There are two things we can be sure of looking ahead at this year’s World Cup. One, it’s going to be in Brazil, and two, all of the world’s eyes will be on Brazil’s best player: Neymar.
Group A can be characterized as one of the smallest and quickest out of the eight groups. The clear leader is the host nation, coming in at a solid No. 10 FIFA World Ranking.
On paper, there doesn’t appear to be any clear weakness for this well-rounded and extremely talented side. The Brazilians are led offensively by young stars in Neymar, Oscar and Hulk, but it’s balanced out by an experienced veteran core. Presumable shoe-ins in the starting back four will be Barcelona’s Dani Alves and PSG’s Thiago Silva, and rounding out the defense will be more world-class talent in David Luiz, Dante, Marcelo and Maicon.
Brazil might not have the most skilled midfield, but with Ramires and Paulinho able to move so quickly from defending goals to helping score them, it finds even more reliability in its overall balanced attack.
It may seem at first that Brazil, despite its high potential, lacks the star power to compete with a perennial superpower like Spain or Germany. The 29-year-old striker Robinho has returned to the starting lineup, and former World Player of the Year Kaka may even receive a call-up soon after his recent excellence with AC Milan, but these aren’t the dominant world-class players they once were.
However, we may have already seen a glimpse into a coming shift of power when Brazil dismantled the No. 1 ranked Spanish team in a dominant 3-0 performance in last year’s Confederations Cup Final, thanks to a brilliant performance from Neymar. And, when looking at how far this squad can go, you need not look much further than the 21-year-old Barcelona star; this is going to be his show.
At 5’9” and young enough to be playing college soccer right now, he has had a Messi-like impact on the soccer world in his young career. Already at an insane 46 caps for his national team, Neymar has scored an even more insane 27 goals. To put this mark in perspective, veteran goalscorer Robinho, formerly one of the most sought after strikers on the market, has the same 27 goals in 92 caps. That’s in twice as many appearances.
Coming in with a No. 21 World Ranking, Mexico has recently been a team in disarray. After so much had been made of their dominance at home in World Cup Qualifying, their inability to score goals and win games nearly kept the Mexicans out of the tournament altogether. After an embarrassing 2-1 loss to Honduras last year, Head Coach “Chepo” de la Torre was fired, giving Miguel Herrera a chance to bring his country to the World Cup. Mexico responded to the coaching change, culminating in a 9-3 aggregate victory over New Zealand in a playoff for the 32nd and final World Cup berth.
Leading the way for Mexico is even more youth and quickness. As he was four years ago, Manchester United’s Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez will be a focal point for the offense. Hernandez, at 25 years old, has 35 goals in 57 appearances for his national team.
The offense will be orchestrated by another small forward in Giovani dos Santos. The 24-year-old has been inconsistent at times but he has shined in big games in the past, in particular the 2011 Gold Cup Final against the United States. Mexico may only go as far as dos Santos can carry them.
Although they aren’t the most attractive team in the tournament, Croatia may surprise many with its No. 16 world ranking. With big name players in Bayern Munich’s Mario Mandzukic and Real Madrid’s Luka Modric, Croatia is a tough team for anyone to handle. Defensively, the Croatians are led by their captain Darijo Srna, whose 21 goals and 110 caps are impressive for any center back in the world.
Rounding out Group A is Cameroon, one of the World Cup’s five African teams. While it may be one of the least talented sides in the tournament, clocking in at No. 50 in the world rankings, it will still be fun to watch what happens with Samuel Eto’o in what may be his final World Cup. The Cameroonian captain and former Barcelona star has shown great form recently in his current stint with Chelsea, scoring a hat trick against defending EPL champion Manchester United in his team’s last outing. Eto’o’s 55 goals and 114 caps are far and away the most impressive numbers of any player on his team, with just one other player having double-digit career goals internationally.
Group A won’t be the most talented or fun group to watch, but everyone will have their eyes on Brazil. The Brazilians have history on their side, as there has only ever been one host nation that didn’t make it out of the group stage. That team was South Africa, who not so coincidentally had the lowest national ranking of any host team ever.
With Brazil set to dominate the group, it should be interesting to see if Mexico can pull themselves together and possibly upset Croatia and advance to the knockout stages. We’ll just have to wait and see.