2014 FIFA World Cup Predictions

The clock is ticking and we’re coming closer and closer to kick-off.  The world’s biggest football carnival will soon burst into life and we’ll see numerous footballing heroes (and possibly villains) emerge. There will be controversies aplenty on and off the pitch, but which teams will finish in the top two in their group to progress to the round of 16?

Without the help of a convenient psychic octopus to aid us (rest in peace, Paul), making predictions will be a little bit more difficult, but without further ado, let’s try and look into the future and predict who will qualify starting with groups A to D.

Group A: Brazil, Croatia, Mexico, & Cameroon

Brazil will qualify from this group.  Not the boldest prediction in the world, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t pressure on the Seleção to perform especially with the specter of protests looming over the World Cup.  The squad and manager seem comfortable enough though some members are expressing sympathy regarding the grievances of the protesters.  Rather than inhibiting the team, the players and manager could be spurred on by the need to give Brazil something to cheer about.  With the wily Luiz Filipe Scolari at the helm the Brazilians can harness the anger and use it to generate momentum, especially if they get off to a good start against the Croatians.  The only question is over goalkeeper Julio Cesar and whether he’s played enough football this season to be up to the mark.

The Croatians didn’t make qualification easy for themselves, firing their coach Igor Stimac and replacing him with Niko Kovac in time for the play offs.  There is talent in this team with the likes of Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, and Mario Mandzukic, though the latter is suspended for the opening match against Brazil after being sent-off against Iceland in the play offs.  Their second match against Cameroon will be crucial in their efforts to progress to the knockouts.  Should the Croats triumph against Cameroon they should be able to beat Mexico to secure a berth in the round of 16.

Mexico’s qualifying campaign was extremely traumatic.  The Mexicans needed their rivals, the United States, to score a last minute goal against Panama to ensure a play off spot against New Zealand.  This Mexican commentator was rather grateful for Graham Zusi’s equalizer.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hPjXY1Mllgw

Mexican fans were thankful to Zusi too, presenting the US International with a plaque, a framed photo, and dubbing him ‘San Zusi’.   Mexico though can’t expect any favours in their World Cup group and it’s hard to see them progressing to the knockout stages, especially with key players like Javier Hernandez struggling for form.

Here’s an interesting tidbit, Mexico has qualified 15 times for the World Cup (including this one) but have never won the trophy.  Having failed to win the World Cup in 14 previous attempts, El Tri hold the record for the most number of appearances by a nation in this tournament without having won it.  Don’t expect that to change anytime soon.

Cameroon managed to negotiate their way to the World Cup after beating Tunisia 4-1 on aggregate in the African qualifying zone.  However, qualification for the Indomitable Lions wasn’t smooth sailing with them losing 2-0 to Togo in the group stages of the campaign, only to have the result overturned in their favor as a result of the Togolese fielding an ineligible player.   Then came Samuel Eto’o’s retirement and subsequent U-turn from said decision.

There is undeniable talent within the team with Alex Song, Stephen Mbia, and Jean Makoun forming a potentially strong midfield trio, but will that and Samuel Eto’o’s guile up front be enough to see Cameroon make it through to the next round?  The odds are stacked against them.

Their match against Brazil could be a little tasty especially, if Vincent Aboubaker takes to the pitch.  Aboubaker fractured Thiago Silva’s cheekbone whilst playing for Lorient against PSG.  Silva is unlikely to forget that encounter in a hurry.

Group Winners: Brazil
Runners Up: Croatia

Group B:  Spain, Netherlands, Chile & Australia

The Spaniards may have wished for an easier group to launch their defense of the World Cup, but games against the Netherlands, Chile, and Australia could be just what they need to kick start their campaign.  Good results against Holland and Chile can help build momentum for Spain whilst it’s hard to see Australia troubling the World Champions.  Spain negotiated their qualifying group without difficulty, emerging unbeaten and it’s hard to see them crashing out of this group either.  The squad is packed with talent and more importantly, winners, whilst the addition of Diego Costa gives the Spaniards a potent threat up front.  Coach Vicente Del Bosque is a wise old head and will know exactly how to ease the pressure off the squad and keep their eyes on the prize.  If Spain manages to win the World Cup, then they will lay a strong claim to being the greatest international team in history.  For the likes of Xavi, Iniesta, Xabi Alonso, Iker Casillas, and company the chance to write their names into the record books is motivation enough.  The frightening part for all of Spain’s competitors is that this squad is good enough to do it.

Holland comes into the World Cup with a youthful team complimented with a number of experienced world-class talents.  How Arjen Robben, Robin Van Persie, and Wesley Sneijder perform will go a long way to determining whether the Oranjes’ stay in Brazil is a long or brief one. Manchester United manager, Louis Van Gaal, has opted to go with a youthful looking squad with the likes of Stefan De Vrij, Jordy Clasie, Memphis Depay, Bruno Martins Indi, and Jasper Cillessen all making the cut.  This may be a tournament too soon for the Dutch and they’ll look to develop under Guus Hiddink after Van Gaal relinquishes the reins.  The match against Spain, a repeat of the 2010 World Cup Final, will not be as tense or turgid, though Xabi Alonso will probably be keeping an eye on Nigel De Jong’s studs should the two be on the pitch at the same time.  The key game will be against Chile.  It the Dutch win that then they’ll make it through to the knock out stages.

Chile Is a side that most teams would rather avoid.  Indeed, this is a side that could go places if everyone is fit.  With the likes of Arturo Vidal, one of the best midfielders in Europe, and Alexis Sanchez the Chileans have two world class footballers to build their team around.  Eduardo Vargas can help supplement the attack whilst Gary Medel will add steel to the midfield for Jorge Sampaoli’s side.  Chile, on their day, can be a match for any team. Underestimate the Chileans at your peril; this World Cup could see La Roja add extra spice to the tournament.

Australia’s World Cup preparations have been pretty rough.  Holger Osieck was sacked back in October following successive 6-0 defeats to Brazil and France, and replaced with Ange Postecoglou.  Much like the Dutch, the Socceroos have opted to go with a youthful squad with the most experienced players being Miles Jedinak, Mark Bresciano, and Tim Cahill.  It’s Australia’s misfortune that they’ve been drawn against three of the stronger sides in the World Cup and face the real possibility of exiting the tournament without a point on the board.  That said, with no pressure on them the Aussies will be free to express themselves on the pitch – it all depends on how adventurous the players and the coach are willing to be.

Group Winners: Spain
Runners Up: Chile

Group C: Colombia, Greece, Ivory Coast & Japan

Colombia has been left reeling with the news that striker Radamel Falcao will not be able to play at the World Cup.  Whilst losing a forward of that quality would be a blow to any side, the Colombians are by no means short upfront.  Jackson Martinez will bear the burden of scoring the goals for whilst the highly rated James Rodriguez is one to watch out for as well.  Playing in South America will suit the Colombians and they will not view the other teams in their group with too much trepidation.  Opponents could target Mario Yepes as a weak link though and may ask their quicker players to target him and exploit his lack of pace.

Greece made it through to the World Cup by defeating Romania 4-2 on aggregate in the play-offs.  The 2004 European Champions have not had a great history at the World Cup, participating just twice in 1994 and 2010, notching up their only victory against Nigeria in South Africa.  Under the reign of Fernando Santos, Greece have attempted to move away from the Otto Rehhagal template, though their last campaign wasn’t anything to crow about goal-scoring wise.  The Greeks scored just 12 times in 10 games in the group phase and the lack of firepower could be a detriment against the others in their group.  Much will rely on Kostas Mitroglou, who was scoring for fun at Olympiakos before his move to Fulham, which to put it mildly has not been a great success.

The Ivory Coast will be thanking the football gods for putting them in a relatively kind group after their experiences in 2006 and 2010.  That said, qualification to the knock out stages is not guaranteed for a side that has always flattered to deceive despite being littered with talent.  With the likes of the Toure brothers, Didier Drogba, and Wilfried Bony, the Ivory Coast have the players to cause their opponents problems; but as a unit will they be mentally strong enough to make it over the first hurdle?  The big game players will need to produce big performances early on, otherwise the Ivorians could be heading for another first round exit.

Japan was the first country to qualify for the World Cup and could be the tournament’s surprise package. Possessing some of the games more skillful technicians, Japan’s game could easily cause problems for the other teams in the group.  Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda appear to be putting their disappointing club season behind them in Japan’s recent friendlies whilst in forward Shinji Okazaki they may finally have found a penetrative forward to lead the line.  With 12 of their 23 players plying their trade in Europe the Japanese have the experience to go with the talent, and under the guidance of former AC Milan coach Alberto Zaccheroni, the Asian champions have the tools to do well in this World Cup.

Group Winners: Colombia
Runners Up: Japan

Group D: Uruguay, Italy, Costa Rica & England

Uruguay was the last side to win the World Cup in Brazil in 1950.  They’re unlikely to lift the trophy again in 2014, but then again they were not expected to have such a good run in the last World Cup.  The Copa America champions are hoping that Liverpool striker Luiz Suarez recovers from injury, but they have a chap by the name of Edinson Cavani who is not too shabby either.  Uruguay is arguably the group favorites but they cannot revert to the form of their qualifying campaign, which was poor to say the least.  The Uruguayans eventually booked their place in the final with a playoff win over Jordan, but any repeat of their qualifying performances and they may well be looking at an early exit.  Their key man may not be on the pitch, but on the bench.  El Maestro Óscar Tabárez has a knack of getting the best out of Uruguay and you wouldn’t bet against him masterminding another Uruguayan World Cup adventure.

Italy’s recent performances have been a cause for concern.  Drawing against the likes of Luxembourg is not the ideal preparation for the Azzurri.  But as Roy Hodgson pointed out, it’s best to read nothing into Italy’s recent performances because when it comes to the serious business the Italians more often than not turn it on.  Like Uruguay, Italy seems to have a coach that is perfectly suited to them.  Cesare Prandelli has already guided Italy to a European Championship final and is a coach who can manage to get the best out of his players, even the mercurial Mario Ballotelli.  The Italians will be keen to make up for a lackluster 2010 World Cup and have a mix of talent from the wildly unpredictable Antonio Cassano and Mario Ballotelli to defensive rocks like George Chiellini, and of course the supreme gifts of Andrea Pirlo.  Italy has the players to get through the group and with Prandelli in charge, the Azzurri could go quite far in this tournament.

England come in with a refreshingly youthful looking team coached under the watchful eye of Roy Hodgson.  For a manager noted for his caution, his decision to pick the likes of Luke Shaw, Adam Lallana, Raheem Sterling, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (if fit), and Ross Barkley points to a man with a long-term strategy.  Going forward England do look exciting but defensively they look a little suspect, especially if one of their first choice back four gets suspended or injured.  His other conundrum is what to do with Wayne Rooney.  Since bursting on the international scene at Euro 2004, the Manchester United striker has not really produced the goods in subsequent international tournaments.  Crucially for Hodgson though is that England doesn’t need to rely on Rooney to score the goals, as there are threats from other areas of the pitch.  Hodgson’s dilemma is this though: can he trust his England team to hold on to a lead?  It could be the backline that may lead to England’s downfall.

Costa Rica will go in as the rank outsiders, but they can cause opposition defenses trouble.  With the talented Joel Campbell and Bryan Ruiz upfront there are goals in this side.  Keylor Navas, the Costa Rican keeper, is a player of pedigree as well keeping 14 clean sheets for his club side Levante in La Liga.  If he performs well, expect a move to a bigger club.  Jorge Luis Pinto, Costa Rica’s Colombian coach has managed to make this side a difficult team to play against and one that certainly shouldn’t be underestimated.

Group Winners: Uruguay
Runners Up: Italy

Group E: Switzerland, France, Ecuador & Honduras

Switzerland, under German coach Ottmar Hitzfeld, qualified for the World Cup with relative ease booking their spot with a game to spare.  In terms of attacking sensibilities Switzerland have the players to hurt the other sides in their group.  In Xherdan Shaqiri, Gökhan Inler, Granit Xhaka, and Josep Drmić the Swiss have a group of players who will create chances, but they’ll need to convert them.  Shaqiri has a particular point to prove given his lack of game time at Bayern Munich; Pep Guardiola labeled the Swiss international as his “most important bench player,” not a tag that Shaqiri will cherish too much.  Fabian Schär is another player worth watching with the young defender being linked to Arsenal, whilst Stephan Lichsteiner will provide width from his fullback position.  Hitzfeld will keep an eye on his right flank though as it could be susceptible to counters should Lichsteiner find himself out of position.

Ecuador qualified fourth in the South American qualifiers, stuttering over the finish line with only one win in their last six qualification games.  It was a difficult period for the Ecuadorians as they tragically lost striker Christian Benitez last July as a result of heart failure.  Manchester United’s Antonio Valencia captains the side and, along with fellow winger Jefferson Montero, will be crucial to how the Ecuadorians will play.  Coach Reinaldo Rueda will look for his team to get the ball wide as quickly as possible and attack the opposition from the flanks.  Montero will be one to watch given his unpredictable nature.  Enner Valencia has been making a name for himself whilst everyone knows what they’ll get from Antonio Valencia.  For Ecuador to progress the team will need to click into gear as a unit right from the start and avoid defensive clangers like this:

Life is never dull with France.  After coming from 2-0 down in the playoffs against Ukraine to win 3-2 on aggregate, they were drawn in a relatively easy group only to have Clément Grenier and more importantly Franck Ribéry ruled out with injury.  Didier Deschamps doesn’t even have the luxury of calling up Samir Nasri after axing the Manchester City forward.  Howeve,r Deschamps’ focus is not on picking the best eleven players, but those who he thinks will form the best team.  Even with Ribéry out, the French still possess a very strong spine with Hugo Lloris in goal, Laurent Koscielny at the back, Paul Pogba in midfield, and Karim Benzema up front.  Also, Ribery’s misfortune could open the door for Real Sociedad’s Antoine Griezmann to show everyone that he’s made for this level of football.  With the memories of the 2010 World Cup still lingering, Didier Deschamps will be on his guard to ensure that the squad remains harmonious and avoids complacency.  Losing Ribery is no doubt a big blow but it is not a fatal one for the French.  Should this squad come together and pull in the same direction then we could see Les Bleus make a decent impression on the World Cup.

Honduras is not expected to do much in the World Cup, but that doesn’t mean they’ll make things easy for their opponents.  Strong and compact, the Hondurans will be looking to record their first World Cup win at the very least.  Wilson Palacios will patrol the midfield, and the Hondurans will try to use their pace on the counter and their strength at set pieces to gain the upper hand.  Expect to see La Costlynha if the ball goes to striker Carlo Costly.

The Hondurans will not overawe physically, but will need to keep their discipline to ensure that they are not hit with a raft of suspensions.  This will be Honduras’ third appearance in the World Cup, having featured in 1982 and 2010 with a record of three draws and three losses.  One of those draws came in the 2010 World Cup against Switzerland.

Group Winners: France
Runners Up: Switzerland

Group F: Argentina, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Iran & Nigeria

The Argentineans will no doubt revel in their role as potential party poopers, especially if they manage to beat Brazil in the final.  This is a side with an embarrassment of riches going forward with the likes Ángel Di María, Sergio Agüero, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Gonzalo Higuain, and of course the talismanic Lionel Messi giving the Albiceleste an unrivalled goal threat.  The Argentineans qualified easily from the South American qualifying section and should comfortably negotiate their World Cup group.  This won’t be Lionel Messi’s only opportunity to win the World Cup, but if he were to lift the trophy on Brazilian soil he will cement himself as one of the all time greats.  The defense is pretty solid as well with the likes of Pablo Zabeleta and Ezequiel Garay patrolling the backline, though they’ll hope goalkeeper Sergio Romero will have spent enough minutes in goal to ensure that things remain tight at the back.  A lot will depend on Javier Mascherano and Fernando Gago too as they will be required to shield the defense, win back possession, and give the ball to their supremely gifted frontline.  Coach Alejandro Sabella has managed to put together a formidable unit harnessing the team’s natural gifts whilst giving them a strong collective identity.  Reaching the final is the bare minimum for Argentina.

Bosnia and Herzegovina qualified for their first World Cup, topping their group on goal difference.  This is a team packed with attacking talent with Edin Džeko leading the line and Miralem Pjaneć providing the guile as the Bosnians will be looking to give their nation a lift with a good showing at the World Cup.  Coach Safet Sušić has imbued his side with an extremely attacking philosophy so at the very least expect any match involving the Bosnians to contain a fair number of goals.  Asmir Begović should expect to have a few shots to save, but the Bosnians can rest assured that they possess an extremely good goalkeeper who is capable of putting in match-saving performances.  The Bosnians have the firepower to negotiate the group stage; they just have to hope that the likes of Džeko and Vedad Ibišević convert the chances that come their way.  They’ll be the only team making their debut at the World Cup and will certainly be an entertaining side to watch.

Iran, coached by former Manchester United assistant manager Carlos Queiroz, has never qualified for the knock out stages of the World Cup and they’re unlikely to break their duck.  Queiroz has managed to convince the likes of Steven Beitashour to represent Iran, which has strengthened the backline.  In Alireza Jahanbaksh, he has a genuine talent who could go on to be a star if he continues to develop; indeed, Jahanbaksh was voted the best young player in the Dutch Eredivisie this season.  Andranik Teymourian will be important in the Iranian’s midfield whilst upfront a lot will rest on the shoulders of Reza Ghoochannejad and Ashkan Dejagah.  However, Iran will come into the tournament as one of the most underprepared teams due to a lack of support from the Iranian Football Federation and top clubs within the country.  Queiroz has lamented the slipshod preparations and has admitted himself that the Iranians “will not make it to the next round.”

Nigeria, the current African champions, possesses a few names that Premier League fans will be familiar with.  Coach Steven Keshi has lifted the mood of the Super Eagles fans and has stuck to his guns in shaping the team the way he wants.  Keshi’s emphasis has been on youth, and he has also instilled tactical flexibility within the team as well as getting the best out of Jon Obi Mikel.  For Keshi himself, it’s been a triumph, as he’s had to fight political battles with his own football association in order to implement his vision.  Thus far it has been a success with Keshi leading the Super Eagles to the African Cup of Nations title as well as qualifying for the World Cup with relative ease, topping their group before dispatching Ethiopia 4-1 on aggregate.  The key match will be against Bosnia and Herzegovina and with the attacking talent on display for both sides, the clash could be one of the more goal-laden games in this World Cup.  Peter Odemwingie, seemingly enjoying his football at Stoke, Emmanuel Emenike and Victor Moses will pose questions to opposing defenders, but at the back the Nigerians will need to be solid if they wish to progress to the latter stages of the tournament.

Group Winners: Argentina
Runners Up: Bosnia and Herzegovina

Group G: Germany, Portugal, Ghana & USA

Germany feature in a group that allows no room for error.  There is also the added pressure of this collection of players needing to realize their potential and win the World Cup.  Anything less would simply be considered a failure.  Germany has an intensely strong squad with arguably the world’s best goalkeeper in Manuel Neuer; their defense is solid, though Coach Joachim Low probably wishes that he had two Philipp Lahms to fill the full-back positions.   Even with Marco Reus ruled out, the Germans still have the likes of Mario Götze, Thomas Müller, Julian Draxler, and of course Mesut Özil.  The attacking potential of the Germans is frightening but, and it’s a big BUT, they do not possess a striker to match the class and caliber of their attacking midfielders.  Miroslav Klose, who recently overtook Gerd Müller as Germany’s record goal scorer, will be expected to lead the attack, but at 35 is this a World Cup too far for him?  He will have the added incentive of potentially becoming the all-time leading World Cup scorer if he bags at least two goals in this tournament.  A lot will depend on the defensive midfielders as well with Toni Kroos, Sami Khedira (who has just returned from injury) and Bastian Schweinsteiger required to form a solid platform to help the German attack to flourish.  This team is good enough to win the World Cup, but can they cope with the pressure and expectation that comes with the ‘favorites’ tag?  Only time will tell.

Portugal is hoping that their talisman Cristiano Ronaldo will be fit for their World Cup campaign, though a Ghanaian witch doctor is planning otherwise.  Portugal breathed a sigh of relief when Ronaldo returned to action in a 5-1 win over the Republic of Ireland, and it’s hard to imagine them functioning without him, such is the importance of the current Ballon D’or holder.  Despite possessing the likes of Bruno Alves, Fábio Coentrão, Pepe, João Moutinho and the highly rated William Carvalho, such is the dependency on Ronaldo that the psychological blow of losing him would be devastating especially as Portugal, like the Germans, are short of top quality strikers.  With a fully fit Ronaldo in their ranks, the Portuguese can launch devastating counter attacks and can always rely on him to pull something out of the bag if they need it.  Without him the Portuguese will need to have Moutinho pulling the strings and hope that the likes of Nani, Helder Postiga, Éder or another attacker weighs in with their share of goals.  As important as Ronaldo is to Portugal, do not underestimate the influence of Moutinho, who will dictate the play for the Portuguese.  Don’t be surprised if Moutinho is at the heart of most of Portugal’s goals.

Ghana was only a penalty kick away from becoming the first African side to reach the World Cup semifinals four years ago.  Alas, it wasn’t to be and now the Black Stars’ hopes of emulating their World Cup adventure in South Africa is far more difficult given the group they are in.  Ghana made it to the World Cup easily enough, thumping Bob Bradley’s Egypt 7-3 on aggregate in the play offs and ended up as the continent’s top scorers netting 25 goals on the road to qualification.  Asamoah Gyan will be a key figure for them once again and despite his move to the UAE, he has still been banging the goals in for the Black Stars.  He’ll be ably supported by Kevin-Prince Boateng.  The midfield will be patrolled by Sulley Muntari, Kwado Asamoah, and Michael Essien.  Their weakness lies in goal where there really isn’t a dominant number one so the Ghanaians and their coach James Kwsei Appiah may hope that their front line deliver as they’ll likely need to score more than one goal a game to obtain a result in this group.  The fans of the Black Stars and the ‘Pot Man’ (not that kind of pot!) hope that Gyan and company can go on another memorable World Cup run.

The USA can consider themselves unfortunate to be drawn in this group, but their inclusion has thrown up an intriguing plot line if nothing else.  Coach Jürgen Klinsmann will be hoping to once again defeat his former assistant Joachim Low when the US face Germany.  Klinsmann is not afraid of making big decisions, most notably dropping Landon Donovan from the 23-man squad, though the former German international striker can claim that he’s earned the right to make the big calls.  After an initially difficult start, Klinsmann oversaw victories over Italy (away), Mexico (away), and Germany, produced a 12-match winning run in 2013, and won the Gold Cup.  Critics have argued that Klinsmann is not tactically sound enough, but he has put his stamp on a strong American side and opponents won’t find it easy against a hard working US team.  He’s well stocked in the goalkeeping department with Premier League duo Tim Howard and Brad Guzan.  Their defense will need the likes of Geoff Cameron and DaMarcus Beasley to provide leadership.  The midfield is industrious with Michael Bradley a key figure, and upfront a lot will depend on Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore, who bagged a welcome brace against Nigeria.  Klinsmann is targeting a place in the knockout phase of the World Cup.  To do that, the Americans will need to hit the ground running.

Group Winners: Germany
Runners Up: Portugal

Group H: Algeria, Belgium, Russia & South Korea

Algeria was the last team from Africa to qualify for the World Cup, narrowly edging Burkina Faso on the away goals rule.  The Desert Foxes have won favor with the likes of Javier Zanetti, Rivaldo, and Diego Maradona all believing that Algeria has the potential to surprise their opponents.  It would be in keeping with Algeria’s World Cup history if they do cause a hiccup – in 2010 they held a lackluster England to a 0-0 draw, and more spectacularly in 1982 they beat West Germany and Chile only to be denied a place in the knockout stage when the West Germans and Austrians colluded to play out a sterile match which ensured that they went through at Algeria’s expense.

Keep an eye on Sofiane Feghouli, who will be central to Algeria’s attacking plans, and striker Islam Slimani, who currently plays for Sporting Lisbon.  Coach Vahid Halilhodžić also has the talents of Nabil Bentaleb to call upon as the Tottenham man pledged his allegiance to Algeria.  In fact, a fair number of their squad ply their trade in Europe, playing in the Italian, French, Portuguese, and Spanish leagues.  If the Algerians can get their game together they could give the big guns in their group a run for their money; but despite their ambitions to qualify for the knock out stages, it’s hard to see them getting past the first hurdle.

Belgium, the fifth favourites for the tournament, has an exceptionally talented squad, though they will be hoping that Romelu Lukaku recovers from his injury quickly to lead the attack.  Their strength in depth is awesome, boasting one of the tournament’s stand out goalkeepers in Thibaut Cortois; their backline is led by Vincent Kompany and features the likes of Jan Vertongen and Toby Alderweireld but it’s their midfield where the Belgians are really blessed.  Axel Witsel will screen the back four and keep the game ticking for the Red Devils, allowing the attacking talents of Eden Hazard, Kevin Mirallas, and Adnan Januzaj or Kevin De Bruyne to flourish and get at their opponents.  Belgium is a side that is technically gifted but can be physical if the match demands it.  The backline can more than hold their own and Marc Wilmots can draft in the likes of Marouane Fellaini who, despite a disappointing season at Manchester United, can add a bit of muscle and bully opponents.  A lot of soccer fans and pundits expect Belgium to perform at the World Cup and they shouldn’t allow themselves be weighed down by the levels of expectation.  That said, a number of this side play for big European clubs so the players shouldn’t be overawed by what they can achieve.  Belgium’s best World Cup run came in 1986 when they finished fourth in Mexico.  2014 represents their best chance to match and possibly better that run.

Russia and their coach Fabio Capello will be hoping to make a good impression in this World Cup as their records in the competition aren’t the most eye-catching.  Russia has never gone beyond the group stages of the World Cup, and Capello’s nightmare in South Africa is something the Italian is keen to prove is nothing more than a blip on his illustrious resume.  Igor Akinfeev will be a key man for them following in the tradition of fine Russian goalkeepers.  In front of Akinfeev the Russian defense is not terribly generous, conceding only five goals in 10 qualifying matches.  They suffered a blow in losing Roman Shirokov to injury, but they do have Alan Dzagoev, who will be their creative lynchpin, and Alexander Kerzhakov will be the main goal scoring threat for the Russians.  One would expect the Russians to go through, especially with a coach as successful as Capello in charge, but they cannot take their games against South Korea or Algeria lightly.  If Russia stumble at the first hurdle then they will not play another competitive World Cup-related game until 2018, when they host the tournament.

South Korea go into this World Cup with one of the younger sides in the tournament with an average age of 25.7 years, and coach Hong Myung-Bo hopes that his team’s pace, skill and athleticism will see them progress into the knockout round.  Don’t put it past them either, as South Korea is not the easiest side to play against and they will not stop running until the final whistle goes.  Their main man will be Son Heung-min, who has pace to burn and is comfortable with both feet.  Kim Young-kwon is an important player too; he has been touted for bigger and better things by his Guangzhou Evergrande manager, Marcello Lippi.  If Lee Chong-Yong can rediscover his form prior to his injury, then the South Koreans have another pacy skillful outlet to channel their attacks.  The classy Ki Seung-yueng and Kim Bo-kyung are capable of dictating the tempo of a game in midfield.  The major concern is with their goalkeepers and whether Jung Sung-Ryung and Kim Seung-gyu can step up their game and protect the South Korean goal.  Their match against Russia will likely decide who will progress through to the knockout stages.

Group Winners: Belgium
Runners Up: Russia

So there you have it, but the time for talking is pretty much done. Bring on the World Cup!

Advertisements

New York Knicks Rumors: Derek Fisher As Head Coach Is Solid Long-Term Plan

As the summer winds on, it’s seeming more and more likely that Derek Fisher will end up on the New York Knicks sidelines next season. Phil Jackson has been fined for talking to his former point guard, and Fisher himself has admitted that coaching is most likely in his future. After more rumors of the Knicks ramping up their pursuit of the 39-year old have emerged, many believe it’s only a matter of time before his hiring is announced.

ESPN cites a source who “fully expects” Fisher to be hired by the Knicks in the next few weeks. Jackson might have a plan-B, but it doesn’t seem like it. In fact, Fisher is probably plan-B. Steve Kerr was the man for job by nearly all accounts until he took his talents to Golden State, so you have to think the Knicks are all in on Fisher at this point. So, is he the right man for the job?

I believe he is in the long-term. Maybe Fisher is a future all-time great coach. Who knows? But the odds are that he’ll struggle at first, especially considering the state of the Knicks. Even if Carmelo Anthony stays, New York is not a playoff team. There’s tons of work to be done in the Big Apple, likely years and years worth of work.

The Zen Master knows this, and he’s not about to just hire the biggest/most proven name on the market in hopes of turning things around in 2014-15. Jackson is likely thinking three or four years down the road, and in that type of scenario, Fisher makes sense.

He’ll be a coach that grows along with the team, which is fine as long as the players are young and willing to learn. He’s not the kind of guy who should be in charge of a bunch of proven veteran players trying to win a title.

At this point I don’t know what other direction Jackson and the Knicks would go in. At the same time, if Fisher thinks he has more value as a 40-year bench player, he’s mistaken. His value at this point is on the sidelines. He just needs a chance and some guidance. What better place than with the Knicks to get both of those things?

 

Kentucky’s John Calipari Can Thank Nick Saban for Gigantic Extension

Being a collegiate coach isn’t such a bad gig these days. Just a couple of days after Alabama inked Nick Saban to a contract extension that will keep him with the Tide until 2021, the Kentucky Wildcats signed John Calipari to an extension that will keep him in Lexington until 2020-21.

If you’re wondering why Calipari can thank Saban for his new record contract, it’s because he received a monster deal that will make him the highest-paid collegiate coach just days after Saban earned that distinction.

Although he has been the subject of many controversies over the years, Calipari is worth a record contract, however, this $50-plus million extension over seven years is just insane.

Does he deserve all that cash? Well, I wouldn’t say Calipari is as good in college basketball as Saban is to college football, but Kentucky is all about basketball.

He can definitely thank Nick Saban for this. I even predicted after Saban’s contract that it would start a dangerous trend of high paid college coaches.

Sour Grapes and All, is California Chrome Owner Steve Coburn Right?

Well if you happened to miss what went down yesterday, California Chrome did not win the Triple Crown. Rather, it was Tonalist that came up victorious at yesterday’s Belmont Stakes as California Chrome finished fourth. And in the immediate aftermath of the race, Chrome co-owner Steve Coburn, who has been celebrated as a sort of an everyman compared to the traditional thoroughbred owner, went on an angry rant on the current system that allows a horse like Tonalist to run in the Belmont without having run in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness States.

And you know what, he may be right.

Just in case you missed Coburn’s fiery comments yesterday, here they are below:

And Coburn doubled down this morning with interviews on Good Morning America and SportsCenter, just in case you wondered if a night’s sleep would make him take back anything he said yesterday.

There is no denying that this is a case of sour grapes for Coburn. After all, Coburn and co-owner Perry Martin more or less found this horse out of nowhere and almost by accident had found themselves a sort of a golden ticket, one that would find them pretty darn close to doing something that had no been down since 1978, win the Triple Crown.

And let’s be honest, California Chrome at least had the chance to make history and break the streak, but the horse could not get it done.

But having factored that in, Coburn is indeed right: the system is rigged against a horse going for the Triple Crown. Tonalist was the sixth Belmont winner in the last eight races that did complete in the first two races of the Triple Crown. Hell, the horse had only raced four times this year before yesterday’s race and the Belmont was the second race Tonalist had run in since February. The other race was the Peter Pan Stakes a month ago at Belmont. Runner-up Commissioner also did not run in the two previous races, third place Medal Count only ran in the Derby and Wicked Strong, who finished in a dead heat with California Chrome, also skipped the Preakness.

In total, only three horses had run in both of the previous Triple Crown races. And how did the other two horses do? General A Rod finished seventh and Ride On Curlin finished last.

The system is indeed more or less rigged against the horse going for the Triple Crown, who has to Kentucky Derby, two weeks later win the Preakness and then three weeks later win the longest race in racing in the Belmont. People wonder why it has been so long since a horse has won the Triple Crown, and here is part of your answer. A horse can more or less sit out much of the year save for a few races, be more rested than a horse going for the Triple Crown, and steal the glory.

Is that fair? How could anybody answer in the affirmative? It is indeed a flawed system and with its current structure of how compact the races are relative to another and how horses can forego the previous races and save themselves for the final one, we probably will not see a Triple Crown winner in a very long time.

Now, of course winning the Triple Crown is supposed to be difficult. But should the system reward the horses that take the easy way out?

There really is no reason to mandate that horses running in the Belmont Stakes should have run in both the Derby and the Preakness. Or at the very least running in at least one of the two races (although again, that would not have given California Chrome the Triple Crown). And who would be hurt by spacing out the races more as well?

Of course, Coburn was and is being a sore loser, but should that overshadow the fact that the system simply sucks? 

Switzerland’s Multicultural Squad

Switzerland will be taking part in its tenth World Cup, and its third in a row.  Coached by a vastly experienced Ottmar Hitzfield, the German has won countless Bundesliga titles and is one of few coaches to have won the Champions League with two different teams.  His ties to Switzerland extend back to his playing days when he suited up for various Swiss sides, including FC Basel. Hitzfeld considered Switzerland his dream job and will retire after the World Cup.

The Swiss have a strong chance to make it out of the group stage.  Having been the only team to prevent Spain from scoring in South Africa, they have a compact team captained by Napoli’s Gokhan Inler, and filled with stars around the pitch . Switzerland received a fortuitous draw partly because they were controversially seeded for the competition.

The Swiss players are scattered throughout the top leagues of Europe, with a strong concentration in the Bundesliga. This however, has not always been the case. Sure the Swiss had some stars that broke through in Germany like Stephane Chapuisat, Ciriaco Sforza or Alain Sutter, but now it has become the norm.  FC Basel’s success in Europe has also lifted the Swiss profile on the footballing stage, beating Chelsea twice in the group stages last year.

And while those stars of the 90s still had Swiss-sounding names, the new generation of players could have opted for a number of other countries. The Swiss team has been modeled by waves of immigration, fueled by the civil war in the former Yugoslavia and constant ethnic tension in the Balkans.

In an interview with German Television station ZDF, Switzerland stars Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka laid loose after the national team qualified for Brazil.

After speaking of individual achievements, with one playing for giants Bayern Munich and the other for Borussia Monchengladbach, the interviewer blankly asked how it felt like growing up in Switzerland.

Both Shaqiri and Xkaka are not your typical Swiss players of yesteryear.  Coming from Kosovo with roots in Albania, they are just a few of a large immigrant population from the Balkans currently residing in Switzerland.  A mixture of Croats, Serbs, Albanians, Bosnians, and Turks make up a bulk of today’s Swiss National Team.  Their ancestors immigrated to Switzerland during different stages over the past thirty years. Wars in the Balkans ushered scores of future talent to the small landlocked nation, while the Turks settled earlier during lax immigration policies hoping to attract manual laborers.

Xhaka answered calmly, saying how he has viewed Switzerland as his home. The defensive midfielder often regarded as the brains behind the Borussia team, was born in Switzerland to Albanian parents.  He paused and added that it can be hard. “You are known as an Auslander everywhere,” he said referring to the term that simply means foreigner.  But the term “Auslander” is used as an insult, a word of shame implying that you are different. The Swiss national team is littered with them, names that don’t mix with the local population.

Football is the most popular sport in Switzerland and multiculturalism is largely accepted in the confederation, however it has sparked intense debate about the true cost of  the country’s immigration policies, with soccer stars being criticized for not singing the national anthem, some speaking in a broken accent and lacking strong roots to the country they represent.

While this may be coined the least Swiss side, it could also be the most successful one based on the draw. Playing Ecuador in the opening game, and Honduras in the final game, the Swiss need to start strong and finish strong. They will fancy their chances against France, especially with a dominant midfield which includes Shaqiri, Xhaka, Behrami, and Stocker. Switzerland also have one of the deadliest strikers in the Bundesliga. Josip Drmic secured a move to Champions League contenders Bayer Leverkusen on the back of a season where he scored 17 goals.  Of Croatian heritage, the young striker marked his entry for the Swiss team by scoring 2 goals against Croatia in a game that brought on mixed emotions. Drmic may be a Croatian name, but Josip did his Switzerland, the country of his birth, proud.

 

 

Ireland’s Young Footballers That Could Make an Impact at World Cup 2018

There has been a lot of talk lately about the lack of talent coming through in Irish soccer. People seem to look at the senior team and when they don’t see any players under the age of 23 like England’s Ross Barkley, Luke Shaw and Raheem Sterling, the immediate reaction is that Ireland are very far behind in world soccer.

However, there are several Irish footballers who have the potential to be important for Ireland’s future:

Goalkeepers

The goalkeepers of the under-21 side have the very same problem as the senior team. They’re not getting enough games for their respective clubs. Aaron McCarey only played ten league games all season, five for York and five for Wolves. He came into the side in January after Carl Ikueme picked up a knock that kept him out for five games. During that time, McCarey kept three clean sheets but it wasn’t enough to nail down a regular place in the side. Sean McDermott plays in the Norwegian Tippeligaen for Sandnes Ulf. After getting dropped for the final three league games of the season last term, the future for McDermott at Sandnes doesn’t look bright after they signed Icelandic goalkeeper Hannes Halldórsson. Both of these goalkeepers have been tipped to step up to senior level very soon but they’re in the same boat and need more playing time at the club level.

Defenders

A lot of the hopes of Irish fans for the next Richard Dunne or Paul McGrath have been pinned on Derry native Shane Duffy. He was on loan at Yeovil Town from Everton this season and the central defender has been one of the few Yeovil players who had his reputation enhanced after a very difficult season for the Glovers. Duffy was impressive this season and has done well to get his career back on track after suffering a life-threatening injury in a match between Giovanni Trapattoni’s Republic of Ireland development squad and the Ireland amateur side.

Young full-back Matt Doherty has had an impressive season for League One winners’ Wolverhampton. Carl McHugh’s fairy tale season last year was always going to be very hard to live up to after he scored a brilliant header in the Capital One Cup semi-final against Aston Villa to send Bradford through to the final at Wembley. Since then, they’ve gained promotion and stayed afloat in League One and McHugh has been improving immensely.

Midfielders

This area has the most talent coming through from the country. Sean Murray was outstanding for Watford after breaking onto the scene a few years back under Malky Mackay. For the 2012-13 campaign, he was Watford’s Young Player of the Season Award.

At Derby County, Jeff Hendrick has shown what he’s made off playing a massive role in the run in his squad’s third place finish this year.

Jack Grealish has been one of the best players in League One this season. He had five goals and five assists this term and the 18-year-old is eligible to play for England so he should get a competitive debut for Ireland very soon if they plan to keep him.

Strikers

Ireland have had some fantastic strikers over the years but with Robbie Keane not getting any younger, there doesn’t seem to be anybody who can step up and take his place as number one striker for Ireland. With Michael Drennan only having one under-21 cap, he needs another campaign at that level. His record for his country at youth level includes scoring 10 goals in 10 games together in all levels.

Graham Burke is another one of the huge Irish contingent at Aston Villa, which includes Drennan, Shay Given, Ciaran Clark, Enda Stevens, Samir Carruthers and Jack Grealish. Graham was the top scorer for the under-19 NextGen Series in which Aston Villa won.

Aiden O’Brien hasn’t had a brilliant club career so far playing mostly in the conference but when he puts on the green jersey he becomes a new man scoring goals for fun and is only two goals away from Robbie Brady’s under-21 goal scoring record.

All in all, the future is very bright for Irish soccer. If these young men stay on the path they’re going then Ireland may become a threat by the 2018 World Cup.

With Hearts, Hibs and Rangers, Next Season’s Scottish Championship Will Be Mouthwatering

The 2013/2014 season in Scotland was not only the first season of the re-named SPFL but it also employed a play-off system, in which 3rd and 4th place in the second-tier Championship play each other over two legs. This year was Falkirk and Queen Of The South, and whoever won would progress on to play the team that finished 2nd. Falkirk beat Queens of the South and then lost out to Hamilton, Championship runners up. As Hamilton took the victory, they would then play the team that finished 11th in the Scottish Premiership to determine who would go up or down. Hamilton then managed to overcome Hibs in order to grant themselves promotion to Scotland’s top league.

As a result of this, Hibernian were relegated alongside arch rivals Hearts. And coming up from the third-tier League One was Rangers. For anyone who knows anything about Scottish football, this is simply mouthwatering. If you look over the last 10 years, these 3 have been some the most successful teams in the country, bar Celtic. Not only do they bring a well-known status to Scotland’s second tier of football but they also enter with massive fan bases that will benefit everyone involved in respect to revenue.

Rangers come into the league as heavy favorites to win it. However I can’t see it being too plain sailing for the Blues, and there are many who will agree with me. I see Hearts being a big threat especially after seeing their young boys put in such great performances at the end of the season. They showed they do have the ability to play at a high level and can compete with some solid teams. Hearts have released a few players since being relegated but the bulk of the squad still remains, so I reckon they will be hoping for a good title race.

Of course Hibs will be one of the stronger sides despite losing a number of players. Hibs manager Terry Butcher is an experienced gaffer and will most likely make some smart decisions to ensure that both halves of Edinburgh are present in the title race. The Edinburgh derby is a massive spectacle in Scottish football so the Championship is bound to have some fiery games as well as some very technically skilled games between the three top sides.

But are they actually the three top sides?

All the focus has been and will be on Rangers, Hearts and Hibs but I think one team is being shamefully overlooked. That team is Falkirk. The Bairns have some very talented individuals such as Craig Sibbald, Blair Alston and, this past season’s Championship top goalscorer, Rory Loy. This is also a Falkirk side that finished just three points behind first place side Dundee and have a terrific team chemistry that will be a big bonus in the long run. I would put Falkirk as real dark horses to win the league.

All in all, the 2014/2015 season will be a special one for the Scottish Championship. Sparks will fly, shocks will happen and people will gasp as we watch last ditch tackles make all the difference. There are four spots that could potentially be the pathway to promotion: the league winner automatic and the three playoff spots. In my opinion, there are four very strong teams who could fill those spots but anybody could throw a spanner in the works. This is one you simply cannot miss.