This article is part of our The Clean Sheets series.
From: Andrew M. Laird
Sent: Friday, June 10, 2014 3:52pm
To: Nicholas Pitner
Subject: The Clean Sheets - Group A
Don't you just hate it when small countries who barely have an international soccer presence host a World Cup and then automatically qualify? I mean, how else would Brazil get in? Other than winning the World Cup five times, reaching the final two other times, while also winning the most games and scoring the most goals in the history of the competition, on what grounds are they to be in this year's tournament?
In all seriousness, Brazil are the class of Group A and are the favorites to win the World Cup. They have elite skill at nearly every position, and are led up front by Neymar, who at 22 years old is already one of the best players on the planet. He seems to relish being the face of Brazilian soccer and the upside for his career is absolutely massive if they can win it. But what happens if they fail? You'd think it all falls on his shoulders one way or the other. If they can do it on their home soil, Neymar has a great shot to earn Golden Boot honors as well.
Brazil will win this group without question. The second spot is what's up for debate.
There is no clear-cut favorite between Croatia, Mexico and Cameroon and really no one should be surprised with whoever makes it out.
Cameroon is probably the underdog of the three, but with a 49 year old Samuel Eto'o leading the way, it's certainly conceivable that they could beat Mexico, draw or beat Croatia and advance.
I don't know what to make of this Mexico team. They were thisclose to not even qualifying for the World Cup until the U.S. stormed back to win on an Aron Johansson goal in stoppage time (which was preceded by a Graham Zusi goal only moments earlier) to beat Panama back in October.
Mexico even lost THAT DAY to Costa Rica and still qualified for a playoff against New Zealand, who they resoundingly beat to punch their ticket to Brazil.
Plenty of people will point to Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez as the key for Mexico, but there has been talk recently that he won't even start for El Tri, who will actually depend on Oribe Peralta to set the tone. Peralta has netted 11 times in 10 international appearances, and he even bagged a brace against Brazil in the 2012 gold medal match at the Summer Olympics in London. Mexico is playing better now than they were during qualifying, which is certainly a plus, but I am still not convinced they can finish ahead of Croatia.
Brazil will host Croatia in the opener Thursday, which may be a plus to get that game out of the way early. Croatia will also be without Bayern Munich (for now) striker Mario Mandzukic, who is suspended for the first match. However, he'll be back to face Mexico and Cameroon, which is a huge boost.
Luka Modric, fresh off a Champions League trophy with Real Madrid, is the star in midfield, and he is joined by Ivan Rakitic, who was one of five players in La Liga to record double-digit goals and assists. Dejan Lovren, coming off an excellent season at Southampton, centers the back line and is more than capable of slowing down the Mexican attack. Croatia did have some disappointing performances during qualifying, but if they can keep it together, they can reach the knockout stage.
From: Nick Pitner
Sent: Friday, June 10, 2014 3:52pm
To: Andrew M. Laird
Subject: re: The Clean Sheets - Group A
Brazil is indeed a perfect host country for the World Cup and following years of anticipation, anything less than The Samba Boys hoisting the trophy will be considered a national calamity.
Manager Luiz Felipe Scolari has Brazil well-settled on the heels of last year's convincing Confederations Cup victory, a tune-up tournament that catapulted Neymar into international stardom. While he experienced his fair share of ups-and-downs (for a player like him) during his debut campaign at Barcelona, Neymar seemingly turns into Superman when donning Brazil's famed yellow kit. Already a national hero with 31 goals in 49 appearances for the senior team, Neymar is a crowd-pleaser that can change a match with a single touch, flick, or step-over. Simply, he's the pulse of this summer's World Cup.
Unlike previous editions, the current Brazil team is built on a strong defensive foundation. While embracing opportunities to venture forward, Dani Alves, David Luiz, Thiago Silva, and Marcelo form the world's most complete defense, in my opinion. Then, the duo of Paulinho and Luiz Gustavo link play in the midfield, where Brazil will need players like Oscar and Hulk to fulfill their potential and take pressure off Neymar. Shockingly, Brazil's weakness appears to be their front-man. Somewhat anonymous, Fred is Scolari's preferred No. 9 and although he's scored in half of his national team appearances, he also spent much of this season injured and there's not much depth behind him at central striker.
But you're right, Brazil will win the group and the real question is who finishes second.
I'm picking Croatia for that position, with Cameroon slightly behind. Mexico looks lost to me, despite a surprisingly good record against Brazil.
Outside of the nearly extinct dinosaur known as Samuel Eto'o, Cameroon's only attacker I rate is Eric Choupo-Moting. However, to their credit, defensive-based players like Alex Song, Joel Matip, and Nicolas N'Koulou are talented enough to stifle opponents and "win ugly."
That being said, I like Croatia's overall class much more and consider them a sleeper for the tournament. While Mandzukic missing the opener is a bummer, Ivica Olic is an accomplished replacement and Ivan Perisic is another player with an eye for goal. They also have stars in the Barcelona-bound Rakitic and Madrid man Modric, while 20-year-old Inter Milan midfielder Mateo Kovacic could be the next Croatian sensation. Defensively, Darijo Srna is a top full-back and the pair of Lovren and Vedran Corluka should provide the stability needed to prevail.