AJC World Cup preview: Groups A-D

Group A


FIFA world ranking: 4

How they qualified: As host country, Brazil received an automatic invitation.

Best finish: Champions in 1958, '62, '70, '94 and 2002.

About the team: Known as the originators of "The Beautiful Game," Brazil is the heavy favorite to win. If they do so, it may not be with the same flair of its past. Brazil features a stout defense led by Thiago Silva of Paris-Saint Germain and a strong midfield powered by Willian of Chelsea, among others.

Player you may know: Neymar. He is another in a long line of prolific forwards to wear the canary yellow jersey.


FIFA world ranking: 50

How they qualified: Advanced by defeating Tunisia in a two-game playoff.

Best finish: Quarterfinals in 1990.

About the team: Defense has usually been the team's issue in the World Cup but that may no longer be a problem. This team features several strong defenders like Nicolas N'Koulou (Marseille) and midfielders like Alex Song (Barcelona), but lack a consistent striker.

Player you may know: Samuel Eto'o. At one point, he was considered one of the world's best strikers. He's now lost a step and doesn't consistently play for Chelsea, but he can still pull off magic.


FIFA world ranking: 20

How they qualified: Advanced by defeating Iceland in a two-game playoff.

Best finish: Semifinals in 1998.

About the team: Their red-and-white checkerboard jerseys are the coolest of the tournament. They can also play, but it also wouldn't be a surprise if they fail to advance out of the first round, something they couldn't do in 2002 and '06.

Player you may know: Luka Modric. After struggling in his first year at Real Madrid, he found his footing and confidence and is now one of that team's best players because of his pinpoint passing in the midfield.


FIFA world ranking: 19

How they qualified: A win by the U.S. over Panama in the final game pulled Mexico into a playoff against New Zealand. They easily dispatched the Kiwis 9-3 in a two-game aggregate to qualify.

Best finish: Quarterfinals in 1970 and '86.

About the team: One of the hardest teams to predict because no one knows which team will arrive: the swashbuckling team that can tear apart opponents with intricate passing or the mentally fragile team that gives up when calls go against it. They have talent. It just depends upon if they have focus.

Player you may know: Javier Hernandez. The Manchester United forward has all the talent, but he has had trouble getting onto the field.

Player you need to know: Giovani dos Santos. The attacking midfielder has the skills to be a world-class midfielder, as evidenced at short stints at Barcelona, Tottenham, Mallorca and Villarreal. But he has yet to stick with any of those teams. Watch him and you can guess why. He tends to forget that there are 10 other guys in green on the field. But he is capable of the bits of magic that can push a team past the group stages of the World Cup.

Match to watch

Brazil vs. Mexico. A pivotal match in this group. Teams tend to play it safe in the first game, opting to try to secure at least a point, and then opening things up in the second game. But most teams aren't facing a team the caliber of either Brazil or Mexico in their second game. Because each team's last group game isn't a walkover, it will be fascinating to see if they push to get the pivotal three points here. Can Mexico deal with Brazil's physical play? Yes, they do play tough now.

Who will advance?

Brazil will win the group, taking all nine points. Mexico will take the second spot on goal-differential after trying with Croatia.

Group B


FIFA world ranking: 59

How they qualified: Finished second in Asia Group B.

Best finish: Round of 16 in 2006.

About the team: In most other groups, Australia could make things interesting. In this group, however, the Socceroos' chances of advancing aren't good. The team has athleticism but, like the U.S., is missing that go-to goal-scorer that will be needed.

Player you may know: Tim Cahill. The midfielder, who plays for New York in MLS, is Australia's top goal-scorer. He is capable of snatching a point with his head or feet.

Player you need to know: Mile Jedinak. He has been one of the reasons that Crystal Palace was one of the surprise teams in the Premier League this year. The midfielder is steady on the ball and smart with his passes.


FIFA world ranking: 13

How they qualified: Finished in third place in South America.

Best finish: Semifinals in 1962.

About the team: This team likes to score. Defense? Not so much. They scored 29 goals during qualifying, but holes in the defense that were exploited for 25 goals.

Player you may know: Alexis Sanchez. The Barcelona forward endured a rough start in Spain after signing from Udinese in 2011. But he is starting to heat up with 38 goals in 86 games, including 18 through 32 games this year.

Player you need to know: Arturo Vidal. The Juventus midfielder has 22 goals through 49 games this year, an amazing total in the defensively tough Serie A.


FIFA world ranking: 1

How they qualified: Finished first in their qualifying group.

Best finish: Champions in 2010.

About the team: The most accomplished team in this year's tournament. Spain is the defending World Cup champs as well the two-time defending champs of Europe (2008 and '12). It can be argued their success is based on familiarity. The majority of the starting lineup plays together for either Barcelona or Real Madrid, so they have an already-established chemistry that other teams lack.

Players you may know: The duo of Andres Iniesta and Xavi are the puppet-masters for Barcelona's midfield, as well as for Spain's. They are patient with the ball, never stop moving and can see runs into space develop before other players make their moves. The constant possession of the ball, coupled with hundreds of short passes, is known as "tiki-taka."


FIFA world ranking: 15

How they qualified: Finished first in their qualifying group.

Best finish: Runners-up in 1974, '78 and 2010.

About the team: The Netherlands, the originators in the 1970s of the concept of interchangeable players known as "Total Football," is capable of beating any team. They are extremely deep at goalie, midfield and forward, but their defense is thin.

Player you may know: Arjen Robben. The Bayern Munich winger has arguably the best left foot in the world, but perhaps not the best set of eyes. He sometimes dribbles too much and doesn't incorporate the rest of a talented team into attacks. He seems to have learned how to use his skills in a team concept.

Player you need to know: Stefan de Vrij. The Feyenoord back is considered one of the best young players in the world and figures to be at the center of a bidding war this summer.

Match to watch

Spain vs. Netherlands. What better way to start Group B than that matchup between two of the world's best teams? Netherlands was beaten by Spain 1-0 in the finals of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. It will be interesting to see if either team will go for the three points or if they will play conservatively to and grab the one point that comes with a tie.

Who will advance

Spain and Netherlands. It would be fun to see Chile, with its attacking mindset, advance but the group is mostly about defense. While Spain and Netherlands may not be as tough at the back as Italy or Germany, their possession-dominated game ensures that that a strong line of defense isn’t always needed.

Group C


FIFA world ranking: 5

How they qualified: Finished second in South America.

Best finish: Round of 16 in 1990.

About the team: One of the most balanced teams in the World Cup, Colombia is full of young talent. They are one of the dark horses to advance deep into the tournament

Player you may know: Radamel Falcao. The Monaco forward is rehabbing a torn anterior cruciate injury in his left knee, but is expected to be healthy for the tournament. He is a prolific striker who could use a good World Cup as a springboard to an even bigger club in Europe.


FIFA world ranking: 10

How they qualified: Advanced by defeating Romania in a two-game playoff.

Best finish: Never advanced past the group stage.

About the team: The Greeks are consistently a head-scratching team. They surprised the world by winning the European championships in 2004, but haven't been able to parlay that success into anything more. They have a stout defense and tireless midfield. They have forwards who have scored lots of goals, but few have come in big games.

Player you may know: Giorgos Karagounis. At 37, this will likely be the Fulham's midfielder last big tournament. He's tough and experienced.

Ivory Coast

FIFA world ranking: 21

How they qualified: Advanced by defeating Senegal in a two-game playoff.

Best finish: Never advanced past the group stage.

About the team: Ivory Coast, known as the Elephants, is extremely talented, but has yet to put that talent together in the world's biggest soccer tournament. Some of that is due to tough group draws.

Player you may know: Didier Drogba. Though 36, the Galatasaray forward is a world-class striker who is a nightmare for defenders because of his size, strength and intelligence. Chelsea must wish it had never let him go.


FIFA world ranking: 47

How they qualified: Finished first in their group.

Best finish: Round of 16 in 2010.

About the team: Japan has a disciplined team that features several creative players who can unlock defenses. Forward and goalkeeper will remain question marks, particularly against Colombia and Ivory Coast.

Player you may know: Shinji Kagawa. The creative midfielder was an up-and-coming star at Borussia Dortmund before signing with Manchester United two years ago. The move hasn't worked. Kagawa barely plays for club but it still one of the key players for country.

Match to watch

Colombia vs. Ivory Coast: The FIFA rankings don't reflect it, but the teams in this group are so even, goal-differential could be the deciding factor for which two teams advance. Therefore this game, which could feature plenty of goals, could be the key.

Who will advance

Ivory Coast and Colombia. Don’t be surprised if Japan sneaks in ahead of the Ivory Coast.

Group D

Costa Rica

FIFA world ranking: 34

How they qualified: Finished second in their group behind the U.S.

Best finish: Round of 16 in 1990.

About the team: Costa Rica is tough to beat at home but isn't as formidable on the road, which makes this team a wild card in this group. The loss of forward Alvaro Saborio (foot fracture) really hurts their chances.

Player you may know: Bryan Ruiz. The midfielder parlayed a successful stint in Holland into a move to Fulham in the Premier League. He was, at best, an average player there and has moved back to Holland where defenses aren't as tough. The defenses will be tough in this group.


FIFA world ranking: 11

How they qualified: Finished first in their group, which included Poland.

Best finish: Champions in 1966.

About the team: To be a fan of England's soccer team is like being a fan of the Braves. They constantly tease but rarely pull off a championship. The team features world-class players Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney, but continues to struggle to figure out what style it wants to play. Things may change this year because, like Spain, several potential starters played together on Liverpool and their chemistry may help England develop a style.

Player you may know: Wayne Rooney. The Manchester United forward is one of the most prolific scorers in England's history, but he's also a man without a true position. He can pop up in a variety of odd places on the field.


FIFA world ranking: 9

How they qualified: Finished first in their group, which included Denmark and Czech Republic.

Best finish: Champions in 1934, '38, '82 and 2006.

About the team: Italy, with a traditionally disciplined defense and patient style of play, is consistently built to win the World Cup. In addition to its four titles, it has twice finished as runner-up (1970 and '94). Despite the lack of success European teams have had in South America, Italy has enough depth to be a team to watch.

Player you may know: Gianluigi Buffon. The 36-year-old Juventus man is still considered one of the world's best goalkeepers. He, along with midfielder Andrea Pirlo, is the heart of La Squadra Azzurra.


FIFA world ranking: 6

How they qualified: Advanced by defeating Jordan in a two-game playoff.

Best finish: Champions in 1930 and '50.

About the team: Their country's population may be less than metro Atlanta's, but Uruguay is one of world's best teams because of the talent at striker in Luis Suarez, Edinson Cavani and Diego Forlan. But the team is more than scorers. Uruguay features a steady defense. They would like nothing more than to win the World Cup in the country where they won their second championship.

Player you may know: Suarez. The Liverpool forward made headlines for all the wrong reasons the previous years (his handball in the 2010 World Cup, racist remarks toward Manchester United defender Patrice Evra, biting Chelsea's Branislav Ivanovic, etc.). But he blossomed into one of the world's best players during the 2013-14 year when his 31 goals topped the Premier League.

Match to watch

Italy vs. Uruguay. A contrast in styles, featuring Uruguay's world-class attack trying to unlock Italy's world-class defense. Italy may be hunting for points after opening with a tough match against England. Uruguay will likely be seeking three points after opening against Costa Rica.

Who will advance

Italy and Uruguay. England struggles to score and melts in the heat, while Italy and Uruguay slide through.