The 2014 FIFA World Cup, perhaps more than any World Cup in recent memory, features an uneven distribution of the top teams between the groups. Most pundits have denoted Group G, which features Germany, Portugal, the United States and Ghana, as the “Group of Death,” ignoring groups with tougher trios like Group B (Spain, Chile, and Holland) or Group D (Uruguay, Italy, and England). While this will make it difficult for several favorites to advance, other top teams, such as Brazil, Argentina, and Belgium, have a clear path beyond the group stage. The following four teams have the best chance of reaching the semi-finals.
Germany originally had the toughest road out of the group stage, as the “Group of Death” undoubtedly has the smallest gap in talent between the first and fourth-best teams in the group. Given the recent questions about Cristiano Ronaldo’s fitness for the first round, winning Group G and advancing to face a relatively easy opponent in the round of 16 seems likely for the Germans.
This German side features a strong influx of youth to go along with veteran hold-overs from the last World Cup, in which they lost a thrilling semi-final match to the eventual champions, Spain. Philipp Lahm, Per Mertesacker and Mats Hummels make up a formidable line of defense in front of Manuel Neuer, one of the best goalkeepers in the world, and will have defensive help from the midfield in veterans Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira.
Despite Marco Reus being ruled out of the World Cup due to an ankle injury, the German attack still has several skilled players ready to make an impact. This includes proven veterans such as Lukas Podolski and Thomas Müller, winner of the 2010 Golden Boot, along with up-and-comers Toni Kroos and André Schürrle, who will probably take Reus’ spot in the starting lineup. If the Germans can find their way through Group G unscathed, they’ll have a clear path to the semi-finals.
Spain enter this World Cup having won their last three major tournaments (Euro 2008 and 2012, and the 2010 World Cup), and are in position to become both the first European team to win on South American soil, and the first team to repeat as World Cup champions since Pelé led Brazil to back-to-back victories in 1958 and 1962. Losing last year’s Confederations Cup final to a young Brazil team will probably still be weighing on the minds of Spain, and will also give them something to prove. This tournament may also be the last for national team mainstays like Xavi, age 34, Xabi Alonso, age 32, and even 30 year old Andrés Iniesta.
As is typical in the tiki-taka system, Spain will look to dominate games by controlling the majority of possession, while patiently choosing their moments to attack. If Spain have had any weakness over their recent string of success, it has been their inability to push forward and pick out a killer ball, along with the absence of a world-class striker to finish off those chances. If Diego Costa is fit, he’ll be the best goal-scoring option the Spanish have had during their run of tournament victories. If he can come close to David Villa’s five goal performance from the 2010 World Cup, Spain have the ability not just to make a deep run, but to add yet another major trophy to their collection.
A young and talented Brazil team will look to become just the seventh host country to win a World Cup, as France were the last to accomplish the feat in 1998. They hope to build upon last year’s Confederations Cup, where they won the final in impressive fashion with a 3-0 victory over Spain. Brazil should have no trouble winning their group, but after that, their road to the finals could become significantly more difficult, as they may have to face the runners-up from Groups B and D, the two most top-heavy groups in this year’s tournament.
The strength of this Brazilian team is out wide on the flanks, starting with two of the best outside backs in the world, Dani Alves and Marcelo, complementing an electric set of wingers; Neymar will feature on the left side, while Hulk and Bernard figure to battle it out for the right to start opposite him. Down the middle, Brazil are an athletic and physically-imposing group, led by captain and all-world center back Thiago Silva. If this young Brazil squad can harness their emotions and play their best football, despite all of the pressure they’re under, they may find themselves lifting the World Cup trophy come July.
Argentina enter this World Cup hoping to win for the first time since 1986, and at the very least advance past the quarter-finals for the first time since they came in second at the 1990 World Cup. Considering their draw, Argentina should easily win Group F, and have a good chance to make a deep run in the tournament, with their toughest possible opponent being Belgium in the quarter-final round.
Lionel Messi may not be in peak form compared to his super-human play over the last four years, but he is still the best player in the world, and he’s approaching his prime. With the tournament taking place in neighboring Brazil, the 2014 World Cup offers Messi a prime opportunity to finally produce the same magic for country as he has in his illustrious club career at FC Barcelona. Messi should have all the help he needs with fellow world-class forwards Sergio Agüero and Gonzalo Higuaín. In the attacking midfield, Ángel di María looks to build off an excellent club season for Real Madrid which ended with him winning Man of the Match in the Champions League final. Even with just a few in-form attackers, Argentina needs only a solid defensive performance to guarantee a deep run into the latter stages of the tournament.