World Cup Preview: Brazil favoured in Group A

Brazil's Neymar eyes the ball during his team's final practice in Sao Paulo one day before the...

Brazil's Neymar eyes the ball during his team's final practice in Sao Paulo one day before the opening match of the soccer World Cup between Brazil and Croatia June 11, 2014. (REUTERS/Damir Sagolj)

KURTIS LARSON, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 5:51 PM ET

WORLD CUP 2014: GROUP A

MEXICO

  • Best finish: Quarterfinals (1970, ’86)
  • Appearances: 15
  • Marquee player: Javier Hernandez (Manchester United)
  • Oddsmakers say: 100/1 to win the 2014 World Cup
  • How they got here: Finished 4th in CONCACAF qualifying before trouncing OFC champs New Zealand 9-3 in a two-leg, intercontinental playoff.

The skinny: In movie terms, it was The Great Escape. Mexico, a CONCACAF power guided by four different managers, needed a goal from the gods — plus a little help — just for a chance to advance to this summer’s tournament. The Mexicans were a mess last year, failing to win through five qualifiers at the usually impenetrable Azteca until Raul Jimenez struck an overhead kick against Panama to keep Mexico alive heading into the final day of qualifying. Had the U.S. not managed a shock come-from-behind win in Panama on the last day, El Tri would have missed a World Cup for the first time in two decades. All that drama just to make the final 32. Now the Mexicans find themselves in a manageable group alongside hosts Brazil, Croatia and Cameroon. But for Mexico, it's all about themselves. Manager Miguel Herrera seems to have his talented group on track following three consecutive friendly results against South Korea, Nigeria and the U.S. The Mexicans will play three more warm-up friendlies against Israel, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Portugal — games that should lend a peek to what kind of damage Mexico will inflict over the next few weeks. Before looking at the matchups, here’s what we know: Mexico will be more than comfortable in tropical conditions. To that end, don’t underestimate the value teams gain from competing in the Confederations Cup the summer before the big event. Mexico made a good account of itself at last summer’s tournament, topping Japan and narrowly losing 2-1 to Italy. On June 17, Mexico will play the hosts in Fortaleza, the same stadium in which they lost to Brazil a year ago. A familiar setting could set the Central Americans up for a decent showing provided they get a result in their opening fixture against Cameroon, a largely unknown side that while fielding a number of talented individuals, rarely impresses as a whole. Despite watching it crawl through qualifying, Mexico should be favoured to advance from Group A beneath the hosts, especially when you consider Croatia didn’t exactly breeze through a mediocre UEFA qualifying group. It’s just a matter of Mexico’s flair-filled lineup — Giovanni dos Santos (Villareal), Javier Hernandez (Manchester United) and Odribe Peralta (Santos Laguna) — waking up on the right side of the bed.

BRAZIL

  • Best finish: Champions
  • (1958, ’62, ’70, ’94, ’02)
  • Appearances: 20
  • Marquee player: Neymar (Barcelona)
  • Oddsmakers say: 3/1 to win the 2014 World Cup
  • How they got here: Qualified automatically as World Cup hosts

The skinny: Let’s just talk about the players left off of Brazil’s 23-man squad. Kaka, a 32-year-old A.C. Milan midfielder, didn’t make the cut. He’ll remain at home resting his head on his Ballon d’Or (2007) and UEFA Footballer of the Year awards. At 34, Ronaldinho is ancient in the minds of most despite still playing at a high level in the Brazilian top flight. He’s been left clutching his 2005 Ballon d’Or and resting his feet on multiple FIFA all-world awards during this summer’s tournament. Then there’s Robinho, a player who would start for 95% of teams across the globe. Manager Luiz Felipe Scolari, however, doesn’t have space for the 30-year-old Milan forward who, while falling off in recent years, still has vast experience at the international level. Those former "world-class" footballers — among a plethora of others — didn’t make Brazil’s 23-man team. Scary stuff. But not as scary as the guys who did. Led by Toronto FC ’keeper Julio Cesar, the Brazilians — currently ranked No. 1 in the world — don’t have a weakness. They ran World Cup holders Spain off the pitch in less than an hour at last summer’s Confederations Cup, a coming-out party for Brazil’s three-headed monster — the attacking trio of Neymar, Fred and Hulk. Each of these three add a different element. Neymar is inventive, capable of carving out a goal when there’s nothing there. Fred is maybe the purest finisher of them all — an out-and-out striker who scores in a number of ways by doing most of the dirty work inside the box. As his name denotes, Hulk is the muscle up top. The Brazilian big body provides the power to complement his teammates’ finesse. There’s no question Brazil has the most complete roster, and on home turf they’re undoubtedly the favourites. They have also been blessed with a more-than-manageable group. The only hiccup for the hosts could come in Round 2, when Brazil will meet one of Chile, Spain or the Netherlands, a meeting that may well turn out to be the match of the tournament.

CROATIA

  • Best finish: Third place (1998)
  • Appearances: 3
  • Marquee player: Luka Modric (Real Madrid)
  • Oddsmakers say: 150/1 to win the 2014 World Cup
  • How they got here: Finished a distant second to Belgium in UEFA Group A during qualifying, eventually advancing 2-0 on aggregate past Iceland in a two-leg playoff.

The skinny: Like their Mexican group mates, the Croatians are just lucky to be here. Croatia finished nine points behind first-place Belgium in UEFA Group A last year and was the eighth-best second-place finisher in UEFA, finishing a point ahead of Denmark for the final European playoff spot. From there, the Croatians benefited from an inflated FIFA World Ranking, which saw them into Pot 1 — alongside Portugal, Greece and Ukraine — in the playoff draw, where their luck continued. Instead of drawing the likes of France or Sweden, Croatia beat lowly Iceland in a two-leg playoff to advance to the finals in Brazil, where they’re scheduled to meet the hosts in the opening game of the tournament on June 12. You can’t talk about Croatia without bringing up central defender Josip Simunic, whom FIFA controversially banned for 10 games after he was accused of proliferating racist chants after Croatia’s win over Iceland. While boasting a number of talented individuals, Croatia is capable of hemorrhaging at any time. After losing its final UEFA qualifier 2-0 to lowly Scotland, the Croatian Federation elected to fire manager Igor Stimac ahead of the team’s playoff against Iceland. As a result, it’s anyone’s guess where this side is tactically and mentally. The Croatians will rely heavily on Real Madrid midfielder Luka Modric, who showed he’s playing the best soccer of his life during last month’s Champions League final. Look for the 28-year-old to spearhead Croatia’s counterattack during Group A games against Brazil, Mexico and Cameroon. Although certainly light at the back, the Croatians are also dangerous in an attack that features a wealth of international experience. Bayern Munich’s Mario Mandzukic was crucial in securing Croatia’s qualification while Shakhtar Donetsk’s Eduardo and Wolfsburg’s Ivica Olic have shown they can score at the highest level. For Croatia, it’s about coming back from the pounding it’s sure to receive at this month’s World Cup opener. In 2010, one team managed to advance from its group after losing its first match — the eventual World Cup champion Spain.

CAMEROON

  • Best finish: Quarterfinals (1990)
  • Appearances: 7
  • Marquee player: Samuel Eto’o (Released by Chelsea)
  • Oddsmakers say: 500/1 to win the 2014 World Cup
  • How they got here: Finished atop an African qualifying group featuring Libya, DR Congo and Togo before advancing to World Cup from a two-leg playoff against Tunisia

The skinny: You can’t speak about The Indomitable Lions without first mentioning Samuel Eto’o. And that, in turn, is the problem with Cameroon. We’re still talking about the 33-year-old instead of someone else heading into what will be his fourth World Cup. That’s not to say he won’t pose a threat to Group A opposition. Eto’o did score a dozen goals for Chelsea this season — three in the UEFA Champions League — despite being mocked by manager Jose Mourinho for his age. The West Africans have some experience in midfield, too, where Barcelona’s Alex Song will look to disrupt the opposition. But for most African sides in this competition, it has never been about the attack. Cameroon has always boasted fast and physical strikers that are capable of turning a game upside down in the blink of an eye. At the back, however, it’s a much different story. African goalkeeping is spotty at best. They lack key fundamentals that players in more developed countries learn at a young age. It’s why you rarely see them playing at big clubs around the world. Expect German manager Volker Finke to set Cameroon up in a defensive 4-1-4-1, with German-born midfielder Joel Matip guarding the back four. He’ll let Eto’o work alone up top as long as games remain goalless. As their long-shot odds suggest, Cameroon is the weakest team in one of the most diverse groups in the competition. And while a shock win over Croatia or Mexico isn’t out of the question, it will be one of those two advancing behind Brazil after three group games.


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