2014 World Cup Preview

World Cup Preview Group A: Hosts Brazil face Mexico, Croatia, Cameroon

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World Cup hosts Brazil will get the big dance started on Thursday with a match-up against Croatia in what’s destined to be a wildly-memorable occasion. Roughly every other World Cup seems hosted by a country that can win it all, and this is no exception.

Let’s take another look at Group A (click on country name for full preview)

Brazil: The host country’s record since a Feb. 6, 2013 loss to England at Wembley? A shiny 16W-4D-1L. The clear favorites to become the fourth hosts to win the thing, Brazil will trot out a loaded team that arguably boasts a dozen of the top 20 players in the group.

Mexico: The odds were slim long before injuries hurt El Tri’s midfield depth, but Mexico will be hoping to handle Cameroon and spring an upset on Croatia or Brazil. Could be one of two Western Hemisphere teams help its cause?

Croatia: Have a shot to be the darlings of the tournament, though it will certainly hurt to be without Mario Mandzukic for the opener. With an array of stars including Ivan Rakitic, Luka Modric, and Dejan Lovren, Croatia can do some damage at the World Cup.

Cameroon: Is this the team that drew Germany in Monchengladbach earlier this month or the one that struggled in a loss to Panama and 1-0 win over minnows Moldova? A lot is riding on Samuel Eto’o and company finishing the chances they get.

Who’s going through: It would take a monumental collapse for Brazil not to win the group, let alone advance to the knockout round. Croatia should also go through.

Who’s going home: Mexico’s midfield injuries will cost them their look at a big upset, while Cameroon’s inconsistency is too varied to expect them to wipe out Croatia or the hosts.

Marquee match: Bit of a cop-out, but how do you pick any match other than the first of the tournament? Brazil hosts Croatia on Thursday evening as two exciting teams get us started on the best month in sports.

Top players to watch:

5. Oribe Peralta, Mexico

4. Eto’o, Cameroon

3. Dani Alves, Brazil

2. Modric, Croatia

1. Neymar, Brazil

2014 World Cup team preview: South Korea

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Getting to know…South Korea: Capable of impressive moments but lacking the consistency to make noise, it’s an uphill battle for South Korea, who barely even made it to the World Cup in the first place. Scraping through qualification, the South Koreans have yet to once again find the quality that got them to the 2002 semifinals on their home turf.  With the country’s most decorated player now at the helm, the South Koreans look to shock Russia and Belgium into the knockout round. The odds are against them.

Record in qualifying: The South Koreans squeaked by on goal difference, finishing behind Iran and narrowly beating out Uzbekistan by a single goal.  They almost blew it in the final wee, with a 1-0 loss to Iran, but Uzbekistan’s 5-1 win over Qatar was a goal short. It sent Uzbekistan into the playoff round, where they lost to Jordan on penalties. Jordan then got trounced by Uruguay, giving us a good barometer on where the Asian confederation stands compared to other continents like South America.

A look at Group H: South Korea has the ability to produce an upset, and one could be all they need to squeak into the knockout stage.  If they can shock either Belgium or Russia and take care of business against Algeria, we could see them into the next round.  They’ll need a total performance though, and qualification results don’t bode well. They dropped both matches against fellow World Cup participants Iran, and struggled to assert their dominance in matches against Uzbekistan, Qatar, Lebanon, and UAE.

Game schedule:

June 17, 18:00, Cuitabá: Russia vs. South Korea
June 22, 15:00, Porto Alegre: South Korea vs. Algeria
June 26, 16:00, São Paulo: South Korea vs. Belgium

Star Player: Heung-Min Son

Bayer Leverkusen’s young striker is a representation of the new age of South Korean talent.  Just 21 years old, he already owns 23 caps for his country and six goals, including a 96th-minute winner against Qatar in qualifying.  He also scored the winning goal for Bayer in their final Bundesliga match of the season, a 2-1 victory over Werder Bremen, to give his club a 4th-place finish in the table by a single point and qualifying them for the Champions League next season.

Son is young but battle-tested, and if he can get service from his teammates, he could be at the forefront of any surprises the Koreans score. But he needs to get the ball to be dangerous, and if the team is pegged back by a stronger opponent, things could go south in a hurry.

Manager: Hong Myung-Bo

The country’s most-capped player, Hong has untold World Cup experience and is a major asset to the country’s chances in Brazil. Having played in four tournaments as a sweeper, he received the Bronze Ball in 2002, the award for the third-place finisher in the voting for the tournament’s most outstanding player.

However, he is managerially green.  His job at the helm of South Korea is his first true managerial position, having previously led the country’s youth teams at the U-20 and U-23 levels and also assisting Guus Hiddink at Anzhi for just under a year before his appointment as manager.  If he can push the right buttons, South Korea will have a real chance to shine in Group H. Otherwise, the former LA Galaxy player fill fade into Russia and Belgium’s shadow.

Secret Weapon: Teamwork

For a team that lacks physical strength – and in some areas, athleticism – they look to make up for it by playing together.  For a squad as young as South Korea’s (nine players 24 or younger, just one player over 30), many have been together on the youth levels.  Many have plied their trade on the European stage, and if Hong can get these talents to truly come together, there will be fireworks in Group H.

Prediction: The South Koreans pulled a tough draw. The Algerians are no slouches despite being serious underdogs, and between Russia’s staunch defense and Belgium’s attacking flair, it’s hard to see Korea picking up an upset in either of those games.  On paper, their roster screams of young talent and a real surprise somewhere on the fixture list, but judging by their qualification matches, it’s going to get ugly in Brazil for South Korea.

2014 World Cup team preview: Russia

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Getting to know…Russia: With manager Fabio Capello’s stamp firmly planted on the Russian squad, the country is looking for its first ever trip out of the group stage at a World Cup.  They’ve patched up things at the back, and had a strong, simplistic approach to matches, very typical of Capello’s style.  A first-place finish in their qualifying group (ahead of Portugal) signaled their intentions for Brazil, and with a roster almost entirely made up of domestic-based players, Russia hopes their attempts to build from within can help Capello prove he’s more than just a club manager.

Record in qualifying: With Russia finishing first in UEFA’s Group F, it showed they meant business.  They finished a point above Portugal, with the pair facing little competition from anyone else in the 6-team group.  By beating out Portugal at the top, Russia avoided a potential pitfall in the playoff round.  However, they’ve also set the bar for themselves high at Brazil, something that could potentially come back to haunt Capello should they fail to make it out of the group stage yet again.

A look at Group H: Things are going to be much tougher for Russia in the World Cup group stage than it was in the qualifying round. With Belgium and South Korea alongside Algeria, nothing is a given. It seems to be somewhat of a 2-horse race, but Russia’s been here before and flopped. In 2002, a 1-0 loss to Japan proved their group-stage demise, and Capello will be hoping to avoid the same against South Korea, lest the streets of Moscow again rise up in riots.  Anything below 2nd place in their group should be considered a serious disappointment.

Game schedule:

June 17, 18:00, Cuitabá: Russia vs. South Korea
June 22, 12:00, Rio de Janeiro: Belgium vs. Russia
June 26, 18:00, Curitiba: Algeria vs. Russia

Star Player: Alan Dzagoev, Igor Akinfeev

Many have jumped on the Dzagoev bandwagon before the World Cup, with Russia’s number-10 impressing plenty with his grace on the ball and flow off it.  However, it would be remiss to brush by his CSKA Moscow teammate and reigning Russian Premier League Player of the Year, goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev. With the two club teammates in charge of things at the front and back, Russia is in good hands.

At just 23 years old, Dzagoev is a rising star.  He’s tested under pressure, and led CSKA Moscow to the Russian Premier League title as the club won its final 10 games to beat out Zenit St. Petersburg by a single point.  He also finished joint-top goalscorer at Euro 2012, alongside these names: Mario Balotelli, Cristiano Ronaldo, Mario Mandzukic, Mario Gomez, and Fernando Torres. Quite the crowd.  But the beauty of Dzagoev is that as good as he is at finding the back of the net, he’s even better at creating chances for his teammates, and striker Alexander Kherzakov will benefit greatly.

With Dzagoev at the front, Akinfeev is the rock at the back. Capello’s defense-first mentality has put the 28-year-old into the spotlight, and many are claiming he’s the best Russian keeper since “The Black Spider” Lev Yashin.  The Akinfeev-led defense allowed a paltry five goals during their 10 UEFA qualification matches, and you can expect more of the same at the World Cup from the battle-tested netminder who’s been in goal for Russia since he was just 18 years old.

Manager: Fabio Capello

Known for a stifling defensive approach that still promotes attacking play, Capello saw plenty of success at the club level but is still trying to make his mark on the international game. However, he is also known for having disagreements with many important figures along the way, and isn’t afraid to back down from his position.  His defensive style earned the disdain of many during his reign at Real Madrid, but it’s become an important piece of Russia’s run to the World Cup. With his failures in South Africa at the helm of England still in the back of the minds of many, he would do himself a World of good if he can make it past the group stage with the Russians.

Secret Weapon: Attacking flow

With the team so focused on defense, it’s surprising how the team can still make its way forward with such continuity.  The country’s hard-working midfield is a key component, and getting the ball to Dzagoev will be important.  However, it’s not as difficult for them as some might think, and the Russians should score some entertaining goals in Group H play.

Prediction: With South Korea definitely posing a threat, Russia’s midfield pegs back a young Heung Son-Min and Capello gets the key victory in their first match, propelling them to a second-place finish in Group H and the country’s first foray into the knockout round.

2014 World Cup Team Preview: Belgium

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Getting to know…Belgium
The mention of Belgium often doesn’t start the heart thumping and the fingers trembling. Usually, you’re more likely to start thinking about chocolate. Fries. Waffles. Mussels.

Ok, now I’m hungry.

But we’re talking about the World Cup here, and yes, teams should fear Belgium. Not based on their history: the furthest they’ve made it in a World Cup was fourth, back in 1986. In 2002, they were knocked out in the Round of 16, and celebrated by failing to qualify for the next two World Cups and three European Championships.

Don’t underestimate Belgium, though. The majority of their players may not have experience in the biggest games on the brightest stages, but that doesn’t mean they won’t have the ability to scare their opponents. The midfield is packed with talent: Eden Hazard, Kevin de Bruyne, and Kevin Mirallas are just a few of the names that could start. Thibaut Courtois is one of the best goalkeepers in the world. And forward Romelu Lukaku may be just 21 years old, but he’s already had plenty of experience terrorizing defenses.

Record in qualifying
Undefeated in UEFA Group G. And that group wasn’t exactly a cakewalk, either. Both Croatia, who wound up finishing second, and Serbia, who finished third, felt they had a good shot at the World Cup finals. Wales and Scotland both put up more of a fight than many had expected.

Belgium clinched qualification in their penultimate game, beating Croatia 2-1 to send them into a playoff with Iceland. The victory allowed the Belgians to cruise a bit in their final match, drawing 1-1 with Wales.

A look at Group H
Belgium shouldn’t have much of a problem getting out of their group. Their recent performances meant they were seeded, and they’ve been drawn with Russia, South Korea and Algeria. South Korea could cause a few problems for Belgium’s attack, as they’re a strong unit who plays together very well. Russia, under Fabio Capello, will be able to adapt their strategy depending on their opponents, but they’re unlikely to move past the group stages. Algeria are the weak link in the group – a solid enough side, but one that hasn’t run up against much top-class competition.

Game schedule

Thursday, June 17 at 12 noon ET: Belgium vs. Algeria (Estádio Mineirão, Belo Horizonte)

Sunday, June 220 at 12 noon ET: Belgium vs. Russia (Estádio do Maracaña, Rio de Janeiro)

Thursday, June 26 at 4 p.m. ET: South Korea vs. Belgium (Arena Corinthians, São Paulol)

Star player
Eden Hazard. Sure, he got into a little spat with manager José Mourinho that left to Hazard being left on the bench for some (must-win) Chelsea games, but who hasn’t fought with Mou at one time or another? Hazard, the PFA Young Player of the Year, is the most talented of an immensely talented crop of young Belgian players. He’ll zip through the midfield, trickster his way around the defenders or simply execute a perfect pass that will have your jaw dropping.

Manager
Marc Wilmots, originally an assistant manager for the national team, took charge of Belgium in May 2012. He obviously guided this talented bunch of players through what could well have been a difficult qualifying process, but his biggest challenge lies ahead: how to make the right selections for the major games he’s facing. Without Christian Benteke, who ruptured his Achilles and is unavailable for the World Cup, Lukaku is a lock up top. But who plays behind? No matter which three attackers Wilmots chooses for his 4-2-3-1, some highly gifted players will remain on the bench – like Dries Mertens, who scored 11 goals for Napoli this season. If Belgium fail to go as far as many are predicting, Wilmots could find himself on the unemployment line.

Secret weapon
Is it fair to say Romelu Lukaku? After all, it’s hard to keep a 6’3″ striker seemingly made of pure muscle a secret. Especially since he made his first appearance in the Premier League nearly four years ago. The 21-year-old scored 16 goals on loan at Everton this last season, and has scored six in 28 appearances for Belgium.

Now, the pressure’s on for the young forward. While Belgium can certainly score from midfield, he’s still going to be the one looked to to knock in the goals. If he’s able to keep cool in Brazil, he’ll take his country far.

Prediction
Fourth place, losing to France in the match the runners-up are forced to play to determine who’s really the third best in the world. Not too shabby for a team that’s missed out on qualifying for five consecutive major international tournaments.

2014 World Cup team preview: Nigeria

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Getting to know…Nigeria: Nigeria have qualified for five of the last six World Cups and have twice qualified for the Round of 16 (1994 and 1998). The Super Eagles have also enjoyed success in the African Cup of Nations, winning the tournament three times, most recently this past winter. Coached by Stephen Keshi, Nigeria utilize a defensive style that looks to over-power teams on the counter-attack. All things flow through John Obi Mikel, who plays in a more advanced role for his country and playmakes for wingers Victor Moses and Ahmed Musa, as well as the highly-rated Emmanuel Emenike.

Record in qualifying: Nigeria went undefeated in qualifying out of Group F, taking 12 points in six matches off of Malawi, Kenya and Namibia before defeating Ethiopia in both matches of the two-leg playoff.

What group are they in?: Group F with Argentina, Bosnia & Herzegovina and Iran

Game schedule:

16 June, 16:00, Curitiba – Iran vs. Nigeria
21 June, 18:00, Belo Horizonte – Nigeria vs. Argentina
25 June, 13:00, Salvador – Nigeria vs. Bosnia & Herzegovina

Star player: John Obi Mikel

At times maligned at Chelsea, Obi Mikel is hailed in Nigeria. A massive presence, Obi Mikel is strong in the tackle but enjoys the balance of having smooth technique. For Nigeria, Obi Mikel is the playmaker who can provide pinpoint passes to release the weapons around him. Look for him to play higher up the pitch for his country, where he won’t think twice about shooting from distance. When Obi Mikel plays well, Nigeria plays well.

source: Getty ImagesManager: Stephen Keshi

Named African Coach of the Year in 2013 after willing his team to victory in the African Cup of Nations. A defensive tactician who sets up his sides to explode on the counter, Keshi gets the most out of his side’s youth, pace and hunger. Despite his success, Keshi’s experience with the national team has undergone a number of issues in the past including player disputes and claims of unpaid wages. If Nigeria are to succeed this summer, Keshi must ensure any such issues are buried before getting on the plane to Brazil.

Secret weapon: Emmanuel Emenike

The 27-year-old Emenike is a bit of a late bloomer, having earned his initial call-up to the national team just three years ago while playing with Spartak Moscow. Since then his career has flourished as Emenike scored four goals during the 2013 African Cup of Nations to help the Super Eagles hoist the title. Now at Fenerbahce, Emenike is coming off a strong season having scored 12 goals in 28 appearances. Look for Emenike’s blazing speed and direct style of play to serve as target man for Nigeria’s high-paced counter-attacks. Built like a bull, he loves to tangle with opposing defenders, rarely loses battles, and has a blistering shot.

Prediction: Nigeria faces stiff competition from Bosnia & Herzegovina as to who will finish second in the group behind Argentina, setting up what should be an epic final match day in Group F. Look for Nigeria’s youth and athleticism to give them the edge over B&H but advancing beyond the Round of 16 feels unlikely for the Super Eagles.