On the eve of the long-awaited tournament, Alex Bowmer looks over the main contenders chances
The pressure is on for the hosts, who go into the tournament as favourites. However, an emphatic Confederations Cup win last summer, capped off by a comprehensive victory over Spain, gives them real hope that they can add to their five World Cups. An injury scare to star man Neymar put hearts in mouths, but those fears were quickly allayed and he looks certain to start in the tournament curtain-raiser against Croatia on June 12. Other key players include Thiago Silva (who captains the side and had a sterling season with Paris St-Germain), Bayern Munich’s Dante and a sizeable Premier League contingent including Tottenham’s Paulinho and the Chelsea midfield trio of Oscar, Ramires and Willian.
With the backing of a passionate crowd, Brazil could make home advantage tell.
The reigning champions and winners of three straight major tournaments are arguably not quite feared as much this time around. Even so, their squad is spacked with star names, with the omission of the likes of Isco, Santi Cazorla and Negredo illustrating how fierce the competition for places is. After Atletico Madrid’s stunning title triumph, Diego Costa, Juanfran and Koke were rewarded for their fine form with places in the squad. The addition of Costa is a massive plus, after an incredible campaign which saw him bag 27 goals in just 35 games. Pedro and David Villa also had productive seasons in front of goal, although Fernando Torres once again had a very poor campaign.
While their defeat to Brazil last summer may have taken away their aura of invincibility, they still remain one of the frontrunners for the crown.
After their dreams were brutally crushed by Germany four years ago, Argentina return with renewed vigour. Just nine of the 23 that travelled to South Africa have made the cut this time around, and it is their attacking talent which will attract envious glances from nearly all of their opponents. Despite an injury-hit campaign, Lionel Messi is no slouch, scoring 28 in 31 La Liga games last term. Angel Di Maria is in the form of his life at Real Madrid, while Gonzalo Higuain has successfully spearheaded Napoli over the past year. Aguero, despite his own injury problems, was also prolific this year.
Questions may be asked defensively, given their relative inexperience (Martin Demichelis is the most-capped member of the backline, with 38 caps). However, Demichelis did improve markedly towards the end of the season and his teammate Pablo Zabaleta was also pivotal in Manchester City’s title success, while Ezequiel Garay has courted attention from some of Europe’s biggest clubs. There is also considerable steel in midfield from the likes of Javier Mascherano and Fernando Gago
Argentina have not won football’s showpiece event since 1986, and this might be one of their best chances to break that duck.
At the last few major tournaments, the Germans have been touted as one of the favourites, only to fall late on. They finished third at the last two World Cups (as well as getting to the final in 2002), and reached the final of Euro 2008 and the semi-finals of Euro 2012. Joachim Low’s men will hope that this is the year that they finally turn potential into a trophy.
Preparation has been far from ideal though. Julian Draxler and Benedikt Hoewedes were involved in a car crash at a Mercedes event during a training camp in Italy (although both emerged unhurt). Following this, influential playmaker Marco Reus limped off in the 6-1 friendly win over Armenia, and was subsequently ruled out of the tournament.
However, Germany’s team is still laden with matchwinners. Stalwarts Bastian Schweinsteiger and Lukas Podolski are still going strong, while Miroslav Klose, at the age of 36, recently became Germany’s all-time leading scorer. Some of the midfielders, like Sami Khedira, Mesut Ӧzil or Andre Schurrle, endured disrupted or inconsistent campaigns, but have been important parts of Germany’s recent success. Youngsters like Mario Gӧtze and Christoph Kramer meanwhile enjoyed excellent seasons and will be hoping to contribute heavily to Germany’s first trophy in 18 years.
Marc Wilmots’ side are many people’s ‘dark horse’ for the tournament and it is not hard to see why. With a dizzying array of attacking options, and a defence marshalled by some established names, this could be Belgium’s best time to make a real impression on the world stage. Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku enjoyed outstanding campaigns with Chelsea and Everton respectively, and each was the talisman for their club. Dries Mertens also had a good debut year with Napoli, whilst Adnan Januzaj broke into the Manchester United first team and dazzled in spells.
Others like Marouane Fellaini and Nacer Chadli struggled to impose themselves at their new clubs, but will be hoping to recapture their form of previous seasons. At the back, they are led by the imperious Vincent Kompany, who had an excellent season in City’s title-winning side. Thomas Vermaelen, despite having been in and out of the Arsenal team, is still a valuable member of the squad, while Jan Vertonghen, despite an up-and-down year, possesses a big threat at set-pieces and excellent technical ability.
Having not reached a major tournament since the 2002 World Cup, it would perhaps be unwise to pin your hopes on Les Diables Rouges, but it would certainly not be beyond them to reach the semi-finals, and from there, who knows?
The French have got to be the most unpredictable of tournament teams. They lurch from the superb to the abysmal with bewildering speed. This can be illustrated most clearly when they went from winning the World Cup in 1998, to going out at the group stage without scoring a goal in 2002, to then reaching the final in 2006. There is no doubt that the current French crop is very talented: they just need to prevent the rifts which have affected previous squads.
In Hugo Lloris, they have one of the best goalkeepers in the Premier League. Despite a rather cavalier approach at times, he is an excellent shot-stopper with impressive distribution. Les Bleus also possess one of the best young centre-backs in Raphael Varane and a host of other quality defenders, including Patrice Evra and Laurent Koscielny. The creative talent of Yohan Cabaye is invaluable, whilst the outstanding goalscoring exploits of Antoine Griezmann provide the team with increased menace going forward. In midfield, it’s all about strong running and athleticism from the pairing of Blaise Matuidi and Paul Pogba
It should also be remembered that all three of their strikers – Oliver Giroud, Karim Benzema and Loic Remy – are coming off good seasons with their clubs. If France can get their act together, they could silence a lot of doubters.
Spain’s powers have begun to wane in recent years, and, although Brazil have a solid squad, it does not match up to the teams of old, which took the world by storm. Germany could come very close, but in recent years they have not managed to overcome that final hurdle , and this could prey on the minds of the players while Belgium, despite their incredible potential, are not quite ready to make the leap yet. France could surprise a lot of people, but they do not quite have the attacking prowess of some of their rivals, as demonstrated in qualifying.
Therefore, despite reservations about Argentina’s defence, the plethora of attacking talents at coach Alejandro Sabella’s disposal will prove the difference, and for this reason La Albiceleste will claim the trophy.
Image from gazztoday.com