The 2014 World Cup has finally arrived, and fans have been waiting for four years to find out whether there's any team capable of stopping hosts and favourites Brazil from lifting the trophy when it's all said and done.
The Brazilians join Argentina, Spain and Germany as the unquestioned favourites, with a handful of dangerous outsiders gathering steam in the last few weeks.
Let's have a look at the projected starting XIs for the four favourites, as well as the latest news surrounding the squads everyone expects to see in the semi-finals.
The hosts have remained relatively injury-free leading up to the tournament, which is a big advantage over some of their main rivals.
The handful of fixtures the team has played in preparation of the World Cup have gone smoothly, and judging by the frankly alarming amount of selfies coming out of the Brazilian camp, chemistry is as good as it gets.
Via Selecao Brasileira, the players understand this tournament is about more than just football. Many Brazilians are suffering, and the group wants to give them something to cheer about. Forward Fred put his feelings into words:
Fred: "99% of the players know from experience how people in this country suffer unless they are among the minority who have money."— Seleção Brasileira (@BrazilStats) June 9, 2014
Fred: "During the Confederations Cup, we talked about the protests in the locker room and we wanted to join in. Man, we supported them."— Seleção Brasileira (@BrazilStats) June 9, 2014
Fred: "As WC approaches there will be a lot of celebration. Everybody will be cheering, there won't be one person who is not following us."— Seleção Brasileira (@BrazilStats) June 9, 2014
The pressure this group of players face is tremendous, with the hopes of an entire nation resting squarely on their shoulders:
Fred: "We in Brazil know we have the conditions and an obligation to win this cup in Brazil, simply because this country breathes football."— Seleção Brasileira (@BrazilStats) June 9, 2014
Bleacher Report's Will Tidey and Ryan Bailey discussed the pressure the team will be facing, but both seemed confident the team would survive the group stages comfortably:
A handful of players have looked less than spectacular during the team's friendlies, including Dani Alves, but the Barcelona wing-back told reporters the team's main concern was avoiding injuries:
Dani Alves: "Don't criticize us too much for friendlies, the players didn't want to risk anything to not get injured. It was our main goal."— Seleção Brasileira (@BrazilStats) June 9, 2014
Players like Alves will be anxious to show what they can do in front of a very vocal home crowd, and a hot start will be needed for the team. The Brazilian fans are not afraid to let themselves be heard when things don't go according to script, and that is one distraction the team will want to avoid.
|CM||Angel Di Maria|
Preparations for the World Cup haven't gone smoothly for the Argentina squad, with the team unable to truly convince in back-to-back friendlies against Trinidad and Tobago and Slovenia.
Both matches were won comfortably, but the team's arsenal of forwards squandered too many good scoring opportunities for manager Alejandro Sabella to be truly comfortable going into the tournament.
It's less of a concern than the defence, however, with the back four not boasting the same star quality as the attacking unit. Both T&T and Slovenia were able to put pressure on the back four, and neither of those teams will be going to Brazil.
A relatively easy group will help ease some of these concerns a bit, and for all of their issues, Argentina still have one of the strongest squads in all of football, with a front line that would make any team in the world green with envy.
Lionel Messi is the obvious star, and teammate Angel di Maria told AS (h/t beIN Sports) how popular the forward is with his teammates:
It was our choice who wears the captain's armband and we chose Messi.
Hopefully he has a great World Cup. He's a fantastic player, and as a person, a great friend and a very good team-mate. He's a great captain. We all want the team to go well. The group is very united and we worked hard to get here. We want to continue down this path.
I tell the same story (about meeting Messi for the first time). When he went to the Olympics and I met him he was strong. Everyone was talking about Leo. He was already a dangerous player and I was next on the pitch. I like having him as a team-mate.
Like Brazil, Argentina are relatively healthy and playing close to home. With no injury distractions plaguing the team as they get ready for the World Cup, Sabella will get to divert all of his attention to making sure his defensive unit performs up to standards.
The big story coming out of the German camp is the injury to Marco Reus, with Sky Sports' Gernot Bauer informing us he will be replaced by the little-known Shkodran Mustafi:
Mustafi is a defender who plays his football in Italy with Sampdoria, so the 22-year-old won't be a direct replacement.
As explained by The Guardian's Raphael Honigstein, the injury to Reus is but the latest in a long line of setbacks plaguing the German team:
If Reus's absence has not quite punctured Germany's dream of a first trophy since Euro 96, it certainly added to what has been a fairly deflating buildup. The training camp in south Tyrol started with embarrassing revelations about off-pitch misdemeanours – Löw had lost his drivers' licence for speeding, Dortmund's Kevin Groflkreutz had been caught urinating in a Berlin hotel lobby – and was overshadowed throughout by doubts about the fitness of key players such as the goalkeeper Manuel Neuer (Bayern Munich), the striker Miroslav Klose (Lazio), the midfielders Sami Khedira (Real Madrid) and Bastian Schweinsteiger (Bayern), and the Germany captain Philipp Lahm.
The injury to Reus was the sort of accident that can happen at any moment but in the context of the past 10 days it seemed like a cruel, logical punchline.
Germany have talent to spare—or so it would appear—but the fitness of Khedira and Bastian Schweinsteiger is real cause for concern. Die Mannschaft is light on players able to play the ugly game in the trenches, and in a difficult group containing Portugal, Ghana and the USA, it could cost them.
The good news is that this team still has the ability to match up with any team in the world on their day, and the squad's insane expectations may have been lowered slightly in light of the difficulties Joachim Low has faced.
As shared by Fox Sports' Daniel Garb, Diego Costa started for La Roja in their 2-0 friendly win over El Salvador, indicating the forward is on schedule to make the 2014 World Cup:
Diego Costa back fit and scoring for Spain in WC warm-up. @MelbourneCity striker David Villa with the second. 2-0 winners over El Salvador.— Daniel Garb (@DanielGarb) June 7, 2014
The Brazilian-born forward will be counted on to lead the defending champions' attacking unit following a sensational campaign with Atletico Madrid. His health was Spain's biggest concern going into the tournament, and it now looks like Costa will be able to start for the team in their very first match.
Manager Vicente del Bosque spoke to FIFA's official website about the pressure of defending their title, emphasising the challenge would be a hard one:
Obviously it is not impossible but the normal thing would be not to win the World Cup. We have to understand the potential of the rivals we face, that the world doesn't revolve around us. But our goal and dream has to be to win it, to believe in it. ...
A World Cup is too big for those labels. Brazil are obviously playing at home and they're a great team but that also means they are under great pressure, much more than in the Confederations Cup.
Del Bosque will now shift his attention to the right-back position, where he has two strong candidates to start. Cesar Azpilicueta and Juanfran have both enjoyed excellent 2013-14 seasons, with the latter perhaps holding a slight edge. The defender did pick up an injury in the Champions League final, however, opening the door for the Chelsea man to make his claim.