A for Abidance
So, we are all set to embrace the mother of all tournaments, the World Cup 2014, to be held in its spiritual home, Brazil. Goalden Times is bringing you group wise preview, analysis and prediction. Starting off with Group A is Riddhi Roy Chaudhuri.
The Holy Grail returns to Brazil for the first time since 1950. Generally anything less than a final appearance in World Cup is considered a failure for the Selecao by the football crazy nation. One can understand how much expectation from the national team will be there this time as World Cup is held in Brazil itself. After the embarrassing second half capitulation against the Dutch in quarter-final in 2010, manager Dunga had to face the axe. Mano Menezes replaced him and he tried to make a radical change to the national team setup. Menezes envisaged a free-flowing football with more technical, skillful and particularly young players. He brought in the likes of Neymar, Lucas Moura, Alexandre Pato and tried to build the team around them. However, Menezes never succeeded to fully achieve what he tried. The team showed glimpses of brilliance in going forward but they lacked the killer instinct. Another hindrance for Menezes was the lack of competitive games. Friendlies never provided a true measure of the progress made under him. Then came the Copa America in 2011 where Menezes and his team bowed out in the quarters.
In November 2012, Menezes left with mutual consent and Luiz Felipe Scolari returned after 10 years of winning the World Cup. Felipao set out to mend the things and preferred substance over style. Initially things did not work properly and in his first five games, Brazil failed to secure any win. However in the Confederation Cup 2013, Brazil found their rhythm and went on to win the tournament. Throughout the tournament, Brazil was ruthless and clinical which was highlighted by the 3-0 demolition of world champion Spain. Thereby Felipao succeeded in installing a proper system for the team that can perform well at the World Cup.
As Scolari has mentioned before, his roster for the World Cup consists of majority of the players who won the Confederation Cup for him. This time around Brazil will be based on solid defence and a functional midfield. Thiago Silva, Dante and David Luiz will be at the helm of the central defence while Dani Alves and Marcelo will be providing width as full-backs. The Luiz Gustavo-Paulinho combination has worked wonders for Scolari and they will form the midfield lynch pin. However, after a fantastic season at Manchester City, Fernandinho has forced himself into Scolari’s plan and do not be surprised if you see his name in the first XI. Neymar will be the talisman for Brazill going forward supported by Oscar, Fred and Hulk. Ironically, this time the centre-forward is the position where Brazil is devoid of quality names. Scolari will try to overcome it by setting up his strategy to get goals from all across the team.
Brazil has always been the box office nation at the World Cup and as the host nation, expectation to win the tournament on them will be sky high. If things work out properly, progress to knockout stage should not be a big problem. But there awaits the bigger test for Scolari and his Selecao. Whether a sixth World Cup glory or an anti-climax in the form of early elimination from the tournament awaits them – time can only tell that.
Cameroon will be participating for the seventh time in the World Cup in Brazil. Cameroon is still remembered for their exploits in the 1990 World Cup held in Italy. They never reached the same height and have been a story of more misses than hits in the following editions of the showpiece tournament. Brazil 2014 will present them a chance to change that but it will be a tough job to say the least.
Cameroon’s performance in the last few international tournaments have been below par. Their endeavour in both the World Cup 2010 and African Cup of Nations in 2010 fell below expectations. Failure to qualify for the 2013 African Cup of Nations saw sacking of manager Denis Lavagne. Jean-Paul Akono was in charge temporarily and later he was replaced by the German Volkar Finke. Qualification campaign for 2014 World Cup was comparatively easy sailing for Cameroon. They topped Group I in the second round ahead of Libya, Congo and Togo. Cameroon rode their luck in the match away to Togo where they were awarded a 3-0 victory inspite of losing the match 2-0 as Togo fielded an ineligible player. In the play-off round they met Tunisia. A resounding 4-1 victory at home after a stalemate in first leg ensured their qualification. Although their performance was nothing spectacular but effective nonetheless and also helped by the fact that they didn’t have to face tougher opponents.
Finke is known as one of the architects of the present free-flowing style that has swept across the entire footballing strata in Germany. He is best remembered for his 16-year spell at SC Freiburg. However with Cameroon, Finke has a different task at his disposal. A pragmatic approach rather than style is probably what Finke will try to look into for Cameroon. The national team is not particularly blessed with plethora of creative talents. They boast good defenders like Joel Matip, Nicolas Nkoulou, Aurélien Chedjou, Benoit Assou-Ekotto who are known faces in the top European leagues. Similarly Alexandre Song, Jean II Makoun, Stephane Mbia can provide a combative midfield. But lack of proper creative outlets may come to affect them. Samuel Eto’o, the skipper, in spite of being in and out of the team, still remains the potent source of goal but his performance with Chelsea has shown he has past his prime.
It won’t be correct to write off the ‘Indomitable Lions’ for this World Cup. In Group A, Brazil is probably too strong opposition for them but against Mexico and Croatia, they will get their chances. However to achieve anything significant, Cameroon players have to overcome their cynical nature that has hurt them in the previous tournaments. Finke needs to get the best out of his players otherwise another group stage exit might be in store for them.
After their stunning World Cup debut in 1998, Croatia has never enjoyed same fortune in the next tournaments. Their last appearance in World Cup was in 2006 when they went out in the group stage.In Euro 2012, they again went out of the group stage after being paired with heavyweights and eventual finalists Spain and Italy. This was followed by resignation of Slaven Bilic, the longest standing Croatian manager till date. With Davor Suker coming in as the new Croatian Federation(HNS) president, they chose former defender Igor Stimac as the new manager. His first task was to gain qualification for World Cup 2014.
Croatia was placed in Group A with Belgium, Serbia, Scotland, Wales and Macedonia. Croatia started their journey in 2014 World Cup qualifiers with a narrow 1-0 win against Macedonia. Croatia was undefeated in the first six games of the campaign and won five of them to top the table at that stage. But the next four games saw a slump in form and they could only manage a point. As a result, Croatia finished second behind Belgium and had to face a play-off against Iceland. Under pressure coach Stimac was removed and charges were given to former captain from their golden generation and then U-21 national team manager Niko Kovac. Kovac guided Croatia successfully against Iceland in the second round of the qualifiers thus securing a berth in the summer showdown.
Under Kovac, Croatia are yet to find their footing. To be fair, he has not been able to spend sufficient time with his team to stamp his mark. He managed to navigate the immediate job of qualifying for the World Cup overcoming Iceland although they had to fight hard. Croatia could not break stubborn Iceland in the first leg despite having a man advantage for most of the first half. This Croatian team doesn’t have an abundance of talent to pick from. Without doubt, they boast one of the most in-form and talented midfielder of the present time in Luka Modric. He will be ably supported by Ivan Rakitic who is enjoying a fine season with Sevilla. In Mateo Kovacic, they have a potential superstar who will be valuable to Kovac’s plan. Midfield can be the source of inspiration for Croatia but Kovachave to design a strategy that can harness the best out his talented midfeld. Southampton’s Dejan Lovren will be the leader at the back alongside Vedran Corluka. Ever-present and captain Dario Srna will take up his position as the right-back. It is the forward line where Croatia lacks real quality and they will be further affected by absence of Mario Mandzukic in the opening game against Brazil due to a one-game ban. In his absence, either of Eduardo Silva or Nikica Jelavic will step in but how much threat they can be remains a doubt. Ivan Perisic and veteran IvicaOlic will be playing supporting roles as wide forwards. Beyond the first XI, lack of suitable quality will be another bit of concern for the manager. So all in all, it is the midfield where lies the key to success for Croatia.
The pint sized Balkan nation with a population of four million will be at the centre of global audience come 12th June. They will lock horn with the host and favourites Brazil. Niko Kovac has made it clear that his team won’t be there in Brazil just as tourists. He stated: “You only get a shot at the World Cup every four years, so we want to leave behind a lasting impression.” Qualifying for the knockout stage remains the primary agenda for Kovac and his team. They need to back themselves and produce their best to get results especially against the likes of Mexico and Cameroon. Following their absence in 2010 World Cup, the Vatreni will look to arouse the spirit of 1998 to make this World Cup special.
Mexico has been the powerhouse nation in the CONCACAF group of North and Central America region over the years. They have not been spectacular but steady in the last five editions. Generally due to lack of competition, Mexico’s status has never been threatened in the region.
Courtesy of winning the CONCACAF Gold Cup in 2011, Mexico got the chance to participate in last year’s Confederation Cup in Brazil. However, being paired with Brazil and Italy in the same group, they faced a difficult job to advance in the tournament. As expected, they lost both the games and were eliminated. Defeating Japan in the other group match was the only positive thing for them. Their next assignment was the Gold Cup 2013 hosted by USA. Things started to go downhill from this tournament. In the group stage, Mexico went down to minnows Panama and managed to qualify for quarter-final stage as runners-up. However, they again faced Panama in the semi-final and suffered the same fate. This was the first time Panama has defeated Mexico in Gold Cup and that too twice.
Mexico started their qualification journey for World Cup 2014 in the third round of CONCACAF qualifiers. They were clubbed with Costa Rica, El Salvador and Guyana. Under the guidance of Jose Manuel ‘Chepo’ de la Torre Menchacha, they breezed through the group by winning all the six matches. Next, came the fourth round, also known as the Hexagonal, consisting of six teams, the group champions and runners-ups, from third round. Mexico had to struggle from the beginning this time. They embarked on a poor run of seven games where they drew 5 games and winning just one. The lowest point came on 6th September, 2013 when Honduras defeated Mexico at their own Estadio Azteca. It was only the second defeat for the ‘EL Tri’ at their home, previous one was in 2001. Subsequently, Mexican Football Federation (FMF) sacked the under fire manager Chepo and gave the reins to Luis Fernando Tena Garduno. Tena, who guided Mexico U-23 to 2012 London Olympics gold medal, had a complex and difficult task in his hand. Mexico was lying fourth among the six teams. But Tena could not stem the rot and Mexico lost the following game against USA. FMF pressed the panic button and brought Victor Manuel Vucetich Rojas in charge for the last two games. Amongst this chaos, Mexico managed to hold on the fourth spot by winning their penultimate match and despite losing the final game, Panama’s loss to USA in the last round by conceding two goals in the injury time saved Mexico from suffering the ignominy of missing out the trip to World Cup finals. Again FMF changed the manager by bringing in interim manager Miguel Herrera – the fourth manager in less than a month – and Mexico defeated New Zealand in the intercontinental play-off on 9-3 aggregate to finally get their ticket as one of the last two nations.
After successfully negotiating the play-off hurdle, FMF decided to move forward with Miguel Herrera in charge of ‘El Tri’ for the Brazil showpiece tournament. The 46-year-old manager have his task cut out as he will be having very little time to shape up the Mexico squad. El Piojo has already mentioned that he will prefer to bring in players whom he has worked with beside the regular candidates. Generally deploying a 3-5-2 formation, veteran Rafael Marquez will be the leader at the back. Upfront Giovanidos Santos and Javier Hernandez will be vital for Mexico’s system. Jose Juan Vazquez and Juan Carlos Medina are Herrera’s choice in the midfield. Herrera will also be encouraged by the young guns like Oribe Peralta, Raul Jimenez, Carlos Pena who helped Mexico to win gold in 2012 London Olympics.
Miguel Herrera said a few days back that ’We are going to reach the final’. But it is easier said than done. Probably Herrera said the words to express his positive attitude which he wants his team to show on the field. But realistically it will be difficult for Mexico to move beyond the group stage overcoming Brazil, Croatia and Cameroon.
Brazil remains the outright favourites to win the Group A. But it ends there as it is only prediction based on the Brazil’s pedigree. Make no mistake Brazil will have to give their all to move to the next round. All the remaining three sides Mexico, Croatia and Cameroon have the capability to hurt Brazil on an odd occasion. For example, in recent games against Mexico, Brazil have found it tougher to get to overcome them(in last eight games between them, Mexico and Brazil have seen an equal share of spoils). Between Croatia, Mexico and Cameroon, it is very difficult to select the strongest candidate as they all have their fair share of strengths as well as weaknesses. The two teams that will manage to advance to the next round will probably face one of the finalists from 2010 World Cup, either Spain or Netherlands, which itself will be a daunting task indeed.
Brazil and Mexico have faced each other 38 times so far, one of the most common fixtures in the region.