As a die-hard soccer fan (or football fan, depending on who you ask), I like to think that I am probably as qualified as any to write a preview of the biggest weeks in soccer. I have a love for the sport, a lack of love for its referees, and the knowledge that if an octopus tells me the outcome of an upcoming match, I should probably listen; but I am allowed to hope that it’s wrong. Knowing my luck, I also expect half my predictions to come up short, and for me to be yelling at the TV (or magic octopus) over it in the near future. Now that we have all that out of the way, on to the preview!
At first glance, it is clear that there will be two dominant teams in Group A: Brazil and Croatia. Both teams have star players and are slated to make deep runs this year (with Brazil being a team to possibly win it all). Mexico has been long overrated, and by all accounts would not have made it this far if not for a victory by the U.S. against Costa Rica. El Tri will likely fizzle out early on, and expect quite a few blowouts in its losses. Cameroon, while dangerous, is not as powerful as its competitors, save for Mexico. To that end, I could see Cameroon-Mexico matches being closer than either team’s matches against Brazil and Croatia.
Advances to Round of 16: Brazil and Croatia
This is yet another lopsided group in the World Cup pool; Spain and the Netherlands are clearly the dominant teams here. As a longtime Arsenal fan, it pains me to see teams led by Robin Van Persie and Cesc Fabregas advance, but it appears that my misery will indeed continue unless Chile and the Soccerroos can put up a fight. Expect Spain and the Netherlands to have a few one-sided games in the near future, unless of course the soccer gods smile upon me. In that unlikely case, expect Chile and Australia to advance. Otherwise, expect Spain and the Netherlands each to have a deep run this year, but do not expect either to win it all. They are tough teams, but aging teams, and will likely suffer elimination in a later round.
Advances to Round of 16: Spain and the Netherlands
Group C is perhaps the least exciting group in the World Cup. While the teams are more evenly matched than in other groups, it lacks the flair and big names of say, Groups A and D. Expect low-scores and close games here. However, you should also be on the lookout for Japan, as it is a team that could easily pull off an upset in the next round. Japan has shown that it can hold its own when it needs to, and I could see it preforming well against a side like England or Russia should they meet in the next round. Colombia also has favorable odds to advance, as its side has proven it can play well when it needs to, even without Falcao. I can also envision Colombia, much like Japan, pulling off an upset in the next round against one of its more well-known opponents. Keep your eye on both teams in the next round.
Advances to Round of 16: Japan and Colombia
I will try not to let my passion for the Three Lions get in the way of my predicting, but that being said, I still think England has what it takes to advance, as does Italy. While England and Italy are both aging, battered teams, they still have what it takes to beat Costa Rica and Uruguay, if they play their cards right. Costa Rica and Uruguay are dangerous teams to face, especially with Uruguay having Luis Suarez, and if England or Italy underestimates them, than that could be their downfall. That being said, I like to think that both my beloved Three Lions and their counterparts, the Azzuri, will not make too many mistakes against either Costa Rica or Suarez’s Uruguay. Expect England’s steam to run out in the Round of 16, however, and for Italy to make a deep run.
Advances to Round of 16: England and Italy
Group E is a gift to Les Blues, hands-down. France can easily overcome most of its opponents here with players like Olivier Giroud and Yohan Cabaye, although Ecuador could potentially give France some trouble; that all being said, as I hinted at earlier, Ecuador will be joining France in their advance to the next round. Ecuador is a tough side to face, and its recent draw against England proves that it can hold its own against top-tier teams. Honduras and Switzerland just don’t have what it takes to advance. Both played well in friendlies, but their lack of consistency is painfully obvious. Both also need time to mature as a team; it is clear that the players are not yet entirely used to being together and need to find a strategy that helps them mesh as a unit. Unless some major team-building is done in the next 24 hours, then Group E belongs to France and Ecuador.
Advances to Round of 16: France and Ecuador
Let’s get this out of the way; Group F is Messi’s group, hands-down. What I mean is that there is no team that could possibly stop Messi’s Argentina side here, and the only thing to wonder is who will join them? My vote is Bosnia and Herzegovina; after seeing the way they handled themselves against Mexico, it is clear that Bosnia has the skill to advance. Iran and Nigeria, while not short on experience, are short on talent. Neither team has a superstar that could potentially carry them forward, nor do they have a well-built team to make up for the lack of star players. In short, Iran and Nigeria will likely not be able to stop their two counterparts, so expect quite a few lopsided victories.
Advances to Round of 16: Argentina and Bosnia and Herzegovina
Group G has been talked about a lot here in the States, and for good reason; Germany, Portugal, Ghana and the U.S. makes up an exciting group. I predict that Germany will be the dominant team in this group, but all matches between teams here will be close. These teams are good fits for each other on paper, and have plenty of experience playing against each other. No match will be easy for any team here, America especially. But at the same time, it looks like this might be the year the U.S. advances. The U.S. team looks like it can overcome Portugal and Ghana at the very least, which is more than enough to make up for any losses against Germany (who I predict will beat the US in most matchups). Not to take away from the fact that Portugal and Ghana are very tough teams, with winning track-records against the U.S. side, but it appears America might have finally found a group that can beat them, albeit in very close matches.
Advances to Round of 16: Germany and U.S.
Group H provides many interesting matchups, with teams that could play very good games against each other. In the end, though, only Belgium and Russia will advance. They both have very complete teams, and have the potential to pull off an upset in the next round. South Korea and Algeria, while having improved greatly over the past few years, are still not in top form, and as a result will likely end up getting eliminated. Both South Korea and Algeria need a few more years to mature, meaning it may be possible for them to be formidable opponents come the next World Cup. This year, however, is not their year to advance; that honor goes to, as I said before, Belgium and Russia. Both countries have the skill and drive necessary to advance, and Belgium may even end up winning it all.
Advances to Round of 16: Belgium and Russia
Looking (Further) Ahead
The 2014 World Cup is going to be exciting and unpredictable, there’s no doubt about that. How exciting and unpredictable, you ask? Well, Belgium could win it all. But Belgium, you exclaim, is an unknown team with a poor track record! Precisely, Belgium has had the misfortune of fielding bad teams for most of its history as a FIFA member. But recently, its teams have become, dare I say, world-class, and on par with neighboring Germany, France, and The Netherlands. Belgium is my Dark Horse to win it all, with crowd-favorites Brazil and Argentina being in the running as well. Belgium, Brazil, and Argentina are all very complete teams, and all of them have the drive it takes to win.
For Brazil, they want to avenge the loss of 1950; when they, as the hosts that year, were eliminated by Uruguay. Brazil wants to prove that it can win the big one at home. Argentina, having played against some of the best teams with world-class players, knows exactly what to expect from its opponents, and what strategies to use against them. Expect Messi to act as the team’s X-factor. He’s someone who can both lead a team and be its lead scorer, a rare talent in today’s game. You can also bet that Messi is aware that is potential legacy as World’s Greatest Player may be on the line this year, and will play accordingly. If Messi can lead his side to win it all this year on the world’s biggest stage, then his legacy is secure. If not, then Messi has to hope he’s still as good four years from now.
Possible Winners: Brazil, Argentina, Belgium