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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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Llorente Gets His Wish

Fernando-Llorente

Fernando Llorente started.  Fernando Llorente scored.  Happy now?

So much ink/cyberspace has been dedicated to the saga surrounding the Basque player’s prolonged transfer from Athletic Bilbao to Juventus.  Llorente demanded a move after the 2012 Europa League final, didn’t get it, and then paid the price with Marcelo Bielsa starting him on the bench for most of the season.

Meanwhile, Juventus fans and media types demanded that the club sign him, saying they needed more forwards.  They got their wish on July 1st.  But then the clamouring changed in tone, from “Where is Llorente?” to “Why isn’t Llorente playing?”.  Before Sunday, his only competitive appearance in the Bianconeri shirt was seeing out the clock for a couple minutes at Sampdoria.

So the inevitable reaction from the European press is that Llorente is unhappy, that he is already looking towards England in January.   But on Sunday, the Number 14 appeared on both the team-sheet and the score-sheet.  The response from the press and the fanzines? Llorente played well, but the rest of the side “needs work”.

The hype that surrounds a new arrival at big clubs almost always takes on a life of its own.   The longer the transfer is drawn out, the greater the myth that accompanies the incoming player.  In reality, Llorente needs Juventus more than Juventus needs him.

Before last season’s drama in Bilbao, Llorente was the go-to guy at his ancestral club, their top scorer for five straight seasons.  But Llorente only broke the 20-goal mark in two of those campaigns (including that Europa league final season).  He’s thrice been in La Liga’s top 10 scorers, coming in at 9th, 5th and 6th in 2010, 2011 and 2012 respectively.  If you were to find an English comparison, Llorente is the Spanish Emmanuel Adebayor: a guy who can be lethal when he wants, but not someone to build your whole team around.  Since he’s left, Bilbao have had no problem finding an adequate replacement, bringing in another Basque player (of course), Aritz Aduriz from Valencia.

arturo-vidal-juvenus-300x159

Scoring comes to Vidal so soon…

Despite the common wisdom, Juventus have been finding the back of the net.  Last season, they finished their Serie A campaign with the third-most goals in the league, only two behind high-flying Napoli.  In the Champions League, by the end of the Round of 16, only Real Madrid and Bayern Munich had scored more goals.  No one had a better plus-minus, but critics point to the quarter-final matches against Bayern Munich, when they were outscored 4-0 over two legs.  This is the same Bayern that put seven unanswered goals past mighty Barcelona in the following round.

To say that Juventus needs strikers is to misunderstand how Antonio Conte has set up his team.   The manager likes to play a 3-5-2 (closer to a 3-5-1-1), which means that the midfielders are the stars of the show.  It’s hard to argue with a group that could be the best in Europe: Andrea Pirlo quarterbacking the likes of Arturo Vidal,  Kwadwo Asamoah, Stephan Liechsteiner, and Paul Pogba through the middle.   It allows them to remain disciplined defensively, while trying to keep possession until they can open up the pitch for the forwards.

Those attacking players haven’t been idle either.  They may get outshone individually by, say, Vidal or Pirlo, but they have done their part.  If someone has the right to be miffed, it’s Claudio Marchisio and Fabio Quagliarella.  Normally slotted in the Number 10 role, the pair have been displaced by the club’s other high-profile signing, Carlos Tevez.   The energetic Argentine has already scored four in six matches, including that beauty on the weekend.

Vucinic injury opened the door for Llorente

Vucinic injury opened the door for Llorente

Conte has probably waited this long to start Llorente because the player simply hadn’t appeared that much over the last 15 months.  Conte also had no reason to displace Mirko Vucinic up front until now.  The Montenergrin injured himself on international duty and Conte is easing him back in, using him to replace Llorente in the 69th.

Llorente should be a good foot soldier for the Italian champions.  He will have to compete for his job with Vucinic, but if he gets the minutes, he should contribute to the club’s goal count as they defend their title.  What he will not be is a game changer, the way that Tevez can take control of a match.

In Bilbao, Llorente was the proverbial big-fish-in-a-smallish-pond.  But now he’s in a different league, in the metaphorical as well as the geographical sense.  So if he gets a game here and there, and happens to notch a few goals, we should all be happy for the man who finally got his wish… and for the fans and pundits who got theirs as well.

Brent P. Lanthier

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by | September 24, 2013 · 8:00 am