I've teamed up with Pat (follow him on Twitter @The_Incline) to preview the 32 teams in the tournament. Today we get started with Group A and hosts Brazil.
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World Cup Appearances: 20
Best result: Champions (1958, 1962, 1970, 1994, 2002)
How they Qualified: Automatic qualification as the host nation
FIFA Ranking: 4
Brazil is the only nation to appear in every World Cup and is hosting for the second time. As the host nation, they did not compete in the CONMEBOL qualification. They flexed their muscles in the Confederations Cup last summer, being the first team to defeat Spain in the knockout portion of an international tournament since the semi-finals of the 2009 Confederations Cup. Amazingly, Brazil has not advanced past the quarterfinals since 2002 when they won their 5th World Cup. There is tremendous pressure on the Brazilian team to hoist their 6th World Cup trophy on home soil, and they are fielding an atypical roster of young but inexperienced players.
Will the Brazilians suffer the same fate as the Russian Olympic Hockey Team that failed to even medal in Sochi? Neymar is one of the most exciting players on the planet and for Brazilian soccer (actually, Brazilian anything) it's about dominating and looking good doing it. The attack-attack-attack Brazilian style has struggled on the international stage when they have run into collapsing defensive teams (hey, this sounds familiar to Pittsburgh Penguins fans). While Brazil should dominate down the sides, their weakness is in the middle of the field and will need their forwards to control the play.
The World Cup figures to be one giant party in Brazil, and a run to the championship by the Brazilians would send an already raucous nation onto a bender that might last until the 2016 Summer Olympics.
Pat's Players to Watch:
- Neymar: Gone are Ronaldinho, Kaka, and Robinho. It is time for the Barcelona wonder kid to carry the weight of the host nation’s hopes on his shoulders. It might seem a bit much for the 22 year old forward, but based on his performance in last summer’s Confederations Cup and for his club, Neymar could be the next legendary #10 for the Seleção.
- Paulinho: Between Neymar, Hulk, Fred, and Oscar there will be no shortage of offensive firepower for the hosts. However, someone within the midfield will have to hold possession and provide a link between offense and defense. Venture too far forward and Brazil could be in trouble, find a right mix of both, and Brazil will be even more dangerous. The Tottenham midfielder can also contribute goals, with six coming this season in a Spurs kit.
- Marcelo: The Real Madrid left-back will bookend an extremely dangerous back end with Dani Alves. Marcelo was not chosen for South Africa 2010 by then manager Dunga, but has no shortage of big time experience on the international stage. He featured in the UEFA Champions League final (aka the Madrid derby). Brazil’s ability to attack from the wings begins with both Alves and Marcelo. They’ll be worth watching.
World Cup Apperances: 15
Best Result: Quarterfinals (1970, 1986)
How they Qualified: Defeated New Zealand in CONCACAF-OFC Playoff
FIFA Ranking: 19
The Mexicans reached their 6th consecutive World Cup by the skin of their teeth. On the last day of the hexagonal CONCACAF qualification, Mexico fell to Costa Rica, putting their qualification in jeopardy. Just two hours later things looked bleak with Panama leading the United States 2-1 in the 90th minute, but goals by Americans Graham Zusi at 90+2 and Aron Johannsson at 90+3 stunned Panama and prevented them from forcing a tie with Mexico, sending the Mexicans to the Intercontinental Playoff. El Tri disposed of New Zealand on a 9-3 aggregate to secure their place in the field of 32, but problems abound for this squad. A team typically known for playing an attacking style mustered just 7 goals in the 10 qualification matches of the hexagonal and El Tri promptly sacked their manager.
The Mexicans soccer team is like the Dallas Cowboys. On paper you think they are loaded with talent, but they consistently under-perform on the big stage. The only times El Tri has made it past the Round of 16 in the knockout stage were in the two tournaments they hosted. They have been eliminated in the Round of 16 in each of the past 5 World Cups. This is a team with some scoring talent in Javier Hernandez, and their match against Brazil should be a wide open affair between two attacking squads.
Pat's Players to Watch:
- Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez: The Manchester United striker struggled under the now-sacked David Moyes. The Little Pea’s form has suffered internationally due to injuries and lack of playing time in England. If Mexico are to advance from this group, Hernandez will have to revert back to his 2012-13 level.
- Rafa Marquez: The stalwart defender is 35 years old. Yes, I said 35. A lack of experience on the back line will most likely force Marquez into a starting role with El Tri. The fact that Marquez is playing a significant role for Mexico may be a sign of vulnerability on the defensive side. It could be ugly when Brazil counters against an older and less-experienced back line.
- Miguel Herrera: Yes, I’ve selected the manager. However, Herrera is credited with rescuing El Tri from a near disastrous qualifying campaign. Anytime you have to beat New Zealand in a playoff to qualify, something went wrong. Herrera is Mexico’s fourth manager in the last two years. Even with the near disaster, supporters of El Tri will expect to advance from the group.
World Cup Appearances: 4
Best Result: 3rd place (1998)
How they Qualified: Defeated Iceland in UEFA Playoff
FIFA Ranking: 20
You know that tablecloth that your mom only brought out to throw over the porch table in the summer? Croatia liked the design so much they made jerseys out of it. They backed into a second place finish in their qualification group and eeked out a 1-point advantage over Denmark for the last spot in the Second Round. After going 1-3 (including 2 losses to Scotland) in their last 4 group play matches, Croatia drew the weakest team in the playoff round in Iceland. After a draw in the first leg of the aggregate, Croatia won the second leg 2-0 to secure their place in the World Cup. This is a team that plays a technically sound game and on paper has talented players. They will push Mexico for the second qualification spot from Group A, but the way they have played down to lesser opponents over the last year is certainly a cause for concern.
Pat's Players to Watch:
- Luka Modric: The Real Madrid midfielder has played a role in getting his club side to the Champions League Final. Modric will be the man who controls Croatia’s midfield. The Balkan nation usually punches above it’s weight, but if hopes to advance out of the group, Modric will likely be the reason.
- Mario Mandzukic: The talented striker who plays his club football at Bayern Munich is suspended for the opening game against Brazil due to FIFA’s archaic yellow card policy. However, Croatia will need Mandzukic’s prowess around the goal for crucial games against Mexico and Cameroon. Mandzukic scored 18 goals for Bayern this season in all competitions.
- Ivan Rakitic: The midfielder is a defensive yin to Modric’s offensive yang. The central midfielder has enjoyed an outstanding season with Sevilla in La Liga, scoring over 10 goals and assisting on more than 10 others. He led Sevilla to the 2013-14 Europa League title.
World Cup Apperances: 7
Best Result: Quarterfinals (1990)
How they Qualified: Defeated Tunisia in CAF Playoff
FIFA Ranking: 50
In the World Cup, one goal can change the course of the tournament for a team, and with veteran captain Samuel Eto'o at the helm. They have a tall task ahead of them to get out of the group stage for only the second time in their history. They are not a superb offensive squad like previous iterations of the Cameroonian National Team and there are holes on their back line that make them an easy candidate to be the team that suffers an 8-0 defeat (probably to Brazil) in the first round of this year's tournament. However, if Mexico and Croatia (sides that also have struggled to find their offensive games at times in qualification) come out flat, Cameroon could seize the opportunity to take second in this group.
Pat's Players to Watch:
- Samuel Eto’o: The striker who plays his club football for Chelsea (for now at least) is probably the most high profile player on the Cameroon roster. Eto’o is known for his goal scoring and his winning. He’s won with nearly every club he has played for, including Barcelona and Inter Milan. Eto’o ventured into the Russian unknown in 2011 to join the uber-wealthy Anzhi Makhachkala. If Cameroon are to advance, which is unlikely, it will likely be because of Eto’o. It will be Eto’o’s fourth World Cup appearance.
- Joel Matip: The 22-year old currently plays for Germany side Schalke, for whom he has already made 121 appearances. The imposing Matip can’t be missed in the defense, and his aerial prowess is both a defensive asset and an attacking weapon. Many European teams have shown interest in the German-born defender, and with his contract due to run out shortly, larger clubs may make Shalke an offer they cannot refuse.
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