The Countdown: #8-5

Posted: 06/09/2014 by levcohen in Soccer

The top four- some order of Argentina, Brazil, Spain, and Germany- have been pretty clear cut (to me, at least) for quite some time, although that might be questionable now that Germany has suffered some costly errors. But the next group of teams are nearly impossible to rank. All four of these teams have weaknesses, and two of them have had very little recent World Cup success. But one thing all four teams have in common is a shot at knocking off the top four, and I think they make up a very strong group. There are two teams left from G, none from E, and one from the other six groups. Here’s a reminder of the rankings, from #32 to #9: Australia, Iran, Cameroon, Ecuador, Algeria, Costa Rica, Honduras, Greece, Ghana, South Korea, Bosnia, Mexico, Croatia, Russia, Japan, United States, Switzerland, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, England, Netherlands, Uruguay, Chile, France.

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

#8 Portugal: Who is this Portugal team? Is it Cristiano Ronaldo and a bunch of below-average supporting pieces? Or is it a well-rounded team full of elite players who are there to support Ronaldo? I’m more sympathetic with the second position, which is why I have them in the top eight. There are a lot of great players on this team. Ronaldo is the obvious one, and you don’t need me to tell you how good the Ballon d’Or winner is. He scored 51 goals in 47 games for Real Madrid. Enough said. But he’s surrounded by some good players, including club teammates and defenders Pepe and Fabio Conetrao. In goal, they have longtime Sporting Lisbon goalie Rui Patricio, who is one of the better goalies in the Portuguese league. William Carvalho, also of Lisbon, and Joao Moutinho of Monaco will hold down spots in the midfield, while Manchester United’s rarely-seen Nani will support Ronaldo on the wing. Still, there are question marks. Who, for example, will start at striker and act as Portugal’s version of Karim Benzema? It might be Helder Postiga of Lazio, but he’s on the wrong side of 30 now and scored just four goals last year. Hugo Almeida and Eder have better stats, but they play in leagues far worse than Serie A, in Turkey and Portugal, respectively. That’s a question. This team also has been prone to lapses in concentration, particularly in qualification games against Northern Ireland (fell behind 2-1 before waking up) and Israel (were down 3-1, rallied to tie it). In both of those games, they rallied, but their inconsistent nature led them to finish second in their group behind Russia and they had to play Sweeden in a two-game playoff, a tough ask. Ronaldo saved them, scoring the only goal in the first game and three more in the second, which Portugal won 3-2.

This is a team that is most successful with the same style that Ronaldo’s club team, Real Madrid, is; the counter attack. Unsurprisingly, they are dynamite, with Nani and Ronaldo pushing the ball up the field and Moutinho providing support. But if the game slows down and Portugal isn’t able to get out on the break, you can easily see it going downhill quickly. Ronaldo could become upset and lose focus, or teammates could get frustrated with their star but sometimes enigmatic striker. This is a talented team, but it’s also one that has a question mark up top and relies on the counter-attack. Regardless, I think they’ll qualify from Group G behind Germany, with a round of 16 game against Belgium likely.

#7 Colombia: Colombia and Portugal were very hard to rank. These two teams seem pretty much even, with Colombia gaining the edge for two reasons: they will have a relative home field advantage, and they are in a much easier group than Portugal. While Portugal are likely to finish second in a group with Germany, Ghana, and the United States, Colombia is in Group C with Greece, Ivory Coast, and Japan. The loss of Monaco striker Radamel Falcao, who worked hard to get healthy in time but couldn’t and was left off the roster, is super tough. Falcao is one of the best strikers in the world, and their upside definitely isn’t as high without him. Still, they have a very good starting lineup. Jackson Martinez and Carlos Bacca combined to score 50 goals in 103 games in top European leagues, so they should be able to compensate for the loss of Falcao. Meanwhile, the starting midfield is one of the best in the world. Juan Cuadrado is lightning-quick and had 15 goals and 11 assists for Fiorentina last season. He could be moving to Bayern Munich, Barcelona, or Manchester United as soon as next season. Meanwhile, James, Falcao’s Monaco teammate, is the heart of this team. He can play on both the outside and inside, and is the normal bridge between the defense and attack. At just 22 years old, he’s already a superstar. And the defense has also proved to be very good. Before giving up six goals in the final three games of qualification, when they had already all-but sewed up second spot behind Argentina, the defense gave up just seven in the first 12 games. Cristian Zapata in particular has been impressive.
This is a very solid all around team, with star strikers and a tough defense that will keep them in games. However, they need to pray against any more injuries, because they are a very thin team. This is also a team that hasn’t had much World Cup success. They hadn’t made it since 1998 and haven’t made it past the round of 16, since, well, ever. I think that could change this year, but while the group isn’t too bad, a round of 16 game against Uruguay could be challenging.

#6 Italy: They might not be as good as they have been recently, but Italy is still going to be ready to have a good tournament. It’s not an especially exciting team, but it’s one that has lots of experience. From the goalie (Gigi Buffon is 36) to the field players (like Andrea Pirlo, 35) this is an experienced team. Italy also usually- and 2010 was an exception- goes reasonably far in the tournament, including in 2006, when they won it all. This team made it through qualification unbeaten, outscoring opponents 19-9 and easily winning the qualification group. Lately, however, they have struggled a little bit, with their only win in their last eight coming against Fluminese by the unconvincing score of 5-3. I wouldn’t be too concerned, but the recent lack of success led me to lower Italy by one spot. Still, this is a good and very well-rounded team, with the cream of Juventus’ crop at the back (Buffon, central defenders Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci will anchor the team defensively), and a great midfield featuring Pirlo, Roma’s Daniele De Rossi, and PSG’s Marco Veratti. Mario Balotteli up top is the biggest question mark, but if he rises to the occasion, Italy could easily make the semifinals. I don’t see that happening, and I think the run will end by the quarterfinals. But I don’t think Italy fans should be panicking, and I’d be shocked if they were to miss out on the round of 16, even in a group with England and Uruguay.

#5 Belgium: Belgium’s team is, well, remarkable, considering how poorly they’ve done in recent years and considering how bad Belgium’s leagues are. The rise has been astounding, and this team, which hasn’t qualified for the World Cup since 2002, can now not be dismissed. Their team is almost a who’s who of the best players in the Premier League. They have Vincent Kompany, Jan Vertonghen, Marouane Fellaini, Eden Hazard, Kevin Mirallas, and Romelu Lukaku. All will likely start, and all are terrific players in England. This is another very well-rounded team. The goalie, Thibaut Cortois, has become one of the world’s best goalies at just 22 years old. Heck, the backup goalie, Simon Mignolet, is one of the best in the Premier League. Kompany is one of the best defenders in the world, and the front three of Hazard, Mirallas, and Lukaku is dynamite. In a fairly tough qualification group with Croatia, Serbia, and Scotland, all solid, they went about their business, going 8-0-2 while allowing just four (four!) goals. And after stumbling in a couple of friendlies after qualifying, they responded with a 5-1 thrashing of Luxembourg, a 2-0 win over Sweeden, and a 1-0 win over Tunisia that could have been much more. As they showed in qualification, this is a defensively sound team, which makes sense based on the personnel. The bigger question may be scoring; while Hazard, Mirallas, and Lukaku are good, all are young and none have proven that they can score goals on the biggest stage. Most of Belgium’s team, in fact, is young. Just one projected starter, Daniel van Buyten, is older than 28, and four projected starters are 23 or younger. Because the team is so young and because Belgium hasn’t had recent World Cup success, it’s fair to be skeptical about their chances. Had they been in a tough group, I’d probably have them a bit lower, because you never know what can happen to an inexperienced team (to any team, really, but especially an inexperienced one) after one bad result in the World Cup, even against a good team. This group is all but tough, though. Belgium will start against Algeria, which should be an easy win, followed by Russia, where a tie would be fine, and South Korea. If they win the group, they’d likely face Portugal. That would be tough, but I think Belgium is the better team, and a quarterfinal game against Argentina would be very interesting.

So the four teams left are, sure enough, Brazil, Germany, Spain, and Argentina. This is the cream of the crop, and we’ll preview them next.

  1. dpcathena says:

    Can’t wait until Thursday.

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