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World Cup 2014 Preview: Groups A & B

brazuca

It’s finally here: the high holiday for soccer geeks, er, fans like myself.  The World Cup is one event that lives up to its hype, and the world is really watching.  You look at the field and you see that everything is as it should be this year.  Every nation that deserves to be in Brazil will be there, starting June 12.  Here’s At The Rail’s predictions.  I’ll go through two groups a day, finishing on Thursday with my bracket.

GROUP A

Can Neymar and Brazil live up to the hype?

Can Neymar and Brazil live up to the hype?

Let’s get this out of the way right now: there is little reason to think that Brazil won’t win the whole damn thing.  After demolishing the World and European champions in last year’s Confederations Cup, A Selação was dismissed in some circles because they didn’t face a qualifying campaign (because they are the home nation).  But if you look at this side’s roster, there are no weak spots.   Brazil’s national team has 35 titles from Europe’s Big Five leagues, and 10 players have Champions League medals (along with five players with Copa Libertadores gongs).  Fifteen players are returning from last year’s Confederations win… as is World Cup-winning manager Big Phil Scolari.  Anything less than the World Cup trophy will be viewed as failure.  CHAMPIONS

How far can Modric lead Croatia?

How far can Modric lead Croatia?

Meanwhile, Croatia are back in the tournament after missing out on South Africa, and then getting knocked out in the European Championship by eventual champions, Spain.  Several veterans are travelling to Brazil, including captain Darijo Srna, Danijel Pranjić, Vedran Ćorluka (really?!? Ćorluka?!?) and Ivica Olić… players who have all seen better days.  But Luka Modrić is coming off a Champions League win, Ivan Rakitić won the Europa League with Sevilla (and could be on his way to Barcelona), Mario Mandžukić came second in the Bundesliga scoring race while securing another league title, and Dejan Lovren played so well for Southampton that he’s now on the shopping list of several big clubs.   They’ll progress, where they’ll likely meet Spain again.  ROUND OF 16

It could be frustrating tourney for Chicharito

It could be frustrating tourney for Chicharito

Mexico no longer have their dark-horse caché anymore… in fact, they have no caché whatsoever.  Winning only two of 10 games in the CONCACAF hexagonal qualifiers, El Tri‘s performances provoked a national crisis when they lost on the last day.  Their collective hides were only saved by a last-gasp win by arch-enemies USA in Panama.   The Mexicans are led by mercurial defender Rafael Márquez, with bullet-headed Carlos Salcido marauding around the pitch.  Javier Hernandez had a terrible year with a terrible Manchester United side, so he may be motivated to rediscover his scoring touch, especially since he is only five away from surpassing the legendary Cuauhtémoc Blanco… but don’t bet on it.  THREE AND OUT

Wham, bam, thank you Sam...

Wham, bam, thank you Sam…

Cameroon appear to have more problems than just football.  At the time of writing, the Indomitable Lions  had failed to depart for Brazil over a pay dispute.  This is not the first time this has happened… but it points to a problem where players’ heads aren’t where they should be.   No matter: this is not the golden generation of a decade ago.   While Stéphane Mbia had a decent season with Sevilla, Alex Song has spent much of his time at Barcelona on the bench, and Samuel Eto’o has left Chelsea without any silverware to show for his short time in England.  Most of the other squad members ply their trades for middling teams in the European leagues.  Cameroon haven’t reached the knockout stages in quarter-century.  That streak should remain intact.  THREE AND OUT.

 

GROUP B

Nine of these 11 players have returned for the World Cup.

Nine of these 11 players have returned for the World Cup.

Destiny awaits for Spain. No team has retained the World Cup since Brazil did it in 1962… and in all four World Cups held in South America, it was a Sudamericano nation that won.  But Spain are no ordinary side.  This is a team retaining 18 players from its Euro 2012 victory, 15 players from its World Cup win in South Africa… and 12 players from a thunderous night in Vienna in 2008.   Twenty-two Champions League medals sit in the homes of this Spanish side… and despite advancing age, they don’t seem to be slowing down.  Spain is Football Heaven right now, with the World Cup, European Championship, Champions League trophy and Europa League trophy all residing in España.   Win the World Cup and they are the best football team, ever.  Period.  Fall a little short, and no one will begrudge them anything.  They’ll lose but only because it’s Brazil… in Brazil.  FINALIST.

Sanchez: he runs, he scores.  'Nuff said.

Sanchez: he runs, he scores. ‘Nuff said.

Chile have been one of the world’s most exciting sides to watch over the last few years.   Put that squarely in the laps of Alexis Sánchez and Arturo Vidal.   Sánchez runs riot for both Barça and La Roja, and, at 25 years old, is quickly moving up Chile’s all-time caps and goals charts.  Meanwhile Vidal is the pivot for this team, trying to do what he does for Italian champions, Juventus: score goals or set them up.  This will be a team that attacks, attacks, attacks… all the way to a match-up with fellow South Americans, Brazil, in the next round.   ROUND OF 16.

Oh sure, they're all friends NOW...

Oh sure, they’re all friends NOW…

A finalist in the last World Cup, Netherlands are a shadow of their former selves.  While Mark van Bommel called it quits in 2010, along with his father-in-law-cum-manager Bert Van Marwijk, Van Bommel’s fellow midfield hooligan Nigel de Jong returns.   Arjen Robben has had another fine campaign for Bayern Munich, and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar overcame injury in the season’s first-half to score 12 goals for Schalke.  But who else is there? Jonathan De Guzmán was stuck in Wales and Leroy Fer played on an awful Norwich City side.  Meanwhile, veterans Wesley Sneijder and Dirk Kuyt have been toiling away in the Turkish Süperlig.  Robin van Persie will chomping at the bit to overcome a forgetable season at Manchester United.   But then there is the elephant in the room: how long before the Dutch side self-destructs, turning to frustration against the opposition, referees and ultimately, each other?  THREE AND OUT

Don't get too comfy, lads.

Don’t get too comfy, lads.

Australia, Australia, Australia… we love ya.  But you are not going to make major inroads in this group.   FIFA’s lowest-ranked team in the tournament, the Aussies have the same problem as every other English-speaking former colony in the world: a national side made up mostly of players who play in their small national leagues, or at Europe’s lesser lights (Canada/USA/New Zealand/Jamaica… I’m looking at you).  Crystal Palace’s Mile Jedinak is probably this star of this outfit, the only outfielder to play in one of Europe’s Big Five.  Veterans Tim Cahill and Mark Bresciano return from far-flung clubs to help out… but this is just a brief stay for the Socceroos.  Australia 2022!  THREE AND OUT

Brent P. Lanthier

Up next: Groups C & D  (Shocking, I know)

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Best of the Prem: Starting XI

Arguably the Dutchman’s finest season… but can he repeat his success at the Euros?

As the Euros start swinging into full-gear, the Premier League season continues to fade in the rearview mirror.  But after such a compelling season, we can’t sign off on it without telling you about our picks for Starting XI.  I would have posted these earlier but I was in the UK for the last week, doing (ahem) research…

Here we go!

Hart: World’s best keeper?

GK: Joe Hart (MNC)
The England number one had the lowest goals-against average in the league. That’s no surprise, since he faced the fewest shots, and I’m sure the Citeh keeper is happy to have Vincent Kompany and Joleon Lescott in front of him.  Still, his save percentage (a stat that involves him actually touching the ball) was only second to David De Gea.   I’m tempted to pick Michel Vorm, simply because the Dutchman had more to do.  But even Hart’s fellow keepers are saying that he is close to being the best in the world.  England fans everywhere are singing, “we thank God that he’s ours”.

On the bench:  Michel Vorm (SWA), Tim Krul (NEW)

Difficult season for the Frenchman

LB: Patrice Evra (MNU)
Evra’s involvement in the Suarez racism affair has overshadowed a strong season for the Frenchman. He was the one constant on an unsettled United back line, and took the captain’s armband when Vidic blew his knee.  Evra was a tackling machine, and was almost omnipresent on SAF’s team sheet.

On the bench: Gael Clichy (MNC)

City’s defensive giants

CB: Joleon Lescott and Vincent Kompany (MNC)
The pair were instrumental — vital, even — in Citeh’s run to the title. The Citizens’ league-lowest goals-against tally had as much to do with having possession as it did with defending. But these two were monsters in the backfield, with Kompany serving as the club’s “quarterback”, while Lescott cleaned up.

On the bench: John Terry (CHE), Jonny Evans (MNU)

Ivanovic channels Al Jolson

RB: Branislav Ivanovic (CHE)
The Serbian was rough and ready, leading the league’s right backs in balls won, as well as crosses.  The fact that he scored a few goals and set up a couple more doesn’t hurt either, all while keeping his bookings down from last year.

On the bench: Danny Simpson (NEW)

A Song and a prayer helped Arsenal to a CL spot…

DM: Alex Song (ARS)
This may be a little unfair, since the Cameroonian had more of a “playmaker” role this season: 13 assists in all competitions.  But Song was also a winner when it come to breaking up opponents’ attacking runs, winning back possession deep in Arsenal’s own end and then turning the counter on a dime.  Throw out the Gunners’ horror show results against United and Blackburn early, and you see how Arsenal’s defence actually came around… and Song was a big part of that.

On the bench: Gareth Barry (MNC)

Toure led City to its first title in 44 years…

AM: Yaya Touré (MNC)
Of all the millionaires on Manchester City’s squad, Touré may have come closest to earning his £250,000 per week.  He was a menancing presence, muscling his way through the middle of the pitch to set up his teammates.  But he is not without finesse: witness his two goals against Newcastle in Citeh’s penultimate game this season, followed by a nice little tap to Zabaleta against QPR.  Man City were accused of being hired mercenaries without any fire in the belly.  But if there is a heart to this team, it lies between the “4” and “2” on Yaya Touré’s jersey.

On the bench: Mikel Arteta (ARS)

Spanish Imposition: Silva made his mark this season

LW: David Silva (MNC)
If Touré was Citeh’s heart, then Silva was their brain.  As I mentioned last week, Silva was the league’s ultimate playmaker. He led the league in assists, showing incredible control both on the ball, and with his crossing and passing.  With David Villa out of the Euros, look for Silva to move up front to lead the Spanish armada in Poland.

On the bench: Gareth Bale (TOT)

The Heart of the Mata: Spaniard has a bright future at Stamford Bridge

RW:  Juan Mata (MNC)
Another Spaniard on the wing and another speedy midfielder with the artillery to feed his teammates.   One of the players that will become a huge part of the new Chelsea.

On the bench: Antonio Valencia (MNU)

With RVP’s success, Rooney flew under the radar this season

F: Robin Van Persie (ARS), Wayne Rooney (MNU)

Let’s not beat around the bush: a forward’s job is to either score goals… or make sure someone else does.   That’s what these two players did this year.  Van Persie kept relatively injury-free to take the league’s Golden Boot with 30 markers (36 in all competitions), while Rooney was neck-and-neck for most of the season with 27 (37 in total).  The Rooney numbers are impressive, considering he was hurried into midfield for a time before Paul Scholes came out of retirement.  But RVP might have single-handedly pulled Arsenal out of its early-season nose dive.  Champions League football may keep the lanky Dutchman at the Emirates for some time yet.

On the bench: Emmanuel Adebayor (TOT), Sergio Aguero (MNC)

ATR PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Robin Van Persie
ATR YOUNG PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Sergio Aguero

Brent Lanthier

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Best of the Premier League: Starting XI

It was a big year for the big Serb

Manchester United’s record-breaking 19th league title is a testament to their manager. Sir Alex Ferguson did not have the same calibre of players as in the past. But the old gaffer leads his teams to trophies… and he would not be denied an opportunity to overtake his Merseyside nemeses. While they did not dominate, United players produced some fine individual efforts, along with their rivals Citeh and Chelsea.

Here are my starting XI for the 2011:

MIghty bright future for young Joe

GOALKEEPER
Joe Hart (Manchester City) — For some, the verdict is still out on the young Englishman. Playing for McLeish’s Birmingham and then Mancini’s Citeh means he had the benefit of great defences in front of him. But he made more saves than any other EPL keeper, except for his England understudies Ben Foster and Robert Green. The future looks bright for Old Blighty: Joe Hart is only 24.

On the bench: Petr Cech (Chelsea), Edwin Van der Sar (Manchester United)

Hot cross Baines...

LEFT BACK
Leighton Baines (Everton) — Why wouldn’t Miroslav Klose want to come to Goodison Park, where he could have Baines send over cross after cross after cross? Baines started every single game for Everton… netting seven goals and providing 12 assists. Ashley Cole’s perpetual presence on England’s left may be in jeopardy.

On the bench: Ashley Cole (Chelsea)

CENTRE BACKS
Nemanja Vidic (Manchester United) — The big Serb won Barclay’s Player of the Year, and rightly so. Vidic terrorized defences as he marshalled United to the title. If Old Trafford was a fortress this year, than Vidic was its mighty rook.

Kompany's calling...

Vincent Kompany (Manchester City) — It wasn’t easy to score goals on the other side of Manchester either.  Vincent Kompany was a consistent leader in a back eight that tied Chelsea for stingiest defense. At only £6.7 million, he was a steal… especially compared to what Citeh paid for his teammates.

On the bench:  John Terry (Chelsea), Brede Hangeland (Fulham)

Calm down, son, calm down!

RIGHT BACK
Branislav Ivanovic (Chelsea) — One of the most fouling — and carded — players in the Prem, Ivanovic is one of those sought after backs that scores, yet still plays defence. A genuine pest whose temper could get away from him, Ivanovic made it onto almost every one of Ancelotti’s team sheets.

On the bench: Bacary Sagna (Arsenal)

Arsenal's Song... and prayer

DEFENSIVE MIDFIELDER
Alex Song (Arsenal) — The Gunners didn’t lose because a lack of firepower… they lost because of the glaring holes in the centre back and goalkeeping positions. That should be reason enough for Gooners to thank Cheebus for Alex Song. The Cameroonian is a bruising DM who has embraced the old-school English philosophy of getting stuck in. Now if Arsene Wenger decides to go and buy himself a couple of solid defencemen, silver and joy might actually start to seep back into the red side of Norf London.

On the bench: Michael Essien (Chelsea)

You'd be smiling as well...

LEFT WING
Florent Malouda (Chelsea) — Crosses, runs, goals… what more do you want from a winger on a team that plays with three strikers named Drogba, Torres, Anelka? Fantastic, fantastic player.

On the bench: Ashley Young (Aston Villa)

Citeh certainly got their Yaya out...

ATTACKING MIDFIELDER
Yaya Toure (Manchester City) — Reportedly the highest-paid player in the league, Toure is a box-to-box midfielder who was all over the park. The only Citeh player who scored more Prem goals than him is Tevez, who’s goal count pipped Toure for the squad’s Player of the Year.

On the bench: Kevin Nolan (Newcastle United)

"Stop... or I will stare at you a second time..."

RIGHT WING
Nani (Manchester United) — This season has been a revelation for the Portguese winger. (Ed Note: I know he also played a lot on the left. I just wanted to put him on the team.)  Last year, he was whingy, ineffective and prone to giving away the ball. This season, Nani was still whingy — mimicking another one of his countrymen who played for United — but at least he found the net, and helped others to do the same. Nani led the league in assists while scoring 10 of his own. His on-field antics are probably the only thing from getting named as POY.

On the bench: Stewart Downing (Aston Villa)

FORWARDS
Dimitar Berbatov (Manchester United) — The debate rages: is he a precision finisher… or just a cherry picker? Spurs fans spit his name, calling him lazy and opportunistic. But he did end the season with 20 goals, enough to share the league’s Golden Boot… albeit almost all of them were at Old Trafford. Check out Berba’s second goal in their 3-0 defeat of Liverpool… and then make up your mind.

Adios Tevez

Carlos Tevez (Manchester City) — Despite his tally of 23 goals (which would have likely been higher, had he not been injured), Tevez is in danger of doing something even more impressive: pissing off both sides of Manchester. He wanted to stay at United but SAF decided to sell. Yet after only two seasons, the captain of the “People’s Club” says he wants to move on. It may be an ideal time for the club to sell him… but what a shame for the supporters.

On the bench: Robin van Persie (Arsenal), Darren Bent (Aston Villa)

PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Nemanja Vidic

Brent Lanthier

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