As if they needed an extra advantage, tournament hosts Brazil have the luxury of a World Cup group lacking in world class competition.
Sure there’s Mexico, for years considered the best team in their region. But a near collapse during World Cup qualifying showed the vulnerability of a team in transition.
Croatia and Cameroon are countries defined by their stars — Luka Modric and Samuel Eto’o respectively — both of which will fancy themselves capable of snatching the second spot.
But neither — nor anyone — will likely best the Brazilians, who should win this group with relative ease.
SPI Rank: 1; FIFA World Ranking: 3
2010 World Cup: Eliminated in Quarter-finals
Odds to advance to knock-out stages: 99 percent*
What to drink when watching Brazil: Caipirinha – A combination of sugar-cane and hard liquor poured over ice and served with lime. Considered the strongest cocktail in Brazil, a couple of these might even make listening to Alexi Lalas slightly tolerable.
In case you haven’t heard, Brazil are the overwhelming favorites to win the 2014 World Cup, and for very good reason.
First there’s last summer’s Confederations Cup performance, where Brazil won all five of their games against world class opposition by an average of more than two goals, including an 3-0 thumping against defending World Champions Spain in the final.
Brazil scored first in every match and three times within the first 10 minutes. It was a shocking display so dominant, that it often looked like a wildly uneven game of FIFA 2014.
That tournament also took place in Brazil, a place where the national team hasn’t lost in 57 consecutive competitive home matches. No that’s not a typo. Brazil hasn’t lost in Brazil since 1975.
The player of that tournament was 22-year old wunderkind Neymar, who did no disservice to the legendary No. 10, showing the world why Barcelona were willing to shell out $119 million to add him this offseason.
Neymar had an inconsistent first season in Spain, but the Brazilian’s young career has been defined by his performances for the national team in front of the home supporters.
Neymar will be joined by another young world class talent in Chelsea’s Oscar, with enigmatic Hulk and brilliant Paulino rounding out an attacking half that will terrorize opponents with superior skill and speed.
It should also be enough to overcome deficiencies at center-forward, should the brilliant but inconsistent Fred and Jo experience dips in form.
Only three players return from Selecao’s disappointing quarter-final exit from South Africa in 2010. One of those players is PSG’s Thiago Silva — arguably the worlds best center-back — who beat a near fatal-spell of tuberculosis early in his career to become the highest paid defender in history.
Silva will pair with the eclectic “defender” David Luiz, who both thrills and terrifies supporters with his slaloming runs up the pitch.
But Brazil is defined by their exhilarating style of play where everybody on the pitch is a threat to score. This is especially true for full-backs Mercelo and Dani Alves, who push up to act as midfielders and often strikers when Brazil are in possession.
Seleção are rarely punished on the counter attack however, as they aggressively pursue the ball immediately after losing it.
Brazil is the most exciting team in the world. Their flair, speed and supreme skill often look so beautiful, you forget you’re watching dudes kick a ball around.
Brazil is strong in every area of the pitch, and play best in front of the incredibly passionate home supporters, especially at the legendary Maracanã. If they can keep their focus throughout the tournament, there is little reason to think they won’t snatch a record sixth world cup victory.
SPI Rank: 38 ; FIFA World Ranking: 56
2010 World Cup: Eliminated in Group Stage
Odds to advance to knock-out stages: 21.9 percent
What to drink when watching Cameroon: According to my research Cameroon doesn’t have a national drink, so I’d go with Bailey’s Irish Cream straight out of the bottle.
Cameroon returns to the World Cup for an African record seventh time, bringing along the legendary Samuel Eto’o for his fourth and final appearance.
With 56 goals in 117 appearances for country, Sammy is easily the greatest player in the country’s history. As Eto’o goes, so goes Cameroon.
This may not be the best news, considering Eto’o is old — somewhere between 33 and 39 — and had a difficult time featuring regularly for Chelsea this season.
Cameroon’s other top player — Barcelona’s Alex Song — was also relegated to a backup role for his club this year, playing behind the unimpeachable Sergio Busquets.
The lack of sharpness from Song could be the biggest issue for Cameroon, as the defensive midfielder will have the responsibility of covering what most consider to be a weak defense.
Eto’o was once considered one of the greatest players in the world, and he will have to play more like his old self, because Les Lions Indomptables are going to have to score a bucketload of goals if they wish to advance past the group stage for the first time since 1990.
SPI Rank: 30; FIFA World Ranking: 18
2010 World Cup: Did not qualify
Odds to advance to knock-out stages: 33.3 percent
What to drink when watching Croatia: Rakia — An alcoholic drink made through the distillation of fermented fruit that can reach up to 80 percent ABV. Yet another attempt by Eastern Europeans to make a drink potent enough to forget about living in Eastern Europe.
Croatia are considered one of the sleepers in this year’s tournament, thanks in large part to technically skilled midfielder Luka Modric.
Modric, a regular for Spain’s Real Madrid, makes his money by setting up others, preferring to sit behind the attackers and use his perfect touch to control build up play from the middle of the pitch.
Modric will be joined by two other excellent midfielders in Niko Kranjcar and Ivan Raktic. The three will be tasked with providing service to hulking Bayern Munich striker Mario Mandzukic, a poacher who rarely leaves the opponents 18-yard box. The big forward led Croatia with four goals and 32 shots during qualifying.
The big concerns for Croatia are at the back, where their strategy of pushing the fullbacks high up the pitch — similar to Brazil’s tactics — make them highly vulnerable to quick teams that rely on the counter attack, see also Brazil.
Defender and captain Darijo Srna’s 110 caps give Croatia the experience and quality they need defensively, but they will have to be committed to staying organized and winning the ball back in the final third.
A balanced team throughout, if Croatia can remain tactically sound they have a decent shot to make it to the knockout stage.
SPI Rank: 24; FIFA World Ranking: 20
2010 World Cup: Eliminated in Quarter-finals
Odds to advance to knock-out stages: 45.8 percent
What to drink when watching Mexico: If you love Mexico, Horchata. If you hate them, Bud Light Lime.
Mexico might have the second best odds to advance out of this group, but no country finds themselves luckier to have qualified for the World Cup.
After the United States played the savior of Mexico’s World Cup chances by scoring late against Panama, El Tri won a two game playoff against New Zealand to squeak into their 15th World Cup.
In a cruel twist of fate, Mexico are far more likely than the US to advance out of group play, as the Yanks find themselves profoundly fucked in a group of death.
The question remains whether or not Mexico can rally around new manager Miguel Herrera in time, and turn around what from the outside looks to be a slowly sinking ship.
Mexico’s star in the 2010 World Cup, Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, is a microcosm of the regression of the national team.
Considered one of the elite strikers in the world only two years ago for Manchester United, Hernandez has fallen into obscurity, barely seeing the pitch for the red devils this season, passed up for the likes of Robin Van Persie and Danny Welbeck to name a few.
Chicharito will feature in Brazil, but may no longer be considered the first striker on the team sheet, after Santos Laguna striker Oribe Peralta scored 10 goals during qualifiers, compared to Chicharito’s five.
A favorable draw in Group A gives Mexico a shot to advance to the knockout stage providing they don’t shit the bed like they did in qualifying.
El Tri is one of the true enigma’s of the tournament, but if they are somehow able to regain the quality that saw them dominate CONCACAF for decades, they could be a threat to make a quarterfinal run.
How they’ll finish:
* Percentages based on 10,000 simulations of the six group games using ESPN’s Soccer Power Index.