The Usual Suspects

Big teams are made for big moments. They have captured our imagination, lifted trophies and given us idols to revere. MOHAMED SUHAIL looks at the five teams that most eyes will be on in the 2014 World Cup.

Team: Germany
Manager: Joachim Low
Players to watch: Mesut Ozil, Miroslav Klose, Thomas Muller

Did you know?  Germany’s legend Oliver Kahn is the only goalkeeper in the history of the FIFA World Cup to have won the Golden Ball trophy (2002).

History: Germany are three-time World (1954, 1974, 1990) and European (1972, 1980, 1996) champions. The Germans played in the World Cup for the first time in Italy in 1934 and finished third. The team proved itself as a strong contestant, not willing to yield to opponents regardless of their status. Germany took third place thrice: in 1970, 1974 and in 2010.

Road to qualification: Germany coasted through qualification by topping a group that also included Sweden, Austria, Republic of Ireland, Kazakhstan and Faroe Islands. Winning nine and drawing one of their 10 fixtures, Low’s side caught the eye going forward and scored 36 times – netting at least three times on nine occasions – but failed to impress defensively. Ten goals conceded and a mere four clean sheets doesn’t instil much confidence.

Expected finish: In the last decade, Germany’s World Cup triumph has been so close yet so far. It was within touching distance in 2002, but Ronaldo & Co worked their Brazilian magic to see the Germans off. No better were the 2006 and 2010 finals, where Die Manschaaft only finished as third best.

At Brazil 2014, they will not have to contend with the same rampant and indomitable Spanish side that won Euro 2008, World Cup 2010 and Euro 2012. Bayern’s and Dortmund’s recent successes over Barcelona and Real Madrid have put that particular ghost to bed. German players now know that they are more than a match technically for any side on the planet and that they are physically superior to practically everyone else.

Germany have been placed into Group G this summer and will be taking on Portugal, Ghana and the USA as they look to progress through to the next stage of the competition. It should be an easy ride to the top of the group, with no other genuine threat other than Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal.

With a golden generation of players at their peak, this German team will do no less than to lift the World Cup trophy in Rio de Janeiro.

Team: Italy
Manager: Cesare Prandelli
Players to watch: Mario Balotelli, Andrea Pirlo, Gianluigi Buffon

Did you know? The oldest player to win the World Cup was Italian goalkeeper and captain Dino Zoff, who at the age of 40 captained Italy to their 1982 FIFA World Cup title.

History: The four-time world champions will be hoping to equal Brazil’s tally come this summer. Italy has always been defensively and tactically sound. The Azzurri’s reputation were never based on individual brilliance but, in terms of a collaborative display, few sides have been able to match their defensive intelligence. Also, the catenaccio (door-bolt) defensive strategy has remained synonymous with Italian football since its heyday in the 60’s and 70’s.

Road to qualification: The Italians clinched their progress after topping a six-team group that also included Denmark, Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Armenia and Malta. Prandelli’s troops won six of their 10 matches and scored 19 goals (netting two or more on eight occasions), though they seemed to struggle defensively – conceding nine goals, they managed just four clean sheets over the course of their campaign.

Expected finish:  Say goodbye to catenaccio. Cesare Prandelli’s mixture of youth and experience combined with counter-attacking football will be a joy to watch. Ironically, Italy’s old guard at the back now suddenly seem fragile, with their midfield maestro Andrea Pirlo and striker Mario Balotelli their only hope of producing moments of brilliance that will ensure Italy go far in this tournament.

Sometimes, the Azzuri tend to perform when the pressure to deliver gets intense. A recent example would be Italy’s 2006 triumph in the midst of the Calciopoli scandal.

The team could get a relatively “easy” matchup in the round of 16 depending on where they finish in the group. The quarter-final match could be against Brazil if they finish second. On the other side of the bracket, Italy may have to play Spain if they win the group. If the Azzuri can get past the quarterfinals, then they become a major contender to lift the trophy.

However, it is unlikely that the Italians will get past either threat; the Brazilians made easy work of them in the group stage of the Confederations Cup and Spain should be more than capable of knocking out their European rival.

A quarter-final berth is the most Italy can pull off unless they can match their 2006 performance.

Team: France
Manager: Didier Deschamps
Players to watch: Paul Pogba, Karim Benzema, Antoine Griezmann

Did you know? Frenchman Just Fontaine holds the record for most World Cup goals scored in a single edition when he netted 13 goals in the 1958 World Cup.

History:  Zinedine Zidane inspired France to their first and only World Cup victory in 1998. The French were one of the teams that took part in the first ever World Cup in Uruguay back in 1930. They finished runners up in 2006 and took second place in 1958 and 1986.

Road to qualification: The French finished second to Spain in a group that also included Finland, Georgia and Belarus. Winning five and drawing two of their eight matches, their home loss to the defending champions proved costly and forced them into a play-off with Ukraine. After losing the first leg 2-0 on their travels, Deschamps’ side looked dead and buried but a change in tactics from 4-2-3-1 to 4-3-3 proved pivotal and saw them rack up a 3-0 win, progressing to the world cup by the narrowest of margins.

Expected finish:  Les Bleus are always in the international spotlight – for all the wrong reasons. From Zidane’s infamous ugly altercation with Italy’s Marco Materazzi to Raymond Domenech’s fallout with the players in the 2010 World Cup, much of the French team’s heart and soul has been ripped out and the wounds have yet to fully heal. A first World Cup for many of the players, Deschamps’ faith in youth will be a high risk.

Their Jekyll and Hyde performances will have to stop and they will have to mature as a team to bring back a second World Cup.

France, drawn in Group E with Switzerland, Honduras and Ecuador, should claim top spot. Since 1998, the erratic French have either reached the final or failed to win a game at the World Cup. The official FIFA World Cup rankings for their past four World Cup finals appearances bear that point out: first in 1998, 28th in 2002, second in 2006 and 29th in 2010.

If that pattern is repeated they are set to reach the final again this time, but a semi-final appearance is a more likely scenario if they click as a team.

Team: England
Manager: Roy Hodgson
Players to watch: Adam Lallana, Ross Barkley, Wayne Rooney

Did you know? The 1966 World Cup, which England won, was boycotted by African teams.

History: England have had only moderate success in the World Cup, and that is perhaps a fair indication of their standing in the world game.  They won the tournament once, in 1966, when it was held on their own soil and they played all their matches on their home ground, Wembley Stadium, an advantage extended to no other team in World Cup history.  Their 4-2 extra-time victory against West Germany in the only final match they have reached has remained clouded by the controversy over whether their third goal, the first of extra-time, actually crossed the goal line.

Road to qualification: England arrive in Brazil on the back of an unbeaten qualifying campaign. Drawn in a six-team group along with Ukraine, Montenegro, Poland, Moldova and San Marino, they won six and drew four of their 10 fixtures, scoring 31 times, conceding four, and registering six clean sheets.

Expected Finish: England’s expectations on the side’s progress this year have been played down. With their second-youngest ever World Cup squad, the Three Lions may, however, cause a surprise through their pace and youthful nerve. Led by one of England’s better managers in a while in Roy Hodgson, the side was tough to beat in the qualifying campaign – only allowing their goal to be breached just four times.

England face a tough task of overcoming Uruguay and Italy in the group round. Both sides are looked upon as bonafide contenders and it is likely that the English will be third best in the group. The Uruguayans have offensive weapons that would completely destroy England’s weak defence while the Italian rear guard has repeatedly shown that it can shut down England with ease; just look at the 2012 Euro quarter-final match.

With the nations’ hope on the young guns, anything beyond a quarter-final berth would prove to be a surprise to many.

Team: The Netherlands
Manager: Louis Van Gaal
Players to watch: Wesley Sneijder, Arjen Robben, Robin Van Persie

Did you know? In the 1970s, the Dutch team was famous for its precision passing and it earned them the nickname ‘Clockwork Orange’.

History: Holland is one of the top ten countries as far as finals performances are concerned. Holland was amongst the four best teams of the tournament on four different occasions: in 1974, 1978, 1998 and 2010.

Road to qualification: The Dutch cruised through their qualifying group, winning nine and drawing one of their 10 fixtures. Drawn against the likes of Romania, Hungary, Turkey, Estonia and Andorra, Van Gaal’s team ran riot, scoring 35 times and conceding on just five occasions, with six clean sheets accrued.

Expected finish:  With the Dutch having lost in three different finals (1974, 1978 and 2010), they are known as underachievers. Van Gaal would love to be the first Dutchman to bring home the trophy and put the disappointment of four years ago behind them. It is almost certainly the last chance for some of their old guard such as Robben, Sneijder and Van Persie.

In spite of their excellent qualifying record, expectations are somewhat low. Van Gaal has mainly utilised a number of young, domestic-based players and has rather surprisingly decided to alter his team’s formation from 4-3-3 to 5-3-2 – a shape trialled during a 1-1 friendly draw with Ecuador earlier this month. Van Gaal has revealed three reasons behind his tinkering – the absence of Kevin Strootman through injury in the centre of the park, the lack of a first-choice left back  and his intention to field a minimum of three creative players in his starting XI.

They boast a very experienced coach and a strong, balanced squad despite their relative inexperience. If they can make it out of a tricky group, the Oranje could be capable of doing something similar to 2010.