Profile: World Cup Group A
12 June - 2100: Brazil v Croatia
13 June - 1700: Mexico v Cameroon
17 June - 2000: Brazil v Mexico
18 June - 2300: Cameroon v Croatia
23 June - 2100: Cameroon v Brazil
23 June - 2100: Croatia v Mexico
Brazil arrive at every World Cup as one of the tournament favourites, but this time the five-time winners will have the added pressure of being host nation, and this football-loving country expects success.
That pressure will be evident in the opening game of the tournament, as Brazil face what should be their toughest task in the group, taking on Croatia.
Victory in the opening encounter should make the rest of their Group A fixtures a formality, which will allow Phil Scolari’s side to look forward to the knock-out stages, where a very testing round of sixteen game awaits against 2010 finalists Spain or Netherlands, or against tricky South American dark horses Chile.
Brazil’s success in last summer’s Confederations Cup has propelled the hosts to become outright favourites, following their annihilation of reigning champions Spain, in the 3-0 final.
Scolari has moulded this Brazil side into a hard-working unit, more akin to a European club side than a traditional Brazil XI, and while much of the focus will be on Barcelona superstar Neymar, success primarily depends on the team effort.
So it is no surprise to see a Chelsea quartet named in the squad, and it is very likely that David Luis, Oscar, Ramires and Willian will play a vital part in Brazil’s challenge.
The quality running through Brazil’s midfield and defence is frightening, with Barcelona’s Dani Alves and Real Madrid’s Marcelo likely to be the marauding full-backs, while England-based duo Paulinho of Tottenham Hotspur and Man City’s Fernandinho are also set to play their part.
Scolari’s striking options may surprise some, with the injury-prone Fred and Everton and Man City reject Jo picked, with competition from Zenit St Petersburg’s Hulk. All three would barely be fit to lace the boots of another in-form Brazillian striker, yet Diego Costa will be decked out in Spanish colours this summer.
Despite the tricky test that awaits in the second round, Scolari’s side should thrive in their home conditions, and expect them to be knocking around at the end of this tournament.
Player to Watch - Neymar: Yet to set the world on fire at the club level, Neymar saves his best performances for his native yellow and will be key for Scolari’s side as they look to secure the trophy on home soil. Neymar is the one true individual in the Brazil side, and the hard-working nature of the other ten players will allow the Barcelona man the freedom to create. Expect Neymar to be amongst the tournament’s top-scorers, as he just cannot stop scoring for his country with 31 goals in 48 appearances – not bad for a 22-year-old.
Like Ireland, Croatia failed to get out of their group at Euro 2012, however, unlike the Irish, the Balkan side looked like a superb outfit and were unlucky to be drawn in the same group as eventual finalists Italy and Spain.
The classy European outfit will go to work in Group A, which should involve a straight shoot-out with Mexico to see who progresses to the knock-out stages with tournament favourites Brazil.
Croatia play the game the right way with pace and energy, as Real Madrid midfielder Luka Modric drives the side forward.
The central European nation have plenty of big-tournament experience and will be looking to evoke the spirit of 1998, when they announced their arrival onto the international stage, finishing third at the World Cup.
Croatia have failed to progress past the group stages since then, however, and they missed out on the South Africa event four years ago. Yet, confidence is still high ahead of the Brazil event.
It’s true that Croatia will have to battle the elements in Brazil with a trip to the Manaus jungle to face Cameroon, while Mexico should be better acclimatised to the temperatures that are expected throughout the summer.
Many household names are included in this Croatia squad, including Vedran Corluka, Dejan Lovren and stalwart Darijo Srna in defence, while NIkica Jelavic and Brazillian-born Eduardo da Silva join Bayern Munich’s Mario Mandzukic in attack.
Mandzukic is ruled out of the opening encounter with Brazil, which will prove a big loss, especially as World Cup opening games can produce the odd shock.
Nico Kranjcar misses the tournament through injury, however, there is still plenty of strength in midfield with Inter Milan’s Mateo Kovacic and Sevilla’s Ivan Rakitic set to play alongside Modric.
Croatia will not be looking beyond their group stage until qualification is secured, and they are better off with that approach as the runners-up in Group A are likely to face World and European champions Spain in the next round.
Player to Watch - Luca Modric: Modric always looked like a decent player when starring for Tottenham Hotspur but has really shown the quality he possesses as a virtual ever-present in Real Madrid’s midfield this season, picking up a Champions League winners medal en route. Modric is fantastic to watch on the ball and rarely gives possession away, while his work-rate and reading of the game are what makes him stand out in the centre of the park.
The World Cup is great for throwing up a few blasts from the past, and that is what viewers can expect when they watch Mexico’s opening encounter with Cameroon.
Former Barcelona centre-half Rafael Marquez has long since departed the Camp Nou, where he enjoyed Champions League success in 2008, but the 120-cap international is back playing in the Mexican league with Leon and will be key to Mexico’s plans to progress.
Marquez endured a last-minute injury scare after taking a knock in a warm-up friendly with Ecuador, but he should be fit for the World Cup.
Mexico beat Ecuador 3-1, but that victory came with a price as midfielder Luis Montes suffered a broken leg and has now been replaced in Miguel Herrera’s squad.
No one has more faith in this Mexico squad than Herrera as the coach is predicting, at least, a quarter-final berth.
But Mexico stumbled through the qualification process in the facile Central and North American region and had to beat New Zealand in a play-off to earn their ticket to the World Cup.
With the coach’s confidence, Mexico will rely on Manchester United’s Javier Hernandez hitting a rich vein of goal scoring form should they have any chance of qualifying, while the much-travelled Giovani Dos Santos is another who can change a game.
Keep an eye out for Mexico’s Carlos Pena, whose powerful midfield forays have cemented his place in the centre of the park, while Hector Herrara, who plays his club football at Porto, was a revelation at youth level and helped Mexico to Olympic gold at the London Games.
Villareal’s Javier Aquino is another Olympic gold medallist, and Mexico need to draw on such experiences and established players like Bayer Leverkusen’s Andres Guardado, who has played in two previous World Cups, in order to get out of the group with Brazil.
Player to Watch - Javier Hernandez: If Mexico are to have any chance of progressing, they will need goals, and they will look to Man United’s “Chicharito” to provide them. Mexico only managed seven goals in ten qualifying games, yet they will be pleased that Hernandez should be coming to the tournament with fresh legs, having spent most of the season on the bench. His lack of game time at United won’t be a problem as he has been guaranteed his place in attack, and Hernandez will be keen to repay his coach's faith.
World Cup regulars Cameroon made hard work of qualifying for Brazil and had to rely on a reversed result against Togo to get through.
In fact, Cameroon football is in dire straits at the moment both on and off the pitch, as their federation is currently a FIFA-appointed committee, while the international side were hammered 5-1 by Portugal in March.
Hopes of qualifying out of the group rest firmly on the shoulders of the in-form striker Samuel Eto’o, who will be playing at his fourth World Cup, yet the now ex-Chelsea man has had a troubled few years with his international team-mates and has even accused them of not passing the ball to him.
It all goes back to the last World Cup when Eto’o and Barcelona midfielder Alex Song had a clash of personalities, as the African side lost all three group games.
Coach Volke Finke claims that there is harmony within the squad now, but that remains to be seen and they will have their work cut out for them as they face Mexico, Croatia and tournament favourites Brazil in their tough Group A encounters.
There is plenty of experience in the Cameroon squad with former Tottenham full-back Benoit Assou-Ekotta and Stade Rennes midfielder Jean Makoun both having played at the last World Cup.
And there was a good news story this season for Stephane Mbia who was loaned out from QPR after an unhappy spell in London, and the defender ended the season with a Europa Cup winners medal with new side Sevilla.
Young Schalke 04 midfielder/defender Joel Matip is another with World Cup experience, and the 22-year-old is a player that could impress this year, which would signal a new era for Cameroon, who need a re-building period is essential ahead of the 2018 World Cup.
Player to Watch - Samuel Eto’o: Jose Mourinho’s “old man” jibe has brought the best out of Eto’o in the second half of the season, with the Cameroon striker looking as sharp and clinical as he did ten years ago. Eto’o has probably eclipsed Roger Mila as the country’s best known player and will be looking to leave his mark on this tournament as it may be his last World Cup. Let’s just hope his team-mates pass him the ball.