Five questions from the Round of 16

1. After an unpredictable group stage, are we back to predictability?

You’ll have seen everywhere since the Round of 16 concluded the stat that this is the first time since the World Cup became a 32-team competition that all the group winners have progressed to the quarter finals. It’s actually more impressive still – you can include the 24-team tournaments from 1986 to 1994, and it’s still the case. That was back when four of the best third-placed teams joined the top two of the groups in the around of 16 – overall the group winners took more of a battering in these tournaments too, despite playing some of those 3rd placed teams. Belgium in ’86, Argentina in ’90, Italy in ’94 for example.

Should be therefore expect the expected in the semi-finals?

2. Is one great in-form player enough to take a team all the way this year?

Can Messi man-haul the Argentinian team all the way to the trophy?

Neymar for Brazil, Messi for Argentina – both have delivered when their teams have been up against it this tournament. Both teams were widely tipped to featured in an all-South-American final, but with both surviving gruelling matches that went to extra time, you have to wonder how sustainable this is.

Put simply, neither team would probably be at this stage had either player been injured or out-of-form. How far can they be carried? You have to expect that something will need to change for either of them to go on and win it, as there have been too many bumps along the way so far to suggest they can keep getting away with it.

3. Are any of the European nations strong enough to make history?

France and Germany surged out of the groups following some encouraging performances, the Dutch dipped after their opening game heroics, while Belgium meandered their way through their group. In the Round of 16, we finally saw the Belgians in a more attractive and exciting style, though all four nations progressed after gruelling encounters against what should have been very beatable opposition.

No European nation has won a World Cup on South American soil – numerically, Europe is at an advantage, up 4-3. Having avoided the rigours of extra-time, you would assume that France and The Netherlands are perhaps best-placed to progress. France in particular looked a transformed side once Benzema was switched centrally, while RVP surely won’t be as anonymous in the quarters.

4. Can Costa Rica keep the underdogs dream alive?

You felt that as Greece squeezed home that injury-time equaliser that this was it for 10-men Costa Rica, that had their chance and blew it. But once again they were able to somehow find a result from somewhere – holding on doggedly, and following up with a penalty shootout display that would put most teams to shame.

They are the last true underdogs left. With the perceived injustice they dished out to Mexico through Arjen ‘wobbly-legs’ Robben, you can expect them to have most of the world behind them.

5. Can Colombia win it?

The man known as James, then pronounced as Ha-Mez, then suggested as James again.

They have the tournament’s most impressive performer in James Rodriguez, the world’s most engaged football fans, and followed up their group domination by being the only team to ease through the Round of 16.

They’re at the quarter finals stage, and you don’t feel they are either phased, tired, or afraid. While the other favourites are falling over themselves to add doubt to their own chances with a mix of shaky performances, Colombia are the only team that have looked consistently impressive throughout. All this while missing their star player.

The quarter final with Brazil will answer this soon enough, and their record is not favourable. Plenty of draws recently, but only two wins in 25 – one in a friendly, one in the 1991 Copa America. History is not with them. But they are so far the tournament’s star performers…

Five things we’ve learnt from the group stages in Brazil

1. Predictions of Belgium’s brilliance have been way off the mark

We fell into the trap of thinking that with the players available to them this was going to be an exciting team. But though on paper they’ve got great individuals, the end product hasn’t been pleasant to watch – they are the Movie 43 of this tournament.

Yes, they won all three games in their group, but they’ve struggled in large parts of their games against quite mediocre opposition. Lukaku hasn’t impressed, they’ve really missed a presence up front like Benteke, which will only become more apparent as they face tougher opposition. Don’t expect this team to stay around much longer.

2. CONCACAF on fire

The most gif-able character at this year’s World Cup

Nobody could have predicted that the performances of Mexico, Costa Rica and the USA would have been quite this good (we certainly didn’t). Costa Rica ended up topping a group they were everyone’s favourites to prop up, while Klinsmann has guided the US through one of the toughest groups. You could see both teams progressing to the quarter finals if they play as well as they have done so far.

As for Mexico, they came here after a year of instability and some poor recent form, yet have been surprisingly entertaining to watch. We want to see them take the lead against The Netherlands just to see another crazy Miguel Herrera celebration, one of the tournament’s highlights so far.

3. The refereeing has been erratic – and still needs help

We’ve had the comical-but-effective vanishing spray introduction, the generally-positive goal-line technology, but we’ve also seen some fairly terrible refereeing on some of the key moments in the group matches. This started badly in the Brazil-Croatia opener with an extremely generous penalty awarded to the hosts, continued with Giovani dos Santos being denied two perfectly good goals against Cameroon and has continued in unconvincing fashion all the way to the Italy-Uruguay game. While many have speculated what the effects of the heat have been on individual players, perhaps it’s also had an impact on the officials.

The speed at which the new innovations have settled in this tournament highlights that football shouldn’t be as conservative as it is. ‘Suarezgate III: A Shoulder To Bite On’ highlighted that officials can’t be expected to see everything – perhaps it’s time for video replays to be introduced more widely.

4. It’s not just England that has problems

There’s no hiding the dismal failure that was England’s World Cup campaign. And that’s a failure in spite of diminished expectations. A minority were predicting England would top the group, but most were at the very least expecting to finish ahead of Costa Rica and Uruguay.

England’s a nation in crisis apparently. Bring in B teams to the Football League, screams Greg Dyke and his review panel. It’s remarkable to think that Spain have exited at the same stage, despite a team full of World Cup winners – and despite the all-crucial B teams in their leagues. You suspect that Spain will not be looking over at the Chile footballing pyramid for inspiration any time soon. Italy, Russia Portugal, and Croatia also all came with high hopes for this tournament – they are all heading home early. Misery loves company.

5. Columbia or Chile could feasibly win it

Losing Falcao should have been a huge blow, but Columbia have dealt with his absence with ease.

Both Columbia and Chile have perhaps been the most entertaining teams to watch so far. With Brazil and Argentina not quite dominating as predicted, showing slight signs of weakness in their groups, could one of the other South American sides actually go all the way? It seemed before the tournament that Brazil-Argentina was the most likely final – the group stages have muddied the waters somewhat.

No European team has ever won a World Cup hosted on South American soil. France, Germany and The Netherlands have all shown signs in the groups that they could offer a challenge to that rule. But the smart money’s on a South American team – and based on what we’ve seen of them all so far, why not Columbia or Chile?

The 13 Best Vines Of The World Cup 2014 Brazil So Far

By @RKTweets We bloody love the World Cup and this edition will certainly go down as the most social World Cup in history. Perhaps it will also go down as the moment rights holders realised the internet exists and is global. being shared on Vine too. We put together some of the best Vines from this year’s World Cup so far. What did we miss? Messi breaks a child’s heart. If you zoom in you can see the exact moment his heart breaks. Guess he had other things on his mind to be fair. A ridiculous safe that may just break Brazilian hearts. From a keeper without a club Löw blow. Jogi rubs bogey into Ronaldo’s wounds Forget Clint’s goal, look at how flexible the Ghanian player is! He’s basically doing the splits in the air. Robben runs like the wind An incredible view of Blind’s pass and RVP’s goal Joe Hart goes mad. Swears. Almost breaks foot. Damn. I’m in my own area how can I clear under pressure? I know… Then again he was a bit confused by Pirlo But at least he knew it. The Future of English Football everyone Oh and the best corner ever taken at any level of the game. Mr Rooney

World Cup preview – Group H

In our final preview of this year’s World Cup, we look at a group featuring the neutral’s choice for the tournament. Are they as good as people think they are, and can the rest cause an upset?

Belgium

Could Vincent Kompany lead this promising Belgian side to their best World Cup since ’86?

A set of recognisable stars at the top of their games, a nation absent from the past two competitions, and a weight of expectation from the footballing world to bear. With the most talented group of players since their 1986 4th place finish, Belgium has an excellent opportunity in Brazil to write a new chapter in their footballing history.  Indeed many are suggesting this set of players has the potential to equal if not better the accomplishments 28 years ago. Only 6 of the squad were alive for that – and only the 36-year-old Van Buyten old enough to have any memory. This is a youthful side, packed full of current Premiership stars, and on paper they could go far .

Though Christian Benteke misses out through injury, coach Marc Wilmots can call on two players that had excellent seasons for Everton in Lukaku and Mirallas. Eden Hazard has the chance to stick it to Jose Mourinho with an impressive tournament, while at the back Vertonghen, Vermaelen and captain Kompany are on their day 3 of the best defenders currently in the Premier League. They conceded just 4 goals in an unbeaten qualifying campaign – expectations are justifiably high for their prospects in Brazil.

Prediction: 1st, showing the hype is justified and not simply the Belgian waffle of pundits. This is one set of Red Devils that won’t disappoint this year.

Algeria

Spurs debut last December, Algeria debut in March, his 1st international goal earlier this month – a rapid rise for Nabil Bentaleb

It’s been a rocky couple of years for Algeria. A poor display at the Cup of Nations saw them fall at the first hurdle, despite being among one of the favourites to win it. After topping their group in qualifying for Brazil, it took two feisty playoff games with Burkina Faso to confirm their spot in the finals. Coach Vahid Halilhodzic was supposed to have been in South Africa 4 years ago after steering the Ivory Coast through qualifying, but was sacked 4 months before the tournament started after disappointment in the Cup of Nations – where they were eliminated by Algeria. In contrast to most of the other teams in Brazil, Algeria opted not to test themselves against other teams competing in the finals, instead picking up 3 wins in friendlies against Slovenia, Armenia and Romania.

England fans will remember Algeria’s 0-0 draw in South Africa as one of the all-time lows in Capello’s time as coach, and there are a few that remain involved from that squad – notably Rafik Halliche and former Crewe and Rangers centre-half Madjid Bougherra, while Getafe’s Lacen and Udinese’s Yebda remain in the midfield. In Sporting Lisbon Slimani and Dinamo Zagreb striker Soudani they pack a stronger punch than the timid side 4 years ago, and in Valencia winger Feghouli a player that can create from the right. Look out also for Nabil Bentaleb, who following his rise at Spurs in the 2nd half of the season was fast-tracked into the Algerian side, only making his debut in the Slovenia friendly and scoring the opener against Romania.

Prediction: an improvement on their experience in South Africa and a 3rd place finish.

Russia

Fabio Capello

4 years ago Fabio Capello led an England team through a very successful qualifying campaign before guiding them to a lacklustre set of games in the finals. Part 1 of that story has been replicated with Russia, as they powered through to top their group, forcing Portugal into a playoff. There was a bump along the way (the inexplicable 1-0 loss to Northern Ireland) but by all accounts this is a Russian side that arrives in Brazil with expectations of reaching the knockout stages. This despite a fairly dismal World Cup record of late – this is only their 3rd appearance at the finals since the break up of the Soviet Union, and their 1st since 2002. Their last appearance past the group stages was back when Belgium finished 4th.

In contrast to Russian teams of previous coaches, Capello has decided to go with 23 players that are all domestically based – not one is currently playing abroad. Former regulars like Andrei Arshavin have been moved on. At the back, experienced CSKA Moscow duo Ignashevich and Berezutski have 176 caps between them and helped guide the side to concede just 5 goals in qualifying, aided in no small part by keeper Igor Akinfeev. Former Chelsea flop and midfield workaholic Yuri Zhirkov is still involved, scoring a spectacular volley against Morocco in their final warm-up game, while experienced Zenit St Petersburg striker Aleksandr Kerzhakov features up front.

Prediction: A 2nd place finish was disappointing for Capello 4 years ago, but he’ll be delighted with this in Brazil.

South Korea

Park Chu-Young, released by Arsenal last month, has scored 24 goals for South Korea

In contrast to the Russians, South Korea has a pretty decent record at recent World Cups, notably their 4th place finish when hosting in 2002. But a number of questions surround a squad that struggled at times in qualifying, narrowly scraping past Uzbekistan to claim a place behind Iran for the finals. As a result of this unconvincing display, they will have a new coach guiding the team in the finals – Hong Myung-Bo, who captained the 2002 team. Though he’s said to have instilled more confidence, recent results would suggest otherwise as 4-0 thumpings from a poor Mexico side and most recently Ghana bookend their 6 matches so far in 2014.

If they are to survive past the group stages, they will be reliant on Kim Young-Gwon to marshall the defence, and Bayer Leverkusen’s Son Heung Min to create from midfield. Roughly half of the team were part of the successful bronze medal team at the London Olympics. This includes striker Park Chu-Young, who despite being South Korea’s leading goalscorer in the squad had a torrid time at the Emirates as he failed to break through into Arsene Wenger’s side.

    Prediction:

Korearing out of Brazil in 4th place.

World Cup preview – Group G

Six down, two to go. In our penultimate preview, we turn our attention to a tricky-looking Group G. A former legend of one nation coaching the team of another, the surprise package four years ago, and one team that nearly suffered a shock exit in qualifying.

Germany

Klose to breaking Ronaldo’s World Cup record.

This has been an unusual build-up to the World Cup for Germany. Much of the focus has been on the growing injury crisis surrounding the team. Phillipp Lahm, Sami Khedira, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Mesut Ozil all have doubts over their fitness, Marco Reus has had to be sent home, and keeper Manuel Neuer is still recovering from a shoulder injury – the absence of fully-fit ter Steigen seems careless, while coach Joachim Low opted not to wait on Mario Gomez’s fitness as he has with others in the squad.

Low himself is downplaying his squad’s chances, but Germany remain one of the bookies’ favourites. Miroslav Klose has an opportunity to equal or better Ronaldo’s record number of goals at the World Cup finals, having recently become the all-time German top goalscorer at Germany thumped Armenia 6-1. There may be plenty of questions, but having come so close in the last three tournaments perhaps this is the time they can go one stage further.

Prediction: Just enough to see them through in 1st

Portugal

251 goals in 247 games for Real, but currently just 2 in 10 at World Cup finals

Portugal, 4th in the 2006 finals, were so very nearly watching this World Cup at home. By their own standards they were poor in the qualifiers, drawing at home to Israel and Northern Ireland while scraping a victory at Luxembourg. That led to finishing behind Russia in the group, and for moments of their resultant playoff against Sweden they looked in serious danger of heading out.

Cristiano Ronaldo has had another ridiculous year, scoring 51 games in 47games – that’s now an incredible 252 in 246 in his Real career. But there are limits to how much he can affect Portugal’s fate this tournament, and at times Paulo Bento’s team have been overly reliant on him for success. When Ronaldo was poor in the qualifiers, the players around him struggled to compensate. When he was on form, he single-handedly changed the game – as he did in the 2nd leg of the playoff. Fans will be concerned at reports he’s suffering from tendonitis in his left knee. Terrible timing, though he came through this week’s friendly with Ireland unscathed.

Prediction: More disappointment as they finish 3rd.

Ghana

Gyan scored a Ronaldo-esque 41 goals in 37 games in the UAE Pro League last season.

Four years ago Ghana reached the quarter-finals with an impressive display, and would have faced the Netherlands in the semi-finals were it not for the agile goalkeeping of Luis Suarez in injury time to keep the scores level. Many of the stars from that team are still key parts of the current one – Sulley Muntari, Kevin-Prince Boateng, Kwadwo Asamoah and in particular Asamoah Gyan. Michael Essien, who missed the 2010 finals through injury, is back in midfield.

The Black Stars were enjoyable to watch in South Africa, and with the nucleus of that side intact, they will be looking to repeat their success by negotiating this tricky group. Their recent 4-0 win over South Korea this month shows that they may pick up where they left off.

Prediction: An impressive 2nd.

United States

After misfiring on loan at Craven Cottage last season, Dempsey has scored 8 in 6 games so far in 2014 for the Seattle Sounders.

The US exceeded expectations at the last finals, winning their group ahead of England before falling to Ghana in the Round of 16. Coach Jurgen Klinsmann has freshened up the squad, with the likes of Bocanegra, DeMerit, and Spector from the last campaign not involved. He’s also taken the arguably-controversial move of leaving Landon Donovan at home, though in truth even the occasional MLS watcher will have noticed a decline in his performances this year compared to the Donovan of old.

What Klinsmann has assembled is a hard-working and united group with fewer big names – Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard and Michael Bradley the main stars. Despite losses at Costa Rica and Honduras in the qualifiers, Klinsmann’s new-look US side eased through to the finals. In Donovan’s absence, much rests on whether their new-look back 4 can gel, and whether Dempsey and Sunderland nuisance Jozy Altidore can get the goals to get them through the group.

Prediction: It’s really a toss-up between the US, Portugal and Ghana for that 2nd spot, but the US will prop up the group, perhaps harshly.

Written by @josephclift

World Cup preview – Group F

Group F gives us one of the World Cup favourites alongside a team making their first appearance in the finals. Outside of Argentina, it looks quite even – who will progress?

Argentina

Is this the World Cup where Messi at last delivers for Argentina?

This is perhaps Argentina’s best chance in recent memory to win their first tournament since the Copa America 21 years ago. A 4-3-3 with Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain, and Lionel Messi looks a frightening prospect, and in contrast to past tournaments they appear to be strong in virtually all areas this time round.

In Gago, di Maria, and Mascherano they have a great mix in the midfield, and while the full-backs were slightly exposed in some of their more competitive games recently (see Peru and Ecuador) they will hope their attacking flair more than makes up for any frailties at the back. Ex Sheffield United star Alex Sabella appears to have settled on a side and style that works and had the luxury of continuing Carlos Tevez’s exile from the squad. With the options at his disposal, it hardly makes a dent on their chances.

Prediction: Comfortably 1st as Argentina power through – the scorelines could get messy for the rest of the group.

Bosnia and Hercegovina

Dzeko – 26 goals for Man City last season, 10 in the World Cup qualifiers

In what was an impressive and perhaps unexpected display in the qualifying stages, Bosnia and Hercegovina topped their group, winning 8 of their 10 games. Paris Saint-Germain legend Safet Susic has made his side exciting to watch, albeit with a slightly sluggish defence – Emir Spahic and Ermin Bicakcic reliant on the excellent Asmir Begovic behind them.

In Edin Dzeko with Miralem Pjanic just behind they can land a serious punch up front – the team scored 30 goals in their qualifiers, including an 8-1 demolition at Liechtenstein. However, this goal spree was at a time Susic used two strikers – the recent switch to a lone striker, dropping Vedad Ibisevic, may see add a bit more steel replacing some of the firepower.

Prediction: they could get destroyed in the opener against Argentina, but a rapid recovery in their remaining games will see them 2nd.

Iran

Vancouver Whitecaps full-back Steven Beitashour is just one of several players benefiting from Queiroz’s recruitment drive

While it’s easy to right off a team with a traditionally poor World Cup record, this is a team that may surprise. Absent from the finals 4 years ago, Iran under the guidance of ex Man United coach Carlos Queiroz had a fantastic set of results to qualify for Brazil, beating South Korea home and away to top their group.

Queiroz’s key contribution has been to secure the services of players that were eligible to play for other nations. These include keeper Daniel Davari, Fulham’s Ashkan Dejagah, Charlton forward Reza Ghoochannejhad, and Vancouver Whitecaps right-back Steven Beitashour.

Prediction: Perhaps not the walkover they’ve been in the past, but it’s tough to see them get the results to avoid a 4th place finish.

Nigeria

Can Moses send a message to Mourinho with a decent display in Brazil?

After impressive displays at USA ’94 and France ’98, Nigeria’s been stuck In a rut for a while. Bottom of their group in 2002 and 2010, absent in 2006, with no wins since the finals in France, Nigeria has an opportunity to restore some pride. They arrive in Brazil as the reigning Cup of Nations winners and were unbeaten in the qualifiers.

With decent pace throughout the side, they have a reasonable chance of reaching the knockout stages, though their inability to beat Mexico and Scotland in recent friendlies will be a concern. Nigeria will rely on the likes of Victor Moses, Peter Odemwingie and Emmanuel Emenike to see them through – the experienced Joseph Yobo at the back. Free agent Shola Ameobi is in the squad, available after ending 14 years at St James’s Park.

Prediction: 3rd, though it’ll be a close call with Bosnia and Hercegovina.

Written by @josephclift

World Cup preview – Group E

With A to D out the way, it’s time for the second half of our previews – Group E sees what looks like a dream lineup for any of the big teams, but will it be a bit too easy for France?

Switzerland

Josep Drmic – pace to trouble defences in Brazil

The Swiss will hopefully have recovered from their cruel exit from South Africa, beating winners Spain in the group stages but somehow getting to the knockout stages. But while that team had limitations, this time round they look a much stronger outfit that has a solid defence and thrives on a counterattacking style.

Utilising the pace of the promising Josip Drmic and Xherdan Shaqiri (if fit) will be key for Switzerland, and in Valentin Stocker they have an impressive winger that can cause problems down the left. Last summer they upset Brazil 1-0 in a friendly, and having kicked on from 4 years ago are more than capable of an upset this time up. They’re also a youthful bunch – more than half of the squad are 25 and under, with just 3 in their 30s.

Prediction: 2nd, and banishing the Boring Switzerland label to the history books.

Ecuador

Antonio Valencia can only do so much – it could be a rough tournament for Ecuador

In the iconic anthem by Sash! you see a bald eagle soaring overhead what appears to be the Ecuador countryside. What seemed like tourist advertising for Ecuador was actually filmed in Tenerife, with the bald eagle native to neither.

Like the bald eagle in ‘Ecuador!’ you wonder how the Ecuador team is malong an appearance. They had some dire results away from home in the qualifiers with just two points against the bottom 4 of the group, and have had some chaotic warmup games – winning 4-3 against a terrible Aussie side and losing 3-1 to a poor Mexican side. Don’t let the draws against the experimental Dutch and England teams trick you, this team which is captained by Antonio Valencia won’t cause too many problems.

Prediction: This is a team that hasn’t won a competitive game outside of Ecuador since 2009 – that run will continue, with a 4th place finish.

France

A chance to put their dismal display in South Africa to rest?

Is this a return to form for France, after a wretched display in South Africa? It’s a fresh-looking squad, devoid of many of the past established names, with only 4 of the 23 are above the age of 30. They suffered a scare against the Ukraine in the qualifying playoffs, but Les Bleus have been scoring for fun in the warm-up friendlies, hitting 4 past Norway and double that past Jamaica.

Franck Ribery is a late withdrawal due to injury, but France has a number of decent players on-hand, with Lloris, Cabaye, Giroud, Benzema, and the exciting Antoine Griezmann likely to entertain. Didier Deschamps could even afford to leave Samir Nasri out altogether, such is his faith in this youthful French side. It’s the perfect chance to bounce back.

Prediction: Comfortably 1st. Viva la revolution.

Honduras

Honduras’s physical approach may cause a few problems, if not injuries.

This is just their third appearance at a World Cup after a qualification that saw them surprise predictions and finish above Mexico. Along the way they beat the USA, Costa Rice, and a crucial game at Mexico that led to de la Torre’s dismissal as coach.

Against a strong England side in their recent friendly, they were able to hold their own, with a physicality that should serve them well in their group games. In Maynor Figueroa, Wilson Palacios and Roger Espinoza they have three players with decent experience in the Premier League, and in Carlo Costly a player that all headline writers will hope gets a decisive goal or red card.

Prediction: With possibly their first win at a World Cup finals in their match against Ecuador, a respectable 3rd place finish beckons.

Written by @josephclift

World Cup preview – Group D

The original winners, a recent winner, and the perennial disappointment. Will we see success for Suarez, brilliance from Balotelli, or moderate effectiveness from Milner? It’s time for us to cast an eye on the eagerly-anticipated Group D.

Uruguay

The best striker at Brazil, and the worst timing for his knee injury.

The last time Uruguay won the World Cup was in 1950, in a tournament hosted in Brazil, where they beat the hosts in the final. They enter this as the reigning Copa America champions, and have arguably the most explosive striker at the tournament. 31 goals in the Premier League last season, but there are serious question marks over whether Luis Suarez will have recovered fully from his recent knee surgery.

Uruguay even with a fully-fit Suarez probably aren’t as deadly as they were 4 years ago when they reached the semi-finals, the likes of Forlan, Lugano, Perez heading to their mid-30s, and in qualifying they struggled. In Edinson Cavani they do have another world-class striker to hand – he comes to Brazil having scored 16 in 30 games following his £56.7m move to Paris Saint-Germain.

Prediction: a fully-firing Suarez may have helped them progress, but with him half-fit they’ll finish 3rd.

Costa Rica

Joel Campbell – he has the Wanchope celebration, but can he replicate him in the box?

Costa Rica’s presence at this year’s tournament may surprise some, but this plucky team is certainly here on merit – and if their recent friendly with the Republic of Ireland is anything to go by, could be a bit of a nuisance. They fought back for a draw despite playing the 2nd half with ten men – former Columbia coach Jorge Luis Pinto has made a habit of getting the most out of this set of players. Think Trinidad and Tobago in 2006.

With a large number of the squad drawn from the MLS, PSV’s Bryan Ruiz is their standout player up front. But keep an eye out for Joel Campbell – the youngster is yet to make his Arsenal debut, but has had productive spells on loan at FC Lorient, Real Betis and Olympiakos. Assistant coach and ex-Derby legend Paulo Wanchope will be hoping the team emulates his own typical unpredictability.

Prediction: There will be a scare or two, but it’ll be a 4th place finish.

England

Lallana poised to be the star performer for Roy Hodgson this tournament

This is certainly an England team that looks more exciting and more talented than 4 years ago, and given the ages of many that will feature there’s much to be encouraged by for future tournaments right at the outset. And while they may not progress far in the knockout stages, the ingredients are there for a decent showing in the group stages.

Lallana, Sturridge, and Barkley all look as though they could have great tournaments, but the main question mark is over the defence – perhaps the one area that’s weaker than in South Africa. Had Kyle Walker been fit, Glen Johnson almost certainly wouldn’t have played, while in the middle the shaky performances of Jones and Smalling in the recent friendlies puts a lot of pressure on Cahill and Jagielka to stay fit and avoid any suspensions – Jagielka himself is only recently back from injury. In past tournaments fans and pundits have tended to overestimate England’s chances – this time round, the opposite seems true, as it’s a better team than many perhaps give it credit for.

Prediction: 1st, but expect some typical heartbreak in the knockout stages.

Italy

If Uruguay have the striker of the tournament on paper, the Azzuri surely have the best of those fully-fit in the form of Super Mario. 14 goals in 30 games for Milan in Serie A last season, Balotelli’s coming to Brazil in great form and this could be his big moment on the international stage. Donut-lover Antonio Cassano arrives for what’s surprisingly his first World Cup, with Cesare Prandelli opting not to recall the experienced Luca Toni, currently enjoying something of a renaissance at Verona. At the back

Super Mario – his moment on the international stage has come

Prandelli’s 4-1-3-1-1 set-up looks as though it may confuse a few teams, but he’s got the flexibility in the squad to change systems easily when needed. A midfield of De Rossi, Verratti, and Pirlo looks particularly attractive. Juventus duo Chiellini and Barzagli aren’t the most mobile centre-backs, but in Buffon they continue to have one of the goalkeeping greats behind them. Their warm-up game against Luxembourg highlighted concerns over their general firepower – drawing 1-1 against a team that’s won just 8 times in the last 18 years. Their fate this tournament is difficult to call – certainly good enough to get through the group stages with ease, but how far can they progress?

Prediction: 2nd, with England’s pace proving too much in the group opener. But arguably may progress further than England overall.

Written by @josephclift

 

World Cup preview – Group C

From two groups with perhaps clearer outcomes, we turn next in our previews of Brazil to Group C, AKA Group of Chaos. This looks like being a cracker.

Columbia

Falcao will be a huge loss, but perhaps not a decisive one for the group stages.

It would be entirely easy to look at Columbia and assume they’ll be at an advantage due to being a South American team playing in South America. But you have to turn back to France ’98 in the midst of the Faustino Asprilla era for their last World Cup appearance, and Italia ’90 for the last time they got past the group stages.

That said, there’s something about this Columbian team. An impressive qualifying campaign saw them finish 2nd to Argentina, with Radamel Falcao scoring 9 in 13. He will be a huge loss, but in Ramos, Bacca and Martinez they do still have goals in the side.

Prediction: 1st, as a result reaching the Round of 16 for the first time in 24 years.

Greece

A great day for football…

A resigned sigh is quite often the reaction you get from many to news Greece will be at a major footballing tournament. Dull to watch, destroyers of the beautiful game, they know all the labels people have thrown at them over the years. But credit where credit’s due – they’ve achieved success in the past with limited talent. Were Greece a Premier League manager they’d be Tony Pulis – you may disagree with their methods but you can’t disagree with their results.

And they’re at it again. They are somehow at the World Cup despite scoring just 12 in 10 games. To put that in context, that’s 1 more goal than Wales managed, having played 2 more qualifying games. The Greeks conceded just 4 in qualifying, the Italy-based Vangelis Moras and Vasilis Torosidis playing a large part. The Giorgoses Karagounis and Samaras add the experience further afield.

Prediction: A 2nd place finish that will frustrate the neutral the same way the Greeks frustrate their opponents.

Ivory Coast

A magnificent season at City, but can Yaya single-handedly push the Elephants through the group stages?

In Yaya Toure, the Ivory Coast undoubtedly have the star player of the group, and arguably one of the best midfielders at the tournament – at the peak of his game, joining them after a fine season. Him aside, the Elephants also have Wilfried Bony fresh from an excellent first season with Swansea, and the seasoned Didier Drogba comes into the tournament with a reasonable year at Galatasaray.

On paper there are goals in this side. But you can’t paper over the cracks of the Ivorian defence, which as ever looks like being their Achilles Heel. They could be in for some high-scoring games in the group, Greece apart. If they’re on their game, they could win the group – overly shaky at the back and they could finish last. Fine margins, and difficult to predict.

Prediction: 3rd, with a critical clanger or two from their defence which the Elephants will never forget.

Japan

Honda – key man.

In a group too close to call, Japan also represent a genuine contender for first. Quarter finalists 4 years ago, they come into the tournament after a qualifying campaign they flew through with ease – the first team to qualify for Brazil. Yet they failed to get out of the group stage at the Confederations Cup last year and are again another very unpredictable outfit.

The Shinjis Okazaki and Kagawa offer goal threat up front, despite the latter Shinji’s rather lacklustre season at Old Trafford (though he’s certainly not alone there). Milan’s Keisuke Honda will as ever be central to any success.

Prediction: an unlucky 4th, with fine margins denying them success this time out.

Written by @josephclift

World Cup preview – Group B

Our look at the World Cup switches to Group B, which sees the finalists in South Africa reunited straight away. Dreadful bad luck on the other two, but is there a surprise on the cards?

Spain

New York City FC – the first team ever to have 100% of it’s playing staff at a World Cup

Despite their disastrous final against Brazil in the Confederations Cup, Spain remain in an strong position to become only the third nation to retain the World Cup trophy – the first since Brazil in 1962. But no European team has ever won the tournament on South American soil.

Iniesta remains key, and both David Villa and Diego Costa will want to carry their good form with Atletico through to this tournament. A slight question mark has got to hover over Casillas in goal given his bit-part role at Real last season and his clear rustiness in the Champions League final.

Prediction: 1st

The Netherlands

Can van Persie ensure van Gaal heads to Old Trafford on a high?

Louis van Gaal has nothing to lose, the Man United job safe and secure regardless of how the Dutch perform, but he’ll want to leave on a high. It’s tough to see them replicating their performance in South Africa, but a team with van Persie, Sneijder, and Robben will always have a decent chance of progressing.

Though they were frustrated for large parts by a Baleless and Ramsey-free Wales side recently, Spain apart they should clearly have the beating of the rest of the group. And the world can’t wait to see de Jong have another go at the Spanish midfield.

Prediction: 2nd

Chile

Expect Sanchez and Chile to give the others in the group a run for their money

The possible surprise package of the group, Chile raised a few eyebrows in their friendly with England. The ever-busy Juventus midfielder Arturo Vidal comes to Brazil in fine form, while Alexis Sanchez did well at the Nou Camp last season and scored both goals in that win over England.

Chile have the misfortune of being in a group with the previous finalists. They reached the knockout stages last time out, and in 1998, but you have to go back to their 3rd place finish in 1962 for any spell past the Round of 16. Pleasing on the eye, unpredictable, with stars in good form, there’s definite shock potential here.

Prediction: 3rd, just missing out narrowly. But they will have three decent games.

Australia

The lone bit of Aussie goal-threat, but Cahill is not what he was – much like his national team.

If Chile represent the one uncertainty of the group, Australia represents the cast iron guarantee of a bottom place finish. 8 years ago in Germany, they matched an Italian side that went on to win the tournament, losing only to the dodgiest of dodgy penalties. But that golden team of Viduka, Kewell, Schwarzer, and Craig Moore, is no more.

Tim Cahill and an unfit Mark Bresciano represent the experienced heads in an otherwise youthful Socceroos squad, which is captained by Palace’s Mile Jedinak. But this is very much a developing team, and it’s tough to see them mustering any sort of challenge to the group.

Prediction: Cannon fodder for the other three, 4th all the way.

Written by @josephclift

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