Group A: Brazil, Croatia, Cameroon, Mexico
Previous encounters: 6
Brazil have met each of these opponents, a total of 5 times, always in the group stages, and with a 100% record.
2006 Brazil 1 Croatia 0; 1994 Brazil 3 Cameroon 0; 1950 Brazil 4 Mexico 0; 1954 Brazil 5 Mexico 0; 1962 Brazil 2 Mexico 0
If this looks somewhat one-sided, that's because it is. Brazil have won the most World Cup matches, and Mexico have lost the most World Cup matches. The other match was in 2002, Mexico 1 Croatia 0. Perhaps this is key to this group. The bookmakers have Croatia and Mexico quite evenly matched for second place in Group A, with Cameroon a distant fourth. Mexico will probably feel more at home in Brazil than will Croatia. Mexico have an experienced but ageing defence. Can Javier Hernandez provide the goals? Mandzukic will be Croatia's main threat and he has been prolific for Bayern Munich, but is suspended for the Brazil match. Samuel Eto'o is still the main man up front for Cameroon.
Group A prediction: Brazil to win all 3 games and Mexico to squeak through in second place. [Actual outcome; mostly right except Brazil drew with Mexico after brilliant goalkeeping from Ochoa]
Group B: Spain, Netherlands, Chile, Australia
Previous encounters: 4
2 of the previous matches came in the 2010 World Cup: the Final between Spain and the Netherlands and a group game between Spain and Chile. Spain won both, 1-0 in the final and 2-1 in the group.
Spain also beat Chile 2-0 in the group in 1950, and Chile and Australia played out a 0-0 draw in 1974.
This is, of course, a very tough group featuring both of the finalists from the last tournament. But it would be a mistake to believe there are only two team in this. Chile are good, and are relatively close to home. Expect Chile to have a major say in the outcome. The popular theory is that Spain are past their best; not surprising as they have won their last 3 major tournaments (2 Europeans and 1 World Cup). Adding Diego Costa to their attack will provide fresh impetus and their experience should be good enough to see them through, probably as group winners. There is something about the Dutch which bothers me this time around; the defence seems raw, the experienced players seem a little off colour; will coach Van Gaal have his mind fully on the job, with his appointment to be manager of Manchester United still fresh? Chile play well as a team and know how to manage the referee. I can see them getting through this group by hook or by crook. But I cannot see Australia having anything other than a very hard time. Mile Jedinak will erect the barriers in front of defence, but at 34, can Tim Cahill still conjure up the odd goal ghosting in from midfield?
Group B prediction: Spain and Chile, with a grumpy exit for the Dutch [Actual outcome: switch Spain and Netherlands around and it looks good! At least I was right about Chile getting through in second place]
Group C: Colombia, Greece, Ivory Coast, Japan
Previous encounters: 0
This group is intriguing and looks to be the most open of all the groups. There is no previous head to head World Cup form to go on. Colombia, having qualified second in the South America group are justifiably favourites, but the injury to Falcao is a major blow. Greece are one of the weaker European teams, largely wihtout star quality. Ivory Coast have had very tough draws in previous World Cups and have failed to progress beyond the group. This year seems to be their chance. It's a manageable group and their star players are still capable of rising to the occasion. Drogba is 36 which is a worry, but Yaya Toure is right at the height of his powers and I expect Wilfried Bony to make his mark in this group. Japan will surely play nice football as always, and could cause an upset, but it will be a surprise if they can progress.
Group C prediction: Ivory Coast and Colombia to go through, but nothing would surprise me in this group [Actual outcome: Colombia have been brilliant; hugely disappointed with Ivory Coast allowing the Greeks to sneak through to the knockout]
Group D: Uruguay, England, Italy, Costa Rica
Previous encounters: 5
Only 4 encounters have been truly competitive, as Italy and England have only met in the 3rd place match in 1990, Italy winning 2-1, but a dead rubber nonetheless. All 4 of the other games have involved Uruguay: two matches against England; a 4-2 QF win to Uruguay in 1954, and a 0-0 draw in the group in 1966, the only match that year which England did not win. Uruguay have also played Italy twice, a 0-0 draw in the group in 1970, and a 2-0 win for Italy in the Last 16 match at Italia 90.
This is the second of the tough groups, where 3 of the teams look to be quite evenly matched. Uruguay are top seeds based on world ranking, and will benefit from the tournament being in South America. But the question persists, 'how come, if Uruguay are so good, that they only came fifth in South American qualifying (without Brazil) and had to qualify through a play-off'? Their squad has a lot of experience and defensively they should be settled. If Suarez and Cavani are fit, Forlan will probably be on the bench. Much will depend on these three. Italy also look settled but a bit uninspired. Pirlo in midfield and Balotelli up front seem to be the main talismen, added to a routinely tough defence. The question with Italy is how well they travel; all 4 of their World Cup wins have come in Europe, and when they are bad they can be awful. England, by contrast, lack experience especially at the back. Whether this will be constraining or liberating is uncertain. Costa Rica are the unknown quantity in group D. They will be expected to make up the numbers, but remember 1990 and Costa Rica 1 Scotland 0; they could yet have their say, although probably will not make it to round 2.
Group D prediction: Uruguay and England to progress from a low-scoring tight group, but any 2 of the big 3 would not be a surprise [Actual outcome: I don’t think anyone saw Costa Rica winning the group. Uruguay clung on to get second after England and Italy blew it.]
Group E: Switzerland, France, Ecuador, Honduras
Previous encounters: 2
Switzerland v Honduras in 2010 and Switzerland v France in 2006; both were group games and both finished 0-0. There is a good chance that this could be labelled the 'group of sleep'.
Switzerland's position as group top seeds seems inflated and they have got there by being hard to beat rather than really scaring anyone. Surely France, who have come into decent form will top this group and France are due a decent World Cup performance after the aberration of 2010. Honduras would appear to be the group lightweights, which leaves Ecuador, who qualified fourth in the South American gruop ahead of Uruguay on goal difference. With a bit of life, they could get through this group at the expense of Switzerland; let's hope so, otherwise we can expect more 0-0's.
Group E prediction: France and Ecuador to go through ahead of a disappointing Switzerland. [Actual outcome: France at a canter, and the Swiss were better than I expected. Their late winner over Ecuador was the key moment in the group; had that game finished 1-1, Ecuador would be through on goal difference]
Group F: Argentina, Bosnia Herzegovina, Nigeria, Iran
Previous encounters: 3
Nigeria have appeared in 4 World Cups and in 3 of them they have been drawn in the same group as Argentina, so the feeling when 2014 was drawn would surely have been 'not again!'. The encounters have been in 2010, 2002 and 1994 and Argentina have won each by a single goal; 1-0, 1-0 and 2-1 respectively. Bosnia Herzegovina are the 2014 World Cup's only rookies, and Iran have not played either Argentina or Nigeria in their previous appearances.
Frankly, Argentina must have been laughing all the way home after this draw; a simple group and being in the opposite half of the knockout draw to Brazil, assuming they both win their groups, which they should. Given Argentina's firepower in 2014, Nigeria will be happy, you would think, to settle for a one goal defeat again. Nigeria look a bit too young and lacking in experience compared to some of the other African squads, and Iran are the rank outsiders in this group, so I will be expecting Edin Dzeko's sharpness in front of goal to get Bosnia into the Last 16.
Group F prediction: Argentina at a canter, with plenty of goals, with Bosnia securing the runners-up spot. [Actual outcome: Argentina had a 100% record depsite not getting out of second gear and Messi having to do too much. Bosnia were unlucky with the offside flag ruling out a goal in the key match against Nigeria, who benefited and ultimately qualified.]
Group G: Germany, Portugal, Ghana, USA
Some familiarity with each other in this group, although we can discount the 2006 3rd place match between Germany and Portugal, which Germany won 3-1, to leave real matches. Germany have won 3; 1-0 v Ghana in the group in 2010; 1-0 v USA in a 2002 QF; and 2-0 v USA in a 1998 group game. The USA and Portugal have met once, in 2002, with the USA prevailing in that group game 3-2. Ghana and the USA have met twice, in 2010 and 2006. On both occasions Ghana won 2-1, but it took extra time in the Last 16 match in 2010.
This is the third and final tough group. Logic says that Germany and Portugal will prevail. Both are strong with settled sides. In fact the Ghana and USA squads have many familiar names too, and maybe there is a lack of freshness about them which they might need to upset the form book.
Group G prediction: Germany and Portugal, with Ghana pushing hard in third place. [Actual outcome: Germany, of course, won the group, but well done to the USA to claim a merited second place. Portugal were bad, Ghana now in decline.]
Group H: Belgium, Russia, Algeria, South Korea
Previous encounters: 3 or maybe 6
Belgium beat Russia 3-2 in 2002, and have also met South Korea twice; a 1-1 draw in 1998 and 2-0 win in 1990. If we go back further in time then Belgium also played the USSR 3 times; a cracking 4-3 extra time win in the Last 16 in 1986, but defeats in 1982 (0-1 in the second round group) and in 1970 (1-4 in the group).
This looks to be a soft group for up-and-coming Belgium, with Russia a likely second; certainly this is the view of the bookmakers. South Korea will offer a lot of huff and puff but will probably be outmatched by the Europeans. Algeria squeaked into the Wolrd Cup ahead of Burkina Faso, which is a shame for those of us looking out for unlikely tournament rookies!
Group H prediction: Belgium to head the group ahead of Russia, this may not be the most exciting of groups. [Actual outcome: Belgium with a 100% record but looking unconvincing. Russia were poor, and Algeria stepped in the gap to grasp second place; well done!]
Knockout Phase: Last 16
A1 v B2 =>QF1 Brazil v Chile actual: Brazil v Chile
C1 v D2 =>QF1 Ivory Coast v England actual: Colombia v Uruguay
E1 v F2 =>QF2 France v Bosnia actual: France v Nigeria
G1 v H2 =>QF2 Germany v Russia actual: Germany v Algeria
A2 v B1 =>QF3 Mexico v Spain actual: Mexico v Netherlands
C2 v D1 =>QF3 Colombia v Uruguay actual: Greece v Costa Rica
E2 v F1 =>QF4 Ecuador v Argentina actual: Switzerland v Argentina
G2 v H1 =>QF4 Portugal v Belgium actual: USA v Belgium
A1 / B2 v C1 / D2 =>SF1
E1 / F2 v G1 / H2 =>SF1
A2 / B1 v C2 / D1 =>SF2
E2 / F1 v G2 / H1 =>SF2
A1 / B2 / C1 / D2 v E1 / F2 / G1 / H2
A2 / B1 / C2 / D1 v E2 / F1 / G2 / H1