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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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Premier League Starting XI – 2013-2014

Luis_Suarez_Liverpool-377452

Many pints have been bought/drunk/spilled while friends/strangers/adversaries debate the Premier League’s best players.  In my list, I’ve tried to avoid hype and reputation… but that’s not to say it’s all about the stats.  I’ve also been liberal with the positions, using a 4-1-3-2 but frankly putting players in to fit.   For example, Steven Gerrard was praised for his reinvention as a defensive midfielder, but let’s face it, he mostly played the same as he always has… he just had farther to run.

Here then are my Starting XI:

Mannone of the season for Sunderland

Mannone of the season for Sunderland

Goalkeeper
Vito Mannone (SUN) – There was a reason for Vito Mannone’s switch from the bright lights of the Emirates to the ironically-named Stadium of Light.   Like almost every other professional athlete, he probably expected to start.  So it must have been disappointing when Paolo di Canio went with Keiran Westwood, a man who had spent most of his career in the lower leagues.  The Black Cats’ start to the season was dismal — going  2-1-6 — with Westwood letting in almost one out of every two shots on goal.  Mannone got his chance when Westwood got injured, and the Mackems improved, finishing a stronger 10-7-11 with 11 of those games finishing in a clean sheet for Sunderland.  In fact, Mannone faced more shots on goal than any other keeper in the league, despite missing a quarter of the season.  Quite rightly, he was named Sunderland’s Player of the Season.

Bench: Petr Cech (CHE), Tim Howard (EVE)

Coleman, Baines were lethal from the back this season.

Coleman, Baines were lethal from the back this season.

Fullbacks
(LB) Leighton Baines, (RB) Seamus Coleman (EVE) – The Toffees seem to have an embarrassment of riches at the fullback position.  Under Roberto Martinez, Leighton Baines and Seamus Coleman act as virtual wingers in an already offence-friendly side.  The pair fly in with crosses, complementing the Mirallas/Barkley/Osman contingent on the wings.  That leaves the two centre backs, along with a resurgent Gareth Barry and GK Tim Howard, to worry about any defensive issues.  It seemed to work: Everton had the third-best defensive record in the Prem, while the Scouser and the Irishman both scored as many goals as their colleagues in midfield.

Bench – Patrice Evra (LB), Bacary Sagna (RB)

Skrtel, Koscielny saw both highs and lows this season

Skrtel, Koscielny saw both highs and lows this season

Centrebacks
Martin Skrtel (LIV), Laurent Koscielny (ARS) – I can hear the howls of protests already.  Why not players from Chelsea or City or even Everton? How can you pick one player who set a record for own goals in a season, and another with a propensity to self-destruct?  Because the game-in, game-out stats tell a different story.  In a league where goals are up across the board, both players were on sides built to throw everything forward in attractive — but dangerous — football.  Martin Skrtel led the league in clearances and was tied for fourth in block shots.  Think back to the images of him racing back to clear the ball, because Brendan Rodgers had his team playing such a high line.  (Don’t forget Skrtel scored seven goals… he’s a centre back!).  Meanwhile, Laurent Koscielny was in the league’s top ten for both interceptions and offsides won, and he was in the top 20 for blocked shots.

Bench – John Terry (CHE), Per Mertesacker (ARS)

Jedinak might be the hardest man in the Prem.

Jedinak might be the hardest man in the Prem.

Defensive Midfield
Mile Jedinak (CRY) – Crikey! Mile Jedinak has maintained the fearsome reputation of Aussie footballers in the Premier League — Messrs. Emerton, Neill and Cahill come to mind (like a prog-rock band! Ha!).  The Palace player led the league in interceptions per game, and was 2nd in tackles per game.  That’s all the more impressive when you realize he started every single game.  A big reason why the Eagles had the league’s sixth-best Goals-Against.

On the bench – Gareth Barry (EVE)

Ramsey was one of the league's best midfielders, despite injuries

Ramsey was one of the league’s best midfielders, despite injuries

Right Wing
Aaron Ramsey (ARS) – Mr. Arsenal this season, Aaron Ramsey set the league on fire in the season’s first half, before he was twice sidelined by injury. He was Arsenal’s second-biggest goal-scorer in the league, and tied for third in assists, despite playing in only 60% of the Gunners’ matches.

On the bench – David Silva (MNC)

Yaya holds his birthday cake that's coincidentally shaped like a trophy

Yaya holds his birthday cake that’s coincidentally shaped like a trophy

Central Midfield
Yaya Touré (MNC) – What hasn’t already been said about Yaya Touré’s season?  The first midfielder since Frank Lampard to score 20 goals in a season, tied for fifth in assists, the Ivorian was Citeh’s talisman (an overused cliché, but in this case, true) and led the Citizens to their second title in three years.

On the bench – Steven Gerrard (LIV)

"Oh my God, I can't believe I made ATR's Starting XI!"

“Oh my God, I can’t believe I made ATR’s Starting XI!”

Left Wing
Eden Hazard (CHE) – José Mourinho had a rough relationship with his forwards this season, and sometimes played without a striker.  Enter the Belgian, Eden Hazard.  The attacking midfielder led his team in goals and assists, and was one of the league’s best passers.  An incredible player to watch (unless you’re a ball boy), Hazard will be a key part of Marc Wilmot’s plans in Brazil.

On the bench – Adam Lallana (SOU)

Suarez and Sturridge: 52 goals between the pair.

Suarez and Sturridge: 52 goals between the pair.

Strikers
Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge (LIV) – The picking of these two players was almost a no-brainer… almost.  Luis Suarez tied the Premier League record for goals in a 38-game season, despite missing the first five matches.  He was also second in the league for assists — just behind team mate Steven Gerrard — so it’s not like he was being selfish.  Love him or hate him, he had a brilliant season and propelled Liverpool into the most exciting title run in almost two decades.

Sergio Agüero was almost equally brilliant, scoring 17 in 23 appearances.  But injuries hampered an otherwise brilliant season, and young(ish) Daniel Sturridge found his own touch, scoring 21 of his own.   That’s why he would start in my XI.

On the bench – Sergio Aguero (MNC), Wayne Rooney (MNU)

Player of the Season: Luis Suarez

Brent P. Lanthier

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