Guess what! The World Cup will be starting in…(checks watch)… tomorrow! Cue the confetti! Cue the shots of the beach! Cue the crazed fans! Cue the Brazilian women in swimsuits that every World Cup ad seems so insistent on including!
Okay, enough cueing. As a guide for the tournament, I have made a starting XI based on the most important players for their respective teams.
Asmir Begović (Bosnia and Herzegovina)
It’s truly difficult evaluating and comparing goalkeepers; you can’t just look at goals allowed because some goalies have worse defenses in front of them than others, which alters the amount and quality of opportunities opposing offenses get. On the other hand, some goalies play with better defenders, which require them to make a smaller amount of impressive saves.
As with most aspects of football, statistics are not as telling as the eye test, which Begović certainly passes. He has quick reflexes to both sides of the net – with both his hands and feet – he is aggressive when necessary, and he can drop to the ground as quick as a marine. As I wrote about before, Bosnia’s defense is shaky, which makes Begović’s role crucial.
Argentina is winning Group F, and second place will be between Bosnia and Nigeria. Nigeria is quick and aggressive offensively, probably more so than Bosnia. But if Begović can make enough of an impact in goal, his play may decide which team advances to the next round.
Fabian Johnson (United States)
As I’ve written about previously, I think the Yankees can advance from Group G, but that will largely be decided by whether or not the U.S. can earn at least a draw against Portugal. It’s usually silly to analyze matches by single matchups, but Johnson’s ability to reduce the impact of Cristiano Ronaldo will be key for the Americans staying in that game.
Don’t get me wrong, even if Johnson transformed into a set of shackles anchored by a bowling ball attached to Ronaldo’s body, Ronaldo would still win that matchup. Regardless, Johnson will have two key tasks that may determine the U.S.’s fate in the tournament: first, he must maintain a level of focus so that Ronaldo doesn’t blow by him at every chance; this Portugal side is not nearly as balanced as it used to be, so limiting CR7 goes a long way. Second, with Ronaldo leading the attack, the right wing will have openings for counterattacks, which means Johnson needs to have enough energy to contribute to the counter and to then, of course, run back to defend Ronaldo.
Sokratis Papastathopoulos (Greece)
The man who’s name makes a circle on the back of his jersey (let’s get that out of the way) will be one the most important players in Group C. Greece has a tendency to not only surprise the football world, but to play relentless defense as well. Against a Falcao-less Colombia, an aging Ivory Coast and an unproven Japan, the Greeks have a chance to surprise us once again with a top two finish.
Greece’s defense is its advantage over those teams, and Papastathopoulos will be the leader of that unit.
Rafael Marquez (Mexico)
In a friendly against Bosnia, Mexico’s defense was ugly. It gave up the ball like it was allergic to it, and it displayed no conviction in preventing Bosnia from building up its attack. The optimist, however, would point out that Marquez was not playing that game.
The rested captain will have to take control of his defense by encouraging organization and discipline. Mexico will be another team on the edge of advancing to the next round, and in order to top Croatia and Cameroon in Group A, it will need a solid backline to get there; Marquez will be the key to that.
Leighton Baines (England)
Baines is one of the steadiest players on England. The defense has the potential to play affectively together, but really no other individual on the back line seems a sure bet against Uruguay and Italy. Not only can Baines shutdown wingers, but he can lead quick attacks as well.
England is in one of the tougher groups, and overall Uruguay is the most threatening team. But a focused defensive effort against Italy may be all the Three Lions need to advance, and Baines is certainly capable of inspiring that.
Antonio Valencia (Ecuador)
Valencia is the captain of Ecuador and one of the team’s few players with experience in a top European league. Surprisingly, La Tri has looked impressive enough in its friendlies to make football heads consider them as a challenger to France and Switzerland in Group E.
Valencia is a dynamic force on the right wing, and in games for Manchester United is often one of club’s most reliable players. He is clever going down the sideline, and he is one of the best at playing balls into the box. France is the most talented team in the group, but Ecuador should be able to challenge Switzerland, which FIFA vastly overrates at no. 6 in the world. If Valencia plays at a high level in the game between those two, Ecuador could easily grab second in the group.
Arturo Vidal (Chile)
In the real group of death (B, that is) none of Spain, Chile, or the Netherlands is guaranteed a spot in the next round. The defending champion Spain is probably the strongest team, but the difference between Chile and the Netherlands is slim; the game between those could very well determine second place in the group.
Chile poses a formidable attack, but in order for it to match the goal-scoring ability of the Clockwork Orange, Vidal will have to be at his best. The Netherlands has one of the best attacks in the world, but its midfield is not as threatening, and that’s where Vidal can make a difference. He is a powerful defender and an expert passer, and if he can control the rhythm in Chile’s favor, his team will advance.
Yaya Toure (Ivory Coast)
I have to come back to Group C because it might be the toughest to figure out (and also because there aren’t enough groups to do one per position, but yeah). Before Falcao was ruled out of the tournament, it seemed that Colombia was the definite favorite to take first place. But without him, all four countries seem fairly even.
Yet what isn’t as tough to figure out is who the best player in the group is, which is Toure. He’s the most powerful midfielder in the game; when he drops back on defense he disrupts attacks, and when he gets the ball at his feet he not only pushes past defenders but he uses his speed and dribbling as well. He is a terrific long-range shooter and passer. Overall, he is one of the few players in the world that can truly take over a game individually.
But as good as Toure is, his teammates are aging and do not all have the same top-league experience that he does. With Didier Drogba, Cheick Tiote and Gervinho, Ivory Coast has the ability to win the group. But Toure is by far the most consistent of the bunch, and he will need to excel during all three games in the group for his team to advance.
Arjen Robben (The Netherlands)
It feels weird to classify Robben as a midfielder since he puts all his energy into attacking.
Okay, I’m not a fan of Robben’s game. Here’s my explanation using a pickup basketball analogy: he’s that guy on the court who plays lazy defense, and then stands at the three-point line on offense and shoots it every time without hesitation no matter how predictable it gets. Who likes that guy?
Translating that back to football, Robben’s that guy who does nothing until he gets the ball on the wing, almost always cuts back inside and, after a number of shot-fakes, fires one at goal. Though as boring as his style is, he is incredibly good with it.
The Chile-Netherlands game will be the most important and fun matchup of the group stage; as I mentioned concerning Vidal, it’s very hard to separate these two teams. It’s a given Robben will create a few opportunities on offense for himself, but if he can drop back and help start the attack deeper in the midfield, Vidal and Chile will struggle to outshine the versatile Netherlands offense.
Mario Balotelli (Italy)
What a fella. As much of a distraction that the media often portrays him as, Balotelli is one of the more focused and explosive strikers in the world. He scored 14 goals in Serie A for an underachieving AC Milan last season, and helped lead Italy through its run to the finals of Euro 2012.
His weakness is his tendency to disappear in games when his midfield needs him. Against England and Uruguay, the Blues will certainly need to him to be active making runs off the ball and pressuring opposing defenses for Italy to advance. With the ball, however, Balotelli is one of the best at being creative as well as finishing.
Mario Mandžukić (Croatia)
One of the many great Mario’s to play for Bayern Munich in the last couple years, Mandžukić uses his composure for accurate finishing and is always well-positioned for his teammates to find him in the box.
Along with Mexico and Cameroon, Croatia will be fighting for second place in Group A. Together with Luka Modrić, Mandžukić has a great chance to help their team advance, especially against Mexico and Cameroon’s shaky defenses. If the striker remains active and develops good chemistry alongside Modrić, Croatia could easily join Brazil in advancing from the group.