Brazil: Neymar in the spotlight
The 2014 World Cup draw has been made, and Group A has some interesting matchups.
It's all about Brazil. Nothing less than total victory will be good enough for the host nation. The misery of losing in 1950's decider to Uruguay cannot be repeated. To right that wrong, and return to the scene of that crime -- the Maracana -- Brazil must reach the final. The journey begins in Sao Paulo, the largest city in the southern hemisphere, then up north to tropical Fortaleza before their final group game in the modern capital of Brasilia.
Luiz Felipe Scolari's team will be expected to win each group game as it begins the road to Rio. The draw handed to Brazil looks favourable and should be completed with ease. Mexico, if they can recover from a poor qualifying campaign, ought to be favoured to make the most of their regular acquaintance with playing in South American conditions.
Croatia and Cameroon have the look of teams that are there to make up the numbers and should prove easy prey. The Croats have the honour of playing the opener and must hope to rely on some first-night nerves. Beyond that, the other three must fight it out to face the winners from what looks to be a very strong Group B.
Brazil should be expected to finish as group winners with something to spare, with Mexico filling the role of runner-up. Croatia and Cameroon, meanwhile, face the prospect of an early exit.
Brazil: The Confederations Cup victory placed the hosts as favourites for the real deal in 2014. Scolari will attempt to become the second coach to win two World Cups. Only Vittorio Pozzo, with Italy in 1934 and 1938, managed that feat. There is little point in looking beyond Neymar as the expected star, though he has a fine supporting cast. One weakness may be the lack of a striker in the finest traditions of Careca or Ronaldo, but expect Brazil to breeze through this group. Beyond that, they must win a sixth title on home soil. Or else.
Mexico: Just like last time, they are drawn in the same group as the host. Brazil clearly represent a far greater challenge than South Africa did. Mexico almost missed out on their habitual place in the finals during a ruinous qualifying campaign and had to rely on a playoff with New Zealand to make it. Mexican football looked on the rise when they won the Olympic final at Wembley in 2012, beating a Brazil team made up of many of the expected squad for the finals. Getting past the last 16 is, as ever, their goal.
Croatia: They needed a playoff to get to Brazil and were the bad guys in holding off the romantics' choice of Iceland. For such a young nation, they are experienced campaigners in this competition, though only the fervent patriot would suggest they have the strength to match the third place they reached in 1998. The absence of star Mario Mandzukic with a probable two-game suspension may prove costly, but they still have the skills of midfielder Luka Modric to call on. Former captain Niko Kovac replaced Igor Stimac but is perhaps the least-experienced coach in the tournament.
Cameroon: The Indomitable Lions no longer live up to their name. And in their seventh World Cup, they are no longer the wild cards they were in 1990, when they announced Africa's challenge on the world stage. They will need to improve on their hugely disappointing performance in South Africa, where they were the first team to exit. The star remains Samuel Eto'o, back after a very public fallout with the Cameroon authorities that was resolved only when the government stepped in. Eto'o is not the player he was, and neither are Cameroon as enticing a prospect.
Best individual battle: Neymar vs. Chicharito
Hard once more to look beyond Neymar. He is the name and face on every billboard in Brazil after all. The same goes for Mexico's Chicharito back home, even if he is in something of an unhappy slump as a reserve for Manchester United. He remains his country's standard-bearer and will be the player Brazil will most fear when the two teams meet in Fortaleza in their second match. Last time they met, Neymar scored a truly stunning goal to leave Javier Hernandez in the shadows and supplied a wonderful assist too.
Best game: Brazil vs. Mexico
Fortaleza will stage a rematch of the 2012 Olympic final, when Brazil came up against an opponent they have often found difficult in recent years. Mexico beat Brazil two months prior to that in a friendly staged in Dallas and even beat them at the 2007 Copa America. Brazil may be in a position to secure their passage to the next round with victory by then, leaving the rest of Group A fighting for scraps. This is a rematch of last year's Confederations Cup, and in the same venue. Brazil won 2-0 that time.
X factor: Look beyond Brazil
The hosts are a known quantity. Croatia will find it especially difficult to play in the tropical climates that all three places they travel to -- Sao Paulo, Manaus and Recife -- offer. It would be expected that Cameroon would find the climate less troublesome while Mexico should be used to it too. All three will be looking at damage limitation against the host and favourite then focusing on their remaining fixtures. That might give Brazil an even easier ride. Could goal difference be key to who goes through with them?
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