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Group A – Brazil, Croatia, Mexico & Cameroon.
This is the group that will kick off the World Cup, with Brazil and Croatia going head-to-head in Sao Paulo on June 12. With home advantage and a strong squad to call-on, including world-class players such as Neymar, Oscar and Thiago Silva, it would be one of football’s biggest shocks if Brazil did not progress into the next round. Although their midfield is not as strong as in previous years, notably lacking a flair player in the mould of Ronaldinho or Kaka, they still pose a threat and will be tough to break down defensively. Assuming Brazil take the top spot, the second qualifying berth becomes a straight shoot-out between the three remaining teams. Mexico only just made it to the World Cup, sneaking past Panama in the final round of qualifying. Despite that, they possess genuine tournament pedigree, having won the 2012 Olympic Gold Medal against Brazil in the final. Since then, they have failed to progress, exemplified when not getting out their Confederations Cup group. Their squad is a solid combination of journeymen pro’s and the occasional big-name player – both Javier Hernandez and Gio Dos Santos are capable performers. As for Cameroon, after sweeping aside Tunisia 4-1 in their qualifying game, they will be hoping to bring their fluid, attacking style of football onto the biggest stage. After a very poor World Cup in 2010, where they failed to register a single point, hopes will be higher for a more impressive showing this time round. With players such as Alex Song and Samuel Eto’o they possess real quality and will be hoping to impress this time out. Croatia are a very solid outfit – expect them to sit back against Brazil in particular before attacking on the counter. Former Arsenal striker Eduardo is in the squad, along with Dejan Lovren of Southampton – Croatia possess a strong core of players, and will be a tough opponent. However, the humidity and heat of Brazil may create unfamiliar territory for many of these players – if they can deal with that, I would expect them to progress. Brazil and Croatia to go through.
Group B – Spain, Netherlands, Australia, Chile
Barring a major shock, the results of this group appear relatively clear. In Spain, the group contains the defending European and World Champions – although some members of their squad are now past their prime, they still have a group of players that are the envy of most of the world. After shining in the 2010 World Cup Final, Xavi and Andreas Iniesta will be looking for one last hurrah on the world stage. Spanish striking hopes are placed on Brazilian-born Diego Costa – after a dominant season in La Liga, Vicent Del Bosque will be hoping that he can transfer that form to the World Cup. The most dangerous opponents in the group are the Netherlands – this offers up a mouth-watering repeat of the 2010 final. The Netherlands team is arguably not as strong as the 2010 side, having lost influential players such as Mark Van Bommel. While Arjen Robben and Robin Van Persie lead the Dutch threat going forward, the defence looks notably short, with Bruno Martins Indi the only stand-out name. The match between the two will probably decide who gets top spot – I would expect Spain to win that battle. As for Australia, after a golden generation for the Socceroos, it would now be a major shock to see them trouble this group. Having sunk to 59th in the FIFA rankings, their team seems weak throughout and hopes are pinned on former Everton midfielder Tim Cahill to provide a spark. Chile could pose a threat, being the most used to the conditions teams are expected to experience in Brazil. After beating both Uruguay and Ecuador to third spot in the qualifying stages, it would be foolish to underestimate them. However, they possess few players used to an occasion such as the World Cup and gaining any points off either Spain or the Netherlands would be a surprise. Spain and the Netherlands to go through.