Monday, June 9, 2014

World Cup 2014 Preview: What to Look For in Brazil

It’s World Cup time again. It seems like only yesterday that Spain hoisted the trophy four years ago in South Africa. Four years has certainly passed however, ushering in new players and teams to challenge for soccer’s most coveted prize in the fervent atmosphere of Brazil.

This World Cup will be special, I reckon. Brazil is very much the Mecca of soccer, so it seems fitting that the Holy Grail of the sport be fought for in the heat of the Amazon. Additionally, Brazil’s culture coupled with the country’s enthusiasm for the sport will likely produce a party atmosphere for the duration of the tournament. My only hope is that enthusiasm for sport remain true and that passion does not spill over into concerns over Brazil’s political and economic instability – issues made worse by the hosting of the tournament.

I am most looking forward to seeing the influx of new teams and players and how they perform on the international stage. There are also quite a few rejuvenated teams, who will look to build on their nations’ previous appearances in the tournament with younger, rebuilt squads. Let’s take a look at a few of these teams:

Bosnia and Herzegovina
There is only one newcomer to this year’s tournament in Bosnia and Herzegovina, however the Bosnian team only barely missed out on qualifying for both South Africa 2010 and the European Championships in 2012. Bosnia boasts a wealth of talent across the pitch, particularly in attacking areas with Edin Dzeko and Vedad Ibisevic the main strike options. Miralem Pjanic is also one of the more underrated players in Europe, in my opinion. He possesses excellent vision and passing ability, look for the Roma midfielder to quietly have a good tournament. Despite this being their first appearance at the finals, Bosnia shouldn’t be overlooked. With Argentina being their only major competition in their group, expect them to advance past the group stages.

Full of goals, Edin Dzeko will lead Bosnia's line in Brazil

Colombia have not qualified for the World Cup since France ’98. While the nation’s appearances in both ’98 and ’94 were met with widespread expectation of a strong finish, they did not progress through the group in either tournament, with their best finish coming in 1990 when they reached the Round of 16. Colombia’s teams of the early and mid-1990s were personified by their talismanic playmaker Carlos Valderrama, however since the team’s poor showing in France ’98, a new era in Colombian football has emerged. The team in now led by another talisman in Radamel Falcao, one of the world’s top strikers, who unfortunately will miss the tournament due to a knee ligament injury. Colombia is able to call upon two able deputies in the likes of Porto’s Jackson Martinez and Sevilla’s Carlos Bacca, both coming off of excellent seasons with their respective club teams. Colombia is also anchored by an experienced defense and a strong midfield led by Freddy Guarin. Even without Falcao, I would expect Colombia to put in a strong showing in Brazil.

Valderamma was a midfield maestro, but his Colombian teams never fared well when it mattered

Belgium are probably the most talked about team leading up to this year’s tournament. The Belgian team has undergone a youthful transformation in recent years, and herald an extremely talented lineup. Despite not having qualified for the World Cup since 2002, Belgium went undefeated in qualifying, playing some excellent football in doing so. The team features a mix of an experienced backline, with the likes of Captain Vincent Kompany and Jan Vertonghen, coupled with Marouane Fellaini and Axel Witsel providing much needed steel in midfield. The real talent for Belgium lies in its attackers, with Romelu Lukaku, Eden Hazard, and Kevin de Bruyne providing pace and goal-scoring ability. The player to watch for me will be Adnan Januzaj, who after only recently pledging his allegiance to the Belgian team, has only one senior cap to his name. I’ll be looking to see how he fits into Marc Wilmot’s plans for this talented Belgian squad.

One of the best players in the world, Eden Hazard will be key to Belgium's success

Despite the influx of new talent, my prediction for this year’s tournament winner certainly does not go against the grain. I suspect that Brazil will lift the World Cup Trophy at the Maracana on July 13. Brazil are the favourites for good reason. They have a supremely talented and well-balanced squad led by an experienced coach in Big Phil Scolari, and showed in last year’s Confederation’s Cup that they are able to successfully compete with the most powerful teams in international football. Secondly, the home field advantage will spur Brazil on, and give them to push they need to succeed. Additionally, the fact that the tournament is played in Brazil should also favour the South American, and indeed African, teams as well. The climate should certainly be considered, and it will wear down teams over the course of the month-long tournament, particularly those who are not used to playing in 30 degree heat. As such, I would expect a strong performance from teams such as Uruguay, Argentina, Ivory Coast, and the Iberian teams. Despite having strong squads, I’ll wager that the Eastern and Western European teams, such as Russia and England, will not fare particularly well. I’ll conclude my preview by looking at a few players to keep your eye on in Brazil:

Antoine Griezmann – France
Griezmann possesses excellent pace and finishing ability from either flank. Playing his club football at Real Sociedad, Griezmann hasn’t received the same media attention as many of his Les Bleus teammates, however he is quickly making headlines with his play. He has only four caps to his name, however he has featured and played well in France’s tournament warm-up matches. With Franck Ribery set to miss the World Cup due to injury, look for Griezmann to patrol the flanks in his stead.

With his pace and ability, Griezmann will be sure to turn heads in Brazil

Julian Green – USA
Having dual-citizenship, it seemed surprising to me that Green decided to opt for the more modest USA outfit, instead of trying to break into the German senior squad. However, it seems that his desire for regular international football factored into Green’s decision making. Despite making only two senior appearances, Green was one of the surprise inclusions in Jurgen Klinsmann’s USA squad, relegating the likes of Landon Donovan to a seat at home on his couch. Green has been widely heralded as supremely talented and having superstar potential. I’m excited to see how he fits into Klinsmann’s plans in Brazil, and whether he’ll be able to make a name for himself on the world’s stage.

The USA's phenoms have never quite panned out - will Julian Green break the mould

Marco Veratti – Italy

It was only two years ago that Marco Veratti was playing for Serie B team Pescara. He has since been courted by powerhouse club PSG, and is quickly becoming one of Europe’s premier central midfielders, scooping the Ligue 1 Young Player of the Year award this past season. With the unfortunate injury to Riccardo Montolivo, Veratti may well be thrust into Prandelli’s midfield to be the legs alongside elder statesmen Andre Pirlo’s vision and touch. Veratti’s club play has been solid, but I’ll be looking to see how he fares against some of the best midfield pairings in the game.

The old and the new: Pirlo and Veratti could anchor Italy's midfield in Brazil

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