing both Daniel Sturridge and Wayne Rooney in the same strike partnership. In general, the Three Lions lack what you'd consider to be match-winners, and they have to get over their own failures at international tournaments.
Between the two, Uruguay has the stronger case for advancement.
France were given a godsend with the draw. They'll need a massive collapse to not finish in the top two of Group E, and first place should be the expectation.
Since taking over for Laurent Blanc, Didier Deschamps' more positive, personal style has worked wonders in building squad harmony. Leaving Samir Nasri out of the team caused a mini-controversy, but given Nasri's problems in the dressing room, Deschamps made the right move.
France have always had the talent. Les Bleus' tendency to let off-field problems spill over into the team's performance is the issue.
That shouldn't be a problem this summer, however.
Franck Ribery's injury was the subject of some consternation among supporters. But in the end, it may not have a huge impact, at least in the group stage:
Maybe this is Antoine Griezmann's chance to truly sign on the international level.
Switzerland and Ecuador will be going against one another for the other spot in the knockout stages.
Although Ecuador has the built-in advantage of having experience playing in the Brazilian climate, they were poor away from home during qualification, drawing two and losing three. Ecuador are also a bit top heavy, with strong attack but weak midfield and defence.
The Swiss are lacking a proven No. 9, but that problem is drowned out by what is an underrated midfield. The Napoli duo of Valon Behrami and Gokhan Inler is a strong double-pivot, and an attacking trio of Valentin Stocker, Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka will have no trouble creating scoring chances.
I'll keep this pretty straightforward: This is the weakest of the eight World Cup groups.
Argentina are far and away the best team on paper. With Alejandro Sabella, they have a pragmatic coach who won't be afraid to win ugly if necessary. The contrast between the free-wheeling, playground football of Diego Maradona couldn't be any more stark.
If La Albiceleste fail to finish atop the group, it will be a major shock.
Bosnia-Herzegovina would appear to have a lock on second place. Although Safet Susic doesn't have a stable back four, that doesn't stop him from throwing everything forward in a bid to outscore the opposition. The Zmajevi may struggle against Argentina, but they have more than enough to see off Nigeria and Iran.
Taking 35-year-old Miroslav Klose is a bit of a gamble for Germany, but they're the side most equipped to play without a recognized forward, aside from Spain. Maybe Joachim Low will opt to play somebody like Mario Goetze as a false nine.
Injuries have had their way with the squad already, but Low has a deep talent pool from which to select replacements.
Die Mannschaft have their fair share of issues, but they shouldn't be enough to prevent them from finishing top of Group G.
While Ghana and the United States could give Portugal a run for the second spot, the fightin' Cristiano Ronaldos should advance.
The U.S. is integrating a lot of inexperienced players into the squad, while the Black Stars might struggle against Portugal, given their strength in midfield. Ghana don't have a ton of creativity in the attack, and their defence will be easily exploited by Ronaldo's speed and talent.
Belgium have few holes in their squad. They have an attack that can compete with anybody, while the defence is anchored by one of the Premier League's best centre-backs and the best young goalkeeper in the world.
The question should be asked as to whether expectations are too high for a squad that has been out in the cold for so long, but in a relatively easy group they should finish top.
Russia are one of those teams whose style and talent make them a toxic combination for the established sides. Fabio Capello doesn't care how his team plays as long as it wins. He's been a pragmatic foil to Guus Hiddink, who turned Russia into such an enjoyable side between 2008 and 2010.
The Russians won't be high on aesthetic value, but international football often benefits the more defensive team.