It's a Knockaert

The ramblings of a football obsessive and Game of Thrones nerd.

World Cup Preview and Predictions

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Only a few more days until the biggest event in sport finally gets under way in Brazil, and excitement is going through the roof. Multiple football matches every single day for a month, almost all the world’s superstars on display, and the excitement of uncovering the next big thing – nothing beats the World Cup. So here are my predictions for how the tournament will play out, immortalised forever on the internet for future mockery/admiration.

Group A

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Brazil

The hosts. The most successful nation in the history of the competition. The world’s most exciting young player. The pressure is all on Brazil to deliver nothing less than the trophy, and they certainly seem well equipped to do it. They have the flair and creativity you would expect in the established attacking trident of Neymar, Oscar and Hulk, and a very solid defence featuring Thiago Silva, probably the world’s best central defender. If they have any weakness it is the lack of a truly world class striker, but Fred is still a force to be reckoned with, and a decent bet for the Golden Boot winner. There was a question mark about the lack of competitive matches in the last few years, as they have not had to play qualifiers for this tournament, but their comfortable victory at last year’s Confederations Cup has dispelled those worries. They should have no trouble topping this group – so long as nerves don’t get to them.

Cameroon

Despite having one of the most talented squads of all the African nations, Cameroon have been very underwhelming in recent years. They lost all 3 games at South Africa 2010, and they failed to qualify for the last 2 African Cup of Nations tournaments. Their talisman forward Samuel Eto’o is no longer the force he was, but they have several decent defensive players, such as midfielder Alex Song and defenders Nicolas N’Koulou and Aurelien Chedjou. They also have pretty awful team spirit, with them refusing to board their plane to Brazil due to a row over bonuses. Don’t count them out, but they are fairly unlikely to make it through to the next round.

Croatia

Croatia struggle their way through qualifying, losing both games against Scotland, but they have made it to Brazil and have a team that seems to get better every tournament. The midfield is bursting with creativity thanks to Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Mateo Kovacic, and up front they have Mario Mandzukic, who scored 3 times at Euro 2012 and is set to be one of the most in-demand strikers in Europe this summer. They are less impressive defensively however, and lack any decent wingers. It should be a straight shoot-out between them and Mexico for second place in the group.

Mexico

Mexico always seems to do alright at the World Cup – they have reached the last 16 in the last 5 tournaments – but they are lucky to have even qualified for this tournament. They finished 4th in their qualifying group, their worst result in history, and had to get through a playoff with New Zealand to reach Brazil, which they won 9-3 on aggregate. They have had 4 managers in the last 6 months, and probably the best Mexican player, Carlos Vela, remains absent from their squad, after a six month suspension for throwing a wild party in 2010 after a friendly with Ecuador. Star man Javier Hernandez barely plays these days for Manchester United, but Giovani Dos Santos had a good season with Villarreal. There is also late bloomer Oribe Peralta, one of the most prolific strikers outside of Europe. If they fix the numerous problems from qualifying, they could extend their run of last 16 finishes, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

Prediction:

1. Brazil

2. Croatia

3. Mexico

4. Cameroon

Group B

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Australia

The ‘other team’ in an otherwise incredible strong group, Australia really don’t stand much of a chance. Tim Cahill continues to defy his years, recently becoming the Socceroo’s top scorer. To make matters worse, their player of the year Robbie Kruse is missing the tournament with torn knee ligaments. However, a trademark of their qualifying campaign was scoring late goals, and that kind of never-say-die attitude will do them well in a group in which they are likely to be the whipping boys.

Chile

A rapidly improving nation in recent years, Chile must be cursing their luck to have been drawn into this strong group, otherwise they would have been nailed-on to reach the last 16. However, they are more than capable of pushing Spain and Holland all the way. They play an energetic, physical style of football that is capable of disrupting their European rival’s patient passing football. Star men Alexis Sanchez and Arturo Vidal have had excellent seasons. However they have a terrible disciplinary record, and the shortage of players at the back can leave them exposed.

Holland

After being arguably the best team at the 2010 World Cup, losing a third final to Spain, Holland haven’t really pushed on from that. They had a catastrophic Euro 2012, losing all 3 group games, but they had an easy time in qualification, gaining 28 points from a possible 30. They are taking a relatively young squad to Brazil, but the main men are still the experienced and world-class talents of Arjen Robben and Robin Van Persie. As always, the defence is the weak point. They have no trouble disposing of weaker sides, but come up short against the world’s best. This tournament is beyond them, but with so many promising youngsters, they should return to threaten at future tournaments.

Spain

The holders of the World Cup, and having won the last 3 major international tournaments they played in, Spain are rightfully one of the favourites. A squad bursting with world class midfielders, a solid defence, and many experienced players who have won it all in the game, no team will be happy about facing them. However, there is a perception that Spain’s tiki-taka style of play is outdated, and that teams now know how to beat them – the 7-0 demolition of Barcelona in last season’s Champions League, and their 3-0 loss to Brazil at last year’s Confederations Cup are cited as examples of this. However, they have a new weapon in their squad – Diego Costa. The antithesis of tiki-taka football, Costa is a physical, often violent centre forward, who offers them a completely new way to play. The question is though, will he even play, or will they play a midfielder such as Cesc Fabregas up front?

Prediction:

1. Spain

2. Holland

3. Chile

4. Australia

Group C

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Colombia

Appearing in their first World Cup finals for 16 years, Colombia finished second in the South America qualifying and are a force to be reckoned with in Brazil. Much of the news surrounding them in the build up has been the loss of star man Radamel Falcao to injury, but even without him they have an excellent squad that should win this group. Prolific strikers such as Jackson Martinez, Adrian Ramos and Carlos Bacca will fill Falcao’s role, and they have pace and creativity in midfield with Juan Cuadrado, James Rodriguez, Fredy Guarin and Juan Quintero. The defence is decent if not spectacular, their weakness is a history of unprofessionalism. The manager has brought in a psychiatrist to help concentration levels, and chosen a training camp away from journalists. Colombia have enough talent to win this group.

Greece

Greece continue to reach tournament finals ahead of more talented teams due to their defensive, difficult to break down football. They shocked the world by winning Euro 2004, and you feel that they have at least one shock win in them per tournament. No one will enjoy playing against them, or watching them for that matter. Star striker Kostas Mitroglou is their biggest hope for goals, but he has hardly played in the last 6 months as Fulham. They are the outsiders in this group, but that is a role they will relish.

Ivory Coast

The last chance for this golden generation to achieve something on the biggest stage, Ivory Coast have been unlucky to be drawn in difficult groups in the last 2 World Cups, but this time round they have every chance of progressing from the group stage. It is certainly the last World Cup for talisman Didier Drogba, and he will be determined to go out with a bang. Yaya Toure cemented his place as one of the best midfielders in the world this season, and they have pace as well through Gervinho and Serge Aurier. Other than Drogba, they have other prolific strikers like Wilfried Bony and Lacina Traore. They shouldn’t struggle to score goals, but the real mission will be to keep it tight at the other end. If they can, they will qualify.

Japan

Japan are a rapidly evolving footballing nation, and there are few better nations in the world at keeping the ball. They have excellent creative players like Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda, and Shinji Okazaki is a decent Bundesliga striker. They took part in the best game of the Confederations Cup last year, losing 4-3 to Italy, showing they are capable of giving anyone a game. They have played together for years, and won the Asian Cup in 2011. They have no lack of self belief, setting themselves the target of reaching the semi finals.

Prediction

1. Colombia

2. Ivory Coast

3. Japan

4. Greece

Group D

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Costa Rica

In a group with 7 World Cups between them, Costa Rica are the odd ones out. When the star player was loaned out by Fulham in a season they got relegated, you know you don’t stand much of a chance against the likes of Luis Suarez and Wayne Rooney. Arsenal’s Joel Campbell, on loan at Olympiakos, is key to their counter-attacking football, with a 5-4-1 formation most likely to be used. The excellent form of goalkeeper Keylor Navas could be crucial.

England

For once, expectations amongst England fans are low. However, we hadn’t been drawn in such a pig of a group, it is entirely possible England could have reached their normal target of the quarter finals. There are lots of promising youngsters eager to impress, and a Liverpool connection that could be beneficial, especially when the Reds had such a good season. While Uruguay are most likely to top the group, it is almost to close to call between England and Italy for second place. The fact that Italy outplayed us so emphatically at Euro 2012 leads me to believe they we won’t progress past the group stage, but the future is bright for this group of players.

Italy

Italy had a very good Euro 2012, reaching the final before being demolished by a rampant Spain, and had no trouble qualifying for this tournament. Much attention is on the fact they haven’t won a match since September 2013, but the Azzurri are historically poor in friendlies. They have a blend of experience in Pirlo, Buffon and Chiellini, and outstanding young players such as Ciro Immobile, Marco Verratti and Lorenzo Insigne. As always, much pressure will be on Mario Balotelli, but for me he shouldn’t even be starting for Italy, as Giuseppe Rossi is their best option up front – but he has been left at home. Negating the stereotype, they are a little dodgy in defence, and play nice attacking football.

Uruguay

The current holders of the Copa America should not be underestimated. They won the last World Cup to be held in Brazil, stunning the hosts in the final, and are dreaming of repeating the feat. The front pair of Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani is the best in football, and defender Diego Godin has had the season of his life. They reached the semi-finals of the last World Cup, although they made hard work of qualifying this time round, having to go through a playoff. If Suarez is fully fit, I make them favourites to win this group.

Prediction

1. Uruguay

2. Italy

3. England

4. Costa Rica

Group E

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Ecuador

Ecuador’s qualifying campaign was marred by the shocking death of star striker Christian Benitez of heart failure, and it has given their squad a massive sense of togetherness. During qualifying they were unbeaten at home, largely due to playing their games 2,800 metres above sea level, an advantage that won’t be available in Brazil. They have 2 very fast and tricky wingers in Antonio Valencia and Jefferson Montero, and forward Felipe Caicedo is a powerhouse who scored 7 in qualifying.

France

After complete meltdown and mutiny in 2010, France go into this tournament with less expectation but more reason to be optimistic for a long time. Despite coming so close to being knocked out of the playoffs by Ukraine, they managed to salvage it and won their most recent friendly 8-0 – albeit against Jamaica, but Benzema and Giroud being in confident mood can be only helpful. They have also left out Samir Nasri, who was considered a disruptive influence, meaning less chance of infighting. They have also been drawn in the weakest group, giving them an excellent chance of reaching the last 16, or maybe the quarter finals. The loss of Franck Ribery is a blow, but they have a plethora of young talents like Pogba, Griezmann and Varane.

Honduras

Honduras have reached their second consecutive World Cup, and since reaching the second round looks a little beyond them, the aim is simply to achieve their first win at a finals. Lacking any real stars, they depend on a simple 4-4-2 and collective effort, as seen in the recent friendly draw with England. Strikers Bengtson and Costly scored 16 in 16 between them in qualifying, so don’t rule out the chance of them nicking a few goals on the break.

Switzerland

Switzerland being one of the 8 seeded teams perplexed many, but they actually have quite a decent squad with many promising young players. Xherdan Shaqiri of Bayern is the main man, and they have 2 excellent full-backs in Ricardo Rodriguez and Stephan Lichtsteiner. Diego Benaglio is a top keeper, and there is plenty of steel in midfield with Gokhan Inler and Valon Behrami. Should they manage to top the group, the quarter finals are a realistic possibility, but the chances are their tournament will end against Argentina in the last 16.

Prediction

1. France

2. Switzerland

3. Ecuador

4. Honduras

Group F

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Argentina

It’s 50/50 with most people as to who they’re tipping to win the World Cup –  Brazil or Argentina. With the best selection of attacking players in the world, and a defence that is better than it has been at recent tournaments, so it would be a brave man to bet against them claiming their third trophy. If the two South American rivals should win all their games, it will lead to a final between the two of them, an absolutely thrilling prospect. Argentina’s front three of Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain and Lionel Messi should score goals in abundance, which makes up for the less than stellar defence. Angel Di Maria in midfield is one of the most in-form players in Europe, while Javier Mascherano and Fernando Gago protect the defence. Defending set pieces is a weakness, which is why natural centre back Marcos Rojo plays at left back. Lionel Messi has yet to set a World Cup alight, and he won’t have a better chance than now.

Bosnia

After falling at the final hurdle of the playoffs during qualifying, Bosnia have finally qualified for their first competition finals, and they won’t be happy to just make up the numbers. They are the only debutants at this World Cup and they will be very fired up to do well. The front pairing of Dzeko and Ibisevic was prolific in qualifying, Miralem Pjanic and Senad Lulic are excellent midfielders, and Asmir Begovic is a top keeper. The defence is the weak point, and a real lack of depth – Dzeko and Ibisevic are the only strikers the manager has ever called up. Get a result against Nigeria, and the last 16 is a realistic aim.

Iran

Probably the biggest unknown quantity at the World Cup, Iran will set out to defend and try to snatch a goal on the counter attack. They have the potential to really frustrate the more illustrious teams in their group. Preparation for the tournament has been disrupted as it has been difficult arranging friendlies. Manager Carlos Queiroz has plenty of top-level experience from his time at Manchester United and Portugal. He works his players hard but protects them in public as well.

Nigeria

The current African champions will look to improve on their disappointing 2010 campaign. Jon Obi Mikel, used as a holding midfielder by Chelsea, is the main creative force, while Emmanuel Emenike is a prolific and powerful striker. There are pacey widemen in Victor Moses and Ahmed Musa to provide him plenty of chances. Very tough to call whether they or Bosnia will go through behind Argentina.

Prediction

1. Argentina

2. Bosnia

3. Nigeria

4. Iran

Group G

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Germany

After coming so close to glory at the last 4 tournaments, there is a lot of pressure on Germany to go all the way this time. The injury to Marco Reus, one of the stars of the Bundesliga season, is a blow but they still have a very talented squad, with the only real issue being who plays up front. Mario Gomez has been injured all season and misses out, while Miroslav Klose is now 36. Schurrle, Muller, Podolski and Gotze are other options, and it seems as though Muller will get the nod –  he has the striker’s ability to be in the right place at the right time. The defence is looking solid, and Neuer is one of the world’s best keepers. Germany have the talent to go all the way, and anything less than semi finals will be seen as failure. They have also lost just once since August 2012, when a reserve team lost to the USA. There are some worries that the player’s won’t be able to handle the conditions as well. A lot of key players also struggled with injury and loss of form, including Mesut Ozil.

Ghana

Ghana have done well at the last 2 World Cups, but this group looks a little too difficult for them. Key players like Michael Essien are declining, but they still have players at top European clubs such as Kwadwo Asamoah, Kevin-Prince Boateng and Andre Ayew. Asamoah Gyan has been scoring goals by the bucketload, albeit in Qatar. They will give all three teams in the group a difficult game, and may even snatch a few good results, but it is hard to see them making it to the last 16 again.

Portugal

Portugal are a team that always reach the later stages of tournaments, without realistically threatening to win. Cristiano Ronaldo is in the form of his life however, and his performance in the playoff against Sweden was absolutely incredible. The rest of the team isn’t bad, but won’t really scare the real contenders for the trophy. In particular, they lack anything close to a decent striker. They should be able to get through this group, and beating – most likely – Belgium in the next round isn’t out of the question either.

USA

The USA are no mugs, but they really are up against it in this group. Qualifying from it would be a pretty monumental shock. Key players like Dempsey and Bradley have abandoned European football for the easy option of the MLS, while key striker Jozy Altidore had a pretty terrible season. They do have the exciting young talent Julian Green of Bayern Munich, who chose to represent the US over Germany. A big talking point is the exclusion of Landon Donovan, who has spearheaded their attack for over a decade. The US could possible have snuck their way through a weaker group, but it’s pretty unlikely they will oust Germany or Portugal.

Prediction

1. Germany

2. Portugal

3. Ghana

4. USA

Group H

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Algeria

Of all the African sides, Algeria are best placed to have a good World Cup, with exciting players like Sofiane Feghouli, Nabil Bentaleb, Saphir Taider and Leicester City’s very own Riyad Mahrez. Their group is one of the weakest – while Belgium should win it, second place is very much up for grabs. Valencia’s Feghouli is the star man, creating many chances for his team mates with his excellent passing and skill. The main problem is the lack of a decent goalkeeper – 6 of the 7 goals conceded during qualifying were from set pieces, mainly due to individual blunders. Key defender Bougherra is also on the wane.

Belgium

They’re finally here. Belgium have seemingly come out of nowhere to become one of the most talented nations in football, and they’ve finally reached their first competition finals since 2002. Now, can they live up to the considerable hype? Their squad is made up of a few genuine world class players like Eden Hazard, Thibaut Courtois and Kompany, and youngsters with the potential to become just as good, including Romelu Lukuku. Adnan Januzaj and Kevin de Bruyne. They have many quality midfielders and wingers that can’t fit into the starting XI, meaning they have many options from the bench. The midfield is solid, but they lack a decent striking alternative if Lukaku gets injured, with Christian Benteke missing the tournament. Another problem is that they play natural centre backs at full back due to the lack of decent options there. There is also the chance that the pressure could be too much – they are expected to go far in this tournament, and it is a fairly young team – can they handle the pressure?

Russia

Russia were expected to do well in Euro 2012, but capitulated horrible and crashed out in the group stage. Capello has come in as manager, and will want to do better with Russia than he did with England in 2010. An advantage is that their 2 centre-backs and goalkeeper Akinfeev all play together at CSKA Moscow, and have been doing so for a long time. However, key midfielder Roman Shirokov is ruled out with injury, meaning a lot of pressure is on the fairly young Alan Dzagoev. Striker Aleksandr Kerzhakov looked very unimpressive in 2012. This group isn’t too impressive, so they should get through, before being eliminated by Germany or possible Portugal.

South Korea

World Cup regulars South Korea made suprisingly hard work of qualification, only finishing above Uzbekistan on goal difference. Korea are a fast, attacking team who can be dazzling to watch. Leverkusen’s Son Heung-Min is the main man at only 22, and will be the main threat during their counter attacks. The team is young but has a good amount of European experience. However, the defence and goalkeeper are nothing special.

Prediction

1. Belgium

2. Russia

3. Algeria

4. South Korea

Knockout Rounds

Here’s how I see the latter rounds unfolding. (click to enlarge)

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I’m predicting a final between South America’s biggest rivals, and that hosts Brazil won’t choke on the immense pressure they are under. I also see France, Belgium and Colombia all reaching the quarter finals, which would be a decent result for each of them. Whatever happens, it’s going to be an amazing World Cup.

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