Group E: Brazil, Switzerland, Costa Rica, Serbia
Just like every little boy who grows up loving cars loves Ferrari, every kid who loves football loves Brazil. But it’s a love that’s grown cold in recent years as a series of prosaic Brazilian sides have served up one dull World Cup campaign after another, when Brazil had their pants pulled down 7-1 by Germany, the Brazilian screams might have rung around the Maracana but to the rest of us they had it coming.
But under new manager Tite Brazil have gone back to their roots and started playing the expressive football that made them great. No player at the finals will be under more pressure to deliver than Neymar- the £200 million man will be expected to lead his team to the final. But he is helped by a hugely talented supporting cast with Gabriel Jesus already a prolific goalscorer and the dynamic Philippe Coutinho completed the front 3 and with Willian and Roberto Firmino on the bench there’s no shortage of firepower.
Defensively there’s uncertainty in goal and Tite seems unsure who partners Marquinhos in central defence. But the overlapping fullbacks are devastating and Casemiro anchors the midfield with assurance. But Brazil’s biggest worry remains can they break down well organised european defences- a concern that grew after Brazil’s 0-0 draw with England last month.
At first glance this group looks easy for Brazil but a closer look and Brazil have drawn 3 sides who all provide the sort of well-drilled defences they were concerned about.
First up for Brazil are perennial last 16 team Switzerland. The Swiss have a very solid defence marshalled by underrated ‘keeper Yann Sommer and veteran skipper Stephan Lichsteiner. Granit Xhaka has proved a far more effective for Switzerland than Arsenal in midfield whilst Xherdan Shaqiri provides spark in the final third. If Switzerland could find a prolific number 9 they’d be serious contenders but they’re stuck with Haris Serferovic whose record of 11 goals in 47 games speaks for itself.
Costa Rica were the shock team of the last World Cup going all the way to a quarter final penalty shoot out. Just as before they’re an organised pressing side who can find goals on the break from the likes of Joel Campbell and Bryan Ruiz.
Finally Serbia were the strongest side in pot 4 and they enter the group with a strong shot of qualifying. Their defence is stingy and marshalled by veterans Branislav Ivanovic and Vladimir Stojkovic, they have creative young talents in midfield lead by Torino’s Adem Lijajic but like the Swiss lack a reliable forward with the combustable Aleksandar Mitrovic their top scorer.
This group will provide a stiff challenge for Brazil and I suspect there’ll be a lot of draws but with the runners up likely to face Germany in the second round it really is a group Brazil have to win.
Must watch game: Brazil vs Switzerland June 17th 7pm- The Samba Boys vs Shaqiri- spectacular strikes ahoy!
Prediction: 1st Brazil, 2nd Switzerland, 3rd Costa Rica, 4th Serbia
Group F: Germany, Mexico, Sweden, South Korea
The defending champions won’t be too worried about their prospects having drawn a diverse group of middleweight teams in Group F.
Germany’s double success this summer in winning the Euro Under 21’s and the Confederations Cup whilst giving their star names the summer off points to a frightening level of depth in the German squad.
Star ‘keeper Manuel Neuer remains sidelined but should be back in plenty of time for the tournament whilst Germany boast the best centre back pairing in the world in Jerome Boetang & Mats Hummels oh and they have a staggering array of attacking options across midfield.
But the Germans aren’t without a few problems- left back has been a consistent issue since Phillip Lahm’s retirement and they still haven’t found the out-and-out striker to replace Miroslav Klose. But Germany’s biggest issue may be finding new leadership in defensive midfield their side having lost Lahm and Schweinsteiger, whilst their biggest source of goals; Thomas Muller is struggling for form and fitness. But anyone else topping this group would still be a major shock.
Mexico are second seeds and arrive on the back of an excellent qualification campaign but also a 4-1 thrashing at the hands of Germany in the Confederations Cup semi final. They have a highly experienced core of players and having used the Confederations Cup to blood home based youngsters should have plenty of options come June. They are still highly dependant on Carlos Vela and the out of form Javier Hernandez for goals but their attacking style should make them a fun side to watch next summer, whilst the colourful army of fans they took to the Confederations Cup should make them popular with Russian fans.
No side earned their place at the finals more than Sweden, having drawn a tough qualifying group they made the playoffs behind France but beating Holland to second place. Then in the playoffs they beat 4 time champions Italy, not bad for a side supposedly in the wilderness following Zlatan’s retirement. Sweden will likely draw on their victorious Euro Under 21s side of 2015, but they will still rely heavily on the old money of target man Marcus Berg for goals and experienced defenders Andreas Granqvist & Mikael Lustig to keep a tight backline. With most of their youngsters still based in Scandinavia this tournament will be a learning experience but their physical defensive style will make them a tough proposition.
Here’s a pub quiz question- only 5 countries have qualified for all of the last 9 World Cups: Germany, Spain, Brazil & Argentina are 4 who’s the the 5th? Answer- South Korea! The Koreans maintained their proud qualification record after flirting with danger in Asian qualifying but they made it. The only problem with that record is they’ve only once made the knock out phase when playing outside Korea. They have one star player in Tottenham’s Son Heung-min who at 25 has already bagged 20 goals for his country. Up front Lee Dong-gook is hoping to make the tournament aged 38- with 33 goals already to his name could he be this World Cup’s Roger Milla? With a squad based largely in Asia this side will look for Son to shine (no pun intended) and keep it tight defensively.
It’s hard to see anyone challenging Germany to win this group but the clash of styles should make for a close race for second place.
Must watch game: Germany vs Mexico June 17th 4pm- Mexico like to attack, Germany like scoring goals- sadly we know how this ends.
Prediction: 1st Germany, 2nd Mexico, 3rd Sweden, 4th South Korea