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Early Thoughts on World Cup Qualifying

Early Thoughts on World Cup Qualifying: Groups A-D

 

Making predictions for the 2014 World Cup at this juncture is not easy. With so many club and international matches yet to happen, we do not know what players will be match fit, what players will have found their form, and what coaches might be there come Brazil.

But there is a reason why FIFA makes these announcements so early in the juncture (aside from travel and administrative reasons:) because it gets the fans talking. Sitting at the Laughing Man Tavern on Friday with the American Outlaw Supporters, the wave of emotions from sheer enjoyment to despair to reasoning to cautious optimism as the United States was seeded was intoxicating from an outsider’s prospective. The level of despair and enjoyment that people get from something as simple as old men picking ping pong balls out of a jar. It is the predictions and rationalizing of one’s terrible position that makes this game so great. I know that from my perspective, I look forward to sitting at the water cooler this week talking to the Mexican fans and comparing our different situations.

So with that in mind, let’s take a look at Groups A through D:

“The Group of Brazil’s Shadow.”

Group A
Brazil
Mexico
Croatia
Cameroon

Most Exciting Match: Brazil v Croatia (06/12/2013).

With this being the first match of the World Cup, it is unquestionably the most exciting match of the tournament and the first round. This is not a very easy first game for Brazil: although Croatia had some difficulty in qualifying for the World Cup, this is a team that features Mario Mandzukic (Bayern Munich) and Nikica Jelavic (Everton.) It will also be interesting to see how Croatian Forward Eduardo (Shaktar Donetsk) is treated in Sao Paulo. He is a naturalized Croatian citizen and was born in Rio De Janeiro.

Best Player That You Have Probably Never Heard Of: Raul Jimenez, Mexico. I am just going to show you this goal that he scored against Panama in October and let you come up with your own opinions of Mr. Jimenez.

Early predictions: 1.) Brazil 2.)Mexico 3.)Croatia 4.) Cameroon

It would be a tremendous catastrophe if Brazil did not win this tournament and if they finished anything less than first.

In regards to second-place, this seems to be a two-horse race between Croatia and Mexico. Cameroon unfortunately did not show anything during qualifying that leads me to believe that they can marginal sides like Mexico and Croatia. Plus with their heavy reliance on aging superstars like Samuel Eto’o and Kevin Prince-Boateng, I am not sure that they will be able to keep up.

As for Croatia, one of the things that concerns me the most is how the fringe European teams (Croatia, Switzerland, France, and Russia.) Unless your team is stationed in the south where it will be much cooler, teams are going to have to play in sweltering conditions. Experience playing in such conditions will be key. Plus, it seems like Mexico finally has an idea of which players should feature in their squad.

“The Real Group of Death”

Group B
Spain
Netherlands
Chile
Australia

 

Most Exciting Match: Chile versus Spain (06/18)

Popular consensus holds that Spain versus Netherlands is the best group of the match. And they are not far off. But for me the most exciting match will be played in Rio de Janeiro on the 18th. Although many people remember the 2010 World Cup final between Spain and the Netherlands, it seems that very few people remember how good the match between Chile and Spain had in the group stages of that tournament. During that match, Los Rojas used their speed on the wings with Alexis Sanchez (Barcelona) and Arturo Vidal (Juventus) to defend more aggressively. Chile head coach Jorge Sampioli, who is a disciple of Marcelo Bielsa the manager who coached Chile in 2010, will look to attack Spain with a similar strategy. Chile also recently tied Spain 2-2 in Switzerland in September with Spain only rescuing a draw with Jesus Navas’ (Manchester City) goal in the 90th minute.

Best Player that You Have Probably Have Never Heard Of:  Forward Eduardo Vargas, Chile. Although Vargas’ time in Napoli was rather lackluster, he has been lighting the world on fire playing for Gremio in the Brazilian First Division, scoring 7 goals in 13 matches. A solid tournament could get him back in the good graces of Napoli or another European team come the July transfer window.

Early Predictions: 1.) Spain 2.) Chile  3.)Netherlands 4.) Australia

Let’s get this out of the way first: there is no way Australia comes out of this group. The Socceroos made the World Cup based off of the work of their experienced players like Defender Lucas Neill (Omiya Ardija-Japan) and Forward Tim Cahill (New York Red Bulls.) They made a terrible Goalkeeping decision throughout qualifying by playing Mark Schwarzer (Chelsea,) who has since retired, over Mitchell Langerak (Borussia Dortmund,) who now comes into Brazil with only 9 appearances combined for club and country. They have also lost 4 of their last 6 matches, including twin 6-0 whippings by Brazil and France. Australia has a very good young crop of players coming up, but they will not be ready for this World Cup. Expect lots of uneven results.

Between the top 3 teams in Group B, there is very little difference in the strength of their squads or in their potential once they leave the Group stage. It would seem the major difference between Spain and Chile and my number three team, the Netherlands, is experience. Although the Dutch have a very clear advantage at striker with Robin van Persie (Manchester United,) Klaus Jan-Huntelaar (Schalke 04,) and Arjen Robben (Galatasaray,) their defense is very young and inexperienced. Stefan de Vrij (Feyernoord,) Daley Blind (Ajax,) and Joel Veltman (Ajax) are all under the age of 23 and would be expected to log major minutes. Against two experienced sides in Chile and Spain, I am not sure if the Netherlands have it in them to hold off the likes of Sanchez for Chile or Diego Costa (Atletico Madrid) for Spain.

“The Revenge of World Cup Pasts Group.”

Group C
Colombia
Greece
Cote D’Ivoire
Japan

 

Most Exciting Match: Cote D’Ivoire versus Greece (06/17, 5pm)

A classic case of the irresistible force versus the immovable object, to say that these two teams have different styles is an understatement. While Core D’Ivoire is known for their goal scoring prowess, scoring 19 goals during qualifying, the Greeks are renowned for their stinginess on defense. They allowed only 4 goals during qualifying, which was the second lowest in UEFA. Their ‘bend, but don’t break’ system allowed them to capture the 2004 European Championships and will help them in Brazil.

The key difference between these two teams is that while Cote D’Ivoire does not have a great defense, it is at a sound defense, one that is capable of making key stops when necessary. Defender Cheick Tiote (Newcastle) finally looks like he is healthy and able to live up to his hype. On the other hand, Greece is not a very good attacking team, only scoring 12 goals during qualifying. Forward Konstantinos Mitroglou (Olympiakos) has long been tabbed as the savior for the Greek problem up front, but so far has only scored 8 goals in 28 matches, with 3 of those coming in their recent two-legged playoff against Romania. He is going to need to step his game up to get Greece past Cote D’Ivoire and into the second round.

Best Player that You Probably Have Never Heard Of: Defender Atsuto Uchida, Japan.

Early Predictions: 1.) Colombia 2.)Japan 3.)Cote D’Ivoire 4.) Greece

This is the most difficult group to predict because all four teams are so even. While each team may play a different style, each of them has a quality group of players and have shown in their respective regional tournaments that they are some of the best teams in the world.

The biggest advantage that Colombia and Japan have over Cote D’Ivoire and Greece is that they seem to be more complete squads. Colombia, who has risen from the ashes of international football in recent years, has two fantastic strikers in Radamael Falcao (Monaco) and Jackson Martinez (Porto,) and allowed the least amount of goals during CONMEBOL qualification (13). Meanwhile, Japan has shown this year both in qualifying and at the FIFA Confederations Cup that they are a team who has the right amount of experience and skill to win the tough games.

The one thing that gives me pause right now is Didier Drogba. Major superstar players always seem to come through in the clutch, so I am a little hesitant to give Japan the edge over Cote D’Ivoire.  Cote D’Ivoire has never really come through during international competitions and this may be their last chance with this current set of players.

 

 

“The Groupies Group”

Group D
England
Italy
Costa Rica
Uruguay

 

 

 

 

Most Exciting Match: Italy v Uruguay (06/24)

I am not sure if you can consider either Italy or Uruguay to be “dark horses,” given their history in this tournament. But in a tournament where the likes of Argentine, Brazil, Germany, and Spain are considered to be the front-runners to hold the cup, it feels like the Azzuri and Los Charruas are being overlooked. That is a very dangerous thing to do.

Although Italy and Uruguay both struggled some during qualification neither team is a minnow. For Italy, both Mario Balotelli (A.C. Milan,) and Giuseppi Rossi (Fiorentina) are coming into form for both club and country. Rossi’s return from injury is vital for Italy as he is able to some of the pressure off of Balotelli. The one major concern that Italy will have is the health of Goalkeeper Gigi Buffon (Juventus) and Midfielder Andrea Pirlo (Juventus.) Both will be 35 when tournament play begins and with Juventus making deep runs in both Serie A and the Champions League, I wonder how much tread will be in their tires come Brazil. Pirlo’s current hamstring injury, which will have him sidelined for 6 to 8 weeks, may be a blessing in disguise.

For Uruguay, it all comes down to whether or not they can get their defense in order. Captain Diego Lugano is not seeing much time for West Bromwich Albion, which has to be a concern for Uruguayan Coach Oscar Tabarez.  If Tabarez continues to play Lugano and 37-year old Andres Scotti (Nacional-Uruguay) like he did in CONMEBOL Qualifying then Uruguay is going to have a difficult time against Italy. Introducing Jose Maria Gimenez (Atletico Madrid) to the national team system will be vital to the success for Uruguay. At 19, it may be a bit much to expose him to such a large stage. But he should be given additional minutes in the coming months for an Atletico Madrid squad that has ambitions of winning the Champions League.

Best Player You Have Probably Never Heard Of: Defender Bryan Oviedo, Costa Rica.

Although Oviedo may not be very well known to the casual fan, he is certainly well known in England. Just last week Oviedo scored the game-winning goal for his club Everton in their 2-1 defeat of Manchester United. This was Everton’s first victory over Manchester United at Old Trafford in 21 years so you can imagine that he is player who will never have to buy a beer near Goodison Park for the rest of his life. Oviedo is more than a one trick pony, though. As a defender he is excellent at boxing out stronger and faster attackers and has a very good partnership with Junior Diaz (Mainz 05).

Early Predictions: 1.) Uruguay 2.) Italy 3.) Costa Rica 4.) England

As stated above, I fully believe that both Uruguay and Italy are the dark horses of the tournament. With both sides featuring sounds squads with very few blemishes, they should make short work of both Costa Rica and England.

Having Costa Rica over England might sound like a bit of a stretch, but if you look at the details it is not that big of stretch. First, the only reason why Costa Rica finished second in CONCACAF is because they were forced to play a qualifier in a blizzard back in February. Had they played in a regular match, they would have either beaten or drawn with the United States.

Second, this is a golden generation of Costa Rican football. With the likes of Oviedo, Goalkeeper Keylor Navas (Levante-Spain,) Forward Bryan Ruiz (Fulham,) Midfielder Christian Bolanos (Copenhagen-Denmark,) and Forward Joel Campbell (Olympiakos-Greece) all playing prominent roles for top flight European teams they will come into this tournament with seasoning and experience against the players in the world. A large number of their players also play in Major League Soccer which has given them the chance to play against a higher quality of opponent than what can be found in the Costa Rican first division. Costa Rica also has a very similar climate to that of Brazil so playing in the Amazon jungle of Manaus should not be a problem.

As for the English, it seems that there are too many questions and not enough answers with this squad. What is the situation with Goalkeeper Joe Hart (Manchester City?) Will they continue with a 4-4-2? Are they going to start their younger players like Midfielder Andros Townsend (Tottenham Hotspur,) Defender Chris Smalling (Manchester United.) and Midfielder Adam Llalna (Southampton?) What will their training schedule be like to deal with the change in climate? At this point, out of all the teams in this group, it is England that has most to work out over the next few months. With all three teams in this group you can see progression from three years ago. With England this feels very much like 2010, with the same problems and same questions as before.

 

Groups E-H Should Be in Later This Week So Please Check-In Then!

 

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