Friday, December 6, 2013

Your Stupidly Early World Cup Forecast

The World Cup draw happened earlier today, and the outlook for the United States, projected to be grim, turned out to be... yeah, 'grim' would be the right word. Germany, Portugal and Ghana, the latter of which has knocked the US out of the past two World Cups. But let's figure out just what happens here. At first glance, scary. At second glance, maybe not so much.

It is at this stage that I remind you I am terrible at predicting things. And we have no idea what the roster makeups will be. But hey, why not. Everybody else will, so why not give my own take on how I think the Cup will shake out now that we have everybody slotted into a schedule.

The schedule can be found here. We'll begin with the group stage.

GROUP A (Brazil, Croatia, Mexico, Cameroon): Brazil's going to pull 9 points, so let's just get that out of the way. The real fight is for the second transfer spot, and that'll essentially come down to Mexico and Croatia, who meet in round 3 by lucky happenstance. Croatia hasn't had the greatest form lately- they only managed to beat Liechtenstein 3-2, for example- but Mexico's had their own problems. They probably draw and it becomes a goal-differential battle, and Mexico's prone to higher scorelines one way or the other than Croatia is. I put Mexico through.

GROUP B (Spain, Netherlands, Chile, Australia): This may look like a deep group, but really, Spain and the Netherlands are the class of the group. They meet in Round 1, though, and if someone walks off having lost, Chile and Australia have two rounds to upend things. (Though their game is essentially an elimination game; a Chile/Australia loser is not going to find the points they need elsewhere.) The winner of Spain/Netherlands wins the group. The loser will essentially play the winner of Chile/Australia, presuming there is one, for the second transfer spot. Netherlands, on almost impeccable form lately, wins the group, Spain overcomes home-continent advantage to knock out Chile. Australia knows they're up against it and will probably be happy just to take points off whoever they can.

GROUP C (Colombia, Greece, Cote d'Ivoire, Japan): Cote d'Ivoire has been buried by tough draws in recent Cups. No excuses this time. Japan will make a strong showing for qualification- they'll have more of a home edge than a lot of people think as there's quite a bit of Japanese/Brazilian cultural exchange. I think they'll be Brazil's rooting interest in the group. Greece is just too out of sorts to qualify out of any group they're in. Colombia drew cities more towards the south- Belo Horizonte, Brasilia, Cuiaba- and that diminishes their home-continent edge. Had they gotten the northern cities the US got, had they been assigned to trek to Manaus, they'd be a lot closer to home soil. (But then, the only seeded team assigned to Manaus is Switzerland, so they didn't have too much hope of that going in.) You could put any of the non-Greek teams in any order you want and I'd call it reasonable. I had to work out scorelines to get it sorted out and I have Colombia getting 9 points, and Cote d'Ivoire advancing by one goal over Japan.

GROUP D (Uruguay, Costa Rica, England, Italy): Well, first off, Costa Rica's completely hosed. There isn't a point in sight for them. They are goal-differential fodder for the other three. England is reportedly firing up their 1966 glory machine even given who they've been given. I don't have them even making it out of the group. In good times, they're a quarterfinal side. This is not good times. Uruguay, meanwhile, has the same basic issue Colombia has: their game against England may be in Sao Paulo, but their other two games are in Fortaleza and Natal, taking them far from the Uruguayan border, and their ideal city of Porto Alegre was only available to one seeded team as well, in this case Argentina. It shouldn't exactly stop them, but it may help cost first place in the group, which I have going to Italy.

GROUP E (Switzerland, Ecuador, France, Honduras): Ecuador's another team that might have benefited from going to Manaus, but a Brasilia/Curitiba/Rio itinerary certainly is a decent consolation prize. France was in Porto Alegre in June against Brazil, though they lost 3-0. This time they play Honduras there. Ecuador played Honduras last month in Texas; they drew 2-2. Honduras, for their money, is looking to start taking points off people. They won't take enough to advance, but the draw's friendly enough for them to hope to get something, and if it's going to happen, it'll probably be against overrated Switzerland in Manaus. Ecuador/France in the Maracana will likely be for control of the group, and Ecuador's been on that particular stage a lot more than France has. Ecuador wins the group, France in second.

GROUP F (Argentina, Bosnia/Herzegovina, Iran, Nigeria): Argentina sleepwalks to 9 points. There is nothing in this group that is even in their league. The only hope of them dropping points is them sending out a B team against Nigeria after already having qualified by bludgeoning Bosnia/Herzegovina and Iran. Even then, if Nigeria threatens to get a result, the A team will get subbed in. And with the game in Porto Alegre, enough Argentinian fans will have come over the border for them not to want to go easy on whoever it is on the other side of the pitch. As for the second spot, Bosnia/Nigeria is the fight for runner-up; their game is in Cuiaba. Nigeria is also on pretty good terms with Brazil, and I see them as Brazil's preferred rooting interest. It should push them over the top against Bosnia.

GROUP G (Germany, Portugal, Ghana, United States): Well, no sleepwalking here. The US is going to come out guns blazing against Ghana, knowing the history, and with half a year to prep for it, I don't think Ghana wins this time. Meanwhile, Germany, the clear class of the group, will be challenged at every turn, but ultimately they'll have a minimum of 7 points by the end of it. Portugal's trek to Manaus is from Salvador, an even longer trek than the US's flight from Natal, but American athletes are more used to long travel days than Portuguese athletes, potentially triggering Portugal's traditional choke job as well as the fact that everybody knows Cristiano Ronaldo's getting the ball all game and if you stop him, you essentially stop Portugal, a fact the US can exploit. (The most major piece of silverware Portugal has is this, the SkyDome Cup in 1995.) The Germans may be more inclined to rest their key players upon having already qualified, especially given easy Group H draws in the Round of 16, and if they drop points, it'll be there, as the US will have no such inclinations and in fact will likely be scrambling to win the second spot over Portugal, who will have just had a second long bit of travel of their own to Brasilia to play a Ghana team that by now is playing for pride. I think the US claims second in the group, with Portugal once again wondering WTF just happened.

GROUP H (Belgium, Algeria, Russia, South Korea): Belgium gets Belo Horizonte, Rio, Sao Paulo. Probably the kindest travel schedule possible and one you'd think Brazil would have reserved for themselves instead of the Sao Paulo/Fortaleza/Brasilia schedule they actually gave themselves. Algeria's got some historical demons they've yet to exorcise, but ever since the 1982 incident they've been pretty listless at the Cup and I don't see it changing here. South Korea and Russia played on neutral ground last month in Dubai; Russia won 2-1. It really could go either way when they meet again in Round 1 in Cuiaba; I have South Korea turning the tables and claiming second in the group.

Brazil/Spain, Belo Horizonte: This could be a final, but someone goes out here and will be pissed at having done so. Spain will be that pissed nation. The Spain match will end with probably nobody happy, actually: Brazil will be under immense pressure to advance despite the fact that the reigning champs are sitting across from them, with pressure added because of the next match down. I have it going down to a penalty shootout, and the Brazilian team will not be happy to have barely escaped.
Colombia/Uruguay, Rio: This'll be a rough one, probably an ugly one. The home fans will take Colombia here, because for God's sake, it's Uruguay... in the World Cup... at the Maracana. And even though Brazil's fans are concentrating on Belo Horizonte the same day, this is where the expectations start to weigh on them, as this bit of history starts to worm into the home heads. Uruguay, meanwhile, will be fired up for any Maracana game they get, for the same reasons (and they don't have one in their group).
Ecuador/Nigeria, Brasilia: The Brazil/Nigeria lovefest ends right here, and though it's another close one, Ecuador advances.
Germany/South Korea, Porto Alegre: Germany. Next.
Netherlands/Mexico, Fortaleza: Netherlands. Next.
Italy/Cote d'Ivoire, Recife: Italy. Next.
Argentina/France, Sao Paulo: Argentina. Next. Boy, this is easy!
Belgium/United States, Salvador: Okay, this one actually requires some thinking. Belgium is scary in the first place, they've had an easy group, they've had a plum travel arrangement, while the US comes in happy to have survived this long. It's a possible trap game for the Americans, but then, the US isn't going to walk through hell only to let themselves go out to a place they've made waffle and Jean-Claude Van Damme jokes about for years. They'd never hear the end of it. It's going to be another penalty shootout, with the US's superior goalkeeping seeing them through.

Brazil/Uruguay, Fortaleza: And this? This is Brazil's Ghana. This is where the pressure becomes so large on the Brazilians as to cripple them and take their home-field advantage away. 1950 is going to loom large, and every single player on the Brazilian team knows what became of the 1950 squad. They last met in the Confederations Cup, and Brazil won 2-1 in Belo Horizonte, but this is a whole different animal than that. Brazil will not be Brazil. Brazil is going to come out playing to not lose. Which is different than playing to win, which Uruguay will be doing. Brazil goes out, and then goes into hiding, and economic protests start to mar the remainder of the Cup if they haven't already. What else is there to cheer about, after all?
Ecuador/Germany, Rio: Maybe in the group stage, Ecuador stands a shot. In the quarters, Germany all the way.
Netherlands/Italy, Salvador: Tough one to call. Probably one of the best games of the Cup here. I'll take the Netherlands, who I think has more left in the gas tank than Italy does.
Argentina/United States, Brasilia: Well, no shame for the Americans in going out to Lionel Messi. No Houdini tricks this time.

Uruguay/Germany, Belo Horizonte: Uruguay is now playing with house money. They've already won. Germany, not having already won, comes out with more of an edge.
Netherlands/Argentina, Sao Paulo: This would be their fifth World Cup meeting: Netherlands won in 1974, Argentina won the 1978 final, Netherlands won in 1998, they drew in 2006. 1978 happens to be the only one of the four to occur in South America. Argentina advances.

Uruguay/Netherlands, Brasilia: Seriously, who gives a damn. Netherlands if we have to pick one.

Germany/Argentina, Rio: The shock having begun to wore off and transforming to anger, the part of Brazil not having turned their attention to the economy lines up behind Germany to at least avoid Argentina walking off with the trophy. But then, Argentina's brought their folks over too, and they're going to be a whole lot louder. And at the end of the day, even though Germany is 4-1-1 against Argentina at the World Cup, home-continent advantage is just too strong to overcome. Once again, Argentina's only win came in the venue closest to their 2014 venue- it was the 1986 final in Mexico, the only one of the set in the Americas. In South America, all-time, Argentina has 2 wins, 1 draw, 1 loss. Make it 3. Argentina 3, Germany 2.

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