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GROUP A - BRAZIL, CROATIA, MEXICO, CAMEROON
Group A will be more complicated than it seems, because it’s never easy with Croatia. You can add that to that the fact that it’s an opening game for Brazil. Remember 1998: for the opening match against South Africa, France had a huge pressure and the team was quite apathetic. It’s very difficult to manage at home.
Then, with Cameroon, you never really know what to expect. They recently had some very disappointing World Cups but they always have enough quality players to produce something good. Remember in Italy in 1990: they won against Argentina in the first match, and they went very, very far in the competition. So Cameroon is not an easy team. I’d still see Brazil and Croatia qualify.
GROUP B - SPAIN, NETHERLANDS, CHILE, AUSTRALIA
There is one team which has emerged negatively after the preparation phase; Australia haven’t convinced at all, at least during the qualification games I have personally seen. Then, you have to be very careful with Chile. When they came to Europe, they really impressed against England and Germany. Chile mustn’t be neglected, especially as we don’t know what the Netherlands are really capable of.
They lost Strootman, who was a really important player for them. They will need a great Robben and a great Van Persie in order to be efficient in attack. So I’d say that Spain is, for me, still the best team in the world, at least technically. And by far. It’s not very clear yet about who will play as their striker, but they still have a lot of available players. Players like Negredo, Diego Costa are appearing. And let’s not forget that they always have the solution of using Fabregas as a forward.
I still think that Spain is the favourites for this group. For Chile, let’s not forget that the World Cup will be in South America. I would put Chile and the Netherlands on the same level. In this group, a team can be eliminated even with a lot of points.
GROUP C - COLOMBIA, GREECE, IVORY COAST, JAPAN
For me, and it’s quite odd, two teams are emerging: Japan and Ivory Coast. And now, I think that both can surprise a lot of people in this World Cup, if they find a stable defence. But we don’t know much about Colombia. I’d put Japan and Ivory Coast as my favourites.
Honestly, even if Falcao went to the World Cup, it would be a 60% Falcao. It’s impossible to have your cruciate ligament injury in December, and play a good World Cup, unless his doctors are exceptional geniuses. It’s a very bold bet, and I’m really pessimistic about it. I still hope for him that I am completely wrong and that he’ll surprise us all. But it seems almost impossible for me. With the experience I have of these injuries, it seems quite impossible.
As for Greece, Mitroglou hasn’t played at all. He has played maybe three times in the Premier League. Fulham paid a good price for him. I don’t know, maybe was he injured? He was very good in Greece, he came to England and nobody saw him.
GROUP D - URUGUAY, COSTA RICA, ENGLAND, ITALY
This group is very complicated. Australia and Costa Rica are in the same position: they are favourites to come fourth. But for the rest of the group, it’s really hard to tell. Uruguay have exceptional offensive potential and the advantage of playing in South America; Italy have an amazing history in World Cups; England have huge pressure on them.
Therefore, the first match between these two teams will still have a huge impact on the rest of the competition. The losers of this match will be in a very bad position. And it’s in Manaus, almost in Amazonia. It maybe is a small disadvantage for England but I really hope England will have the satisfaction of qualifying for the second stage, because they have a lot of very good young players.
They will have to find a balance between experience and youth. Players who have been injured for a while this year will have to be at their top level. I think of some of my players, such as Wilshere. In my heart I am optimistic for England, but they mustn’t lose their match against Italy. Italy often start poorly at the World Cup, so it might be an advantage for England. I think one of the two European teams will suffer and fail to qualify.
GROUP E - SWITZERLAND, ECUADOR, FRANCE, HONDURAS
France have a 99% chance of qualifying. If they are suicidal they won’t make it, but otherwise they would really have to be lacking in mental strength if they are to fail to qualify. And it will be very hard to explain that with the players we have: Benzema, Ribery, who are currently all shining in the biggest clubs; our midfield players are very strong, as are our defenders.
Really, I don’t see how we cannot qualify for the second stage. We will qualify for the second stage. Afterwards, it’s harder to foresee what’s going to happen for us. But I think that this time, we will see a group creating a very nice surprise. I am very optimistic, because we have had a long road; we have qualified for the World Cup thanks to a very special match against Ukraine in the play-offs. This time, we are not the favourites. But, on the other hand, if you’d ask me who the favourites of this World Cup are, I wouldn’t really know. In this World Cup, every team can have their chance, and so does France.
What are France's strengths? First, our physical impact; we have a physical advantage over the other teams. Our players are good in duels, and physically superior to the players of the other teams. Some of our players are able to make a difference alone. If we manage to create the appropriate spirit designed for the World Cup, I think we have good chances to make something great. It’s not easy to have a good team spirit, because this competition is a bit like a marathon for the national teams.
There is a good coach, yes. The mentality, they will have to show it during the World Cup. The real test is not the qualification round, because the players are only living together for three days - it’s easy. During the World Cup, they must live together for six, seven weeks. I know by experience that it’s not easy. I have a lot of players in a lot of teams, and often some of them call me during the World Cup to tell me how hard it is. It’s long, especially if some players are preparing themselves, but are not playing. Players are not used to these rhythms anymore.
Honduras are a team of 'morfales' (they are starving for results), and, by the way, some of their players are in English clubs. First, their strength is their roughness in duels, the thirst they display. They have nothing to lose. Ecuador are different, because they are used to playing against very good teams, and it will be less easy against them. I’d put Switzerland and France on the same level. We mustn’t think that we will be favourites against Switzerland. Today, they have some very good players, and Ottmar Hitzfeld. Be careful, he is a very good manager, with a lot of experience: he won against Spain in South Africa. France will have to beat both Honduras and Ecuador to be sure to qualify for the second stage.
GROUP F - ARGENTINA, BOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA, IRAN, NIGERIA
Normally Argentina should qualify thanks to their offensive potential. You’d might even say that Argentina have too many good players in attack. It’s not easy to be a manager in Argentina, because it’s hard to build a balanced team when without leaving some indisputable players off the field. They have Higuain, Messi, Aguero, and Tevez, who didn't even make the final squad. they have so many forwards; it will be very hard to keep a balanced team. It’s what happened in South Africa.
Still, Sabella’s team seems more balanced than Maradona’s. They can’t make a mess of this World Cup; Argentina just can’t. The two main rivals in South America are Brazil and Argentina. There can’t be a World Cup in Brazil and Argentina be humiliated and not have a great tournament. They will have a huge pressure on them.
But will Messi be at his best? I hope so for them. Will this team find a nice balance between defence and offense? Because they don’t have as many choices in defence. I hope so for them. Because, in order to have a great World Cup, we need a great team from Argentina.
I don’t know about second place. I think that Nigeria might qualify for the second stage. They really made a good impression on me during the African Cup of Nations. They seem to have a really good team spirit, which is not always easy for African teams. They have less star players. They have a real team, and it’s been a while since that happened for them.
GROUP G - GERMANY, PORTUGAL, GHANA, USA
Germany and Portugal might be the favourites, but be careful of Ghana! They almost reached the semi-finals in South Africa. They have a good team. Germany are the favourites, but Portugal are always a tough team to beat, as they showed during the Poland/Ukraine European Championships.
It will be extremely difficult. I’d say Germany first, then Portugal. Should we expect a surprise in the first game between Germany and Portugal? You never know, but I still think Germany are the favourites.
GROUP H - BELGIUM, ALGERIA, RUSSIA, SOUTH KOREA
My two favourites are Russia and Belgium. South Korea really surprised everyone when they reached the semi-finals in 2002, but they were at home, and the circumstances were quite extraordinarily favourable. Belgium really have a lot of exceptional players, all playing in big European clubs. If they find a balance they will be very good, and it’s not easy in Belgium: it has been hard for the Belgians to find a good harmony between them. If they find it, they can be a nice surprise.
Are they the type of team that gives everything during the first stage, but then stops in the first knock-out rounds? Yes, maybe. But they really impressed me during the preparation phase. I hope they have an interesting and positive experience. Because you want teams such as Belgium, who produce a lot of good players, to be awarded. And Russia, with Capello, will be an efficient Russia.
Will they suffer from the conditions in Brazil? Maybe. But I think that, since he has arrived, Capello has stabilised the team and he has found a real team. He took advantage of Hiddink’s job before him too. And recently, they are quite consistent in their results.
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