The 2014 FIFA World Cup is upon us, and no one is more excited (and or nervous) than the host nation Brazil. Regardless of the circumstances surrounding the tournament, the seleccao are the favorites by a substantial margin. There may never be a host nation that has this much pressure heaped upon it, and particularly on one man: Neymar. His first year at Barcelona was marred by controversy over his transfer, his form, and the entirety of what turned out to be a pretty terrible season at Camp Nou. But all of that is behind him and he will be charged to lead Brazil's line and be the talisman for this team of different ilk than Brazil teams of the past. For whatever reason, this team does not have the same samba quality or overtures of it that past squads did. It might be the inclusion of players like David Luiz, Ramires, and Luiz Gustavo among others, or it just might be that aside from Neymar the shine has worn off many of these players even though they are incredibly successful on the biggest of stages. But that's not to say this Brazil team isn't any less talented. They would have rolled through this group no matter how difficult it might have been, and the group they are facing has its possible pitfalls, but won't be the major hurdle for this squad. Now what about this group they are facing?
El Tri are always a telenovela, and 2013's edition might have been the highest rated of all time. Their struggles in qualifying are well documented, and their beatification of one Graham Zusi is still hilarious to this day. But on the pitch how will Mexico fare? It's clearly a different side than the Chepo De La Torre one that took the field one year ago in the Confederations Cup. Miguel "Piojo" Herrera is a cult star in waiting, but that probably doesn't have much to do with the tactics he's playing. He will play with a 5 man backline anchored by Rafa Marquez (which is amazing in of itself), but Mexico's future in this tournament will dictated by who ends up being the talismanic figure that can score. Will it be Javier Hernandez, or will it be some of the Liga MX standouts like Oribe Peralta or Alan Pulido? The biggest worry comes from midfield, and the seeming unwillingness to play holding midfielders (even though Carlos Pena is a rising star). If Mexico can find the midfield to provide defensive coverage and decent enough service for the strikers, then they can get out of this group.
Cameroon in the last World Cup finished 31st out of 32 teams, and it was little fault of their defense. They have the best back 4 of any of the African teams in this tournament, which compared to other African teams is a bit of a departure from the norm. It might help that they also have a very strong midfield with players like Stephane Mbia and Alex Song, but the fault in that lies in how little they have in the creativity department. They will be relying too on forwards like Samuel Eto'o and Pierre Webo to be the goal scoring forces, and they are both up there in age and not the same players they once were. They will be able to hold out against the powerful attacks in this group, but can they score enough? If they can, they will certainly be able to advance out, but I have my doubts.
Finally we come to Croatia, who are making a return to this tournament after missing out in 2010. They had a very good run in qualifying until the end of it, when the wheels came off and the manager Igor Stimac was sacked after a terrible run of form. They are in this tournament on the strength of their midfield, which is one of the best in the tournament. Rakitic and Modric will form the backbone of a midfield with a lot of creativity and flair, and will be able to get the ball to strikers like Eduardo, Mario Mandzukic, and maybe even Nikica Jelavic. Their back 4 is also stronger than advertised with players like Darijo Srna, Dejan Lovren and youngster Sime Vrsaljko of Genoa who is a rising player on the European stage. They have all the intangibles to make it out of the group, but something is holding me back from thinking they can advance out of the group. They have all the talent to do so, but I wonder whether they can or not.
Prediction: The dogfight for second in this group will be fascinating since all of the teams are very different and have unique and exploitable flaws. Brazil will run through all of them, but the way the other 3 match up against each other will determine who advances out.
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