Group C: Colombia, Greece, Côte d’Ivoire, Japan
This is a group of mirrors. Colombia and Japan are two tricky, ball-playing, creative sides. Greece and the Ivory Coast are muscular as rams with the accompanying lack of subtlety to match. But as has been shown before, in tournament football the most unlikely styles can prosper.
The conventional argument runs that Colombia should top the group, and I’m inclined to agree with that – though not for the same reasons as others have chosen. The idea that they will enjoy some sort of “home advantage” is more than a mite silly. Was there anyone who suggested in 2006 that England were favoured because the tournament was in Germany? Continental advantage means nothing – but possessing some lethally skilful players is significant. Colombia will miss the divine goal-hanging talents of Falcao, a cross between Gerd Müller and Jesus – but in his place they have Jackson Martínez of Porto, a man of superior all-round talent. Tasked with supplying him is Fiorentina’s Juan Cuadrado, a whirl of perpetual motion up and down and up the right wing. England should be warned – it’s likely they will meet Colombia in the last 16.
Japan will live up – or down- to their reputation as a talented but ultimately lightweight bunch. They shine most brightly in attacking midfield, which is paradoxically their weakness – one of Shinji Kagawa or Keisuke Honda will be forced from the “hole”, the position just in behind the strikers, to the wing. Honda has the elegance and fragile temperament of a glass vase; most often he’s a joy to look at, until he cracks and is sent home in need of disgrace and repair. That could happen. Realistically, Japan need wins against Greece and the Ivory Coast to finish second in the group, upon the achievement of which a last 16 game against Italy or Uruguay will await.
Ivory Coast- they’re always less fun to watch than they should be, mainly thanks to a continued and baffling inability to produce a proper creative midfielder. Yaya Touré wins games single-handedly by combining elegance and skill with otherwordly physicality – but even so, he’s not one for the killer pass. All the same, Didier Drogba is still around to cause half the handful of trouble he used to, and Wilfried Bony is a dangerous striking accomplice. Round of 16? At a push? Quarter-finals? At a shove. Any further is tempting the cliff-edge too much.
It’s exactly ten years since Greece shocked even themselves by trolling the entirety of Europe to win Euro 2004. Their playing style is much the same: they rely on a strong defence and set pieces, and have made a dull yet effective virtue of the 1-0 win. It’s a combination derided by aesthetes but effective in the hyper-realised environs of World Cup football. Greece could go “under the radar” to reach the quarter-finals. After that? Well, the tournament Gods work in mysterious ways…
Prediction: 1) Colombia 2) Greece 3) Côte d’Ivoire 4) Japan
Group D: England, Italy, Uruguay, Costa Rica
England sort of expects promising failure. That’s the general tone around our prospects for Brazil 2014- a little blooding of youth, and a lot of bloodletting at the feet of Italy and Uruguay. At least it won’t be as depressing as four years ago, watching Fabio Capello’s old men stumble around South Africa as if they’d misplaced their Victory Gin. This time, pungent youth has been given its chance ahead of mothballed experience. The coach, Roy Hodgson, is a much-travelled man as at home reading Updike as he is dealing with the whims of a £300,000 a week footballer – so even though he seems to be (wrongly) persisting with the biennially disappointing Wayne Rooney, at least he brings a kind of sodden, erudite perspective to proceedings. At least there are other players to talk about now besides the debate around whether Lampard and Gerrard can play together, which seems to have persisted longer than each has been alive. Hodgson has chosen Raheem Sterling, built like a dancer with a strange, arms-raised gait, and Ross Barkley, a 20-year-old behemoth with the body of an industrial fridge and the style of your mother’s best china. With hopes so refreshingly middling, England may surprise.
To propel themselves out of the group, they will have to overcome one of Uruguay or Italy. The former reached the semi-finals four years ago in South Africa through the feats of Diego Forlan, who mastered the art of belting the crazy Jabulani ball really hard off various parts of opposition defenders’ anatomies. Forlan has been replaced by Luis Suárez, who famously used to enjoy biting people and calling them “Negrito” but now gains his succour from scoring goals, and Edinson Cavani, who out-Jesuses Colombia’s Radamel Falcao in terms of looks and piety. Behind those two world-class strikers however is a midfield of meat-cleavers more at home in a Friday the 13th remake than a football pitch. A lack of midfield creativity may well be Uruguay’s downfall.
Italy arrive with similarly depressed expectations to England – and with a similar emphasis on youth. Andrea Pirlo’s beard grows more venerable with his age but his range of passing remains as vital as ever- and in front of him coach Cesare Prandelli will rotate a trio of bright young things: Alessio Cerci, Ciro Immobile and Lorenzo Insigne, perhaps the brightest of them all. That’s not to forget Mario Balotelli, who will lug his personal brand of madness to the party, and Antonio Cassano, who is in his own way just as mental.
Costa Rica proved hugely entertaining recipients of whippings eight years ago in Germany. Expect more of the same this time around – they will be stylish but insubstantial, with Joel Campbell of Olympiakos and Bryan Ruiz sometime of Fulham their biggest threats. Cannon fodder? Not so much when England are in the group. Costa Rica’s air rifle pellets may just be enough to take points from Hodgson’s side.
Prediction: 1) Italy 2) England 3) Uruguay 4) Costa Rica