There's less than 72 hours to go, so it's time to get serious.
Are you still having trouble naming the 32 countries who are competing? Well, don't worry, the team at Zonal Marking have got you covered!
In part 1, they cover the first half of the teams, as follows:
- Brazil: organised, structured, and the favourites
The ‘joga bonito’ ideal has always been something of a myth, with Brazil usually boasting a solid backbone and then giving a couple of talented individuals creative license and positional freedom. In that respect, while this isn’t a legendary Brazilian side and it’s easy to yearn for the ‘three Rs’ that dominated Scolari’s 2002 team, it’s actually roughly what we’ve come to expect from Brazil. The central midfielders are extremely basic and functional, the full-backs bomb on, the attackers combine nicely. Nevertheless, it’s also the most ‘European’ side Brazil have ever taken to a World Cup: the shape is 4-2-3-1, the speed of transitions are very quick, the attackers work hard without the ball.
- Croatia: great midfield guile but what else?
There are few nations that love playmakers as much as Croatia, and national team coach Niko Kovac appears set to field three together in a highly creative midfield trio.
- Mexico: talented squad, but highly unpredictable
By now, they should be capable of pushing on and finally reaching the quarter-final stage. They were genuinely impressive at points in 2010, won the Gold Cup in 2011 with a brilliant 4-2 win over the USA in one of the best international finals in recent memory, then shocked Brazil the next year by winning the Olympic title.
- Cameroon: need to get the midfield balance right
Coach Volker Finke was once renowned as an attack-minded coach, but with Cameroon has found himself lacking in the creative midfield department, and therefore has tried to make his side organised, compact and disciplined, and depended upon quick attacking down the flanks. The major question is how he structures his midfield trio, to get the balance between defensive solidity and attacking potential.
- Spain: can they keep their incredible run going?
When you consider their distinctive playing style, and the way they’ve taken possession football to the extreme, they’re unquestionably one of the greatest international sides in history. They are, however, more vulnerable than in previous years.
- Netherlands: still undecided on best formation
Van Gaal stuck to conventional 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 formations throughout qualification, but he’s suddenly decided that these shapes might not suit his players after all. The absence of Kevin Strootman was part of this thinking, but it’s still surprising that he’s tried two completely different shapes in the pre-tournament warm-ups.
- Australia: building for the future
Equally problematic is Australia’s draw – they’re in a group alongside the two World Cup finalists from 2010, plus Chile. It will be almost impossible for them to qualify, and they’re unlikely to register a victory. Therefore, Australia seem set to use this tournament as a learning experience ahead of the 2015 Asian Cup on home soil, and while coach Ange Postecoglou will be keen to avoid any thrashings, Australia will play open football and build for the future, rather than attempt to grind out 0-0 draws.
- Chile: like in 2010, the most attacking side
Yet Chile continue to be enthralling. In March, they travelled to Stuttgart to play Germany, and absolutely battered them. They had 17 shots to 5, and 7 on target to 3. And yet, predictably, they lost 1-0. It’s almost illogical how a side can dominate games so clearly, yet fail to score.
- Colombia: absences to prompt tactical re-think?
Falcao’s absence might change things, however. His role for the national side was strange – sometimes, like at the Copa America in 2011, he was overly keen to become involved in link-up play, but didn’t do it very well. Other times, he stayed upfront and seemed distant from the rest of the side. While a brilliant goalscorer, Falcao wasn’t particularly good at linking play and providing the attacking midfielders with service, and it’s not too much of an exaggeration to suggest Colombia might play better without him.
- Greece: ten years on, a similar approach
It’s now ten years since Greece shocked Europe by triumphing at Euro 2004, with three consecutive 1-0 knockout victories against the holders, the best team, and then the hosts.
It was a genuinely remarkable victory, perhaps the greatest upset in the history of international football, and it feels like Greece are attempting to replicate that formula. From their ten qualification group games, they recorded five 1-0 victories – although they opened up more in the play-off win against Romania.
- Ivory Coast: need individual magic
It’s difficult to think of another big nation that has appointed a completely inexperienced foreigner as coach, and it remains difficult to deduce Lamouchi’s managerial style. The Ivory Coast were hugely unimpressive at last year’s Africa Cup of Nations, struggling through the group stage thanks to same late goals, before being defeated at the quarter-final stage by Nigeria. Lamouchi’s plan is clear: 4-3-3, with Yaya Toure given plenty of license to break forward, but the side doesn’t seem particularly cohesive.
- Japan: good between the boxes
While Japan don’t always collect good results, they boast great technical quality in the midfield zone. The two most famous stars are Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda, but arguably more important to Japan’s style of play are the two holding midfielders. While their partnership has sometimes been broken up in recent matches, the combination of Yashuito Endo and Makoto Hasebe has proved highly effective over the last few years, and this Japan side are capable of controlling matches against top-class opposition.
- England: potentially dangerous on the break
It was more about what that selection symbolised. Were England going to rely upon a member of the ‘golden generation’ yet again, despite their constant failures at World Cups, or were they going to turn to a fresh, exciting, attacking and technically excellent youngster, to evolve the side?
- Uruguay: past their best?
Three years ago, Uruguay were unquestionably the best side in South America – they were the only South American side to reach the semi-finals of the World Cup in 2010, before winning the Copa America a year later.
Their form since then, however, has been extremely poor. Their qualification was a disaster, forced into a play-off against Jordan (which they unsurprisingly won comfortably) and they’ve clearly regressed in the last four years.
- Costa Rica: extremely defensive
While the difficult draw was always going to force Costa Rica to play defensively, that’s essentially their favoured style anyway. Their Colombian coach Jorge Luis Pinto, a good tactician who has won the league in four different countries, has generally favoured a cautious system that is 3-4-2-1 on the rare occasions Costa Rica have possession, but in reality more like a 5-4-1. They’re happy for the opposition to have time on the ball, concede space in midfield, and instead pack their penalty box.
- Italy: Prandelli not sure of his formation
Italy will continue to play the positive, attack-minded football Prandelli has encouraged since taking charge in 2010, with Andrea Pirlo still the star player in his final World Cup. But there are still lots of question marks, and a few underwhelming options in various positions.
Meanwhile, make sure you know what you're looking for when you watch: How to Watch the World Cup Like a True Soccer Nerd: Understanding the brainy side of the beautiful game
Answer those three questions and you’ll have a general idea about what kinds of players are on the field. What it actually looks like when they play is another question entirely, and it’s one more informed by tactics than by personnel.