Well anyway, good afternoon and welcome to the first in a series of eight group-by-group previews of the 2014 World Cup, starting today with the group the hosts, Brazil, must get through - Group A.
Don't be expecting fireworks here - this isn't the group of goals. Luis Felipe Scolari's Brazil 2014 are more like his solid 2002 version than the buccaneering 1982 or 1970 iterations. Their group-mates are mostly mid-table international sides; Croatia have craft and Cameroon a couple of lethal strikers, but if anyone is going to score freely it's probably the pacy Mexicans.
Best start at the top. The perceived advantage of hosting has seen Brazil installed firmly as favourites. And coach “Big Phil” Scolari, a Brazilian national treasure and himself probably the team’s biggest asset, is in confident form. Whether the Selecao can actually justify any of this, though, probably depends on a number of factors.
One is the ability to find goals in the quantity expected from Brazil. Their lineup of forwards contains few proven goalgetters at top level; target man Fred is a Scolari type of player, but fairly limited by the lofty standards that apply in a World Cup, while neither ex-Manchester City striker Jo nor new boy winger Bernard (who has played little club football in the last year) look likely to be prolific in the yellow shirt. Hulk, playing in his first major tournament despite several years of good club form in Europe, might just have what it takes to become one of the unexpected stars of this World Cup if things go well for Brazil. But as so often, most hopes rest on the number 10 – Neymar must deliver. A strong performance in the 2013 Confederations Cup and good form with Barcelona indicate that he may be able to do so, but we have to remember that this young man, though already a megastar, has never played on a stage this big before.
World Cup inexperience runs thoughout the squad in fact, and one other big question is how the team will gel and hold together under pressure. It must help that Scolari has been able to field a settled line up for a year now, although Brazil did not have the fortifying experience of a qualifying campaign. The midfield in particular, while typically smooth, appears to lack real veterans. But perhaps it would be best not to overplay this factor, as many of the lesser-capped players, like Manchester City’s Fernandinho or Chelsea’s Willian, are mid-career late bloomers rather than sapling youth. Meanwhile the defence is a relative strength, with Thiago Silva, Dani Alves, Marcelo and Chelsea’s David Luiz all among the world’s very best in their positions. The latter is probably the strongest of the side’s unusually large English-based contingent, although his club colleague Oscar looks to be a potential world cup star in attacking midfield. Goalkeeper Julio Cesar is hugely experienced, but probably good rather than great, and has not played much club football lately.
The biggest unknown factor is whether Brazil can make home advantage real. There is fear factor in Brazil, and the folk memory of defeat in the last home world cup in 1950. Enough teams have outperformed in home tournaments over the years however to suggest that stadia packed with partisan support do have an effect at international level, provided the team can stay on the front foot. Brazil can certainly be expected to take ownership of their group. Their second round draw looks tough, with the likelihood of facing Holland, Spain or Chile; things look slightly easier thereafter. Brazil could stumble, and if they do it may well be in the second round; if they get past that stage they will rightly be hot favourites.
Strengths: Settled team, winning coach, high quality and relatively experienced defence, Neymar’s good form.
Young player to watch: Brazil have a curiously Italianate reluctance to blood youth, sometimes, and there aren't many potential surprises in their squad. This could be 22-year-old Oscar's breakthrough.
Weaknesses: Lack of proven goalscorers. Midfielders and forwards mostly good, not great. Home advantage may turn on its head if the side go behind, especially in the knockout stage.
An initially solid qualifying campaign turned slightly sour towards the end for Croatia, who as usual are Eastern Europe’s best hope in the finals. Home defeat by group winners Belgium and a double defeat by Scotland forcing the Croats to fend off Iceland in a fairly kind playoff draw.
Although coach Kovac (himself a “water carrier” in his playing days) favours discipline ad organization, Croatia can make things difficult for themselves by conceding silly goals, even to weak opposition as the qualifying stage showed. Their draws often involved their letting slip a lead, their wins sometimes a recovery from behind. Their defensive line contains few players operating at the top of the European club game, but it does feature two hugely experienced campaigners in Dario Srna and Vedran Corluka.
In midfield, meanwhile, Kovac is perceived as rather under-using Luka Modric, who often plays deep, and Niko Kranjcar (who has been playing second-flight football in England this year) is often a sub. But it is an effective and crafty unit nonetheless, with a rising star in Sevilla’s Ivan Rakitic, holder of a newly minted Europa League medal. He and a deep-sitting Modric are more than capable of dictating the tempo.
Up front there is plenty of hard running and guile from Ivica Olic, Mario Mandzukic, and Hull’s Nikita Jelavic. This lot seem to make up in big match temperament what they lack in outright flair, especially Mandzukic who is prolific in the Bundesliga and did well at Euro 2012. Meanwhile it’s now or never for the more explosive Eduardo, who at 31 years old has a goal every other game at international level, but missed Euro 2008 and has otherwise flattered to deceive in tournaments. The Croats do also have some interesting youth options in midfield and attack, with Inter’s Mateo Kovacic probably the most exciting.
Croatia’s opening game against Brazil looks like a shot to nothing, in snooker parlance; they can have a go at the hosts without having to much to lose. Results against Cameroon and Mexico will be key. One senses that the African side do not have a lot to offer in this company, but the Mexicans could be a very different proposition.
Strengths: Technically solid midfield, promising youth, experienced strikers with a taste for the big occasion.
Weaknesses: Somewhat limited defenders; prone to mistakes; don’t always seem to know how to use their most talented attacking assets (Modric, Eduardo, and to a lesser extent Modric).
Young player to watch: enterprising Inter midfielder Kovacic.
Verdict: Not this time. Brazil will be too strong and if Mexico can use their mobile forwards to good effect they will give Croatia difficulties; an early flight home looks likely. Any kind of result in the opener against the hosts, however, will put Croatia on a roll.
African giants and regular world cup qualifiers Cameroon really scraped into the finals this time, relying on a retrospective overturning of their 2-0 defeat to Togo, who fielded an ineligible player, to scrape in via a playoff.
Superficially at least, the Indomitable Lions encapsulate the current predicament of African football. Their hopes are still pinned on an ageing talisman, with limited top tier talent in the generations below. Look a little closer, though, and things are not entirely as bleak as they first appear; in particular, there is great interest in the emergence of power forward Vincent Aboubakar, who has been on good form for Lorient in the French league this year. Six foot tall, explosively athletic and seemingly capable of being target man, poacher, and creator all in one, Aboubakar isn’t the overnight sensation he might first seem. His career prior to this season was not prolific and he has amassed 22 international caps with only two goals. Time to see if his form this year represents his true potential – if it does, and if he gets to play in his preferred central role, he could be a star. And the great Samuel Eto’o is not quite past it, himself – he has lost something to the advance of the years, for sure, but far from everything, as a tidy season with Chelsea has shown.
Other than Eto’o and Aboubakar, Cameroon’s attacking options are mostly makeweights, although Pierre Webo has his moments as an out-and-out traditional number 9.
In midfield Cameroon suffer from a surfeit of defensive midfielders of whom the best, given Alex Song’s flagging club form, is probably Stephane M’Bia. However, he does not tend to start games. He will face Sevilla midfield colleague Ivan Rakitic in the Croatia tie in Manaus. With bustling, athletic forwards and limited creativity in the middle of the park, it’s unsurprising that Cameroon adopt an industrious and fairly direct style. The defence is a relative strength, with an up and coming centre-half pairing in Marseille’s EUR10m-rated Nicolas N’Koulou and Galatasaray’s highly regarded Aurelien Chedjou.
Increasingly well organized on the back foot, but with little flair and a record of occasional disunity within the squad, in reality Cameroon don’t conform to too many African stereotypes. But in the face of their regular qualification for the world cup, it’s easy to forget how woeful their two last finals have been; they went out in the group stage in both 2002 and 2010 (failing to qualify in 2006) and in 2010 they lost all of their games. Quite a lot of the 2010 squad are still around, hopefully to learn from the experience. But in Croatia, Mexico and Brazil, Cameroon have once again been paired with teams who just look too strong for them.
Strengths: Defensive quality. A couple of dangerous forwards. Plenty of tournament experience.
Weaknesses: Record of failure at this level. Poor form, especially away from home; they recently lost 5-1 to Portugal. Precious little creativity or goal threat in midfield.
Young player to watch: undoubtedly Aboubakar
Verdict: Likely to fall at the first.
Mexico endured a torrid time in qualifying for this world cup, eventually reaching Brazil via a playoff with New Zealand after winning only two of ten games to finish fourth of sixth in their CONCACAF qualifying group. They endured a number of nil-nil draws as their attack misfired against middling-to-weak opposition.
The attacking weakness in the qualifiers looks like a case of choking, as on paper the side would seem to have goals in it. This is despite the absence of the stylish Carlos Vela, whose commitment to national team football has long been in question. Javier Hernandez may not be a regular starter with Manchester United at present, but the pacy and predatory forward has shown he can be a goal threat at tournaments. He struck twice in South Africa in 2010 and starred with seven goals as Mexico took the 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup. The other likely options up front are Liga MX stalwarts without European experience, Oribe Peralta and Raul Jimenez, both reliable scorers for club and, in Peralta’s case, country. There’s also the option of no.10 Giovani dos Santos, now firmly established with Villareal after his disappointing spell at Tottenham. Emerging utility-forward Alan Pulido, who scored a debut hat-trick in a recent 4-0 friendly rout of South Korea, is also staking a claim.
Relatively workmanlike in midfield, Mexico in the middle of the park possess neither imposing physicality nor great guile. Potentially the best of the starters is Carlos Alberto Pena, a 24-year-old box to box midfielder nicknamed “Gullit”, who brings most of the muscularity that Mexico possess. His likely midfield partners Hector Herrera (of Porto) and Juan Carlos Medina (an anchorman just establishing himself internationally at 30) are energetic enough, but more creative midfielders Isaac Brizuela, Marco Fabian and Luis Motes are likely to get supporting roles at most. Width is a real weakness, and in this department Mexico offer little in midfield or attack – wide play is likely to come from wingbacks Paul Aguilar and Miguel Layun, neither of whom looks particularly strong at this level. It’s also in midfield that Mexico’s relative lack of European club experience is most pronounced, with Liga MX players dominating. It’s a good league, but doesn’t offer the exposure to top international players and tactics that European competition does.
Mexico’s clearest strength is the centre of defence where the stylish and hugely experienced Rafael Marquez, now at domestic club Leon after winning two Champions’ Leagues with Barcelona, will captain the side for a fourth world cup. His likely partners in the centre are both up and coming stars with European clubs - Hector Moreno is an established first teamer with La Liga’s Espanyol, and very much in the shop window this world cup, while 21-year-old Diego Reyes is a B-teamer at Porto but has Copa America and Olympics experience with Mexico. 90-cap Francisco Rodriguez is an able deputy, and veteran keeper Jesus Corona is a strength. Former Fulham left-back Carlos Salcido may also travel, his 119 caps adding more experience to the mix, as may the similarly experienced fullback/wingback Andres Guardado.
Experience in fact is one of Mexico’s strengths. Like many American nations, Mexico play a lot of tournaments, and a number of their squad have experience of some or all of the 2010 World Cup, the 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup and Copa America, the 2012 London Olympics, and the Confederations Cup and Gold Cup in 2013. While there are old-stagers like Corona, Rodriguez and the peerless Marquez on hand to lend an avuncular word, Mexico also have younger players with massive international experience; Guardado has 100 caps at 27, Dos Santos 73 at 25. Victory at the Olympics in 2012 has given several of the younger players a taste of winning.
Notwithstanding all of this, Mexico are an erratic side, and they often struggle to make their identifiable strengths count. Hence the dreadful qualifying campaign. Their tournament performances are up and down; the Gold Cup 2011 and Olympic victories were followed by disaster at the Confederations Cup. Nevertheless, in South American conditions, Mexico’s attacking options, solid defence, and experience should give the an edge over Croatia in what looks like the battle for second place in this group.
Strengths: Solidity in central defence and attack; a good keeper; lots of tournament experience.
Weaknesses: Lack of pace and physicality; doubts over optimal selection in midfield; no established playmaker.
Young player to watch: Isaac Brizuela, the “Little Rabbit”, a quick-footed goalscoring playmaker who could also have played for the USA. Plays his club football with Toluca in the Liga MX. If he gets game time, he could impress the big clubs.
Verdict: Good enough for Round 2 if they can make the most of their resources for once, but unlikely to go further.