/

Brazil ready to take on world’s best on home turf

by Andrew Mckirdy

staff writer

The World Cup kicks off on Thursday (Friday, Japan time) in the country that has won the tournament more times than any other — Brazil. Thirty-two teams will compete over the next month for a place in the final at Rio de Janeiro’s Maracana Stadium on July 13.

Here is a rundown of the eight first-round groups.

GROUP A

Brazil, Cameroon, Croatia, Mexico

Expectations on Brazil will be massive as it seeks to win a record sixth World Cup, but an excellent showing on home soil at last year’s Confederations Cup suggests the hosts are well equipped to deal with the pressure.

Brazil beat Spain 3-0 in the Confederations Cup final to give manager Luiz Felipe Scolari proof that his methods are working having returned to the job in 2012, and in Neymar, Thiago Silva, Dani Alves and Oscar, the “Selecao” has the talent to go all the way.

A tricky first-round group will test Scolari’s side from the outset, however, with a strong Croatia team featuring Luka Modric, Mario Mandzukic and Ivan Rakitic providing difficult opposition in the opening game.

Croatia will likely compete for a place alongside Brazil in the second round with Mexico, whose manager Miguel Herrera looks set to select domestic players ahead of his Europe-based stars like Manchester United’s Javier Hernandez.

Cameroon will be no pushover as it looks to reach the knockout phase for the first time since 1990, but former Urawa Reds manager Volker Finke will need all his diplomatic skills to ensure a tempestuous side dominated by striker Samuel Eto’o is pulling in the same direction.

GROUP B

Australia, Chile, Netherlands, Spain

Spain will be looking to collect an unprecedented fourth straight major title having won the 2010 World Cup and last two European Championships, but the defending champions could hardly have been given a tougher start to their 2014 campaign.

Spain opens against the Netherlands in a re-run of the 2010 final, and there will be little margin for error in a tricky group that also includes Chile and Australia with a likely second-round clash with Brazil the fate of the team that finishes as runnerup.

Suggestions that Spain is coming down off its majestic peak will be tested, but the Netherlands will be almost unrecognizable from the side that lost the final in South Africa with Manchester United-bound manager Louis van Gaal placing his faith in youth.

Chile could yet send one of the European heavyweights into a first-round exit, as manager Jorge Sampaoli carries on the good work of Marcelo Bielsa from 2010.

Australia will find life difficult against opponents of such high pedigree, but manager Ange Postecoglou has chosen a young squad with one eye on the 2013 Asian Cup and will want for nothing in terms of effort.

GROUP C

Cote d’Ivoire, Colombia, Greece, Japan

The fact that all four Group C teams are so evenly matched means Japan is quite capable of winning all three games — but losing all three is not out of the question either.

Japan heads into the tournament on the back of confidence-boosting friendly wins over Costa Rica and Zambia, but problems remain and there is no telling how Alberto Zaccheroni’s side will perform until on the night.

Colombia looks to be marginally the strongest team in the group, but the South Americans have been dealt a hammer blow with the news that star striker Radamel Falcao will not recover from injury in time.

Greece, as always, will be tough to beat with defense the main strength, but Kostas Mitroglou will provide a threat up front with Dimitris Salpangidis feeding off scraps alongside him.

Cote d’Ivoire is arguably Africa’s strongest representative, with Manchester City midfielder Yaya Toure and the evergreen Didier Drogba leading the charge for an aging team desperate to go out on a high.

All four teams will fancy their chances of progressing to the knockout phase. It could come down to goal difference to decide who does.

GROUP D

Costa Rica, England, Italy, Uruguay

England has learned to temper its expectations after a series of World Cup disappointments, and an unforgiving first-round draw this time around has dialed down the pre-tournament hype further.

Italy and Uruguay will provide a formidable obstacle to England’s chances, but manager Roy Hodgson has chosen a vibrant young squad whose drive and energy could make a big impression this summer.

The Italians will pin their hopes on a key trio of Gianluigi Buffon, Andrea Pirlo and Mario Balotelli, with the “Azzurri” desperate to make up for the disappointment of crashing out in the first round behind New Zealand in 2010.

Uruguay enjoyed a hugely successful tournament four years ago, but the South Americans will be praying that Luis Suarez recovers from injury in time to add some spark to an experienced unit that will be one of the most streetwise teams in the tournament.

That leaves Costa Rica needing a miracle against three former World Cup-winning teams, with goalkeeper Keylor Navas and striker Joel Campbell at least hoping to catch the eye for the “Ticos.”

GROUP E

Ecuador, France, Honduras, Switzerland

France only just reached the World Cup after struggling through a playoff against Ukraine, but “Les Bleus” could hardly believe their luck after being drawn in easily the weakest group in Brazil.

Switzerland, Honduras and Ecuador should pose little problem for France despite the loss of injured forward Franck Ribery, and the 1998 champions have the personnel to erase the disgraceful memory of a players’ strike four years ago and progress deep into the tournament.

Switzerland and Ecuador should vie for the runnerup spot, with the Swiss the marginal favorites thanks to the talent of young forwards Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri.

Manchester United’s Antonio Valencia will be the key man as Ecuador tries to reach the knockout phase for a second time, and manager Reinaldo Rueda will at least be well prepared to face Honduras having managed the Central Americans in South Africa in 2010.

Current Honduras boss Luis Fernando Suarez faces a difficult task to make it through, but he has plenty of Premier League experience at his disposal and the likes of Wilson Palacios and Maynor Figueroa could yet make an impression.

GROUP F

Argentina, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iran, Nigeria

The pressure will be on Lionel Messi having failed to score a single goal in Argentina’s run to the quarterfinals four years ago, but at 26 the greatest player of his generation is ready to stamp his indelible mark on the World Cup.

Messi is the undoubted focal point of an Argentina team that failed to play to his strengths in South Africa, and only a suspect-looking defense can detract from a formidable attack that also includes Sergio Aguero, Angel Di Maria and Gonzalo Higuain.

Argentina should have little trouble getting through the group stage, where Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iran and Nigeria will all fight it out for second place.

The attack-minded Bosnians could spring a surprise in their World Cup debut, with Manchester City’s Edin Dzeko bustling up front and Roma’s Miralem Pjanic pulling the strings in midfield.

Nigeria will bring a more workmanlike team than in years gone by but will still be hard to beat, while Iran will try to keep things tight and grind out results in the hope of reaching the knockout round for the first time.

GROUP G

Germany, Ghana, Portugal, United States

Germany will be looking to end its recent run of near-misses and win the World Cup for a fourth time, but escaping an extremely tough opening group will be the first priority.

The Germans certainly look equipped to lift the trophy for the first time since 1990, with Mesut Ozil, Philipp Lahm and Thomas Muller just three of the stars manager Joachim Low can call on. Forward Marco Reus will be missed after injuring his ankle in a warmup game last week, but Germany starts firmly among the favorites in Brazil.

Portugal will push the Germans hard for top spot in Group G, with reigning world player of the year Cristiano Ronaldo hungry to write his name all over this year’s tournament. The Portuguese will fancy their chances of reaching the competition’s later stages, while the U.S. and Ghana have a task on their hands just to escape the group.

U.S. manager Jurgen Klinsmann will be hoping his decision to leave superstar Landon Donovan at home does not backfire on him, while Ghana will feel it has unfinished business with the World Cup after losing to Uruguay — and Luis Suarez’s hand — in the quarterfinals four years ago.

GROUP H

Algeria, Belgium, Russia, South Korea

Belgium has been tipped as the dark horse of choice going into this summer’s tournament, and it is easy to see why given the squad at manager Marc Wilmots’ disposal.

Players of the caliber of Eden Hazard, Vincent Kompany and Thibaut Courtois are the reason why many Belgians believe their team can emulate the 1986 side that reached the semifinals, and a relatively kind first-round draw has stoked expectations further.

Russia and South Korea can have reasonable ambitions of winning the group themselves, however, with teams at either end of the age spectrum hoping to make an impact.

South Korea’s Hong Myung-bo — heading to the World Cup for the first time as a manager after playing in four tournaments — has chosen a youthful squad led by midfielder Ki Sung-yeung and forward Son Heung-min that should want for nothing in terms of energy.

Russia’s Fabio Capello is relying on veterans such as Roman Shirokov and Yuri Zhirkov, although emerging talents like Alexander Kokorin could also catch the eye.

Algeria cannot be discounted from reaching the knockout phase either, but players like Islam Slimani and Sofiane Feghouli will have to be at their very best to make it happen.