World Cup preview: Group A

Sports Mole starts its previews for this summer's World Cup with Group A, which includes hosts and five-time winners Brazil.

BRAZIL

How they qualified: As hosts of the prestigious tournament, Brazil automatically qualified for the 2014 competition. They have been in impressive form in recent friendlies, however, with seven wins from their eight international matches since August 2013. Their last friendly match was in March, where they beat South Africa 5-0. The Selecao also won the Confederations Cup last summer after beating European and world champions Spain in the final of the competition.

Manager - Luis Felipe Scolari: The 65-year-old is currently in his second spell in charge of Brazil having previously led his national team to the World Cup title in 2002. The well-travelled boss has also previously managed Portugal, whom he led to the final of Euro 2004 and the semi-finals of the World Cup two years later. Scolari has also managed Premier League side Chelsea, but the majority of his success at club level came between the years of 1995 and 2001 in Brazil with Gremio and Palmeiras.

Brazil coach Luis Felipe Scolari sits on the bench on June 26, 2013.© Getty Images

Previous World Cup best: Winners: 1958, 1962, 1970, 1994, 2002

Squad:

Goalkeepers: Julio Cesar (Toronto FC), Jefferson (Botafogo), Victor (Atletico Mineiro)

Defenders: Marcelo (Real Madrid), Daniel Alves (Barcelona), Maicon (AS Roma), Maxwell (Paris Saint-Germain), Thiago Silva (Paris St Germain), David Luiz (Chelsea), Dante (Bayern Munich), Henrique (Napoli)

Midfielders: Paulinho (Tottenham Hotspur), Ramires (Chelsea), Willian (Chelsea), Oscar (Chelsea), Hernanes (Inter Milan), Luiz Gustavo (Wolfsburg), Fernandinho (Manchester City)

Strikers: Bernard (Shakhtar Donetsk), Neymar (Barcelona), Fred (Fluminense), Jo (Atletico Mineiro), Hulk (Zenit St Petersburg)

Three Key Players:

Thiago Silva: Silva, 29, will skipper his national team on home soil this summer. The centre-back, who is widely regarded as one of the best defenders in world football, moved to Paris Saint-Germain from AC Milan in 2012 and has continued to pick up silverware in France. The onus will be on Brazil to attack this summer, but they will need a solid base to build from. If success is to arrive, Silva will need to be on top of his game throughout the competition.

Brazil captain Thiago Silva celebrates winning the Confederations Cup on June 30, 2013. © Getty Images

Oscar: It would be fair to say that Oscar's performances for Chelsea dipped in the final months of the season, but he remains a key player for his country. The 22-year-old has scored nine times in 29 games for Brazil and will be tasked with providing support to Neymar in forward areas. The attacking midfielder has scored 23 times for his English club since moving from Internacional in 2012 and will be expected to provide a threat from a deeper position.

Neymar: Neymar has had his problems settling in at Barcelona due to injuries and off-the-field concerns, but he will be Brazil's main man this summer. Comparisons with Pele are somewhat premature, but the 22-year-old has scored an incredible 30 goals in 47 games for his country - including a hat-trick last time out against South Africa. The hopes of the nation are firmly on the forward's shoulders this summer.


CROATIA

How they qualified: Five wins and a draw from Croatia's first six Group A matches left them level with much-fancied Belgium in their European qualification section in March 2013. However, they picked up just one point from their final four fixtures, with that run of form leaving them second – three points ahead of third-placed Serbia – and therefore relying on coming through the playoffs to make the tournament. They were drawn against Iceland, and drew 0-0 on the road before winning 2-0 in Zagreb to book their spot in Brazil.

Manager - Niko Kovac: Former Croatia captain Kovac has been head coach of the national team since October 2013 after Igor Stimac resigned from his position. Kovac had previously taken charge of the Under-21 side in January 2013, but was promoted after less than nine months in the job. As a player, the 42-year-old played in two World Cups (2002 and 2006) and retired from football in 2009. Before joining the Croatia setup, Kovac was assistant manager at Red Bull Salzburg.

Croatia coach Niko Kovac stands on the touchline on March 05, 2014.© Getty Images

Previous World Cup best: Third place: 1998

Squad:

Goalkeepers: Stipe Pletikosa (Rostov), Danijel Subasic (Monaco), Oliver Zelenika (Dinamo Zagreb)

Defenders: Darijo Srna (Shakhtar Donetsk), Dejan Lovren (Southampton), Vedran Corluka (Lokomotiv Moscow), Gordon Schildenfeld (Panathinaikos), Danijel Pranjic (Panathinaikos), Ivan Strinic (Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk), Domagoj Vida (Dynamo Kiev), Sime Vrsaljko (Genoa), Igor Bubnjic (Udinese)

Midfielders: Luka Modric (Real Madrid), Ivan Rakitic (Sevilla), Niko Kranjcar (Queens Park Rangers), Ognjen Vukojevic (Dynamo Kiev), Ivan Perisic (Wolfsburg), Mateo Kovacic (Inter Milan), Milan Badelj (Hamburg), Ivo Ilicevic (Hamburg), Marcelo Brozovic (Dinamo Zagreb), Ivan Mocinic (Rijeka), Mario Pasalic (Hajduk Split), Sammir (Getafe)

Strikers: Mario Mandzukic (Bayern Munich), Ivica Olic (Wolfsburg), Eduardo da Silva (Shakhtar Donetsk), Nikica Jelavic (Hull), Ante Rebic (Fiorentina), Duje Cop (Dinamo Zagreb)

Three Key Players:

Luka Modric: Real Madrid's 28-year-old midfielder will enter the World Cup off the back of winning a Champions League and Copa del Rey double for Los Blancos during the 2013-14 season. The former Tottenham Hotspur playmaker has thrived in Spain over the last nine months following a lacklustre start and was arguably their best player for long periods of the season. He will be the catalyst for his country this summer.

Real Madrid midfielder Luka Modric celebrates scoring for Croatia on August 16, 2006.© Getty Images

Ivan Rakitic: With 60 caps, Rakitic will be one of the more experienced members of the squad this summer. The 26-year-old will also enter the tournament having helped Sevilla to fifth place in La Liga and the Europa League title. The attacking midfielder, who scored 15 times for his club during the 2013-14 season, is currently one of the most sought-after players in European football. Alongside Modric, Rakitic will form an extremely impressive central midfield for Croatia.

Mario Mandzukic: The Bayern Munich striker was Croatia's top scorer in qualifying with four goals, but will be banned for at least his nation's first group game after seeing red in the playoff win over Iceland. In total, the 28-year-old has scored 13 times for his country and finished joint-leading scorer in Euro 2012. The forward will also enter the tournament having scored 26 times for Bayern during the 2013-14 campaign and will be keen to impress with Robert Lewandowski soon to be moving to the Allianz Arena.


MEXICO

How they qualified: A disappointing CONCACAF qualification campaign saw Mexico finish in fourth position with just 11 points from their 10 matches. Defeat to Costa Rica in their final group match last October left them needing USA to beat Panama in the final round of fixtures. That was indeed the case as the group winners scored twice in stoppage time to hand Mexico, who won just two group matches, a place in the playoffs. Miguel Herrera's side were then drawn against New Zealand and booked their spot in Brazil with an aggregate score of 9-3.

Manager - Miguel Herrera: Incredibly, Herrera became Mexico's fourth coach in six weeks when he was appointed in October 2013 ahead of the clash with New Zealand. The 46-year-old, who has also managed the likes of Monterrey and America, represented Mexico 14 times as a player between 1993 and 1994. His contract will expire after the World Cup, however, and therefore his long-term future will depend on Mexico's showing this summer.

Miguel Herrera stalks the touchline as Mexico take on the USA on April 02, 2014.© Getty Images

Previous World Cup best: Quarter-finals: 1970, 1986

Squad:

Goalkeepers: Jesus Corona (Cruz Azul), Alfredo Talavera (Toluca), Guillermo Ochoa (AC Ajaccio)

Defenders: Paul Aguilar (Club America), Miguel Layun (Club America), Hector Moreno (Espanyol), Diego Reyes (Porto), Francisco Rodriguez (Club America), Rafael Marquez (Leon), Carlos Salcido (Tigres)

Midfielders: Hector Herrera (Porto), Jose Juan Vazquez (Leon), Juan Carlos Medina (Club America), Carlos Pena (Leon), Isaac Brizuela (Toluca), Luis Montes (Leon), Marco Fabian (Cruz Azul), Andres Guardado (Bayer Leverkusen)

Strikers: Oribe Peralta (Santos Laguna), Javier Hernandez (Manchester United), Raul Jimenez (Club America), Alan Pulido (Tigres), Giovani dos Santos (Villarreal)

Three Key Players:

Diego Reyes: Reyes might be just 22, but he is already regarded as one of the most talented defenders in world football. The centre-back, who can also play in midfield, moved to Porto from America in 2013, spending a period with the Portuguese side's B team before stepping into the first team. He has represented Mexico at every youth level from the Under-17s and already has 12 senior appearances to his name.

Diego Reyes celebrates a Mexico victory on August 13, 2011.© Getty Images

Javier Hernandez: It hasn't quite been the season that Hernandez would have hoped for with Manchester United, but he still managed to score nine times despite limited starts and indeed appearances. The 25-year-old's long-term club future is uncertain, but he remains a key player for his country. The striker has scored 35 times in 58 games for Mexico, including seven in his last 14. As it stands, he is the joint-third highest goalscorer for his country.

Giovani dos Santos: Surprisingly, Giovani has not scored in his last 14 appearances for Mexico, but the 25-year-old will enter the tournament off the back of a fine season with Villarreal. His 11 league goals helped the Yellow Submarine finish sixth in La Liga, while he also registered eight assists in all competitions. If Mexico are to get out of Group A then they will need to hit the goal-trail, with Giovani now arguably playing the best football of his career.


CAMEROON

How they qualified: Cameroon were drawn alongside Libya, Congo and Togo in Group I of their qualification section for the World Cup this summer. Volker Finke's side finished top of the group on 13 points having won four, drawn one and lost one of their six matches. It was far from straight-forward, however. They lost 2-0 to Togo on June 9, 2013, but FIFA awarded them a 3-0 win when Togo were charged with fielding a suspended player. As a result, Cameroon topped the group and were drawn against Tunisia in the playoffs. A goalless draw occurred in Rades, but Jean Makoun scored twice as Cameroon won the second leg 4-1 on their own patch.

Manager - Volker Finke: Finke, 66, has been in charge of Cameroon since May 2013. The experienced manager spent 16 years at Freiburg from 1991, making him the longest-serving boss in German league history. He has also acted as director of sport and interim manager at Koln and previously managed Urawa Red Diamonds.

Volker Finke sits in the dugout ahead of Cameroon's match against Tunisia on October 13, 2013.© Getty Images

Previous World Cup best: Quarter-finals: 1990

Squad:

Goalkeepers: Charles Itandje (Konyaspor), Ndy Assembe (Guingamp), Sammy Ndjock (Fetihespor), Loic Feudjou (Coton Sport)

Defenders: Allan Nyom (Granada), Dany Nounkeu (Besiktas), Cedric Djeugoue (Coton Sport), Aurelien Chedjou (Galatasaray), Nicolas Nkoulou (Marsiglia), Armel Kana-Biyik (Rennes), Henri Bedimo (Lione), Benoit Assou-Ekotto (Tottenham Hotspur), Gaetang Bong (Olympiakos)

Midfielders: Eyong Enoh (Antalyaspor), Jean Makoun (Rennes), Joel Matip (Schalke), Stephane Mbia (QPR), Landry Nguemo (Bordeaux), Alex Song (Barcelona), Cedric Loe (Osasuna), Edgar Sally (Lens)

Strikers: Samuel Eto'o (Chelsea), Eric Choupo Moting (Mainz), Benjamin Moukandjo (Nancy), Vincent Aboubakar (Lorient), Achille Webo (Fenerbahce), Mohamadou Idrissou (Kaiserslautern), Fabrice Olinga (Zulte-Waregem)

Three Key Players:

Stephane Mbia: Mbia's club career stalled after moving from Marseille to Queens Park Rangers in 2012, but the 28-year-old impressed on loan at Sevilla during the 2013-14 season. The defensive midfielder, who has made 41 appearances for his country, scored for Sevilla in the semi-finals of the Europa League last season on route to the Spanish club claiming the trophy. His performances over the last few months have reportedly attracted the attention of Liverpool.

Cameroon midfielder Stephane Mbia battles for possession against Holland on June 24, 2010.© Getty Images

Alex Song: Song has not played too much football for Barcelona this season, but the 26-year-old remains a key player for his country. The central midfielder has made 39 appearances for Cameroon since making his debut in 2005 and will, injuries permitting, play a key role for his country this summer. With a possible summer move in the offing, Song will be keen to put himself firmly in the shop window.

Samuel Eto'o: Eto'o is the captain of his country and the nation's most decorated player, but it remains to be seen how he integrates back into the Cameroon team this summer. The Chelsea forward briefly retired from international football last September after clashing with coach Finke and his teammates, but the four-time African Footballer of the Year is now back in the fold. The 33-year-old has scored 55 times in 112 games for his nation in a career that has also seen him win the likes of La Liga (three times), Serie A and the Champions League (twice).


Group A fixtures (KO UK time)

Thursday, June 12
Brazil vs. Croatia, 9pm

Friday, June 13
Mexico vs. Cameroon, 5pm

Tuesday, June 17
Brazil vs. Mexico, 8pm

Wednesday, June 18
Cameroon vs. Croatia, 11pm

Monday, June 23
Cameroon vs. Brazil, 9pm
Croatia vs. Mexico, 9pm

Sports Mole says: 1. Brazil 2. Croatia 3. Mexico 4. Cameroon

Barcelona midfielder Alex Song in action for Cameroon on March 03, 2010.
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