By: Travis Thayer
4:00 ET Thursday, June 12: Brazil v. Croatia ESPN
12:00 ET Friday, June 13: Mexico v. Cameroon ESPN 2
3:00 ET Tuesday, June 17: Brazil v. Mexico ESPN
6:00 ET Wednesday, June 18: Cameroon v. Croatia ESPN
4:00 ET Monday, June 23: Croatia v. Mexico ESPN
4:00 ET Monday, June 23: Cameroon v. Brazil ESPN 2
Brazil absolutely dominated the Confederations Cup last June, and the host country is the definite favorite to win Group A come June. The Brazilians are led by a slew of talented young footballers, including superstar Neymar. Neymar was brilliant in the Confederations Cup, and a lot of Brazil’s hopes and dreams of becoming World Cup Champions rests on the shoulders of the 21-year-old striker. Brazil’s talent runs much deeper than just Neymar, as they have one of the most exciting and talented midfield the world has to offer. Neymar’s job can become quite easy because of the play of Oscar, Ramires, Lucas, and others that distribute the ball so well from the midfield. The Brazilians love to attack, and they are so skilled that they sometimes make it look very easy. The are constantly taking on defenders with the dribble, and their passing is very good in close quarters. Brazil may have some inexperience on the World Cup stage, but they are the class of Group A – and they will have something to prove after a disappointing elimination at the hands of the Dutch in the quarterfinals of the 2010 World Cup.
Croatia is very capable of getting out of Group A, but they might be stuck behind the 8-ball having drawn Brazil in their opening contest. If they do indeed fall to Brazil, Croatia will likely need to beat Cameroon in their second game to even have a chance of advancing to the knockout rounds. A big question will be whether or not the Croatians can adapt to the intense climate in Brazil, while the other three teams in the group certainly will have no problem playing in the heat and humidity. Croatia shouldn’t be counted out though, as they can match up talent-wise with both Mexico and Cameroon.
The Mexican national team has been a bit of an enigma over the past few years. In 2012 Olympics, the Mexicans beat Brazil in the Gold Medal game – and then it was all downhill from there. Mexico struggled to even make the World Cup after losing 8 of 10 qualifiers. The Mexicans eventually qualified after some good luck, and by beating New Zealand in a couple of play-in games. Mexico has shown the ability to win on the biggest stage, but their inconsistency over the past year is a concern. It is possible that the final group match against Croatia could determine who advances, and who goes home.
Cameroon is clearly the underdog in Group A, but they do have a fighting chance because of Mexico’s inconsistency and the possibility that Croatia may not acclimate well to the weather. Cameroon’s chances of advancing may be determined by the play of Samuel Eto’o. Cameroon has the advantage of playing Brazil last, and they could decide their fate before facing off with the best team in the group.
Players to Watch
Neymar – Neymar is easily one of the best players in the world, and he finally gets to try to prove that to the entire world. This will be Neymar’s first World Cup appearance, and it will be on his home soil. Brazil has won the World Cup five times, but they haven’t won one since 2002. Neymar has the chance to become a national hero by leading his team to its sixth World Cup victory.
Javier Hernandez – Oribe Peralta was the hero of Mexico’s gold medal run, but Chicharito is Mexico’s most important player. He is their leading scorer in international play, and arguably Mexico’s most talented player. He like the rest of the team has been inconsistent at times, and he will need to be in top form if Mexico hopes to advance to the knockout stage.
Mario Mandzukic – Mandzukic is a big-time scorer, having scored 21 goals for Bayern Munich before being left off the club for the German Cup by Pep Guardiola. Mandzukic can provide the scoring punch Croatia needs to get out of Group A, but the Croatian’s will be without Mandzukic for the opener against Brazil after receiving a red card for stomping on an Icelandic player.
Samuel Eto’o – The 33-year old striker has shown flashes of brilliance at Chelsea this season, and he will need to be even more brilliant in the World Cup. Eto’o originally retired from international competition, but he’s giving it one more go around. Could this be a magical final World Cup appearance for Mr. Eto’o?
How Group A Will Play Out
Brazil will win this group hands down. They are simply too good to not make it out as the winner of the group, as it would be a colossal letdown if they don’t. Neymar should put himself in good position to be a favorite to win the Golden Boot as the tournament’s top player. Who will join Brazil in the knock round is not as clear-cut. Mexico barely made the World Cup after such poor play in 2013, and Croatia was just as poor. The Croatians only scored 12 goals in 10 qualifying games, which could leave the door open for Cameroon to pull off the upset. Cameroon’s schedule sets up nicely as they get to open against Mexico and then play a Croatia team that will likely already have a loss. If Cameroon can find a way to beat Mexico and at least tie the Croatians, Samuel Eto’o may have a final World Cup moment to cherish for the rest of his life.