The Countdown: #12-9

Posted: 06/06/2014 by levcohen in Soccer

Here’s where it really gets series. There are many intriguing teams in the 13-32 range, but very few of them have a real chance of advancing past the quarterfinals. The top 12 is different. I could see any of these teams making the semifinals. We have five South American teams left, which makes sense as the tournament is being played in Brazil. There are also seven European teams, so as usual this tournament is very European and South American heavy. Again, I think this is a really strong group of 12 teams, and it’s very hard to separate these next eight teams (the top four, some order of Spain, Argentina, Brazil, and Germany, is pretty clear cut). We still have three teams left from Group B (that will change here; I wouldn’t have three in the top eight), but all the other groups have either two (D and G) or one (A, C, E, F, H). Here is a reminder of my rankings to this point, going #32 to #13: Australia, Iran, Cameroon, Ecuador, Algeria, Costa Rica, Honduras, Greece, Ghana, South Korea, Bosnia, Mexico, Croatia, Russia, Japan, United States, Switzerland, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, England.

Reminder: I value both the quality of a team and the chance I see them having of advancing past their group and beyond.

#12 Netherlands: The Netherlands are a very talented team. Unfortunately, they are also in a really tough group, and I see them finishing just behind Chile, and they’ll get the unfortunate label of “best team to get knocked out in the group stage.” This is an extremely talented team, especially up front. They have Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben as star attackers, and those are two of the best players in the world. As usual, they were also terrific in qualification. They went 9-0-1, with a single tie against Estonia. In their other nine games, though, they won by at least two goals every single time, including an 8-1 romp over Hungary. But the Euro 2012 performance was terrible, and I’m still nervous about picking the Netherlands to succeed after their disaster of a Euro 2012. They lost all three games in that tournament, and while I don’t see that happening again here, there are some concerns. This is a team that has had some chemistry issues in the last four years, but that’s not what I’m worried about. What I am worried about is the fact that this team is really in flux. Much of the 2010 team that held Spain to a goal in the World Cup Final (they were dirty, but still) is gone, and van Persie, probably the team’s most important player, is having injury problems. This team also has long has defensive issues, and still do. Ron Vlaar of Aston Villa is probably the best defender they have, which isn’t necessarily a good thing. I still think this is a good team, and in an easier group they’d be easy picks to reach at least the next round. But what they are faced with is Spain and Chile, and that is nowhere near an easy group. I just think van Persie and Robben are going to need to do too much. Could they put the team on their backs? I would normally say yes, but with van Persie’s injury-filled season, it’s hard to know. I’d rather pick the better all-around team in Chile, especially since they’ll be playing in a climate similar to their own.

#11 Uruguay: The injury to Luis Suarez is a big concern, because Uruguay is a pretty top-heavy team. They rely heavily on Edinson Cavani of Paris Saint Germain, Suarez, who is the best player in the Premier League, and Diego Forlan, who is now 35 years old and on the downside of his career. And it seems that they play a “we’re just going to score more goals than you” game. With Suarez and Cavani, that’s an easy game to play, but it doesn’t always work, and might not against organized defensive teams like England and Italy, both of whom are in Uruguay’s group. It took Uruguay a playoff walk-in-the-park win over Jordan (they won the first game 5-0) to seal their spot in the World Cup after a disappointing showing in qualification. Granted, they were in a tough South America World Cup qualification group, but they lost five of their last seven games away from home, including four losses by multiple goals and a 4-1 loss to Bolivia. They really have a poor record since being knocked out in the semifinals in 2010, and like the Netherlands have a bad defense and below-average midfield. In the end, with goalie Fernando Muslera of Galatasaray, defender Diego Godin- who shined in the Champions League and in La Liga- of Atletico Madrid, and those two amazing strikers, I think Uruguay has more talent than England does. I think that will be enough to get out of the group, and that would likely set up a very interesting match-up with Colombia in the round of 16. That would be pretty much a coinflip, so I think Uruguay could easily be in the quarterfinals with a shot at more. But that’s what makes this team one of the biggest boom-or-bust teams in the tournament. If Suarez is healthy, they could easily sweep their group and get back to the semifinals with a real shot at replicating the magic of winning the World Cup the last time it was in Brazil (in 1950, when they beat the host nation in a shocking upset). But if their offense doesn’t get going, this team could just as easily lose to Costa Rica in their first game. And if they lose to Costa Rica, which would obviously be a huge blow, I’m not sure if they would be able to turn it around in time to beat England and Italy. As Suarez and Cavani go, so does Uruguay, and that is enticing, exciting, and extremely dangerous.

#10 Chile: I have England at 13, the Netherlands at 12, Uruguay at 11, and Chile at 10 because that’s how close I think groups B and D will be. In fact, I wouldn’t be shocked- surprised, yes, but not shocked- to see either Spain or Italy, two of the best five or six teams in the world, get knocked out in the group stages, just as I wouldn’t be surprised to see any of this quartet top their group. I like Chile the best- just barely- of the four, simply because I love the combination of Arturo Vidal of Juventus in central midfield and the explosive Alexis Sanchez of Barcelona on the wing. I must admit that I also have Chile ranked so well because they are a very fun team to watch. They play a fast, passing game, and their 3-4-3 formation is also conducive to holding onto the ball. On the defensive side, they don’t really let the opposition get settled, pressing all the way up the field. It’s an exciting style of soccer, and luckily for the viewer, they should just do very well in the heat and humidity. They have a tough group, but Spain and Holland don’t have the experience Chile has in hot weather, and I think they’re going to be surprised and tired by the fast pace. The recent results have also been positive. In the tough South American qualification group, Chile finished third, as after four straight losses to Colombia, Ecuador, Argentina, and Peru, they turned it around, winning five of their last six, including a 2-0 win against Argentina. In their six friendlies since qualification ended, they have been spectacular, beating England and Costa Rica resoundingly while losing by just one goal to Brazil and in Germany despite outplaying the Germans. The defense features Gary Medel of Cardiff, but outside of Medel there aren’t great options at the back. That’s an issue, but it shouldn’t be a huge problem as long as Chile continue to take good care of the ball. It’s an exciting team, and I’m picking them to get through partly because I want them to, but I also think that Vidal (18 goals for Juventus) and Sanchez (19 goals in La Liga) are up to the challenge. The final game, against the Netherlands on June 23, should be for second place, and I think the South American team will win it by a whisker and set up a mouth-watering match-up with Brazil in the round of 16. Could they beat Brazil? It’s unlikely, but I think it’s more likely than the Netherlands beating the Brazilians.

#9 France: It’s unbelievable that France isn’t a top five team. Even without Franck Ribery, who will miss the World Cup due to injury, a casual glance at the roster tells me that it is full of talent, and in an easy group with a likelihood of a trip to the quarterfinals, I’m shocked that I have France this low, below teams like Portugal, Colombia, and Belgium. But even if the French make it to the quarterfinals, and barring a dreadful performance they will, I don’t think they’re one of the eight best teams in the world. And that’s not due to any lack of talent. They have a top goalie (Hugo Lloris of Tottenham), one of the best defenses in the world with Mamadou Sakho, Bacary Sagna, Patrice Evra, and Eliaquim Mangala, key starters for Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester United, and Porto, likely to be on the bench. Who’s going to start, then? Well, how about Champions League final starter Raphael Varane of Real Madrid, Lucas Digne (PSG), breakout star Laurent Koscielny of Arsenal, and Mathieu Debuchy. Wow. And it gets even better. The midfield is so good that Samir Nasri didn’t even make the 23 man roster. It has PSG players Yohan Cabaye (the French Iniesta; he’s a great passer) and Blaise Matuidi, and, best of all, the best young player in the world in Paul Pogba of Juventus. Pogba is just 21 years old, and he might soon be a top-three player in the world. He’s incredible. The only thing this France team lacks besides consistency and concentration is a great finisher. Ribery is a very good one, but he’s out, and Karim Benzema is going to be relied heavily upon in a situation that isn’t as good as it is at Real Madrid, where he plays with Cristiano Ronaldo, Angel Di Maria, and Gareth Bale, among others. Heck, even I could score goals playing with those guys. Benzema did score 24 goals for Madrid, so he should be good, and he will have support. Based on talent alone, this team is amazing. But then there’s that lack of consistency and concentration. This is a team that needed a wrongly allowed goal by Benzema (he was offside) to sneak into the World Cup after losing 2-0 in the first half of a two game playoff against Ukraine. They ended up winning the game 3-0, but it was way too close for comfort. France also disappointed at Euro 2012, and as you might remember were an absolute train wreck at the World Cup in 2010. After tying Uruguay in the first game, they lost to lesser opponents Mexico and host nation South Africa, and ended up with just one point. I don’t think that will happen again, because this group is really easy and because France seems to have this odd every-other-World-Cup thing where they are great (1998- winners, 2006- runners up) and then terrible (one point apiece in 2002 and 2010). But I don’t have enough confidence in them to put them in my top eight, so they land at #9. This is the perfect place for them, because I think they’re going to make the quarterfinals, but you can’t put a team that shouldn’t be here and has so much bust potential in the top quarter of the rankings. That’s why I have France as the worst group winners.

We’re now left with two teams from Group G, zero from E, and one from each of the other groups.

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