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Elche’s Manuel Herrera Yague blocks a shot by Barcelna’s Lionel Messi from Argentina during a Spanish La Liga soccer match at the Martinez Valero stadium in Elche, Spain, May 11. (AP)
‘Brazil have obligation to win World Cup’ Del Bosque hopes grueling season will not affect Spain

LONDON, May 12, (RTRS): With one month to go until the start of the 2014 soccer World Cup in Brazil on June 12, we take a look at how things are shaping up on the playing side for 10 of the leading nations.

Brazil
Brazil remain the hot favourites to win on home soil, having lifted the Confederations Cup last year in convincing style and won seven of their eight games since, but individually many of the players likely to feature are struggling. Coach Luiz Felipe Scolari chose a largely predictable squad last week and, for the first time in years, there was little criticism from fans who expect nothing less than a record sixth World Cup triumph. The relative calm is helped by the fact that both the manager and the fans know the starting line-up that Scolari has carefully honed over 18 months in charge and he will stick by them even though several have struggled over the last half of the season.

Goalkeeper Julio Cesar is now plying his trade in Canada, Neymar has not yet produced the scintillating form that won him a big money transfer to Barcelona, Paulinho and Oscar have struggled to get playing tine at Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea while striker Fred has suffered from a worrying amount of injuries. But the defence is solid, and players such as Neymar, Hulk, and Oscar appear more comfortable in an international shirt than a club one and are more than capable of moments of game-changing brilliance.
“We have an obligation to win the World Cup,” Scolari said.
 

Argentina
Coach Alejandro Sabella will be relieved to have seen Sergio Aguero and Pablo Zabaleta come through unscathed from Manchester City’s Premier League title clinching 2-0 victory over West Ham United at the weekend. Aguero, a member of the “Fab Four” attacking quartet on whom Sabella is pinning the country’s World Cup chances, had only just come back from a recurrent leg problem with his usually brilliant form dipping in recent weeks, though capable of still finding the net. Lionel Messi appears to have put his 2013 injury woes behind him and is getting back towards his best form personally, even if Barcelona have faltered somewhat.

Angel Di Maria has one more club commitment, playing in the Champions League final for Real Madrid and, having suffered a leg strain in midweek, was rested for Sunday’s defeat at Celta Vigo. Goalkeeper Sergio Romero publicly thanked Sabella last week for keeping faith with him despite seeing limited action as second choice at Monaco, while central defender Ezequiel Garay is in good form having helped Benfica reach the Europa League final. Centre back Federico Fernandez, along with striker Gonzalo Higuain, has been part of Napoli’s Italy Cup success and third place in Serie A but Inter Milan’s Hugo Campagnaro will hope “freshness” counts for more than regular match practice heading for Brazil.

On the home front winger Maxi Rodriguez, set to go to his third finals, came back from a month-long knee injury absence to score the fourth goal for Newell’s Old Boys in Saturday’s 4-2 home win over All Boys with a trademark low volley. In Sabella’s favour as he seeks to gel his tired troops, is Argentina’s straightforward-looking group as Nigeria, Iran and tournament debutants Bosnia look unlikely to cause them too many early problems.

Spain
Spain coach Vicente del Bosque will be hoping a gruelling season that has seen the majority of his players involved in a three-way scrap for La Liga and the latter stages of European competition will not have taken a toll on the holders. Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid, who between them will provide perhaps seven members of the final squad, meet in the Champions League final on May 24, a mere three weeks before the holders’ opening Group B match against Netherlands in the re-run of the 2010 final. Atletico are also locked into a last-day tussle with Barcelona for the La Liga title and seven Spain internationals from the Catalan club, including most of the first-choice midfield, are likely to be on the plane to Brazil.

Thankfully for Del Bosque, injuries that would rule any of them out of the finals have been avoided, although Atletico’s Brazil-born forward Diego Costa has been suffering with a number of minor muscle problems in recent weeks. It remains to be seen whether the effort required to maintain domestic and European campaigns down to the wire will leave Spain’s internationals with enough energy to perform at their best for their country. When the Iberian nation secured their debut World Cup triumph in South Africa four years ago, Barca were knocked out in the Champions League semi-finals and Real in the round of 16, while La Liga ended in mid-May. The players had longer to prepare together and were much fresher going into the tournament than they will be for the latest edition.

Belgium
Belgium remain many people’s tip to gatecrash the top table but though they have rich depths of talent at the back and in midfield the go into their first World Cup for 12 years worryingly short of firepower. Marc Wilmots, who recently signed a four-year extension as coach, is set to select Belgium’s newest recruit, uncapped teenager Adnan Januzaj, one of the bright spots of Manchester United’s poor season. Januzaj opted to play for Belgium last month after being courted by a number of countries and his attacking versatility is a timely boost for Wilmots. Christian Benteke’s ruptured Achilles tendon leaves Romelu Lukaku, who turns 21 on Tuesday, as the only obvious striker. He had an impressive season at Everton, on loan from Chelsea, and still has scope to develop, although he destroyed Croatia’s defence in a 2-0 victory in Zagreb that secured Belgium’s ticket to Brazil.

Since then a 2-0 friendly loss to Colombia in November and a 2-2 draw with Ivory Coast in March have exposed Belgium’s struggle to turn stylish possession into goals. Vincent Kompany, captain of newly-crowned English champions Manchester City, will anchor their defence in front of Thibaut Courtois, the keeper of La Liga leaders and Champions League finalists Atletico Madrid. Even if Marouane Fellaini appears to have lost his touch after moving from Everton to Manchester United, Belgium still have an embarrassment of riches in midfield, with combative Axel Witsel and Kevin De Bruyne, Belgium’s top scorer in qualifying and now at VfL Wolfsburg. backing the prodigious creative talent of Chelsea’s Eden Hazard.

Germany
Germany are rightly named among the favourites in Brazil with coach Joachim Loew possessing what is arguably the most talented group of German players in decades, but he still has work to do if they are to end their 18-year major title drought. With an attacking midfield featuring the likes of Thomas Mueller, Toni Kroos, Mario Goetze and Marco Reus, the Germans have few concerns about how to get the ball up the pitch. What is a worry for Loew, however, is his defence as he still struggles to find a consistent central partnership as well as his options for full backs. With captain Philipp Lahm moved into midfield, Loew, in charge for his second World Cup after a third-place finish in 2010, will need to find a replacement at right back with the opposite position equally troubling as Marcel Schmelzer and Marcell Jansen only just back from injury.

A recent slump in form for some other players, especially Bayern Munich’s Bastian Schweinsteiger and Kroos, as well as Ozil’s rollercoaster season at Arsenal, has caused Loew more headaches. There was some good news last week, however, with holding midfielder Sami Khedira making a comeback for Real Madrid after a six-month absence following a cruciate ligament tear as he races to be fit in time for the tournament. Loew also named a number of youngsters in his 30-man provisional squad, including Borussia Dortmund defender Erik Durm and Schalke 04 teenagers Max Meyer and Leon Goretzka, in his attempt to find the right mix of experience and youthful spark.

France
After their implosion four years ago France travel to Brazil looking a much happier camp under Didier Deschamps — despite their having fight through the playoffs to qualify. France no doubt have the talent in their squad to go a long way, if they can play as a team. Deschamps has made it clear he will not put up with any repeat of the off-field problems of the 2010 tournament and as a result is likely to omit Samir Nasri, despite his sparkling season with Manchester City, as the midfielder has a reputation for making trouble. “I think it’s a done deal. I will go on holidays and will be watching the World Cup on TV,” Nasri told Canal Plus on Sunday after helping City to the Premier League title

France will heavily rely on the speedy Franck Ribery, who will need to rediscover his touch after a painful end to the season with Bayern Munich. Striker Karim Benzema has also been enjoying one of the best seasons in his career with Real Madrid, scoring freely and creating chances for his team mates. Deschamps’ major selection issue is probably at centre back as Real Madrid’s Raphael Varane, who would be a starter, has been struggling with injuries all season.

Italy
Mario Balotelli is set to lead the Italy attack in Brazil but the maverick striker’s unpredictability has left many wondering whether he can handle the responsibility, and a fit Guiseppe Rossi would make an interesting alternative. Fiorentina striker Rossi has made an immediate impact on his return from his latest knee injury, giving Italy coach Cesare Prandelli a timely boost and adding to his wealth of attacking riches.
The 27-year-old United States-born forward was Serie A’s leading scorer with 14 goals by January, when he was sidelined with an injury to leave his World Cup chances in doubt.

Rossi had previously lost nearly two years of his career to an anterior cruciate ligament injury to the same right knee but this time it turned out to be less serious and he returned to action earlier this month.
Rossi quickly found his scoring touch as he hit the target on his Serie A return against Sassuolo, then laid on the winner for Juan Cuadrado at Livorno on Sunday.Mattia Destro, Luca Toni, Alberto Gilardino, Domenico Berardi, Alessio Cerci and Ciro Immobile, Serie A’s leading scorer with 22 this season, have all been scoring regularly, giving Prandelli plenty of options.

With most of his players based at home, the coach may also have been relieved to see Juventus settle the domestic title race with two games to spare and Italian clubs fall by the wayside in European competitions.
Juventus were the only Italian side to reach a European semi-final so there should be no repeat of Euro 2012 where Prandelli was baffled by the poor physical condition of his players.
 

Netherlands
The Dutch have been quick out of the starting blocks with their preparations after the early conclusion of the season allowed coach Louis van Gaal to begin the first of several planned training camps, albeit with home-based players only. Van Gaal’s flirtation with the Manchester United job overshadowed last week’s proceedings but it should be back to normal for Saturday’s friendly against Ecuador in Amsterdam. Captain Robin van Persie’s return to fitness after missing a large chunk of the season at Manchester United, plus Bayern Munich’s failure to reach the Champions League final means the Dutch will have a full squad from next week after Arjen Robben plays in the German Cup final against Borussia Dortmund on Saturday.

Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, who spent much of the season sidelined with a knee injury, is also expected back to try and add to his 34 goals in 60 international appearances having last played for his country in August. The major negative for the Dutch is the long-term knee injury suffered by midfield colossus Kevin Strootman in March — with back-up Stijn Schaars of PSV Eindhoven also ruled out with a knee problem. But it does mean Nigel De Jong, in the international wilderness a year ago, is likely to be back in the starting line-up for when they open their campaign against Spain in Salvador on June 13.

The Dutch, always under self-imposed pressure to emphasis their attacking ways and technical ability, have slipped down to 15th in the latest FIFA rankings. “In reality we’ve dropped down from the top to the second category,” said relentless critic Johan Cruyff in his weekly De Telegraaf newspaper column on Monday. “The question is therefore how much emphasis must be put on playing attractive football or just getting results. We were second in South Africa four years ago in similar circumstances but our football did not impress.”
 

Uruguay
Luis Suarez joins his international team mates having won both of England’s individual player awards — voted by his fellow professionals and the football writers — and finishing as the Premier League’s top scorer with 31 goals. However, the sparkling front man carries the disappointment of Liverpool’s failure to negotiate the run-in to the Premier League allowing Manchester City to snatch the title out from under their noses.
Uruguay fans will not worry about that though and will focus on his remarkable contribution to what has otherwise been a brilliant season for Liverpool and hope he can help them improve on their surprise fourth place at the 2010 World Cup.

Strike partner Edinson Cavani is also in good form having helped Paris St Germain win a second successive Ligue 1 crown but question marks remain over the many veterans making up Uruguay’s defence. Captain Diego Lugano has not been able to hold down a regular place for West Bromwich Albion although central defensive partner Diego Godin has been part of Atletico Madrid’s brilliant season. Uruguay look set to rely again on over-30s Egidio Arevao Rios and Diego Perez, plus Walter Gargano, in holding midfielder roles while midfield creativity lies with irregular Atletico performer Cristian Rodriguez and Nicolas Lodeiro.

England
England might be at their longest-ever World Cup odds but they will travel to Brazil with a trickle of returning confidence after a late-season surge in form from some bright, attacking talents that might give coach Roy Hodgson some interesting options. Although Hodgson has been deprived of the services of Theo Walcott and Andros Townsend, Raheem Sterling’s effervescent displays for Liverpool, and his combination with striker Daniel Sturridge, ensure a ready-made replacement on the wing.

Similarly Ross Barkley’s growing maturity at Everton and Jordan Henderson’s thrusting performances to drive Liverpool towards a second-place Premier League finish will give Hodgson food for thought in midfield.
The England manager, not known as a risk taker, will have to decide whether to throw these daring young talents into the fray or hedge his bets with established stalwarts such as James Milner and Frank Lampard, assuming Steven Gerrard anchors the midfield.

Having said he would not wait on injured players, the England boss also finds himself hoping Arsenal pair Jack Wilshere and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain will recover from issues that ended their domestic seasons prematurely. Wayne Rooney is almost certain to be partnered with Sturridge in attack, but probable back-ups, Danny Welbeck and Rickie Lambert, look short of international stardust.


 

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