The World Cup is not that far off. 2 years is still a lot of time to see changes in a number of teams but right now we can get a fairly good idea of who looks good and who looks to be in trouble. So, what are your early predictions for the tourney? It does not neccessarily have to be to pick a winner, but just teams that you feel could be very serious contenders.
I warn you, this may be long and I have time to burn;
- It may be due to no David Villa, but the Spanish are not as clinical as they were. You still have a hard time getting into and taking the game away from them, but they are not as peerless as they were two years ago. Semi-finalists in my assessment though, but only just.
- Germany, as has been since 2002, will be amongst the teams at the sharp end. Beaten finalists in 2002, 3rd place in 2006, 3rd place in 2010. I can't see them doing any worse, but they need to finish it off.
- Italy are showing some very real promise and could be a formidable team in 2014.
- The Dutch will do as they have always done and waste their talent. Maybe a change in coach will sort them out, but I don't see anything more than a token Round of 16 gesture.
- France, like Italy, are definitely a team to keep an eye on. Laurent Blanc seems to have brought some sanity and stability to the team. Should be good for the quarters and maybe more.
- England. 0-0. Exit on penalties in the Round of 16. I kid. Hodgson has the opportunity to build a creative, go forward team, but he needs to break the long history of conservative England tactics. The 4-4-2 is extinct. As is the idea of wingers lumping balls into the box all day. You have youngsters with supreme talent and potential. Let them play.
- Portugal need Ronaldo to translate his Madrid form into Portuguese form. They will live and die by Ronaldo. They will do well to make it past the quarters.
Teams to watch;
- Belgium have a new generation of talented youngsters coming through and have a very winnable qualifying group with the underperforming Serbs & Croats. If they travel well - heading to them Eastern European nations is not an easy ask for teams from Western Europe - they could find their way to Brazil and be an interesting team to watch.
- Bosnia & Herzegovina have a ''Golden Generation'' of footballers, led by Edin Dzecko. They made the playoffs for Euro 2012 and have a very open qualification group involving the stubborn Greeks and one of the surprise Euro teams from 2010, Slovakia. I believe they will win this group and make their first appearance at the World Cup.
- If you have seen what Mano Menezes' young Olympic squad has been doing lately, you'd be very concerned. They have discarded the sacrilege that was defensive Brazilian football and have started playing the beautiful game again. The fact that these youngsters have played credibly while vastly more experienced players sit in the wings makes the hosts a growing threat.
- Uruguay are without doubt thee team in South America right now, fresh of a 4th place in World Cup 2010 and a record-setting 15th South American title. Their attacking prowess is almost unequal. Forlan may not make it to 2014, but with the likes of Suarez and Cavanni, they are not short of firepower. their defense is nothing to laugh at either. The CONMEBOL qualification process is well underway and Uruguay look at ease. I don't think 2010 was a fluke and they are definitely in their second ''Golden Generation''. They may not make the semis, but they will play attractive football and only go out to a better team, of which there aren't many.
- Argentina. Like the Netherlands - but only with previous success - are the eternal wasters of talent. Much like Ronaldo fails Portugal, Messi continually comes up short for Argentina. They seem to be in better condition than they were in 2010, but I would not expect much. However, success in the backyard of their longtime foes will be very big carrot.
Teams to watch;
- Chile are a very intriguing team. Their coach is a bit loopy and their football is very unorthodox, but they currently top the qualifiers and are playing their brand of all-out end-to-end football. Could scare a ''better'' team and push into the quarters.
- Venezuela. No, they won't do anything at the tournament - should they make it - but I tip them to get there. Of the 10 CONMEBOL teams, they are the only ones yet to appear at the finals. After being winless in qualifiers from 1994-2004, they missed out on the 5th place playoff berth by 1 point for the 2010 edition. Currently, they sit in that 5th place playoff berth and as CONMEBOL get to send 6 teams to the World Cup due to Brazil being the host, they should sneak in for their first appearance.
Sadly, as much as I would love to see something from this continent, I just can't see another fairytale.
- The Ghanaians and Ivorians will likely be our only hope for any sort of push into the knockout phase. Great individual talents at club level but as has been symptomatic of African teams, when they get together as a team, they generally disappoint at international level. Ghana gave us hope in 2010, but can they push on even further? The Ivorians will be hit hard by the inevitable decline in ability and possible retirement of Drogba.
- Cameroon and Nigeria have fallen from grace in recent years and have been supplanted by the above two as Africa's juggernaughts. Cameroon even had to go to the final day of qualifying in 2010 to reach our shores and early signs are they will slog again, having already lost a game away to the Libyans in qualifying.
Teams to watch;
- I was tipping Gabon, who so very nearly pipped the Cameroonians in 2010 after heading into the final game 1 point behind, but their 3-0 loss to us was a bit of a shock. But then again, friendlies are not the be all and end all.
- Egypt. What a disappointment they've been. They dominated Africa for close on a decade but always fell off the bus when it came to the World Cup, repeatedly failing to qualify. 2010s highly charged once-off playoff loss against fierce rivals Algeria was a hammer blow. Their ''Golden Generation'' is beyond it's peak but they have been blooding a new batch of youngsters.
- Senegal could field quite possibly Africa's most potent strike force consisting of Papis Cisse and Demba Ba. After reaching the quarters in 2002, they fell into oblivion, but seem to be on the rise once again.
Team not to watch;
- South Africa. Home to the continent's richest professional league and employer of some of the world's highest paid national coaches, the once-upon-a-time emerging power of African football has been reduced to scraping the barrel for results and playing in front of 7,000 home fans. My Vuvuzela has been unused since June of 2010, such is the complete lack of passion this team instills in its supporters.
Really only two teams of interest here, who will be joined by one or possibly two token teams from the region. Both Mexico and the US have talent and are almost always marked as teams to watch, but they always disappoint. Both should reach the Round of 16, but I won't expect anything more.
South Korea, Japan and Australia should all show up and should all exit relatively early. the Japanese and Koreans tend to create a buzz with their attractive football while the Aussies generally make up the numbers and play rather uninspired football.
Teams to watch;
- Qatar. After - somehow - winning the right to host the World Cup in 2018, they seem to really be throwing their weight behind qualification for 2014. They will also be under quite a bit of pressure to justify their right to host by qualifying for a World Cup on their own.
- Iran were very bitter that Australia were accepted into the AFC as they believed Australian presence would eliminate an Arab nation from qualifying. They were right, but after the decline of former Arab powerhouse Saudi Arabia, regional pride now rests on them.
With the defection of Austrlia to the AFC, it has left New Zealand, New Zealand and New Zealand as the ones to watch. If either one wins their regional group they will then get to take on the 4th placed team from the CONCACAF zone. Although they went undefeated in 2010, if New Zealand do make it, I won't expect much.