The 2014 World Cup is ever drawing closer, with just a handful of friendly matches remaining before the first teams will take to the pitch for the opening fixtures.
Injuries to star names have rocked the playing field, and while strong contenders like Spain and Germany have plenty of talent to overcome the loss of one or two key players, several dark horses have to like their chances of pulling an upset.
Other teams have struggled during their preparations for the tournament, and with little time left to fix some of the issues these teams might be facing, the 2014 World Cup is shaping up to be one of the most competitive yet.
Let's have a look at the full tournament schedule group-by-group and predict which teams will be playing once the group stages are over.
|Group A Fixtures|
|June 12||Brazil vs. Croatia||9 p.m. BST/4 p.m. ET||Sao Paulo|
|June 13||Mexico vs. Cameroon||5 p.m. BST/12 p.m. ET||Natal|
|June 17||Brazil vs. Mexico||8 p.m. BST/3 p.m. ET||Fortaleza|
|June 18||Cameroon vs. Croatia||8 p.m. BST/3 p.m. ET||Manaus|
|June 23||Cameroon vs. Brazil||9 p.m. BST/4 p.m. ET||Brasilia|
|June 23||Croatia vs. Mexico||9 p.m. BST/4 p.m. ET||Recife|
Hosts and tournament favourites Brazil have remained injury-free during their preparations and strong performances in their friendly fixtures have the team carrying a lot of momentum into the tournament.
The Brazilians have a strong mix of veteran leadership and young talent in the squad, and everyone will have to be at their very best to deliver the nation their first World Cup win since 2002. Playing at home can be a big advantage, but the pressure from the fans will be immense.
Croatia have looked solid, if unspectacular, in the run-up to the tournament. Star striker Mario Mandzukic left the pitch with a slight knock against Australia, but he was able to return to the match after a few minutes and should be good to go for the opening match against Brazil.
Mexico have lost back-to-back friendlies against World Cup-bound teams, but their talented squad has been very hot-and-cold in recent months. They're no longer favourites for Group A's second ticket to the knockout stages but writing them off now would be unwise.
Cameroon's 2-2 draw against Germany was impressive, and veteran forward Samuel Eto'o appears to be on a mission to show the world he can still lead a front line as well as anyone. Group A's draw isn't an easy one, but Mexico's struggles have opened the door for the Indomitable Lions to advance.
Prediction: Brazil and Croatia advance.
|Group B Fixtures|
|June 13||Spain vs. Netherlands||8 p.m. BST/3 p.m. ET||Salvador|
|June 13||Chile vs. Australia||11 p.m. BST/6 p.m. ET||Cuiaba|
|June 18||Spain vs. Chile||11 p.m. BST/6 p.m. ET||Rio de Janeiro|
|June 18||Australia vs. Netherlands||5 p.m. BST/12 p.m. ET||Porto Alegre|
|June 23||Australia vs. Spain||5 p.m. BST/12 p.m. ET||Curitiba|
|June 23||Netherlands vs. Chile||5 p.m. BST/12 p.m. ET||Sao Paulo|
Australia finally looked like a team worthy of being in Brazil in their 1-0 loss against Croatia, but the challenge in Group B will be even greater, with three teams all looking to make a deep run in the tournament.
Spain are defending champions, won Euro 2012 and get to pick their squad largely from teams playing in La Liga, a competition that holds both the UEFA Champions League and Europa League titles.
Diego Costa's ongoing struggles with injury are an issue, but La Roja have won without Costa in the past.
The Netherlands will be out for revenge for the final they lost against Spain four years ago, but the 2014 squad is far younger and more inexperienced. The loss of Kevin Strootman has forced the team into a 5-3-2 formation and results so far have been mixed at best.
Via PhysioRoom.com News, Chile's Arturo Vidal should be ready in time for the World Cup:
The Juventus midfielder adds to what already is a very talented squad, and the Chileans have been tactically superb under the guidance of Jorge Sampaoli. Playing close to home will give the team a boost, and a potential date with Brazil in the second round is tantalizing.
Prediction: Spain and Chile advance
|Group C Fixtures|
|June 14||Colombia vs. Greece||5 p.m. BST/12 p.m. ET||Belo Horizonte|
|June 14||Ivory Coast vs. Japan||11 p.m. BST/6 p.m. ET||Recife|
|June 19||Colombia vs. Ivory Coast||5 p.m. BST/12 p.m. ET||Brasilia|
|June 19||Japan vs. Greece||11 p.m. BST/6 p.m. ET||Natal|
|June 24||Japan vs. Colombia||9 p.m. BST/4 p.m. ET||Cuiaba|
|June 24||Greece vs. Ivory Coast||9 p.m. BST/4 p.m. ET||Fortaleza|
The Samurai Blue have scored seven and conceded four in their last two friendlies, but that's just who Japan are. Entertaining and attacking football will lead to plenty of goals, but it's often also a death-sentence in major tournaments.
The Greeks, for instance, would love nothing more than to use their disciplined brand of football to stonewall Japan and score maybe once on the counter. Struggles in their friendlies have highlighted a lack of creativity in midfield, and it will be on star striker Kostas Mitroglou to fire the team to the next round.
Few teams can match Colombia's offensive firepower, even without Radamel Falcao, and James Rodriguez has looked solid leading the charge for the nation. Tunisia and Senegal found ways to score against them too easily, but the Colombians are the most talented team in Group C nonetheless.
Ivory Coast haven't been flawless in their preparations, but they carry as much veteran talent as anybody in this group. Yaya Toure is in the form of his life and Didier Drogba is looking for one final transfer move to a big club, so both will have all the ammunition they need for a big performance.
Prediction: Colombia and Japan advance
|Group D Fixtures|
|June 14||Uruguay vs. Costa Rica||8 p.m. BST/3 p.m. ET||Fortaleza|
|June 14||England vs. Italy||11 p.m. BST/6 p.m. ET||Manaus|
|June 19||Uruguay vs. England||8 p.m. BST/3 p.m. ET||Sao Paulo|
|June 20||Italy vs. Costa Rica||5 p.m. BST/12 p.m. ET||Recife|
|June 24||Italy vs. Uruguay||5 p.m. BST/12 p.m. ET||Natal|
|June 24||Costa Rica vs. England||5 p.m. BST/12 p.m. ET||Belo Horizonte|
The Italians have looked bad in preparation, but that's usually the sign the team is about to come to life during the cup. Ricardo Montolivo's injury was a blow, but Marco Verratti has looked phenomenal in his absence.
The Azzurri will go as far as the duo of Andrea Pirlo and Mario Balotelli can take them, but looking back on Euro 2012, that's pretty darn far.
England are young, talented and inexperienced, and it showed in their friendly against Ecuador. If they can play focused football for 270 minutes, there's no reason they can't survive this group. Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling are ready to go, and Wayne Rooney's chances of going yet another World Cup without scoring seem small.
For all of their attacking prowess, however, the defence is still suspect. The Three Lions will most likely determine their fate in their opener against Italy, and they'll have to do better than they did two years ago.
Uruguay have done little wrong during their preparations, and a returning Luis Suarez can only help their chances. Pundits are heaping praise on this team to the point one has to fear they might buckle under the pressure, but their performances four years ago suggest this team can once again go a long way in this tournament.
Costa Rica were a popular pick to upset one of the established nations in Group E, but their final few matches have been rough. Joel Campbell has been the driving force behind this team during their strong spells, and Costa Rica have to hope the youngster shows up in Brazil.
Prediction: Italy and Uruguay advance
|Group E Fixtures|
|June 15||Switzerland vs. Ecuador||5 p.m. BST/12 p.m. ET||Brasilia|
|June 15||France vs. Honduras||8 p.m. BST/3 p.m. ET||Porto Alegre|
|June 20||Switzerland vs. France||8 p.m. BST/3 p.m. ET||Salvador|
|June 20||Honduras vs. Ecuador||11 p.m. BST/6 p.m. ET||Curitiba|
|June 25||Honduras vs. Switzerland||9 p.m. BST/4 p.m. ET||Manaus|
|June 25||Ecuador vs. France||9 p.m. BST/4 p.m. ET||Rio de Janeiro|
Franck Ribery is one of the many stars who will miss the 2014 World Cup, as shared by Sportive23:
Antoine Griezmann has looked solid as a replacement so far, and France have more pure talent than any of their group stage opponents. But Ribery was one of the driving forces behind Les Bleus, and his absence will be felt as much in the dressing room as it will on the pitch.
The Swiss are a strong, cohesive unit with more talent than people give them credit for, and while they might often look unspectacular in their wins, they win more matches than they lose.
The Napoli duo of Gokhan Inler and Valon Behrami has the physicality to dominate any opposing midfield in the world, and the Swiss won't be an easy out for anyone.
Ecuador are one of the tournament's most underrated attacking teams, but their defence is too easily caught out of position. If they can play focused football and use the Brazilian climate to their advantage, they have a chance of getting past both European teams.
Honduras have struggled during their preparations and won't relish the thought of going up against three talented, attacking teams. The team will need a big tournament from young talent Andy Najar to have any hopes of making it past the group stages.
Prediction: France and Switzerland advance
|Group F Fixtures|
|June 15||Argentina vs. Bosnia-Herzegovina||11 p.m. BST/6 p.m. ET||Rio de Janeiro|
|June 16||Iran vs. Nigeria||8 p.m. BST/3 p.m. ET||Curitiba|
|June 21||Argentina vs. Iran||5 p.m. BST/12 p.m. ET||Belo Horizonte|
|June 21||Nigeria vs. Bosnia-Herzegovina||11 p.m. BST/6 p.m. ET||Cuiaba|
|June 25||Nigeria vs. Argentina||5 p.m. BST/12 p.m. ET||Porto Alegre|
|June 25||Bosnia-Herzegovina vs. Iran||5 p.m. BST/12 p.m. ET||Salvador|
Argentina have one of the most talented squads in the world, with arguably more offensive firepower than any of the other teams and a strong presence in midfield.
The defence looked shaky against the Soca Warriors, however, and that doesn't bode well with an eye on the knockout stages. The Argentine squad should make it out of Group F easily, but they'll have to work out some kinks in order to make a deep run.
Bosnia and Herzegovina will be making their World Cup debut, and led by Edin Dzeko, they've done just about everything right in their friendlies leading up to the tournament. Experience can be a big factor at this level, and that is one thing the team severely lacks.
Nigeria have plenty of experience, but preparations haven't gone as smoothly. Scotland almost seemed to score at will during their friendly, and Emanuel Emenike has looked completely isolated at times. Super Eagles have the talent required to advance, but they need to get on the same page.
Iran are the outsiders in this group, but they comfortably took care of qualifications and have a solid squad capable of surprising a team or two. A lack of true stars is countered by the team's strong work ethic and chemistry, a dangerous combination at a final tournament.
Prediction: Argentina and Nigeria advance
|Group G Fixtures|
|June 16||Germany vs. Portugal||5 p.m. BST/12 p.m. ET||Salvador|
|June 16||Ghana vs. United States||11 p.m. BST/6 p.m. ET||Natal|
|June 21||Germany vs. Ghana||8 p.m. BST/3 p.m. ET||Fortaleza|
|June 22||United States vs. Portugal||8 p.m. BST/3 p.m. ET||Manaus|
|June 26||United States vs. Germany||5 p.m. BST/12 p.m. ET||Recife|
|June 26||Portugal vs. Ghana||5 p.m. BST/12 p.m. ET||Brasilia|
Germany are another team reeling from injuries, with Sami Khedira still lacking match rhythm in the centre of the pitch and Marco Reus dropping out of the squad altogether, via Sky Sports:
The pressure is on the Germans' golden generation to perform, and their lack of dominance in midfield against Cameroon is cause for concern.
Portugal have injury concerns of their own, and at the time of writing, it still isn't clear whether or not Cristiano Ronaldo will be fit in time for their first match.
The Portuguese squad is talented, but perhaps not as talented as the one that nearly won the European championship 10 years ago. Qualifiers didn't go as smoothly as planned, but on their day, they can still hang with the very best of them.
The same goes for Ghana, who have the talent to benefit most from the injuries rocking the German and Portuguese squads. Preparations have been underwhelming, however, and unless the Ghanaians can turn things around quickly, the World Cup might be over for the team before it ever truly began.
Of all the teams in the group of death, it's surprisingly been the USA who have looked like the best team heading into the World Cup. The team believes this could be the year they announce their arrival on the big stage, and it would truly be an upset of epic proportions.
Prediction: Germany and Portugal advance
|Group H Fixtures|
|June 17||Belgium vs. Algeria||5 p.m. BST/12 p.m. ET||Belo Horizonte|
|June 17||Russia vs. South Korea||11 p.m. BST/6 p.m. ET||Cuiaba|
|June 22||Belgium vs. Russia||11 p.m. BST/6 p.m. ET||Rio de Janeiro|
|June 22||South Korea vs. Algeria||5 p.m. BST/12 p.m. ET||Porto Alegre|
|June 26||South Korea vs. Belgium||9 p.m. BST/4 p.m. ET||Sao Paulo|
|June 26||Algeria vs. Russia||9 p.m. BST/4 p.m. ET||Curitiba|
Belgium have looked dominant preparing for the World Cup, but this supremely talented squad is very young and inexperienced. Expectations are huge, and the Red Devils wouldn't be the first team to crumble under the weight of those expectations.
The Russians were dealt a heavy blow by the loss of their captain Roman Shirokov just a week before the start of the tournament. Losing any player is tough, but replacing a team captain on such short notice is near impossible. Preparations haven't been great, either, but the team is still amongst the most talented in Group H.
Algeria have had no issues whatsoever, surprising plenty of casual fans with solid performances against Romania and Armenia. Like Belgium, the squad is young and hugely talented, but expectations are more manageable. Their opening match against the Red Devils will be crucial.
Korea Republic struggled in qualifiers, and their struggles have continued up until this point. The team is transitioning from the golden generation that shone in 2002 to a new, younger squad, and not much is expected from the Koreans in an otherwise relatively easy group.
Prediction: Belgium and Algeria advance
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