When the draw for the 2014 World Cup was conducted, those clamouring for an opening-round shock for hosts Brazil must have sensed an opportunity. The Samba superstars were drawn alongside World Cup regulars Mexico, African hopefuls Cameroon and a respected European side in Croatia. On paper, the hosts had been given a tough but manageable task.
Once again led by Luiz Felipe Scolari, their last World Cup-winning manager, who has been across the globe and back since the 2002 triumph, the hosts will be expecting nothing less than a clean sweep here. Expectations are high across the board while failure is not an option to a demanding public, already less than satisfied about having to bear the cost of hosting the event. Historically strong in groups, the Brazilians have finished top of their group in every World Cup since 1978. They are due a strong showing, having disappointed in both 2010 and 2006, going in as favourites but failing to progress past the quarter-finals. Worth noting that no reigning Confederations Cup winner has gone on to win the World Cup the following year.
Scolari has assembled a close-knit squad, having to exclude some high-profile players such as Joao Miranda and Filipe Luis who have made strong claims for a place this season, in order to avoid potentially ruining a strong squad harmony. The Brazilians are not what they once were, boasting arguably the strongest defence in the tournament which is a rarity for the country. Going forward, they are heavily reliant on Neymar, who despite a disappointing first season in Europe has never failed to deliver for his country. Meanwhile playmaker Oscar shares the burden of responsibility, and any success is reliant on these two turning up.
The Croats come in to the tournament off the back of a shaky qualifying campaign which saw them suffer defeats both home and away to Scotland, then scrape through a playoff with Iceland, having faced ten men for over half of the first leg. Coratia’s 2010 captain Niko Kovac has taken the managerial reins and attempted to steady the ship. Hitman Mario Mandzukic is suspended for the opener against the hosts, a game which Croatia won’t be banking on for points. Despite a poor qualifying record, I can’t overlook them for second in the group. Their midfield duo of Ivan Rakitic and Luka Modric would grace any team in the tournament, while the likes of Mateo Kovacic, Subasic in goal, Dejan Lovren at centre-half and Ivan Perisic out wide should be enough to carry them over the line in the group. Both final group games are in the sweltering heat of Recife and Manaus, which could work as an advantage due to their ability to retain possession and the explosive styles of their opponents. Should they progress, a tricky second-round fixture against Chile, Spain or The Netherlands awaits, probably putting an end to their tournament.
It’s been a managerial merry-go-round for Mexico this year with current boss Miguel Herrera being their fourth coach in six months. He is known for his fiery character, having missed playing in the 1994 tournament after punching a photographer. With him at the helm, motivation shouldn’t be an issue for the Mexicans. They saw off New Zealand with ease, scoring nine goals on aggregate after an underwhelming qualifying campaign which saw them finish fourth, ahead of only Jamaica and Panama thanks to two stoppage-time goals from the US. They come into the tournament without Carlos Vela who has yet again refused to answer his nation’s call, while Rafael Marquez captains a slow defence, which could prove a major liability. Herrera favours three centre-halves and the use of wing-backs, and a side full of pace in all areas bar centre-halves. Giovani Dos Santos will hope to build on an excellent debut season for Villarreal, while Javier Hernandez will be looking to catch the attention of new Manchester United boss Louis van Gaal, or any potential suitors should he be deemed surplus to requirements. Hard to see them finishing above Croatia, but given the influence of the conditions, anything is possible.
Cameroon will have realistic ambitions of qualifying in second and reaching the last 16. Another team who can consider themselves fortunate to be in the tournament, having qualified because of Togo being punished for fielding an ineligible player. The Africans struggle on the road, however, having won just three competitive games away from home since 2010. In addition, their preparations have been marred by a slight conflict of interests between coach Volker Finke’s ‘team over individual’ philosophy and Samuel Eto’o’s apparent ‘I should be the star’ philosophy, which is rumoured to have disrupted harmony in the squad. The side is loaded with midfield powerhouses, including Alex Song, Eyong Enoh and Europa League star Stephane M’Bia. The opener against Mexico is crucial in their quest for qualification, with a loss for either side probably ending their hopes of progressing. Can’t write them off in such an unpredictable group, but difficult to see them finishing anywhere above fourth.