This week, Uruguay's draw with Jordan granted them the last spot in the forthcoming FIFA World Cup, the most watched sporting event on Earth. With all 32 teams set to compete, it's time to take an early look at which national squads are most likely to bring the trophy back to their home country next summer.
Anything's possible for Portugal so long as Cristiano Ronaldo is leading their side. This past week's playoff second-leg against Sweden proved just that, as the dazzling winger slotted home a hat trick on top of his goal in the first leg. Other strong players in the squad include box-to-box midfielder João Moutinho and Sporting goalkeeper Rui Patricio. If Manchester United winger Nani can recapture the form he displayed a couple of years ago, Portugal will be a real force in the upcoming tournament.
This South American nation's biggest star is undeniably AS Monaco's Radamel Falcao. Considered by many to be the best pure striker in the world, Falcao will have help up top from the likes of Jackson Martinez, currently at FC Porto, and James Rodriguez, a brilliant young attacking midfielder/winger who also plays for Monaco. The chemistry between James and Falcao should be stellar, as they'll have played a year of club and international ball together by the time June rolls around. Midfielder Fredy Guarin and defenders Christian Zapata and Pablo Armero will bring both strength and quickness to the squad, all three playing in Italy this season. The lineup does drop off a little after that, however, and Colombia might not have enough in them to make it farther than the quarterfinals.
Despite needing a playoff victory over Jordan to even qualify, Uruguay will be a force to reckon with in 2014. The clear strong point in the team is the attacking duo of Liverpool's Luis Suarez and Paris Saint-Germain's Edinson Cavani. Both bring great pace to the team as well as incredible on-the-ball skills and finishing ability. Veteran forward Diego Forlan may be 34 but shone in 2010's World Cup, so there's a chance he scores a few in Brazil next year. Team captain Diego Lugano heads the defense with help from Juventus player Martin Caceres and Diego Godin. Like Colombia, Uruguay pretty much rely on their strikers and lack any superstars in midfield or defense, and thus could very well fall short of the last tournament's fourth place finish.
The Dutch squad had a very successful qualifying process this cycle after reaching the 2010 final in South Africa, but admittedly had a very weak group in the UEFA qualifiers and have aged since losing out to Spain last tournament. The Netherlands are one of the oldest national teams going to Brazil, which has both benefits and drawbacks. Players like Arjen Robben, Robin Van Persie, and Wesley Sneijder bring loads of experience against world-class opposition, but all three are somewhat injury-prone and slower than they used to be. RVP is undoubtedly one of Europe's best scorers, and Robben plays a pivotal role for a Bayern squad that won the Champions League last season, but Sneijder has dropped in form over the last year or so. Roma summer signee Kevin Strootman will look to fill that central midfield role if Sneijder struggles, as youngsters like Maro Van Ginkel, Adam Maher, and Leroy Fer will hope to break into the first team. Defense is, as with the other teams already mentioned, the biggest concern here. Johnny Heitinga has been seeing minimal play time at Everton since 2012, and will be extremely rusty come June. Gregory van der Wiel has talent but is also young and prone to error. To make matters worse, first choice keeper Maarten Stekelenburg has struggled mightly at relegation candidates Fulham this season, and may be dropped for fellow Prem goalies Tim Krul or Michael Vorm. A supremely physical team, the Netherlands definitely have a shot at the world title, but are far from the favorites.
Lionel Messi is unstoppable for Barcelona (unless his quads have anything to say about it), but has yet to show the same immaculacy for his country. He failed to score for Argentina in South Africa, though he was credited with six assists in five games. Next summer, he'll most likely play as a center forward behind any combination of strikers Gonzalo Higuain, Carlos Tevez, or the red-hot Sergio Aguero. Aguero's teammate at Manchester City Pablo Zabaleta will anchor the back four. Javier Mascherano is used more effectively as a center back but may play midfield alongside Angel di Maria and Ever Banega. If Messi performs at the same level he does in La Liga, then Argentina could wreak havoc at Brazil 2014.
After unceremoniously bowing out in the group stage in 2010, failing to win a single game (in a remarkably easy group as well), Cesare Prandelli's crew look set to challenge for the World Cup in a few months. Extremely talented but equally unpredicable forward Mario Balotelli did well in the Euro 2012 matches as well as this past summer's Confederations Cup, but his giant ego and tendency to self-destruct could hurt Italy more than his ability on the pitch can help. Antonio Di Natale has retired from international play since the last World Cup, so Balotelli will look to Giuseppe Rossi and fellow AC Milan sparkplug Stephan El Shaarawy for assistance up top. The amazingly skilled and generally beloved Andrea Pirlo will be a force in midfield as well as on set pieces. Fellow Serie A veterans Daniele De Rossi and Ricardo Montolivo round out the central midfield roles. In the back, goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon provides leadership as well as skill, while defenders Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci, and Giorgio Chiellini sit in front of him. Italy are one of the most well-rounded teams in the world, and should have a great chance to return to the glory of their 2006 victory after 2010's dismal performance.
Belgium is everyone's favorite dark horse this World Cup, and how could they not be? Young strikers Romelu Lukaku and Christian Benteke have been nothing short of outstanding in the Premier League this calendar year, and the team in general is a joy to watch. Thibaut Cortois and Simon Mignolet may split time in net, and a star-studded midfield will see rotation between Eden Hazard, Maroune Fellaini, Moussa Dembele, and Axel Witsel, among others. Vincent Kompany is one of the best defenders on the planet when healthy, and Jan Vertonghen is no slouch either. The team could employ several different formations depending on the situation, with 3-5-2, 4-2-3-1, and 4-3-3 all possibilities.If head coach Marc Wilmots uses the flexibility granted to him effectively, Belgium could become the second consecutive first-time World Cup champions after Spain won their first ever trophy in 2010.
Spain dominated international soccer/football from 2008-2012, but in last June's Confederations Cup final, a strong Brazilian team fully dismantled the reigning world champs, exposing them to the rest of the world as vulnerable. Teams have had more time to adjust to their passing style of gameplay as more and more club teams have employed the so-called "tiki-taka" approach. Nevertheless, this is largely the same team that won in South Africa. Striker Alvaro Negredo has taken his game to the next level at Manchester City, and about half of the starting eleven still play together at a little club called FC Barcelona. Xabi Alanso, Juan Mata, and Sergio Ramos join FCB stars Gerard Pique, Xavi, Andres Iniesta, and Jordi Alba. Whether recently-benched Iker Casillas starts over Victor Valdes and Pepe Reina is a question worth pondering, but all three will contribute strong efforts. Spain are still a very strong side, but are not immortal as they appeared to be just four years ago.
The German national squad is one of the deepest in the world; if one player goes down injured, five more talented ones are waiting in the wings. Mario Gomez is a clinical finisher up top, and looks to fill the role Miroslave Klose shone brightly in during the tournament in South Africa. A stacked midfield utilizes Bundesliga stars like Bastian Schweinsteiger, Sven Bender, Thomas Muller, Ilkay Gundogan, Mario Gotze, Toni Kroos, and Marco Reus. Premier Leaguers Andre Schurrle and Mesut Ozil add playmaking ability to the aformentioned midfielding corps. Philipp Lahm can control a game both offensively and defensively when operating from the right back position, while center backs Per Mertesacker and Mats Hummels can shutdown enemt attacks with ease. Goalie Manuel Neuer is arguably the best in the world. In short, Germany have no weak link, and only one country prevents them from being the favorites for the upcoming world cup.
After winning the Confederations Cup, all eyes are on the Brazil national team going into 2014. Having homefield advantage is an added bonus to a team already claiming the likes of Barcelona starlet Neymar, acrobatic keeper Julio Cesar, and world-class defender Thiago Silva. All three will play pivotal roles in the tournament if Brazil hope to win the title for a world-record sixth time. Neywar will play on the wing, as will strong-footed and aptly-named Zenit St. Petersburg stud Hulk, with one of Brazilian league strikers Jo and Fred sitting between them. They'll likely set up in a 4-3-3, with Luis Gustavo, Paulinho, and Ramires splitting time at defensive midfielder while Oscar, Hernanes, and Bernard share duties at CAM. Speedy PSG youngster Lucas Moura may take some of Hulk's minutes, and footballing legend Ronaldinho hopes to make a triumphant return to the Brazil squad next summer. The defense looks strong as well, lining up from left to right with Marcelo, Thiago Silva, David Luiz, and Dani Alves. Brazil are a frontrunner in every World Cup, and in 2014 they should be the frontrunner.
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