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UNITEDRANT

Rant’s mega World Cup preview

June 12, 2014 Tags: International, Opinion No comments
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On the eve of the big kick off in Brazil United Rant looks ahead to the World Cup, where 32 teams take part in 64 matches across 12 venues, from Manaus in the north, to Porto Alegre some 2,000 miles south. There’s plenty of Manchester United interest too, with 13 players and one manager set to feature over the next month…

GROUP A

BrazilBrazil
Qualified: as hosts
Manager: Luiz Felipe Scolari

Veteran Scolari is into his 23rd coaching position in a career that has twice come round to the Seleção. Scolari may have failed at Chelsea, but 20 major trophies, including the 2002 World Cup, underpin his status in the world game.

Brazil host World Cup 2014 with more than 200 million Brazilians expecting comprehensive victory in Estádio do Maracanã on 13 July. Absolutely, positively, nothing less will do. Fortunately, Scolari has fashioned, if not a classic Brazilian side in the 1970 mold, then a highly talented one. Victory over Spain in last summer’s Confederation Cup final confirms Brazil will be formidable opponents on home soil where Barcelona’s Neymar is the star turn.

United connection: United’s trio of Brazilians Anderson, Rafael da Silva and Fabio da Silva all missed out on Seleção, although Andreas Pereira is in the under 20 side. Anderson has not featured for the national team since 2008, while Fábio has not played since his debut in September 2011. Rafael, who has two full caps, featured in the London Olympics as an under-23 player, but was roundly accused of underperforming in the Wembley final. He hasn’t featured since.

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CroatiaCroatia
Qualified: through the UEFA play-offs
Manager: Niko Kovač

German-born Kovač played for Hertha Berlin, Bayer Leverkusen, Hamburger and Bayern Munich during 15 years in the Bundesliga, but chose to represent Croatia at international level. He earned more than 80 caps and appeared at the 2002 World Cup, Euro 2004, World Cup 2006, and Euro 2008. After retirement Kovač took on coaching duties with Red Bull Salzburg juniors, before taking the Croatia under-21 team in January 2013. The 42-year-old was appointed Croatia manager in October 2013 following Igor Štimac’s dismissal.

Croatia finished behind an excellent Belgian side during qualification before beating Iceland in the play-offs. It was a reprieve for the Croats who failed to qualify for the 2010 tournament in South Africa. However, three defeats in qualification highlights an unhappy two years in which Štimac’s outfit lost to Scotland, twice, and Belgium. Scotland! Twice!

Josip Šimunić and Darijo Srna add experience at the back, while Mario Mandžukić and Nikica Jelavić will be expected to score the goals in Brazil.

United connection: no Croats have ever played for United, although the country was an option for Adnan Januzaj before the youngster opted for Belgium. Sir Alex Ferguson desperately wanted to bring Luka Modrić to Old Trafford, only for the diminutive midfielder to join Real Madrid for more than £30 million in summer 2012.

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MexicoMexico
Qualified: via the international play-offs
Manager: Miguel Herrera

Club América’s Herrera is in charge after José Manuel de la Torre was fired as coach of the national team by Femexfut president Justino Compean last September. There was little surprise given El Tri’s disastrous qualification campaign.

The last time Mexico failed to qualify for the World Cup Chicharito was not even a thought, let alone a glint, in the postman’s eye. While the ‘Cachirules scandal‘ resulted in disqualification from the 1990 tournament, El Tri are perennial qualifiers. The campaign for 2014 was so nearly a disaster on a national scale though, with the Mexicans thankful that USA beat Panama on the final matchday. As it was, El Tri faced the ignominy of a play-off against New Zealand for a spot in the World Cup.

The most remarkable thing about Mexico’s struggle to reach Brazil is that there is a wealth of talent available. After all, the under-23 squad was victorious at the 2012 Olympics in London. Hernández has one in two at international level, while Giovani dos Santos, and Andres Guardado offer plenty of creativity.

United connection: Hernández is United’s one and only Mexican, but will he still be a Red after summer 2014? There has been more than a whisper from the striker’s camp in recent months that the 25-year-old is frustrated at spending much of his time on United’s bench last season. He is no longer guaranteed a starting spot with Mexico.

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CameroonCameroon
Qualified: via CAF play-offs after topping Group I
Manager: Volker Finke

German Finke is a veteran of the Bundesliga having managed Freiburg for more than 15 years before taking over at Urawa Red Diamonds and then Köln. He was named head coach of Cameroon in May 2013.

Finke’s side qualified via the revamped play-off system after rocky progress through the group stage. Defeat to Libya on matchday two threatened the Indomitable Lions‘ World Cup future, although the side eventually thrashed Tunisia 4-1 in the CAF play-off.

This is not, however, one of Cameroon’s finest sides having failed to qualify for either of the past two ACoN tournaments, while the team was knocked out of World Cup 2010 after losing all three matches at the group stage. Captain Samuel Eto’o will lead the side, while Mainz’ Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting will pose a genuine goal threat. In Alex Song there is steel in midfield, while Valencia’s Stéphane Mbia adds a touch of class.

United connection: Eric “so good they named him twice” Djemba Djemba appeared 24 times for the national team, including at the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan.

GROUP B
Spain World Cup
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SpainSpain
Qualified: top of UEFA Group I with 20 points from eight games
Manager: Vincente del Bosque

Was it the impossible job that del Bosque secured in 2008 or the best on the planet? Either way the former Real Madrid coach has built one of the finest international teams in history. Taking over from Luis Aragonés’ after the 2008 European Championship win, del Bosque secured the World Cup in 2010, and then the Euros again 2012. If his quality was in any doubt, del Bosque has also secured two La Liga titles, two Champions Leagues and countless personal honours.

This Spanish side is surely comparable with the finest of any generation, including the Brazilian of 1970 vintage, although many wonder if this summer is a tournament too far. La Roja qualified comfortably enough, coasting through eight matches without defeat and drawing only with France in Madrid and, bizarrely, with Finland in Gijon. Still, Brazil hammered Spain in last summer’s Confederation Cup final. Could Spain’s reign be coming to an end, with ageing legs and waning hunger a factor?

United connection: David de Gea and Juan Mata both made the Spanish squad, the former after Victor Valdez’ injury, although there is a good argument that United’s number one is the in-form ‘keeper in del Bosque’s squad. Gerard Piqué will also feature.

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NetherlandsNetherlands
Qualified: top of UEFA Group D with 28 points from 10 games
Manager: Louis van Gaal

The new United manager is a man with a penchant for rubbing players, the media and opponents up the wrong way, but there is little doubt his methods achieve results. The Amsterdam-born veteran has secured 19 major trophies across a career that has spanned Ajax, Barcelona – twice – and Bayern Munich. In coaches Danny Blind and Patrick Kluivert van Gaal has smartly surrounded himself with contemporary links to his squad.

van Gaal has overseen a renaissance, with the Dutch side winning each of it’s 10 qualifying matches bar a 2-2 draw with Estonia in Tallin. This is a multi-talented squad, with the right blend of youth and talent at just the wrong time. After all, Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar will score goals. Against anyone, almost anywhere. Yet, in South America history says this is a Netherlands side that cannot win a first World Cup, not least with a back-four that is inexperienced.

United connection: Robin van Persie will lead the Dutch side in what will surely be the 30-year-old’s last World Cup, possibly his final tournament of a sparkling career. The Netherland’s highest goalscorer could go out on the highest of highs.

Alexis

ChileChile
Qualified: third in CONMEBOL qualifying with 28 points from 16 games
Manager: Jorge Sampaoli

Sampaoli has built a strong reputation over a decade coaching across South America. The Argentine enjoyed no playing career of note, but secured three major trophies with Universidad de Chile before taking over the national team in December 2012.

If there was any doubt about Chile’s quality the debate should have been ended by the comprehensive nature of victory over England at Wembley last year. Chile’s football is often slick, with neat passing exchanges and a love of possession to match any. In Sampaoli the nation has a coach prepared to be tactically flexible – the smooth transition between a back three and a back five is likely to flumox more than one side at the World Cup.

In midfield Juventus’ Arturo Vidal and Fiorentina’s Matías Fernández provide silk and steel, while Barcelona forward Alexis Sánchez will surely break the national scoring record over the next two years. Sánchez enjoyed a decent season Barcelona and now has 22 goals in 66 caps for the national side.

United connection: Sir Alex Ferguson twice attempted, and failed, to secure Sánchez’ signature for the Reds. The former Udinese forward signed for Barça in July 2011 much to the Scot’s chagrin.

Tim Cahill, Australia

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AustraliaAustralia
Qualified: second in Group B, behind Japan
Manager: Ange Postecoglou

Postecoglou was born in Athens, emigrating to Australia at the age of five. He enjoyed a modest playing career, before achieving greater success managing the young Socceroos, Brisbane Roar, and latterly Melbourne Victory.

This isn’t the finest Socceroos side to grace the World Cup, although qualification through the Asian tournament was achieved with just two defeats across 14 matches. With a world ranking of 57, there is little expectation that Australia will progress to the latter stages of the tournament.

Still, there is experience in the squad, with Crystal Palace player Mile Jedinak, veteran Mark Bresciano, and New York Red Bulls star Tim Cahill all in the squad. The attack will be led by former Everton midfielder Cahill and Japan-based striker Joshua Kennedy, although talented midfielder Tom Rogic misses out through injury.

United connection: United’s only ever Australian player, Mark Bosnich, played 38 games for the Reds across two spells with the club. Bosnich was later sacked by Chelsea for taking cocaine. Postecoglou was manager of South Melbourne when United met the Australian side in the 2000 World Club cup.
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GROUP C

ColombiaColombia
Qualified: second in CONMEBOL qualifying with 30 points from 16 games
Manager: José Pékerman

Argentine Pékerman was considered a specialist youth coach after developing a highly successful Argentina under-20 side in the 1990s. Later he spent two years in charge of the full team before Argentina crashed out of the World Cup 2006 to Germany.

Los Cafeteros enjoyed an outstanding qualification campaign, losing at home only to Argentina. But, then, we have been here before, with a high-quality Colombia outfit often failing on the big stage. There may be few world stars in this Colombia side, but that should not deflect from the genuine threat Pékerman’s side will pose on South American soil. The draw will be crucial, but fifth-ranked Colombia will be disappointed if a quarter-final spot is not booked. James Rodríguez and Jackson Martínez will lead an attacking line-up, although the side will miss injured Radamel Falcao.

United connection: no Colombians have ever played for United, although there was plenty of speculation about a move for Rodríguez last summer – a rumour swiftly ended by Monaco’s deep pockets. Meanwhile, youthful Porto winger Juan Fernando Quintero has been scouted.

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GreeceGreece
Qualified: through the UEFA play-offs
Manager: Fernando Santos

Santos took over from ‘legendary’ manager Otto Rehhagel after a disappointing 2010 World Cup. The Portuguese has a long association with Greek football, having managed PAOK, AEK Athens, and Panathinaikos. He has been named Greek coach of the year four times and previously secured the Portuguese Liga with Porto in 1999.

The 2004 European Champions secured qualification following a tense play-off victory over Romania. However, this is a Greek outfit with little more talent than the 2004 side – and that squad was distinctly average. Unlike the team of a decade ago there is no chance Santos’ side will pull off a surprise in Brazil, although in Sokratis Papastathopoulos, Theofanis Gekas and Giorgos Samaras there is some talent available. The team will be led by veteran Giorgos Karagounis.

In the group stage the Greeks came second to Bosnia, although a total of 25 points from 10 games is impressive enough. In true Rehhagel fashion five of the Greeks eight victories came with a 1-0 scoreline, pointing to an essential problem: a lack of goals. The Greeks scored just 12 in 10 group matches.

United connection: no Greeks have played for the Reds, although midfielder Sortiris Ninis was the subject of much speculation in 2011. The transfer did not materialise and Ninis remains in Greece.

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Africa

Cote-dIvoireIvory Coast
Qualified: via CAF play-offs after topping Group C
Manager: Sabri Lamouchi

Former France international Sabri Lamouchi took up his first managerial post with the Ivorians in May 2012 – a surprise appointment given the coach’s inexperience. Lamouchi enjoyed a fine club career, notably with Auxere and Monaco, and then later in spells with Parma and Inter.

Les Éléphants beat Senegal in the African play-offs to seal a place at a third World Cup tournament. Victory ensured an undefeated campaign, after Lamouchi’s side came through a qualifying group that contained Morocco, Tanzania and Gambia.
World Cup 2014 surely represents the last chance for Cote Ivoire’s ‘Golden Generation’, with Kolo Touré, Didier Zokora and captain Didier Drogba all likely to retire next summer. Much will rest on the shoulders of inspirational Manchester City midfielder and cake lover Yaya Touré, while Drogba will share goalscoring duties with Salomon Kalou, Gervinho and Wilfried Bony.

The Ivorians have never made it past the group stage at the World Cup, although they enjoy a kinder draw than in previous tournaments.

United connection: Sir Alex once admitted that signing Drogba in 2012 was a serious temptation after the striker’s contract with Chelsea ended that summer. In the end Drogba moved Shanghai Shenhua where he played 11 games before joining Galatasaray.

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JapanJapan
Qualified: top of Asia Group B, ahead of Australia
Manager: Alberto Zaccheroni

Veteran Zaccheroni has enjoyed a fine management career across the club and international game. The Italian secured a Serie A title with Milan in the late 1990s, together with the AFC Asian Cup in 2011 and the EAFF East Asian Cup last season. He has also managed Lazio, Inter, and Juventus.

Japan lost three matches across 14 in the Asia tournament in qualifying comfortably. Yet, Zaccheroni’s side started slowly in securing just 10 points from a possible 18 in the first phase to fall behind Uzbekistan. However, the team grew in confidence over the two-year qualifying campaign, adjusting to the Italian’s notoriously unconventional 3-4-3 system to make best use of attacking talents Shinji Kagawa, Shinji Okazaki, Yasuhito Endo and talisman Keisuke Honda.

United connection: Kagawa will start the tournament in a loose left-sided attacking role that contains none of the defensive restrictions placed on the playmaker by former United manager Moyes. Kagawa complained that his international chances are being hampered by a less-than-regular starting spot with the Reds last season.

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GROUP D

UruguayUruguay
Qualified: via play-off – fifth in the CONMEBOL with 25 points from 16 games
Manager: Óscar Tabárez

Veteran coach Tabárez is in his second spell in charge of the national team. He led the team to fourth place in the 2010 World Cup, which was followed by victory in Copa America the following year. Tabárez has managed in Argentina, Colombia and Italy over an extensive career.

Tabárez’ outfit was forced to qualify via a one-sided international play-off against Jordan after finishing the CONMEBOL tournament in fifth place. It was quite a comedown for Los Charrúas who performed so well at the 2010 tournament in South Africa. There is plenty of talent at Tabarez’ disposal, with Liverpool’s Luis Suárez joining Edinson Cavani in a potent attacking unit. Gastón Ramírez, Nicolás Lodeiro, Cristian Rodríguez and Walter Gargano add genuine quality in midfield.

United connection: former United striker Diego Forlán will make Los Charrúas‘ squad for Brazil, although he is likely to start the tournament on the bench with Suárez and Cavani the prefered attacking duo.

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Costa-RicaCosta Rica
Qualified: second in CONCACAF qualification standings
Manager: Jorge Luis Pinto

Colombian Pinto took the Costa Rica job part way through the qualification process, but has built a strong side that could surprise some this summer. Pinto is a veteran of 18 coaching positions – the 60-year-old is in his second spell with Los Ticos.

Costa Rica qualified for World Cup 2014 with two games to spare, ending a decade long wait to return to the world stage. Victory over Mexico on the final matchday was unnecessary, but underlined the progress made over the past two years, including a 3-1 home win over the Americans last September.

Fulham’s Bryan Ruiz is a familiar name, while the experienced Álvaro Saborío has scored at both club and international level. Meanwhile, Levante’s Keylor Navas has been outstanding between the sticks in La Liga.

United connection: Pablo “Paulo” Wanchope Watson scored one of the finest ever goals ever against United at Old Trafford, beating four Reds before firing past Peter Schmeichel during Derby County’s 3–2 in 1997.

Wayne Rooney World Cup

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EnglandEngland
Qualified: top of UEFA Group H with 22 points from 10 games
Manager: Roy Hodgson

Hodgson’s has been a circuitous route to the England manager’s job, through 20 positions at home and abroad. Hodgson began his managerial career at lowly Halmstads BK in Sweden, before coaching in Switzerland, Italy, UAE, Norway, Finland and the Premier League, where moderate success came with Fulham and West Bromwich Albion. There was, to some amusement at Old Trafford, a spell of total failure in charge of Liverpool.

England qualified for the 2014 tournament – anything less would have been a national disaster of epic proportions – but this is no vintage Three Lions side. Draws home and away with Ukraine, together with those in Montenegro and Poland, briefly put England’s qualification in doubt. Two victories over Montenegro and Holland secured a spot in Brazil.

Yet, Hodgson’s side also qualified without defeat. It is the essential paradox with this English side. Good, but good enough? Hodgson has been widely praised for trusting in a more youthful squad than many expected.

United connection: United has been home to England internationals since Charlie Roberts in 1905. Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones were on the plane to Brazil. Ashley Young and Michael Carrick missed out to little surprise.

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ItalyItaly
Qualified: top of UEFA Group B with 22 points from 10 games
Manager: Cesare Prandelli

In Prandelli Italy boasts the arch pragmatist, a man who had achieved little as a club manager save for two Serie B titles with Verona and Venezia more than a decade ago, but is prepared to tear down and build again. Goalkeeper Gigi Buffon and midfielder Andrea Pirlo are the only survivors from Italy’s 2006 World Cup winning squad to make the plane for Brazil.

The Lombardian coach fashioned a Euro 2012 final appearance from a functional Italian squad underpinned by the majestic Pirlo. The 56-year-old surely cannot do it again, although third place at last summer’s Confederations Cup bodes well for the Italians’ hopes.

There is talent – both experienced and new in the squad – which is led once again by Pirlo. Goals should come from Ciro Immobile and Mario Balotelli, while Claudio Marchisio and Daniele De Rossi will add midfield steel to Pirlo’s craft. Italy will miss the injured Giuseppe Rossi.

United connection: Rossi didn’t make it at United, scoring four goals in 14 appearances before departing for Villareal in 2007. An anterior cruciate ligament injured wiped out Rossi’s 2011, but a summer move to Fiorentina has proven inspired. The New Jersey-born striker was scoring at almost a goal a game this season before a second knee injury wiped out the striker’s World Cup hopes.

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GROUP E

SwitzerlandSwitzerland
Qualified: top of UEFA Group E with 24 points from 10 games
Manager: Ottmar Hitzfeld

Switzerland is boring. The Swiss make chocolate. And clocks. And avoid making key decisions, like picking sides in a war. At least so goes the theory. Yet, Hitzfeld has proven to be an inspired and leftfield choice as national manager. The long time Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund manager, now into his sixth year as Swiss coach, has taken a nation of just eight million to four tournaments in a row.

Qualification came reasonably smoothly this time as well, even if Iceland, Slovakia, Norway, Albania and Cyprus doesn’t rank as the highest quality opposition.

Hitzfeld will look to Wolfsburg ‘keeper Diego Benaglio, together with midfielder Gokhan Inler and superbly talented youngsters Xherdan Shaqiri, Granit Xhaka and Valentin Stocker. The Swiss could cause some sides a surprise at the World Cup and qualification for the knock-out rounds is a realistic goal.

United connection: No Swiss has ever played for United, but Reds are more than familiar with manager Hitzfeld, who was in charge of Bayern Munich on the greatest of all great nights in May 1999.

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EcuadorEcuador
Qualified: fourth in CONMEBOL qualifying with 25 points from 16 games
Manager: Reinaldo Rueda

Rueda is the former coach of the Colombian under-20 side that finished third in the 2003 FIFA World Youth Championship. The Colombian national also led the under-17 side to a fourth place finished at the U-17 World Cup in the same year. He took charge of the Ecuadorians in 2010 after a four-year spell with Honduras.

Outsiders to qualify, Rueda has fashioned his squad of local and internationally based players into a fine outfit, especially at home. Captained by United’s Antonio Valencia, Ecuador finished the CONMEBOL campaign without losing in Quito, dropping points only to Argentina along the way.

There is little pressure on La Tri to reach the latter stages in Brazil, although any progress beyond the second round will improve on Ecuador’s performances in 2002 and 2006. The side will miss Christian Benitez, whose death effected the squad both on and off the pitch.

United connection: Valencia will lead Ecuador at the 2014 tournament back on the right wing after appearing in a central midfield position in previous years. The winger was deeply affected by the death of team-mate Benitez, whose number 11 shirt has now been retired.

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FranceFrance
Qualified: through the UEFA play-offs
Manager: Didier Deschamps

Deschamps has grown as a manager through spells with Monaco, Juventus and Marseille, including a 2004 Champions League final appearance. His Monaco side lost 3-0 to José Mourninho’s Porto in the final. Deschamps led Juve back to Serie A after the Calciopoli scandal, although clashes with club management meant the former Old Lady midfielder never managed the club at the highest level. Deschamps succeeded Laurent Blanc after Euro 2012.

Les Bleus, les crisis! It almost came unstuck for Deschamp’s team, with France losing 2-0 away to Ukraine in Kyiv in the opening match of the play-offs. Yet, an inspired performance at home, aided by two goals from Liverpool’s Mamadou Sahko, secured a place in Brazil. France played creditably during qualification, although this is nowhere near the best French side of the past 20 years. Just one loss during the group stage, in Saint-Denis to Spain, points to a French side that has grown since the disaster of the 2010 World Cup tournament.

It is a squad with talent to spare though – ‘keeper Hugo Lloris offers security, defender Raphaël Varane is a rare talent, while forward Karim Benzema should score goals. The French will miss star man Franck Ribéry.

United connection: Patrice Evra will go to the World Cup despite his often controversial relationship with the French public. Meanwhile, Juve star Paul Pogba could come of age at the tournament. How United missed out!

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HondurasHonduras
Qualified: third in CONCACAF qualification standings
Manager: Luis Fernando Suárez

Colombian Suárez is no stranger to the World Cup having coached Ecuador at the 2006 tournament, where his side reached the second round in a run that included victories over Poland and Costa Rica. Suárez has also managed Atlético Nacional, winning the Categoría Primera in 1999, and Deportivo Cali.

The Hondurans began the final group stage with victory over USA and suffered just two defeats in the final 10 matches. Few will fancy the Central Americans to make a real mark at the World Cup, but there is both experience and quality at Suárez’ disposal. Wilson Palacios, Emilio Izaguirre and Maynor Figueroa are familiar names, while Carlo Costly will lead the attack in Brazil.

United connection: Javier Hernández scored twice for Mexico against Honduras in a pulsating 2-2 draw between the sides at San Pedro Sula last March.

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GROUP F

ArgentinaArgentina
Qualified: top of CONMEBOL qualifying with 32 points from 16 games
Manager: Alejandro Sabella

Sabella, 59, is a former Leeds United and international midfielder who formed a long-term coaching partnership with Daniel Passarella before being appointed Argentina coach in 2011.

Sabella’s team has a chance, as any side that includes Lionel Messi does, although Argentina has flattered to deceive so often since reaching the final in 1990. Messi certainly isn’t a failure at international level, although 37 goals in 83 internationals is nowhere near his club record, but it is with the diminutive Barcelona forward that a nation’s hopes rest. Sergio Agüero, Érik Lamela, Gonzalo Higuaín, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Ángel di María will surely provide the firepower to take Argentina to the knockout stages.

United connection: there are no United players in the Argentina squad, although the Reds were close to a deal with Benfica for the defender Ezequiel Garay last summer. David Moyes’ appointment nixed a move for the former Real Madrid centre-back.

Messi

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Bosnia-and-HerzegovinaBosnia-Herzegovina
Qualified: top of UEFA Group G with 25 points from 10 games
Manager: Safet Sušić

Sušić enjoyed a fine playing career, predominantly in France with Paris Saint-Germain, while gaining more than 50 caps for Yugoslavia. He was a rare talent – a playmaker of such esteem that Sušić was once voted PSG’s finest import of all time. As a coach Sušić is yet to hit the same heights at club level, but is enjoying rare success as manager of his homeland.

This will be Bosnia’s first major tournament since gaining full independence in 1995 – a right earned over one of the tightest qualification groups in Europe. Sušić’s outfit boasts a fine record, with victory over Greece in Zenica last March proving to be the decisive result in the group.

This side is better than many at the tournament and could progress from a tight group where Sušić’s midfield diamond will offer the Bosnians some defensive security. Asmir Begović is a dependable presence in goal, while Miralem Pjanić and Zvjezdan Misimović offer creativity and goals from midfield. Manchester City’s Edin Džeko will be expected to score Bosnia’s goals.

United connection: Rumours of a United bid for Pjanić have circulated more than once in the past year, with the playmaker’s performances at Roma drawing admiring attention from many of Europe’s elite clubs.

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IranIran
Qualified: top of Asia Group A, ahead of South Korea
Manager: Carlos Queiroz

The much-travelled Queiroz took control of Iran in April 2011 after a traumatic spell with Portugal, which included a difficult qualifying campaign for World Cup 2010 and eventual defeat to Spain in the second round.

Queiroz has fashioned a robust Iranian side, which qualified comfortably ahead of the more fancied Koreans, but struggled to score goals in the second phase of the Asian tournament. Captain Javad Nekounam is the team’s creative heart, while Spanish-based Masoud Shojaei adds quality to Queiroz’ side. Iran will look to striker Karim Ansarifard to score the goals that will take the side beyond the group stages for the first time.

United connection: Queiroz had two spells at Old Trafford as Sir Alex’ assistant. Often criticised for his defensive tactical leanings, Queiroz added more than a little European know-how to United’s approach. A vital cog in the Reds’ 2008 Champions League victory.

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NigeriaNigeria
Qualified: via CAF play-offs after topping Group F
Manager: Stephen Okechukwu Keshi

Keshi has won the Africa Cup of Nations both as player and coach – one of only two men to do so. The former defender earned 64 caps for the Super Eagles before turning to coaching first with Togo, then Mali and eventually with his homeland in 2011.
Nigeria qualified undefeated after beating Ethiopia home and away in the play-offs. The 2013 ACoN champions have high hopes of progressing beyond their best ever finish at the World Cup – the second round in both 1994 and 1998. That said, there was similar confidence four years ago, when the Nigerians crashed out at the group stage.

There is plenty of quality in the squad this time, with goalkeeper and captain Vincent Enyeama underpinning a solid defence that may contain no world stars, but conceded just four goals in qualifying. Premier League stalwarts Shola Ameobi and Victor Moses will join Emmanuel Emenike in attack.

United connection: midfielder John Obi Mikel was a United player for about two weeks in April and May 2005, before a now infamous switch to Chelsea. Bizarrely the transfer netted United around £12 million in compensation.

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Kroos

GROUP G

GermanyGermany
Qualified: top of UEFA Group C with 28 points from 10 games
Manager: Joachim Low

What’s not to love about Löw? Jurgen Klinnsman’s former assistant has taken this Germany side to ever greater heights, creating a dynamic young side that will surely reach the latter stages in Brazil. Löw enjoyed a modest playing and managerial career before pitching up at Tirol Innsbruck in 2002, taking the now defunct club to the Austrian championship.

Löw took his side through a near perfect qualification campaign, where just two points were dropped in 10 matches – that a remarkable 4-4 draw with Sweden in Berlin. This is a Germany side that has grown after the European Championship in Poland and Ukraine, with young players developing and a new generation coming through to add to considerable experience.

Mario Götze, Mesut Özil, Philipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Manuel Neuer form the spine of Germany’s strongest side in two decades. The side is a challenger for the title, although Die Mannschaft will miss injured Marco Reus.

United connection: No German has ever played for United’s first team, although former youth Ron-Robert Zieler now has two full caps to his name and sat on the German bench during Euro 2012.

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PortugalPortugal
Qualified: through the UEFA play-offs
Manager: Paulo Bento

Bento has been described in some quarters as one of the best young managers in the business. Certainly, the former Benfica player made a mark in four years as Sporting’s manager, securing the Cup twice, but failing to win the league. He was a player of some note, appearing for Portugal 35 times and playing in both the 2000 Euros and World Cup 2002.

However, Portugal’s qualification tournament was very nearly a disaster. In the end Cristiano Ronaldo’s brilliance won a play-off with Sweden, but cataclysmic draws with Israel in the group stage, and defeat in Moscow almost cost Seleção a spot at the 2014 tournament. Portugal will hope to emulate the performance in Germany at World Cup 2006 when the side reached the semi-final.

United connection: Oh Cristiano, the love unrequited. Nani will also feature in Brazil, although there’s little feeling of warmth for the 27-year-old misfit.

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GhanaGhana
Qualified: via CAF play-offs after topping Group D
Manager: Akwasi Appiah

Appiah is a former international who is enjoying his first senior management position with the Black Stars, after taking charge of the under-23 side in 2011.

Ghana qualified for World Cup 2014 with some ease, topping Group D undefeated before knocking Egypt out in the play-offs 7-3 on aggregate. Appiah’s side has something to prove after finishing just fourth at this year’s ACoN tournament though, losing to Mali in the third place play-off. There’s plenty of talent on offer, with Marseille’s Ayew brothers joining captain Asamoah Gyan in attack.
Meanwhile, Sulley Muntari, Kevin-Prince Boateng and Kwadwo Asamoah add genuine quality in midfield. Ghana will hope to match the excellent performance at World Cup 2010 when the Black Stars were controversially knocked out by Uruguay.

United connection: Ferguson attempted to acquire vice-captain Michael Essien in 2005, before Chelsea outbid the Reds with a £24 million offer for the former Olympique Lyonnais midfielder.

USA
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United-StatesUnited States
Qualified: first in CONCACAF qualification standings
Manager: Jürgen Klinsmann

Klinnsman’s iconic status in the world game reached its zenith when the former Tottenham Hotspur striker won the penalty that sealed Germany’s 1990 World Cup win. As a coach, Klinnsman began the process of Germany’s revival, before taking over Bayern Munich for a single season in 2008. California-loving Klinnsman was appointed USA manger in July 2011.

The Americans qualified by topping the CONCACAF standings with 23 points from 10 games. But the campaign could hardly have started in more disastrous fashion, with defeat to Honduras in the opening qualification fixture. Yet, by the end, Klinnsman had fashioned a robust and talented American team.

There are plenty of familiar names: Tim Howard, Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley, and Clint Dempsey, although Landon Donovan was surprisingly left out. Given the difficult draw the Americans will do to reach the knockout stages.

United connection: ‘keeper Howard has made a fine career since being dumped by Sir Alex in 2007. Howard is one of four Americans to have played for United, together with Jonathon Spector, Ed McIlvenny and James Brown.

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GROUP H

BelgiumBelgium
Qualified: top of UEFA Group A with 26 points from 10 games
Manager: Marc Wilmots

How Wilmots must count his blessings, coming into the Belgium job just as a ‘golden generation’ emerges. The 44-year-old hasn’t earned the chance through a club career – a year in charge of second division Sint-Truiden earning only the sack – but as assistant to former national manager Georges Leekens. Wilmots has certainly taken advantage, fashioning a side that is better than its ‘dark horse’ status.

Qualification was achieved with ease, with the Red Devils completing group A eight points ahead of Croatia. With talent including Romelu Lukaku, Eden Hazard, Mousa Dembélé and Adnan Januzaj, Belgium should score goals. Yet, it was in defence that Wilmot’s team excelled during qualification, conceding just four times during qualification. The side will miss the injured Christian Benteke.

United connection: Marouanne Fellaini is in Wilmot’s squad, although the big midfielder may compete for a spot in Wilmot’s side with Zenit Saint Petersburg’s Axel Witsel. Januzaj made a very late decision to commit to Belgium and could feature from the bench.

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AlgeriaAlgeria
Qualified: via CAF play-offs after topping Group H
Manager: Vahid Halilhodžić

Bosnian Halilhodžić is a veteran Francophile, having played for both Nantes and Paris Saint German in a fine club career. Later, as a manager, Halilhodžić took charge of Lille OSC, Stade Rennais and PSG.

Algeria emerged victorious from five of six group matches to top a section that included ACoN semi-finalists Mali, together with Benin and Rwanda. Victory over Burkina Faso on away goals qualified the Algerians for a second successive World Cup.

The largely European-based squad is youthful and inexperienced, but what Halilhodžić lacks in age he may make up for in talent. Valencia’s Sofiane Feghouli is an attacking midfielder of genuine class, while Medhi Lacen is a neat defensive-minded player doing well at Getafe. Captain Madjid Bougherra is no stranger to fans in the UK.

United connection: United once played Algeria. No, really.

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RussiaRussia
Qualified: top of UEFA Group F with 22 points from 10 games
Manager: Fabio Capello

Capello enjoyed a fine playing career, predominantly at Juventus, Roma and Milan, before becoming Rossoneri manager for the first time in 1991. It has been a heavyweight managerial career since. Forgot the drama of Capello’s England exit and concentrate on five Serie A titles, two La Liga’s with Real Madrid, and the 1994 Champions League, with the finest Milan side in living memory.

Russia appointed Capello to the managerial job in July 2012 following Dick Advocaat’s resignation. It has been a largely successful appointment, although Russia’s passage to World Cup 2014 has not always been smooth. Paired with Portugal, defeat in Lisbon last June threatened automatic qualification, especially when it was followed by an inexplicable loss to Northern Ireland.

Capello has fashioned a functional, if ageing side. In Igor Akinfeev the Russians have a fine goalkeeper, while Zenit St Petersburg’s Roman Shirokov and Victor Fayzulin offer goals from midfield. Club-mate Aleksandr Kerzhakov scored five in qualification after a disappointing Euro 2012.

United connection: Andrei Kanchelskis played 36 times for Russia, 17 for the Soviet Union and six for CIS – but none for Ukraine, despite being born in Kirovograd, some 250 miles south of Kyiv.

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South-KoreaSouth Korea
Qualified: second in Asia Group A behind Iran
Manager: Hong Myung-bo

Former player Hong took charge of the Red Devils in June after the departure of Choi Kang-Hee. Hong earned 136 international caps in a stellar career, before taking charge of South Korean teams at the under-20 and under-23 levels.

Perennial qualifiers South Korea suffered a most traumatic road to the World Cup, finishing behind Iran Asia Group A after a poor campaign. Defeat to Lebanon in the penultimate second phase match left the Koreans needing to beat tiny Kuwait to progress in the Asian tournament at all. The campaign eventually cost Choi his job and Korea’s World Cup place was only sealed on goal difference from Uzbekistan.

Much will rest on striker and captain Park Chuyoung, while in midfield Bolton Wanderers’ Lee Chungyong is a fixture on the right flank. Few expect much from an average Korean side.

United connection: Park Ji-Sung has long since retired from the national team, although the former Red gained exactly 100 caps. Park appeared at the World Cup in 2002, 2006 and 2010.

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