The World Cup starts today and the way in which the tournament has been drawn out, it would be a huge surprise if the hosts, along with the three other most fancied sides (Spain, Germany and Argentina) didn’t make it into the last four and faced each other in their own “mini-tournament”. Having studied all the permutations, the most likely outcome is that each of the aforementioned teams top their respective groups and win all of their last 16 and quarter-finals. However, whilst the semi-final line-up might have a familiar and predictable look to it, there are still good opportunities for one or two “surprise packages” to exceed their own expectations. Also, as with any World Cup, there will be one or two shock early exits.
Not many people would have predicted that Uruguay would reach the last four in South Africa four years ago or Ghana reaching the quarter-finals and being one penalty kick away from appearing in the semi-finals instead of the South Americans. Few would have foreseen France and Italy failing to get out of their respective groups without either winning a game or even New Zealand (one of the lowest sides in the tournament in the Fifa World Rankings) being the only team to remain undefeated.
So who could upset the apple cart this time? Admittedly, whilst never seeing them play before, Bosnia-Herzegovina could be a “surprise package”. They have some very good players in the squad including goalkeeper Asmir Begovic of Stoke and Manchester City striker Edin Dzeko but the pick of the bunch would have to be AS Roma playmaker Miralem Pjanic. They may be in Argentina’s group, but their other opponents are Nigeria and Iran. Whether or not Bosnia-Herzegovina make it through the group in second place looks as if it will boil down to their game against Nigeria. Having watched the Super Eagles in previous tournaments and in the Confederations Cup last summer, they aren’t that great and a Bosnia side which scored 30 goals in qualifying (an average of 3 a game) might have too much for them despite lacking World Cup experience.
Should they get through, their most likely opponents would be France who have underperformed in recent tournaments. 2010 was a disaster and they’ve been fairly poor in almost every major tournament since winning Euro 2000 except for the 2006 World Cup. Therefore, I also believe Bosnia would have a great chance of beating France and advancing into a seemingly unlikely quarter-final spot. However, if France were to slip up in their group and finish second (probably to Switzerland) then the last 16 tie would be even more “winnable” for Bosnia and it would also give Switzerland an opportunity to reach the last eight as well. Switzerland have caused one or two shocks at previous World Cups; they defeated the eventual champions Spain in the opening game in South Africa and they held none other than the French to a goalless draw and topped the group ahead of them in 2006. It could well happen again.
One team that has emerged in recent years that many people expect to do well is Belgium but there is just something telling me that they will disappoint and ultimately fail to deliver. Undoubtedly, this Belgian squad is probably the best they’ve ever had, with many highly-rated Premier League players amongst their ranks. They should progress as group winners along with Russia but even so, their second round opponents will surely be either Germany or Portugal. If Belgium and Germany won their groups as expected, they would meet Portugal. Whilst Portugal may be a bit too dependent on Cristiano Ronaldo at times, they would be the favourites to overcome Belgium. Belgium will have a great chance of success at Euro 2016 though.
Another shock early departure from the tournament could be the Netherlands. In a group with Spain and Chile (Australia being the group’s underdogs), they may find it tough to get through. Spain are the obvious favourites to top the group but Chile are also a very handy and capable outfit. They reached the last 16 at the last World Cup and they gave England a football-ing lesson in a recent friendly at Wembley. If the Dutch aren’t at their best and aren’t fully focused, they will be heading home early. When they’re at their best, they can compete with the best but all too often their tournaments end in huge disappointment (particularly Euro 2012).
So those are just a couple of my predictions; Bosnia-Herzegovina to sneak into the quarter-finals, Switzerland to possibly finish ahead of France, Belgium to not live up to the hype by going out in the last 16 and the Netherlands to crash out at the first hurdle. At the time of writing there are just over two hours to go until the start of the opening ceremony and four hours until the big kick-off in Sao Paulo as the hosts Brazil face Croatia. Here’s to a great World Cup that will live long in the memory, hopefully a lot longer than the previous one, and I hope everyone enjoys it!
Photo: Cyril Attius (via Flickr)