Brazil, Mexico, Croatia, Cameroon
A group from which hosts and tournament favourites Brazil will easily progress from – the battle for second place will be more intriguing.
12 June 2014
Brazil v Croatia, Arena de Sao Paulo, Sao Paulo, 21:00 (ITV)
13 June 2014
Mexico v Cameroon, Arena das Dunas, Natal, 17:00 (ITV)
17 June 2014
Brazil v Mexico, Estadio Castelao, Fortaleza, 20:00 (BBC)
18 June 2014
Cameroon v Croatia, Arena Amazonia, Manaus, 23:00 (ITV)
23 June 2014
Cameroon v Brazil, Estadio Nacional, Brasilia, 21:00 (ITV)
23 June 2014
Croatia v Mexico, Arena Pernambuco, Recife, 21:00 (ITV)
- World Ranking: 4 (correct to 6 June)
- World Cup best: Winners (1958, 1962, 1970, 1994, 2002)
- World Cups played in (including 2014): 20 (first in 1930)
- Manager: Luiz Felipe Scolari
- Captain: Thiago Silva
Star Man – Neymar
Believe the hype; Neymar is pivotal to Brazil. Full of energy and deft touches, and able to dribble at incredible speed, he is the player most capable of changing a game for Luiz Felipe Scolari’s side. The 22-year-old World Cup poster boy – who joined Barcelona last summer for £48.6 million – appears unfazed by the public expectation, scoring 13 times in his last 16 caps. Although most of those games have been friendlies, it has still meant that Neymar is carrying the expectation of the whole country on his shoulders at such a young age – can he handle the pressure?
One to Watch – Bernard
Luiz Felipe Scolari says that 21-year-old Bernard “has joy in his legs”. Direct, quick, and a bundle of energy, the 5ft 5in winger made his full debut for Brazil in September and scored his first goal against Honduras in November. Once considered too small for professional football, Shakhtar Donetsk paid £21.5m for him last summer and after recent events in Ukraine, it has been reported that the youngster could move again this summer. If he impresses at the World Cup, a transfer to one of Europe’s top clubs – possibly to join Neymar at Barca – will be imminent.
How they qualified
Brazil needed no qualifying stages as they are hosts, but greatly impressed at last summer’s Confederations Cup where they smashed Spain 3-0 in the final.
Prediction – Winners
Despite the huge pressure put on them, I think that Brazil will breeze through the group stage without really breaking a sweat. They will go up a gear in the knockout stages where more challenging opponents will await but I can see the hosts going all the way to claim their sixth World Cup trophy with their hard-to-break-through defence and scorching attack.
- World Ranking: 19 (correct to 6 June)
- World Cup best: Quarter-finals (1970, 1986)
- World Cups played in (including 2014): 14 (first in 1930)
- Manager: Miguel Herrera
- Captain: Rafael Marquez
Star Man – Javier Hernandez
Despite not playing in the play-off against New Zealand, there is no doubting that Javier Hernandez is one of the, if not the biggest stand out names in Miguel Herrera’s squad. On his day, the striker (nicknamed Chicharito) is one of the most exciting names in world football. Although currently an impact player at Manchester United, Hernandez will be expected to play from the start for his country in Brazil, where he will be only second to Mario Mandzukic in terms of the best out and out striker in Group A. Yes, I am saying he is better than Samuel Eto’o.
One to Watch – Oribe Peralta
Oribe Peralta top scored in qualifying for the Mexicans with 10 goals, including five in the play-off against New Zealand. The Santos Laguna striker was one of his country’s three over age players at the 2012 Olympics and scored both goals as Mexico beat Brazil in the final to win gold. Not as well known as strike partner Chicharito, but he will be just as important to Miguel Herrera’s side’s chances of progressing to the knockout stages.
How they qualified
By the skin of their teeth. Only a late comeback from the USA against Panama saved El Tri from elimination in the final round of CONCACAF qualifiers. That set up a two-legged tie against New Zealand, which they won 9-3 on aggregate.
Prediction – Round of 16
There’s definitely some talent in the Mexican ranks, but their chances will rest on whether that talent is brought out. Three points are must in their opening game, whilst their final group game against Croatia will likely decide their fate. I think they’ll just about scrape into the Last 16 against the odds, but that’s as far as they will get.
- World Ranking: 20 (correct to 6 June)
- World Cup best: Third (1998)
- World Cups played in (including 2014): 3 (first in 1998)
- Manager: Niko Kovac
- Captain: Darijo Srna
Star Man – Luka Modric
Some may say Mario Mandzukic is Croatia’s best player, but the striker is suspended for the opening two games after being sent off in the playoff decider against Iceland, so Luka Modric, the creative hub of the team, will obviously take the role of star man for Croatia. The Real Madrid man can dictate play from a deep midfield role or out on the left hand side, although sat in behind the strikeforce is where he causes the most damage. Will ask Brazil’s tough defence some questions in the opening game of the tournament.
One to Watch – Mateo Kovacic
Seen as many people’s favourite to first play alongside and then succeed Luka Modric in the Croatian midfield, 20-year-old Mateo Kovacic has not had the easiest first full year at Inter Milan since joining the Italian club in January 2013. There have been no such issues for his country, however: the teenager was thrown into the pressure-cooker environment of grudge-match qualifiers against Serbia as a holding midfielder before excelling in the World Cup play-off against Iceland, laying on a goal after a mazy dribble from deep. Now, Brazil awaits – and possibly the shop window…
How they qualified
Croatia were level on points with group leaders Belgium after earning five wins and a draw from six matches, but they only managed one point from the remaining four fixtures meaning they had to beat Iceland in a play-off 2-0 on aggregate to reach Brazil.
Prediction – Group Stage
Like Mexico, Croatia have a squad full of talent but are likely to be one of the teams worst affected by the conditions and face Cameroon in the jungle heat of Manaus in their second game. Although they are many people’s favourites for group runners-up, I think facing Brazil in the opening game could have killed them already and they will let expectation get the better of them.
- World Ranking: 50 (correct to 6 June)
- World Cup best: Quarter-finals (1990)
- World Cups played in (including 2014): 7 (first in 1982)
- Manager: Volker Finke
- Captain: Samuel Eto’o
Star Man – Samuel Eto’o
Samuel Eto’o is the captain and a four-time African Footballer of the Year but it is off the field that his influence could be most telling. The Chelsea forward, 33, briefly retired from international football last September in the wake of a dispute with coach Volker Finke, and in the latest fallout with team-mates he then claimed there was a “plot” among them not to pass him the ball in the World Cup play-off against Tunisia. If he can put all that behind him, then he will be influential. If he can’t, then it’s curtains for Cameroon.
One to Watch – Vincent Aboubakar
After excelling with French side Lorient this season, striker Aboubakar could make a name (and big-league transfer) for himself this summer. Starting up front alongside Eto’o, the 22-year-old may profit from defenders concentrating on his illustrious partner. He was only 18 years old when he was taken to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa by then-coach Paul Le Guen – but it seems that it will be this World Cup where he announces himself on the world stage.
How they qualified
Like Croatia and Mexico, Cameroon reached the tournament via the playoffs. They received a World Cup lifeline in June 2013 when FIFA awarded them a 3-0 win over Togo, who had fielded a suspended player. Cameroon had lost the match 2-0 but the ruling put them top of their group. They then beat Tunisia 4-1 in their play-off to get to Brazil.
Prediction – Group Stages
Have been placed in a tough group and don’t have a good record at recent tournaments. That suggests that they won’t qualify, which is a probability but they won’t go home without a fight and may nick a point or two to affect other teams’ chances.
My final table prediction