Brazil the least flawed among the trophy contenders
Brazil the least flawed among the trophy contenders
The hosts may be functional but Argentina and Germany have clear weaknesses and Spain are not the force of old.
Brazil 3-1 favourites
Considering Luiz Felipe Scolari was appointed 18 months before the tournament with only the Confederations Cup as serious preparation, it is remarkable that he has created an extremely settled starting XI. Scolari has installed a disciplined, reliable spine to the side in a 4-2-3-1 system. The defence is strong, the midfield duo – probably Luiz Gustavo and Paulinho – play functional roles, while Oscar drifts around to create space as No10 and the central striker Fred acts as an unspectacular target man. They are both primarily in the side to bring the best out of Neymar and Hulk, who start from either flank and are allowed to cut inside because of Marcelo’s and Daniel Alves’s overlapping. It is not a classic Brazilian side but they will grind out wins.
Likely XI Júlio César; Alves, Thiago Silva, David Luiz, Marcelo; Gustavo, Paulinho; Hulk, Oscar, Neymar; Fred.
No other squad travelling to Brazil has such obvious strengths and weaknesses. Up front, Argentina have the brilliance of Lionel Messi, Sergio Agüero and Gonzalo Higuaín, but in defensive positions they are extremely underwhelming. Sergio Romero cannot get a game in goal for Monaco, while the centre-back Federico Fernández and the left-back Marcos Rojo are limited footballers. Javier Mascherano, deployed in a holding midfield role, must protect them keenly. In a 4-3-3 system that largely depends upon the counterattack, arguably the most important player for the system is the midfielder Ángel Di María, who shuttles forward relentlessly between midfield and attack, connecting the side and prompting quick breaks, which Messi and Higuaín usually finish. Argentina attempt to bypass the opposition defence quickly and create one-on-one chances for the forwards.
Likely XI Romero; Zabaleta, Garay, Fernández, Rojo; Mascherano, Gago, Di María; Messi, Higuaín, Agüero.
Germany boast tremendous strength in depth, particularly in the creative midfield department – Marco Reus, Mesut Özil, Thomas Müller, André Schürrle – but questions remain about Jogi Löw’s precise starting XI. He has continually experimented with a false 9 over the past couple of years, and Mario Götze is likely to be fielded in that role at the top of a 4-2-3-1 – but things have not entirely clicked. Germany are likely to be more proactive than four years ago, when they played on the counterattack. There is more pressing high up the pitch, and improved ball retention in central midfield zones. The obvious weakness is at left-back, where Marcel Schmelzer plays a steady role for Borussia Dortmund but has rarely convinced at international level.
Likely XI Neuer; Lahm, Boateng, Mertesacker, Schmelzer; Kroos, Schweinsteiger; Müller, Özil, Reus; Götze.
The defending champions are weaker than four years ago but still boast the best starting XI and the most impressive squad. Things have not changed significantly from the Euro 2012 side, with the only major difference up front. Diego Costa’s decision to declare for Spain rather than his homeland Brazil was extremely controversial, but he could prove the answer to Spain’s striking problems, if fit. However, he thrives in a direct Atlético Madrid side and he will have to adapt his game considering Spain play a patient possession game and rarely cross the ball. Spain’s strength remains their ability to control games and therefore not concede goals. From 10 knockout matches in Euro 2008, the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012, they have kept 10 clean sheets – an astonishing record.
Likely XI Casillas; Juanfran, Piqué, Ramos, Alba; Busquets, Alonso; Iniesta, Xavi, Silva; Costa.
Belgium have not been considered a major force in world football for some time but their squad list is extremely impressive – especially to followers of the Premier League. On the pitch, however, things have not gone entirely smoothly. The major weakness is the lack of genuine full-backs, which means Marc Wilmots will be forced to play two centre-backs, Toby Alderweireld and Thomas Vermaelen, either side of Vincent Kompany and Jan Vertonghen. Physically imposing and good on the ball, Belgium’s back four are nevertheless prone to errors. The other issue is up front, where Christian Benteke’s absence is a huge blow. Although Romelu Lukaku is arguably a greater goal threat, Benteke is better at bringing talents such as Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne into play.
Likely XI Courtois; Alderweireld, Kompany, Vertonghen, Vermaelen; Witsel, Fellaini, Dembélé; De Bruyne, Lukaku, Hazard
Didier Deschamps’ side performed poorly in qualification and questions remain about the togetherness of the squad, but France have an excellent draw and, more important, one of the most impressive starting XIs on paper.
A powerful midfield trio is France’s biggest strength, with Paul Pogba, Blaise Matuidi and Yohan Cabaye all maturing into top-class players over the past couple of years. Further forward, Mathieu Valbuena and Franck Ribéry play the wide roles nicely – both are capable of either going down the line to cross for Karim Benzema, or drifting inside to dictate play.
There is a weakness in defence, however – with a number of extremely talented but error-prone players that do not guarantee solid performances, and this could be France’s downfall.
Likely XI Lloris; Debuchy, Varane, Koscielny, Evra; Matuidi, Pogba, Cabaye; Valbuena, Benzema, Ribéry.