Part 2: The Supremacy (the sequel)
Not all groups are created equally at the World Cup and this one stands as proof. There are a couple of decent teams here, but as a whole this is far from the most inspiring group. France has obviously had a lot of success on this stage in the past but is more than a step from their best and only narrowly qualified for the field. Switzerland has promise, but we don’t really know how good they are because their qualifying group: Iceland, Norway and Slovenia, was so bad it was laughable. Ecuador looked very good early in the qualification process and deserves credit for getting through a very tough region, but lately they have absolutely forgotten how to play and couldn’t be in worse form. Honduras is only here because Mexico was such a mess in CONCACAF qualifying. They are not an elite team. So, almost by default, the French fall in as the favourites to top Group E and as such, carry the burden of favourites to advance into the knockouts.
Group E at a glance
Best team: France. As you will see in a while, I am not at all certain that France is going to win the group, but there is little denying that on paper they are the best team. They have a lot of talent, though they need the next generation of stars to step forward. You see, many are in the thought process that in spite of FIFA rankings, unquestionably this group is France’s to win or lose. Former World and European champions, their pedigree and quality is undeniable; a glimpse of which we received during the playoffs, so stubborn and adamant were they to attend. I have to admit that if France does build upon that intensity, they’ll be tough to beat in Group E surely. However, I have my doubts.
Worst team: Honduras. They are no better than the fourth-best team in CONCACAF behind the U.S., Mexico and Costa Rica and I have very little respect for the CONCACAF region this time around. Just not good enough.
Best game: France vs. Switzerland. It would be a surprise if this game wasn’t a showdown for first place in this group. They both play a fairly similar attacking style relying on a lot of athleticism, so they should provide a very entertaining match. Barring a surprise, both teams will be unbeaten heading into this one and should be heading to another win in their third games, so the stakes couldn’t be higher for this one. It will also be a very good test of whether both of these teams, which are very likely to advance, will be a legitimate threat in later rounds.
Predicted order of finish: I like Switzerland more than I like France, which isn’t saying that much and expect a mild upset as they win the group. France will finish second. Ecuador is better than Honduras, so if they can shake their slump in time they should finish third…for all that matters. What can really bust your bracket here is that second place is so up for grabs with the remaining three contenders putting forth a solid case in their own right. By virtue of being the favourites to win Group E, France automatically become the most likely choice to clinch the coveted second spot. That said; Ecuador’s muscular brand of football looms appealing, so much so that they could potentially surprise as an upset pick.
Switzerland: Like a relative that overstays their welcome!
This team has absolutely stellar goalkeeping; some of the best in the tournament. That will be a huge factor here. They also have a midfield, led by captain Gokhan Inler, which would be the envy of any country. The rest of the team isn’t at the same level, but they play with intense effort and discipline. They are the kind of team that can frustrate opponents and I like their chances here.
Switzerland clinched a spot in Brazil automatically by winning their group, but it wasn’t smooth sailing for Ottmar Hitzfeld’s lads as they punched their ticket in the penultimate round with a 2-0 win over Norway. Altogether, Switzerland present an intriguing prospect and while they can’t be written off to go deeper than the second-round, their credentials will be tested by both France and underdogs Ecuador, the latter of which have an outside shot to shake things up here.
France: Lucky to be here?
France should feel lucky to be here. They finished second in their group to Spain and then lost the first game of their two-game total aggregate playoff to Ukraine 2-0. Only a 3-0 miracle win in the second game saved them. They should be better than they have been, but they can’t seem to find a line-up that maximizes their talent and their defense is often ugly. If they can get things working they could last deep in the tournament. Their disastrous appearances in the 2010 World Cup and the 2012 Euro, though, show that it is far from certain that we will see their best.
Despite bowing out of 2010 South Africa in disgrace and only just qualifying for Brazil, France, somehow emerge not only as group bracket favourites but also as one of the overall tournament favourites. Understandably, therefore, many experts and pundits alike are of the opinion Les Blues are slightly overrated, particularly where taking all the plaudits are concerned.
France failed to clinch automatic qualification when they finished second behind Spain in Europe. Then again, falling into the same group as the current World and European champions was never going to be an easy task. They had all to do from the start.
In fact, their defeat to Spain proved to be the group decider, which relegated France into the playoffs bag. What then ensued was, arguably, one of the most compelling matches of the European playoffs to date as France, drawing a very formidable Ukraine, fell behind 2-0 in the first leg in Kiev, a result that seemed almost certain to squash their World Cup hopes. In the reverse leg in Saint Denis however; France, against all the odds, pulled off the unthinkable, coming from behind to score three goals and take the tie 3-2 on aggregate. Clearly, France wanted very badly to punch their ticket to Brazil. Allez!
Ecuador: Still burdened?
Ecuador suffered a crushing loss in tragic style last July. Striker Christian Benitez, a 27 year old, who was the centrepiece of this team, died suddenly of cardiac arrest soon after joining a new club in Qatar. His funeral was a major event in Ecuador and the team has not healed from the emotional scars of the loss. If they could then it could be a major motivating factor, but it’s not yet clear that will happen. Replacing him has been tough; he had 24 goals in 58 international appearances and was as effective at setting up goals as scoring them and it is a real setback for a team that was already struggling with their form. Without Benitez and with the burden of his death hanging over them it’s hard to be optimistic about this team.
Outside of all the emotional baggage, this is actually a very negotiable group for the South Americans. Indeed, they could prove tough competitors, at the very least for second place if not top of the table. Edging Uruguay in the South American qualifying stages, even if ostensibly so, should send them into the global competition with measured optimism. If they can hobnob with South American heavyweights in order to clinch automatic entry, what does that say about their chances in a rather soft group? Quite a lot, really.
Honduras: Just not good enough, period!
As you can tell by now, I just don’t like this team very much. They have a few decent players; I quite like Wilson Palacios, but they would need all of their players to play at their best at the same time to be a real threat. They did beat a struggling Mexico team and they could be dangerous if either of the top teams is out of form, but if the rest of the squads are playing well then this team just doesn’t have the tools it needs.
However, as what has seemingly become the theme of this group; while Honduras are obviously the complete outsiders of Group E and even the entire competition they famously beat Mexico (who didn’t though?) and clinched third place in the CONCACAF preliminaries, behind top of the group USA and Costa Rica. That alone sends them into Brazil with heads held high. Keep in mind, inasmuch as this is a favourable group for underdogs Ecuador, the same could be said for the even greater underdogs Honduras. Who is to say they might not emerge the Cinderella story (isn’t there always a Cinderella at the world’s biggest party?) of Brazil?
Argentina may be in an even better situation than Brazil is in this tournament. The immensely-talented team is good enough to win it all and they get to play close to home where things will be familiar and fan support will be plentiful. They don’t have to deal with the pressure of playing at home, though, so they should be able to sleep a little more soundly than the Brazilians during the tournament.
Like Brazil, the Argentineans were also blessed with a group that they would have to work really hard not to win. Bosnia and Herzegovina and Nigeria are respectable teams and one of them will be respectable in the elimination round, but they are in an entirely different class than this loaded Argentinean team. If Argentina is even half the team most people think they are then this group won’t challenge them. If it does, though, then things really get interesting.
Group F at a glance
Best team: It goes without saying that it is Argentina by a very wide margin. They will surely fill-in most brackets as the second choice to win the entire tournament only behind those who tab Brazil and they have a deep and loaded roster. Their biggest issue is that while they may very well be the second-best team in the world, they are only the second-best team in South America. Assuming neither team falters in group play, Brazil and Argentina would be on track to meet in the finals in a game that would rock an entire continent on its foundations.
Worst team: Iran gets the nod here. There are some decent players on the roster, especially striker Reza Ghoochannejhad, who has the inside track to being named captain of the tournament’s all-name team. They largely play in the domestic league, though and just aren’t going to have the experience, talent, or depth to be a serious contender. They could trip up any opposing team if things work perfectly for them, but it’s very unlikely that they can do enough to advance. One thing they have going for them is that their manager, Carlos Queiroz, led Portugal in this tournament in 2010. Of course, he was heavily criticized for that performance.
Best game: Nigeria vs. Bosnia and Herzegovina. Argentina will obviously be the team to watch in this one and they play an exciting style to watch. In terms of significance, though, this is the game. The winner of this game is very likely to be the one to advance to the second round of the tournament, so the stakes will be astronomically high and both teams will know it. It is the second game each team will play, so they will be seasoned and ready to play at their best; though Bosnia has the misfortune of playing Argentina in the opener, so they could be shell-shocked. This one has the potential for fireworks.
Predicted order of finish: Argentina will come out on top. Group F is tailored towards a riveting performance by Argentina and most would be surprised if the Argentineans don’t traipse into the knockout stages in winning fashion, without dropping a point. Hence, Argentina is the smart football pick to win Group F.
The battle for second place could prove intriguing and most likely, will come down to a battle between Nigeria and Bosnia Herzegovina. While the latter is ranked higher in FIFA rankings and is coming off an impressive, history-making qualifying campaign, Nigeria has the experience at this level and that could prove deciding. I give Nigeria the edge to finish second, with Bosnia and Herzegovina coming in third thanks to a win over Iran. The Iranians will bring up the rear and will be lucky to earn a single point.
Argentina: Messi, Messi and more Messi!
Two words: Lionel Messi. That’s enough to explain why this team gets so much attention. The guy is pretty good at football. While his presence on any team would make them dangerous, he is far from the only weapon here. A brilliant attack led by Gonzalo Higuain. A great midfield featuring the under-appreciated Angel Di Maria. Ridiculous depth. There are some concerns about the quality of the backfield, but it’s not like it is terrible and there is much talent in front of them that it shouldn’t often be an issue. This team is good.
It’s hardly surprising to find Argentina as the hot favourites to win Group F at the 2014 World Cup when their opposition includes Bosnia Herzegovina, Iran and Nigeria. With the exception of Nigeria, the remaining pair looms as threatening as cupcakes. Indeed, this group couldn’t have been more favourable had Argentina scripted it itself and as such, they are indeed the smart bracket pick to win the group.
That said could Argentina justify their position on your bracket to win the competition outright? A price point that puts them ahead of defending world champions Spain as well as quadrennial threats Germany; a side that, incidentally, reached the semis of the last two World Cups after beating them in the quarters, including a comprehensive 4-0 win in South Africa. That is a debatable point, one that leans towards the notion that Argentina might be slightly overrated at the expense of credible opposition.
Nigeria: Undefeated in Qualifying equals what in World Cup?
My favourite trivia tidbit about this team; captain and goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama has scored 18 career goals because he takes penalties. You don’t see that every day. He’s also very good. He will save this team at times, but he doesn’t have to do all the work because he has some real talent in front of him. As is the case with each team in this group they are going to be able to score and they are going to be creative. Their schedule also sets up well for them, starting with a warm-up against Iran before that Bosnia and Herzegovina tilt.
Bracket aficionados heed me now: the reigning African champions should be tipped to advance out of Group F. Why? Nigeria’s qualifying campaign was convincing and they didn’t lose a match in the group stage. However, disappointing early exits in past finals coupled with an equally frustrating Confederations Cup account, in which they only won one match against the tournament’s punching bags in Tahiti do go some way towards explaining some hesitation for Brazil. To put it simply, Nigeria have a lot to prove and this is the World Cup platform where they will do so.
Bosnia and Herzevogonia: Defense like a sieve…oops…
This team is built around a very good attacking duo of Edin Dzeko and Vedad Ibisevic. They are going to be able to score and they are going to be fun to watch. They are going to have to score a ton of goals, though, because this team just isn’t going to impress and amaze with their ability to defend. Goalkeeper Asmir Begovic is going to be extremely busy. I’m not convinced he is up to the challenge.
Bosnia Herzegovina reached the finals for the first time in their nation’s young history, albeit largely down to a rather favourable European group that conspicuously was short on heavyweight opposition and included nations such as Greece, Latvia, Lichtenstein, Lithuania and Slovakia. How far they can go in Brazil remains to be seen. What is certain however is the fact that this is a decidedly fortuitous group, one from which it’s foreseeable they could advance into the knockout stages. So it’s quite possible Bosnia Herzegovina is not done writing its history in the worlds’ most coveted and watched sports finale. If there is to be a Cinderella story in this competition, Bosnia Herzegovina just might become that beloved belle of the ball and punch above its perceived weight class into the round of 16.
Iran: If only managers could also play…
The biggest asset here may be their manager. Queiroz has taken a big step down the food chain here going from Portugal to Iran and he knows it. The poor performance and questionable decisions hurt his career and he could do a lot to save himself here with a surprising performance. He’ll be hungry and he has learned about what not to do. He also has some real scoring talent to work with. If he gets creative and has a lot of luck he could make things interesting. Clearly, though, I’m not optimistic.
To reach the World Cup is an achievement onto itself. That is what most pundits and experts alike expect Iran will have to contend with in Brazil; nothing to scoff at mind you. As far as their chances go in the group stage, they are the quintessential long shot.
This group is widely referred to as the Group of Death. While I think Group D has something to say about that, this nonetheless has the potential to be a tightly-fought battle. If things play out to form, though, the battle will be for the second qualifying spot. Germany is very talented and in strong form and they have a long history of success in the World Cup, so they should be ready for the challenge here.
There is no shortage of storylines here. Ghana has knocked the Americans out of the last two World Cups and Germany knocked them out in 2002. Germany and Ghana were in the same group in 2010, with Germany winning their meeting 1-0. Germany and Portugal were in the same group at Euro 2012, with Germany again winning 1-0 head-to-head.
Group G at a Glance:
Best team: Germany. This one is a no-brainer. They are the second-ranked team in the world. They cruised through qualifying, with a draw against Sweden the only blemish on their record. They have finished no worse than third in the last three World Cups and they have been at least quarterfinalists each of the last eight editions of the biggest tournament on earth.
Worst team: United States. The largest majority of you who will be reading this are Americans (I’m American born-and-bred myself), so I won’t be making any friends with this pick. I was underwhelmed by their qualifying push, though and I just don’t trust them mentally in this tough group. If you preferred Ghana here, though, I wouldn’t have a big argument.
Best game: U.S. vs. Germany. Portugal vs. Germany was a close second, but this one gets the nod because it’s a rematch of the only loss Germany has suffered in a long time; a 4-3 American win in a friendly in Washington, D.C. last June. Germany has an obvious edge and will be fielding a much better roster than they did back then, but American coach Jürgen Klinsmann, a German legend in his playing days, will be highly motivated to pull off a miracle.
Predicted order of finish: To all intents and purpose, Germany and Portugal are the hot favourites in this group to advance into the knockout stages; therefore, backing either side to win the group would be considered a smart bracket move. That said Germany, given their deposits in the last two World Cups, should be able to win the group thanks to their depth and talent advantage. Portugal is second-best and should be the second team to advance. I give Ghana a slight edge over the Americans. However, if one of the top two were to falter in the group stage, Portugal would fit that billing because of their conspicuous inconsistency, opening the door for either USA or Ghana, two sides more than capable of capitalising on such opportunity.
Germany: Winners with Klinsmann…now winners over Klinsmann?
The only thing I don’t like about this team is that I am pretty sure that they aren’t quite as good as Brazil or Argentina and they would possibly have to go through both to win it all if things turn out as expected. Beyond that, though, they are very strong. They have good depth across the board, though injuries up front have been an issue at times. They are well-coached, very experienced as a team, consistent in big tournaments, in strong form; the list goes on and on. This is a strong team ready to perform at a high level.
Despite many dubbing Group G the Group of Death, Germany have the market cornered n this group and more likely than not, Germany should come through on these high expectations. A tradition of excellence has Germany carrying the burden of pressure and in turn, favouritism, seemingly effortlessly. So no matter how competitive a group is drawn, the probability Germany would advance is ingrained in their mindset.
This doesn’t mean Germany will have an easy time of it. On the contrary, all three opposing nations loom dangerous and tricky. Germany ranks second in FIFA while Portugal ranks third and USA and Ghana ring in at 13th and 38th respectively, making this the tournament’s second Group of Death along with Group D. Yet when we weigh in the balance of options at Joachim Low’s disposal; the talent and depth he has to choose from, the scale tips in Germany’s favour to negotiate this tough group, even if they do so by skin of their teeth.
Portugal: Piggy-Back rides by Ronaldo given out for free!
Portugal made it tough on themselves just getting here, needing two late goals in the second half of a home-and-home playoff against Sweden to qualify. It’s not the first time they have struggled to make a big tournament, though. It’s like they need to have a scare to get their blood pumping. They have a deep and talented team led by one of the best players on the planet; it’s not hard to like this team.
Portugal is Group G’s second favourites to move on. However, where Portugal is concerned, they can be a hit and miss at times. The overwhelming case against them:they are only as good as their star talisman Cristiano Ronaldo. Proof positive: their qualifying campaign that took a detour through the playoffs after finishing second behind Russia and required a singularly dominating performance by Ronaldo over an Ibrahimovic-inspired Sweden to send them into the World Cup. Having one of the best footballers in today’s game is an asset but relying on him as a game changer solely isn’t. It takes a team to win the World Cup.
Ghana: Once, Twice, Three times a Lady?
How far can an exceptional midfield carry a team? That’s what we will learn with this team. They have a decent group of strikers, a very questionable backfield and up-and-down goaltending. It’s the midfield that is by far the strength, though and they will live or die by how that unit performs. This isn’t the team it was four years ago, but they have a recent history of rising to the occasion in this tournament, so they could make things interesting.
Ghana has the happy prospect of reacquainting themselves with familiar foes in Germany. For a second final in a row, Ghana draws Germany in the group stages. What’s more, Ghana has drawn USA, their round of 16 opponents in South Africa.
In 2010, Ghana advanced second after Germany into the knockout stages; they were the only African nation to reach the knockouts of the first-ever World Cup to be hosted in Africa. In the second-round, they came up against an impressive USA side that gave them a serious run for the money and forced extra time before finally clinching a 2-1 victory. Ghana’s promising campaign came to an abrupt end however in the quarterfinals when they lost to Uruguay on penalties.
United States: Lack of competition will send them home early!
My biggest issue with this team is how they qualified. I have very little respect for CONCACAF right now; the depth is lacking and Mexico was a disaster. If the Americans were ready to be a major contender here then they should have absolutely cruised through the qualification process. They made it look much harder than they should have, though. I just don’t trust them to be able to take a big step forward from that performance.
Former 1990 German star Jürgen Klinsmann is hoping to carry USA successfully into the knockouts but the odds are stacked heavily against his charges with two European heavyweights (including his native Germany) and Ghana standing in their way. Indeed, USA will have all to do to accomplish what is seemingly unthinkable, never mind winning the group.
This group is a perfect example of how even the most time-tested of phrases aren’t always true. We’ve heard all our lives about how they save the best for last. Group H will be the last group to start round-robin play and they will play the last game of the round-robin portion of the tournament. On top of that, this most certainly isn’t the best group of the tournament. Not by any measure. There is one quite good team, though they fall below the elite of the tournament. There is one decent team that has the potential to win a playoff game or two. Then we’re left with two teams that are just happy to be here. Barring a massive surprise, there is a real shortage of drama and not a lot of games to get excited about here. In the case of this year’s tournament, then, the saying should be that they play the best then they play the last.
Group H at a glance
Best team: Belgium. It’s not even close. They cruised through qualifying with only two draws as blemishes in their 10-game schedule. After qualifying for six straight World Cups, the Belgians have not played in the last two. That caused massive frustration in the small country and the team that finished fourth in 1986 has worked very hard to be sure that the embarrassment is a thing of the past. They are young but very talented and they are the one team in this group with a chance to do something special.
Worst team: Algeria. Africa is not particularly strong right now and Algeria is far from the strongest team in that region. They benefited from a soft path through qualification and they still only made it through by the narrowest of margins; they tied Burkina Faso in a two-game playoff in the final round and they only qualified because they scored more away goals. They are outclassed…even in this group.
Best game: At the risk of really sounding negative about this group, the Belgium vs. Russia contest that will be played in the second set of games in this group is not only the best game in the group but the only one that is particularly interesting. These squads met in 2002 at the World Cup. Belgium pulled off an upset and their current coach, Marc Wilmots, scored the winning goal in that game.
Predicted order of finish: I expect this group to be very chalky. Belgium will win the group, with Russia qualifying for the round of 16 in second place. South Korea will beat Algeria to finish third and the Africans will wind up last.
Still, for those looking for upsets and bracket busters, South Korea is such one that could prove rewarding to back. Keep in mind, Belgium’s outfit is young and inexperienced at this level and the occasion, combined with the pressure of expectations, could prove too much.
Belgium: Young, fun and ready to run!
This team is a step below the very best teams like Argentina and Brazil, but they are certainly in the second group. While they struggled in recent years, they have been developing a very deep and impressive generation of young talent. They don’t have a whole lot of household names; at least not to casual fans, but they don’t have a particular weakness, either. They are strong in goal and they have good talent everywhere up to the front as well. Their lack of experience on this stage is a concern because we don’t know how they will handle the pressure and the hype. If they can achieve their potential, though, they will be fun to watch.
These could potentially be the glory days for Belgium on the Word Cup stage, given they are favourites to win Group H, but I’ve heard their name mentioned several times in discussions (somewhat shockingly, truth be told) also as favourites for the competition proper. A new generation of players, spearheaded by Fellaini, Kompany, Lukaku and Vertonghen (amongst several others) have carried Belgium into this major international competition. However, what this group has to offer in enviable talent, they lack in experience at this level. It’s one thing to dust off European qualification, yet another to launch a successful campaign at the finals.
That Belgium fall into a winnable group definitely underscores why I have them topping this group. Granted Algeria, Russia and South Korea aren’t invincible. Nonetheless, neither are the Belgians and that’s something the remaining triplet in Group H will hang their hat on.
Russia: Nothing was left to chance this time around!
The coaching here is one of the biggest storylines. Fabio Capello was chased out of England after a hugely disappointing performance at the World Cup in 2010. As is so often the case with coaches, though, all he had to do was go slightly down the ladder to find another gig. His impact has been obvious so far. He took a defense that was really questionable and transformed it to one that allowed just five goals in qualifying. He’ll be hungry to redeem himself, but it seems doubtful that he has the talent needed to contend with the best. They could face a Round of 16 contest with Germany if they finish second in this group, though, so it is going to be tough for this team to shine.
After being cruelly denied a place in 2010 South Africa in the playoffs, Russia made certain to win their European group this time around. Although they managed the feat by a point, the fact that they beat fifth ranked Portugal to top spot is commendable, not to mention it redlines their credentials to advance out of Group H.
South Korea: Bracket-Busters if there ever were ones!
The key here is Son Heung-Min. He plays at Bayer Leverkusen and that team paid a higher transfer fee for him than they have for any other player. He’s an exciting and dangerous forward. I just don’t think he has enough talent to work with here. Best-case scenario is that they beat Russia and take the second qualifying spot. I just don’t see them beating Belgium, though.
South Korea is the dangerous floater in this group. In 2002, South Korea went as far as the penultimate round, so they aren’t a side to take lightly. Their qualification for Brazil was impressive and as far as this group is concerned the fact is: this is a winnable group. Don’t be shocked if they do emerge as the surprise package.
Algeria: I’ll keep it simple…I just don’t like them, period!
As negative as I have been, there is a bit of talent here. Ishak Belfodil and Saphir Taider have made some noise playing in Europe. They also have a history of playing up to the level of top opponents; they beat West Germany, the finalists, in the preliminary round of the 1982 World Cup and they have fared well against other elite teams over the year. I’m just trying to find the bright side, though, as I really don’t like much about this team on this stage.
Algeria carry the burden of being the hefty underdogs in Group H, which means most will likely choose to overlook them when filling-out their brackets for this group. However, as mentioned above this is a wide-open group that is up for grabs. It’s conceivable in such a group for a surprise package to emerge. Just as South Korea, so too can Algeria capitalise. Of course, this is easier said than done.
With the groups out of the way, you should now be able to focus on the second-round and then the following elimination rounds. That is what we’ll discuss in detail in the next and final part of this multi-part series.
This next part is where your bracket picks really become important, as tipping one incorrect side to advance could “bust your entire bracket!” This is what we call a “Bracket Buster” and when (not “if”) it happens to you; because it will, as it happens to everyone, don’t freak-out because if you’ve done your homework and have listened to what I’ve been saying you may just have another route to bracket success elsewhere. As an old adage goes, “there is more than one way to skin a cat,” there is more than one way to win a bracket!