FIFA World Cup 2014: Pre-Tournament Team Power Rankings
The 2014 FIFA World Cup is upon us, finally, after months and months of intense, exciting buildup.
Ahead of the big kick-off between Brazil and Croatia in Sao Paulo on Thursday, we've taken one final chance to provide a definitive 32-team power ranking of all nations involved in the event.
Who's top, who's bottom and who's mired in mediocrity? If your opinion differs, be sure to offer it in the comments below.
Honduras' qualifying tape and pre-tournament friendlies were alarming, and they grade out as our lowest-ranked side ahead of the tournament.
They're stuck in a difficult situation: Somewhere along the line between playing two up front and leaving themselves exposed and playing defensive, negative football needs to be drawn.
Can manager Luis Fernando Suarez find where to place it?
At around Christmas, Australia looked the worst outfit heading to the World Cup, and while they haven't improved much, they've elevated themselves a little in our estimation.
Ange Postecoglou knows his side have no hope of getting out of Group B, where they face Spain, Netherlands and Chile, but it's a work in progress with a young team, and that's OK.
Iran are defensively solid, but they don't have a hope of qualifying from the group stages at the World Cup.
They won't threaten offensively, and although they weren't the worst Asian qualifier ahead of the finals, they are the worst team on paper coming in.
29. Costa Rica
Barring goalkeeper Keylor Navas and forward Joel Campbell, Costa Rica have very little star quality and landed in Group D—which rivals Group G as this tournament's Group of Death.
That puts them near the bottom of the pile in terms of expectations, and there's no way they'll beat out England, Uruguay and Italy to qualify.
Despite boasting a considerably better squad—on paper—than several other nations, Cameroon's hopes of impacting this World Cup are down there with the lowest.
The squad were delayed getting to Brazil due to a player dispute regarding bonuses led by star striker Samuel Eto'o, per BBC Sport, and it paints the picture of a side who simply aren't cohesive enough to pull it together and qualify from their group.
Algeria could well come into the tournament an underrated nation, and manager Vahid Halilhodzic has a sprinkling of quality to play with in almost every area of the pitch.
With a strong midfield lineup and two very good full-backs, they'll be able to fashion chances, but the question marks hang over central defence and attack.
Can defender Madjid Bougherra, currently club-less, lead a revolt against Russian and Belgian firepower in Group H?
26. South Korea
South Korea are a team that will either flunk it—badly—or string it together and impress everyone.
They play nice possession football but revert too often to a counterattacking strategy against bigger, stronger teams. While their wingers are good, they cannot be expected to do everything in every area.
The lack of a goalscorer up front hurts them here.
Greece, altogether, haven't changed much in the last two years and stand to play the same sort of system they used at Euro 2012.
Many will point to their successes in that tournament and draw positives, but the ageing players are another two years older and their midfield is starting to creak.
Dimitris Salpingidis and Georgios Samaras will again be asked to "do it all" in attack.
Ecuador are excellent in some areas and pathetically weak in others; manager Reinaldo Rueda is aware of his squad's limitations and will simply seek to play to their strengths.
Home form during qualifying got them to the World Cup, and they play a fast, furious game, releasing wingers into space quickly and playing vertical football.
They don't trust themselves to keep possession.
Mexico stand an unpredictable outlet short of practice under a new manager.
Miguel Herrera has imported his custom 5-3-2 formation and asked his players to learn it quickly. While the playoff showing versus New Zealand was good, better teams have given them a tougher ride.
Injuries to Luis Montes and Juan Carlos Medina have clouded the midfield, while question marks remain on the flanks.
22. Ivory Coast
This is the Ivory Coast's last chance to utilise most of their "golden generation" in the same squad at a FIFA World Cup, and it's certain to be Didier Drogba's swansong, too.
They've landed in a workable group; Colombia are the best on paper, but if CIV can outmuscle Japan and Greece, they can garner enough points to qualify second.
They need to stop underwhelming, severely, on the world stage though.
Russia will shoulder the crushing loss of captain Roman Shirokov—out with a lingering back injury—and adjust to try and mask it, but the loss of such a dynamic, goalscoring midfielder will hit this team hard.
Fabio Capello may even be forced to rejig his formation—moving away from a base 4-3-3 and into a 4-2-3-1 to incorporate Alan Dzagoev—and that spells trouble for a very plain-looking Russia side.
On paper they're miles ahead of South Korea, but football is played on the pitch.
USA landed in a horrifying group and will face Germany, Portugal and Ghana in Group G. The first two are powerhouses, while the third has knocked them out of the last two World Cups.
Jurgen Klinsmann confused the masses by trialing a midfield diamond formation in a warm-up versus Turkey, throwing analysts off base with a peculiar selection.
He's likely to retain the 4-2-3-1 for the all-important opener against the Black Stars, and he'll be hoping striker Jozy Altidore fires on all cylinders. If he doesn't, they're going home.
Like South Korea, Nigeria have a chance to either implode or explode at this World Cup—but footballing reasons aren't the key factor.
The Nigerian Football Association has meddled with Stephen Keshi's squad and ruined the perfectly harmonious group he'd been building. If anything boils over, the Super Eagles will struggle to keep it under wraps.
This side, who won the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations, are quality if left to their own devices.
Ghana's recent 4-0 friendly win over South Korea boosted their dwindling stock somewhat, and Kwesi Appiah now has some tough decisions to make that cloud the strength of this team.
Who starts in midfield and on the left wing? Jordan Ayew's hat-trick against South Korea could see him leapfrog Majeed Waris in the pecking order, while Kevin-Prince Boateng, too, must work for his place.
They're one of the most difficult nations to place.
17. Bosnia and Herzegovina
Bosnia and Herzegovina have immense strength in attack, yet serious weaknesses at the back, too.
It makes them difficult to grade pre-tournament, as manager Safet Susic hasn't let on whether he'll go all-out attack like in qualifying or switch back to a sole striker in Edin Dzeko.
They're the only debutant nation and they're in a can't-lose situation, but the public expect them to qualify from a favourable Group F.
Infuriating in both boxes but masterful in the central zones, Japan have clear strengths and clear weaknesses alike.
They'll concede goals, that's for sure. And when Maya Yoshida is your star centre-back despite not playing for a year, it's clear you're in trouble.
Scoring will be an issue too, despite Shinji Okazaki’s impressive eight during qualifying. They should dominate possession, though.
Croatia were busy gearing up for a strong World Cup with a great group of players, but late injuries and a one-match suspension to prolific striker Mario Mandzukic spoiled the party.
They now need to escape the opener against Brazil without too much damage sustained, welcome back Mandzukic as a central striker and win two very winnable games against Mexico and Cameroon.
What else will stump them as the tournament progresses?
Switzerland, quietly, were one of the most impressive teams during the qualifiers, going unbeaten and rarely conceding goals.
Their striking situation has improved now that Josip Drmic has emerged as a starting forward in the lineup, but as that part improves, their defensive ability declines.
The Swiss press high and harry off the ball, but the ability to disrupt and pressure will diminish in the Brazilian heat. How will they level out?
This Netherlands team is impossible to project, but it'd be just like manager Louis van Gaal to come out of a seemingly horrible situation with his reputation even further enhanced.
The Dutch lost midfield lynchpin Kevin Strootman to an ACL injury in January and have changed formations several times as a result. The 3-5-2 is expected to be used, though the 4-4-2 diamond has also been trialled.
Take away Robin van Persie, Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben (the front three), and this side looks the epitome of average.
England are in a peculiar position perhaps best conveyed by The Telegraph's World Cup "hope" Venn diagram: a nation with high hopes, no hopes and a dark-horse tag all at the same time.
Group D was an awful draw, and landing alongside four-time winners Italy and current powerhouse Uruguay did little to grow optimism in the country.
But if Roy Hodgson can unlock the Liverpool flow in this side and studiously nullify both Italy's Andrea Pirlo and Uruguay's Luis Suarez, the Three Lions can't be counted out.
Losing Franck Ribery—one of the world's finest players—is a bitter blow to Didier Deschamps despite his poor form of late.
Antoine Griezmann will likely step in and play opposite Mathieu Valbuena in the midfield, and while that's still a good option, it's not the world-class quality they were leaning on before.
Les Bleus are doing their best to distance themselves from their torrid past of infighting and self-implosions.
Portugal will be riding the coattails of Cristiano Ronaldo as usual this summer, but the squad Paulo Bento brings to Brazil has genuinely improved since Euro 2012.
He's found a natural holder to replace Miguel Veloso in William Carvalho, and Fabio Coentrao got some good game time toward the end of the season, gaining fitness.
Central defense is a worry, as is the wing opposite to CR7, but this is a functioning, strong team.
Chile are a serious prospect in this year's edition of the FIFA World Cup, with home-continent advantage playing directly in their favour.
They play quick, direct and aggressive, and their players are fit as a fiddle. Previous manager Marcelo Bielsa laid the groundwork for an exciting Roja team in South Africa 2010, and Jorge Sampaoli has continued his methods.
They stand a good chance of clambering out of Group B and troubling the top sides in the knockout stages.
Where do Belgium sit in people's estimations? It's a tough call, as many believe they're either underrated or overrated at this stage.
The one question is their full-backs—with none available, can the centre-backs playing there hold up OK?
Star striker Radamel Falcao being ruled out of the FIFA World Cup is a big blow, but Colombia don't necessarily have to change too much to find success once again.
Jackson Martinez, Carlos Bacca, Adrian Ramos or Victor Ibarbo can step in at the top of the formation, and Jose Pekerman can continue to rotate his formation and change his approach.
The main man was always James Rodriguez anyway.
Uruguay limped over the line and into the FIFA World Cup courtesy of a playoff win over lowly Jordan, but don't let that scare you away from rating Oscar Tabarez's light-blue footballing machine.
They have a tiny squad so injuries could be a real killer, but if they stay fit and the manager's tactical tweaks work, they're onto something of a winning formula.
In the last four years, they've won the Copa America and placed fourth at the 2010 World Cup.
Italy stand one of the most unpredictable outfits coming into the tournament, and that's a strength manager Cesare Prandelli considers exceptionally important in high-stakes football.
What formation will the Azzurri utilise, how far back will Andrea Pirlo play, who accompanies him and in what fashion, who will play up front and has Ciro Immobile won a starting spot in the XI?
Simply put, they're capable of winning the tournament and grade out highly among all sides.
Germany were looking good for third favourites until lead scoring threat Marco Reus pulled out of the World Cup due to injury. Now their stock takes a bit of a hit.
Mario Goetze will be charged with playing as a false nine with Miroslav Klose unable to commit 90 minutes in every game, and the loss of Reus just puts more pressure on Goetze and Thomas Mueller.
Could goals actually be a problem for die Mannschaft?
Much of Spain's chances ride on the effectiveness of new striker Diego Costa, as it stands unlikely that they'll be able to win another championship by passing teams to sleep.
The conditions in Brazil affected them last season, and their game plan—short of pressing and harrying—looked very concerning once the players were physically spent.
Still, the reigning champions sit third favourites in our rankings and have a strong chance of lifting the trophy. Just look at that roster!
Argentina, playing on home-continent soil, are hot favourites to reach the semifinals at least.
With firepower in the form of Lionel Messi, Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Aguero and plenty more on the bench, la Albiceleste are expected to score bucket-loads of goals.
Qualifying from the group should be easy; from there they'll hope Messi can fire them to glory.
Hosts Brazil open the tournament against Croatia and will play against two highly unpredictable sides in Cameroon and Mexico.
Passage to the knockout stages looks sealed on paper, but as the pressure grows it will be interesting to see how they handle it.
Some put very little stock in the 2013 Confederations Cup, but as far as dry runs go it couldn't have been much better.