Archive for the ‘Soccer’ Category

World Cup Final Prediction

Posted: 07/13/2014 by levcohen in Soccer

LeBron James, who’s in the news for very understandable reasons (I’ll eventually write a LeBron back to the Cavs (!) post), summed the importance of the World Cup final up very nicely. “This is the highest you can get,” James said, going on to say that the World Cup final is bigger than the NBA finals. We all know this is true, of course, but hearing the best player in basketball say it is particularly illuminating. James, of course, is in Brazil as I type and will be attending the game between Germany and Argentina at the Maracana. Must be nice.

This game has been dubbed by many as some variation of “man vs machine,” with man being Lionel Messi and Germany acting as the machine. While that has some basis in reality, I don’t think it’s even close to the reality. First, Germany. The Germans have been rightly celebrated over the past few days after a 7-1 demolition of Brazil that still seems like it was a dream. There’s no question that Germany was dominant in that game, with clinical finishing and strong defending. With that said, I’m still not sure they are a powerhouse team. The Brazilians were almost as poor as the Germans were dominant, with soft defending and very little defensive pressure. Without Neymar and Thiago Silva, their two leaders and star players, they just collapsed, and they look even worse after a 3-0 loss to the Netherlands in the third place game. Basically, Brazil fell apart, and that wasn’t all Germany’s doing. Germany also got lucky against Brazil. There’s no question that they were and are the better team than a Neymar and Silva-less Brazil, but they aren’t six goals better. They scored seven goals on 12 shots on goal, which is unsustainable. They had just 49% possession. Brazil outshot them (13 on goal), and outpossessed them. That doesn’t mean they outplayed Germany, and they didn’t (stats can be misleading), but it’s definitely true that the game was closer than the final score indicates. Brazil had numerous chances to score early in the second half, and were unlucky not to have a couple of goals in the first few minutes of the second half. What if the final score had been 5-3 instead of 7-1? Would Germany still be considered a powerhouse team, one of the best of all-time? I doubt it.

With all that said, they are still a heck of a team. They’re organized and clinical, and it all starts at the back with goalie Manuel Neuer. Neuer has cemented his status as best goalkeeper in the world (sorry, Tim Howard) with a near-spotless tournament. His reflexes are tremendous, and he’s very steady in goal, allowing just four goals in six games. He also adds a lot to the attack, with great feet and passing ability. When the ball gets played over the top, Neuer is always there to get it. He has fantastic awareness, and when he gets the ball, he looks to start a counterattack immediately. The bottom line is that Neuer is a great asset and the best player on this team. The defense in front of Neuer isn’t fast, but it’s definitely steady. The strength of the defense is just that- strength and size. It’s going to be hard to score in the air against Germany, which means Argentina will have to beat them with speed. And then there’s the attack, which is dynamic and deep. Thomas Muller isn’t the fastest, most skilled, or best finisher in the world, but he always seems to be in the right place at the right time. As a result, he has five goals in the World Cup and three more assists and is a co-Golden Boot (award given to best player in the World Cup) favorite (Messi being the other co-favorite). He’s joined by a host of other great attacking players. Mesut Ozil is the creator, Toni Kroos is the finisher, Miroslav Klose is the poacher, and tremendous attackers Andre Schurrle and Mario Gotze are stuck on the bench. After their seven spot against Brazil, Germany now has scored 17 goals in the World Cup. Only one other team, the Netherlands, has scored more than 12 goals, and they’ve played an extra game. Impressive. So even after that whole paragraph about why the Germans aren’t an all-time great team, I still have to admit that they are the best team in this World Cup by a pretty wide margin.

And then there’s the so-called “one man team,” Argentina. There’s no doubt that Lionel Messi is great. He’s the best player in the world, even though he didn’t have a huge impact on the semifinal against the Dutch. He’s scored four of Argentina’s eight goals, and assisted on another one. So it’s pretty fair to say that he has been a very large part of the Argentine offense. But it’s not like this team doesn’t have other attacking options. In fact, heading into the World Cup their wealth of attacking options was their biggest strength. Angel di Maria, Gonzalo Higuain, and Sergio Aguero join Messi to form perhaps the most skilled attacking group in the World Cup. But it hasn’t worked out. Aguero missed two games with an injury and was clearly hobbled in the semifinal, and has yet to score a goal. He might start the final, but is without a doubt not at 100%. Di Maria scored the winning goal against Switzerland late (on a beautiful pass by Messi) but then got injured in the quarterfinal and missed the semifinal. He might not be ready to play in the final. Even with all those attacking options, Argentina’s offense has been pretty static, which explains their paltry eight goals in six games. With Messi and company, though, they are just one brilliant play away from doing something special.

Surprisingly, Argentina’s defense has carried the South American team to the final. They’ve allowed just three goals, and if you exclude a 3-2 win against Nigeria that didn’t really mean much (Argentina had already clinched progression to the last 16 and only needed a tie), that number goes down to one: a garbage time goal scored by Bosnia in the first game. That means they have not allowed a single goal in three knockout round games. Leading the defensive effort has been Javier Mascherano, who is another Golden Boot candidate and has been absolutely fantastic, especially in the semifinal, when he stopped Dutch attack after Dutch attack despite “tearing his anus.” The defense was supposed to be Argentina’s Achilles’ heel, but it’s been the opposite, saving the team time after time after time.

I expect this game to be a lot less open than Brazil-Germany. I expect a close, low-scoring game, with neither team playing dominant soccer but both playing well defensively. I really wanted to pick Argentina, because I think they are being underrated and because I think they have the speed to get behind Germany’s defense. But in the end, Neuer and the Germans are just too good. I think it’ll be close and go to extra time (hopefully), with Germany scoring the winner in that additional time and winning the game 2-1. The Golden Boot will be won by Muller if he scores a goal and by Colombia’s James Rodriguez if he doesn’t. I’m rooting for Argentina in this game, but I don’t really care. More than anything, I want a close and exciting game, and I think we’ll get it. I’m picking Germany, but it’s going to be a lot closer than people think.


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.

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.

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.