World Cup Profiles - Group A

Group A

Brazil underwent a huge transformation in 2013, and the hosts now enter the World Cup as the tournaments favourites.
Coach Luiz Felipe Scolari, who led the Selecao to World Cup glory in 2002, boldly declared after the 5-0 friendly demolition of Honduras in November that ‘Brazil will be world champions”.
If Big Phil’s prediction does come true, it will be quite a turnaround given that previous coach Mano Menezes was sacked in November 2012 because the team was deemed to have been in such a state of flux.
Results were not what they should have been under Menezes, but he was not given an easy task to overhaul an aging squad that had only reached the quarter-finals of the 2010 World Cup under Dunga, bowing out to Holland.
Menezes should be given credit for his part in turning Brazil into a team who like to monopolize possession of the ball, rather than one too reliant on the counterattack.
The manner in which Brazil brushed Spain aside in July’s Confederations Cup final ensured that the critics finally stood up and took notice. Now Brazil were no longer among the World Cup favourites simply because they were hosts, but because of the quality of their play, too.
In Oscar and Neymar, Scolari possesses two of the most technically accomplished players at the 2014 World Cup. He also boasts a defender in Thiago Silva, considered my many as the best centre back in world football.
Brazil go up against Mexico, Croatia and Cameroon, in a group which they should negotiate comfortably enough. Brazil’s opponents will represent different challenges, with Mexico boasting a good recent record against the Selecao, Croatia possessing match winners in the likes of Luka Modric, and Cameroon always a physically imposing side who have shocked teams in the past, notably Argentina in 1990.
For Brazil, this tournament will be about reasserting its standing in the game after 12 years without a World Cup, and ending all arguments about where the real power lies in world football.

How they qualified
Automatic qualification for the hosts.

World Cup history
So demanding are the Brazilian faithful, even a Selecao squad that finishes runners-up at a FIFA World Cup finals cannot be sure what kind of reception they will get on their return home. The only nation to have taken part in every edition of the elite competition, Brazil have lifted the coveted trophy on a record five occasions (1958, 1962, 1970, 1994 and 2002), finished in second place twice (1950 and 1998) and taken the last spot on the podium at another two editions (1938 and 1978).

Goalkeepers: Julio Cesar (Toronto FC, on loan from QPR), Jefferson (Botafogo), Victor (Atletico Mineiro)
Defenders: Marcelo (Real Madrid), Daniel Alves (Barcelona), Maicon (AS Roma), Maxwell, Thiago Silva (both Paris Saint-Germain), David Luiz (Chelsea), Dante (Bayern Munich), Henrique (Napoli)
Midfielders: Paulinho (Tottenham Hotspur), Ramires, Willian, Oscar (all Chelsea), Hernanes (Inter Milan), Luiz Gustavo (Wolfsburg), Fernandinho (Manchester City)
Forwards: Bernard (Shakhtar Donetsk), Neymar (Barcelona), Fred (Fluminense), Jo (Atletico Mineiro), Hulk (Zenit St Petersburg)

The key players
Striker Neymar is already being hailed as a man capable of playing a key role for the five-time world champions come Brazil 2014. Among the supporting cast in attack is Oscar, while Barcelona’s Dani Alves is a lung-bursting presence on the flank. Between the sticks, veteran goalkeeper Julio Cesar exudes confidence and security to the rest of the backline.

The Coach: Luiz Felipe Scolari
The former Palmeiras, Chelsea and Portugal coach realised the dreams of a nation in 2002 when he guided Brazil to their fifth World Cup. A coach famous for his temper, Scolari is not afraid to ‘win ugly’, but will set his team out to attack – the press and public expect nothing less. Scolari boasts a fine pedigree and can add two Copa Libertadores titles to the numerous championships he has won throughout a lengthy managerial career.

Prediction: Winners
Home advantage will no doubt boost the Selecao, which was evident in the confederations Cup. Neymar dons the Brazil jersey with passion and looks a different player when playing for the national team compared to Barcelona. He could inspire the team to a famous victory on home soil. Besides some talented attackers, Brazil have arguably the best defence in the competition with the likes of Thiago Silva, Dani Alves, Marcelo and David Luiz.

Quick facts
FIFA Ranking: 4th
Best World Cup Result: Winners (1958, 1962, 1970, 1994, 2002)
Best Copa America Result: Winners (1919, 1922, 1949, 1989, 1997, 1999, 2004, 2007)
Record Scorer: Pele (77 goals between 1957 and 1971)
Most Capped Player: Cafu (142 caps between 1990 and 2006)
Captain: Thiago Silva

Group matches
Thursday 12th June v Croatia (Sao Paulo)
Tuesday 17th June v Mexico (Fortaleza)
Monday 23rd June v Cameroon (Brasilia)

A stumbling finish to their qualifying campaign resulted in Croatia switching coaches prior to their playoff against Iceland.
The team collected just a solitary point from their final four games but reached Brazil courtesy of a 2-0 aggregate win over an Iceland side bidding to become the smallest ever nation to qualify for a World Cup.
Following their first appearance at a major tournament at Euro 1996, Croatia have become a regular presence at European Championships and World Cups, and find themselves in a group featuring Mexico, Cameroon and the hosts, Brazil.
They boast several genuine world-class talents, with Real Madrid’s Luka Modric and Bayern Munich’s Mario Mandzukic the headline names.
The squad also looks to have a steady balance between youth and experience, with hot prospect Alen Halilovic reportedly being tailed by Europe’s top scouts and certainly one to watch.
The switch to Niko Kovac has been a popular one with the fans, but whether he will be able to get the best out of his squad with relatively few competitive matches in charge prior to the tournament, remains to be seen.
Their opening match, against Brazil in Sao Paulo, could not be any tougher, and they may well need to win their final two matches to stand a chance of progressing.

How they qualified
Croatia put their fans through the emotional mill in their qualification campaign. The Balkan team looked to be cruising after winning five and drawing one of their first six games, but they then took just one point from the next 12 available, losing at home to Scotland (1-0) and Belgium (2-1). Their good start eventually laid the foundation for a second-place finish, two points ahead of Serbia but nine adrift of runaway leaders Belgium.
With former Bundesliga player and Croatian international Niko Kovac at the helms – up until then in charge of the U-21 team - assisted by his brother Robert, Croatia successfully qualified via a play-off against Iceland. However, they were pushed all the way. Despite having a man advantage for long spells, the first leg ended goalless, before Croatia prevailed 2-0 in the return fixture. Mario Mandzukic grabbed the opener with Darijo Srna’s decisive effort giving supporters the cue to celebrate, although a red card shown to Mandzukic – one that means he will likely miss Croatia’s tournament opener – may dampen the mood somewhat by the time the tournament rolls around.

World Cup history
The Croats arrived for their maiden shot at the World Cup in 1998 as virtual unknowns, but were to prove one of the surprises of the tournament. They finished second in their group behind Argentina after losing 1-0 to the South Americans, but beating Jamaica 3-1 and Japan 1-0. A 1-0 win over Romania saw them through to the last eight and a meeting with Germany, where they stunningly won 3-0 to send the three-time world champions packing. Hosts and eventual winners France proved too strong in a 2-1 semi-final defeat, but the new boys crowned a dream debut by beating the Netherlands 2-1 in the third place play-off. The next two tournaments proved thoroughly disappointing by comparison, as Croatia failed to survive the group stage at both Korea/Japan 2002 and Germany 2006.

Goalkeepers: Stipe Pletikosa (Rostov), Danijel Subasic (Monaco), Oliver Zelenika (Lokomotiva Zagreb)
Defenders: Darijo Srna (Shakhtar Donetsk), Domagoj Vida (Dynamo Kiev), Sime Vrsaljko (Genoa), Danijel Pranjic (Panathinaikos), Vedran Corluka (Lokomotiv Moscow), Dejan Lovren (Southampton), Gordon Schindelfeld (Panathinaikos)
Midfielders: Luka Modric (Real Madrid), Ivan Rakitic (Sevilla), Mateo Kovacic (Inter Milan), Marcelo Brozovic (Dinamo Zagreb), Ognjen Vukojevic (Dynamo Kiev), Ivan Mocinic (Rijeka), Sammir (Getafe)
Forwards: Mario Mandzukic (Bayern Munich), Nikica Jelavic (Hull City), Ivica Olic (Wolfsburg), Eduardo da Silva (Shakhtar Donetsk), Ivan Perisic (Wolfsburg), Ante Rebic (Fiorentina)

The key players
Experienced captain Darijo Srna is a born leader, and playmakers Luka Modric and Niko Kranjcar can always be relied upon for moments of inspiration. Kovac presides over a wealth of international-class attacking talent including Eduardo, Ivica Olic, Nikita Jelavic and Mario Mandzukic.

The Coach: Niko Kovac
A former defensive midfielder and captain of the national side, Kovac was appointed as coach following the culmination of Croatia’s qualifying group in October 2013, replacing the hugely unpopular Igor Stimac. He subsequently guided them through the playoff against Iceland, confirming Croatia’s place in Brazil. Kovac’s iconic status from his playing days and successful start has given him an excellent platform for his tenure, but he is still relatively unproven at this level.

Prediction: Knockout Stages
Brazil will be expected to run out group winners on home soil, leaving Croatia to fight it out for second place. They will feel confident going up against Cameroon, who are a strong side yet arguably the weakest of the group, leaving the final match against Mexico potentially as a winner takes all tie. The Mexicans are a fairly unpredictable entity and endured some torrid qualifying form so Croatia should nick them to second spot.

Quick facts
FIFA Ranking: 20th
Best World Cup Result: Third Place (1998)
Best European Championship Result: Quarter-Finals (1996, 2008)
Record Scorer: Davor Suker (45)
Most Capped Player: Darijo Srna (110)
Captain: Darijo Srna

Group matches:
Thursday 12th June v Brazil (Sao Paulo)
Wednesday 18th June v Cameroon (Manaus)
Monday 23rd June v Mexico (Recife)

Perennial qualifiers Mexico come into this summer with many questions looming over them. Their qualifying campaign lurched from one potential disaster to another, coming within a whisker of missing out on Brazil and needing a play-off against New Zealand to confirm their place.
A signal of the chaos surrounding the national side was the fact that Miguel Herrera, the current manager, became the fourth incumbent of the post within the space of a month when he took the job. Having only been in the job since October, Herrera has not had much time to get to grips with his squad, but their 9-3 aggregate win over New Zealand was impressive.
They have reached the round of 16 in the last two tournaments, knocked out by Argentina both times, and it would be a real turn up for the books if they were to improve on their best ever World Cup runs of yesteryear.

How they qualified  
In the wake of El Tri’s historic Olympic triumph at London 2012, few Mexico fans would have expected their side to struggle en route to Brazil. Yet struggle they did, to such an extent that they came within a whisker of missing out on qualification altogether. Despite their status as regional powerhouses, the Mexicans won just two of their ten matches in the final six-team group phase, with the defeat to Honduras at their Estadio Azteca fortress in September 2013 costing Jose Manuel de la Torre his job as national team coach with three games remaining. With his success at Monterrey still fresh in the memory, the experienced Victor Manuel Vucetich came on board for the final two matches. And though he oversaw a crucial home win over Panama, it was only thanks to the USA’s last-gasp defeat of the Panamanians on the final matchday that the Mexicans were able to scrape into the intercontinental play-off.
Fresh from guiding America to the Mexican league title, Miguel Herrera then came in for the two-legged tie against New Zealand and took the radical decision of selecting only home-based players. His strategy paid off as El Tri finally put their shaky form behind them to sweep to a 9-3 aggregate win and qualify for the World Cup finals for the 15th time in all.

World Cup history
Mexico have fallen in the Round of 16 on their last five appearances in the finals, with Argentina halting their progress at both Germany 2006 and South Africa 2010. Those defeats proved painful for El Tri’s legion of fans, who have been waiting a long time to see their side return to last eight. Only twice have the Mexicans made it to the quarters, both time on home soil, in 1970 and 1986.

Goalkeepers: Jesus Corona (Cruz Azul), Alfredo Talavera (Toluca), Guillermo Ochoa (Ajaccio)
Defenders: Andres Guardado (Bayer Leverkusen), Paul Aguilar, Francisco Rodriguez, Miguel Layun (all America), Hector Moreno (Espanyol), Rafael Marquez (Leon), Diego Reyes (Porto), Carlos Salcido (UANL Tigres)
Midfielders: Hector Herrera (Porto), Jose Juan Vazquez, Carlos Pena, Luis Montes (all Leon), Juan Carlos Medina (America), Isaac Brizuela, Marco Fabian (both Cruz Azul)
Forwards: Oribe Peralta (Santos Laguna), Javier Hernandez (Manchester United), Raul Jimenez (America), Giovani Dos Santos (Villarreal), Alan Pulido (UANL Tigres)

The key players
After an agonising qualifying competition full of setbacks, coaching changes and tactical reshuffles, predicting how the Mexicans will fare at Brazil 2014 is no easy task. While El Tri can count on a band of high-profile overseas-based players, spearheaded by Javier Chicharito Hernandez, Andres Guardado and Giovani dos Santos, the last few months have shown that the latest wave of young players also have much to offer, chief among them their London 2012 hero Oribe Peralta, Raul Jimenez and Carlos Pena. Now that they have safely secured their ticket to Brazil, the Mexicans have time to find some stability and build for the future.

The Coach: Miguel Herrara
Nicknamed ‘el piojo’, meaning ‘louse’, Herrara is himself a former Mexico international defender. Despite being relatively young for a manager at the age of 46, he did manage five different Mexican clubs since 2002 before being given charge of the national team.
He has steadied the ship after the aforementioned spate of sackings prior to his arrival, but is still under huge pressure from an expectant and demanding media and fan base back home.

Prediction: Group Stages
Brazil are rightly massive favourites to top Group A in their home tournament, and Mexico will have their sights set on that second place spot. A win against Cameroon in their opening game is not only vital but entirely possible, with the Africans boasting few players who will overly worry Mexico. That leaves Croatia who boast players with good pedigree and Mexico’s youngsters could fall short.

Quick facts
FIFA Ranking: 19th
Best World Cup Result: Quarter Finals (1970, 1986)
Best Copa America Result: Runners Up (1993, 2001)
Record Scorer: Jared Borgetti (46)
Most Capped Player: Claudio Suarez (178)

Group matches
Friday 13th June v Cameroon (Natal)
Tuesday 17th June v Brazil (Fortaleza)
Monday 23rd June v Croatia (Recife)

Cameroon head to Brazil with some pedigree, given they have qualified for the World Cup seven times, the most among the African nations.
They also boast four African Cup of Nations titles, although the last of which came 11 years ago in the 2002 edition in Mali. However, while Cameroon’s history may be illustrious, in recent years they have failed to live up to the expectations that the team of the great Roger Milla set in the ‘80s and ‘90s. That 2002 triumph marks the last time The Indomitable Lions won a major tournament.

The 1990 World Cup represented a high point in Cameroon’s history in that particular competition. 38-year old Milla inspired his nation, and the world, by scoring four times as he flung Cameroon into the quarter-finals. His trademark dance marked every goal, and represented the African spirit which has been so beautifully displayed in tournaments ever since.
Nowadays, Cameroon are very much a nation in transition on the field, after a host of well-known stars hung up their boots throughout the past decade. The likes of Geremi, Rigobert Song and Lauren are no longer in the setup and they have been replaced by a group of fledgling youngsters, who are just starting to come of age. Alex Song has been a regular for a number of years, Joel Matip is highly rated by his club Schalke, and Nicolas N’Koulou is a long-term target of Arsenal.
Veteran Samuel Eto’o remains a key figure in the Cameroon side, too. The Chelsea man will be making his fourth appearance at a World Cup next summer, and he is sure to be his country’s linchpin in attack. If they are to progress through to the knockout stages for only the second time in seven attempts, Eto’o will be instrumental.

How they qualified  
Drawn in perhaps the most open group in Africa, alongside Libya, Congo DR and Togo, Cameroon survived the challenge with the help of an overturned loss because of Togo's fielding of an ineligible player. Ultimately the Lions did enough anyway with a 1-0 defeat of the pace-setting Libyans in their final match that saw them finish with 13 points from six matches. Once in the final play-off round, they handled a tough task against Tunisia with aplomb. A scoreless draw on the road gave way to a 4-1 home win that has Volker Finke's side feeling confident about their trip to Brazil.

World Cup history
Perhaps no team has done more to shake up perceptions of African football. The Indomitable Lions exited Spain 1982 at the group stage, but they ended their maiden excursion undefeated, having drawn 0-0 with both Peru and Poland and 1-1 with eventual winners Italy. Eight years later, they wrote themselves into the annals of the game by beating holders Argentina in the opening match and becoming the first African side to reach the quarter-finals, powered by the goals of evergreen striker Roger Milla. That breakthrough performance remains their finest showing, group-stage exits having followed in 1994, 1998, 2002 and 2010.

Goalkeepers: Charles Itandje (Konyaspor), Sammy Ndjock (Fethiyespor), Lioc Feudjou (Coton Sport)
Defenders: Allan Nyom (Granada), Nounkeu Dany (Besiktas), Cedric Djeugoue (Coton Sport), Aurelien Chedjou (Galatasaray), Nicolas Nkoulou (Marseille), Henri Bedimo (Lyon), Benoit Assou-Ekotto (Tottenham)
Midfielders: Enoh Eyong (Antalyaspor), Jean Makoun (Rennes), Joel Matip (Schalke 04), Stephane Mbia (Sevilla), Landry Nguemo (Bordeaux), Alex Song (Barcelona), Edgar Salli (Lens)
Forwards: Samuel Eto'o (Chelsea), Eric-Maxim Choupo-Moting (Mainz 05), Benjamin Moukandjo (Nancy), Vincent Aboubakar (Lorient), Pierre Achille Webo (Fenerbahce), Fabrice Olinga (Zulte Waregem)

The key players
Samuel Eto'o remains the world-class threat up front, although the charismatic figure, who still serves as captain, has gone in and out of the team. The side is loaded with experience and high-level talent. Nicolas N'Koulou, Benoit Assou-Ekotto and Aurelien Chedjou remain vital at the back, while the midfield is even more loaded with Alex Song, Jean Makoun and Stephane Mbia at the heart of the team.

The Coach: Volker Finke
65-year old German Volker Finke took charge of the Cameroon national team in May 2013 after a spell as interim manager at FC Cologne. Finke is best known for his 16-year tenure in charge at Freiburg, where he won two Bundesliga ‘2’ titles. Since then, Finke has managed in Japan with Urawa Red Diamonds, and also had a spell of Director of Sport at Cologne. In his first 10 games as Cameroon coach, he has won four, drawn four and lost two.

Prediction: Group Stages
Cameroon have the honour, or misfortune, of being drawn alongside the tournament hosts, Brazil in Group A. Cameroon will battle it out for second place with Mexico and Croatia, two good sides. Mexico have the obvious advantage of being accustomed to the energy-sapping conditions, but Cameroon are no strangers to hot climates either. The likelihood is, though, that Mexico will be technically superior to the African giants and Croatia will also be ranked as favourites against them. If Eto’o fires and they defend well, Cameroon have an outside chance of progressing. However, an eighth group stage finish looks ominous.

Quick facts
FIFA Ranking: 50th
Best World Cup Result: Quarter-Finals (1990)
Best Africa Cup of Nations Result: Winners (1984, 1988, 2000, 2002)
Record Scorer: Samuel Eto’o (55)
Most Capped Player: Rigobert Song (137)
Captain: Samuel Eto’o

Group matches
Friday 13th June 2014 v Mexico (Natal)
Wednesday 18th June 2014 v Croatia (Manaus)
Monday 23rd June 2014 v Brazil (Brasilia)