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Bracketology 101; 2014 FIFA World Cup…Breaking Down The Groups: A-D

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Read Part I here

World Cup 2014

Part 2: The Supremacy

In Part 2 of this multipart series breaking down the 2014 FIFA Men’s World Cup, we’re going to look at the first four groups; A through D, in more detail.

The Groups     

Group A

Group A is the international soccer community’s gift to Brazil for going to the expense and effort of hosting the World Cup. It would be tough for the tournament favourites to have found themselves in an easier group than they have found here. Mexico is talented but redefines what it means to be an underachiever. A team that should have cruised through to win their region needed to slip through the back door to make the field. Cameroon and Croatia both have miracle runs in their World Cup past, but that past is long gone.

Group A at a glance

Best team: Brazil. Obviously. The gap between them and the rest is massive. Gigantic. Enormous. Impossibly large. It’s not silly to say that Brazil could play at 50 percent of their potential and still win this group; even if they weren’t playing in front of a wildly-enthusiastic home crowd.

Worst team: Mexico. It could be Cameroon, too; I don’t like much about either team, but I’ll give the Mexicans a small edge in the fight for the basement. To get into the field they needed to beat New Zealand in a playoff. Good teams don’t get into positions like that.

Best game: Brazil plays Mexico on June 17. Brazil won’t lose, but if anyone can make it interesting, it’s Mexico.

Predicted order of finish: Brazil wins three games and advances easily, with Croatia getting the second spot with two wins. Cameroon and Mexico fight out for the meaningless third spot in the group.

Brazil: Big favourites to progress!

Brazil

The 2014 FIFA World Cup hosts Brazil are the favourites to lift the trophy for a sixth time. With the soccer mad nation desperate to see their samba stars win on home soil, can the Seleção manage expectations?

Well, if we’re ever going to find-out, then this will be the time. The host team is the solid favourite to win it all and it is really their tournament to lose; at least as much as that is possible in a tournament as tough as this one. The storylines aren’t tough to figure out. They have a stacked and loaded roster. Neymar is a freakish talent at the top of the pyramid, but he sure doesn’t have to carry the team alone. They are playing at home where they are comfortable. To maximize the advantage, all of these games will be in tropical settings; a climate that they will feel very comfortable in.

They performed well in the Confederations Cup; known as the World Cup rehearsal, where they beat a Spanish side that had claimed the last three major international tournaments.

However, this is the real thing and the Samba Boys will undoubtedly be compared to their compatriots in 1950; the last time Brazil hosted the tournament and when they also lost to Uruguay in the final. Never-the-less, as I mentioned earlier be very aware as to how much relevance you place on historical data when filling out your brackets, after all there is 64 years between the two Brazilian World Cups.

There is always a concern with the host nation because they haven’t been seasoned by the tough qualifying process. They won the Confederations Cup, though, and looked good doing it, so they should be ready.

With all of that being said, the hosts have to be massive favourites to progress through a relatively easy looking group. They have only failed to advance from the group stages twice (1930 and 1966) and have reached the final in three of the last five World Cups.

Brazil also hold an undefeated and drawless record (winning percentage of 100% ) against all three of their Group A opponents in all of their combined previous World Cup meetings.

The head coach took an underachieving team all the way to a win in the 2002 World Cup, so he knows all about winning in this tournament. They are ready. The only real concern is that they could underperform early because the group is so weak and they know it. Given the weight of the expectations they face, though, that’s not a major concern.

Thus, the only unanswered question that still remains is; will they prosper with a home field advantage or buckle under the strain?

Croatia: Lack of goals could be an issue!

Croatia are second-favourites to qualify for the knockout stages of the World Cup for the first time since 1998, which happened to be their inaugural World Cup as Croatia, having previously competed as part of Yugoslavia.

It was in 1998 that the Croatians shocked the world, knocking off Germany and the Netherlands en route to a stunning third-place finish in the World Cup. The result came from nowhere; they didn’t even win their group in round robin play.

Apart from France 1998, where they finished third, Croatia have been eliminated in the group stages in both 2002 and 2006, while completely failing to even qualify at all for the 2010 World Cup.

Even though in their two subsequent appearances they have gone nowhere, I’m tipping this to be the year for that to change.

No, their qualification process wasn’t smooth; after finishing second behind Belgium in qualifying, Croatia needed the playoffs to confirm their place in the tournament where they beat Iceland 2-0 on aggregate.

Yes, their depth is underwhelming and to add to this problem, star striker Mario Mandzukic is suspended for the start of the tournament after being shown a straight red card against Iceland.

Former Croatia captain Niko Kovac was appointed manager in October following the resignation of Igor Stimac. Kovac had only become Croatia’s under-21 boss in January, so he had very little management experience and when you combine this with very little time in charge of his nation; one has to question whether this inexperience will affect them at the elite level?

Kovac will look to address Croatia’s issues in front of goal after they were one of two teams not to score more than twice in qualification and scored just 1.17 goals per game during qualification; which is the lowest average out of all the nations who qualified for this year’s World Cup.

Croatia has never played Cameroon, but in their two World Cup fixtures against Brazil and Mexico in 2006 and 2002 respectively, they lost both.

3,429 miles is the distance Croatia will travel to play their three Group A matches, the second highest number of miles of any of any team of any group.

Could this gruelling schedule prove pivotal in deciding whether or not they qualify for the knockout stages?

Mexico: Chaotic qualifying leaves more questions than answers!

Two years ago I thought that Mexico was going to be an attractive long-ish shot pick to win it all. They have talent, they have had success in the past and they aren’t playing too far from home. The qualification process dissuaded me from backing this squad, though. They looked just terrible qualifying and had to beat New Zealand in a last-chance playoff to earn this date with the hosts. They won the Olympics in 2012, so nationally they are relevant, but that squad is different than what we will see here and I don’t expect the success to carry over. I wouldn’t be surprised if they did advance but I’d definitely be surprised if they did anything in the playoff round.

Mexico slipped six places in the FIFA Rankings after a turbulent qualifying campaign that left a number of unanswered questions.

Not only did they use 47 different players while navigating a second-tier CONCACAF region, but they also had four different managers.

Miguel Herrera became Mexico’s fourth coach when he was appointed in October to take charge for the play-off against New Zealand. Interestingly Herrera opted to call-up only domestic-based players in the play-off; however he is expected to recall the likes of Javier Hernandez and company for the finals.

El Tri qualified with a 9-3 manhandling of New Zealand, but were all but out of the chance to even have the opportunity to be in that play-off position before a late comeback from the United States against Panama on the final day of qualifying saved them from elimination.

When you fill-out your bracket, you should be aware that Mexico scored 35% of their goals in the final 15 minutes of games in qualification but took no points from losing positions.

Mexico may have to endure some of the highest temperatures during their World Cup Group A matches, yet ironically they have the advantage in terms of travel as they will only move 662 miles, which is much shorter than anyone else in their group. How much of an advantage will this prove to be?

Cameroon: Off the field issues overshadow lack of quality!

Cameroon was one of the great stories in tournament history when, in 1990, they made the quarterfinals out of nowhere. They have appeared in four tournaments since, though, so they are no longer a Cinderella. They haven’t done well since 1990 and they aren’t going to do well here. Star Samuel Eto’o is over the hill and past his prime and they don’t have a lot behind him to get excited about. This is not a good team.

After a less than smooth qualification campaign Cameroon are the Group A outsiders to qualify for the knockout stages.

Not only have Cameroon failed to qualify for the last two Africa Cup of Nations, their team has been shrouded in controversy following a row between players and Cameroon’s Football Federation, which was briefly suspended by FIFA in July because of government interference.

During qualifying Cameroon topped their first group (despite losing the actual match on the pitch they were eventually awarded the win and the vital three points against Togo who were forced to forfeit after discovery that they had fielded a suspended player) and went on to beat Tunisia 4-1 on aggregate in the play-offs. However, more issues arose during the game with Tunisia when Captain Samuel Eto’o claimed that players refused to pass him the ball following a fall out with Coach Volker Finke.

Brazil 2014 will be Cameroon’s seventh World Cup appearance which will be a record for Africa nations, but they have only won one game since reaching the quarter-finals in 1990.

Can Cameroon overcome their issues off the field and live up to their nickname, the Indomitable Lions, or will they fail to get out of the group stages again?

Group B

In most groups in the World Cup, teams are focused on finishing first or second; just advancing to the second round. This is one of those rare groups, though, in which second may not be good enough. The second place team in Group B will have the unfortunate fate of playing the Group A winner, which is almost certain to be Brazil, in the first round of the playoffs. Ouch. The Group B winner, meanwhile, is spared the fate of having to play the host team until the finals of the tournament. Add that layer of intrigue to a group that is very competitive, with three teams that are all very deserving of moving on and you have the recipe for one of the best groups in the tournament. Group G; with the Americans, Germans and Portuguese, is most often described as the Group of Drama, but for my money Group B deserves that title.

Group B at a glance

Best team: Spain. You can’t look beyond the defending champions. They were second in the Confederations Cup to Brazil and they have won the last two European Championships. It’s not tough to make the argument that this team isn’t what it has been in recent years, but they are still unquestionably among the world’s elite and they will be very tough to beat. I almost hope they stumble at some point in group play, though; just enough to finish second. The prospect of a Spain vs. Brazil showdown for the right to play in the quarterfinals is almost too exciting to imagine.

Worst team: Australia. One of these things is not like the other. Chile, Netherlands and Spain are all strong programs that unquestionably deserve a chance to keep playing. Australia is a program that is only here because of geography; if they had to qualify from any other region they wouldn’t have a chance. It would be an all-time upset if they found a way to get through.

Best game: A lot of people would point to Spain vs. Netherlands to open group play. Assuming both teams win their openers, though, I am more interested in seeing Spain vs. Chile; two Spanish-speaking countries at very different places in their development as soccer powers. Chile is an underdog, but they are fearless and talented and they will have plenty of fan support. The appeal of the Dutch and Spaniards is their reputation as much as anything. For Spain and Chile, it’s all about intensity, passion and something to prove.

Predicted order of finish: I can’t go against Spain to win it all. I don’t like Chile nearly as much as some do right now, so the Dutch get the nod to finish second. Chile would be third and I don’t expect Australia to get a single point in the standings.

Spain: Defending champions favourites in Group B!

spain

Defending champions Spain are the favourites to qualify out of a tough Group B which includes Australia, Chile and the Netherlands. With three teams in this group ranked inside the top 15 of the FIFA World Rankings, two will progress to the knockout stage and one will be sent home, but who will they be?

Despite being humiliated in the final of the Confederations Cup, losing 3-0 to Brazil, they still have an excess of talent at their disposal and are likely favoured to at least reach the semi-finals and maybe even lift a second successive World Cup becoming only the third side after Italy and Brazil to do so. Of course, they didn’t even make the final of the Confederations Cup in 2009 and won the World Cup the next year.

The holders emerged unbeaten over their eight qualifying matches, scoring 14 and conceding just three. They conceded the fewest goals (0.38 on average per match), were the only side not to be in a losing position and one of only seven nations to score in every game.

Spain’s possession-based football, coupled with their determination to retain the ball when they don’t have it, has been wearing down their opposition for the best part of a decade. With the heat and humidity expected to be an issue in Brazil, how vital could this philosophy be?

Two things that may be stacked against Spain are that no European team has won a World Cup played in the Americas and no squad has defended their World Cup title since Brazil did so in 1962. In their three World Cup appearances in South America to date they have finished fourth in Brazil (1950), but were eliminated in the group stages back in 1962 and 1978. With that being said, they still must be considered the best team in the world after winning the last three major tournaments.

The team is getting older and hasn’t replaced their core talent as well as they were expected to. That means that the window could be closing for this team. They know how to win, though and winners who are backed into a corner often come out swinging. It would be a surprise if Spain won the tournament, but not a major one. This is a tough group, but it is theirs to lose.

Netherlands: How good are they?

Despite arriving at another major tournament with a level of uncertainty surrounding them, the Netherlands are being offered as the second favourites to progress from Group B.

This team is talented, but that’s always the case. The problem with the Dutch hasn’t been that they don’t have what it takes to win. It’s been that they find frustrating ways to fall short in pressure situations time and time again. Sometimes they fall just short. Other times, like at Euro 2012; they fall way, way, way short. They finished second to Spain in 2010 and I have a feeling that this time around they will be mentally tough enough.

After losing in extra time in the 2010 final to Group B opponents Spain, they went to Euro 2012 as one of the favourites but were eliminated without a point.

Louis Van Gaal; who led Ajax, AZ Alkmaar, Barcelona and Bayern Munich to domestic titles, was hired as manager after Euro 2012. He guided the Netherlands to nine wins from ten outings where Holland scored 34 goals and conceded just five. During this stretch only a 2-2 draw against Estonia denied them a perfect record. However, the Oranje had one of the easiest groups as none of their opponents were ranked in FIFA’s Top 30.

Despite the Dutch finishing 2013 unbeaten and scoring plenty of goals that achievement is less impressive when you look at their opponents, which may leave you truly unaware as to how good they actually are when you fill-out your bracket.

They face two games against very good opponents and I while I don’t have full-faith that they will win both, I do have enough faith that they will do enough to advance through and face Brazil.

Another question that needs answering is whether a front four consisting of Arjen Robben (29), Wesley Sneijder (29), Rafael van Der Vaart (30) and Robin van Persie (30) is at its peak or a declining force?

Are they going to stay with form and disappoint their fans yet again at some point in this tournament? More-than-likely so, but it will probably come at the hands of Brazil and not in the round robin?

Chile: Expect plenty of goals!

In 2010 these guys played truly exciting soccer. Their fate then could be sadly similar to what they face here; they finished second in Group H behind Spain but lost in the Round of 16 to Brazil. They showed how talented and dangerous they are by travelling to London in November and beating England 2-0 in a friendly. Four days later they gave Brazil a very tough test in Toronto before losing 2-1. They are creative and aggressive and they will make things very interesting. They don’t have the talent of the top two teams in this group but they certainly won’t be caught flat-footed and are very capable of catching either team off guard.

Despite being drawn in a tough group, Chile will expect to cause an upset and progress to the knockout stages. Even though I have decided to go with the Netherlands behind Spain, if you’re looking for an upset pick in the Group Stages, then this is one of your better bets as Chile advancing is not an impossible task.

Chile qualified third after struggling midway through the campaign that saw them lose four consecutive matches. Jorge Sampaoli was appointed coach and they subsequently recovered to win five of their last six games. Chile scored 29 times during qualification, but they also conceded 25 goals; an average of 1.56 per match, which is the highest of any team who qualified.

As they demonstrated in their 2-0 win against England in November Coach Jorge Sampaoli has Chile playing an expansive style of football combined with aggressive pressing.

The Chileans progression under Sampaoli is evident given that they are the fourth highest movers in the FIFA rankings in the last year moving up from 21st to 15th. This is only the third time they have qualified in the last eight World Cups, but they did reach the last 16 in 1998 and 2010.

La Roja certainly have the potential to progress out of Group B, but with a small pool of players to select from, they have to keep their best XI fit.

Australia: A team in transition!

Third straight time in the tournament. Third different head coach. This isn’t a bad team. They just aren’t nearly good enough to compete on this stage against this quality of teams. With a much more fortunate draw they could perhaps have advanced, but a lack of depth and lousy matchups likely seal their fate here.

Australia are the lowest ranked team in the World Cup having dropped from 33rd to 59th in a year and combined with their draw and other factors suggest the Socceroos will find it difficult to qualify for the next stage.

If the draw wasn’t tough enough, the Socceroos will endure the biggest temperature swings during the group stages from game-to-game.

Now competing as an Asian Football Federation member they qualified automatically behind Japan but their passage to Brazil was not the easiest. After failing to win in their first three games they went unbeaten over the last five and secured their place in the final game.

By qualifying, Australia has reached their third successive finals. They reached the last 16 in 2006 but lost in stoppage-time to eventual winners Italy, while they were eliminated in the Group stage of 2010.

With Coach Ange Postecoglou given the remit to develop younger players, expect the squad to be made up of untested players with an eye on the 2016 World Cup.

Group C

Group C is not a group that is going to get a lot of media attention compared to many because it lacks a superstar squad and the winner of the tournament all but certainly isn’t coming from among this collection of teams. What it lacks in glamour, though, it makes up for in competitiveness. Colombia and Ivory Coast are better than Greece and Japan, but the gap is small and you can easily make an argument for any of the teams to find their way into the elimination rounds. The gap between the best team and the worst is perhaps the smallest of the tournament.

Group C at a glance

Best team: Colombia. They are a very physical, imposing squad and they have the advantage of playing close to home. They are far from a lock to advance, but they are the deserving favorites. They would have been a much more comfortable favourite without some horrible luck, though. Falcao, their electric striker and best player, tore his ACL in January and won’t be available for the tournament.

Worst team: Greece. They probably get the nod, but not by a wide margin. They have some nice talent, more depth than in recent years and they clearly have had the ability to rise to the occasion in big tournaments in the past. They are no pushover.

Best game: Colombia and Ivory Coast play in the second game for both teams. These are the two teams that should be advancing, but a loss here could be very costly for either team if the competition is as tight as it potentially could be. The styles are very different, but the talent is plentiful and it could be a good game.

Predicted order of finish: This is tough. Ivory Coast has never advanced from round robin, but that will change here. I think they can win this group. I’m going to take a flyer and pick them to roll-out second. That leaves Japan third and Greece fourth. I have far less confidence in those picks than I do in at least five other groups, though.

Colombia: Are they undervalued?

Colombia

When you think of Colombia in the World Cup, you can’t avoid thinking of their tragic run in 1994. Entering the tournament as one of the favorites, they faltered badly and did not advance out of the round-robin round. Tragically, after scoring an own goal that was blamed for a loss against the Americans, Andres Escobar was murdered upon his return home. Colombia again struggled in 1998 and they haven’t made the field since. They have an excellent group of forwards, though they will certainly miss the electrifying Falcao. It’s behind the forwards that the issues emerge. This is a team that just tries to outscore opponents. They have lots of talent and an explosive offense, but I struggle to trust them to do much more than win the group.

In a weak Group C Colombia are the favourites to progress into the last 16 ahead of Greece, the Ivory Coast and Japan. How much will the travel and conditions benefit the South Americans and hinder the rest? If Columbia does reach the 2014 World Cup knockout stages, it will be for just the second time after having been eliminated at the Group stages in three of their four previous appearances.

The fourth best team in the world according to FIFA qualified comfortably in second-place behind Argentina. They set a personal record by winning 30 points from 16 matches, which included notable 4-0 and 3-1 wins against Uruguay and Chile respectively, while they battled hard to earn a point in a goalless draw in Argentina.

Colombia conceded the fewest goals in South American qualifying and secured an impressive 85% of possible points from winning positions. An interesting point of fact that you should be aware of when filling-out your bracket is that they failed to score from a corner in 16 matches; a consequence of poor delivery, good defending or just bad luck?

One issue that Colombia will need to resolve and resolve quickly is the sudden loss of striker Radamel Falcao, who scored nine times in qualifying and had 151 goals in 193 club games since playing in Europe.

The conditions in Brazil are likely to favour Los Cafeteros. Their qualifying games were played in the scorching Caribbean port of Barranquilla, opting for mid-afternoon kick-offs in the belief that their rivals would wilt in the heat. At 38, captain Mario Yepes, belied his age in qualification but will he be up to three games in quick succession?

Apart from the familiar conditions the Colombian’s also have much fewer miles to travel during the group stages compared to their Group C rivals. With shorter travelling times and a familiarity to the conditions, are they undervalued?

Ivory Coast: Golden generation turning grey?

This team has never advanced beyond group play, but since they are only in their third appearance it’s hardly a concerning trend at this point. This team lacks real depth, but their top end is very impressive. Didier Drogba is getting older, but he is still dangerous. Toure is a very impressive player; perhaps the best in the group. Those two have the responsibility to carry this team. I like their chances of being able to do so. They have the talent almost to match the Colombians and they do not have to deal with the pressure of playing close to home.

The Ivorians are an ageing squad and much like England’s golden generation they have failed to live up to expectations. This is surely the last chance for them to stamp their mark on the world stage and while this draw may be just the jumping-point to bounce them into the knock-out rounds, being so quick to suggest progression from Group C should not be a given.

Their failure is evident given they are yet to break their African Cup of Nations duck and failed to get out of the World Cup group stages in 2006 and 2010 when great things were expected. With that said they have been drawn in two ‘Groups of Death’ finishing third behind Argentina and the Netherlands in 2006 and then Brazil and Portugal in 2010.

Along with Nigeria, Les Éléphants were the only African side to qualify unbeaten. They won their preliminary group before beating Senegal 4-2 on aggregate.

During qualifying they proved their desire to remain unbeaten by taking 56% of their points from losing positions, while they were one of seven teams who have qualified to score in every match.

With an easier group than they have faced in previous World Cups, is this the time for Didier Drogba and company to deliver? Or will complacency creep into the Ivorian’s approach?

Japan: Do they have the potential to be a surprise package?

Unlike the rest of this group, Japan has real struggles up front. That could be a problem because the other three teams in this group are going to be able to score early and often. As much as they struggle there, though, they are deep and talented from the midfield back. While others in this group play a free and risky style of play, Japan is rigidly disciplined and very technical. If they can stick to their game then they have a chance to make it through.

The Japanese are renowned as a technically gifted team yet defensively susceptible and a little light-weight; as a result they would be a useful upset selection to progress to the knockout stage for the third time.

They have qualified for every World Cup since 1998 and were the first to confirm their name in the draw for 2014. They dominated Asia’s final qualifying group recording 17 points and finishing top scorers; interestingly scoring 30% of their goals from headers. Despite this, Japan have suffered a dip in form over the last year, which has seen them drop from 24th in the World Rankings to 48th following three straight defeats in the Confederations Cup and losses against Serbia and Belarus. However, they responded by drawing in the Netherlands and then beating Belgium in November.

Does this revival in form offer an indication that Japan could yet be a surprise package at the World Cup or is their Confederations Cup embarrassment in Brazil a sign of things to come?

Greece: Will strong defence be enough?

Greece will always be remembered for winning Euro 2004. That was quite probably the most shocking result in a major international tournament; or a minor one, for that matter. It came from absolutely nowhere and they haven’t come close to replicating it; though a quarterfinal appearance in Euro 2012 was impressive. Konstantinos Mitroglou is a very explosive striker who is going to be relied upon heavily to lead this team. If he can have a big tournament then things could get interesting. They also have a very good backline, led by the awkwardly-named Sokratis Papastathopoulos.

Greece is the Group C underdogs to progress to the knockout stage, despite being the second best ranked team in the group according to FIFA. In their two previous World Cup campaigns (1994 & 2010) they departed in the group stages, but at Euro 2012 they upset the odds to beat Russia and reach the quarter-finals.

The Greeks finished second in their qualifying group behind Bosnia but beat Romania 4-2 on aggregate in the Playoffs. During qualifying they conceded just four times and two of them were from free kicks.

Portuguese coach, Fernando Santos, has been manager since taking over from Otto Reheel; who masterminded Greece’s remarkable Euro 2004 win, in 2010. Santos has previously stated his desire to make the team more expansive, only for them to; as he puts it: “slip back into our comfort zone, our defensive strength.”

Greece may have a solid defence but to progress to the last 16 they will need to offer more in attack. Target man Kostas Mitroglou may provide the answer for the Ethniki. He has been in terrific form for Olympiakos scoring a goal every 2.04 games, while he netted three times against Romania to qualify.

To qualify for the knockout stages Greece may have to sacrifice a bit of defensive solidity in favour of a more attacking approach. When filling out your bracket, it’s up to you to decide whether this will help or hinder their chances?

Group D

The thing about this debate over the Group of Death that happens at every major tournament is that there is no right answer. Few people would pick Group D as their choice, but there is no doubt that it has elements of deathliness to it. There is very little to separate England, Italy and Uruguay. They are three teams that have all won the tournament in the past but which likely aren’t in position to add to their historical totals. Costa Rica, meanwhile, almost certainly isn’t going to advance, but they are well-positioned to crush some dreams and send a team home early. They are the ideal spoiler.

Group D at a glance

Best team: Uruguay. Though you could make an argument for England or Italy and I wouldn’t argue with you. This one is a dogfight between three evenly-matched teams. None of them are likely good enough to win it all, but they all probably deserve to advance.

Worst team: Costa Rica. This team qualified as the second team out of the ridiculously weak CONCACAF, but wouldn’t have come close to qualifying out of a stronger region. Even in this group without a true elite contender they are well behind the pack.

Best game: England vs. Italy. You could make an argument that Italy vs. Uruguay is better and based purely on the matchup it could be. This game is the first for both teams, though and will be a very good measuring stick for both squads; two teams that don’t particularly like each other.

Predicted order of finish: Costa Rica will finish last. That much I am fairly confident about. Of the other three I have the least confidence in Uruguay, so I will tab them for third. I like England slightly over the Italians so will give them the edge. If the second-place team in this group were to win their second-round matchup, they would likely face Brazil in the Quarterfinals, so first place is significant here. Of course, the winner of the group would be on track to a quarterfinal with Spain, so it’s a tough spot for both squads.

England: Could they prosper without the pressure of expectation?

England dropped outside of the top seven (13th) in the world and subsequently missed the chance to be seeded for the World Cup, which resulted in them being drawn in a tough Group D alongside Costa Rica, Italy and Uruguay.

England disappoints in the World Cup. It’s been their thing. So, will they be able to manage it again here? Probably. The difference, though, is that unlike past years I don’t think anyone but the most loyal of fans really expects much from them. They have some very nice players; Rooney and Wilshere are world-class. They just haven’t seemed to care enough in years past. Their coaching has historically been almost robotic, there has been basically no passion to the team and thus they have become tough to trust. Never-the-less, I’m going to tip them to win the group. The problem is, though, that I wouldn’t be that surprised if they dropped all three games. England hasn’t had an identity as a team for a decade or more now. Until they find one, they will continue to flounder.

Group D is arguably the tightest group of them all and has at least three sides that are extremely close, with England slightly favoured over Italy and Uruguay, plus a fourth nation who could potentially crash the party in Costa Rica.

Such is the quality of opposition in Group D. England are my favourites to qualify from this group, but to be honest, I wouldn’t be surprised if any of the four nations found themselves with a spot in the second-round. Don’t feel alone if you find yourself not completely comfortable on who you tilt in your bracket to secure the top two places.

The Three Lions qualified top of their group, finishing unbeaten and conceding just four goals. On paper England’s campaign looked impressive. They conceded just 0.4 goals per match and scored 3.1, but in reality their group consisted of relatively poor opposition.

A sign of the level England was competing at was made apparent in back-to-back friendly defeats at Wembley; first to Chile and then Germany. For once optimism isn’t high amongst fans and the media alike. Could this give the players the freedom to perform without the huge expectation they feel at every major tournament?

If England is to be successful in Brazil, striker Wayne Rooney must perform better than his two previous World Cups. Despite playing in South Africa and Germany, Rooney has failed to score on the biggest stage of all. However seven goals in just six qualifiers have given him a fantastic platform to build on in Brazil.

Is the tough group actually a bonus? Given the pressure and expectation that has been lifted, if they do progress, the confidence they would gain would make them a difficult team to play. Then again the expectation would more than likely return.

Italy: Favourites to qualify, but only just!

As the 2006 champion and a Euro 2012 finalist this team is obviously relevant and probably the most talented in the group. They also have exceptional coaching; something that always seems to be the case for the Italians. Their problem, though, is that as the team that won it in 2006 aged they have failed to develop the same calibre of young talent to replace them. With guys like Balotelli and Pirlo they certainly have talent to contend and win this group. They also looked strong in qualifying. It just comes down to whether they can get everything moving in the right direction at the same time.

Italy is the second Group D favourites to qualify out of the group. They are also the second most successful nation at the World Cup but that stands for little as they have won just once (2006) in the modern era and were eliminated as defending champions without a point in 2010.

They qualified with two matches to spare, along with the Netherlands, becoming the first European nation to book their place in Brazil. Despite a successful campaign, manager Cesare Prandelli, experimented in the final two games which the Azzurri drew, dropping crucial ranking points, ultimately dashing their hopes of being seeded; which could prove decisive given that they are in a tough group.

Prandelli will be hoping to get the best out of the enigma that is Mario Balotelli as he did in Euro 2012, scoring three goals and helping them on their way to the final. The Milan forward has scored 12 goals in 29 appearances and they have never lost when he has found the net.

Italy will suffer the highest average temperatures of any team in the World Cup with an average of 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit). The fact they finished third in the 2013 Confederations Cup in Brazil could prove to be a trump card in dealing with the heat.

Another bonus is their style of play which is possession-based with a patient approach; when they have the ball the opposition will be getting tired trying to win it back. One issue the Azzurri may have is how Andrea Pirlo, who will be 35 when they kick-off their first match in Brazil, will perform in the energy sapping heat? With Pirlo fundamental to their ball retention, if he is off his game, how much of an impact could that have?

Uruguay: Great attacking threat, but defensive frailties could be fatal!

This team was a semi-finalist in 2010, so they obviously have some game. They haven’t been quite as strong since and didn’t qualify particularly well or play great in the Confederations Cup. They still have a very good front end, though. Luis Suarez is the best player in the group in my eyes and they have the potential to really do some damage. Even with the advantage of playing in South America leveraged to make a difference, their overall talent is still a notch or two behind Italy, so I have to put my faith in the Italians regardless of the strong crowd support and experience Uruguay now have to handle the pressure positively.

Uruguay is the seeded team in Group D, but as I just alluded to, I’m not able to tip the would-be favourites to progress to the knockout stages.

Qualifying didn’t go smoothly as they finished fifth in the South American table and had to beat Jordan in a playoff game to qualify.

Their main problem was in defence. They conceded the same number as they scored (25). The stats don’t read pretty either having conceded 1.39 goals per game (2nd highest), 33% of goals conceded came from set-pieces (3rd highest) and 20% of goals conceded were inside the first 15 minutes. Is this a sign that the careers’ of their experienced centre-back pairing of Diego Godin and Captain Diego Lugano are in decline?

On the other end of the spectrum they have a fantastic trio of forwards in Edinson Cavani, Diego Forlan and Luis Suarez so scoring goals shouldn’t be a problem. Cavani will lead the line, with Suarez given licence to roam.

Travel could become an issue for La Celeste as they will travel a combined total of 2,886 miles during their three Group D matches; ironically for a South American based country the third highest at the World Cup and much more than their Group D opponents. When filling out your bracket it would be wise to consider how this will affect an ageing team who have struggled away from home in the past year?

Before pushing Uruguay on through your bracket, you need to consider if Uruguay’s defensive woes and laborious travel schedule will outweigh their attacking threat? Answering this conundrum should give you a better insight whether or not you will back them to qualify for the knockout stages.

Costa Rica: Tough, resilient, organized…but big outsiders to qualify!

This is not a team that is entirely without merit. They play much disciplined and largely effective defensive soccer. That could certainly be enough to make things interesting, especially against England and Italy. Their problem, though, is that their offensive game is just plain lousy. Terrible. If they fall behind against these three opponents they are quite likely to stay behind. They just don’t seem to have the depth to be a serious threat.

Many suggest Costa Rica will be the Group D whipping boys, however they are defensively solid and have moved from 64th in the world to 31st, which is the second most improved at the World Cup.

During qualifying Los Ticos finished runners-up in the final group stage after winning their five home games and conceding just seven goals in the final phase; less than any other team. Their defensive solidarity is actually a hindrance to their attacking play, which given they failed to score in 31% of their qualifying matches, is notable.

If they are to impose themselves in an attacking sense they will need key contributions from Fulham’s Bryan Ruiz and young starlet Joel Campbell.

Another key component to the Costa Rican cog is Goalkeeper Keylor Navas. The Keeper kept seven clean sheets in 14 qualifying matches and will need to be on top form if they are to progress.

Historically they qualified for the last 16 in their first appearance in a World Cup but group exits have followed in 2002 and 2006.

Baring a brilliant performance and a large chunk of luck a group exit looks likely for a third successive time.

Next time we’ll look at the remaining groups; E through H.

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