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With the world's greatest football tournament getting underway today as hosts Brazil face Croatia in Sao Paolo in the opening game, the Nouse Sport Team offer their 'expert' opinions on who is set to shine over the next four weeks in South America.
Tom Fennelly - Sports Editor
Winners - Italy
Now is as good a time as ever for Italy to secure their fifth World Cup win and, with the squad that they have, they're certainly capable this time round. There's the world-class Buffon between the sticks; Bonucci, Chiellini and Abate at the back; Marchisio, Pirlo (the old fiend) and De Rossi making the play in the centre of the park; whilst the infamous Mario Balotelli will be running the show in front of goal. Not only are they quality individuals, but as a team they are an attractive unit with a clear style in mind that will fluidly work its way around any defence. All of the players know the Italian way of playing from Serie A; they've surely got to a be a team that even the greatest individual superstars will struggle to break down.
Golden Boot - Mario Balotelli
As I've boldly put my neck on the line and backed Italy, I feel that I must now back their talismanic striker. Balotelli can do anything, from paying for random people's petrol and setting fireworks off out of windows, to outfoxing defenders, holding up play, and hitting a great set-piece. Strong, agile, tall, technical - Super Mario has all the best attributes of a classy goalscorer. If he remains classy in his sporting behaviour and keeps his nose clean, and with Italy likely to enjoy a good amount of games, Balotelli is certainly more likely than any to claim the Golden Boot.
England - Group Stages
As you may have gathered from the general rhetoric of this prediction so far, you may have noticed that I think Italy will do very well. This means that they'll ace through Group D with ease and England's only chance of beating them is by parking the bus and making their rare moments of possession count by hitting Italy on the break with our pacey wide-men. In the likely situation where this doesn't work, England will then have to come out and take the game to Uruguay. Their focus on attack will leave them exposed, but when they have Suarez, Forlan and Cavani pulling the strings at the top, any goal we score will be scored better and more often by them. By this point, the game against Costa Rica won't even matter.
Dark Horse - Belgium
A regular choice among pundits but it's one I feel needs reiterating. Courtois, Alderweireld, Kompany, Vertonghen, Vermaelen, Van Buyten, Fellaini, Dembele, Hazard, Mirallas, Januzaj, Lukaku. Oh, and, of course, Nacer Chadli. You probably recognise every name as a solid player. I rest my case. There's more to this team than just chocolate and TinTin.
Rising Star - Julian Draxler
Although I admit that I am a big fan of Adnan Januzaj (sticking with the Belgium praise on this one), I am an even bigger fan of Schalke and Germany's Julian Draxler. At 6ft 1in, he's a big presence in central midfield and his time at Schalke has shown that he's a superbly strong dribbler with excellent vision. Saying that, I can't even see him making an appearance in this year's campaign, especially when you're fighting for a place in the starting XI against Khedira, Schweinsteiger, Kroos, Ozil, Schurrle, Muller and Gotze. Nevertheless, my point still stands - the 20-year-old will certainly become a German legend some day.
Jamie Summers - Sports Editor
Winners - Brazil
Although Brazil are probably the 'people's choice' choice to win the World Cup, they are favourites for a reason. Being host nation is always an advantage, and that is amplified when it's a team as naturally gifted as Brazil. Luis Felipe Scolari's side have a relatively easy group which they should get through without any problems, and then anything can happen. With the likes of Dani Alves and David Luiz (with or without the Sideshow Bob-esque hair) at the back, and a breadth of attacking players from Fernandinho to Neymar, they are an astonishingly talented outfit. Add in the effect of the stifling heat, and Brazil have such an advantage that they are the team to beat. Should the hosts buckle under pressure, I'd expect another South American team to taste glory.
Golden Boot - Diego Costa
I know, I know; but hear me out. Although he limped off in the early stages of the Champions League final, it seems Diego Costa back to full fitness and ready to fire on all cylinders. Costa has been in phenomenal form recently, netting 27 times as Atletico won La Liga. If there's anything Spain have lacked in recent years, it's a prolific forward; but they are such a creative side that if he clicks with Fernando Torres, Costa can be that man.
England - Quarter Finals
It may seem as though I'm wearing rose-tinted glasses here, but I think England can do well (I did bang my head this morning). Hodgson has the Three Lions set up solidly, with one of the most youthful and energetic squads in years, which will count for a lot in the exhausting heat. The key to cracking Italy will be to stranglehold their midfield, hit them on the counter with pace down the channels and unlock their defence. Likewise, Uruguay have talent through Suarez and Cavani but have defensive weaknesses. After the group stages, likely opponents include Ivory Coast and Colombia, which are both beatable. I think for England, it'll be a case of making the quarter finals before it's 'Goodnight Vienna'.
Dark Horse - Colombia
Twelve months ago, most people would probably have picked Belgium for this category. However, my money is on Colombia. Radamel Falcao's absence through injury will be a massive loss for the South Americans, but they are in one of the easiest groups and have plenty of strength in depth to see them through. They've played with a style which saw them ranked as highly as fifth in the world recently, which doesn't happen by accident. The likes of Quintero and Rodriguez will terrorise defences and see them go far.
Rising Star - Juan Guillermo Cuadrado
I know I've already waxed lyrical about Colombia, but their rapid winger has made waves at Fiorentina recently. While he isn't particularly young, he has the ability to burst forward from midfield and cause any defence in the world problems, pumping in inch-perfect crosses to create endless goal-scoring opportunities. Jose Pekerman has made Cuadrado a key player in his side, with James Rodriguez on the left and him on the right, both working the flanks to open up play. Particularly with Falcao missing, this could be Cuadrado's time to shine.
Lewis Hill - Deputy Sports Editor
Winners - Brazil
Like a lot of people, I fancy Brazil to win the World Cup on their own soil. They have a well-balanced squad, but most importantly, they have a solid defence supporting their midfield with Thiago Silva and Dani Alves being their star defenders in my opinion. In attack they have players that can create chances and also create that little bit of magic, look no further than Neymar. If they do not win, then my next best bet would be Argentina.
Golden Boot - Lionel Messi
Admittedly, this year has not been Messi's best by his own high standards. Furthermore, Barcelona have had one of their worst seasons for the past few years and as a result of that, I reckon Messi will be raring to go. The sub-continent conditions will suit him, plus he has several good accompanying attacking players in that Argentina squad to provide him with opportunities, notably Ezequiel Lavezzi and Angel di Maria.
England - Group Stages
This year, I am not building my hopes up for England. Yes, they do have young talented players like Raheem Sterling and Ross Barkley, but realistically I do not think that they will get a huge amount of game time. England's warm up matches have not been great, a 0-0 draw against Honduras being a particular lowlight. Although probably a touch pessimistic, at the moment, I do not think England will get out of their group. Italy and Uruguay will qualify instead.
Dark Horse - Ivory Coast
Maybe this selection is influenced by the performances of Ghana at the 2010 World Cup but I would tip the Ivory Coast to be the dark horse. I think they should get out of their group, although Colombia and Japan will provide stern tests. However, with the likes of Yaya Toure, Wilfried Bony, an in form Gervinho and the talisman that is Dider Drogba, I could see this Ivory Coast side progressing to the quarter finals.
Rising Star - Mateo Kovacic
Although not the most obvious choice for a rising star, Croatia's young midfielder Mateo Kovacic is a quality player. His performances for Internazionale over the past year have been superb, he is very good going forward with the ball at his feet, he can pick a pass and he is adept at setting up golden opportunities for his teammates. He might not score many goals, but Kovacic is a lovely player and if he gets enough game time, he will shine on the international stage.
Dan Holland - Senior Correspondent
Winners - Brazil
There are plenty of logical, statistics-based reasons to back the five-time World Cup winners to triumph again, but I'm betting on Brazil because of all of the illogical, inexplicable, emotional reasons that make football worth watching. The wave of enthusiasm and sheer volume from the Brazilian public that took them to Confederations Cup victory last year will be multiplied a hundred times over this summer, and that is a weapon that no other side will - or perhaps never has - come close to matching. A comfortable group provides the perfect chance to build up a head of steam and begin to unite a divided nation around Luiz Felipe Scolari's team, captivated by the promise of eradicating the demons of 1950. If that happens, then they will be near impossible to stop.
Golden Boot - Sergio Aguero
Argentina's attacking options are simply staggering. Expect their starting XI to include the likes of Messi, Aguero, Higuain, and Di Maria - that's with Lavezzi on the bench and Carlos Tevez sat at home. The pressure will all be on Messi to deliver (the same goes for Neymar and Cristiano Ronaldo), so I'm backing Manchester City's talisman to flourish in Brazil and probably take Argentina to the final.
England - Group Stages
I'm really torn over this one, but, sadly, I'll have to say out at the group stage. There is enough talent in this England squad to reach the last eight, but I just don't see it being unleashed in the right way. The idea of a youthful, fearless, attacking England side in the mould of Liverpool or Southampton is a wonderful one, but we have seen precious little evidence of it in reality. A year or two down the line we could have a seriously good team on our hands, but the balance between Hodgson's natural cautiousness and his squad's exuberance is some way from being perfected.
Dark Horse - Chile
Had the draw been a little kinder, then I expect a lot more people would be backing Chile to reach the latter stages of the competition. As it is, they have to navigate a group that contains Spain and Holland, and hope they avoid Brazil in the round of 16. With the likes of Alexis Sanchez and Arturo Vidal in the squad I can certainly see them beating the Dutch, and if they get a bit of luck against Spain then the draw could really open up for them.
Rising star: James Rodriguez
In the absence of Radamel Falcao, Colombia will be looking to Rodriguez to propel them beyond a distinctly average-looking Group C. The midfielder helped Monaco to a Champions League spot this season, finishing top of the assists table in Ligue 1, and will be vital to Colombia's chances of replicating the form that saw them finish second in the South American
Isaac Lister - Sports Reporter
Winners - Brazil
In the unforgiving tropical climate, there can be no doubt that the home nation have a strong advantage. They have a very strong spine, with Thiago Silva and Dante probably the world's most formidable centre back partnership, Paulinho and Luiz to shore things up, runners from midfield in Ramires, Fernandinho et al, and a wealth of flair going forward in the likes of Neymar and Oscar. Where Brazil perhaps fall down is the lack of a true world class striker they can rely on to get goals, but provided they play a fluid '2-3' in midfield, they will be full of creativity and grab goals from the movement of the attacking midfielders.
Golden Boot - Fernando Torres
Wait, what? That Liverpool hero turned Chelsea villain who can't hit a cow's arse with a banjo? Actually.....yes. I know del Bosque likes a false nine and Fabregas, and yes, Diego Costa has proved his worth this season. However, I think Torres offers Spain something that neither Fabregas nor Costa do. Costa is a static and functional solution, but I can't see Spain playing that much of a prosaic game unless they get that desperate. Fabregas just is not a goalscorer, though he is the perfect choice as a false nine. If Cesc isn't getting the inside forwards in on goal, though, expect del Bosque to ask Torres to play off the last man, where he will get goals throughout the competition.
England - Quarter Finals
Italy and Uruguay aren't that good. I know we're England and we're supposed to lay down in the face of exotic opposition and take a jolly good kicking, chaps - but Italy just don't have the next generation coming through and their squad, though technically impressive, is aging and will splutter and stagger if England use their ace in the hole (pace throughout the side) to get about the Italians in the intense heat. Close down Pirlo strongly and quickly, and you stop Italy. Uruguay have plenty going forward but don't really have much of a midfield. They'll struggle to get on the ball and while Suarez and Cavani are always threatening, I'd back England to put them away. Once we're out of the group, the sky's the limit. Unfortunately, the quarters, with the world class opposition it is likely to yield, is probably the ceiling we'll hit (or the ionosphere in this particular, terrible analogy)
Dark Horse - Colombia
The hipster's team of choice, there is actually some logic that can be applied to Colombia making a serious fist of this World Cup. Pekerman has them firing and they should make swift work of a defensively sound but impotent Greece. Yes, they lack talisman Radamel Falcao due to injury, but they still pose a serious attacking threat, with the likes of James Rodriguez and Juan Fernando Quintero capable of utilising quick feet to get into key areas quickly. Greece and Japan will struggle with Colombia's speed of transition on the counter, with Jackson Martinez and Carlos Bacca hot tips to grab a few goals to see them out of the group and beyond.
Rising Star - Juan Fernando Quintero
He's good, this lad. Really good. As a 'hole player' or 'no 10', his phenomenal balance and low centre of gravity helps him maintain a certain immunity in possession while he finds passes out to the flanks or through to forwards. His strength in spite of his small stature is extremely encouraging, and as he matures, expect to see him transfer to a major European force as a false nine. It's too early to say he's the new Messi, he has a very long way to go. But the attributes, in their infancy, are all there. He'll surprise a fair few defenders in Brazil, that's for sure.