12 June 2014

Thursday Throwdown: World Cup Predictions

Neymar (center) will be key to the hopes of the
host nation
(Credit: Ronnie Macdonald)
Sam: The Greatest Show on Earth is finally here! The 2014 iteration of the World Cup takes place in Brazil, the nation that gave the world the likes of Pele, Ronaldo, Zico, Romario and Roberto Carlos (definitely deserves to be in that list!) and home to some of the most rabid and passionate soccer fans on the globe. The hosts will be considered among the favorites to win the tournament, though the last time they hosted, the Seleção crumbled under the intense pressure, losing to Uruguay in the final.

Despite that, I have them as ranked as favorites to win; they won the Confederations Cup convincingly in similar stadia and conditions last year and key players like Hulk and Neymar enter the tournament in good form. Argentina will also have a good chance; their group is one of the easier ones, so they should progress without taxing too many of their key players, and Lionel Messi will be desperate to add international success to his club trophies and strengthen his argument as one of the best players ever. Finally, I am looking forward to watching Germany. They have a very talented and deep squad, though taking just one traditional striker could hurt their chances as they get to the latter stages. So, Jess, those are my favorites to take the trophy home. Who do you think will win the 20th World Cup?

Jess: Well Sam, I agree with you on a number of points there. For one, I think that Joachim Löw's decision to only take one traditional striker in Miroslav Klose could definitely hurt Germany's chances as they advance deeper into the tournament, and my bracket actually sees the DFB exiting in the quarterfinals after a somewhat surprising loss to Les Bleus. I also agree with you that Argentina have a really good chance; if Angel Di Maria plays as well as he did in the UEFA Champions League final he could probably take down half of the teams in the tournament by himself. Where the Argentine side will struggle is defensively – any team relying on a guy like Mascherano to have consistent standout performances is bound to face their fair share of problems. But all doubts aside, Argentina should steamroll through the group stage and look to make a solid run towards the cup final.

I've always been one to bet against the Brazilians (I actually won an Henry France jersey in a bet during the '06 World Cup that I made while watching France upset Brazil from a bar IN Little Brazil in Manhattan), so I'm inclined to bet against them in their home country as well. I'd have to rank Spain as my favorites to win it all and become the first team to win consecutive cups since Brazil in '58 / '62. Even if Xavi is kind of a grandpa at this point, the Spanish midfield is stacked and even includes new up-and-coming stars like Atlético Madrid's Koke (who has the potential to form an already comfortable midfield-forward link with his Atleti teammate Diego Costa). With an experienced defense and a plethora of attacking options, I'm going for Spain to take home the trophy. With that being said, I'd also like to think that I would say I was going for the USA to win it all if that wouldn't just upset everyone (I BELIEVE).

So with our winners predicted, who do you think will win some of the more offensive individual accolades, like Golden Ball and Golden Boot?

Sam: I'll start with Golden Boot as that is easier to define as an award. I have three favorites for that, and all for similar reasons: Karim Benzema, Sergio Agüero and Romelu Lukaku. All three are almost guaranteed to start for the heavy favorites in three of the easier groups in the tournament. Benzema has looked very good in France's warm-up matches, even teaming nicely with our own Olivier Giroud (Arsenal's future strike-force, anyone?) and should bag a few goals against Ecuador and Honduras, at least. Agüero will have Messi and di Maria creating numerous chances against teams that they should be expected to beat easily, and the same applies for Lukaku: Belgium seem to be prohobitive favorites in their group, and most people's dark horses, and with Eden Hazard, Kevin Mirallas and Kevin de Bruyne surrounding him, the Chelsea striker should have several chances come his way each match. Of the three I've named, I would lean towards Agüero, just because I see Argentina progressing further than the others, giving him more games to score in.

Golden Ball is interesting. If someone were to score, say, 8 goals (the last two winners of the Golden Boot scored 5 goals each) then I would imagine that player would be named best player as well, as was the case when Ronaldo won both awards in 2002. Interestingly, the last time a player on the World Cup winning side was awarded the Golden Ball as in 1994, when Romario lead Brazil to victory in the United States. I'm currently thinking Messi, as it just seems his time to convert his club success to the international scene, though other favorites could be Hazard (depending on how far Belgium progress), Neymar or one of the German attacking midfielders - hopefully Mesut Özil! How do you see the two main individual awards going?

Agüero is a strong favorite to earn
the Golden Boot
(Credit: Ludovic Peron)
Jess: I really like your choices for Golden Boot, and would be inclined to agree with you that Agüero has the best chance. Who knows how many he'll net in the group stage alone. I would also include Thomas Mueller and Cristiano Ronaldo in the mix if and only if they manage to make it out of the group stage. If Portugal advance (which I'm banking on them NOT doing for the sake of the USMNT) then I would imagine that they will progress pretty deep into the tournament with Cristiano putting the team on his back and perhaps adding to his recent Champions League scoring accolades. Also love the Big Benz shoutout.

Messi seems a likely choice for Golden Ball– and I agree that there should be a point at which his club success translates to success on the international level– but again I would include Angel Di Maria on my list (especially if Messi fails to score the hypothetical 8 goals that you speak of). Cristiano had one of those years at the club level that makes you think he could really get the job done for Portugal and walk away with both the Golden Ball and the Golden Boot, but that's dependent on Portugal making it out of the Group of Death. If Spain do end up winning it could be Iniesta. Maybe Mesut (would love to see it!).  And I hate to say Neymar, but Neymar has a shot as well. So, how about Golden Glove and Best Young Player?

Sam: Well, unlike the Golden Ball, the Golden Glove in recent tournaments has gone to the goalkeeper of the winning side (only Oliver Kahn was not a World Cup winner of the last 4 Gold Glove 'keepers), so I guess I'm looking at one of tournament favorites to supply the winner. In that case, I'm going to go for Manuel Neuer, as I think he is the best goalkeeper on a challenger (and also, the world's best 'keeper, period), though Iker Casillas and Julio Cesar would be strong candidates if they can lead their teams deep in to the knockout stages. Argentina's Sergio Romero probably won't get much attention as it's likely any progress by La Albiceleste is likely to be due to their attacking players more than anything else, though a questionable defense could see him forced in to action very often. As a side note, the goalkeepers will be worth watching for Arsenal fans, as our next backup could well be playing in the World Cup, with the Gunners having been linked with Colombia's David Ospina and France's Stephane Ruffier.

Under FIFA's current World Cup rules, only players who are at most 21 years old are eligible for the Best Young Player - an age cut-off that I agree with, and allows me to discount the likes of Hazard and Muller (I'm on record as thinking that this years EPL Young Player is too 'old' at 23), but makes it harder to find an overwhelming favorite. Initially I would have said Mario Götze, but he's too old at 22. Looking at the squads, my candidates would be Paul Pogba (France) and Romelu Lukaku (Belgium). I'll also be looking out for Switzerland's Josip Drmić, who is receiving rave reviews and is getting linked with a Premier League move, and my dark horse is Raheem Sterling, depending on how much he plays and how far England progress. Who do you think will take home these awards, Jess?

Pogba could pull off the coveted Best Young
Player-Most Outlandish Hairstyle double
(credit: Catherine Kortsmik)
Jess: The Golden Glove award seems much more straightforward than any of the others and I'd just add that I think that Iker Casillas will probably come away with it. Neuer, Cesar and even Buffon are also worth mentioning, of course. Best Young Player is where things get a bit more interesting. Pogba has been getting a lot of attention recently and had a great campaign with Juventus this past season, so he will certainly be one to watch out for. His French teammate Raphael Varane is a strong potential candidate in my mind as well; the 21-year-old defender played a full 120 minutes for Real Madrid in the Champions League final (and happens to be one of my three favorite players currently in action), and will team up with our very own Laurent Koscielny to form an incredibly strong backbone in the center of the French defense. Lukaku also featured on my shortlist of candidates, as well as the English trio of Raheem Sterling, Ross Barkley and the great Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (who will hopefully be fit in time to face Uruguay in England's second group stage match). Finally, I think Mateo Kovačić of Croatia and Inter could surprise us as a part of a solid Croatian midfield that includes the likes of Luka Modrić and Ivan Rakitić.

I'm getting more excited by the minute just thinking about the World Cup action that starts tomorrow! To finish things off, who do you think might win the Most Entertaining Team award this year, Sam?

Sam: Well, 'entertaining' has different connotations. France were very entertaining at the last World Cup, but for all the wrong reasons, while the Netherlands have all the ingredients for a spectacular implosion. The usual suspects will get praise for good football played by top players, but I'm going for a dark horse on this one: Chile. They might not even get out of their group, but they press all over the pitch, will be great on the counter, they employ a 3-4-3 with no "real" striker (2 of their supposed starting front 3 are wingers/strikers, the third a number 10) with one of the world's most complete - and underrated - players in Arturo Vidal, they should be very fun to watch. I'm also looking forward to watching Belgium, just because I like so many of their squad: Vermaelen, Witsel, de Bruyne, Lukaku, Hazard, Mirallas, Origi, Defour... Outrageous talent, and that's before you get to players like Januzaj, and Fellaini, who despite a poor season at Manchester United, usually looks good in the red of his nation. What team(s) are you most looking forward to seeing play, Jess?

Jess: WOW I would love to see a spectacular implosion by the Netherlands and the devil incarnate Robben (still can't get over his Champions League antics vs the Arsenal). After watching the Mexico - Portugal tune up friendly live at Gillette this past Friday I'd say that both of those teams will (not so surprisingly) be quite entertaining, but I also have a couple of dark horses that I'm excited to watch. The first is the Blue Samurais of Japan; I think that the Japanese attack is pretty underrated (many will probably remember the 4-3 Confederations Cup thriller that they just barely lost against Italy), and Kagawa, Honda, Okazaki and others have the potential to form a creative, imaginative and exciting offensive threat that may be able to lead them past Ivory Coast towards a second place finish in Group C. I'm also very excited to watch Bosnia and Herzegovina play and hopefully make it out of Group F behind Argentina; led by Dzeko, they will be making their first ever World Cup appearances after scoring a staggering 30 goals in 10 matches over their qualifying campaign!

Finally, my dream would be to have the USA playing the most entertaining football at the World Cup. It's unlikely that we will ever come close to out-possessing our opponents, but with Beckerman and Jones in front of the back four Michael Bradley has a lot more freedom to link up with the legend Clint Dempsey (as seen vs. Nigeria), and we could score some absolute screamer goals like Fabian Johnson's glorious one touch volley to the opposite corner vs Turkey. Some creative counters could get us there! Can't wait to see what happens!

Sam: Well, unlike most fans in my adopted country, I'm struggling to see USA getting out of their group. I can't see Germany losing any of their games, so The Stars and Stripes chances balance on which version of Cristiano Ronaldo turns up in Brazil. Having said that, I will be rooting for USMNT, as my Three Lions have similar chances: England and Italy usually both start slow, so I'm expecting a draw, then it depends on how well Luis Suarez plays. But really, who cares? It's a month solid of football, so let's just sit back and enjoy. COYG doesn't really apply this week, so good luck to all Arsenal players; hopefully one of you lifts the trophy!


  1. Love both of your picks for most entertaining team. I mentioned both Chile and Japan in my write-up and think they have a good chance to make it out of their respective groups.

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