(Photo Courtesy of The Telegraph)
Manager: Luiz Felipe Scolari
Projected Lineup: (4-2-3-1) Julio Cesar, Dani Alves, Thiago Silva (Captain), David Luiz, Marcelo, Paulinho, Fernandinho, Oscar, Neymar, Hulk, Fred. Notable Subs: Dante, Ramires, Luiz Gustavo, Bernard, Willian.
Previous World Cup Experience: Five-Time Champions (1958, 1962, 1970, 1994, 2002). Quarterfinalists in 2010 and 2006.
Strengths: Elite-level quality and a fitting counter-attacking system.
Brazil possesses two of the best players in the world. Captain Thiago Silva, who currently plays his club ball at PSG, is believed by many to be the best defender in the world. He’s technically gifted, is a tough tackler, and reads the game incredibly well. That ability is reflected within his sizable contracts and transfer fees as well as his current captaincy. Neymar is also one of the most gifted players in the world. His pace and elite ability to create for himself and others makes him a nightmare for every defender he faces. I’ll get to him more later on.
While this team isn’t a complete departure from the free flowing “Joga Bonito” teams of the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, it prides itself on it’s ability to defend and counter. Dani Alves and Marcelo are both attack-minded outside backs and David Luiz can get forward and join the attack better than most center backs. The midfield contingent is blessed with both playmakers (Oscar, Bernard, Neymar, Willian) and box-to-box types who can both aid the backline and support the attack (Fernandinho, Ramires, Paulinho). This squad possesses as good athleticism as any team in the world. If they can defend well, they can set up a deadly counter-attack that will pose a threat to every opponent they play.
Weaknesses: The hometown pressure and the lack of an elite forward.
This team is always under pressure from its fans and expectations are always high no matter the year, squad, or manager. However, that pressure will be magnified due to the fact that the competition is in Brazil. If you were watching the Confederations Cup this past June (which was also in Brazil), you saw a crowd that was bipolar. When Brazil was playing well (and thankfully they were most of the time), it was an incredible atmosphere. Likewise, if there was even the slightest hint of adversity, the fans weren’t nearly as willing to lend their good will. If Brazil struggles early on, it’s not hard to envision a scenario where the high expectations become an unbearable burden for a collectively young squad.
Brazil also lacks a deadly finisher to lead the front line. While Fred performed admirably in June (joint-top scorer with 5 goals), can you count him to perform at a high level once again? Right now he and Manchester City reject Jo are penciled in as the forwards. If Brazil can get production from these two, they can win it all. However, that is a sizable if.
Player to Watch: All eyes will be on the 22-year-old Neymar. The phenom certainly lived up to expectations during his first go-round in international competition, with four goals and a Golden Ball trophy during the Confederations Cup. Since then, he’s “struggled” by his standards. Following his $74 million move from Brazilian club Santos to FC Barcelona, Neymar failed to live up to some of the unbelievably high expectations set by the Spanish media. Despite some brief injury troubles, Neymar still tallied 15 goals in 41 total appearances for his new club.
His scoring record for his country is incredible (30 goals in 47 appearances) and he certainly lived up to his reputation at the Confederations Cup. While he won’t be alone in dealing with the immense expectations from the hometown crowd, he certainly will bear more responsibility than most.
Manager: Niko Kovac
Projected Lineup: (4-4-2) Stipe Pletikosa, Danijel Pranjic, Vedran Corluka, Dejan Lovren, Darijo Srna (Captain), Ognjen Vukojevic, Niko Kranjcar, Ivan Rakitic, Luka Modric, Mario Mandzukic, Eduardo. Notable Subs: Ivica Olic, Nikica Jelavic, Ivan Perisic, Ivan Strinic.
Previous World Cup Experience: Best finish was Third Place in 1998. DNQ in 2010. Group Stage exit in 2006.
Strengths: International Experience.
The Vatreni feature a number of players that have extensive resumes on the international level. In the back end, goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa and right back Darijo Srna each have over 100 international caps. Srna, who captains the side, is a dangerous attacking threat who possesses a consistent ability to swing in crosses from the flanks. He has 21 goals in his international career.
Niko Kranjcar, Luka Modric, and Ivan Rakitic all have 60 or more caps, despite being on the right side of 30. All three are high possession players that organize Croatia’s possession and push them forward into attacking areas.
Up top Croatia have four forwards with at least 32 caps: Ivica Olic (90), Eduardo (62), Mario Mandzukic (48), and Nikica Jelavic (32). All four represent serviceable options as target men or support strikers, with Mandzukic and Eduardo standing out in particular. Mandzukic, 27, has put together an impressive couple of years for Bayern Munich. The tattooed striker has scored 48 goals in 88 appearances for the German Giants. The Brazilian-born Eduardo, who I personally remember for his horrendous leg break suffered while playing for Arsenal in 2008, has an impressive scoring rate internationally (29 goals in 62 appearances).
Weaknesses: Why hasn’t this team done more?
On paper, Croatia looks like it should advance out of the group stages with little trouble. Their roster seemingly has an attractive combination of youth and experience. Their back line is led by a couple of veterans (Srna and Pletikosa) and center back Dejan Lovren, who had a great first season in the Premier League while playing for Southampton. The midfield has a depth of playmaking ability and the forwards are proven producers on the club and the international level.
With that being said, why has this group not fared better in recent years? They did not qualify for the cup in 2010 and they failed to win a game in 2006. They haven’t fared any better in the European Championships either, finishing no better than 5th since they began competing in 1996. Ultimately, this team possesses talent. However, there are certainly doubts as to whether they can put their best foot forward on a consistent basis.
Player to Watch: The former Spur Luka Modric. Modric’s game is often underappreciated, which is largely due to the fact that he doesn’t put up incredible numbers. In a combined 107 appearances for Real Madrid the last two seasons, Modric has tallied 6 goals and 17 assists. While those numbers pale in comparison to some of his teammates, Modric thrives in a deep-lying midfielder role where he can orchestrate possession and attacking moves from just in front of the back four. Think of Modric similarly to longtime Spain and Barcelona legend Xavi. Much like Xavi, Modric’s brilliance in maintaining possession and picking the right pass might sometimes go overlooked.
If Croatia is to advance out of the group stages, it’ll likely be because of Modric’s tireless work in the center of the pitch. While he may not show up on the score sheet every game, his teammates will undoubtedly know where there success stems from.
Manager: Miguel Herrera
Projected Lineup: (5-3-2) Guillermo Ochoa, Carlos Salcido, Rafael Marquez (Captain), Francisco Javier Rodriguez, Hector Moreno, Andres Guardado, Carlos Pena, Marco Fabian, Luis Montes, Giovani dos Santos, Javier Hernandez. Notable Subs: Paul Aguilar, Hector Herrera, Oribe Peralta.
Previous World Cup Experience: Best finishes came in the form of quarterfinals appearances in 1970 and 1986. Have advanced out of the Group Stage and exited in the Round of 16 in the last five World Cup’s.
Strengths: Experience in the defending third.
Mexico will likely start five backs that have at least 50 caps at the international level. Andres Guardado and Carlos Salcido will probably serve as wing-backs in El Tri’s 5-3-2. Both men will be relied upon to run up and down the flanks, supporting the defense and serving dangerous balls into onrushing attackers. Rafael Marquez, Hector Moreno, and Francisco Javier Rodriguez will man the three center back positions. Marquez, 35, will captain El Tri and remains a reliable threat on set pieces.
Weaknesses: Questionable midfield and a precedent for Round of 16 exits.
While the defensive unit possesses an abundance of experience, the midfield is full of unknowns. Seven midfielders were selected in Herrera’s 23 man squad. Out of those seven, only four have double-digit caps, and no one has more than 14. While I didn’t list him in my projected Starting XI, Hector Herrera is an intriguing name to keep an eye on. Herrera, 24, is the only member of El Tri’s midfield to play his club ball outside of Mexico (Porto). He had success for Mexico’s U23 team, and he will now look to solidify a role in the senior team.
Mexico’s consistency is incredible. However, its consistency doesn’t extend as far as many would like. In five straight World Cup appearances (1994, 1998, 2002, 2006, and 2010), Mexico has advanced out of the group stage, but bowed out in the Round of 16. Sadly, this team doesn’t look poised to break that trend.
Player to Watch: The Little Pea! Javier Hernandez, otherwise known as Chicharito, is one of the world’s best poachers. While he possesses serviceable quickness and technical ability, Hernandez has an innate ability to know where the chance will pop up. He can score goals with either feet and is a weapon in the air. If he can find an early rhythm in this year’s tournament, Mexico could prove difficult to deal with. Hernandez did struggle to see consistent time for Manchester United this year. While part of that was due to David Moyes’ cluelessness, Hernandez failed to inspire the confidence that would consistently make him a first-choice forward ahead of the likes of Wayne Rooney, Robin Van Persie, and Danny Welbeck. Despite his lack of club playing time, Hernandez remains a threat each time he takes the pitch. He will hope to add to his already impressive scoring rate (35 goals in 58 appearances) for El Tri.
Manager: Volker Finke
Projected Lineup: (4-2-3-1) Idriss Carlos Kameni, Henri Bedimo, Nicolas N’Koulou, Aurelien Chedjou, Benoit Assou-Ekotto, Jean Makoun, Stephane Mbia, Alex Song, Eyong Enoh, Pierre Webo, Samuel Eto’o (Captain). Notable Subs: Joel Matip, Landry N’Guemo, Maxim Choupo-Moting
Previous World Cup Experience: Best finish was a quarterfinal appearance in 1990. Group Stage exit in 2010. DNQ in 2006.
Strengths: Defending and Veteran Goal Scorers
During their 2012-13 international schedule, Cameroon allowed only 14 goals in 20 games. Kameni is a veteran goalkeeper that has played at the top level in Spain throughout his career. Nicolas N’Koulou (Marseille) is a rising young defender that is being scouted by top clubs in Spain and England. Aurelien Chedjou is a strong center back that possesses the strength and athleticism to keep up with the world’s top forwards. Henri Bedimo and Benoit Assou-Ekotto, of Lyon and QPR respectively, are two left-footers that have featured heavily in the Cameroonian side over the last few years.
The Cameroonian attack is spearheaded by a pair of over-30 strikers in Captain Samuel Eto’o and Pierre Webo. While I’ll get to Eto’o below, Webo is a talented striker that has tallied 17 goals in 55 appearances for Cameroon. Whether he’s partnering Eto’o in the attack or coming off of the bench, Webo provides the Lions with a secondary scoring punch.
Weaknesses: Depth in Attack
If Eto’o or Webo can’t prove to be a consistent source of goals, Cameroon’s cup run will be a short one. Jean Makoun (Rennes), Stephane Mbia (Sevilla), and Alex Song (Barcelona) are all capable midfielders, but they’re all defensively minded by nature. If they can join the attack, or it at least ignite it from a deep-lying position, Cameroon’s attack would truly benefit.
Maxim Choupo-Moting is an interesting name to keep an eye on. While his time may be limited due to his current standing as the third striker on a team that predominately plays one or two forwards, his age (25) and international and club level scoring record are impressive (9 in 23 international appearances and 18 in 65 Bundesliga appearances for Mainz 05). Whether it’s Choupo-Moting or one of the midfielders, Cameroon needs offensive contributions from players other than Eto’o and Webo.
Player to Watch: 33-year-old captain Samuel Eto’o. Following an adventurous club season with Chelsea, which featured an exchange between Eto’o and Jose Mourinho where Mourinho called Eto’o “old” and Eto’o called Mourinho a “fool,” Eto’o is set to compete in his fourth World Cup. Eto’o has long been the face of Cameroonian soccer. He has 55 goals in 115 international appearances.
At his best, Eto’o remains a potent goal scorer (check out his hat-trick for Chelsea against Manchester United this past season). If he can shrug off the lower body injuries that plagued him during his first season as a Blue, Eto’o has the opportunity to lead a team that might be its most talented to date.