The Countdown: #20-17

Posted: 05/21/2014 by levcohen in Soccer

It’s time for teams #20 to #17 on the eight post rundown of each team in the World Cup, from worst (Australia) to best (you’ll see). As a reminder, here are the rankings of the bottom 12 teams, from #32 Australia to #21 Mexico: Australia, Iran, Cameroon, Ecuador, Algeria, Costa Rica, Honduras, Greece, Ghana, South Korea, Bosnia, Mexico. That’s one team from groups B, C, G, and D and two from A, E, F, and H.
Remember, this is based both off of chance I think these teams have of progressing and general quality of the team. That means that I won’t necessarily have two teams from each group in the top 16 (I might well have a team I see eliminated early in the top half of these rankings).

#20 Croatia: I really think Brazil is going to have a great shot to sweep their group. With the back-to-back placings of Mexico and Croatia, there’s going to be a large difference between the host nation and the rest of the group. The real battle will be for the second qualification spot. Right now I’ve given Croatia the slight edge because I think they have more star power, but it’s a coin-flip. Croatia performed poorly during qualification considering the amount of talent that they have, going 4-3-3 and failing to win against Belgium, the only other World Cup team in their qualification group. Worse yet than their failure to beat the Belgians was Croatia’s disappointing results against the poorer teams in the group. They were listless against Scotland (Scotland!) not once but twice, losing both games and failing to score a goal. In the end, Croatia had to play Iceland head-to-head for a spot in the World Cup after finishing second behind Belgium in their qualifying group. And although they progressed, Croatia wasn’t all that impressive even against Iceland, beating them just 2-0 over their two games even though they had the vast majority of the ball and the shots on goal. What I’m trying to get at is that in qualifying Croatia looked more like a fringe-World Cup team than one that could progress into the last 16. Why do I have them going through? Well, a couple of reasons. First of all, I’m not a big fan of Cameroon or Mexico, and I think on paper Croatia has the best team of the bunch. Second of all, while it seems like they got a bad draw by having to play Brazil first, it might turn out to be a blessing in disguise. It’s not as if Croatia was going to beat Brazil anyway, and instead of being forced to sit out a game against challengers Cameroon or Mexico, star striker Mario Mandzukic, who is suspended for one game for being shown a red card in the final qualifier against Iceland, misses the game against Brazil. Croatia will have Bayern Munich’s top striker in their two really important games, which is a huge plus. And it’s not as if Mandzukic is alone. Croatia has a lot of top-end talent, from Real Madrid’s Luka Modric (a possible Champions League winner) to Sevilla’s Ivan Rakitic (a Europa League winner), to Southampton’s breakout central defender Dejan Lovren. Simply put, Croatia have some really good players. The problem is that, like Bosnia a few spots below them in the rankings, there is a lack of depth. Outside of Lovren and long-time starter Darijo Srna, the defense is very spotty. So to are the wings, and I don’t think they are going to get enough width and speed up the lines to spread out really well-organized defensive teams. They could well get shut out by Brazil, but, luckily for them, Cameroon and Mexico aren’t the best defensive teams. I expect some tense moments, especially after an opening-game loss against Brazil, but in the end, Croatia’s superior talent should win out. They are too inconsistent and haven’t shown enough for me to rank them in the top half, though.

#19 Russia: Russia marks the second, and last, team I have qualifying for the second round while being outside the top 16 of my power rankings. Group H is not a strong group, but it is an interesting one. While I see Belgium finishing at the top of the group, the race for second is almost as interesting as the Croatia-Mexico one. Will it be Russia or South Korea qualifying? Or can Algeria make a push and surprise me and others? I think it’ll be Russia, because I think they have the strongest defense. They also were terrific in qualification, as they topped a group that also included Portugal. Russia allowed just five goals in their 10 games while scoring 20, and they matched up against Portugal fairly well. They aren’t an exciting team, and they certainly don’t have a lot of play-makers, but this is the type of solid team that just ekes through the group stage into the second round. Once there, they will likely be beaten handily by the winner of Group G, likely either Portugal or Germany.

#18 Japan: Although I don’t have them qualifying for the round of 16, I really like this team. In fact, I think Group C is incredibly underrated. Most people’s first reaction to a group featuring Columbia, Ivory Coast, Greece, and Japan thought “meh”, but I think this is the most well-rounded group there is. While it’s likely that none of these four teams will be semifinalists, none will embarrass themselves. I wouldn’t be surprised if the two teams I have missing out (Japan and Greece) qualify for the next round over the teams I am backing (Columbia and Ivory Coast). I can’t say that about any other group. And unlike other teams in this #24 to #17 area of these rankings, Japan has both high end talent (Manchester United play-maker Shinji Kagawa and AC Milan’s Keisuke Honda come to mind) and lots of depth. They haven’t even played a meaningful game since July, when they beat Australia and Korea en route to an East Asia Cup championship. This team is a fun one to watch. They are creative, fast, explosive, and incredibly well coached. Albert Zaccheroni, the coach, has had success for a long time, and I expect him to have success again in the World Cup. This has all been positive for a reason: Again, I think this is a really good team. But I don’t have them qualifying, so there must be some concerns. And there are. The attacking options are less than appetizing, and I think physical teams like Columbia and Ivory Coast are going to have a huge height and strength advantage. Yaya Toure might have a field day against Japan, because they have really struggled to defend free kicks and corner kicks. In the end, I think Japan has more variance than nearly any other team. On the one hand, they could win their group and advance as far as the final four. But if things go wrong, they could easily finish with zero points and at the bottom of their group. Your guess is as good as mine, but I’m going to go the safe route and predict a third place finish (four points sounds about right).

#17 United States: In a more forgiving group, I think the United States could have a shot at advancing to the second round and quite possibly going even further. That’s how good I think this team is. The problem is that I have to weigh both quality of squads and chance of getting through groups. And I don’t think the US is going to get out of Group G, which features Germany, Portugal, and Ghana, the team that has knocked America out of two straight World Cup’s and the team that is quite probably the best worst team in any group, if that makes any sense. That’s not to say that they have no chance. If I thought that, I wouldn’t have ranked them in the top 20, let alone at 17. I think they absolutely have a shot at progressing, because although they don’t have the talent that Germany and Portugal have, they have a good mentality, good chemistry, and a good coach. They were tremendous in qualification, going 7-1-1 in their last nine games, including a 3-1-1 record against fellow World Cup teams. And it’s not as if this gritty team is bereft of talent. Say what you want about Jozy Altidore, but he is a Premier League player and he thrives when playing for his country. At one point, Altidore scored a goal in five consecutive games for America, including a hat trick against Bosnia. Michael Bradley is a former AS Roma starter, Landon Donovan is the all-time leading scorer, goalie Tim Howard is one of the best in the Premier League, and Clint Dempsey has had success in England. Add in stars like Graham Zusi and Chris Wondolowski from a league- MLS- that is blossoming and a Bayern Munich starlet (Julian Green) and you have a well-rounded and talented team. Unfortunately, the whole team combined probably has less talent than Cristiano Ronaldo, which means that the defense is going to have to play the game of their lives against Ronaldo. Unfortunately, one thing this team is lacking is a star central defender. Ronaldo could score a couple of goals against the US. So too could a free-flowing Germany team. I think America is going to impress people and finally beat Ghana in the first game, while staying in games against Portugal and Germany. Three points is the likely result, but don’t count out four or six. Qualification is unlikely, but still possible.

To recap, I’ve now taken two teams from groups C, E, F, and G, three from A and H, and one from B and D.

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