In the wee small hours of an Australian Saturday morning I sat through all the Eurovision-esque hoopla of the draw for next year’s World Cup Finals. With a parade of dignitaries, old players, Brazilian celebrities, interpretative dancers and that wily old Machiavellian Sepp Blatter it seemed as if the meat and potatoes of the event would never arrive. However, when it did as an Australian part of me wished the FIFA version of ‘The X-Factor: Brazil’ had continued. To use that hackneyed cliche, we have been dropped in a group of death that will take a miracle of North Korea at England 66 proportion to get out of.
Having said that every country that has gone through the process of being allocated a slot in each World Cup Finals group has reason to either celebrate or perhaps contemplate slashing their communal football wrists, and Australia is not alone in wondering how cruel the Gods are. It might be that Brazilians, Spaniards, Argentinians and French have reason to be happy, but almost everyone else will be pondering how chance and fate has conspired against them. So, just to add some more uninformed and amateur comment on the draw here are my thoughts.
Brazil are obviously in the box seat for qualification through to the round of 16, with a team that is playing excellent football and at home in front of the most passionate fans in the world. Therefore the race is one for who will go through in second place. Like many a World Cup there is plenty to lick the lips over as the match ups between the three countries looking for a 2nd place progression are determined. Croatia, whilst currently ranked globally in 16th, had a fairly tough road to Brazil 2014 and to be honest they are not the same in terms of quality as that team which went to France in 1998. The added burden of starting off the group games against Brazil will be a tough one for the Croats, and being a European team playing in the Amazonian heat of Manaus against Cameroon and in the the northern city of Recife against Mexico may be even more troublesome. Having said that Cameroon are one of the lowest ranked teams in Brazil 2014, and Mexico have struggled all through their qualification process. A key match will be that in Natal between Mexico and Cameroon; a win for either team puts immense pressure on the loser and Croatia. If I was the Cameroon coach I would want the win badly as going to Manaus against Croatia with three points in the bag is an excellent launching pad. Having said that I suspect that we will see two teams (most likely Croatia and Mexico) level on points at the end of the group stage, with goal difference the determinant for qualification into the round of 16.
My Prediction for Qualifier from Group As: 1st – Brazil, 2nd – Croatia
Every Australian fan of the Socceroos has a tiny flickering hope that whilst we are in a true ‘Group of Death’ we might, just might, squeak through. Of course the hard cold light of football reality means that these illusions (some would say delusions) are going to be considered as ridiculous by the Spaniards, Dutch and Chileans, and most pundits will take the view we are in Group B and the finals to make up numbers. I would argue that the truth lies somewhere in between impossible dreams and pessimistic resignation. The opening matches for each team will go a long way to determining who has the momentum to qualify, and there is the exceedingly tasty prospect of Spain and the Netherlands recreating the 2010 final in the heat of Salvador as their first game in Group B. Spain are world and European champions and ranked no.1 globally, hence have every right to be favourites to progress in number one spot form the group. The Dutch will be very keen to at least draw this game, and it is eminently possible that this will be the case. Their match with their 2010 nemesis will be a cracker. For the two ‘outsiders’ (and I use that term very loosely in Chile’s case) Chile versus Australia will be crucial to both teams and it would be a significant achievement if Ange Postecoglou can get his squad up for a win. The Chileans have been playing brilliant football recently and as these are effectively a South American finals they will be more at home in the climate and match conditions. Therefore for the Socceroos to emerge in 2nd place at the end of the group stage will be a remarkable achievement. Ultimately this is going to be a race in three, and be prepared for perhaps a surprise with Chile beating off either the Dutch or Spanish for progression into the final 16.
My Prediction for Qualifiers from Group B: 1st Spain, 2nd Chile
Group C is definitely one of the weakest in the 2014 World Cup Draw and whilst there are some teams whose current rankings are quite high it is not probably as fair a reflection on the potential quality of the teams participating. Columbia is probably the stand out team and they will no doubt be helped by the South American context of these finals. I think they will be too good for Greece in their opening game and this will set them up very well for qualification through to the final 16 teams, probably in 1st first. Japan is my other favourite for qualification, although Cote d’Ivoire will be possibly more at home. The key games will be those in the second tranche of group matches, with Columbia and Cote d’Ivoire clashing in Brasilia, and Japan and Greece meeting in Natal. The Japanese have had some problems with their standard of play since qualifying for the 2014 Finals, however they have more experience than either Cote d’Ivoire and Greece in Brazilian conditions plus they have more quality players in European leagues than ever before. Neither the Greeks nor the Ivorians have been as convincing in the lead up to qualification so from what may be considered one of the least strong groups I don’t expect them to progress.
My Prediction for Qualifiers from Group C: 1st Columbia, 2nd Japan
Another so-called ‘Group of Death’, the combination of Uruguay, Costa Rica, England and Italy is going to be one of the closest with England and Costa Rica both looking perhaps a little askance at the draw and wondering why they have got what they have got. Uruguay is another South American team who are strong candidates for progressing through to the final 16, and what will be undoubtedly be key for them will be how well they adapt to and are supported in Brazil. The form of Suarez will also be vital for La Celeste. Even though they had to go through confederation play-offs to get to Brazil 2014 they have earned some good wins in the process. Costa Rica are a team that at its best can be very attractive and competitive, and again they will have some advantage coming from playing in South America unlike their European competitors. However it is more than likely they will be behind the eight ball after their opening game against Uruguay. The England versus Italy game in the Amazonian city of Manaus will be a trial for both teams. Neither England nor the Azzuri have set the world on fire in recent games or in qualifying, so whoever wins this game will be in an excellent position to qualify for the final 16. I know this will sound like Pommy bashing but the Three Lions have had a less than stellar record at recent World Cup Finals so if I was to pick a European team to come through this group it would be Italy.
My Prediction for Qualifiers from Group D: 1st Uruguay, 2nd Italy
Of the top 8 seeded teams for Brazil 2014 Switzerland was seen as one of if not the weakest and in this group they will find the going tough. Ecuador are a bit of an unknown quantity in this group and you would think that with the South American context of these finals they should be at least capable of a draw against the Swiss in the opening game. However for both these teams the big threat has to be France, who after a very tough qualification process made it to Brazil in style and have had some good wins since then. Honduras will be very likely roadkill for Les Bleus in the first game for both teams, setting the scene for what will be two crucial games in the second phase of matches in Group E. This should be a reasonably open competition for second place assuming Switzerland don’t live up to their rankings, with my assumption being the team to get through alongside France possibly coming down to goal difference.
My Prediction for Qualifiers from Group E: 1st France, 2nd Ecuador
La Albiceleste are red hot favourites to get through the initial stage of Brazil 2014 and I see no reason why they can’t get a maximum of 9 points from their games in Group F. Again like Group the remaining three sides in this group look to be fighting over the scraps of second place with none of them being stand out candidates. Argentina could well put on a goal-fest against Iran, and whilst Nigeria won’t be a major threat they will possibly more capable of handling the climate of Brazil with more comfort. The Iranians will in my opinion struggle to challenge at least Argentina and probably Nigeria, which means the crucial games will be those involving the only debutante nation at Brazil 2014, Bosnia-Herzegovina. If the Balkan country can escape from their opening game against Argentina without too serious a mauling then beat Nigeria in Curatiba they maybe in a prime position to progress. For now however I expect Nigeria to accompany Messi’s Argentines to the second stage of Brazil 2014.
My Prediction for Qualifiers from Group F: 1st Argentina, 2nd Nigeria
Yet another ‘group of death’ which is set up magnificently for some quality matches as well as some one-on-one challenges and unique circumstances. Germany’s Mannschaft are again looking in excellent nick prior to the 2014 finals and one aspect of their team that will stand them in good stead is that the team that played so attractively in South Africa has been both matured and had more youthful talent incorporated into their structures. Joachim Low is a coach who has few equals in international football and I have every confidence that he will steer his squad deep into the finals. The second European team in the group is Portugal and whilst they will attract a lot of support partly due to the immense talent of Ronaldo, and partly through the cultural links between Brazil and its ex colonial ruler, I think this version of the Seleção is not as good as past ones. Their global ranking seems out of tune with recent results, and with a history of having little recent success against Germany they will go into their opening game as underdogs. The Ghanaians and Americans are not necessarily there to make up numbers, however again particularly in the later team’s case the FIFA rankings seem a little generous. The clash between Jogi’s Deutschland and Klinsi’s USA will be fascinating however what is going to be more important will be their game against Ghana. The Black Stars will I think be challenging Portugal for the second place in Group G and I would not be surprised to see them get through like they did in 2010 on goal difference. However this is most likely going to be the only group that provides two European teams for the round of 16.
My Prediction for Qualifiers from Group G: 1st Germany, 2nd Portugal
Another reasonably open group with one stand out team (Belgium), one very good team (Russia) and South Korea and Algeria each having strengths that cannot be denied. Much has been said by far more insightful pundits about the strength and exciting potential of the Red Devils, and they should get off to a great start against Algeria in their first group match. The big match of this group will no doubt be the second for the Belgians and the Russians, being played at Rio’s legendary Maracana, and if the Russians can emerge victorious in their first game against South Korea this will set the group up very sweetly. Having said that I don’t believe that the South Koreans are as weak as their current FIFA ranking assert, and they could trouble the hosts of the 2018 Finals. Algeria are probably the weakest of the African countries at Brazil 2014 and I expect they will finish last in the Group. Bottom line; this should be another all-European qualifying group into the round of 16.
My Prediction for Qualifiers from Group H: 1st Belgium, 2nd Russia