World Cup Group A – Brazil, Croatia, Mexico, Cameroon

If ceremony is to be observed, hosts Brazil should be a given a free pass into the World Cup knockout rounds, Bradley King writes. But three other nations have ambitions of their own…

A World Cup in Brazil feels like the purest location for a football tournament – or it should, at least. But the images of long, white beaches crammed with kids performing keepie-ups have been replaced by huge social problems and infrastructure worries ahead of the competition.

As a result, there’s massive pressure on Luiz Felipe Scolari’s Brazil team. Going into a normal World Cup, anything other than returning with the trophy is deemed a failure. To fall short on home turf amidst public turmoil would be deemed catastrophic.

Triumph appeared to be unlikely little over a year ago, when substandard performances and results saw pessimism in the national team burgeon. But Scolari inspired his side to a Confederations Cup triumph, exhibiting a new attacking style of play on the way to a victory over Spain in the final. After eight straight subsequent wins, there’s a real togetherness and belief in the Brazil team – even if the country as a whole is more polarised.

Brazil celebrate victory over Panama in a pre-tournament friendly

Almost every onlooker will expect the Selecao to advance to the round of 16, but there’s still another place available for one of three other nations. Niko Kovac was thrown in at the deep end when he replaced Igor Stimac as Croatia boss for the World Cup play-offs. He pushed his new side through a relatively kind draw against Iceland but tougher challenges await in South America, where he will likely concentrate on quick transitions from defence to attack to see the Croats progress.

Croatia’s squad is undoubtedly crammed with talent; the likes of Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic would grace most teams with their cunning styles. But it’s also a collection of players who have a worrying tendency to self-implode, as illustrated by Mario Mandzukic’s needless dismissal in the play-offs which will rule him out of the opener against Brazil.

Mexico are part of the furniture at World Cups but they nearly failed to qualify this time, needing a play-off against New Zealand to seal their place after a disastrous CONCACAF campaign. Miguel Herrera’s men finished behind Costa Rica and Honduras, and just three points in front of Panama, scoring only seven goals in 10 games.

Having reached the knockout stages in every tournament since 1994, that must be the minimum aim again. But this time, it’s a more daunting challenge. Herrera’s unwillingness to tinker with his rigid philosophy, utilising wing-backs and mainly domestic players, could cost El Tri, who are very much the third horse.

But Cameroon are the rank outsiders. Once a favourite of the neutrals, Volker Finke’s side lack the impact and imagination of previous generations. It was that colourful style which saw the west Africans miss out on just one World Cup since 1990, but the emphasis is now on athleticism, with flair and ingenuity lacking on the Indomitable Lions production line. A rocky road to Brazil has highlighted the flaws.

However, Samuel Eto’o remains a talismanic, if divisive, figure. At 33, this is likely to be his final tournament and one of Africa’s greatest ever players will want to have one final impact on the global stage. A 2-2 friendly draw against Germany has raised spirits, too.

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