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World Cup Preview – Group A

 Group A

12/06            Brazil vs Croatia                 21:00 (Sao Paulo)

13/06            Mexico vs Cameroon        17:00 (Natal)

17/06            Brazil vs Mexico                  20:00             (Fortaleza)

18/06            Cameroon vs Croatia        23:00             (Manaus)

23/06            Cameroon vs Brazil            21:00             (Brasilia)

23/06            Croatia vs Mexico               21:00             (Recife)

 

Brazil

Best finish: Winners (1958, 1962, 1970, 1994, 2002)

How they qualified: Hosts

The five-time winners were spared of the gruelling South American qualifying process and have been out of competitive action since last summer’s Confederations Cup victory. Beating Spain 3-0 in the final in July has given the nation real belief that A Selecao can triumph on home soil for the first time after heartbreak in 1950 despite the social unrest surrounding the finals. Recent friendly results have been solid, with comprehensive 5-0 thrashings of South Africa and fellow finalists Honduras either side of an impressive 2-1 victory against neighbours Chile.

Key players:

Neymar

The eyes of the world will be on the Barcelona forward who proved many of his doubters wrong at the Confederations Cup after scoring four goals and winning the Golden Ball for his exploits. A first season in Europe has been mixed – from the highs of scoring in his first Clásico to sustaining a knee injury at Getafe and performing somewhat indifferently since. Undoubtedly has the ability to carry his country to glory but his temperament will always be in question until he does so.

The hopes of a nation rests on Neymar's young shoulders.
The hopes of a nation rests on Neymar’s young shoulders.

Thiago Silva

Widely regarded as the best defender in world football, Silva has become the cornerstone of an impressive Paris Saint-Germain side since joining from Milan in 2012. The honour of captaining Brazil in a World Cup on home soil is unlikely to faze the 29-year old who suffered a scare last weekend after fracturing a cheekbone against Lorient that has put his participation in the Champions League quarter-final with Chelsea in doubt. Regardless of whether he features in that tie or not, Silva will hope to be fit and raring to go come the 12th of June.

Oscar

In the country that prides itself most on producing classic number 10s a la Ronaldinho and Zico, Oscar seems somewhat out of place in the role. It often takes a little more attention to detail to realise just how crucial the ex-Internacional man is for club and country. His clever positioning, eye for goal and sensible passing make him a dangerous weapon in attack, while his industry and willingness to disrupt the influence of opposition registas when out of possession (as he did when first coming to prominence for Chelsea against Juventus’ Andrea Pirlo in 2012) make him a firm favourite of both José Mourinho and Luis Filipe Scolari.

Key Issues

Who partners Silva?

Scolari has a plethora at options at centre back from which to choose. While captain Silva is first choice when fit, his usual partner David Luiz has been in and out of the Chelsea side and has rarely played in defence when selected. At Bayern Munich, Dante is having another fine season and it getting more first team football than Luiz but Scolari appears set on the partnership that starred in the Confederations Cup. Other options include Silva’s club teammate Marquinhos and home-based defenders Dédé and Réver. Atletico Madrid’s highly-rated Miranda has only been capped once since leaving Brazil for Europe in 2011.

Will they handle the pressure?

Brazil are many people’s favourites for the trophy and while the home support will be vociferous, the tendency remains for Brazilian crowds to get on the team’s back when things aren’t going to plan. The expected continuation of the protests against FIFA and the Brazilian government can’t help but be a distraction also.

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Croatia

Best finish: 3rd (1998)

How they qualified: Beat Iceland 2-0 on aggregate in a playoff after finishing 2nd in UEFA Group A

The Croats survived a tumultuous qualifying campaign to seal their place in the finals despite changing their manager before the playoff with Iceland in November. Igor Štimac’s reign got off to a strong start with wins home and away to Macedonia and Wales, a 2-0 victory over neighbours Serbia and a decent 1-1 draw in Belgium before capitulating at home to Scotland, going down 1-0. That sparked a winless sequence that lasted until the second leg of the playoff in Iceland, by which time Niko Kovač was at the helm. Despite Mario Mandžukić’s dismissal after giving Croatia the lead in the Iceland return leg, Darijo Srna went on the seal a 2-0 win and his country’s place at their fourth World Cup as an independent nation.

Key players:

Luka Modrić

Modric is enjoying the best season of his club career.
Modric is enjoying the best season of his club career.

After an underwhelming first season at Real Madrid following his big money move from Tottenham, Modrić has been immense this term, starring as Carlo Ancelotti’s men set the pace in the most exciting Spanish title race in years until recent blips. His ability to take players out of the game by dribbling past them in midfield can be crucial in beating the initial press of opposition sides and sparking counter-attacks and should be a feature of Croatia’s attacking play. A role model for exciting midfield prospects Alen Halilović and Mateo Kovačić.

Ivan Rakitić

The argument that the two best midfielders in the Spanish league this season are Croatian certainly has plenty of merit. Rakitić’s sublime piece of skill to set up Carlos Bacca’s winner for Sevilla at Real Madrid deservedly dominated the viral football videos domain on Wednesday night but regular watchers of the Andalusians will tell you that their skipper has been that good all season long. Keep an eye out for his fearsome long-range shooting ability.

Mario Mandžukić

Despite being suspended for the opener against Brazil, Bayern Munich striker Mandžukić will be instrumental in his country’s attempt to get out of Group A and progress further in the tournament. The ex-Wolfsburg man had a sensational first season at Bayern, scoring in the Champions League final, and has been in good form again this year as the Bavarian giants conquer all before them. Personal differences with Pep Guardiola have sometimes limited his game time but his strength, aerial ability and finishing make him one of the most dangerous strikers in European football.

Key Issues

Is Niko Kovač cut out for international management?

The manager did well to arrest Croatia’s slump by beating Iceland in the playoff but the sterner tests are still to come. It is still unclear what kind of system Niko Kovač will employ, or how he will accommodate the midfield talents of Modrić, Rakitić and Kovačić without being too imbalanced. The group they’ve been drawn in is definitely not as strong as some of the others in the competition, but neither will Mexico or Cameroon be pushovers.

Who plays against Brazil?

Amidst the euphoria and relief at getting past Iceland was a degree of controversy after Mandžukić’s red card and Josip Šimunić’s salute that resulted in the Australian-born defender receiving a ten-match ban. That opens up gaps in the team: Southampton’s Dejan Lovren should come in to replace Šimunić while Kovač may opt for 34-year old Ivica Olić alone in attack against Brazilian, or choose from one of Eduardo da Silva, Nikica Jelavić or Fiorentina youngster Ante Rebić.

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Mexico

Best finish: Quarter-finals (1970, 1986)

How they qualified: Beat New Zealand 9-3 in a playoff after finishing 4th in CONCACAF Round 4

A disastrous campaign for El Tri was eventually salvaged by a comfortable playoff victory over New Zealand under the guidance of Miguel Herrera – their sixth manager since Javier Aguirre resigned after the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. After coasting through the initial stages of CONCACAF qualifying and winning gold at the 2012 Olympics, a mere two wins in the final group – the latter secured by a stunning late overhead kick by Raúl Jiménez against Panama – meant that a final game defeat in Costa Rica appeared to be the end, with Panama 2-1 up against the USA. However, goals in the last 90 seconds by the Americans catapulted Mexico into the playoff against the Kiwis. Herrera proceeded to drop all foreign-based players for the two games in November, preferring instead to base his team around the group he previously managed at Club América.

Key players:

Oribe Peralta

The Santos Laguna striker came in to replace the misfiring Javier Hernández towards the end of the qualifiers and starred in the playoff, firing home a brace at the Azteca before going one better in New Zealand and completing a hat-trick. Top scorer for the Under-23s at the 2012 Olympics, Peralta has experience of scoring against Brazil after getting the opener in the final at Wembley and will be vital to El Tri’s hopes of repeating the feat in Fortaleza.

Dos Santos needs a big tournament if Mexico are to progress.
Dos Santos needs a big tournament if Mexico are to progress.

Giovanni dos Santos

With Javier Hernández’s indifferent form for club and country, rumours have it that Peralta’s partner in attack in Herrera’s 3-5-2 will be Villarreal striker dos Santos. The former Tottenham man has starred in the newly promoted Spanish club’s excellent season, breaking the ten-goal milestone and showing the kind of talent that made him one of the hottest properties in Europe when he left Barcelona in 2008.

Rafael Márquez

After dropping off the European radar upon leaving Barcelona for MLS in 2010, Márquez will captain El Tri for the fourth consecutive World Cup finals and is likely to take his place at the centre of Herrera’s back three. The 35-year old, now of Club Léon still possesses his typical poise and classiness in possession and his experience should prove to be a crucial factor if Mexico progress to the knockout stages.

Key Issues

Will the foreign-based stars perform?

Hernández, dos Santos, Andrés Guardado and Héctor Moreno were amongst the players who play club football in Europe left out of the playoff amidst calls from the Mexican public that the national team doesn’t mean as much to them as it does to those playing domestically. Herrera recalled them for the recent friendly against Nigeria but a drab 0-0 draw has raised the question as to whether they may be better off without them. The form of Hernández in particular is concerning; just two Premier League goals all season for Manchester United and just six starts in the league and Champions League combined. Peralta stepped up towards the end of qualification but El Tri could really do with Chicharito firing on all cylinders in Brazil.

Is Herrera the right man?

Initial signs are good, with the general opinion of Mexican football on the rise again after the disaster that was the qualifying campaign. Herrera has shown that he’s unafraid of making big decisions by naming home-based squads for the New Zealand games and the forthcoming friendly with the USA but getting the right blend between the talented overseas players and the ones he knows so well domestically. Despite the new-found optimism, the undercurrent of doubt remains – this is El Piojo’s first international tournament and it comes at a time when things could be going better.

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Cameroon

Best finish: Quarter-finals (1990)

How they qualified: Beat Tunisia 4-1 on aggregate in CAF Third Round

After eventually navigating a tricky Group I that consisted of Libya, Congo DR and Togo, Cameroon blitzed Tunisia 4-1 at home in the playoff after drawing 0-0 in Radès to secure their ticket to sixth World Cup from the last seven. The initial group stage could have gone differently had Togo not fielded an ineligible player in their 2-0 win over the Indomitable Lions, with the three points awarded to the Cameroonians eventually proving decisive after they beat Libya 1-0 at home to win the group. The playoff eventually proved to be comfortable thanks to former Aston Villa midfielder Jean II Makoun’s brace.

Key players:

Samuel Eto’o

It almost goes without saying. Despite a chequered history with the national team comprising of two World Cups, 55 goals, criticism of the “amateur” nature of the country’s setup and fallouts with coaches and former players, Eto’o arrives in Brazil fully aware of the fact that it is likely to be his last major international tournament. His career appeared to be fading away after a national team hiatus and a transfer to Russia but teaming up with José Mourinho again has given the forward a new lease of life as he leads Chelsea’s quest for Premier League and Champions League glory.

Nicolas N’Koulou

The 24-year-old defender has been linked with a move to the Emirates.
The 24-year-old defender has been linked with a move to the Emirates.

The 24-year old defender has formed a strong partnership with Galatasaray’s Aurelién Chedjou in a defence that will be scrutinized by the attacking talents of Neymar, Mandžukić and dos Santos through the group phase. The Marseille man has impressed over the last few years in France and has reportedly attracted interest from Arsenal. Despite a dip in form this term as Marseille struggle, N’Koulou will relish the opportunity to showcase his ability in the greatest shop window of all in June.

Alexandre Song

A move to Barcelona from Arsenal has been a failure for Song but national team coach Volker Finke remains a fan of the 26-year old. A curious player in the sense that he always appears most comfortable going forward despite nominally being a defensive midfielder, he will be expected to provide creativity to a largely functional Cameroon side that is far from free-scoring.

Key Issues

What system best accomodates the key players?

Finke has a challenge on his hands to fit all of his main men into a cohesive starting line-up. An abundance of similar midfield players – Song, Makoun, Stéphane M’Bia, Eyong Enoh and Joel Matip – leaves the coach with the dilemma of choosing which men to move into other areas of the pitch; M’Bia and Matip could play in defence, while Makoun could play as the most advanced midfielder. Further forward, Eto’o is the obvious star but could play from the right, with Fenerbache striker Pierre Webó leading the line. Benjamin Moukandjo started the game against Tunisia but Mainz forward Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting has a more impressive scoring record.

Will Eto’o be kept onside?

Keeping the Chelsea attacker happy will be key to the Indomitable Lions’ hopes and that alone may be Finke’s greatest test. The 2010 campaign was overshadowed by Eto’o public spat with Roger Milla and he recently quit the national team because the setup was not as professional as he would like. At 33, he remains one of the great penalty area strikers and Cameroon can’t afford to lose him to a petty squabble.

David Kennedy, Pundit Arena.

Featured Image By Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom/ABr [CC-BY-3.0-br (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/br/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons. Neymar By Tânia Rêgo/ABr (Agência Brasil) [CC-BY-3.0-br (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/br/deed.en) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons. Luka Modric By Fanny Schertzer (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons. Giovani Dos Santos By Fanny Schertzer (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons. Nicolas N’Koulou By Football.ua [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons.

 

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