Group at a Glance: Brazil, Croatia, Mexico and Cameroon. At first blush, host country and favorite Brazil would appear to have gotten a fairly easy path out of the group stage. In this case, the first blush is correct. Top to bottom, they’re stacked. Mexico and Croatia are not walkovers for most teams. The Croatians have a handful of players who feature prominently for big European squads, including guys like Mario Mandzukic, Nikica Jelavic, and Eduardo on the front line. The Mexicans have great chemistry and fitness, seeing as the Stadio Azteca is like three million feet above sea level, but lack size in defense and are thusly vulnerable to set pieces. Cameroon…well, Roger Milla is 61 now, so who is going to work the miracles? They have some guys who can play, like Chelsea’s Samuel Eto’o and Queens Park’s Benoit Assou-Ekotto, but let’s call it what it is. They can’t defend at the level required to deal with scorers in this group and will be overrun.
Favorites to Advance: Brazil is as close to a lock as you can get. It comes down to Mexico and Croatia for the second spot out of this group, and while I’d love to see the Mexicans and their up-tempo, pleasing-to-the-eye style move on, it will likely be the Croatians. They’ve simply got more players with experience on soccer’s biggest stages.
Player(s) to Watch: Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez. His propensity to be completely ineffective for long stretches is maddening. That said, he is one of the most talented forwards in the world, and if he goes on one of his streaks where he scores goals by the bucket load, it could fire Mexico out of the group stage. And then, of course, there’s Neymar. There aren’t enough superlatives to describe what he is capable of, and I can’t wait to see what he does on soccer’s biggest stage. If early returns at Barcelona for the 21-year-old are any indication (see: Champions League hat trick against Celtic), it could be magical. Plus, he has great hair.