With the same old transfer stories continuously doing the rounds, but with hardly any more substance than they had this time last month, why not spend a day looking forward to something that is absolutely definitely going to happen, instead? Diego Costa will still be ‘nearly’ signed up tomorrow, don’t worry.
After the relatively low-quality and uneventful edition of the tournament in South Africa four years ago, and with levels of enthusiasm for international football continuing to diminish (across Europe in particular), the sport could really benefit from a great World Cup this summer, and I think there are plenty of reasons to be hopeful of just that. All of the major nations (apart from the Netherlands) head in to the competition with stronger squads than they had available last time around. Many of world’s best players i.e. Ronaldo, Messi, Ribery (if fit), Rooney, Schweinsteiger & Lahm will know that this could be the best chance they’ll ever have to leave their mark on the competition also. And whilst there may be fewer genuine contenders for the trophy than usual, there are also possibly more countries than ever in with a shout of reaching the latter stages, with Chile, Colombia, Uruguay, Croatia and Belgium all heading to the finals with their strongest teams for a generation or more.
One other reason to expect a great tournament is the draw, with the group stages set to throw some up huge matches right from the beginning, with the opening three days throwing up three matches potentially worthy of quarter finals. Here are three short previews of the games to hopefully whet your appetite even more…
Brazil v Croatia
Since taking back over the side, Felipe Scolari has lost only two of his 20 games with Brazil, scoring 57 and conceding only 15. After the meek directionless of the Mano Menezes era, the ex-Chelsea coach has once again turned Brazil into a major force, reenergising the squad and re-exciting the population. He might not have the depth of attacking talent he enjoyed in 2002 with Ronaldo, Rivaldo and a young Ronaldinho; he still has a squad he knows are capable of humbling the mighty Spanish after last year’s Confederations Cup final.
Perhaps one of Scolari’s biggest strengths as an international manager is the confidence he has to select players which haven’t had particularly great club seasons, because he knows how good they are for the group and for the team. None of David Luiz, Fred, Julio Cesar or Paulinho will have played as much or as well as they would have hoped this year, yet all are certain to start. Luis Gustavo may lose his place however to the excellent Fernandinho, after a poor season at Wolfsburg. Hulk is set to play the same tactical role he had on the right wing last summer over the more technically gifted Willian and Bernard.
Croatia meanwhile enter the competition with an almost equally popular coach in Robert Kovac, and with as settled and strong a squad as they’ve boasted since the 1998 finals where they finished 3rd. Their three key playmaking talents Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Mateo Kovacic have all enjoyed good club seasons and should be exciting to watch together; whether Kovac will be brave enough to field all three in midfield is doubtful though – particularly against the Brazilians, that may leave them light in central areas. The most obvious solution would be to play Dynamo Kiev’s unglamorous but effective holding midfielder, Ognjen Vukojevic, and move Kovacic, the most skilful dribbler in the side out onto the left flank.
Mario Mandzukic will be a big-miss in the opening game as he serves a suspension. Ivica Olic will most likely take his place, with Wolfsburg teammate Ivan Perisic (who scored twice against Mali in a warm-up game) likely to start on the right.
Prediction – Unless Brazil come storming out of the blocks and grab some early goals, which is of course, entirely possible, this could be an excellent tactical game. Brazil rightly start as huge favourites though and will most likely win to nil.
Spain v Netherlands
Vicente Del Bosque will be looking to help Spain win their fourth major trophy in succession this month; quite how he’ll go about doing so is an interesting question. On the one hand, it could be seen as foolish to alter a system that has yielded recent unprecedented success as this level of the game, however after his side’s hammering in Brazil last summer, calls have grown for, if not an alternative Plan ‘A’, at least a viable ‘B’ to be implemented. The legendary Spanish coach simply has to be more flexible this time around.
The midfield pivot of Sergio Busquets and Xabi Alonso will surely not be touched. The midfield positions of Andres Iniesta, David Silva and Xavi may not be so safe however, with the latter in particular looking further from his best days with every passing game. Atletico’s Juanfran will most likely start at right back, providing a more attacking contribution than Alvaro Arbeloa has in the past. Pedro Rodriguez, with 12 goals in his last 21 internationals may be given a more key role also. Meanwhile, Diego Costa, surely Spain’s key attacking player, is in a race to be fit, with Cesc Fabregas more likely to start in the CF position in their opening game.
As for their opponents, after being handed a tough group and being forced to travel without their best midfield player in Kevin Strootman, reaching the second round would probably represent a job well-done for Louis Van Gaal ahead of his move to Man Utd. The Dutchman has been experimenting with a 3-5-2 formation in warm-up games and will most likely use it against the Spanish, after seeing Italy achieve success with the tactic against Del Bosque’s men at the Euro’s in 2012.
He won’t quite have the same level of quality at centre half to call upon as Cesare Prandelli though, with Aston Villa captain Ron Vlaar the only option to have played all year in a top league. Daryl Janmaat (known in Feyenoord as the Dutch-Dani Alves) and Daley Blind will provide some quality on the wings however, while Nigel de Jong and Jordi Clasie provide solid protection to the back three. Wesley Sneijder may not be the player he was in South Africa but will have a huge creative burden to serve the two superstars of the team, Robin Van Persie and Arjen Robben.
Prediction – I think this will be a draw. Spain aren’t historically the quickest starters at these competitions and against a well prepared Dutch defence and a dangerous counter-attacking strike partnership to be wary of, this will most likely be another cagey, but fascinating game.
England v Italy
The final game to look at over the opening three days is England against Italy. And though Roy Hodgson’s team remain slight underdogs, it is the English who have improved significantly more since their famous penalty shoot-out defeat to Italy in Ukraine, with several exciting young players haven broken through these past two years. Daniel Sturridge is well on his way to becoming one of the best strikers in the world, whilst the likes of Adam Lallana, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Raheem Sterling and Danny Welbeck each provide interesting options for Hodgson on the wings. Steven Gerrard has become an excellent deep lying creative presence in midfield and looks comfortable next to the massively improved Jordan Henderson in central midfield. Phil Jagielka looks to have formed a good parternship also with Gary Cahill, now his country’s key defensive player.
Italy’s approach will be far harder to predict, with their greatest strength undoubtedly the tactical versatility of their players. Prandelli’s options have been limited however by the injury suffered by Ricardo Montolivo this weekend; he may now have to select either Claudio Marchisio, who has had a disappointing season at Juventus, or Alberto Aquilani of Fiorentina. He may still go with either a back four or a back three with Daniele De Rossi equally adept as a sweeper or a midfield enforcer next to Andrea Pirlo. Mario Balotelli remains the star man upfront but Ciro Immobile, now of Borussia Dortmund represents the quality of back-up which Italy have been in long need of. Alessio Cerci is the one player who can provide genuine width if they need it, whilst Lorenzo Insinge could be key in a number of roles after a fantastic debut season under Rafa Benitez at Napoli
Prediction – England may be the more tactically settled team and Hodgson’s more conservative tactics may be more appropriate for the conditions, but I still make Italy slight favourites. Gerrard’s playmaking talents still pale in comparison to those of Pirlo, and whilst Rooney and Sturridge are both excellent forwards, neither have the propensity to dominate or singlehandedly win a game to the same extent as Balotelli.
If Prandelli’s key men fail to perform however, England are plenty well equipped to capitalise, of the two sides, they’re the one more likely to scrap out a good result, should a notable lack of quality be present.