With the prolonged qualification process finally complete, one of the landmark events in the lead up to a World Cup, the group stage draw, took place last Friday.
England were placed in Group D, one of the toughest groups of the draw, alongside Italy, Uruguay and Costa Rica, and Group B provides England’s group with the only genuine competition for the infamous and undesirable label of ‘Group of Death’.
This means that England will begin their campaign in Manaus – the venue they had hoped to avoid due to its tropical climate – on June 14th, when they play Italy, before facing Uruguay on June 19th in Sao Paulo and Costa Rica in Belo Horizonte on June 24th.
“It’s a tough group,” admitted England manager Roy Hodgson. “But I’m still positive because you just never know. We’re here, we’ve got an interesting group and we’re going to play three very exciting games next summer”.
While England’s group promises to pose a stern challenge for Hodgson’s side, as they come up against the likes of Luis Suarez, Mario Balotelli and Edinson Cavani, it is not the only group which many interested neutrals will pay close attention to, with Spain meeting the Netherlands, Chile and Australia in Group B, while Germany will meet both Portugal and the United States of America in Group G.
Add into the mix the world’s most gifted players, numerous fierce and historic rivalries and a host nation famous for its ability to stage a great party, and next year’s World Cup appears to have all the ingredients of an enthralling sporting contest.
Group D – Uruguay, Italy, England, Costa Rica
There will be a certain sense of familiarity about England’s opponents next summer, as they come up against the side that knocked them out of the last major tournament, and the team which boasts the Premier League’s current leading goal-scorer. Though many bookmakers have them down as outsiders for qualification to the knock-out rounds, England will be quietly confident of causing an upset, as they hope that experienced players such as Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard and Ashley Cole can gel with promising young talents, such as Adam Lallana and Andros Townsend, to upset the odds.
Key Players: Luis Suarez, Mario Balotelli, Wayne Rooney, Keylor Navas
Group A – Brazil, Croatia, Mexico, Cameroon
Brazil seems the stand-out side of Group A and they are firm favourites to progress to the knock-out phase. With their home support behind them, they will harbour realistic ambitions of going all the way and winning their first World Cup for twelve years. Other than the hosts, Croatia seems the most likely to progress, but it could be very close between them and the other sides, with all three standing a chance but none standing out. The battle for second spot in this group could be a very interesting one to watch.
Key Players: Neymar, Mario Mandzukic, Javier Hernandez, Samuel Eto’o
Group B – Spain, Netherlands, Chile, Australia
Group B appears objectively to be this World Cup’s real ‘Group of Death’. Spain and Holland, who of course met in the 2010 World Cup final, which Spain eventually won, are the two favourites for qualification, but neither will underestimate the challenge that both Chile and Australia will pose. Chile beat England at Wembley last month, while the Australian side contains many players making a name for themselves in Europe’s top divisions. Spain are favourites, but nothing is a given in Group B.
Key Players: Andres Iniesta, Arjen Robben, Alexis Sanchez, Mile Jedinak
Group C – Colombia, Greece, Ivory Coast, Japan
Group C seems a rather open group, with all four teams standing a realistic opportunity of progression to the knock-out rounds. Colombia are the slight favourites, with Radamel Falcao and James Rodriguez in their ranks, while Ivory Coast are also fancied in this group. However, as always in tournaments such as this, nothing can be taken for granted and all four teams stand a chance of getting through. Though it may not have any of the biggest teams in, Group C could be a very interesting one to follow for a neutral.
Key Players: Radamel Falcao, Kostas Mitroglou, Yaya Toure, Shinji Kagawa
Group E – Switzerland, Ecuador, France, Honduras
Group E is the group most pundits acknowledged that England would have liked to have been put in. France are strong favourites to progress, with Switzerland or Ecuador expected to join them. Despite the fact that it is a group with some of the ‘smaller’ nations in this tournament, the battle for the top two spots could still be very interesting, particularly if the ever-unpredictable French slip up early on.
Key Players: Xherdan Shaqiri, Jefferson Montero, Franck Ribery, Carlos Costly
Group F – Argentina, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iran, Nigeria
Argentina are one of the favourites for the tournament, due to their squad of world-class performers – which includes Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero and Angel di Maria – and the fact that they will be one of the countries most familiar with the Brazilian conditions. They are thus very strong favourites for progression from this group, and it appears the real contest will be between the other three teams for the prize of joining la albiceleste in the next round. Nigeria are probably slight favourites for second place, but it could go to any of the three.
Key Players: Lionel Messi, Edin Dzeko, Javad Nekounam, Victor Moses
Group G – Germany, Portugal, Ghana, USA
Group G also seems to be a very interesting group; the meeting of Germany and Portugal is one of the highlights of the group stages, matched possibly by only the game between Spain and Holland. These two are expected to progress, but both could come unstuck against either of the other two nations, both of whom pose a substantial threat. The USA, in particular, could be a surprise package, under the astute guidance of German legend Jurgen Klinsmann.
Key Players: Bastian Schweinsteiger, Cristiano Ronaldo, Asamoah Gyan, Clint Dempsey
Group H – Belgium, Algeria, Russia, South Korea
Belgium are a team quietly fancied by many to do very well in this tournament, and their team-sheet boasts some big name players, many of whom will be familiar to English supporters, including Simon Mignolet, Vincent Kompany, Marouane Fellaini, Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku, among others. They are big favourites to win Group H, with Russia and South Korea expected to be the main competitors for second position. Group H could be one of the most entertaining to watch, particularly for fans of the English Premier League, which is well represented.
Key Players: Vincent Kompany, Sofiane Feghouli, Igor Akinfeev, Son Heung-Min
The draw for the 2014 FIFA World Cup may not have dealt England the kindest of hands, but it has certainly thrown up some very interesting groupings, and fans are likely to be treated to some terrific contests from the very first week.
The group stage draw really marks the beginning of the World Cup proper, and next year’s tournament has the makings of a classic.