Saturday, December 7, 2013

World Cup 2014: draw, brackets, analysis, and predictions

The final draw for the 2014 World Cup--to be held in Brazil next summer--took place yesterday. The groups are now set and are as follows:
Group A: Brazil, Croatia, Mexico, Cameroon
Group B: Spain, Netherlands, Chile, Australia
Group C: Colombia, Greece, Côte d’Ivoire, Japan
Group D: Uruguay, Costa Rica, England, Italy
Group E: Switzerland, Ecuador, France, Honduras
Group F: Argentina, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iran, Nigeria
Group G: Germany, Portugal, Ghana, USA
Group H: Belgium, Algeria, Russia, Korea Republic
Most of the immediate analysis with regard to the strengths of the various groups uses the FIFA World Rankings, averaging them for the members of each group to get comparable numbers in this regard. The averages for each group, strongest to weakest (with country rankings in parentheses):
1) 11.25, Group G: Germany(2), Portugal(5), Ghana(24), USA(14)
2) 14.25, Group D: Uruguay(6), Costa Rica(31), England(13), Italy(7)
3) 20.25, Group C: Colombia(4), Greece(12), Côte d’Ivoire(17), Japan(48)
4) 21.00, Group B: Spain(1), Netherlands(9), Chile(15), Australia(59)
5) 22.75, Group E: Switzerland(8), Ecuador(23), France(19), Honduras(41)
6) 24.25, Group A: Brazil(10), Croatia(16), Mexico(20), Cameroon(51)
7) 26.25, Group F: Argentina(3), Bosnia-Herzegovina(21), Iran(45), Nigeria(36)
8) 28.25, Group H: Belgium(12), Algeria(26), Russia(22), Korea Republic(54)
Thus, the United States finds itself in this year's "Group of Death." And our friends across the pond--the English--are in nearly as bad a situation. Meanwhile, Argentina--the number three team in the world--has the second easiest group, according to this methodology. But I'm going to tweak the numbers just a bit, by looking at group strengths with the top team in each group taken out of the calculations, then with the bottom team in each group taken out. Why? Because the top teams are all expected to go through (with the possible exception of the Swiss)and some of the bottom teams are viewed as little more than cannon fodder. So, here are my numbers:
Minus the top team in each:
1) 14.33, Group G: Germany(2), Portugal(5), Ghana(24), USA(14)
2) 17.00, Group D: Uruguay(6), Costa Rica(31), England(13), Italy(7)
3) 25.67, Group C: Colombia(4), Greece(12), Côte d’Ivoire(17), Japan(48)
4) 27.67, Group B: Spain(1), Netherlands(9), Chile(15), Australia(59)
5) 27.67, Group E: Switzerland(8), Ecuador(23), France(19), Honduras(41)
6) 29.00, Group A: Brazil(10), Croatia(16), Mexico(20), Cameroon(51)
7) 34.00, Group F: Argentina(3), Bosnia-Herzegovina(21), Iran(45), Nigeria(36)
8) 34.00, Group H: Belgium(12), Algeria(26), Russia(22), Korea Republic(54)
Minus the bottom team in each:
1) 7.00, Group G: Germany(2), Portugal(5), Ghana(24), USA(14)
2) 8.67, Group D: Uruguay(6), Costa Rica(31), England(13), Italy(7)
3) 11.00, Group C: Colombia(4), Greece(12), Côte d’Ivoire(17), Japan(48)
4) 11.00, Group B: Spain(1), Netherlands(9), Chile(15), Australia(59)
5) 15.33, Group A: Brazil(10), Croatia(16), Mexico(20), Cameroon(51)
6) 16.67, Group E: Switzerland(8), Ecuador(23), France(19), Honduras(41)
7) 20.00, Group F: Argentina(3), Bosnia-Herzegovina(21), Iran(45), Nigeria(36)
8) 20.00, Group H: Belgium(12), Algeria(26), Russia(22), Korea Republic(54)
The orders in both cases are unchanged, with the exception of groups A and E, which swapped places in the second set of averages. And these manipulations--again, based only on FIFA's rankings--suggest that the initial order of relative group strength is fair. But here's the thing: the point of the group stage is to get out of the group. What really matters is the strength of each team, relative to the rest of its group.

Look at Group B. If we allow that Spain--the defending champion and the top team in the world right now--wins the group, which teams have a real chance of finishing second, of getting on to the next stage? Chile, despite being no push over, is faced with a daunting task, for the Netherlands is always better then the group average in all three instances.

In contrast, look at Group C. If Colombia takes one spot, who takes the second? For both Greece and Côte d’Ivoire are better than the group average in the first two instances and worse in the last. To put this another way, Group C looks to be far more competitive than group B, even though both fall very close together with regard to group strength. So which are the other competitive groups under this rubric? Here is how I figure things (from most competitive to least):
Relative Competitiveness:
1) Group H: Belgium, Algeria, Russia, Korea Republic
2) Group E: Switzerland, Ecuador, France, Honduras
3) Group C: Colombia, Greece, Côte d’Ivoire, Japan
4) Group A: Brazil, Croatia, Mexico, Cameroon
5) Group B: Spain, Netherlands, Chile, Australia
6) Group D: Uruguay, Costa Rica, England, Italy
7) Group G: Germany, Portugal, Ghana, USA
8) Group F: Argentina, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iran, Nigeria
Now again, all of this is based only on the FIFA rankings, which are hardly written in stone. Still, they are a useful place to start. And what all of this suggests to me is that the road of the U.S. in Brazil is terribly difficult, not because it is in the "Group of Death," but because it's just far more likely that the two top teams in Group G--Germany and Portugal--will advance than not. England remains in a similarly difficult place.

Meanwhile, Argentina really appears to be in the catbird's seat. And actually, so does Bosnia-Herzegovina in the same group. Iran and Nigeria are deeply outclassed. The real action is in the first four groups above, C, H, E, and A. Even if Brazil and Colombia have somewhat easy roads, the second position in each of their groups is truly wide open. In groups H and E little is certain, despite the hopes of nations like Belgium and France, whose fans believed both had gotten excellent draws.

Of course, the games still have to played. And no matter what the FIFA rankings indicate, the best team on paper may not be the best team on the pitch on a given day. Plus, there is the issue of when each team meets. The United States, for instance, is scheduled to meet Ghana first, then Portugal, then Germany. If the U.S. squad could manage a win against Ghana and a tie against Portugal, it is entirely possible that--based on the other results in the group--it could face Germany in a game that matters little for the German side (because, say, it had already secured the top spot in the group) and possibly eke out a tie, thereby taking the second slot in the group.

Then of course there is the issue of player health and form. Who knows what will happen in the European leagues, the Champions League, and the Europa League in the months ahead? A past problem for the English team has been the week in and week out competitiveness of the Premier League, where the majority of its players can be found. There are also players who have been off the radar, are young and maybe just coming into their own right now, players like Belgium's Adnan Januzaj. So far, Januzaj has refused World Cup call-ups from Belgium. But that could still change. And make no mistake, the addition of this 18-year-old winger to the Belgium team would be significant, possibly very significant.

So who is getting out of the group stage? Who knows. But for what it's worth, here are my picks (first place is A1, B1, second place is A2, B2...):
A1: Brazil
A2: Mexico

B1: Netherlands
B2: Spain

C1: Côte d’Ivoire
C2: Colombia

D1: Uruguay
D2: Italy

E1: France
E2: Honduras

F1: Argentina
F2: Iran

G1: Germany
G2: U.S.A.

H1: Russia
H2: Belgium
As should be obvious, I'm not shying away from picking upsets. By way of explanation in this regard: Mexico will get their act together by the summer, the Netherlands will tie Spain in head to head and win the group on goal differential, ditto for Côte d’Ivoire, Honduras is far better than their ranking suggests (and the Swiss are far worse), Iran's defense will see them through to the knockout round, I'm a shameless homer (thus my U.S.A. pick), Russia will brutalize Belgium in their match-up.

Now how about the knockout rounds. Here's the bracket:

From PrintYourBrackets.com

So, the Round of 16 matches (left side, then right):
1. Spain defeats Brasil (sorry for that)
2. Italy defeats Côte d’Ivoire
3. France defeats Iran
4. Germany defeats Belgium
5. The Netherlands defeats Mexico
6. Uruguay defeats Colombia (helluva a match-up, though)
7. Argentina defeats Honduras (Honduras isn't that good)
8. The U.S.A defeats Russia
The quarterfinals:
1. Spain defeats Italy (Italy's failure to win their group is costly)
2. Germany defeats France (there's something you don't hear everyday)
3. The Netherlands defeat Uruguay (they know Suarez, all too well)
4. Argentina defeats the U.S.A. (so ends the dream)
The Semis:
1. Germany defeats Spain (too much to handle, striker-wise, even for Spain)
2. The Netherlands defeat Argentina (they really are primed for this World Cup)
Third-place game:
Spain defeats Argentina

Finals:
The Netherlands defeats Germany
And there you have it, for what it's worth. Bookmark me, see if I'm right.

Cheers, all.