2014 World Cup: Breaking down Group A

 

The Sports Network

(SportsNetwork.com) - All eyes in Group A will be on Brazil, which will attempt to become the seventh team in history to win a World Cup on home soil.

The country previously hosted the 1950 World Cup and lost in the final to Uruguay, which is a failure that is still talked about in Brazil to this day.

So after 64 years, the Selecao finally has another chance to win soccer's biggest prize at the Maracana, the site of the crushing 1950 final defeat.

Brazil has already captured a record five World Cups, and the team will be expected to add a sixth this summer, with any other result being viewed as a failure.

And that is where the intrigue comes into play.

Brazil is easily one of the most talented sides in the competition, but one of the biggest questions in this World Cup will be whether the team can handle the immense pressure of a soccer-mad nation that craves another Jules Rimet Trophy.

There is talent from top to bottom in head coach Luiz Felipe Scolari's team, which will be led by 22-year-old forward Neymar.

The midfield contains creative attacking players like Oscar and Willian while Luiz Gustavo, Paulinho and Fernandinho give some bite to the middle of the pitch.

David Luiz, Thiago Silva and Dante are strong options in the middle of the back line, with Dani Alves and Marcelo figuring to get forward on the wings to provide strong two-way play.

Brazil should have little trouble topping this group, which also includes Mexico, Croatia and Cameroon, and then the real drama begins for the hosts.

Mexico has reached the knockout round in the last five World Cups, but after struggling badly in CONCACAF qualifying, there are questions about whether El Tri has enough to get out of the group stage this time.

The team needed four different head coaches just to survive qualifying, but in current boss Miguel Herrera, there is hope that some stability has returned to the side.

Veteran defender Rafael Marquez is back in the fold and will become the first player to serve as captain of four teams at the World Cup, while forward Oribe Peralta led El Tri in scoring during qualification.

Croatia missed out on the 2010 World Cup, but after a brief hiatus, the team is back on the big stage and will be aiming for a second-place finish in the group.

Midfielders Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic figure to play big parts in Croatia's success, with forwards Mario Mandzukic and Ivica Olic being counted on to provide the goals.

Croatia should battle Mexico for second place, and that tussle will likely be decided on the final day of Group A play when the two sides square off June 23.

Cameroon is the outsider in this group and the team will once again rely on 32-year-old striker Samuel Eto'o, who will need to turn back the clock and rediscover his best form if the Indomitable Lions are to have a chance at reaching the knockout stage.

It is more likely that Cameroon will struggle to earn more than a point, bringing an end to its World Cup in the group stage for a fifth successive tournament.

Game of the Group: Brazil vs. Mexico (June 17)

While Brazil will be expected to coast through Group A, Mexico will provide the hosts with their sternest test. And based on recent results between the two sides, El Tri could come away with something from the second game in the group for both teams.

Over the past 10 years, Brazil and Mexico have squared off seven times, with Brazil claiming four victories to Mexico's three.

And that total doesn't include the 2012 Summer Olympics that saw Mexico beat Brazil in the gold medal match, with Brazil's roster containing a number of players from that Olympic side.

Mexico lost 2-0 to Brazil in last summer's Confederations Cup, but the second goal didn't arrive until the dying moments of the match, giving Miguel Herrera's team hope that it can claim an unlikely point.

Player to Watch: Neymar (Brazil)

He may be just 22 years of age, but already Neymar has become the face of the Brazilian national team. And if all goes according to plan, he will also be one of the stars of the tournament.

Neymar will be one of the most scrutinized players in Brazil after he won the golden ball, given to the most outstanding player, at last summer's Confederations Cup in leading his country to the title with four goals in five games, including one in the 3-0 final victory over Spain.

A big-money transfer to Barcelona followed, and in his first season, he endured some ups and downs as he netted nine goals with eight assists in 26 league games while battling injury problems.

His output at Barca this past season may not have lived up to expectations, but he has been nothing short of excellent when he pulls on the Brazil shirt.

Breakout Player: Oribe Peralta (Mexico)

At the age of 30, Mexican forward Peralta will have his first chance to truly break out on a global stage at this World Cup.

Unlike fellow Mexican stars Javier Hernandez and Giovani Dos Santos, who ply their trade in Europe, Peralta has spent his entire professional career in Mexico, including a run of over 200 games at Santos from 2006-14.

Peralta made his debut for Mexico in 2005, but it wasn't until 2011 that he became a regular member of the national team.

Since that time, Peralta has scored some big goals for the Mexicans, including two in the gold medal match against Brazil at the 2012 Summer Olympics, and five in the two-legged playoff with New Zealand in World Cup qualifying, allowing Peralta to make his debut at the tournament this year.

Hernandez and Dos Santos are certainly more visible players on the Mexican national team. But if the side is going to have any success in Brazil this summer, Peralta's performance will be as key as any player on the team.

Predictions:

Group Winner: Brazil

There doesn't figure to be a great deal of suspense for the hosts in the first three games of the tournament, including the opening match against Croatia. The Selecao should enjoy a party atmosphere in the curtain-raiser that will propel them to three points, while Mexico will provide the toughest challenge in the second game, which should still result in a victory. The final match against Cameroon could become little more than a scrimmage as the group stage will merely serve as a warm up for the knockout round, which is where things really get interesting.

Second Place: Mexico

Mexico has reached the knockout round in its last five World Cups, and despite a poor qualifying campaign, El Tri will have enough to edge Croatia and finish second. Mexico must beat Cameroon in its opening match before taking its best shot at favorites Brazil. The final match against Croatia should determine who goes through as runners-up in Group A, and it's tough to pick against the pedigree of Mexico, which will once again reach the second round before bowing out.

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