1. Japan- This team struggled in the 2013 Confederations Cup, but I love the fact they have an aggressive mindset and look to push the ball forward to create scoring chances. They are in a group where really any of the four teams could win, while any of the teams could finish last. I’ve got them finishing first because I like their underrated forwards who have the experience of advancing to the elimination stage from the 2010 World Cup. Manager Alberto Zaccheroni has been with the team since 2010 and has a prestigious resume of coaching some of the best teams in Italy’s Serie A.
Player to watch- Shinji Kagawa. After achieving great success at Borussia Dortmund, the Japanese forward has struggled to find his form at Manchester United since 2012. He is an underrated goal scorer who will be looked upon to be the finisher for a Japan team that will create chances for him from the wings. If Kagawa can have a solid tournament, then he will be a hot commodity for Manchester United to sell to teams looking for a goal scorer.
chances to win- 2
2. Ivory Coast- Gervinho. Probably the most talented team from Africa, Ivory Coast finds themselves in a group where they have a legitimate chances of coming out on top. With multiple recognizable names on the roster, its no surprise many people may be drawn to cheering for Ivory Coast. Their weakness? Defense. Something you will see as a trend for teams that have a small chance to win it all.
player to watch- Gervinho. This team has so many players I wanted to highlight ( Didier Drogba, Yaya Toure, Wilfried Bony), but Gervinho had such a great season at Roma this year in Italy that it would be a mistake to look over this guy. He never found his form at Arsenal, but this year in Rome he was able to use his speed and creativity on the wing AND score. Watch for Gervinho to create multiple chances for one of my favorites Didier Drogba.
chances to win- 2
3. Columbia- This group wasn’t expected to be such a toss-up before Columbia lost their best player Falcao to injury. Now with their world-class striker ruled out, this South American side will have to find a new leader on and off the pitch. With that said, they are in their home continent where history tells us those teams tend to succeed. They have talent on this squad still and many still have them as the favorites to win the group.
player to watch-James Rodriguez. This left-footed youngster was bought by Monaco last summer for a hefty fee of nearly $61 million, going down as the 2nd largest transfer fee of a Portuguese club player. He’s going to be playing in the center midfield position, and he is going to be an attacking force from there. Very capable of making a defense look foolish, watch for this 22 year old to amaze you with his skill and creativity down the middle.
chances of winning- 3 (I don’t see them advancing, but if they do they have a better chance to win it all than the other two teams I have ahead of them)
4. Greece- A team with a history of being known to closing it up and play defensively, this 2014 doesn’t appear to be any different. They seem to play for the draw, and with three teams in this group that love to attack, this defensive mindset probably won’t be changed. Greece is the least likely to come out of the group, but by no means will it be shocking to me if they do.
player to watch- Konstantinos Mitroglou. If they want to advance, then it won’t be the defense that will have to be brilliant because, well, the rest of the team focuses on that. Mitroglou has promise in becoming a reliable goal scorer for his nation, but injury spells kept him from performing for Fulham in a January transfer to England after lighting it up in Greece’s top league. They need to score to advance, and Mitroglou will be the guy to do it.
chances of winning- 1. It’s not that they are completely outmatched like other teams I give a 1 to, but to win this tournament in the elimination stages without world-class talent, you need goal scorers. They lack that, so there is no chance.
1. England- Group D is one of the two ‘death brackets’ this World Cup, and finished at the top will take a top effort by any team in here. I love the England squad this year. They seem to have little expectations for the first time in a while because of the youth they selected to represent the country, but I think they are set for a big tournament. Playing Italy in their first match is perfect for England to set the tone in Brazil since Italy tends to start slowly, so if they can grab 3 points in their first match they will be the favorites to come out on top.
player to watch- Ross Barkley. It has yet to be decided if he will start games or just come off the bench, but this young attacking midfielder will be a difference maker for England. He had an outstanding year for Everton this year and earned a chance to compete this year for England. After this tournament, you may be looking at Barkley as one of your favorite players in the world.
chances to win- 4
2. Italy- One of the most prestigious countries in the world of soccer, Italy is always a threat to win it all in World Cups. 2010 was a disaster for Italy, but they have made improvements and look to bounce back to the top in 2014. A team full of veterans and experience, but also youth and energy, Italy can match up defensively with anyone and can score multiple goals with ease.
player to watch- Marco Verratti. With so many players like striker Mario Balotelli and veteran Andrea Pirlo getting most of the attention, Verratti might be forgotten on this Italian squad. I watched him play for PSG of France this year and was amazed that this 21 year old midfielder’s talent to dictate the pace of the game for a powerhouse club squad. He is only 5 ft 5 in, but he makes powerful tackles and has wonderful balance on the ball. With Pirlo being the main man at the midfield for Italy, Verratti’s role may change, but I’m expecting him to be a difference maker.
chances to win- 5
3. Uruguay- They were my favorite team in 2010 with their efforts to get to the semifinals, but now with higher expectations in 2014 Uruguay has something to prove in Brazil. Their top striker Luis Suarez is dealing with an injury right now and is not expected to start in their opener, and this will be costly even though they have depth at the position. In a group like this, they need all hands on deck.
player to watch- Edison Cavani. With Suarez trying to get to 100%, Cavani will be their best attacker. Playing for PSG, Cavani was one of their best players, and he will have the weight of the country on his shoulders (or feet you could say). The keys to the car have been given to him to lead Uruguay to the knockout stages as Suarez gets back to full health, and if he can be prolific in these first three games he will be the reason Uruguay has a chance to win it all.
chances to win- 4
4. Costa Rica- Like Australia, Costa Rica is a team that will be the punching bag of this group. Not much to say as I know nothing about them, and even doing research has left me lacking words to tell you any reason to think they won’t lose all three games. Congratulations on making the tournament, though!
player to watch- Keylor Navas. Only because he is the goalkeeper and will be getting all the action in these three games. It’s up to him to have any impact on this World Cup.
chances to win- 1