The World Cup is not a flat circle, but it can strongly resemble one. A Spain or France may produce a transcendent generation. The Dutch can be frisky. Riding with Brazil, Argentina, Italy or Germany tends to yield the best results.
Does the 2014 field contain a dark horse who can overturn the chalkboard? Perhaps. Such a team would have three characteristics.
* Not being a usual suspect – Brazil, Argentina, Italy or Germany. We’ll throw reigning champions Spain in there for good measure.
* Providing an unexpected element that could make them formidable in a knockout tournament.
* Having a manageable run. You may like the cut of Chile’s jib. But they would have to escape from a group with Spain and the Netherlands and then likely play hosts Brazil in the Round of 16.
Here are some teams that may fit that billing. Not sure there is a 2008 Spain, but there certainly could be a 2010 Uruguay.
Portugal can play down to inferior opponents in qualifying. But, in tournament play they tend to be resilient and strong defensively. Few can punctuate an equilibrium like Cristiano Ronaldo. That’s a formula for success. There’s potential to be more than just a tough out. Finishing second in Group G would line up the winner from a mediocre Group H. Then probably Argentina and Spain to reach the final. Portugal can hang with both, presuming Ronaldo is in fine fettle.
Talent has never been an issue for Les Bleus. Nearly everything else has, including the location of the team hotel. France can put forth a strong defense, Franck Ribery and some young talent from the U-20 World Cup winning squad. They drew a soft group with Switzerland, Ecuador and Honduras. Winning that gets them Bosnia and Herzegovina, Iran or Nigeria in the Round of 16. Once they are in the quarterfinals, who knows?
The John Terry speculation will continue right up until Roy Hodgson hands in the paperwork. Theoretically, the Three Lions will field an experienced back four. They can build on a core of Liverpool players up front. The Lampard/Gerrard issue has been solved: they are both sober holding midfielders in their advanced age. There’s always a chance Wayne Rooney could be good Wayne Rooney. England’s group with Uruguay and Italy is no picnic. But qualifying for the knockout round gets them a beatable second round opponent from Group C: Colombia, Greece, Ivory Coast, Japan. Just avoid penalties.
The Belgians have been everyone’s sexy pick for some time, because of the Premier League stars. They looked a lot sexier last summer when most of those players were in form. Still, Thibaut Courtois is arguably the world’s best goalkeeper. Belgium has experience, talent and game changers such as Eden Hazard. If they can win their soft group with Algeria, Russia and South Korea, they face the second-place team from the USA Group. If the Belgians have serious intent, that’s not a heinous route to the quarterfinals.
Colombia finished second in CONMEBOL qualifying. They turned heads with November friendly performances in Europe. They have far more experience playing in South America than potential opponents. Their route is attainable with a group of Greece, Ivory Coast and Japan and probably Uruguay or England to reach the quarterfinals. We’d feel far more optimistic about them if Falcao was “fit” rather than “may play but probably won’t be 100 percent after rushing back from a serious knee surgery.”
6. Ivory Coast
The Ivorians have the same group lot as Colombia. They have been the “African team that will make a splash” for nearly a decade now. That said, Drogba still has a little bit of assassin left in him. Gervinho and Wilfried Bony are coming off strong club seasons. Yaya Toure can command the middle of a pitch. I’m not entirely sold on a back four anchored by the fumes of Kolo Toure, but it’s conceivable they could make a run.
[Photos via Getty]
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