Back on December 6, 2013, when the World Cup 2014 brackets were revealed, we made our best guesses about the outcome of the tournament, allowing ourselves an out as the opening day drew nearer. Today, as the tournament’s first game is played later this afternoon, we revisit our predictions to encompass the changes that have occurred over the past six months.
Brazil is grouped with Croatia, Mexico, and Cameroon and already there have been changes in the teams of this group. Mexico, who had qualified via a play-off, and then only because of the USA’s last minute victory over Panama, has come full circle and seems poised to realize their perennial potential despite the injury loss of Luis Montes. Their mix of domestic and international stars has mostly meshed and the uncertainties of 2013 now feel something from a distant past, as the team recorded positive results against most adversaries.
Though I still think Brazil and Croatia will advance, Mexico now seems a more formidable opponent for Croatia and should give them a run for the second slot. Prediction: 1. Brazil, 2. Croatia.
Spain, Holland, Chile, and Cameroon, have as tough a group as do the USA and England, for example, since the first three teams in this group are all potential contenders to progress. Having seen all of these teams play recent friendlies though, there seems to be a large gap between Spain and the rest. The confidence the Spaniards projected on Saturday coupled with the same feeling projected by Chile, albeit at a lower level of competence, still seems to indicate these will be the teams to progress with Chile the surprise. What little the Dutch have shown may not be indicative of what they will be able to put together come tournament time, but they really have not had back to back decent outings in quite some time and the losses of Kevin Strootman and Rafael ven der Vaart have not helped. I don't see them being as strong a factor as they should in this group. Prediction: 1. Spain, 2. Chile.
Colombia, Ivory Coast, Greece, and Japan comprise a competitive group but with the South Americans and Africans as the better sides. The key change here is the absence of Radamel Falcao. That single absence will tip the scales against the Colombians as they move deeper into the tournament, but in this group it should not be a determining factor. The Ivory Coast are slowly coming together and their wily generation of stars is very aware of their potential and that ticking clock. The Greeks and Japanese, though well managed and disciplined sides, simply have not shown they have enough firepower to overcome the top two teams. Prediction: 1. Colombia, 2. Ivory Coast.
In a group that includes Italy, Uruguay, England, and Costa Rica, the progressing sides seemed straightforward six months ago. But today, even with what has recently looked like a renewed desire on the Uruguayans’ part, their team simply is not the same without Suarez. The latest news is that he will not be fit in time for their second match, the one against England, and that is the critical game of the group.For minnows Costa Rica the loss of Alvaro Saborio is crushing given the odds they are facing. Unfortunately, for a team that has been playing well in CONCACAF, it may well be that the Central Americans have just become a goal differential punching bag.
On the Italian sided the loss of Riccardo Montolivo is a blow that will cost the Azurri down the line but not so much at the group stage. So, positing as in gear a side as the Azurri showed against Fluminense, and a Suarez-less Uruguay for at least their first two matches, the group’s second slot becomes more competitive, while Italy seems poised to take the top slot now.
Ironically neither of the other two teams seem strong enough to capitalize on this opportunity. The top three teams should all beat Costa Rica and Italy will beat England. It now seems likely England and Uruguay will draw, which leaves the Italy-Uruguay tie as the deciding match. It is likely Suarez will be ready, if not in top form, by then, and with him Uruguay will get the needed point to move ahead of England, and Italy will be playing to their defensive strength as they will secure first place with a win or a tie. Prediction: 1. Italy, 2. Uruguay.
A fairly balanced group still has France and Ecuador as the better sides over seeded Switzerland and minnows Honduras. The news here is Franck Ribery’s absence and without him the team is simply not much stronger than their major group opponents. Ecuador’s injury losses are not at the same level as the French’s but they too have been wounded. Switzerland, though, has done nothing to indicate they will be able to take advantage of their opponents’ run of bad luck.
All that said, Ecuador is the team that has gained the upper hand here and though I see a tougher group now, the French and Ecuadoreans seem too strong and experienced for the other two teams. Ultimately, the size, physical condition, and cohesiveness of the Ecuadoreans, playing in familiar environs, wins out. Prediction: 1. Ecuador, 2. France.
This is the tournament’s easiest group and the Argentines should be able to win easily while resting most all of their stars. The fun here will see who takes second place and the team who seems to have reached South America in better form is Bosnia-Herzegovina, well over Nigeria and Iran. Prediction: 1. Argentina, 2: Bosnia.
The favored Germans and Portuguese will progress with relative ease from this group. Despite the loss of Marco Reus, Joakim Low is in the enviable position of having a multitude of other stars to take the injured player’s slot. The big question we were all waiting to answer for ourselves was answered Tuesday night when Cristiano Ronaldo came into his team’s tune up game against Ireland and seemed at about 70% of his potential. Fortunately for Portugal, the team seemed in sync and if they can keep that form they probably will not need to play Ronaldo until the second round. If they concede their opening match, but win the successive ones, they will progress.
The USA shot itself in the foot when Coach Jurgen Klinsmann let his ego get the better of him and cut Landon Donovan, the one key, talismanic and experienced goal scorer on the team. Without Donovan Ghana is the better third team. Before Ronaldo’s injury Germany was favored for the top slot in this group, with him likely fighting for that otherworldly form he enjoyed most of the year, Low will enjoy the pole position in this group. Prediction: 1. Germany, 2. Portugal.
Despite the Russian’s loss of their captain, Roman Shirokov, the dynamic of this group has not been changed. The Belgians still seem the strongest team, even with the loss of Christian Benteke, and the Russians join them as the only true contenders here. Algeria and Korea do not seem yet ready to reach this high a level. Prediction: 1. Belgium, 2. Russia
At this point we again revisit what the odds maker’s calls on the eve of the tourney: Brazil is a 3-1 favorite to win the 2014 World Cup it will be hosting, while Argentina is next at 4-1, Germany and Spain are at 13-2, Belgium is at 20-1, France and Italy are at 25-1, Uruguay, Portugal and England are at 28-1, Holland is at 34-1, Colombia at 40-1, Chile at 50-1, and everyone else at three figures to one. Note that Colombia without Falcao has dropped out of the elite group, and that Spain and Germany are now even but a ways down from Argentina, who has climbed up a bit viz. Brazil.
Group of 16
At this point we reach the knockout stage with the following pairings based on the predictions above: Brazil vs. Chile with the hosts overwhelming their neighbors from the opposite coast of the continent. Spain vs. Croatia with the title holders overwhelming their continental foes. Colombia then meet a classic World Cup veteran in Uruguay. With Suarez now more able this is the stronger team and they progress. Italy meanwhile play Ivory Coast and the Azurri progress. Ecuador and Bosnia meet and the South Americans ride their continental advantage to victory. Argentina are put to a test, but not a tough one, by a French team that is defeated by a peaking Messi and company. The Germans dispatch Russia with a clinical score line while Portugal plays its best game so far with a stronger Ronaldo as inspiration and defeat the Belgians.
I still believe the cup's classics take over from here.
Brazil ride their home field advantage to a classy victory over Uruguay, while Germany play flawlessly to destroy Ecuador. Argentina, beat Portugal with some unsanctioned unsportsmanlike roughness and a touch of Messi magic. While in another of the cup's classics Spain beats Italy in one of the better played games of the tourney. The odds makers have it right and the top four make it to the semifinals.
From here on in, I again believe the gods make the players, coaches, refs, and fans, pay their dues.
If Brazil managed to win their previous games fairly, without officiating favoritism, if coach Scolari brought the right players to the tournament, and if the players have built some honest team momentum, as opposed to simply riding the wave of their supporters on and off the field, they will beat Germany. But if they messed up in any one of those categories, Coach Low will be reaching the finals.
On the other side, though, it will simply be a matter of whether Coach Vicente del Bosque has both motivated his team and kept his starters fresh. If he has done so, even a Messi-led Argentina, playing on its home continent, will be beaten by Casillas, Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas, Villa, and company. If, on the other hand, the Spaniards have been allowed to run out of steam, a healthy Messi alone will take his team to the finals.
Despite all other perceptions, I stand by my previous predictions here.
Let us assume that if not throughout the cup, then at least in the finals, we have a fairly officiated game. If so, a Germany vs. Argentina final will see Germany win while in a Germany vs. Spain final the dual cup holders repeat. In a Brazil vs. Spain final the Europeans get their revenge for the 2013 Confederations Cup robbery, while in a Brazil vs. Argentina final the hosts eek-out a last-gasp win, while Messi is crowned the tourney's best.
This is my last best guess going forward. What's yours?