Thursday, April 10, 2014

World Cup Preview, Groups A and B

By Kevin Beane

With the World Cup scarcely over two months away, it's time to roll out the previews. In this first of a four-part series, I will be looking at groups A and B.

Group A

CAMEROON — I don't know if they are the worst squad in the entire field, but they were ranked the lowest (59th in the FIFA rankings) when they qualified. And they might be the worst. They failed to qualify for this year's African Cup of Nations, losing ignominiously to Gabon and Congo-Kinshasa along the way. In their only friendly so far leading up to the World Cup, they were thrashed by Portugal 5-1 in March.

Still, they have some nice players who ply their trade on European powerhouses, including Alex Song (Barcelona), Nicolas N'Koulou (Marseille), Henri Bedimo (Lyon), and Joel Matip (Schalke).

But make no mistake, this is 3-time African Player of the Year Samuel Eto'o's team, he of Chelsea and previously of Barcelona and Inter. He's their all-time leading scorer though he's still only 33.

Fans of the worldwide nature of the sport owe Cameroon a debt of gratitude. Their shock win of Group B in the 1990 World Cup, complete with a quarterfinal run and a win over Argentina, paved the way for more non-European and non-South American berths to be added to the competition.

CROATIA — The Croats are, perhaps, a bit lucky to be here. They finished second in their qualifying group, meaning they needed to win a two-legged playoff with another second place finisher to qualify, and they drew plucky Cinderella Iceland for that. They won 2-0 on aggregate.

Compounding matters for Croatia is they will be without perhaps their best player, Mario Mandzukic, for their opener because he did this.

The opener will also be the opening match of the tournament, against home-standing and hungry Brazil. If you draw the hosts, it's unlucky. If you draw the hosts for the opener, it's double unlucky. If that host was formerly a pre-eminent world power that has fallen off of late and has something to prove, yikes.

Really, whether they make it to the knockout stage depends on whether they win their match against...

MEXICO — Talk about being lucky to be here. They squeaked in as the fourth place CONCACAF qualifier, beating New Zealand in an inter-continental playoff. And they would not have even achieved fourth place if not for a stoppage time goal by their archrivals, the U.S., in their game against Panama on the last day of qualifying.

Still, they absolutely hammered the Kiwis in that playoff, winning 9-3 on aggregate, and they are undefeated in their last six matches. The future is bright, too: they won gold at the 2012 Summer Olympics.

Interesting trivia about Mexico: They have made it to the Round of 16, and no further, in the last five World Cups. That's what I see happening again.

BRAZIL — The fact that Brazil is only ranked 9th in the world seems bizarre at first glance. But then, it's been awhile since they've done much damage in the World Cup, bowing out in the quarterfinals in the last two. The quarterfinals is also all they could manage in the 2011 Copa America.

Consider, though, that it's difficult to pick up ranking points when you don't play any meaningful games, and as hosts, Brazil has been exempt from qualifying and can only pick up ranking points in friendly matches.

The one exception to their friendlies tour was last year's Confederations Cup, which they won with stunning ease. They went undefeated and won every match save one by at least two goals. They beat Spain 3-0 in the final. Spain, who wins everything.

This would seem to indicate they like home cooking, and they are going to get it. In their last 14 matches, Brazil has 13 wins, one loss, and no draws. They are very much back.

Predicted Order of Finish

1. Brazil
2. Mexico
3. Croatia
4. Cameroon

Group B

AUSTRALIA — Cameroon may have qualified with the lowest FIFA ranking, but Australia holds it now among World Cup participants (63).

Recent results have not been pretty. They've lost three in a row, including one to 98th-ranked China. Prior to that, they did enjoy a seven-match unbeaten run, but their only win against a fellow World Cup team in that span was in a home friendly over Costa Rica. Prior to that, but still within the past eight months, they endured back-to-back 6-0 defeats to Brazil and France.

This squad features exactly two players among their current squad and recent capped call-ups that play for one of the big European leagues, and one of those is a goalkeeper with 8 caps for Liverpool and 4 for his country. They will be lucky to get a point.

CHILE — Uruguay may object to this characterization with their recent successes, but South American football basically features Brazil, Argentina, and 2-3 countries to take turns in relevance among the rest, save Bolivia and Venezuela.

Right now, Chile is one of the countries taking their turn. They have quietly built their FIFA ranking up to 15th, and more quietly made the knockout round in the last World Cup, albeit in a weak group.

They are a ho-hum 2-2 in their last four, but they can be forgiven in the two losses — one goal defeats to Brazil and Germany — and one of the two wins was a 2-0 victory over England in London.

Alas, this group is too top-heavy for a return visit to the knockout stage, I fear. But that only means a) they can make the biggest statement in Chilean football history by proving us doubters wrong, and b) as they are lead by a pair of 25-year-olds (defender Mauricio Isla and striker Alexis Sanchez), the future is very bright indeed.

SPAIN — What can I tell you about Spain that you do not already know? They are ranked No. 1 in the world. They won the last World Cup and the last two European Championships. For some of these countries, I mention a couple players who feature for European heavies. For Spain, that's essentially "everybody."

But I think we are starting to see chinks in the armor. On March 5th, they had a nice 1-0 home win over Italy. Prior to that, their last 8 games featured just two opponents currently ranked in the FIFA top-20, and Spain didn't win either (the 3-0 loss to Brazil in the Confederations Cup final that I already mentioned, and a 2-2 draw with Chile last September).

Perhaps most worrisome of all was their November loss to South Africa. I figured they had sent a B team to Johannesburg, but no — they fielded seven players who started in the 2010 World Cup final. They aren't looking indomitable anymore, and I do not think they will win the group.

NETHERLANDS — It's somewhat inevitable that even the group stages in any World Cup will feature some marquee matchups, but man — Spain vs. Netherlands? That would be, if you don't recall, a rematch of the 2010 World Cup Final.

I've talked a lot about recent form for these teams. The Netherlands lost to France (in Paris) in March. Before that, they enjoyed 17 straight matches without a loss, a streak that went all the way back to August 2012.

If anything gets in the way of Holland, it might be the injury bug. Robin Van Persie, perhaps the biggest star on a squad, like Spain, that is full of stars, is trying to shake off a knee injury he suffered on duty with Manchester United, and midfielder Kevin Strootman is already a World Cup scratch.

If Van Persie gets back to 100%, however, that should be enough.

Predicted Order of Finish

1. Netherlands
2. Spain
3. Chile
4. Australia

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