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World Cup Preview 2014

After winning the past three major international events (Euro 2008, World Cup 2010, Euro 2012)

Spain returns with hopes of their second World Cup victory in the country's history. The usual powerhouses are also returning like the host nation, Brazil, who opens play up against Croatia, Germany and Italy along with Netherlands, the runner-up in South Africa in 2010. Play will begin Thursday and this year will sure to have its fair share of late game heroics, upsets and incredible moments.

Group A
Brazil: The hosts will be favored by many to land their sixth World Cup title, led by explosive scorer Neymar and a fabulous defense that includes Dani Alves and Thiago Silva. This team won the Confederations Cup in 2013, thanks to great play from Neymar (four goals in tournament) and that defense, which was dominant in the event. Along with Oscar and Paulinho, Brazil's explosive offense should easily carry them past the group stage and deep into the Cup.
Croatia: One of the stingiest defensive teams in this year's World Cup, Croatia begins its action against Brazil and could give them some issues. Even though they won't score often, they play smart and have a couple rangy midfielders, including Luka Modric and Mateo Kovacic.
Mexico: "El Tri" hopes they have moved past a relatively disastrous qualifying slate, in which they struggled through with four different managers. Back is well known Manchester United playmaker Javier (Chicharito) Hernández and recognizable veteran leader Rafael Marquez, a defensive stalwart. Oribe Peralta will have to show up in a big way, he was their most consistent scorer in qualifying matches.
Cameroon: Quietly, the Indomitable Lions have grown into one of the most consistently strong African countries, playing in their seventh World Cup this Brazil. Star scorer Samuel Eto'o is back, though the 33-year-old has lost some of his speed and playmaking prowess. Maxim Choupo-Moting will have to step up and provide Cameroon with a more dangerous offensive weapon.
Moving On: Brazil, Croatia

Group B
Spain: Much of "La Furia Roja" returns to the World Cup like Andrés Iniesta, midfielder Xavi and goalkeeper Iker Casillas, who was dominant down the stretch in South Africa. Everybody will be quick to point out how offensively potent Spain is, but they won the World Cup in 2010, mainly based on a stout defense. Defender Sergio Ramos can make a ton of important defensive plays and Casillas is among the best goalkeepers in the world. Unless complete disaster falls upon them, Spain is a pretty sure bet to advance to at least the knockout stage.
Netherlands: The Dutch will meet Spain, whom they lost to in the exciting final of the 2010 World Cup, on June 13th, a match that could decide who wins this group. The Dutch possess dangerous weapons in Robin Van Persie and Arjen Robben, but both arrive in Brazil aged and dinged up. The offense was a major strength in 2010, but the defense has been a major question mark and a consistent top notch goalkeeper has yet to emerge in big matches.
Chile: With Spain and the Netherlands, many will forget about the sneaky Chileans, who advanced to the knockout stage in 2010 before an embarrassing loss to Brazil. Barcelona forward Alexis Sánchez is the nation's top talent and he will have to step up big time. Overall, Chile is plenty experienced and could sneak into the knockout stage for the second straight World Cup.
Australia: And then there is Australia. The "Socceroos" are led by veteran midfielder Tim Cahill but he remains one of their few offensive weapons. Australia ran through Asian qualifying but they haven't proven themselves as any type of threat on the world stage.
Moving On: Spain, Netherlands

Group C
Ivory Coast: Long talked about as the most talented country in Africa, the window of opportunity is closing for Ivory Coast. They are still the highest-ranked team inside the continent and still have some notable names: Yaya Touré and Didier Drogba, but both are aging and have struggled in their World Cup appearances. Midfielder Didier Zokora will be counted on, he is a young, exciting playmaker, but he has also struggled on the world stage.
Colombia: Still one of the strongest teams in South America and the world, it has been a tough couple of months for Colombia, learning their superstar, Radamel Falcao, had torn his ACL. He was left off of their 23-man roster, leaving a big hole at striker. Forward Jackson Martinez is a fun player to watch with quick feet and speed but filling Falcao's shoes will be extremely difficult. Colombia should still be fun to watch and should make it out of the group stage, but beyond that is a real question now.
Greece: The Greeks won't wow you with their talent or with their offense, they win matches on grit and defense. Midfielder Giorgos Karagounis is the most recognizable name on Greece, he was one of the big contributors to the country when they won Euro 2004. With their excellent defense, Greece should be able to stick with some of the more talented teams in this event and maybe surprise some people.
Japan: Experience is not an issue for the Japanese, who should have a pretty potent offensive attack. Keisuke Honda is a gifted playmaker, while Shinji Okazaki could have a big World Cup, he has been great in the Bundesliga all season. If the defense holds up, the "Samurai Blue" could also advance to the knockout stage in what is a very deep group.
Moving On: Japan, Colombia

Group D
Uruguay: Led by dangerous scorer Diego Forlan, Uruguay was a pretty surprising semifinalist in South Africa. Forlan is back for Brazil but it is Luis Suárez who should lead the way this time around for "La Celeste". Suárez has had his fair share of crazy and questionable moments but he led the Premier League in goals with Liverpool. Along with Forlan and Suárez, Edinson Cavani is sure to make plays, giving Uruguay one of the most dangerous offenses in the world.
Costa Rica: The longshot of this group is for sure Costa Rica, a defensively minded team that was fantastic near the end of qualifying. This group is filled with heavyweights of soccer on the international level, but don't let Costa Rica fool you, they will compete. Forward Joel Campbell hopes to lead the way for the Ticos offensively.
England: Experience is surprisingly an issue for England, who will be very young offensively. Wayne Rooney is one of soccer's biggest names but he has yet to score in any World Cup appearances. Rooney is an aggressive attacker at times but can also space things out and drop one in from deep; he is too dangerous of a goal scorer not to get one this time around. Goalkeeper Joe Hart is world-class, but the defense surrounding him has been shaky.
Italy: After a rather underwhelming appearance at South Africa in 2010, trying to defend their title earned in '06, the Italians have added some real firepower. It begins with the uber-talented Mario Balotelli, a striker who can drive you crazy at times with his dumb decisions but can then turn around and make a spectacular play. Ciro Immobile will have to be counted on, he has shown a real ability to score from anywhere. In goal, steady Gianluigi Buffon is back for what could be his last World Cup.
Moving On: Italy, Uruguay

Group E
Switzerland: Traditionally, Switzerland has been a rather unexciting team. That should change this World Cup, as the Swiss bring in a number of young stars including Grant Xhaka and Valentin Stocker. Veteran Steve von Bergen will make a number of impact plays behind Switzerland's talented front line. With their high pressure, attacking mindset, the Swiss should easily advance to the knockout stage and could easily win the group.
France: "Les Bleus" is talented enough to do things in this World Cup, even though they had a shaky route getting here. Karim Benzema is one of the most underrated players in Europe, a playmaking talent from Real Madrid. Midfielder Paul Pogba is a playmaking star with speed, stamina and the ability to do so many different things. In goal, Hugo Lloris will man the fort, a quality vet who is very consistent. After the embarrassing 2010 World Cup, France is eager to make a name for themselves again and luckily they were gifted with perhaps the weakest group in this year's Cup.
Ecuador: They may be the weakest South American team in Brazil, but Ecuador should still put up a fight. Forward Felipe Caicedo and midfielder Antonio Valencia lead the way for "La Tri", who has proven they can score in bunches. But, an extremely weak defense is their kryptonite and they lack the consistency to make too much noise in this group.
Honduras: Honduras will hope to gain some points with the help of a number of veterans including rock solid Wilson Palacios, who is always able to make plays. Roger Espinoza will also be counted on to step up, but the firepower offensively is just a major issue. Honduras will have a big challenge even in this soft group.
Moving On: France, Switzerland

Lionel Messi
Group F
Argentina: He is among the best players in the world, but Lionel Messi has yet to bring home a title to Argentina in the World Cup. With an abundance of playmakers surrounding him and a pretty weak group, this could be his year. Striker Gonzalo Higuaín will put in a goal or two and Sergio Aguero has always been a consistent option for Manchester City. If Messi is in top form, Argentina could easily make a very deep run.
Iran: This Iranian team will be young on the pitch but manager Carlos Queiroz has done a great job. Led by MLS playmaker Steven Beitashour and dangerous forward Karim Ansarifad, Iran should not be overlooked. 20-year-old Alireza Jahanbakhsh could make a name for himself in this World Cup, the winger has a chance to really break out. Off the field issues still loom for Iran, but the team could easily be a dark horse.
Nigeria: The Super Eagles are riding a hot streak, winning the 2013 African Cup of Nations and then following it up with an undefeated qualifying performance. Nigeria has a solid core of veterans, including superb goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama and midfielder John Obi Mikel. Nigeria is a safe bet to move into the knockout stage; they will play smart and consistent and should be able to find points against both Iran and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Bosnia and Herzegovina: A nation that has been ripped apart by wars and ethnic issues since World War II, Bosnia and Herzegovina is excited to show their improvement on the soccer pitch. Their main star is Edin Dzeko, a Manchester City product who has incredible range and is fun to watch with the ball. Roma's Miralem Pjanic and a number of other playmaking attackers can put pressure on opposing defenses and Bosnia and Herzegovina should put up goals. If their defense can perform pretty well, the Dragons could surprise and survive the group stage.
Moving On: Argentina, Nigeria

Group G
Germany: Even in the "Group of Death" Germany should be a pretty favorable selection to move on. The Germans are led by Mesut Ozil, an Arsenal midfielder with a nose for the ball and aggressive Bastian Schweinsteiger is an important piece to the puzzle. Miroslav Klose, one of the premier World Cup goal scorers of this generation, is approaching the end of the road but he is still good for some great plays. Though, the Germans were dealt a tough blow on Saturday, when talented midfielder Marco Reus was diagnosed with a torn ligament, he will not participate.
Portugal: While there is a lot of pressure on Lionel Messi and Wayne Rooney, perhaps the most in this World Cup is reserved for Portugal. Cristiano Ronaldo continues to be dominant but the team continues to struggle, due to the lack of goal-scoring surrounding the superstar. Midfielder Raul Meireles and others will have to step up big time. Portugal should be able to advance into the knockout stage, but beyond that is a question.
Ghana: People will be quick to pluck Ghana out of the 16 in the second round, but the Black Stars were quarterfinalists last year and have knocked the United States out of the last two World Cups. A healthy Michael Essien is very dangerous and forward Asamoah Gyan can look unstoppable at times. The defenses lacks consistency but Ghana should be able to compete, even against two major European powers.
United States: It came as a major surprise to many when U.S. star Landon Donovan was left off of the United States' World Cup roster. Other than him, much of the usual playmakers return, including Clint Dempsey and inconsistent but talented scorer Jozy Altidore. Goalkeeper Tim Howard is solid in net but the defense is young and inexperienced. Perhaps in another group, the U.S. might have a great chance to advance, but not in this one.
Moving On: Germany, Portugal

Group H
Belgium: Quietly, Belgium has turned into a very dangerous team in Europe despite not making a World Cup appearance in 2006 nor 2010. They have a deep and talented roster, including playmaker Eden Hazard and experienced Vincent Kompany. Along with rising 19-year-old Adnan Januzaj, the Red Devils should definitely advance past the group stage.
Algeria: The Fennec Foxes will be playing in their second straight World Cup, and could surprise some casual fans. Dangerous goal scorer Islam Slimani could be looking for a breakout showing and left back Faouzi Ghoulam is a stout defender. Remember, this team gave the United States and England real troubles in 2010 and they could do much the same in Brazil to the rest of Group H.
Russia: After missing out on the World Cup in 2010 and a weak showing in Euro 2012, Russia is eager to prove they are still a soccer power. A great defensive team, the Russians will be led by A;eksandr Kerzhakov and new coach Fabio Capello, who hopes to get this team to make smarter decisions. It is risky, but when the Russians are playing well they are tough to beat, which is why I have them advancing.
South Korea: The South Koreans will hope to be smart with the ball and surprise people with scoring threat Son Hueng-min, a gifted midfielder. They are a possession team but the defense needs work, they were outworked a lot in qualifiers, a worrying sign for a team that isn't very talented in the back.
Moving On: Belgium, Russia

Semis: Germany defeats Brazil and Spain defeats Belgium
Final: Germany defeats Spain
It is a risky move picking the Germans, considering their aging scorers and the loss of important midfielder Marco Reus. But, the Germans are always a consistent contender who can get the job done in big matches and it is tough to imagine, "La Furia Roja" snatching up yet another trophy with all the talented teams in the world.

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