The group of the hosts seems like Brazil and three more teams battling for second place, as Mexico and Croatia seem a bit more likely to finish ahead of Cameroon, who seem weaker and weaker with every big tournament they reach.
An interesting statistic regarding the chances of the three other teams comes by looking at the history of World Cup winners: No team that played with Brazil in the group stage has ever gone on to win the World Cup, although no one actually thinks the one of those three nations has a chance to get that far.
It’s been 12 years since Brazil lifted their fifth World Cup. They had the same manager back then, but a very different team. Their attack, with Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho, was their strong suit. Things have changed. Neymar is a big star but he didn’t have the best of seasons with Barcelona. There’s no true striker. Their creative midfielders aren’t exactly in top form. And yet Brazil are heading into the 2014 tournament as favorites, to win on their home soil. Winning the 2013 Confederations Cup has something to do with it. Playing with pretty much the same lineup, relying on an excellent defense and defensive midfield, is the other. Being hosts and simply being Brazil is probably the main thing about this whole view to the future.
In truth, this might not be a Brazil side with players that will go down in the nation’s history, but those things change the minute the World Cup is lifted. At home, with a comfortable group and three teams that Brazil has never lost to when playing against them in the World Cup, anything but the first place will be considered not just a stunning surprise but a semi-tragic moment for a nation that has already seen a World Cup on its home soil going to someone else.
Mexico always make the second round, and their biggest opportunity comes in the form of not playing Brazil in the opening match, which could put Croatia in a lot of trouble. Mexico struggled to make it out of the CONCACAF qualifiers, changing head coaches and coming to Brazil without arguably their best player in Carlos Vela. The central defense is slow and unimpressive, the creative midfield lacks any sort of experience. But there is still more talent on this side than, for example, Cameroon.
Javier Hernandez hardly played this season for Manchester United, which might make him into a super sup early on in this tournament. Raul Jimenez had some magical moments in the qualifiers and might be the hot name for Mexico. The football should be much better than in the qualifiers, and left back Miguel Layún has a rocket for a left foot. If they do win the opening match, we might even see some great football from this side.
There have been quite a few surprises on the opening day of the World Cup – Cameroon against Argentina, Senegal over France. But those African sides were unknown qualities. This Croatian team is different. Very few unknown factors. Luka Modric providing order in the middle. Ivan Rakitic in front with the creativity. Mario Mandzukic, suspended from the first match, supposed to bring the goals. There is no goalkeeper that makes the Croatians feel completely confident and safe. The defense is solid yet mostly old and unspectacular.
Croatia’s biggest problem through the qualifiers was scoring, and their style, which relies on holding the ball through Modric and Rakitic but hardly has speed on the wings, with almost everyone being central midfielders on this side, is going to struggle once again. However, there’s plenty of quality from big European teams. Mateo Kovacic should get a chance to show his talent, and might provide some spark to a side that seems to be OK all around, but lacks plenty of creativity and flair.
Everyone will be looking for Samuel Eto’o to make the difference, but at 33, there’s not a big chance of him being that influential. A promising 2-2 draw with Germany was followed by beating Moldova in an unspiring effort. In short, Cameroon don’t seem like they have the quality necessary of making it out of this group, with three goalkeepers that have a combined 14 appearances for the national team.
Joel Matip of Schalke, Pierre Webo of Fenerbahçe, Maxim Choupo-Moting, Alex Song of Barcelona and Stéphane Mbia of Sevilla can be difference makers for a team that feels like its short on that type of player. There are names on this team, potentially having a very strong spine and on a good day can be very physically imposing on most opponents. However, they struggle creating chances and tend to make mistakes on defense, which means this might not be the most impressive team to watch through the group stage.