Meet the dark horses of the 2014 World Cup
mid-day looks at some of the teams at Brazil 2014 who can spring an upset and their star players who can turn a match around single-handedly...
Zlatan Ibrahimovic's loss was Cristiano Ronaldo's gain when Portugal beat Sweden in the qualification play-offs. Portugal, ranked a generous third in the world rankings, are not a great team, but they do boast, on form, the world's greatest player. And if you're tempted to think one man cannot do it alone, it is worth remembering what happened in that Zlatan vs Cristiano battle back in November — a 4-2 aggregate win for Portugal with all six goals scored by the tie's two great players.
Cristiano Ronaldo Forward (Age 29)
Although his goal-every-other-game ratio for Portugal is nowhere near his astronomical return for Real Madrid, it can hardly be sniffed at and he has the most star power of any player in Brazil.
One of the more intriguing issues when the provisional squads for the World Cup were unveiled was whether or not Radamel Falcao would be named by Colombia. The Monaco striker has not played since January when he sustained cruciate ligament damage, but was nonetheless chosen by coach Jose Pekerman. In conditions that should suit them and with players like Jackson Martinez available, Colombia could make an impression without Falcao but any hopes of winning the tournament surely rest on the fitness of their star man.
Radamel Falcao Striker (Age 28)
Colombia are doing absolutely all they can to make sure Falcao is fit for the World Cup despite a serious knee injury which ended his domestic season in January. And so they should because on form, Falcao is one of the best forwards on the planet.
By rights any team with Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani available to them ought to be among the favourites for any tournament. In truth though, despite having been semi-finalists four years ago and being ranked sixth in the world by FIFA, few will be expecting Uruguay — whose last World Cup win came in 1950 — to mount a serious challenge. That's because of a woeful qualifying campaign which saw them scrape into the tournament via a play-off with Jordan. Group D opponents England and Italy will do well to not underestimate the Copa America champions.
Luis Suarez Striker (Age 27)
It would take a special player to beat Yaya Toure to player of the year honours in England, and Suarez proved to be that player with an outstanding season. Suarez's pace and skill strikes fear into defences as he piles up both goals and assists.
With attacking quality in abundance and a defence marshalled by the man many believe to be the best in the business, Belgium are probably the team most likely to put a new name on the roster of World Cup winners. The attacking talent available to them — led by the likes of Romelu Lukaku, Eden Hazard and Dries Mertens — will be the envy of many, even without the injured Christian Benteke. With Vincent Kompany at the heart of the defence in front of goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, one of Atletico Madrid's brightest stars this season, there is a reassuring solidity at the back too. Also in the mix, intriguingly, is Manchester United youngster Adnan Januzaj, who recently committed his future to the country of his birth.
Eden Hazard Midfielder (Age 23)
Leading an exciting squad of young talent is Chelsea winger Hazard, who combines explosive pace and dribbling with an eye for a pass and a handy knack of scoring important goals. He is yet to replicate his club form at international level, but his performances in the qualifying campaign suggest it is a matter of time.
Fans hoping for that elusive first win for an African nation will be looking to Ivory Coast once again. In truth, though, their moment may have passed. With star men like Didier Drogba coming to the end of their careers, this is surely the final final chance for their perennially under-performing golden generation. There is also concern over a fatigued Yaya Toure, who picked up an injury on the final day of Manchester City's successful Premier League campaign.
Yaya Toure Midfielder (Age 31)
In the four years since the 2010 World Cup where he emerged as a classy defensive midfielder, Toure has made his name as the complete midfielder, a powerhouse who can dominate matches. With 24 goals from midfield he was City's stand-out player as they won the league this season.