A group-by-group breakdown of the World Cup, analyzing which country has the edge, identifying a possible sleeper, picking out a player to watch and predicting which teams will advance to the knockout stage.
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(Brazil, Croatia, Mexico, Cameroon)
The favorite: Brazil. Fans of the Selecao will be expecting nine points from the team’s three games against decent, but not great, competition. Brazil has a loaded roster; the only questions are whether the team can find a reliable striker and if it can cope with the pressure.
The sleeper: Mexico. Mexico’s decline from 2011 Gold Cup and 2012 Olympic champions to nearly missing out on the World Cup has been as shocking as it has been puzzling. Safely in Brazil, maybe El Tri can snap out of its funk.
Player to watch: Luka Modric, MF, Croatia. The Real Madrid playmaker took a bit of time to settle in Spain but emerged this season as one of the team’s best players.
Predicted order of finish: Brazil, Croatia, Cameroon, Mexico
Schedule: Brazil vs. Croatia (Thu., 4 p.m., ESPN); Mexico vs. Cameroon (Fri., noon, ESPN2); Brazil vs. Mexico (June 17, 3 p.m., ESPN); Cameroon vs. Croatia (June 18, 6 p.m., ESPN); Brazil vs. Cameroon (June 23, 4 p.m., ESPN); Croatia vs. Mexico (June 23, 4 p.m., ESPN2)
(Spain, Netherlands, Chile, Australia)
The favorite: Spain. The reigning World and European champions aren’t as dominant as they once were, but it’s premature to call time on the Spanish dynasty. Striker Diego Costa’s fitness will be key to Spain’s success in later rounds.
The sleeper: Chile. England got a taste of how good Chile is in a 2-0 defeat in London in November. The Netherlands’ big hopes for the tournament could be dashed if it’s not ready for Alexis Sanchez and Co.
Player to watch: Arturo Vidal, MF, Chile. The Juventus all-around midfielder, if healthy, is the perfect antidote to Spain’s tiki-taka style. He’s a hard-nosed tackler without the ball, and with it, he’s capable of starting attacks from deep or popping up in the final third to finish them.
Predicted order of finish: Spain, Chile, Netherlands, Australia
Schedule: Spain vs. Netherlands (Fri., 3 p.m., ESPN); Chile vs. Australia (Fri., 6 p.m., ESPN2); Australia vs. Netherlands (June 18, noon, ESPN); Spain vs. Chile (June 18, 3 p.m., ESPN); Australia vs. Spain (June 23, noon, ESPN2); Netherlands vs. Chile (June 23, noon, ESPN)
(Colombia, Greece, Ivory Coast, Japan)
The favorite: Colombia. Even without Radamel Falcao, who is missing the tournament with a knee injury, Colombia still has enough firepower to get out of this tricky group. After that, Colombia is a dark horse to make a deep run.
The sleeper: Greece. It won’t be pretty, but the Greeks will defend deep, tackle tough and hang around in every game they’re in. If a few breaks go their way, don’t be surprised to see them advance.
Player to watch: Shinji Kagawa, MF, Japan. He’s had a tough time at Manchester United, but there’s no doubt the Japanese attacking midfielder has great skill and vision.
Predicted order of finish: Colombia, Ivory Coast, Japan, Greece
Schedule: Colombia vs. Greece (Sat., noon, ABC); Ivory Coast vs. Japan (Sat., 9 p.m., ESPN); Colombia vs. Ivory Coast (June 19, noon, ESPN); Japan vs. Greece (June 19, 6 p.m., ESPN); Japan vs. Colombia (June 24, 4 p.m., ESPN); Greece vs. Ivory Coast (June 24, 4 p.m., ESPN2)
(Uruguay, Costa Rica, Italy, England)
The favorite: Italy. The Azzurri surprised many with a run to the final of Euro 2012. Everybody’s ready for them now. Too many words have been written about the midfield maestro that is Andrea Pirlo, but he really is that good.
The sleeper: England. The Three Lions have reason to be optimistic, with 19-year-old Raheem Sterling and 20-year-old Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain forming part of an energetic young core with no ties to previous English failures in the spotlight.
Player to watch: Luis Suarez, F, Uruguay. Assuming he’s fully recovered from a knee injury, the English Premier League’s leading scorer will square off against several Liverpool teammates when Uruguay faces England — a game that could decide which team advances.
Predicted order of finish: Italy, Uruguay, England, Costa Rica
Schedule: Uruguay vs. Costa Rica (Sat., 3 p.m., ABC); England vs. Italy (Sat., 6 p.m., ESPN); Uruguay vs. England (June 19, 3 p.m., ESPN); Italy vs. Costa Rica (June 20, noon, ESPN); Italy vs. Uruguay (June 24, noon, ESPN); Costa Rica vs. England (June 24, noon, ESPN2)
(Switzerland, Ecuador, France, Honduras)
The favorite: France. After a disastrous 2010 World Cup, the French — even without Bayern Munich star Franck Ribery, who will miss the World Cup with a back injury — have too much talent not to get out of an easy group.
The sleeper: Ecuador. Other than Manchester United winger Antonio Valencia, there aren’t any big names on the Ecuador team. But don’t write them off because of that; qualifying out of South America is no cakewalk.
Player to watch: Karim Benzema, F, France. The Real Madrid striker, who has been criticized for not being as good as Cristiano Ronaldo (really, who is?), will need to score plenty of goals for France to make a deep run.
Predicted order of finish: France, Ecuador, Switzerland, Honduras
Schedule: Switzerland vs. Ecuador (Sun., noon, ABC); France vs. Honduras (Sun., 3 p.m., ABC); Switzerland vs. France (June 20, 3 p.m., ESPN); Honduras vs. Ecuador (June 20, 6 p.m., ESPN); Honduras vs. Switzerland (June 25, 4 p.m., ESPN); Ecuador vs. France (June 25, 4 p.m., ESPN2)
(Argentina, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Nigeria, Iran)
The favorite: Argentina. Messi, Aguero, Higuain, Lavezzi. Even casual fans have likely heard of at least some of those four attackers. Argentina’s biggest problem will be keeping all of them happy — and hoping its significantly less intimidating defense can hold up.
The sleeper: Bosnia-Herzegovina. Manchester City striker Edin Dzeko is the star of a Bosnian team that cruised through qualifying. Argentina won’t be without competition in the group stage.
Player to watch: Angel di Maria, MF, Argentina. With his boundless energy and underrated skill, the midfielder is key to Real Madrid. A top-heavy Argentina team may count on di Maria to link defense to attack.
Predicted order of finish: Argentina, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Nigeria, Iran
Schedule: Argentina vs. Bosnia (Sun., 6 p.m., ESPN); Iran vs. Nigeria (Mon., 3 p.m., ESPN); Argentina vs. Iran (June 21, noon, ESPN); Nigeria vs. Bosnia (June 21, 6 p.m., ESPN); Nigeria vs. Argentina (June 25, noon, ESPN); Bosnia vs. Iran (June 25, noon, ESPN2)
The favorite: Germany. Find a hole in this team. By the time you do — possibly at striker, where the team will feature either 36-year-old Miroslav Klose or a midfielder playing out of position — Germany will be up 2-0.
The sleeper: Ghana. Somehow, the Black Stars (quarterfinalists in 2010) are the fourth-best team in the group. Their counterattacking style will suit them well against highly ranked opposition.
Player to watch: Joao Moutinho, MF, Portugal. The Portuguese team may be Cristiano Ronaldo and 10 other players, but one of those 10 has to get him the ball. Moutinho will — and in the best positions possible.
Predicted order of finish: Germany, Portugal, USA, Ghana
Schedule: Germany vs. Portugal (Mon., noon, ESPN); United States vs. Ghana (Mon., 6 p.m., ESPN); Germany vs. Ghana (June 21, 3 p.m., ESPN); United States vs. Portugal (June 22, 6 p.m., ESPN); Portugal vs. Ghana (June 26, noon, ESPN2); United States vs. Germany (June 26, noon, ESPN)
(Belgium, Algeria, Russia, South Korea)
The favorite: Belgium. If it wasn’t Belgium, this group of players could be the favorite to win it all. Young, dynamic, deep and balanced, the Belgians are everything but experienced.
The sleeper: Russia. Former England coach Fabio Capello accidentally called up the wrong player for his Russian team for a friendly match in February. When he was with England, the Italian also said he only needed to know 100 words in English to lead England. Still, he’s a good enough coach to steer Russia out of the group stage.
Player to watch: Marouane Fellaini, MF, Belgium. When he is on, the big man with the big Afro is capable of overpowering almost anyone. Problem is, he hasn’t been on since moving from Everton to Manchester United last August. Which Fellaini will turn up in Brazil?
Predicted order of finish: Belgium, Russia, South Korea, Algeria
Schedule: Belgium vs. Algeria (Tue., noon, ESPN); Russia vs. South Korea (Tue., 6 p.m., ESPN); Belgium vs. Russia (June 22, noon, ABC); South Korea vs. Algeria (June 22, 3 p.m., ABC); South Korea vs. Belgium (June 26, 4 p.m., ESPN); Algeria vs. Russia (June 26, 4 p.m., ESPN2)
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