Archive for June, 2014

World Cup: Groups G and H decided today

Posted: 06/26/2014 by levcohen in Soccer

Yesterday’s games went pretty much as expected. In Group E, Switzerland advanced second behind France thanks to a Xherdan Shaqiri hat trick. Meanwhile, France was not at its best but still got the point needed to clinch first place. Ecuador and Honduras are the rare American teams in this World Cup who looked average at best throughout. Honduras in particular has been one of the two or three worst teams in Brazil, and couldn’t even find an answer in an easy group. Their -7 goal differential is second worst to Cameroon. Again, Group E is the only group where the European teams clearly triumphed over the American teams. Ecuador and Honduras are the first two and perhaps only two American teams eliminated before the round of 16, which means that, depending if the US progresses, as many as half of the last 16 could be from the Americas. Meanwhile, Group F featured some more goals than the three total scored by France, Switzerland, Ecuador, and Honduras yesterday. Argentina defeated Nigeria 3-2 in an exciting game, but the Nigerians still became the first African team to advance when Iran lost to Bosnia. It’s really unfortunate that Bosnia were eliminated, because I think they played pretty well throughout the tournament and were a better team than Nigeria. If they were in a different group (maybe Group C or Group H), they could be looking ahead to a last 16 game. They’re a young-ish team, though, so could easily have more success in the future.

Group G is living up to its “Group of Death” billing. Shockingly, it seems like Portugal, the lone team in this group with a co-best player in the world, is the weakest link. With that said, all four teams are still alive, although it would take a huge win for Portugal or a huge loss for the US to overturn the US’s goal differential advantage; while Portugal is -4, the US is +1. If either game ends in a draw, the two teams that are ahead now, Germany and the US, will advance in that order. Barring a loss, Germany is probably the top team in the group, and there has therefore been a lot of talk about the US and Germany possibly playing for a draw. I hope that doesn’t happen, and don’t think it will. Both teams have said that they are going all out to win this game, and I would tend to believe them. The US has a German coach which makes the plot juicier, and it’s also important to remember the 2002 quarterfinal game between these two teams. Despite being outplayed by the Americans, Germany prevailed 1-0 in that game in controversial fashion, as the US were denied what looked like a clear penalty in the second half. With all that said, it seems like we’re in for an exciting game and not a boring 0-0 tie. The game between Portugal and Ghana is set up to have a lot of goals, both because both teams are explosive offensively and because a tie wouldn’t suit either team. There’s an added incentive to score a lot of goals and win by a wide margin, so expect both teams to come out with all guns blazing.

Group H is a lot more straightforward, even though all four teams are alive in that group, too. Belgium has already clinched progression, and will advance as the top team if they tie or beat South Korea. The Koreans are for all intents and purposes eliminated; like Portugal, they would need to win by multiple goals to make up goal differential. It seems very unlikely that South Korea will beat Belgium by multiple goals. That means that the game between Russia and Algeria is basically another elimination game. Algeria has been a big surprise: after being labeled as one of the worst teams in the tournament (I had them #28), they have looked explosive, with five goals and three points in two games. Because they already have a win, they can tie against Russia and still advance, while Russia would need a win to progress over the African team. Because this group plays after the other one, and because the teams that progress from these two groups will play each other, some interesting things could happen depending on what happens in Group G. If Germany wins the group, which seems likely, Belgium will try to beat South Korea so they can avoid Germany. But if the US knocks off Germany and wins the group, Belgium might try to lose to South Korea and hope for an Algeria win, because that would lead to the Belgians playing the US and Algeria being forced to play the supposedly tougher opponent in Germany. That’s just speculation, though, and it’s more likely that all four teams will be playing to win. If that’s the case, then Belgium will almost certainly have enough to eliminate South Korea, while the game between Algeria and Russia depends largely on which Algeria team shows up. If it’s the explosive team that we’ve seen so far in the World Cup, they’ll likely be able to take at least a point from Russia. But if it’s the team we thought we’d be seeing heading into the World Cup, it might be a long day for Algeria.

My Predictions: Germany will avoid a loss and win the group, while the second spot will go down to the wire. It’s a coin toss, but I think it’s likely that one of the two games would tie, which would put the US through in second. Meanwhile, I think Belgium will eliminate South Korea and Algeria will take the second spot.


World Cup: Groups E and F decided today

Posted: 06/25/2014 by levcohen in Soccer

Another good day of soccer yesterday was overshadowed by yet another biting incident involving Uruguay’s Luis Suarez. In case you aren’t familiar with Suarez, this is not the first time he’s bit someone on the field. Once would be shocking and unforgivable, but this is bite #3 for Suarez; that’s just mind-blowing. He’s an uber-talented player, but his temper is out of control. A suspension is likely to come, and Suarez needs to get some kind of help before he takes the field again and puts people at risk. Anyway, Uruguay scored a minute after the bite behind the head of defender Diego Godin, and they held on to eliminate 10-man Italy, who needed just a draw to win. I don’t feel bad for Italy because they were poor and didn’t deserve to progress. Then again, Uruguay didn’t deserve it either. These two and England all underachieved, which makes Group D perhaps the most underachieving based on its sky-high expectations. I just hope that Colombia, who beat Japan 4-1, running their record to 3-0-0 and goal differential to +7, crushes Uruguay. Meanwhile, Greece upset Ivory Coast 2-1, sending the Greeks through to the round of 16 over Ivory Coast. The way they won was cruel, with a stoppage time penalty breaking a deadlock that would have put Ivory Coast through. But while it was sad to watch the Africans wilt after the penalty, they really should have done better. They were much more talented than Greece, and played poorly. If they had played to their potential, they would have six points right now and would have a date with Costa Rica in the round of 16.

Group E looks a lot like Group C did before yesterday in that there is a clear favorite to win the group (France) and a wide-open race for the second spot. France isn’t officially through, but even if they lose to Ecuador, their +6 goal differential and six points should be enough. Ecuador needs the points more, because they are locked in a battle with Switzerland and even pointless Honduras. The race between Switzerland and Ecuador is close, because while Switzerland has the easier game, Ecuador would progress if both games end in ties due to their 0 goal differential (Switzerland is -2). Meanwhile, Honduras would need a near-miracle to advance. They’d have to beat Switzerland by multiple goals and Ecuador would need to lose to France by multiple goals. For all intents and purposes, this is a race between Switzerland and Ecuador, who are locked on three points. Obviously, if one gets a better result than the other, that team will go through. But, even after their 5-2 loss to France, Switzerland must be slight favorites solely because they play one of the worst teams in the World Cup, Honduras, while Ecuador plays one of the best in France. One thing is for sure: After American teams when a perfect six for six in qualifying in groups A-D (Brazil, Mexico, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Uruguay), at least one American team will fail to qualify from Group E. And after getting just two of its first six teams into the last sixteen, Europe could sweep Group E. In that way, it’s sort of a backwards group.

Group F is pretty clear cut. Barring a loss to Nigeria, Argentina will top the group. Nigeria is through unless they lose to Argentina (probable) and Iran beats Bosnia (less likely). Iran is out unless that scenario happens, while Bosnia has already been eliminated even though they looked pretty good in their first two games. You’d think that Bosnia would play at full strength to avoid going home without a point, and they have to be favored over Iran, which means Nigeria should be heavily favored to get through over Iran. This group seems pretty clear cut and boring, and it’s also had by far the least scoring of any group, with just 10 goals in four games. If Nigeria lost 2-1 and Iran won 2-1, things would get interesting. Each team will have scored two and allowed two goals in the group, and they tied 0-0 in their head to head game. That means lots would be drawn to determine which team would progress, which would be kind of unfair and also cool. But I don’t think that’s likely to happen, because Iran isn’t likely to score more than a goal; they are the only team without a goal in the World Cup.

My predictions: France clinches top spot with a result against Ecuador, while Switzerland and Honduras tie, putting the Swiss through and eliminating Ecuador. Meanwhile, Argentina and Nigeria both qualify from Group F, with Bosnia taking three points from Iran.

World Cup: Groups C and D decided today

Posted: 06/24/2014 by levcohen in Soccer

Yesterday’s games were for the most part unexciting if not boring. In Group B, Spain beat Australia in the only entirely meaningless game while Chile-Holland was listless in the first half, with the Netherlands scoring two late goals and condemning Chile to another round of 16 matchup with big bad Brazil. In Group A, there was a second where you thought Croatia might beat Mexico, but Mexico was the better team throughout. There was also a second where you thought Cameroon could take a point against Brazil, but then reality set in and Brazil cruised. After Mexico’s three quick goals, there was even a second where you thought Mexico could sneak past Brazil and win the group on goal differential. But then Brazil scored again and Mexico conceded a goal to Croatia, and the group ended the way it should: Brazil, Mexico, Croatia, Cameroon. That’s not to say that Brazil was particularly good in the group stage, because they really weren’t. But they were still the best team in the group. These results set up two intriguing round of 16 matchups: Brazil against Chile, and the Dutch against Mexico. Brazil should beat Chile, but both games should be exciting.

Colombia is almost certain to top Group C, as they have a +4 goal differential (the only threat, Ivory Coast, has a 0 goal differential). They have looked very good against Greece and Ivory Coast, and should get at least a point against Japan. That would eliminate Japan, who have one point from two games and need three points to have any chance of advancing. That makes the game between Greece and Ivory Coast an elimination game. Since Ivory Coast has two more points than Greece, they have the advantage of being able to settle for a tie. And a tie or Ivory Coast win seems likely, if only because Greece has not yet been able to put the ball in the net. They have almost no playmakers, and have been very flat offensively. That obviously needs to change if Greece wants to advance to the round of 16. Ivory Coast is better, though, and should be able to hold off the Greeks and finish second in the group. Just one thing to look out for: Yaya Toure is due for a breakout game, and I think this could be it. Also, if you haven’t watched Colombia play yet, you need to start. They are exciting and have great attacking options, with James Rodriguez and speedy Juan Cuadrado leading the attack.

Costa Rica is also very likely to win Group D, which would cement their status of biggest surprise of the 2014 World Cup group stages. I don’t think Costa Rica is going to advance past the quarterfinals, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t legit, because I think they are. They have wins over Italy and Uruguay, two teams with hopes to win it all and huge talent advantages over the Ticos. Now, they have a chance to add England to the list. I’m not sure they are going to beat England, who will not want to go home pointless. It seems too good to be true for Costa Rica, who was supposed to be the group’s weakest team. Regardless, a point is all they need to top the group, and they might be able to win it even with a close loss. Again, a tie seems likely, and don’t be surprised if England pulls off what must now be called an upset win.
The game between Uruguay and Italy is the game of the day. It’s another elimination game, with a tie or Italy win putting Italy through and a Uruguay win putting Uruguay through. Regardless of who wins, two very talented teams are going home early. Italy is favored because a tie puts them through, but Uruguay looked like the better team the last time we saw them. Luis Suarez transforms this team, and he was the difference against England despite being less than 100%, scoring both goals in a 2-1 win. It’s also time for Edinson Cavani to make more of an impact for Uruguay. He converted a penalty in the first game, but outside of that he’s been invisible. Meanwhile, after looking dynamic against England, Italy’s attack looked flat and unimaginative against Costa Rica. Both teams are capable of going far in the tournament, but each team has already had a poor game and could easily have another. Both teams have been disappointing, and the winner is going to be the team that brings its a-game. I had Italy ranked too high in my countdown (at #6), and Uruguay at #11 still seems right. These teams are probably even, but both are inconsistent enough that this could be a blowout either way.

My predictions: Colombia clinches top spot in Group C with Ivory Coast playing a safe game and going through over Greece. Costa Rica fails to beat England but still wins Group D, while Uruguay edges third-place Italy.

World Cup: Groups A and B decided today

Posted: 06/23/2014 by levcohen in Soccer

The first week and a half of the World Cup is over, which means that every team has played two games. Those two games have given us clarity, and for the most part, we have a pretty good idea of who will progress to the round of 16. Today, though, marks the beginning of the second part of the World Cup, as for the first time multiple games are played at once in order to keep teams from knowing their fate before they play. As a result, both Group A and Group B will be decided today, although one group has much more intrigue than the other.

No team from Group A has progressed to the round of 16, and the game between Mexico and Croatia is almost certainly going to decide who will make it. Brazil’s almost certainly through, as they play a Cameroon team that just got thrashed by Croatia and has nothing to play for. If Brazil were to beat Cameroon by as much as or more than Mexico beats Croatia, they will win the group. A tie will also clinch progression, and they may even advance with a loss. For all intents and purposes, Brazil is through to the round of 16, likely as the group winner. While they haven’t played to their potential yet in a win over Croatia and a draw against Mexico, Brazil will still likely win the group, so this game against Cameroon is largely about sorting out the issues and starting to build momentum for what is sure to be a tough round of 16 game against the Netherlands or Chile.
That’s not the case for Mexico and Croatia, who play an elimination game. It’s as clear-cut as this: if Mexico win or draw, they will advance to the round of 16, likely in second place. If Croatia pulls off what is now probably an upset and win the game, they’ll sneak past Mexico. While I ranked Croatia (#20) above Mexico (#21) in my countdown before the World Cup, I now realize that I probably underrated Mexico. They are definitely not the team who needed a US comeback against Panama to advance to the World Cup. Instead, their defense is solid, and goalie Guillermo Ochoa played perhaps the game of the tournament in a 0-0 tie against Brazil in a game the hosts were supposed to win easily. They also have the home advantage over Croatia; teams from the Americas have consistently played well against European teams. That’s not to say Croatia doesn’t have a chance, because they do. They need a good offensive show, and they looked especially dangerous against Cameroon in a 4-0 win. Star striker Mario Mandzukic, who missed the Brazil game with a suspension, showed how vital he is to the Croatian team by netting the last two goals. The offense runs through Mandzukic up top and the central midfield pairing of Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic behind him. That’s a strong group of attacking players, and they also have others who can make runs beside Mandzukic. On their day, Croatia is an explosive offense. If you asked me who would win more times on a neutral field, I’d say Croatia. But this isn’t a neutral field, and Mexico has the benefit of being able to play for a draw. They seem more likely to advance, but it would be foolish to count out Croatia.

Group B, whose games have started while I’ve been writing this post, is more straightforward. It is the only group in which two teams have qualified, as Chile and the Netherlands have both won their first two games, eliminating Australia and Spain. Now, the first two qualifiers will face off for top spot, while the first two eliminated teams will play for pride. Barring a loss, the Netherlands will top the group, which is important because they’d likely avoid Brazil in the next round. With that in mind, they’ll likely play a more defensive game after outscoring their first two opponents 8-3. Chile is in the opposite position, so they will likely play for a win, although they have decided to rest top player Arturo Vidal. I had Chile #10 and the Netherlands #12 in my countdown so I see them as evenly matched and a tie seems most likely. Meanwhile, Australia probably has more to play for than Spain. While Spain is probably shell shocked and overwhelmingly disappointed right now, Australia has a chance to notch one of the most impressive wins in their history. Bad chemistry or not, it would be surprising if Spain were to lose to Australia, because they are just so much more talented and accomplished than the Australians. But again, Australia is going to have more desire to win, so it could be more of a tossup than people think. Spain’s tournament will be viewed as a disappointment regardless of this result, while Australia’s could be viewed as a success with a good result against Spain.

My predictions: I think Brazil will top Group A with Mexico finishing second after a tie against Croatia. In an upset, Chile will top Group B after a thrilling win over the Netherlands, who will have to settle with second place.

Both the Stanley Cup Final and the NBA Finals were short series in which the Western Conference team was clearly better than the Eastern Conference team. In one case, the NHL, that was expected coming into the series, but the Spurs’ dismantling of the Heat in five games shocked everyone. The hockey series was actually closer than I thought it would be. The New York Rangers outplayed the Los Angeles Kings in games one and two in LA, but lost both. The same happened in game three at home. While it didn’t end up being a close series, it’s fair to say that the Rangers played pretty well and will be at least somewhat happy with the way the season ended. They played good hockey and just ran into a team that was much more talented than they were. The Heat, on the other hand, probably won’t be as happy. After taking game two in San Antonio, the Heat looked ready to defend their back-to-back titles. It was never going to be easy, but this at least looked like it was going to be a good series. And then Kawhi Leonard and the last three games happened. Leonard, who became the third youngest Finals MVP behind Magic Johnson and Tim Duncan, flat-out outplayed the best player in the world in the last three games. And when LeBron James gets outplayed, there’s no way the Heat are going to win basketball games. The Spurs won the last three by 19, 21, and 17. Not only is it an embarrassing way to end the series for the Heat, but it opens up all sorts of questions about their future. Will LeBron want to stay? Will he go back to Miami? Are the big three willing to restructure their contracts? If so, is a top free agent like Carmelo Anthony willing to take a lesser deal to play with James, Wade, and Bosh? What can Wade be relied on to do in the future? How are they going to find better rotation players? Still, as long as they get LeBron James back, the Miami Heat are going to be one of the best teams in the East next year. Not much will have changed, and the addition of a player like Shabazz Napier (whom many have being taken by Miami) will be a boon to the bench, and players will always want to sign at the minimum to play with a championship contender. While the Heat and Rangers got blown out in their respective finals, both will be back in the mix next year. So, too, will the amazing Spurs and Kings, who were rightful champions of basketball and hockey. But who will join them? A lot will change between now and the start of next season, but here are the early favorites.


The favorites: Chicago, Boston, Anaheim

To go along with the Kings, this looks like the top tier next season. I don’t really need to say much about LA or Chicago, as these two are the best organizations in hockey, have the best teams, and win year after year. Meanwhile, the Bruins are a great all-around team who will continue to be boosted by the lesser teams in the East. They have a good goalie, good defense, a good attack, and experience. They’ll definitely have a chip on their shoulder after falling to arch-rival Montreal in the second round of the playoffs. Finally, Anaheim’s offense is already elite, and I just have a feeling that their defense, and behind them 20 year old goalie John Gibson, who was amazing in the playoffs, are going to take a step forward. The Ducks will be much improved.

Darkhorses: San Jose Sharks, Colorado Avalanche, St. Louis Blues, an Eastern Conference breakout team

The first three teams have a lot in common. Each has a ton of talent, each had great regular seasons, and each lost in the first round in the tough Western Conference. I also think that all three will be back in the mix next season. The West is still very crowded, but these three all have a lot of talent. I also had to add an Eastern Conference team because, while it’s the lesser conference, there are some teams on the rise and I feel there will be a team we aren’t talking about right now who will make a run next season.


The favorites: Oklahoma City, LA Clippers, the winner between Houston and Chicago of the Carmelo Anthony sweepstakes

To go along with the two finalists, the Thunder and Clippers have to be considered favorites to win it all next season, if only because they both have two superstars. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook aren’t going to get worse, and the Thunder will be at least as good as they were this year. If they can get a supporting cast, watch out. Meanwhile, the Clippers are going to make the breakthrough one of these years. Next year, with new ownership and an in-his-prime Blake Griffin, seems like the right time. As you can see, I’m assuming that either Houston or Chicago will sign Carmelo Anthony. Yes, Miami is in the mix (I don’t think Melo would work in Miami), and Anthony could conceivably return to the Knicks or team up with Dirk Nowitzki in Dallas. But realistically, these are the two best fits for Anthony. Both are ready to win now, and both have the cap to give Anthony the max deal. Anthony would give either team the big three they crave with a solid supporting cast. Houston would have James Harden, Melo, and Dwight Howard, while Chicago could have Derrick Rose (fingers crossed), Melo, and Joakim Noah. I think the winner between these two of the Melo sweepstakes will leapfrog the previous two and join the Heat (assuming LeBron stays) and Spurs as favorites.

Darkhorses: Golden State, Portland

Basketball is a lot less wide-open than hockey is. In all likelihood, the NBA Champion will be one of the six teams I mentioned as favorites. If not, I think it will be either Golden State or Portland. The Warriors could conceivably be considered favorites if they were to trade for Kevin Love, which is a definite possibility. Even without Love, they have Stephen Curry and young pieces who will take steps forward. The same goes for Portland, who has two stars in LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard. Each team has a great offense and good future, and each could be a threat to win it all as soon as next year.

Can we write off the Heat?

Posted: 06/15/2014 by levcohen in Basketball

It feels like, along with the start of the World Cup and the end of the Stanley Cup final, the last three days have consisted of a lot of eulogizing of the Miami Heat. After two home blowouts (19 and 21 points), it’s hard not to write the Heat off. They are clearly the lesser team, and their age has shown this series. This team has gone deep into the playoffs in each of the last four years now, and their stars are clearly tired. They have had to lift the team onto their backs in the regular season, and they have in the playoffs. The Spurs are simply deeper, fresher, and, perhaps most surprisingly, more hungry for the championship. The series is now 3-1, and the series heads back to San Antonio tonight. It seems like this series is for all intents and purposes over, and the Spurs are going to get their revenge on their home court in game five. But is it safe to write off LeBron James and the Heat?

The one word answer is no. This series feels over, but I’m not going to be a prisoner of the moment. No team has come back from a 3-1 deficit, and it’s not likely to happen now, but this series is not over. Just look at what the Heat have to do. They must win in San Antonio in game five. While that seems like a tough ask, remember that they outplayed the Spurs in San Antonio in games one and two, and that the Spurs are a better road team than they are a home team. And can you imagine what would happen if LeBron were to have a big game five and the Heat were to win? The media would do a 180. People would start to talk about last year, when the Spurs led 3-2 heading to Miami. And the Heat would start to gain some momentum. It’s not far-fetched to see the more desperate team- Miami- finally win at home in game six and send it back to San Antonio. And game seven’s are tossups.

Do I think the Heat are going to come back and win the series? No I don’t. But do I think they’ll win game five? I feel pretty good about their chances. The extra night of rest is going to be better for them than it will be for the Spurs, and I think Dwyane Wade will step up in game five, if only because it’s an elimination game and he must step up. In the end, the Spurs are still very likely to win this series, and I would pick them to win in South Beach in game six, which would be especially significant because of what happened in South Beach in game six last season. But the Heat have been totally written off, and most people think this series will end in San Antonio. It’s very possible, as the Spurs are the better, deeper, and fresher team. I just don’t think it’s wise to write off the team with the best player in the world. So while it doesn’t look good for the Heat right now, I don’t think this series is over. If the Heat win game five, and I think that is likely, the momentum (if momentum is a real thing) will shift, and suddenly Miami will be the best team in the NBA again. I wouldn’t write them off, at least until they’re down double digits in the fourth quarter of game five.

The Countdown: #4-1

Posted: 06/12/2014 by levcohen in Soccer

And we have finally arrived at the top four, with just a few minutes to spare. Opinions on the teams in the World Cup vary greatly, but the consensus is that Germany, Spain, Argentina, and Brazil should be the top four in some order. Recent injuries to Germany relegate them to fourth, but the top three are grouped pretty close together. Assuming each team wins their group, these four teams are set to be the semifinalists. That’s not to say that I think it’s likely that all four will make the semifinals. I think that’s pretty unlikely, as the second tier of teams ranging from the Ivory Coast and Nigeria all the way up to Belgium are strong enough to defeat any of them on their day. But it’s pretty likely that two or three will make the semifinals, and barring a huge surprise at least one of these four, and maybe two, will make the final. How are the top four ranked? Here we go:

#4 Germany: Germany has always been one (or two) of the best teams in the world. That hasn’t changed, as the Germans have made at least the semifinals three times in a row. In fact, the last time this team lost a game that mattered was at EURO 2012, when they lost to Italy 2-1 despite having 14 corners to the Italians’ zero. They went 9-0-1 in qualification, with an amazing 4-4 tie (the Germans blew a 4-0 lead) against Sweden the only blemish. This is a team that can score goals by the bunches. They tallied 36 in just 10 qualification games, but they also allowed just 10 goals. It can be argued that the Germans were the most impressive team in all of European qualifying, and they haven’t lost a game since. This team is riding a high right now, and would be on par with the top three if not for one important little problem we call injuries. Marco Reus, who suffered an ankle injury, is the most well known of the injured players, but he’s not the only important guy who has been injured. Lars Bender, Mario Gomez, and Ilkay Gundogan, all key parts and possible starters, have each been ruled out, and other key players have just been given a clean bill of health. Germany should be able to withstand all the injuries, though, because they still have a lot of talent. The fact that Mesut Ozil might not start against Portugal says a lot, and this team is filled with Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund players. Bayern’s Manuel Neuer will start against Portugal, and the fact that he’s healthy is important; Neuer is one of the best in the world. The defense has to be the biggest concern given the offense’s proficiency, but Per Mertesacker and Mats Hummels are two of the six or seven best central defenders in the world. That’s hardly an issue. Philipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger, and Sami Khedira should provide structure to the team, and even without Reus, they are hardly short on attacking options. While they lack a clear striker, any combination of Thomas Muller, Ozil, Toni Kroos, Andre Schurrle, Mario Gotze, or Lukas Podoloski could start in attack in support of the aging yet still effective Miroslav Klose. This German team has an embarrassment of riches, and is as close to a lock to escape from the group stages as any team. But the injuries have without a doubt hampered this team and lowered their ceiling. A spot in the semifinals is still expected and likely, but I would be surprised to see them get past the final four.

#3 Argentina: Lionel Messi. Sergio Aguero. Gonzalo Higuain. Angel Di Maria. A World Cup played on their home continent. Top spot in qualification (albeit with Brazil resting). How is this team not #1? Well, first of all it’s hard to shake the 4-0 quarterfinals loss to Germany in 2010 from memory. Yes, it was a different coach, and yes, they’re better now, but fair or not, the image of Messi so distraught and helpless has had a lasting effect. In fact, Germany has now knocked Argentina out twice in a row, which makes me wonder why I put the Argentinians over the Germans. Wait a second.. Messi. Aguero. Higuain. Di Maria. That’s why. This team obviously will go as those four, all stars for top teams in top European leagues, go. Messi is, with Cristiano Ronaldo, the co-best player in the world and stars for Barcelona. Aguero is top gun for Premier League champions Manchester City. Higuain scored 24 goals for Napoli, while Di Maria was the best playmaker on Real Madrid. It’s a stacked attack. Unfortunately, the defense is not quite as good, even though they have been getting good results recently. Martin Demichelis and Pablo Zabaleta both play for Manchester City and are key defenders, but the other defenders are question marks. They are in an easy group and have the talent to score five goals in every group stage game, but it remains to be seen how Argentina plays against tougher opposition. Expectations are high, and winning it all seems an attainable goal. But a spot in the semis is a near must, and anything less than second place will probably be considered a failure. So just as there are expectations, there is also pressure. It’ll be interesting to see how the stars respond on the biggest stage.

#2 Spain: Do NOT underestimate Spain. That’s basically all I have to say. Their short passes will lull you to sleep, but they will attack at the ideal time. They’ve also won the last three major tournaments, so there’s that. Their defense is the only one that can rival Brazil’s, as I think Sergio Ramos is the best defender in the world, even with his temper and propensity to get red carded. The midfield and attack is also among the best, even though Xavi, Xabi Alonso, and Andres Iniesta, the core of the team, are all on the wrong side of 30. That’s the teams only weakness: age. It’s possible that Spain will tire earlier than their competitors will, and that could lead to their downfall. Still, I’d have ranked this team #1 if this tournament were being played anywhere else. It’s not, though, so Spain will have to settle for second. But if the last three major tournaments aren’t enough to teach you, I’ll try now: underestimate Spain at your own risk. Barring a huge upset in the group stages (in a group with Chile and the Netherlands anything is possible), I find it impossible to see Spain bowing out before the quarterfinals. A spot in the semis seems more likely, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Spain won it all. People aren’t picking them because they are now the boring pick, but they’re still a great pick to win it. Again, if this tournament were not being played in Brazil, I’d have Spain as the favorite. It is in Brazil, so Spain is second, but I think they’re getting overlooked.

#1 Brazil: The host nation always gets a huge boost, and when the host nation is a team that would be a near-favorite anyway, it’s a lock to be #1. That’s what Brazil is heading into the World Cup. They are a very good team, and the favorite, even though there are holes to be found. The defense is terrific, as it’s led by a bunch of the best defenders in the world: Thiago Silva, who’s second best to Sergio Ramos, Marcelo (Real Madrid), Dani Alves (Barcelona), and David Luiz (soon to be at PSG). They aren’t going to give up many goals, and their attacking options aren’t too shabby either. Oscar is great at creating chances, and Hulk and Neymar should finish them. Neymar has everything riding on his shoulders, and it’s a lot for a young player to handle, but I think he can and will do it. That, in the end, is one of the many reasons I have Brazil at #1. Another reason is that they haven’t lost a game that matters at home in decades, and a third is that they have lost just one of their last 15, winning most of those by a lot. I could go on and on, but I’m not going to. It’s going to take a herculean effort to defeat Brazil on their home turf, and while a team might have that effort in them, I’d bet against that. That’s why I have Brazil #1, and that’s why I think they’re more likely than anyone else to take the World Cup.