Stoppage Time: Instant World Cup analysis

The Sports NetworkDecember 6, 2013 

(SportsNetwork.com) - The 32 nations that qualified for the 2014 World Cup learned their fate on Friday. And as is the case with every draw, some teams will be greatly buoyed by their place in the tournament, while others must collect themselves and prepare for a difficult road ahead.

The following is a list of the draw's biggest winners and losers, as well as a quick glance at how each group will play out.

WINNERS:

ARGENTINA: Manager Alejandro Sabella could not have asked for a better draw as his side was placed into Group F along with Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iran and Nigeria. None of the other three sides in Argentina's group is ranked in the top 20 by FIFA, which should spell a clear path to the knockout round. After topping its group in qualifying and possessing a potent offensive punch with players like Lionel Messi and Sergio Aguero, Argentina can certainly be considered among the favorites to reach the final. Even beyond the group stage, Argentina's first game in the knockout round will likely come against the second-place team from Group E, which is arguably the weakest group in the entire tournament.

FRANCE: After narrowly missing out on a spot in pot 1 as a seeded team, the draw could have gotten downright ugly for Les Bleus. But Didier Deschamps and his team have to be absolutely thrilled to find themselves in Group E alongside Ecuador, Honduras and Switzerland, which is the most vulnerable of the seeded teams. After losing 2-0 to Ukraine in the first leg of its two- legged playoff, France needed a 3-0 second-leg victory just to reach Brazil. But now that the draw has done France a big favor, the team will have the opportunity to put a nervy qualifying campaign behind them and focus on reaching the knockout round.

BELGIUM: One of the dark-horse picks at next summer's tournament, Belgium is a side to watch in Brazil with an exciting young squad of talented attack players. The team coasted to the top of its qualifying group en route to landing a spot as a seeded team. And everything bounced the right way on Friday as Belgium will face Algeria, Russia and South Korea in Group H. Manager Marc Wilmots will like his team's chances of winning the group, which contains three sides ranked outside of the top 20, while a potential matchup against Portugal, Ghana or the United States in the knockout round provides an opportunity for Belgium to reach the quarterfinals for the first time since 1986.

LOSERS:

UNITED STATES: Despite being ranked 14th in the world, the Americans find themselves in a brutally tough group with a pair of top-five sides in Germany and Portugal as well as Ghana, the team which has eliminated the U.S. from each of the past two World Cups. After topping the CONCACAF qualifying group manager Jurgen Klinsmann would surely have hoped for a better result. Instead, he will face his former team, Germany, one of the world's best players, Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo and a Ghana side which appears to have his team's number. Making matters worse, the U.S. will have to travel more than any other team in the group stage. Just to illustrate how unfortunate the Yanks were, Mexico finished fourth in CONCACAF and needed to beat New Zealand in a playoff. But El Tri has a much more manageable task in Group A with Brazil, Croatia and Cameroon.

NETHERLANDS: After reaching the final of the 2010 World Cup, the Dutch underachieved at Euro 2012 and the team finds itself in one of the worst possible positions in Group B along with Spain, Chile and Australia. The Netherlands could certainly have made a case for being seeded instead of Switzerland, but the Dutch will now open its tournament in a rematch of the 2010 final against Spain, while also facing a tough Chile side on its home continent.

ENGLAND: The Three Lions had to figure a tough draw was possible after missing out on a seeded spot, which they had in 2010. England didn't secure the top place in its qualifying group until the final day, and now manager Roy Hodgson and his team face a tough task in advancing from Group D, which includes Uruguay, Italy and Costa Rica. The opening match against the Italians will be key before a difficult assignment against Uruguay. Costa Rica is a team England should beat, but whether or not Hodgson's men have enough points to make it matter at that stage is the question. England has reached the knockout round in each of the past four World Cups, but it will take a big effort for the team to extend that streak to five.

GROUP A: Brazil, Croatia, Mexico, Cameroon

The hosts will be heavy favorites to top this group after a dominating run to the Confederations Cup title this past summer. Neymar leads the way for an exciting Brazil team that will undoubtedly relish playing in front of a passionate fanbase. Manager Luiz Felipe Scolari helped lead Brazil to the 2002 World Cup title, and he will be expected to lead Brazil on another deep run. Anything less than an appearance in the final at the historic Maracana in Rio de Janeiro on July 13 will be a disappointment. The other three sides will each feel that they have a decent shot at finishing second. Mexico overcame a difficult spell in qualifying to reach the tournament and seems to be rounding into form a bit under manager Miguel Herrera, while Croatia defeated Iceland in a playoff to return to the World Cup after failing to qualify in 2010. Cameroon is a hard-working side that won't make life easy, but it's fair question whether there is enough overall quality in the team.

Group Winner: Brazil Second Place: Mexico

Group B: Spain, Netherlands, Chile, Australia

After winning the last two European championships as well as the 2010 World Cup, Spain has to be considered among the favorites once again. But the Spanish got one of the toughest draws in the entire tournament with the Netherlands, Chile and Australia. If you look hard enough, there are signs that Spain is slipping just a bit, but this is still the best side in the group and a team that figures to make another deep run. The Netherlands and Chile should battle it out for second place and the fact that they square off on the final day of the group stage only adds to the intrigue. The Dutch took a big step back at Euro 2012 after reaching the final of the World Cup in 2010, and key players like Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben are not exactly known for their durability. The Netherlands still has enough talent to be a threat, but Chile is playing in South America and the duo of Alexis Sanchez and Arturo Vidal will be a handful for any team. Australia is the unlucky side that rounds out this group, and it will be a surprise if the Socceroos leave with even a point.

Group Winner: Spain Second Place: Chile

Group C: Colombia, Greece, Ivory Coast, Japan

This is one of the more even groups in the tournament with Colombia wearing the label of favorite. Radamel Falcao leads the way for Colombia, which put together an impressive qualifying campaign by finishing only two points back of Argentina. But Jose Pekerman's group lacks experience on a big stage at the international level and must prove it can handle the pressure of lofty expectations. There isn't a lot to choose between the other three teams with each possessing a different strength. Greece is a stubborn team that always manages to find its way into major competitions and generally isn't an easy out, while the Ivory Coast is taking part in its third straight World Cup and has Yaya Toure as the engine that makes the team run in midfield. Japan is taking part in its fifth straight World Cup and will be attempting to reach the knockout round for the second successive time.

Group Winner: Colombia Second Place: Ivory Coast

Group D: Uruguay, Costa Rica, England, Italy

After reaching the semifinals of the 2010 World Cup, Uruguay will be eager to build on that finish with another strong performance on its home continent. Possessing forwards Luis Suarez, Edinson Cavani and Diego Forlan, scoring shouldn't be an issue for Uruguay, which struggled a bit in qualifying but still managed to reach the World Cup with a comfortable playoff win over Jordan. The opening match between England and Italy will go a long way toward determining which team joins Uruguay in the knockout round. The two sides are certainly familiar with one another, and Italy will be hoping to erase a dismal performance at the 2010 competition that saw the Italians finish on the bottom of its group. A case can be made that England has underachieved at recent tournaments as well, and much of the team's success will hinge on which team shows up. Costa Rica figures to be outsiders in this group and points will be tough to come by for the Central American side.

Group Winner: Uruguay Second Place: Italy

Group E: Switzerland, Ecuador, France, Honduras

France will be thrilled with this draw after barely surviving a two-legged playoff against Ukraine just to reach the tournament. But a 3-0 second-leg win over the Ukrainians gives Les Bleus a bit of momentum. Switzerland is easily the weakest of the seeded teams and won't have an easy time reaching the knockout round. A strong defense is the backbone of the Swiss side, which must hope for enough scoring to reach the last 16. Ecuador is the wild card in this group after finishing fourth in South American qualifying. At times Ecuador looked like a team capable of reaching the knockout round with wins over Uruguay, Chile and Colombia as well as a draw with Argentina. But the team also lost 4-0 to Argentina, while defeats to Peru and Paraguay don't look good. Honduras isn't likely to finish in the top two, but expect the team to spoil someone's chances with a surprising result.

Group Winner: France Second Place: Ecuador

Group F: Argentina, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iran, Nigeria

Argentina couldn't have asked for a better draw and should have little trouble topping this group. Lionel Messi and co. should use these three games as a nice warm-up before getting down to the serious business of the knockout round. Argentina won the World Cup in 1978 as the host nation, while also lifting the trophy in 1986 in Mexico, which could bode well next summer with the tournament returning to South America. The other three teams will battle it out for second place with Bosnia-Herzegovina likely to emerge. Manchester City striker Eden Dzeko leads the way for Bosnia, while Nigeria should be the biggest threat after a fairly comfortable qualifying campaign. Iran is appearing at the World Cup for the fourth time but will have a tough time advancing to the next round.

Group Winner: Argentina Second Place: Bosnia-Herzegovina

Group G: Germany, Portugal, Ghana, United States

Germany is one of the favorites to win the tournament, and despite a tough draw in Group G, the Germans will be expected to top the group. Joachim Low's team is loaded all over the field and has plenty of depth as well. The Germans are a side with few weaknesses, and after reaching the final of Euro 2008 as well as the semifinals of the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012, this team is hungry for a breakthrough. A case can be made for any of the other three sides in this group, but Cristiano's Ronaldo's presence in the Portugal team gives them a slight edge. Portugal can become a little too reliant on its star winger at times, but he should get just enough support to see the side into the next round. Ghana and the United States have tangled in each of the last two World Cups, with the Black Stars coming out on top in both games. But Jurgen Klinsmann's team will be eager to reverse that trend in the opening game, and with a good result, could threaten to finish second. Ghana has advanced to the knockout round in each of the past two World Cups, but this represents their biggest test yet.

Group Winner: Germany Second Place: Portugal

Group H: Belgium, Algeria, Russia, South Korea

After missing out on the past two World Cups, Belgium returns to the big stage with big expectations. A host of talented young attackers including Romelu Lukaku, Christian Benteke and Eden Hazard makes Belgium dangerous, while captain Vincent Kompany brings experience to the back line. Former player Marc Wilmots will attempt to guide Belgium into the knockout round for the first time in 2002, and based on the draw, he should do so with ease. Russia figures to be the biggest threat to Belgium, while South Korea could also make things interesting. Algeria finished on the bottom of the group in its last World Cup with one point, and the team doesn't figure to improve upon that finish.

Group Winner: Belgium Second Place: Russia

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