World Cup 2014 Preview: To ‘B’ or Not to ‘B’
The samba beats are rolling and the world's eyes are now on Brazil. Come Thursday, women will have one more reason to nag at their husbands as they tune into the World Cup fever.
It comes only once every 4 years. A month of captivating matches, which test the endurance of the game's best players, coming out of a long season with their clubs. It's where youngsters make a name, veterans bow out in tears, and the occasional underdog silences the so-called experts.
We present you a brief overview of the title favorites, as well as some of the possible surprises to watch out for.
Whatever we say for Brazil in historic terms will not be enough. Having participated in all 19 previous World Cups, winning 5 trophies, "Sele??o" are a force to reckon with. It is a country that carries football in its DNA.
This will be the second time Brazil hosts the tournament, and naturally hopes and expectations are running high. However, memories of 1950 (losing the title to Uruguay 1:2 at Maracana) will haunt the home supporters right up to the point that they see the team lift the trophy.
The man tasked with bringing "home" the cup is Luiz Felipe Scolari. And who more appropriate than him? His last spell as national team coach was in 2001-2002, exactly when Brazil won its last World Cup.
Talented players have always been in abundance for Brazil. Often though, the challenge has been how to make them work together. When Brazil play as one, when their game is fluid, they can be an unbeatable team – and last year's Confederations Cup showed that.
At the end of the day, the hosts' biggest trump may not prove to be Neymar, Oscar, Hulk, or Dani Alves, but the man with the mustache.
Undoubtedly the absolute football dominant over the past 6 years. European champions in 2008 and 2012, as well as world champions in 2010. At club level, Spanish teams won both the Champions League (as well as runners up) and the Europa League this season.
Many speak of the decline of Spain. Signs of this could be seen at the Confederations Cup, where they lost the final 3:0 to Brazil. Inevitably, this is also linked to the decline of Barcelona's dominance over the past two seasons.
However, coach Vicente del Bosque should not be too worried with the squad he has. Most of his key players are at an ideal football age, David Silva (28), Diego Costa (25), Juan Mata (26), Cesc Fabregas (27), Gerard Pique (27), Sergio Ramos (28). The last has been instrumental for Real Madrid in clinching the 10th Champions League title.
If anything, del Bosque may have trouble choosing the optimal 11 in the starting lineup, but can benefit from rotating top class players in the tight schedule of matches. It is often said that a variety of equally good players is what can win you a tournament of this sort.
The big question for Spain will be, how hungry they are for more success.
With their last world title in 1990, the Germans go into yet another tournament with big hopes that their time has finally come. If their fans are to look at history however, the signs are not in their favor. All 3 World Cup trophies for Germany have been won on European soil. So can they deal with the heat of Brazil?
Overall, the German squad looks well-balanced, but there are certainly some worrying factors. The main one is the limit of options at the top of the attack. The only clear striker is Miroslav Klose, who at the age of 36 may not be the most reliable man to carry the potential weight of 7 matches required for winning the trophy.
This would not have been such an issue were it not for the last-moment injury of Marco Reus during a friendly against Armenia, which rules him out of the tournament. The 25-year-old Borussia Dortmund winger is a polyvalent player, who can be counted on to score goals, just as well as constructing them. With him out of the list, the task now seems to fall on Lukas Podolski.
Germany’s midfielders will have to be on the top of their game, both to support the attack and the defense, if the team is to progress far. Sami Khedira has missed much of the season at Real Madrid with an injury, while Mesut Ozil and Mario Gotze have also been inconsistent. With this in mind, it looks as though Bayern Munich’s Thomas Muller, Toni Kroos, and Bastian Schweinsteiger will be the make-or-break factors.
Coach Joachim Low will need to squeeze the last drop of energy out of his players if they are to lift the trophy in July. The fact that they are in a group with sturdy opponents like Portugal, USA, and Ghana only makes his task more difficult.
The Azzurri are always an unpredictable side. They have been rotating good and bad tournaments. In 2006 they won the World Cup, while in 2010 they bowed out in the group stage, finishing bottom against the unpretentious Paraguay, Slovakia, and New Zealand. At the 2012 European Championships, Italy once again defied the odds by reaching the final, where they lost to Spain.
So which face of Italy will we see in Brazil?
The logical answer would be, somewhere in between. Cesare Prandelli’s squad is not filled with stars – and those who are, fall into the 30+ age category (Gianluigi Buffon, Andrea Pirlo, Daniele De Rossi, Antonio Cassano). True, experience is indispensable, but it has to be coupled with solid follow-up from the younger generation. Something, which in my opinion, the Italians lack.
Prandelli will have to deal with the unruly character of Mario Balotelli, a player of doubtless quality, whose performance however, highly depends on his mood.
The Italians have a propensity to start slow in major tournaments and gain speed along the way. Now though, this may not be a viable option, as opponents in the group include England and Uruguay.
The cloud of pressure to deliver is not hanging over the Italians – something which could only make them stronger.
If there is one team that would be motivated to win the title as much as the Brazilians, this is Argentina. The fierce South American rivalry goes back decades, and so does Argentina’s last World Cup title (1986).
Lionel Messi is the big figure to follow. However, if the team is to rely exclusively on his services, failure could prove imminent. Following a weak season (for Messi’s standards), recurrent injuries, and a general tendency to underperform for the national team, the 4-time Golden Ball winner will require significant backing from his teammates if he’s to add a World Cup gold medal to his illustrious CV.
Argentina’s main setback could prove to be the defensive line, as well as the fairly inexperienced coach. This will be the first time Alejandro Sabella will manage a team in a World Cup, which could prove costly in the knock-out rounds. On the contrary, he can win himself a status of national hero, should he defeat the Brazilians on their territory.
Placing England in a list of World Cup favorites, one is bound to generate a fair amount of laughter. To not put them there would be unrighteous towards the founders of the game, and arguably the best league in the world.
England fans have long since settled with the uncomforting truth that the Premier League and the national team have absolutely nothing in common – give or take a few players. They have also learned painfully that when penalty shootouts come knocking on the door, it’s time to pack your bags and finish the last pint.
The team is in a period of switching generations. Players like Oxlade-Chamberlain, Jack Wilshere, Raheem Sterling, and Danny Welbeck signal hope for the future. Their baptism in a World Cup may prove to be rough, but this would only serve to build their character. If they have any doubts, all they have to do is take example from Michael Owen, who debuted for England at the age of 18 in 1998 and made headlines by scoring against Argentina.
Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard will go at it one last time, to try and nick something memorable from a World Cup. Wayne Rooney and Daniel Sturridge will need to put on their scoring boots in order to make it all happen.
With a shaky back line, the attack could prove England’s only hope for success.
Olivier Giroud, Karim Benzema, and Antoine Griezmann have tallied impressive goal accounts in the pre-tournament friendlies, be it against low-rank opponents. France’s group (Honduras, Switzerland, Ecuador) allows them to carry on this momentum and build up progressively.
“Les Blues” must be cautious however, not to underestimate the group. In both of their last World Cups played outside Europe, the French have finished bottom of their group, when on paper they were favorites.
Formed of players from Europe’s best leagues, the French have a reputable squad. The down side is, they lack a unique style of their own, pertinent to most other title favorites. If used effectively, this could be a way for coach Didier Deschamps to puzzle his opponents. His main task will be to keep the players united, and not give into the whims of individual stars. For that purpose, excluding Samir Nasri from the squad sent a clear message of intent.
The Portuguese are a side with plenty of experience. With an average age of 28.1, most of the players are counting on this tournament to leave a mark. In a country that speaks Portuguese, they should feel like a second home.
Portugal’s class outweighs its confidence. The team just doesn’t seem to believe it is cut out for glory – especially since losing the Euro 2004 final in Lisbon to Greece.
Champions League winners Cristiano Ronaldo, Pepe, and Fabio Coentrao must assume the leadership and set the tone for a successful tournament.
If the Portuguese can avoid faltering in the group stage (with Germany, USA, Ghana), I believe their confidence will only grow, and with that, their chances for the trophy also.
Belgium, Uruguay, Russia, Netherlands, Colombia