The greatest sporting event in the world is finally here.
The 2014 World Cup kicks off with host nation Brazil taking on Croatia in Sao Paulo, Brazil. A global audience will watch as the inaugural game whets their appetite for the spectacular displays of soccer set to follow.
Of course, no World Cup would be complete without a flurry of prognostications regarding how each team will finish. National pride is at stake for the 32 countries fortunate enough to send teams to Brazil.
Here are the latest betting lines on early matches from the group stages, followed by predictions on where each team will finish in the group stages.
|June 14||Costa Rica||+1205|
|June 17||South Korea||+338|
(Note: Odds courtesy of OddsShark.com and updated as of Wednesday, June 11.)
Group Stage Predictions: Order of Finish
(Note: Teams are listed in their predicted order of finish)
Group A: Brazil, Cameroon, Croatia, Mexico
The home team will have no problem moving on from the group stages. Neymar, Oscar, Hulk and the rest of the singularly named Brazilians will easily brush past their competition in this group.
Croatia will lose an emotional opener to the favored Brazil squad, which leaves the door open for Cameroon to make their move into the round of 16.
Even at his advanced age, talismanic striker Samuel Eto'o is the kind of player that can turn a game on its head with a brilliant goal. Croatia will need huge comeback performances from Luka Modric and Mario Mandzukic in order to notch a necessary victory against Cameroon.
Cameroon has the chops to beat Mexico in this group as well. The Indomitable Lions will live up to their nickname and boss around Mexico thanks to their strong, physical midfield led by Alex Song and Stephane Mbia. Two strong results should be enough to see them follow Brazil out of the group stages.
Group B: Netherlands, Spain, Chile, Australia
Spain and Netherlands are set to dominate this group. Chile features one of the best box-to-box midfielders in the world in Arturo Vidal, but they don't have the depth to compete with the defending World Cup champions or the flying Dutchmen.
Spanish defender Sergio Ramos, to his credit, insists his team doesn't take any opposing squad lightly.
"We need to keep focused and stick to the philosophy of playing style that has brought us so much success," said Ramos, via the Associated Press (h/t ABCNews.com). "We don't need to change it, we just need to maintain maximum respect toward our opponent, which is something that has helped us reach the top."
The Netherlands have a feisty, free-flowing attack led by Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie. They should score in bunches in the group stages, allowing them to beat out Spain for the top spot in this difficult group.
Whether or not the Oranje have the consistency and defensive chops to move through the knockout round is another question.
Australia: thanks for stopping by.
Group C: Ivory Coast, Japan, Colombia, Greece
Colombia will be missing the focal point of their attack in Brazil. Goal-poaching striker Radamel Falcao is injured and will not participate in the World Cup. On paper, they are the best team in this group, but they will struggle for goals and face an early exit from their first World Cup since 1998.
The Ivory Coast squad has its own injury issues to worry about, but should be able to carry on through to the knockout stages with their golden generation of stars.
According to ESPN.com's staff, Yaya Toure is struggling to maintain fitness and has yet to complete a full training session with the Ivory Coast squad. Toure is one of the most dominant midfielders in the world; there isn't another player in this group that can influence a match the way he can.
Even if Toure is hindered by his mysterious injury, Ivory Coast has midfielders like Cheick Tiote to boss the likes of Japan and Colombia. Look for Toure or Tiote to make marauding runs into the box to link up with Didier Drogba and muscle the Ivory Coast to the top of the group.
Japan will have to string together three brilliant matches in order to escape this group. They do have the midfield talent to pull off this unlikely feat and advance.
Keisuke Honda is a wizard from set pieces, and Shinji Kagawa's creativity should lead to plenty of goal-scoring opportunities. Both players scored in a 4-3 friendly victory over Zambia as part of the team's World Cup preparations.
They've been a bit leaky on defense but should be able to contain the Greek and Colombian attacks.
Look for the Japan-Colombia match to determine the runner-up in this group.
Group D: Italy, Uruguay, England, Costa Rica
This World Cup will be another agonizing affair for fans of the England squad. They will fail to get out of a group featuring two of the most talented strikers in the world: Luis Suarez and Mario Balotelli.
Luis Suarez comes into the World Cup as one of the most in-form strikers in the world. He racked up an astonishing 31 goals and 12 assists in 33 Premier League games for Liverpool this season. Despite some injury issues, he's a sure bet to punish England and Australia in the group stages.
Mario Balotelli craves the spotlight and will be a big factor in determining Italy's success in this World Cup. The AC Milan star will undoubtedly pop up for a goal or two, whether it's as a starter or late substitute.
To his credit, England star Wayne Rooney is bullish on his team's chances against Italy on Saturday, via the England squad's official Twitter account:
.@WayneRooney: Italy should be thinking about how to control our team. They have good players but so do we. They should worry about us.— England (@england) June 11, 2014
It will still prove difficult for England to break down Andrea Pirlo and Italy's peerless defensive structure without the likes of the injured Theo Walcott to make penetrating runs down the flank.
Group E: France, Switzerland, Ecuador, Honduras
France should be thankful they got a relatively pedestrian group draw now that Franck Ribery is set to miss the World Cup. It will be up to Olivier Giroud and Karim Benzema to spearhead the attack in his absence.
Switzerland should have no trouble beating out Ecuador and Honduras to take second place in the group. It would take improbable performances from Roger Espinoza and Wilson Palacios for Honduras to do anything more than make a lopsided scrimmage out of their group stage games.
If there is any chance for Ecuador to move on, it lies with Manchester United's Antonio Valencia wreaking havoc on the right wing and snatching a surprise goal or two against Switzerland's staunch defense.
Group F: Argentina, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Nigeria, Iran
The argument for Argentina is summed up in two words: Lionel Messi. Even a sub-par defense can't prevent the pint-sized dynamo from carrying his squad through to the next round.
Nigeria is one of the stronger countries representing the Africa continent, but they looked hapless in their 2-1 loss to the United States just before the World Cup. Iran's biggest moment will likely be the when the players shake Messi's hand after their matchup.
Bosnia and Herzegovina, led by star striker Edin Dzeko, have enough top-tier talent to see things through to the next round of play.
Group G: Germany, Portugal, USA, Ghana
The injury to Marco Reus is a huge blow to Germany, although they won't feel its impact until the later rounds of the tournament. They have the deepest collection of midfield talent in the world, and the likes of Lukas Podolski and Thomas Muller will be plenty strong enough to pick up the slack.
Everyone will talk about the form and fitness of Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo heading into the World Cup, but it will be the defense that keys the team's advancement.
Pepe is a strong center-back capable of thwarting any attack. Full-back Fabio Coentrao is a master at picking his spots for dangerous overlapping runs down the left wing. Both players start for Real Madrid, a prestigious club team far beyond the talent level of anyone on the United States or Ghana, except for Michael Essien.
The United States have to feel hard-done by their group-stage draw. Their biggest matchup may be the opener against Ghana, the country that ousted them from the 2010 World Cup. They may not move on from this group, but they can at least claim revenge.
The United States did receive a boost in their final tune-up game before the World Cup. Jozy Altidore notched a brace in the United States' 2-1 victory over Nigeria. The second goal was particularly stunning.
Altidore will put his confidence boost to good use, but it won't be enough to propel USA through to the knockout round.
Group H: Belgium, Russia, South Korea, Algeria
Russia look to be a tight-knit squad considering every member of the roster plies his trade in the home country. That is a rare advantage for a big European team and they could play some of the prettiest football in the group stages.
South Korea looks like a potential dark-horse team with Bundesliga stars like Ji Dong-Won and Son Heung-Min on the roster. However, they showed a disturbing lack of cohesion in their 4-0 loss at the feet of Ghana in the buildup to the World Cup.
Belgium is the class of this group. Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku and Marouane Fellaini will dominate on the pitch. This squad could easily make it out of the group stages undefeated and unblemished by an opposing goal.
Thibaut Courtois is coming off a stellar campaign in goal for Atlético Madrid. The lanky shot-stopper will ensure Belgium is comfortable with any lead in the group stages.