The World Cup is less than three weeks away. I’ll break down each group as best I can. When teams are listed, I will place them on how they were drawn (for example, Brazil and Croatia will be listed first because that is the first scheduled game). I will also pick the two teams from each group that I predict to advance.
Brazil, Croatia, Mexico, Cameroon
Analysis: Brazil, being hosts, are arguably the team to beat in this group. There is also a chip on Brazil’s shoulder, which I’m not sure will help them or hurt them. Croatia and Mexico had a rough qualifying schedule, particularly Mexico. They would have been out of the intercontinental playoff against New Zealand were it not for a late United States goal against Panama (they needed a win or for the U.S. to draw with Panama to get them through). The strange part is that with players like Giovani do Santos and Javier Hernandez (a.k.a. “Chicharito,” or “little pea”), Mexico should be more dominant on paper. I believe that several Croatian players are suspended due to accumulated red or yellow cards. I watched Croatia closely, since they were in a group with Belgium, and they started strong, earning a 1-1 draw in Brussels. Arguably, the turning point for both teams was on June 7 of last year, when Belgium earned a clutch win over Serbia, the only other team within striking distance. Meanwhile, Robert Snodgrass’ first half goal gave Scotland’s Tartan Army a massive upset, in Zagreb no less. After that, the wheels came off for Croatia: a 1-1 draw with Serbia, a 2-1 loss to Belgium (which clinched Belgium’s qualifying spot in the Cup) in Zagreb, and another upset loss to Scotland, a 2-0 loss in Glasgow. In UEFA, there are nine groups, and one second-place team is left out; had Denmark scored one more point, they could have knocked Croatia out of the playoffs. What a collapse that would have been. Cameroon’s qualifying was easier, winning 4-1 on aggregate over Tunisia. Brazil should make it through, having dominated the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup; if both Mexico and Croatia struggle, Cameroon could go through, but I see Mexico’s resolve toughening.
Who goes through: Brazil, Mexico
Spain, Netherlands, Chile, Australia
Spain comes in as the defending champions, and really had no problems qualifying. That first matchup with the Netherlands will be a rematch of the 2010 final. Understandably, the Dutch will want revenge, and I could see it ending 3-3. Chile and Australia, unfortunately, will suffer as a result. Once Spain and Netherlands play each other, it should be easy pickings for them. Chile played Spain in Group H four years ago, but Spain was dominant, and Australia is probably in over their heads.
Who goes through: Spain, Netherlands
Colombia, Greece, Cote d’Ivoire, Japan
This is the most intriguing group, as well as the most wide-open. None of the four teams have played each other in the Cup (Greece and Cote d’Ivoire are still only in their third appearance). I would favor Cote d’Ivoire to win the group, because Colombia is in for the first time since France 1998, so familiarity won’t be on their side. However, Greece and Japan are probably not as talented as the other two, and Colombia did play very well in CONMEBOL qualifying.
Who goes through: Cote d’Ivoire, Colombia
Uruguay, Costa Rica, England, Italy
This is a very intriguing group; with the exception of Costa Rica, every team in this group has won at least one World Cup. Uruguay is coming off a fourth-place finish in South Africa, and they return a lot of their core players. Mario Balotelli will be the one to watch for- he should guide Italy into the final sixteen. Given England’s tendency to underperform and overestimate their potential, I think the law of averages will catch up with them, and they will not make it out of the group stage. Costa Rica is not favored in any game, and very likely will end up with one point at most.
Who goes through: Italy, Uruguay
Switzerland, Ecuador, France, Honduras
Switzerland has secured a top seed, but I’m not sure if that’s not a fluke. Ecuador has a very good side, and won in the clutch when they had to, and I think France will overcome their bickering. Coached by Didier Deschamps, France is probably the best team in terms of talent in the group. I think Switzerland’s group is easier than usual, but they may have overplayed their hand a little bit.
Who goes through: France, Ecuador
Argentina, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iran, Nigeria
Argentina probably has the easiest group; Nigeria is their toughest match, and they will play each other last. Also, given that Argentina and Nigeria have played each other twice in the last twenty years, including four years ago (which Argentina won), Argentina and Lionel Messi should have a reasonably easy time. Iran is the longest shot to win the Cup at 100-1, so I wouldn’t be surprised if they lose all three games and end up as the worst team statistically. Bosnia-Herzegovina is the only newcomer this year, and given that they have to play Argentina first, it could be an uphill battle. They do have scorers, including Manchester City’s Edin Dzeko, but if they go cold, it could be a long way back.
Who goes through: Argentina, Nigeria
Germany, Portugal, Ghana, United States
This is the Group of Death, i.e. the toughest group- all four teams made it to the round of sixteen in 2010. Now, for all of the doomsday predictions of the U.S. followers, it’s not like the other teams are looking forward to playing them- even if the U.S. does end up losing all three games, they should at least make it competitive. I see the U.S. earning a point against Ghana, and perhaps with Portugal, who underperformed in qualifying and need somebody else to carry the load outside of Cristiano Ronaldo. If the U.S. can contain Ronaldo, there’s a decent chance. Also, since Jurgen Klinsmann coached Germany in 2006, and many are returning, there might be some familiarity there. I still think the U.S. is in too deep, but I don’t think it should be as bad as many are predicting it to be.
Who goes through: Germany, Ghana
Belgium, Algeria, Russia, South Korea
Belgium’s second “Golden Generation” has high expectations; this is arguably their best team since 1986, when they finished fourth. Luckily, Belgium is able to avoid many big teams, although Russia and South Korea have played them well. South Korea is streaky, and I think Russia will be tough, but I see Belgium getting seven points and topping the group (wins against Algeria and South Korea, and a draw with Russia). Algeria is one of the weaker teams, and Russia have improved, so I see them taking the second spot.
Who goes through: Belgium, Russia
Round of 16
(A1) Brazil vs. (B2) Netherlands
(C1) Cote d’Ivoire vs. (D2) Uruguay
(E1) France vs. (F2) Nigeria
(G1) Germany vs. (H2) Russia
(B1) Spain vs. (A2) Mexico
(D1) Italy vs. (C2) Colombia
(F1) Argentina vs. (E2) Ecuador
(H1) Belgium vs. (G2) Ghana
Brazil over Netherlands
Cote d’Ivoire over Uruguay
Nigeria over France
Germany over Russia
Spain over Mexico
Italy over Colombia
Argentina over Ecuador
Belgium over Ghana
Brazil vs. Cote d’Ivoire
Germany vs. Nigeria
Spain vs. Italy
Argentina vs. Belgium
Brazil over Cote d’Ivoire
Germany over Nigeria
Spain over Italy
Argentina over Belgium
Brazil vs. Germany
Spain vs. Argentina
Brazil over Germany
Argentina over Spain
Germany vs. Spain (Spain wins third place)
Brazil vs. Argentina (Brazil wins World Cup)