In World Cup, the teams closer to home have the edge
BUENOS AIRES -- The 2014 World Cup draw is history and all and any suspicions have now been left behind. The football powers of the world had different outcomes, and it just goes to show that while it's easy to talk, it's much harder to prove the supposed fixes and underhanded maneuvers which so many whispered about in the days running up to the draw.
The fact Brazil, the host, did not have a favorable draw, is the first proof that malicious thoughts can have a lot of words but little proof. The other usual contenders, such as Germany, Spain, the Netherlands, Italy, England or Uruguay will have a difficult group stage, and in the case of the latter three, at least one of them will be packing its bags prematurely.
The draw is only that, a draw. Or is it possible to believe that it would be easy to arrange a fix agreed to by so many of the historic football nations? For me it's a dead argument, and, in any case, whomever thinks that an honest process is impossible only reminds me of the saying that "the thief thinks everyone else is just like him."
Having made this necessary clarification, let’s scan the groups to try to understand a bit of what may happen in six months.
Group A: Battle for second place
Although I said previously that the hosts had not been given a "fixed" group, this does not change my opinion that, at the moment, Brazil is, along with Argentina, a favorite to win the World Cup.
Luiz Felipe Scolari has, bit by bit, found his system and his players. He's created a very solid team at the back, which not only boasts players from the best teams in the world, such as Dani Alves (Barcelona), Thiago Silva (PSG), David Luiz (Chelsea) and Marcelo (Real Madrid), but whose collective solidity keeps improving. In midfield and attack, it has the creativity which we are used to seeing from Brazil, but without losing its balance.
It's true that playing at home increases the pressure on it, but for a country which lives and breathes soccer like Brazil, this should be an asset, and it has already shown in the Confederations Cup that it could cope with that pressure. Now it has to do the same in the competition which matters the most, where it aims to settle some unfinished business which is more than 60 years old.
In terms of second place, I predict a very close race between the other three teams. I have a tendency to lean toward Mexico and hope that it finally accomplishes at a senior level what it has been hinting at in underage competitions, but I think that any of these teams can beat the others. Cameroon and Croatia also have the talent to aspire to reaching the last 16, so minor things like goal difference or even whoever can get a result against Brazil can end up making the difference.
Group B: Clash of old adversaries
They closed out the last World Cup facing each other in the final, and as luck would have it they will start this one facing each other again: Spain and the Netherlands will play the first game in a group which they are favored to progress from, but in which Chile will have something to say and where Australia seems destined to make up the numbers.
The last two finalists are clearly the favorites, but watch out for Chile. It has gained experience, it plays against the best without inhibitions (its recent 2-0 victory against England is a good example) and under Jorge Sampaoli it has recovered that attacking style which had characterized it under Marcelo Bielsa, but now with more experienced players.
Chile also drew Spain in South Africa 2010, losing 2-1 in a game which allowed both of them to qualify for the second round.
Group C: Colombia against physical strength
Being named a top seed in the draw put Jose Pekerman's team in a good position to advance, but careful: looking at it thoroughly, the group is both favorable and tricky at the same time. Its three opponents will play every game at a dizzying pace. Japan is beatable, but it is not easy: it is a disciplined team, with a lot of movement and one that fights for every ball. Greece is somewhat similar, a team whose football is basic, but being aware of its limitations has made organization its greatest weapon, as it showed when it won the Euro 2004 tournament against all odds. The Ivory Coast is perhaps the team with the least tactical ambition, but it makes up for this with physical commitment and individual technical ability.
The outlook is good for Colombia, but it should tread carefully in order to not repeat its past mistakes of tripping up when considered to be among the favorites.
Group D: A past winner will say goodbye
With Uruguay, Italy and England in its group, our first thoughts are with Costa Rica and its bad luck. What have we done to deserve this, the Costa Ricans will be asking themselves, as after having qualified in fine fashion, they face three of the most historic teams in the tournament. From the start, any of the three can end up top of the group or eliminated. And I don’t think that the Europeans start out with any advantage.
Italy, for example, comes off a very poor last World Cup, where it was eliminated in the group stage. It is trying to play more ambitiously, but to my mind it depends too much on Pirlo, the team’s oldest player.
England has a lot of problems to sort out: it doesn’t have defensive balance, its creative midfielders are aging and up front it doesn't have anyone with the same class as Wayne Rooney. One thinks right away about the Premier League, a glittering league with many of the best soccer players in the world, but the English national team is clearly not at that level and as of today, in my opinion, is not among the half dozen candidates to win the World Cup.
With this outlook, Uruguay's chances improve. It is true that, as usual, it had a difficult time qualifying, but it has a squad and a style which it has stuck with in recent years, which has a lot of tactical balance: it is always well set up and intelligently waits for its opportunities, with strikers of the very highest level such as Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani who can destabilize any defense.
Group E: A low profile
Initially, one tends to think that France, after struggling to qualify, had a good draw, even better than Spain's, who had relegated it to second place in the qualification group. For the French the key will be to open their eyes and improve their performance in order to have any hopes of progressing. They have good players and are true to their style of play, but lack offensive power.
Switzerland, somewhat discretely, qualified directly by winning its group. Its coach, Ottmar Hitzfeld, has a wide experience in the strongest world leagues and has won many championships. Without big stars, its reliable performances and top seeding should command respect.
Faced with this, Ecuador is right now a few steps behind the two European teams in the fight to reach the last 16. It has intriguing players, but it needs to find more tactical balance as a necessary addition to physical power and individual creativity. Honduras will have a similar challenge, after a terrific qualification stage in which it relegated Mexico: qualifying for the second stage is a huge challenge in which it faces an uphill fight.
Group F: Argentina is well above the rest
If there was any agreement in all the analyses of the draw it was that Argentina is a clear favorite to win its group. This is probably the group which has the largest differences between the favorite and the also-rans. Neither Iran nor Bosnia has any World Cup pedigree, and Nigeria has yet to live up to its potential.
And beyond having beatable opponents, Argentina will have short travel distances (Rio De Janeiro, Belo Horizonte and Porto Alegre) and even a potential favorable route to the last 16 and the quarterfinals. All of this makes me think all the more that, under the guidance of Messi, the best player in the World, Argentina, along with Brazil, tops my list of favorites.
Group G: Not as even as it looks
Even before the draw was over, some had already labeled the group containing Germany, Portugal, Ghana and the United States as the "group of death." I disagree: I think the two European teams are the clear favorites to reach the last 16. It's hard to image Germany being eliminated in the first round. Even more so when in recent years it has always had decent results: from 2006 onward it has always been among the last four in World Cups and European Championships.
Not just that, its players continue to mature, and I get the feeling that it will reach Brazil 2014 at just the right point of its development. With the Bayern Munich players as the core of the team and the support of a league which is among the best in the world, Germany is another of the heavy favorites for the title.
Speaking of Portugal, to its normal aggressiveness and tactical acumen one has to add the second best player in the world, Cristiano Ronaldo, who is currently in terrific form. While it is true that the Portuguese have never taken it to the next level in these important tournaments, I can't see them leaving after three games.
In truth, more than a "group of death," here you'd have to think in terms of two unfavored teams, such as Ghana and the United States. They are both solid and realistic teams, which in another group would have had better options to progress. It isn't hopeless for them, but in my opinion they will find it difficult to dislodge the Europeans.
Group H: The most open group
Some would see this as the weakest group, but I prefer to think of it as the one where the chances to qualify are the most even.
Belgium was one of the most unexpected top seeds, because it had not been at a World Cup for some time, but in recent years it has put together an intriguing and purposeful team. South Korea has the same strength of belief, although its challenge will be very different, banking on a playing style which is both quick and physical. This style has made it, currently, Asia’s soccer power and a regular at World Cups.
Russia and Algeria are two unknowns, but this gives them the benefit of the doubt. Capello can give the Russians tactical organization which should help them, since without much attacking power or individual talent, they will have to be very practical. While Algeria will no doubt implement its normal defensive aggressiveness, combined with a high technical level in midfield and attack.
Having said that, we can agree that at this stage we are still dealing in speculation. No game is played before it is played, forgive the redundancy, and we still have six months to wait until we can enjoy the greatest competition of this sport which continues to intrigue us.