By Mike Collett
The convoluted draw for next year’s World Cup finals in Brazil on Friday produced a set of groups in which most of football’s big guns will fancy their chances of reaching the knockout stages.
Group D, featuring former winners England, Italy and Uruguay, along with Costa Rica, is probably the exception, while Spain and Netherlands, who met in the 2010 final, will have to be well prepared to see off Chile and Australia in Group B.
Host nation Brazil will kick off the tournament against Croatia in Sao Paulo on June 12 and the favourites should be relatively happy with a Group A also containing Mexico and Cameroon as they seek their sixth title.
“We ended up in a strong group, one that gives you goose bumps,” said Brazil captain Thiago Silva.
“A strong African side, perhaps one of the best, Mexico, who have been a tough adversary for us, and Croatia, who are a strong team physically. It’s very difficult but we’re ready.”
One former champion is sure to go out from Group D, with England against Italy in the jungle city of Manaus a mouth-watering opener for the two European sides.
“We know how good Italy are because we lost to them in the quarter-finals at the (2012) Euros,” said England boss Roy Hodgson.
“The game is going to be tough from a climate point of view for both teams. We’re both in the same boat.”
Forward Diego Forlan, who helped Uruguay to the semi-finals in 2010, said: “In comparison with what other teams got, it’s the hardest group of this World Cup.
“But you have to play the matches and at the last World Cup we were in a very complicated group but came through well.”
World and European champions Spain begin their defence with a repeat of the physical 2010 final against the Netherlands in Rio’s Maracana.
“We will have to be prepared right from the first day, focus ourselves,” said coach Vicente Del Bosque, knowing the group runners-up are likely to face Brazil in the first knockout round.
“I expect that Brazil will be first in their group so we will have to take great pains to do the same,” he added.
Germany will come face-to-face with their former striker and coach Juergen Klinsmann, now in charge of the United States, with Portugal and Ghana completing the Group G lineup.
“Of course, a special moment for me to play against Germany but we beat them in a friendly this year and once you get on the pitch they are the just the opponent,” said Klinsmann, who won the World Cup as a player in 1990.
France, who qualified via the playoffs, will be pleased with a Group E placing alongside Ecuador, Switzerland and Honduras.
“It could have been more complicated,” said coach Didier Deschamps.
“We know Switzerland well, they were seeded so obviously the toughest opponent. We don’t know Ecuador and Honduras that well and it will have an influence on our preparation.”
Bosnia, the only one of the 32 teams taking part in their first World Cup finals, will have a dream start to their World Cup adventure as they kick off against Argentina in the Maracana before facing Iran and Nigeria.
“Argentina are the group favourites and it will be a very special occasion for us to play our opening match against them at the Maracana Stadium,” said coach Safet Susic.
“We should have an even chance alongside Nigeria to clinch the runners-up spot, although no one should underestimate Iran either.”
Fancied Belgium head up Group H alongside Algeria, Russia and South Korea while Group C, containing Colombia, Greece, Ivory Coast and Japan, looks the toughest to predict.