The special moment has come around once again. We are tantalisingly close to the World Cup yet again, and with the final in Brazil’s Maracana, one of the great footballing stadiums, victory is likely to be right up with the pinnacle of a players’ career.
They say that the only thing missing from Lionel Messi’s career is a World Cup but it’s likely the little magician will never have a better chance than this year’s showpiece to win the most coveted prize in international football – and the world for some – with an Argentina side that has the tools to go all the way to lifting the cup in the Maracana.
Argentina’s own tournament record hasn’t matched their talent in previous years – they were thrashed by Germany 4 years ago and then limped out of the Copa America just a year later – but new coach Alejando Sabella seems to be a much better fit than either Diego Maradona or Sergio Batista and plays a side that seems to be finally living upto it’s rich attacking talent.
Much has been made of how Lionel Messi didn’t have a great year with Barcelona but perspective is needed given how he scored 36 goals in 39 appearances during this league season and that was with two months missed thanks to a hamstring problem, stats that would be career best seasons for all but him and Ronaldo. However, as much as the little magician is the highlight of the team, he is only one of an awesome foursome that any side would be proud to have. Sergio Augero’s season with Manchester City has been blighted by injury but he still scored 28 in 34 during the league season and provides the same razor sharp finishing for his country as shown by an international goalscoring record with 20 to his name. Gonazalo Higuain, the further forward player of the three, scored 17 league goals for Napoli following an extremely successful season when moving from Real Madrid.
Dealing with those three is hard enough but Angel Di Maria has flourished like never before for Real Madrid on the way to landing La Decima along with the Copa Del Rey, with 22 assists for Madrid in La Liga and the Champions League last season. Man of the match in the final, he played an integral part in Madrid’s triumph and was unplayable on his favoured left side for much of the campaign.
An awful lot has been made of how the defence could possibly let them down, and while it doesn’t match upto the forward line, there is not a death of quality. Ezquiel Garay was part of a Benfica side that eliminated Juventus on their way to a club treble campaign, Federico Fernandez had a very solid season for Napoli and Pablo Zabaelta was a key part of Manchester City’s title winning campaign. Even Martin Demechlis improved from a shaky start with Hugo Campagnaro was by far the best of a shaky Inter Milan back four.
Some have raised questions over midfield performance but Javier Mascherano is a far better protector of the front four than he is a centre back and Fernando Gago has proven himself worthy of a place in Sabella’s side at Boca Juniors, and they should find themselves better balanced than many expect. An easy group, with very low air mileage – they will travel the third least distance of any side through the group – but critically with three matches in southern Brazil, they avoid the extreme heat of Manaus, Fortaleza, Reciefe and Natal, while a quarter final in Brasila is also helpful. A group with Bosnia, Iran, and Nigeria sets them up nicely for a last 16 tie against any one of France, Switzerland (the team most likely to meet them according to the markets), or Ecudaor (most likely), and then a quarter final against either Belgium or Portugal according to the bookmakers. It’s at that stage that things get difficult but they’ve beaten Portugal, Spain, Italy and Germany in friendlies since and they may arrive better prepared than most of their compatriots and they look to have everything in their favour for a third World Cup with Brazil crucially on the other side of the draw and they look by far the strongest of the favourites for us.
Brazil, hosting for the first time since the 60’s, are the favourites for many and coming here after an impressive Confederations Cup win in which they were comprehensive winners over Euro 2012 finalists Italy (group stages) and Spain (final), winning everyone of their 5 games and scoring 14 goals on their way to a dominant tournament win that may count more in terms of mental strength and confidence rather than actual form with a better displays expected from those two this time around.
However while some have flung the label of “non-vintage” at this Selecao side, but few teams in the tournament boast the balance of Luis Scolari’s side and it goes without saying that they are the team nobody would want to face.
Once upon a time there were serious defensive questions over a side that was once closer to 20th than 1st (the hosts are currently ranked fourth) but both David Luiz and Thiago Silva have performed in exemplary fashion their national side and with Paulinhio and Gustavo, make a core that has proven very hard to break down – they conceded just 3 last year on their way to the Confederations Cup and a structure that is sure to prove to be a big asset in the latter stages.
In Marcelo and Dani Alvez Brazil have pace, trickery and delivery from deep out wide that should prove to be a useful asset at all times, but they real creative onus is likely to fall on Barcelona superstar Neymar. His first season in La Liga was a mixed bag in a campaign tat didn’t reach the team’s high standards – he scored just 9 times in La Liga – but for Brazil he’s nearly unplayable, with 31 goals in just 48 games for country showing the rewards of an attack setup around the 22 year old. Hulk is more power than pace out wide but has found his own place in an attacking system that saw them score 15 goals on their way to Confederations Cup glory, while a repeat of Fred’s five goals from last year would prove very handy for the favourites this time around.
Their group is easy, but a last 16 against Group B’s second will prove to be very difficult and while their quarter final may be easier on paper it’s then likely to be a European superpower in the semis if they want to make it to the final. They have every chance and the home support should be an asset, but Argentina look to be the value of the two in the easier half of the draw with many positive results on Brazilin soil to draw on should they meet in a final, a possibly that is attractively rated at 10/1.
Defending World and European champions Spain should probably be shorter than 13/2 given their depth, class and tournament knowledge, but there are more reasons to be against them than ever before that can’t be ignored. Diego Costa played his first full game since going off in the Champions League final while David Villa scored twice to give them a friendly win but it was a surprise not to see them take either one of Jose Callejon or Jesus Navas in midfield for pace and Cesc Fabregas’s relatively poor season by his own standards as false 9 for Barcelona does not bode for him being upfront on his own.
The suffocating defence that has seen them fail to conceded a knockout goal in the last three knockout stages of their tournament wins remains, however, and finding a side that is able to break them down is a hellishly difficult task, and their ball control and retention likely to be doubly effective in this heat, but we saw last summer that an especially tough game can leave them vulnerable physically as Brazil showed in last year’s Confederations Cup final. Spain have two in the group stages before the knockouts and as Sid Lowe recounted before the big showdown to win the league between Barcelona and Ateltico Madrid;
“All three teams (La Liga’s first three) have five or more players whose minute totals are well over 4,000 now. Barcelona and Real Madrid reached the final of the Copa del Rey, while Atlético reached the semis; Atlético and Real Madrid reached the final of the Champions League, while Barcelona reached the quarters; the season started in August with the Super Cup between Atlético and Barcelona.”
Nobody doubts their class or talent, but exhaustion is a pertinent threat for La Roja and a tough quarter and semi final could leave them flagging badly late and more vulnerable than in previous tournaments.
Germany are the other side in single figures, with no shame in having found Spain too strong in 2008 (Euros) and 2010, but again they came up short at the semis in Euro 2012 when Italy beat them 2-1 on merit and they come, like Spain, with far more problems, namely an injury list that now has Marco Reus on it’s tally and defensive vulnerability with Per Metrescker consistently exposed against the best for Arsenal when the going got tough in the premier League while Lahm, Klose, Neuer, and Schweinstiger are all not 100% ahead of a tough opening game with two 1PM local time kickoffs in Savlador and Fortelza in a tough group. The lack of a striker in top form is also a worry despite several mobile midfielders.
Into the double figures and Belgium’s golden generation are as short as 14’s in some places but that looks incredibly short for a side with no tournament experience since 2002 and it’s yet to be seen how they measure up against Europe’s best, let alone the cream of South America’s crop. Their group is winnable with such talent but a last 16 tie against either Germany or Russia is enough to put me off prices so short.
I’d have been amazed if I was mentioning the Netherlands this late in my preview just over 4 years and a month ago but Louis Van Gaal’s side looks bereft of defensive quality and the loss of Roma maestro Kevin Strootman is a huge blow for their chances with Van Gaal’s midfield plan totally upset and despite the forward power of Arjen Robben and Wesley Snedijder amongst Robin Van Persie – a Euro 2012 flop – they may struggle to get out of the group. Compatriots Chile have a fine chance to get out of a tough section, but if they fail to top the group, are likely to face Brazil in the last 16, not a tie we could support them for.
In a similarly tough section, Uruguay were semi finalists 4 years ago and have landed a Copa America to their name since, although that success was helped greatly by the failures of Brazil and Argentina to name just two flops at that tournament. A group with England and Italy is a very tough course although a route to the quarters at least is possible. England come here with expectations at a much more reasonable level than previously, but Italy make far more appeal of the pairing
Winners in 2006, Cesare Prandelli’s side were horrendous 4 years ago but that led to a total clear out and they were genuinely the second best side in Kiev when a 4-1 final defeat was extremely unflattering and unrepresentative of Prandelli’s side. Instead, look towards their 2-1 win over Germany and 1-1 draw with Spain in the group stages as a marker of their true ability.
At times it felt like Italy were too reliant upon Mario Balotelli but they now bring a much deeper range of attacking players, with Ciro Immobile and Alesssandro Cerci coming after stunning league season while Lorenzo Insigne impressed both at home and abroad for Napoli. The absence of Riccardo Montlivo is a crushing blow but Claudio Marchiso is at least a like for like replacement. Andrea Pirlo is the centre of the team’s creative centre but there’s a huge amount of depth with powerpacked midfielders like Candareva, De Rossi and Motta all well quipped to handle the intense nature of a hard schedule an two desperate kickoffs played in the high heat.
But it is really a defensive line of Chiellini, Bonucci and Barzagil that makes the rock solid core of the side. The trio conceded just 23 league goals this season and kept Germany and England quiet in the knockouts when it counted before a final collapse very much enticed by the massive effort they left on the field a day after Spain. The worry is that the same thing happens again – after all their group will be tough enough – but if they win it then it’s a game against the Ivory Coast or Japan assuming that Colombia can win Group C, and then they would face a Spain side that they had the beating of in last year’s Confederations Cup at the semi final stage before failing to finish the job and then succumbing. During that tournament many of the current squad gained valuable experience of conditions in Brazil, including in a game against the hosts, and back to their preferred formation and tactical style – after making many switches during the tournament – they are a threat to anyone and overlooked at 33/1.
Colombia, very much the Belgium of South America in this case, don’t have as much going for them as once was the case but may still worth be chancing. Much of the debate has centred around how they will deal with the absence of Radmel Falcao but in Carlos Bacca and Jackson Martinez had strong league seasons and are capable of leading the line while out wide they have threat in Rodriguez and Cudardo out wide. Colombia let in just 13 goals in the qualifying stage, a testament to the system that Jose Penkerman has installed since taking over, and while their group is not walkover, they are well capable of topping it and should not fear anyone in the last 16 – the worry is a quarter final against Brazil according to the market but they are still worth having in the portfolio for ante post purposes.
So too are France. Yes, we all know about the potential for total implosion as I found out to my cost in the Euros– where they arrived on the back of a 21 match unbeaten run under Laurent Blanc – when another bust up saw them flop in the battle to avoid Spain the group before they were dismissed in effortless style by the champions.
The same thing is not impossible here, but it’s worth nothing that Deschamps has just one player involved in either of those two infamous tournaments and a squad rich in depth. Karim Benzema had his best season yet for Real Madrid and has found a place in the national side that he’s entirely comfortable with, and he is backed up by a midfield that contains Paul Pogba, an exceptional talent for Juventus and the National side, with Balsie Matuidi having impressed in the Champions League for PSG this season and the same comments applying to Antoine Greizmann, a replacement for the absent Samir Nasri and injured Frank Ribery. In defence, Rapahel Varane is a Champions League winner and will partner either Lorient Koscielny or Mamadou Sakho in defence. Mathieu Debuchy and Patrice Evra are potential weak links but the whole squad is backed up by in form Hugo Lloris in goal, without whom Tottenham would not be playing European football next year. If they win their group they will face either Nigeria or Bosnia, a game they are well capable of winning, while the way they pushed Spain in two qualifying meetings suggests that Germany are not a side they should fear in any capacity or anywhere near as superior as the prices suggest. They are now just 18/1 but with such a fair route, still make appeal.
Last but not least, the excellent tournament record of Portugal did make them appealing at a decent price, but there’s the worrisome feeling that they are too reliant upon Cristiano Ronaldo for their attacking prowess and through a whole tournament that does not bode well. The defence has held very firm in previous tournaments and no wonder with Alves and Pepe – who had his best season ever for Real Madrid and was a key part in their semi final win in the Champions League – and Coentrao at leftback – but a lack of bite upfront with Nani struggling to fire for club or country and Postiga not the player of old is worrisome when it comes to facing another top class defence.
8 pts Argentina (7/2 Winner, 3/1 general)
1 pt each/way Italy (33/1 general)
1 pt each/way France (20/1 Sportingbet, 18/1 Ladbrokes, 16/1 general)
1 pt each/way Colombia (33/1 Sportingbet, 25/1 general)
To reach semi-final
5 pts Argentina (19/20 Bwin)
1 pt France (4/1 general)
1 pt Italy (5/1 general)
To reach quarter final
2 pts Colombia (13/10 general)
1 pt Argentina/Brazil (22/1 Bet365)