james debate
james debate

Wednesday 11 June 2014

I don't know about you guys but I for one am starting to feel the symptoms of football withdrawal. It's a seasonal disorder that tends to affect English men in the summer and is associated with increased sobriety and an obsession with otherwise tedious transfer gossip.

Well the good news is help will soon be at hand. This summer belongs to the World Cup in Brazil. 32 teams will do battle over 64 games and all that is certain is that there will be but one winner, and that England will go out early.

world cup 2014

The host this time around is the homeland of joga bonito, the beautiful game. Brazil is famed as one of the finest purveyors of football in the history of the sport, and their national team has won the competition more times than any other team. Sadly this year's tournament has all too often been mired in controversy amid claims of corruption, failure to get stadiums and infrastructure ready in time (at the time of writing, merely a week before the big kick off, the stadiums are still not entirely ready), and general criticism levelled at a Government that is spending millions on an extravagant party while so many of their people remain destitute. Ever the optimist, The Ephemeric decides to focus primarily on the football, and leave any politics to those so inclined. I am absolutely buzzing with excitement, and on the pitch at least the tournament promises to be quite the celebration of the game.

As always, each team has it's own unique story to tell. So here is our team by team guide to World Cup 2014.


Manager: Luiz Felipe Scolari
Key player: Neymar
World ranking: 3

The Brazilians have won the tournament more times than any other team, but have not won it since 2002. Such is the weight of expectation on the Brazilian football team that any time they fail to win is considered an upset back home, and it will be about ten times worse this year with the country hosting the tournament.

The manager Luiz Felipe Scolari has already won the World Cup previously with Brazil, and following trophiless spells at Chelsea and Portugal, he returns to his home country with the hopes of becoming only the second manager to win the competition twice.

The squad has been criticized in recent years as underwhelming by Brazilian standards, but in reality it still contains attacking talent from stars such as Hulk, Willian and Neymar. Defensively the team is arguably among the stronger in Brazil's history with David Luiz, Thiago Silva and Dani Alves, while youngster Oscar has been key in his deep lying midfield engine role.

The key man certainly is Neymar, a young man upon whom great expectation has been placed. Some pundits already rate him among the best in the world, while his goalscoring rate at such a young age has earned him comparisons with Pelé.

Brazil are expected to win, and Neymar is expected to be the man to deliver the trophy. Brazil have the home advantage, and it's worth noting that no European team has ever won a World Cup in South America. That makes Brazil a strong favourite, and The Ephemeric's bet for victory.

Verdict: Winners

Manager: Niko Kovač
Key player: Ivan Rakitić
World ranking: 18

This Croatia side have gone off the boil recently, having once been tipped as the next big thing. The performance throughout qualification has been poor, just scraping through the qualification in what was not the most difficult group. But still, there is plenty to like in the squad.

Croatia is blessed with two of the finest central midfielders in Europe this season, Luka Modrić of Real Madrid, and Ivan Rakitić who is on the verge of signing for Barcelona. Add to this Bayern Munich's formidable Mario Mandzukić up front, and Southampton's in-form Dejan Lovren at the back and this is a team with some solid talent. However at the same time this is still a team that relies on has-beens like Vedran Ćorluka and Darijo Srna in their starting line up, and suddenly it's clear why qualification was such a chore.

Most remarkable about this Croatia side is the stewardship of the tournament's least experienced manager; Croatia legend Niko Kovač, national legend though he may be, only took over the side for the two-legged qualification playoff, and has just 7 competitive games to his CV, 5 of which were in charge of the U21s team. Huge question marks hang over a side that is unlikely to get out of the group stage.

Verdict: Group Stage

Manager: Miguel Herrera
Key player: Oribe Peralta
World ranking: 20

It's been somewhat of a stop-start qualification campaign for Mexico, full of managerial changes and mass rotations in squad makeup. Still this is a side with enough quality to qualify for the knockout round.

Oribe Peralta is the key man, having scored 10 goals in 10 games for Mexico, while the mercurial Giovani dos Santos usually turns up for the big tournaments, and at 24 is now reaching a point where he must take on a key role. Former star player Javier Hernandez will be on the bench due to a lack of game time with Manchester United, but still presents a potent threat if utilized. Beyond this the bulk of the squad plays their club football domestically, so there may be a surprise package or two for European viewers.

Manager Miguel Herrera was the fourth manager to take the Mexico job over the space of a month during an unusually turbulent period, and like Croatia's manager has only been in the job since the playoff stage, but an able 9-3 aggregate win over New Zealand certainly marks a strong start.

Mexico are nevertheless a strong side with great motivation and the advantage of playing a World Cup in South America. They stand a good chance at going through to the next round, but any further than that may be a stretch.

Verdict: Second Round

Manager: Volker Finke
Key player: Samuel Eto'o
World ranking: 56

Despite qualifying for the World Cup an impressive 7 times, Cameroon have only once made it out of the group stage. New manager Volker Finke has had a remarkable career in German club football, and has brought a much needed focus to a team otherwise plagued with internal politics and moody players.

No player is more moody than Samuel Eto'o; one of Africa's greatest ever footballing superstars, and yet has never reproduced his form for Cameroon. Many fans of the Lions consider him to be more of a disruptive influence on the team rather than a boon. Still, it is the Chelsea striker who captains Cameroon for this World Cup.

The rest of the squad is an interesting mix of promising players, and players who never lived up to their promise. They'll give a decent showing at the tournament, but will find it difficult to advance to the knockout stages for the second time in their history.

Verdict: Group Stage


Manager: Vicente del Bosque
Key player: Andrés Iniesta
World ranking: 1

What more can you say about the defending World and European Champions? Few teams have ever done the World Cup/European Championship double, and no team has ever won three major competitions in a row. Spain has done just that, and while the prospect of pulling of an unprecedented double double might seem ludicrous, so was claiming that third title in a row in 2012.

In Vicente del Bosque they have an old school manager, and a proven winner, while their team is full of world class experience. Players like Iniesta, Xavi, Sergio Ramos and Iker Casillas have seen and won everything, while hungry young superstars in the making have recently joined the squad like Koke, Alcântara, and Azpiliqueta. Also joining the squad is Chelsea's new man Diego Costa, a man who has had a phenomenal 40 goal season last year.

Still, as good a side as they are, the odds are firmly stacked against them. Not only is there the statistical and historical unlikeliness of yet another victory, there's the fact that no European team has ever won a World Cup in South America, there's the fact that Brazil have the home advantage, and there's the fact that many of Spain's best players are just that little bit older now. Surely they won't win it again. The Ephemeric concludes that they probably will not.

Verdict: Quarter Finals

Manager: Louis Van Gaal
Key player: Arjen Robben
World ranking: 15

You never know what you're going to get with the Dutch. In Euro 2008 they faltered in the knockout stages, having played some of the most stunning football seen in International competition for decades. In World Cup 2010 they reached the final playing some horrendously ugly and physical football. Then in Euro 2012 they didn't even make it out of the group stage. Who knows what team will turn up this year?

The problem with the team is clear when looking at the roster. The team sheet is full of big names, none of whom command as much respect as they once did. Robin Van Persie was arguably the best striker in Europe a year or two ago, but has had a torrid season at Manchester United; Dirk Kuyt and Klaas Jan Huntelaar were once pretty big deals, but now no longer; Wesley Sneijder was one of the best midfielders in the world back in 2008, but now languishes in the Turkish league. Only key man Arjen Robben is currently playing to his peak abilitiy. This is a Dutch side where the best players are past their peak or out of form, meaning extra responsibilities will need to be placed on less experienced players like Jasper Cillessen and Bruno Martins Indi.

The Netherlands still have a strong team, and their World Cup qualification campaign was very strong, albeit against some pretty weak teams. The good news is that after last time, expectations are low. Chile will give them a hard time, but the Netherlands' relative strength throughout the squad should see them through past the group stage. Unfortunately with a likely Brazil match up awaiting, probably no further.

Verdict: Second Round

Manager: Jorge Sampaoli
Key player: Arturo Vidal
World ranking: 14

Chile were something of a surprise package in 2010, coming close to upsetting eventual champions Spain and performing far above what most people expected thanks to some stunning fast paced attacking football.

Chile are blessed with some exceptionally gifted attackers in Alexis Sánchez of Barcelona and Arturo Vidal of Juventus. Their weakness in the past has always been defensively. Chile would attack relentlessly and perform well against teams who are similarly oriented, but against any team with defensive tactics they'd struggle. This is where key man Arturo Vidal comes in; the versatile Juventus midfielder solidifies that Chile core, and can even fill out in defence if needed. He will be absolutely vital to any challenge Chile hopes to pose to more prestigious sides.

Attacking sides like Spain and Netherlands probably suit Chile just fine, but while they could well upset one of the two sides, they are unlikely to beat both, and third place seems likely.

Verdict: Group Stage

Manager: Ange Postecoglu
Key player: Tim Cahill
World ranking: 62

Yes, Tim Cahill is still the key man, that should say it all really. Not to disrespect Australia's all time top goalscorer, he's been a quality player who can change games in an instant for both club and country, but he's 34 now and plies his trade in the MLS, he's not going to be able to salvage anything in such a tough group.

Manager Postecoglu will have to come up with a bold gameplan in order to have any impact on this tournament. Most probably Aussie fans should look at this as a warm up ahead of the Asian Cup they're hosting this year.

Verdict: Group Stage


Manager: Jose Pekerman
Key player: James Rodríguez
World ranking: 8

As a footballing nation with a proud history, it's hard to believe that this is the first time that Colombia have qualified for the World Cup in 16 years. Colombian football has seen something of a renaissance recently, spearheaded by Radamel Falcao, arguably one of the finest strikers in the world right now. Unfortunately Falcao is set to miss the World Cup through injury, and so too seemingly goes any real hope of Colombia causing a major upset at this year's tournament.

But that doesn't really tell the full story. Falcao has been injured for much of the season, and Colombia have remained impressive without him. This is a Colombia that, even without their talisman, is not lacking for talented technical players like Jackson Martinez up front and Monaco playmaker James Rodriguez in the midfield. But equally strong is their defensive unit, with the more cautious midfielder Freddy Guarin and goalkeeper David Ospina particular highlights.

With Falcao, this is a team that could have gone far as a surprise package this year. Without him they're still good, and will qualify for the knock out stages, but are unlikely to go any further.

Verdict: Second Round

Manager: Fernando Santos
Key player: Sokratis Papastathopoulos
World ranking: 12

Euro 2004's shock winners have qualified for another major competition, and once again, little is expected of them. Greece have carved a reputation for adopting an all out defence mentality, and nicking the game by the odd goal. It won them Euro 2004 and it has earned them qualification to every major tournament since.

This year we expect more of the same, and the key man through all this will be Borussia Dortmund defender Papastathopoulos, the lynchpin of this defensively minded Greece side. Going forward though the team is still very suspect, a major problem when facing other teams with a similarly cautious approach. Greece will do their best to frustrate and win at all costs, but are likely to come up short again and fall at the first hurdle.

Verdict: Group Stage

Ivory Coast
Manager: Sabri Lamouchi
Key player: Yaya Touré
World ranking: 23

It's a case of too little too late for the Ivory Coast. Long regarded as one of the more promising squads in African football, Ivory Coast has featured stars from all over Europe including talismanic captain Didier Drogba, midfield dynamo Yaya Touré, Salomon Kalou and others. But every year they have been drawn in tough groups featuring the likes of Brazil and Netherlands, and fallen at group stage.

This year the Ivory Coast has found itself in what would be a very winnable group, but it may simply be a case of their star players being just a bit too old to reach their potential. Didier Drogba is a shadow of the player he used to be, as is Kolo Touré. Salomon Kalou never reached his potential, nor did Didier Zokora or Gervinho. It's only Manchester City's all-conquering midfielder Yaya Touré who appears to be in the peak of his game, and newcomer Swansea striker Wilfried Bony. These two will be the key men for any hopes Ivory Coast have.

Group C is arguably the hardest to call in the tournament, with four very evenly matched teams. Ultimately The Ephemeric expects that Ivory Coast will have enough power to break through Japan and Greece, and are likely to finally progress to the knockout round, but unlikely to go any further.

Verdict: Second Round

Manager: Alberto Zaccheroni
Key player: Keisuke Honda
World ranking: 46

A hugely underrated side, Japan were impressive in World Cup 2010 where they reached the second round, and were unlucky not to make the quarter final. For a team that until recently considered itself lucky just to qualify for the World Cup, a lot has changed very quickly. Japan recently won the Asian Cup and were the first team to qualify for this World Cup tournament.

The Japanese team now finds itself full of players with real top European league pedigree, from Manchester United's Shinji Kagawa to AC Milan's play maker Keisuke Honda. They are no longer just a team with some fancy technical skills, but a well honed and experienced side.

It is unfortunate for the Japanese that what is generally a pretty lightweight, non-physical team has found itself in a group surrounded by three teams which are the exact opposite. While Japan have the quality to push for the knockout stages, there's too great a risk of them being bullied into submission by the far more physically imposing opposition, and are more likely to fall in group stage.

Verdict: Group Stage


Manager: Óscar Tabárez
Key player: Luis Suárez
World ranking: 7

Last time the World Cup was played in Brazil, it was Uruguay who won it. It was their second and last World Cup victory at a time when Brazil had yet to win any. Originally it was Uruguay who were the big boys of world football.

Their star has fallen in the decades since, but recent years have seen a rebirth for the nation. Semi finalists at the last World Cup, and they've only gotten better since then. Luis Suárez has questions remaining over his fitness, but if he's in good shape then Uruguay will thrive. His sheer brilliance gives Uruguay the freedom to sit back and focus on defence more while he rampages up front, it's a hugely effective balance. Suárez is arguably one of the world's form players at the moment, and with his country facing the opportunity to relive their most famous hour, and the benefit of playing in South America, Uruguay are without doubt one of the key sides to watch at this year's tournament.

They are unlucky to find themselves in one of the tougher groups, facing the likes of Italy and England, but with the home advantage and a fit Suárez they look good to get out of group stage and could well go far this year.

Verdict: Semi Finals

Costa Rica
Manager: Jorge Luis Pinto
Key player: Keylor Navas
World ranking: 28

Don't let their decent world ranking fool you, Costa Rica are whipping boys here.

That's not to say that they don't have talented players. Fulham's Bryan Ruiz will be huge for them, as will goalkeeper Keylor Navas, who has been a revelation in La Liga this season. The trouble is they don't have enough of them, and the rest of the squad is padded out with relatively mediocre talent. Costa Rica can count themselves among the weaker teams in the tournament and are highly unlikely to get out of this tough group.

Verdict: Group Stage

Manager: Roy Hodgson
Key player: Wayne Rooney
World ranking: 10

England surprised many with a decent showing at Euro 2012, but no one was ever fooled into thinking they had what it takes to go all the way. Now they find themselves in a very tricky group, one from which they could well struggle to escape.

The sad thing is that as always, England's problems are of their own making. Divisions are still rife within the team and the mild mannered but unremarkable Roy Hodgson has yet to convince while wielding an England team largely built by his predecessor Fabio Capello. And following the FA's ill-advised campaign to force talismanic captain John Terry out of the set up, we can't even say we have our best squad available. Together John Terry and Gary Cahill have formed arguably the strongest central defensive pairing in all of Europe if not the world, and it is mind boggling that we will not be making use of by far our greatest asset.

Instead much of our hopes will now have to rest on Wayne Rooney's shoulders. Poor Wayne has never really lived up to his billing for the England team since his stunning Euro 2004 breakthrough was cruelly cut short, and has yet to score a goal in the World Cup finals. In a team bereft of many of the leadership figures of old, Wayne will need to have a massive tournament for England to meet their goals.

Elsewhere one would hope that emphasis will be placed on the young talent in the side, especially those in Liverpool colours on the back of such a remarkable season. England would be foolish not to put the gifted goalscoring talents of Daniel Sturridge, and the youthful energy of Raheem Sterling up front and centre in this team.

If England's young talent is used effectively, if Wayne Rooney finally hits his peak, and if Cahill can form a good defensive partnership with Phil Jagielka, this England team can get out of this group, but it's a tough ask, and the smart money says they'll drop at the group stage.

Verdict: Group Stage

Manager: Cesare Prandelli
Key player: Andrea Pirlo
World ranking: 9

Italy are always a hard side to predict. For one they have a fantastic World Cup record over the years. But at the same time they often exceed low expectations, winning in 2006 despite pre-tournament billing as also-rans, and then defending said title by bowing out pathetically at the group stage in 2010. Euro 2012 saw a strong performance from the Italians, reaching the final, and if Prandelli can keep that momentum going it could be a good tournament for Azzuri.

The usual caveats apply for Italy; old, defensive, overdependent on Juventus. But since when has that ever stopped them? Andrea Pirlo will still pull the strings in midfield, and every indication is that his strong form since joining Juventus has carried right on through to the World Cup. Meanwhile Mario Balotelli and Giuseppe Rossi (if fit) make a formidable strike partnership up front. Giorgio Chiellini is still one of the finest defenders around, and Buffon remains an example to all goalkeepers. Equally interesting are some of the youngsters included in the squad, if called upon to play. PSG's Marco Verratti is extremely hotly tipped, as is Napoli's Lorenzo Insigne.

As we've stated, group D is a very difficult one. But you would be a fool to ever bet against Italy progressing in the World Cup, and The Ephemeric's mama didn't raise no fool.

Verdict: Quarter Finals


Manager: Ottmar Hitzfeld
Key player: Xherdan Shaqiri
World ranking: 6

The sixth best team in the world if FIFA's world rankings are to be believed. It's a little less ridiculous sounding when you look at the excellent qualification campaign they've just had, storming convincingly through what was a reasonably difficult group, at the same time amassing the best qualification record in all of UEFA.

How did this happen? After all just a few years ago Switzerland were a Greece-lite, disciplined and defensive, nicking 1-0 wins to advance. Well that has all changed now. This Swiss team places the emphasis on attack, and is generally considered to be among, if not the, best Swiss football sides of all time.

They are coached by one of the great old pros in football Ottmar Hitzfeld, a man who has won everything... twice. He has crafted this Swiss team into a surprisingly incisive, tactically flexible unit. The key man without doubt is Bayern Munich star Xherdan Shaqiri, an explosive winger in the mould of teammate Franck Ribéry. Shaqiri provides that bit of special quality, but is flanked by very capable team mates Barnetta, Behrami, Fernandes and others. Particularly worthy of note is fullback Ricardo Rodriguez, who scored more goals and provided more assists than any other fullback in the Bundesliga last season.

All the dark horse attention is on Belgium, but Switzerland are worth a look too. The Swiss should be able to navigate this group, but with a likely Argentina match up awaiting, that should be the extent of it.

Verdict: Second Round

Manager: Reinaldo Rueda
Key player: Antonio Valencia
World ranking: 26

Colombia-lite. Good all-round football, full of energy and stamina that never runs out. Many will remember Ecuador's solid run into the knock out stages back in 2006. This is not a team to be underestimated by any stretch of the imagination, but at the same time one shouldn't expect too much of note.

Ecuador's energy levels are buoyed by their home ground being some 3,000 metres above sea-level, a ground on which they are undefeated (not too surprisingly) they won't have that advantage here, but they will still be well equipped to deal with some of the harsh climate conditions in Brazil, and with the high stamina that high altitude training affords.

Antonio Valencia is the clear star, hugely experienced in the English Premier League and a role model for the rest of his team. Otherwise the side mainly consists of local players, a double edged sword in that none of them are superstars, but on the bright side they all know each others' game well. Ecuador won't be easy, but they'll have to up their game to pip Switzerland to the next round.

Verdict: Group Stage

Manager: Didier Deschamps
Key player: Franck Ribéry
World ranking: 17

France's disastrous early exit from World Cup 2010 was the stuff of legend. Fortunately manager Raymond Domenech was promptly shown the door, a move long overdue for a man who, 2006 aside, had managed to internally sabotage his country's performances at tournaments every year since 2002.

The new man in charge, Didier Deschamps, has revitalised the side on the back of a strong qualification campaign. Karim Benzema has regained his club form and rightly taken his place at the front of an impressive French attack which sees him flanked by Franck Ribéry and backed by one of Europe's top young prospects in Paul Pogba. Meanwhile the side also features some very impressive deep lying midfielders in Yohan Cabaye and Blaise Matuidi. France was always a better team than 2010 suggested, and now they have the confidence and competent management to help bring that potential to the pitch.

If the team does have a weakness it's the lack of real leaders on the pitch. There's no Zidane or Vieira or Thuram. But the group they face is not the toughest in the tournament, and they should have enough to progress to the next round. Realistically though anything beyond a quarter final finish seems unlikely.

Verdict: Quarter Finals

Manager: Luis Fernando Suárez
Key player: Wilson Palacios
World ranking: 33

Something of a surprise qualifier, but as they showed England in the recent friendly encounter they are no pushover. After all they did qualify ahead of Mexico, a side that is generally pretty well regarded in the competition.

Still it is never a good sign when your star man is a Stoke City player. Wilson Palacios is strong and good at starting his team's plays from his deep midfield position. But he will have a job on his hands to get anything out of the group stage. The Ephemeric does not expect much.

Verdict: Group Stage


Manager: Alejandro Sabella
Key player: Lionel Messi
World ranking: 5

The two-time World Cup winners can always consider themselves among the favourites for the competition, especially when they play in South America. Still they have not won since 1986. All the stops will be pulled out in order to win the World Cup this time on the soil of arch rivals Brazil.

There's is a team that is stocked with world class talent, from Ángel di María to Sergio Agüero, Ezequiel Lavezzi, and of course, one of the world's top two players: Lionel Messi. But while they team's attacking options may be the envy of any team in the world, defensively they are far more suspect. There is no clear star in defence, and doubt over who best to play in goal. This is a team that will have to prevail through offence as a form of defence.

After a few years in the wilderness, Argentina have finally started to show some of their promise. Messi in particular is beginning to replicate his club form for country. If he can do that consistently at the World Cup then Argentina have a good shot at winning the whole thing. The pressure is on, but with the talent available Argentina will surely be there or thereabouts.

Verdict: Runners Up

Bosnia and Herzegovina
Manager: Safet Sušić
Key player: Edin Dzeko
World ranking: 21

The perception is a team full of no-name whipping boys from a country that didn't exist until a few years ago. No-hopers who are just here to make up the numbers and will be home early. The reality is that Bosnia have a very decent team.

Goalkeeper Asmir Begović and star man Edin Dzeko will be familiar to any English Premier League fans, and Dzeko in particular can be a monster on his day, adding well rounded hold-up play to his excellent goal scoring record. The team has considerable talent elsewhere in the form of Roma's Miralem Pjanić and Hoffenheim's Sejad Salihović. Bosnia is not just here as a makeweight, they will have an influence on this group.

Getting out of the group stage will be a challenge though for a squad that is relatively inexperienced on the big stage and thin in depth beyond their starting lineup. Bowing out in the group stage is most likely, but don't be surprised if they nick that second qualification place.

Verdict: Group Stage

Manager: Carlos Queiroz
Key player: Ashkan Dejagah
World ranking: 43

Iran are the team with probably the most unknown players. Many of them play domestically or in the lower leagues, and their star man is a Fulham winger, albeit a quick and tricky one.

Still Iran are not going to be the pushovers everybody expects. Their team is well drilled and enthusiastic, while they are particularly deadly from set pieces.

The problem Iran face is that while they are not a terrible team, they're probably the worst one in this group. The Ephemeric considers it highly likely that they will get knocked out at this first round.

Verdict: Group Stage

Manager: Stephen Keshi
Key player: John Obi Mikel
World ranking: 44

Despite their relatively low ranking, Nigeria are entering the World Cup as African champions, and in a good position to have an impact on the group.

A strong counter-attacking side. Nigeria is built around a core of good top flight talent including Chelsea trio John Obi Mikel, Victor Moses and Kenneth Omeruo. Meanwhile goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama has had a fantastic season in the French leagues, coming very close to setting a new all time record for most consecutive minutes without conceding a goal. Their considerable pedigree also features familiar names such as Joseph Yobo, Peter Odemwingie and Victor Obinna.

This is a deceptively solid team, and one of the better African teams in the tournament despite their ranking. Nigeria have a good shot at getting out of this group stage if they can negotiate their way past Bosnia, but with a potential match up against France in the next round, probably no further.

Verdict: Second Round


Manager: Joachim Löw
Key player: Mesut Özil
World ranking: 2

Germany: one of the best national teams in the world, with an impressive three wins, behind only Italy and Brazil in the winners rankings. They went pretty close in 2006 to winning on home soil, and gave good accounts of themselves in every major tournament since. With Bayern Munich getting such hype in recent years there is a lot of buzz that this could finally be the year for Germany.

This is a squad full of world class talent for sure, but one gets the feeling that this tournament is coming at a bad time. Many of the key players are in unconvincing form, with the Bayern stars unconvincing in Europe this season, and even talisman Mesut Özil has had a largely invisible debut season with Arsenal. This makes it seem unlikely that Germany will become the first ever European side to win a South American World Cup, but still this is Germany, and the Germans usually turn up for the big tournaments, often confounding any pre-tournament predictions.

Germany finds themselves in arguably the toughest group in the tournament, but are probably the strongest team in it. They should get through to the next round, difficult though it will be. A quarter final defeat to one of the South American big boys seems the likely end for Germany this year.

Verdict: Quarter Finals

Manager: Paulo Bento
Key player: Cristiano Ronaldo
World ranking: 4

Portugal have taken Spain's mantle as the world's serial underperformers; blessed with a formidable array of talent yet always just not quite up to the task of winning. Euro 2012 was a very impressive showing from the team, losing to the eventual champions despite being the better of the two sides over 90 minutes. Now they hope to go one further in the World Cup.

Leading the charge will be the current best player in the world Cristiano Ronaldo. Ronaldo is arguably one of the finest footballers of all time, and when he is on his game he is simply untouchable. An incredible blend of pace, power, technique, and vision. But that's not to disregard a squad that's strong in all departments: a defence featuring Pepe, Bruno Alves and Coentrao, a midfield with Moutinho, Veloso and Nani, and of course the big man up front. Consistency has always been an issue for Portugal and this will be no different. If they can fire on all cylinders they can go far, if not then they'll underperform yet again.

Portugal have one of the very best teams in the competition, and probably the best player at the moment. They have a very good shot of taking the big prize, perhaps more so than any European team. Their group is a very tricky one, but they should be able to navigate it successfully. The Ephemeric thinks they can make it as far as the semi finals.

Verdict: Semi Finals

Manager: James Kwesi Appiah
Key player: Kevin-Prince Boateng
World ranking: 37

Ghana have been giving a good account of themselves in recent years, in particular the last World Cup in 2010 where they became only the third African side to reach the World Cup quarter finals. But for all their strengths over the years there is the feeling that some of their previous star players may be on the decline.

Michael Essien, arguably one of the best midfielders in the world in 2010, has aged very quickly and now seems a shadow of himself for both club and country. Then there's key striker Asamoah Gyan who's star has fallen considerably since his big money move to Sunderland in the wake of the 2010 World Cup. He now finds himself playing in the Middle-Eastern leagues.

Instead the focus will be on Milan's Kevin-Prince Boateng, always a man for a big occasion and Kwadwo Asamoah of Juventus. Most interesting will be to see the emergence of Ghana's promising youth; players like Jordan Ayew, Christian Atsu, and Majeed Waris.

This is a very intriguing Ghana team indeed, but with such a tough group before them, they are unlikely o have much opportunity to showcase their talents.

Verdict: Group Stage

United States of America
Manager: Jürgen Klinsmann
Key player: Michael Bradley
World ranking: 13

This is an interesting one. For a while it looked as though American football was getting increasingly better, with genuinely high quality players like Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey making waves in international competition. Then with the appointment of German legend Klinsmann, who as a manager almost won the World Cup with Germany and has received incredible praise for his management style, it seemed as though American football would be set for another big step up.

Instead the team seems to have gone strangely backwards in the past few years. Sure, they won the Gold Cup, but the team appears to be lacking in recognizable quality more than ever now. Even the manager concedes that his side have no chance at this World Cup, and claims to be building for 2018.

For sure, even if the roster was looking among the best of teams that the United States has fielded, this group is particularly difficult, and the USA will face Germany, Portugal and the third, easier team is their bogey team Ghana, who knocked them out of the past two World Cups. Getting out of this group will be a near impossible task for the United States.

Verdict: Group stage


Manager: Marc Wilmots
Key player: Eden Hazard
World ranking: 11

Everyone's favourite dark horses at this World Cup, Belgium have on paper one of the finest squads in the world. This Belgian golden age has everything: one of the best goalkeepers in the world in the form of Thibault Courtois, a strong defence featuring Thomas Vermaelen, Vincent Kompany, Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen. The creative midfield has Eden Hazard, Axel Witsel, Kevin de Bruyne, Steven Defour and Marouane Fellaini. The attack Romelu Lukaku, Adnan Januzaj, and Kevin Mirallas.

I'm going on and on, but the fact is that every single one of these players is a household name, plying their trade at one of Europe's top clubs. This is a young, hungry, and high quality team, one that on paper can match up to any in the world.

But translating that potential into an actual team, and producing it on the biggest stage of all, is a tough ask, especially for such a young group of players. With all the hype that is currently pouring on them, disappointment seems an inevitability.

Group H is by no means easy, but it also isn't the most difficult group in the tournament. It is very winnable for Belgium, but the next round promises either Germany or Portugal, and for all their talent on paper, they could well come up short against the big players.

Verdict: Second Round

Manager: Fabio Capello
Key player: Igor Akinfeev
World ranking: 19

Fabio Capello is one of the top managers in the world and has been for a long time. After being wrongly pushed out of his job as England manager, he sought refuge in Russia, with the aim of turning them into a top national side. This is not without precedent of course; under Hiddink, Russia were one of the best sides in Euro 2008. Attacking players Arshavin, Zhirkov all sparkled. Akinfeev was formidable in goal, and youngster Alan Dzagoev was one of the top young prospects in Europe.

Their Euro 2012 bid under Dick Advocaat started well enough, but ended in disappointment. Since then they have never quite reached the potential they hinted at in 2008. Arshavin is gone, Dzagoev, once a hot talent, has fallen out of favour with the manager. Now the key man will be Akinfeev, holding that back line together as Capello likes to do. Otherwise the emphasis seems to be on young, domestic talent. Indeed, that every player in the squad plays in the Russian league is quite remarkable.

This year seems mainly to be about blooding young Russian players so that they will be ready for 2018's World Cup on home soil, but still they should not be discounted. Russia love to be the dark horse, and if Capello handles them the right way, they could have a good tournament. Qualification from the group stage seems a strong possibility, but with Germany or Portugal waiting, that will probably be the extent of it.

Verdict: Second Round

South Korea
Manager: Hong Myung-Bo
Key player: Son Heung-Min
World ranking: 57

Like Russia, South Korea are probably best remembered in football as a side to be buoyed by Guus Hiddink's magic when they reached the World Cup semi final on home soil back in 2002. Since then they've never really performed to the same level, but that's not to discount them entirely. South Korea are still a collection of very technically gifted players who can cause trouble.

But make no mistake, they will be up against it here. South Korea just scraped into this World Cup past Uzbekistan, and their lightweight squad will struggle against the far more physical opposition of Algeria and Russia, while their technical abilities, though worthy of praise, will be matched by Belgium. This looks to be a very short tournament for South Korea.

Verdict: Group Stage

Manager: Vahid Halilhodžić
Key player: Sofiane Feghouli
World ranking: 22

Anyone who saw Algeria play in the 2010 World Cup will know they are not to be taken lightly. Halilhodžić likes his team to play a highly organised, tactical game, while his squad are powerful enough to tussle with the best.

The squad's main dose of quality comes from Feghouli, formerly short listed for the French national team but convinced to play for the country of his parents. Feghouli has La Liga pedigree on the wing for Valencia, and all signs indicate that he can deliver on a big stage. Indeed a promising array of youthful additions to the squad suggest that the Algerians have improved even on their 2010 showing.

Algeria will be concerned by their defensive vulnerabilities, particularly with the likes of Belgium to contend with. They certainly have a shot at pushing for the second round, but the chances are that once again they will be home after three games.

Verdict: Group stage

So there we have it. Get excited because the tournament starts just this next week. The Ephemeric may be missing much of the tournament thanks to the joy of work, but we will be there with you all in spirit.

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