Come for the World Cup predictions, stay for the Brian Dawkins and Jimmy Rollins comparisons

Come for the World Cup predictions, stay for the Brian Dawkins and Jimmy Rollins comparisons

Neymar and the host Brazilians are the odds-on favorites to win the World Cup. (AP Photo)

The talk and hype is FINALLY over. The World Cup is here.

Bracket from

Yesterday we gave you all the basics you need to enjoy the 32-team tournament (the feedback on that post was great, so if you have any more tips on where to watch games in the Philly area and beyond, toss it in the comments).

On Monday, we'll focus on the United States, but right now, it's time to give you the must-watch games and a few predictions sure to go terribly wrong.

To get a good look at the whole bracket, click on the image above. I don't pretend to be an expert on many teams in the tournament, but I watch more games than is probably healthy. For a detailed breakdown of each group, this is a solid link.

A reminder: 2 teams advance from each 4-team group. After that, it's a single-elimination bracket for the final 16 teams.

You can pick your bracket against a few 700 Level writers and readers at this link.


GROUP A (Brazil, Croatia, Mexico, Cameroon)

What Happens: Brazil is a 3:1 (or better) favorite in among oddsmakers to win the whole thing, and opens today at 4 p.m. against Croatia. Mexico has been spotty, to say the least, and needed help from the rival Americans just to qualify.

Cameroon's Samuel Eto'o

Jim Thome

Names to Know: Neymar (Brazil), Hulk (Brazil), Daniel Alves (Brazil), Mario Mandzukic (Croatia), Samuel Eto'o (Cameroon), Javier Hernandez (Mexico).

Key Match: Mexico vs. Croatia, June 23, 4 p.m. Obviously the Brazil matches are must-watches, but Mexico-Croatia could decide who finishes second in the group. Assuming neither team got any points from Brazil, the winner of that match could advance.

Philly Comparison: Samuel Eto'o (Cameroon) = Jim Thome. A bonafide individual star, but a player who hasn't had the right pieces around him to see the team success he probably deserves.

Going Through: It was close here with Cameroon, but I'll say Brazil and Croatia.


GROUP B (Spain, Netherlands, Chile, Australia)

What Happens: Spain is the reigning World Cup champ, and begins with the team they beat in the 2010 final: The Netherlands. Chile is scary good, and they are always the third team mentioned. Australia needs a miracle.

Spain's Diego Costa

Kobe Bryant

Names to Know: Andres Iniesta (Spain), Xavi (Spain), Diego Costa (Spain), Arjen Robben (Netherlands), Robin van Persie (Netherlands), Alexis Sanchez (Chile), Arturo Vidal (Chile), Tim Cahill (Australia)

Key Match: Spain v. Netherlands, June 13, 3 p.m. There may be other matches that decide the group's fate, but the rematch of the 2010 World Cup final is an absolute must-watch.

Philly Comparison: Diego Costa = Kobe Bryant. Costa plays for Spain, but is Brazilian through and through. There are a ton of hard feelings in Brazil, especially since the host country could really use a striker like Costa. Like Bryant, many in his hometown/country won't greet him too kindly.

Going Through: The first "big" side to go home will be The Netherlands, as Spain and Chile advance.


GROUP C (Colombia, Greece, Ivory Coast, Japan)

What Happens: Greece is usually boring but is the only team here that defends. Colombia is moody and without its biggest star. And the Ivory Coast always comes in with high expectations but never seems to quite match them. Japan is always a little mysterious.

Ivory Coast's Didier Drogba

Allen Iverson

Names to Know: Carlos Valdes (Colombia), Didier Drogba (Ivory Coast), Yaya Toure (Ivory Coast), Keisuke Honda (Japan), Shinji Kagawa (Japan).

Key Match: Colombia v. Ivory Coast, June 19, noon. There could be a lot of goals in this game, and lots of exciting play in the midfield. Yaya Toure is one of the best midfielders in the world, and as he goes, so go the Ivory Coast.

Philly Comparison: Didier Drogba = Allen Iverson. Like Iverson in his final seasons, Drogba is a once-in-a-generation talent on his last legs who has been an icon for his team for more than a decade. He deserves a championship (that he won't get).

Going Through: For no other reason than a hunch, I'm going to say the loss of star Radamel Falcao hurts Colombia, and the Ivory Coast and Japan find a way through.


GROUP D (Uruguay, Costa Rica, England, Italy)

What Happens: England is loaded with young talent that may or may not wilt under pressure. Many experts seem enamored with Uruguay, partially because they're good, but largely for this "home-continent World Cup" thing. I'm not really buying that, but whatever. Italy is flying under the radar, and they're fine with that.

Jimmy Rollins

Italy's Andrea Pirlo

Names to Know: Luis Suarez (Uruguay), Edinson Cavani (Uruguay), Joel Campbell (Costa Rica)* only for this, Wayne Rooney (England), Daniel Sturridge (England), Andrea Pirlo (Italy), Mario Ballotelli (Italy).

Key Match: Many are focused on Saturday's Italy-England showdown, but I'll take Uruguay vs. England, June 19, 3 p.m. I think Italy takes the group, so this game is critical to see who else advances. Plus, you never know if Suarez decides to eat someone's ear.

Philly Comparison: Andrea Pirlo = Jimmy Rollins. A player who is one of the best ever for his team, but might not be fully appreciated until after he's gone. Like Rollins, Pirlo already has a title, and like Rollins, he is likely in his final years. Both Class acts all the way who represented their teams well.

Going Through: Picking England makes me very nervous, but I think Uruguay wilts a bit under the pressure. Let's go with Italy and England.


GROUP E (Switzerland, Ecuador, France, Honduras)

What Happens: Switzerland was somehow "seeded" in the draw while France was not. Because of that, it's and odd group where anyone can emerge. Ecuador is not a team to take lightly, while Honduras can be a challenge if you're not patient.

France's Paul Pogba

Mitch Williams

Names to Know: Antonio Valencia (Ecuador), Xherdan Shaqiri (Switzerland), Karim Benzema (France), Paul Pogba (France), Yohan Cabaye (France), Patrice Evra (France).

Key Match: Switzerland vs. France will be important, but I'll try an outlier with Switzerland v. Ecuador this Sunday at 3 p.m. I think France wins the group, and if Ecuador can get three points off the Swiss in the opener, things will get VERY dicey for the peaceful Swiss.

Philly Comparison: Paul Pogba = Mitch Williams. Because a mohawk is just a mullet sticking straight up.

Going Through: I'm just not buying Switzerland, sorry. I'll take France and Ecuador.


GROUP F (Argentina, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iran, Nigeria)

What Happens: Argentina is the tournament's second favorite in many eyes, while Bosnia has some talent and is the likely runner-up in the group. Nigeria has some individual talent, but can they put it together. Iran is a mystery, but can seemingly play some defense.

Bosnia-Herzegovina's Edin Dzeko

Keith Primeau

Names to Know: Lionel Messi (Argentina), Edin Dzeko (Bosnia), Victor Moses (Nigeria)

Key Match: You'll want to watch Argentina and not take your eyes off Messi, but the big one might be Bosnia v. Nigeria, June 21, 6 p.m.

Philly Comparison: Edin Dzeko = Keith Primeau. Like Primeau, Dzeko is rarely flashy, but he always gets it done. He's in the right place when it matters most, and he rarely misses a chance he should finish. He's also pretty good with his head, and there's a Primeau joke in the.... nevermind.

Going Through: I'm not as high on Argentina as some, but they should win the group and it'll be Argentina and Bosnia moving on.


GROUP G (United States, Ghana, Portugal, Germany)

[We'll tackle this group on Monday, but for the sake of predictions...]

Going Through: Germany and the United States.


GROUP H (Belgium, Algeria, Russia, South Korea)

What Happens: Belgium has become such the sexy darkhorse pick that it's not much of a darkhorse anymore. Algeria and Russia are mysteries and South Korea should bring up the rear.

Belgium's Vincent Kompany

Brian Dawkins

Names to Know: Vincent Kompany (Belgium), Romelu Lukaku (Belgium), Edin Hazard (Belgium).

Key Match: Belgium should take the group easily, so second might hinge on the final matchup of Algeria v. Russia, June 26, 4 p.m.

Philly Comparison: Vincent Kompany = Brian Dawkins. The heart and soul of the team and one of the top defenders in the world, Kompany is the Belgian captain and must keep his younger talented teammates grounded.

Going Through: I admit knowing very very little about Algeria, Russia and South Korea. I'll take Belgium and Algeria to go through.


Germany is Steve's pick to win it all

Round of 16:

Brazil over Chile; Ivory Coast over England; Spain over Croatia; Italy over Japan; Bosnia over France; Germany over Algeria; Argentina over Ecuador; United States over Belgium (call me a homer, I don't care).


Brazil over Ivory Coast; Italy over Spain; Germany over Bosnia; Argentina over United States.


Germany over Brazil, Argentina over Italy.


Germany over Argentina.



And now, a few words from our non-soccer guys:

* * *


Italy is going to win. Blue is the best color.

* * *

Andrew Unterberger:

Here's the five countries that I'd most like to see win:
5. Boznia and Hergzegovina (I like names that are two names)
4. Honduras (Solid flag)
3. Australia (Not a lot of Australian things that aren't fairly boss)
2. Greece (Girlfriend is Greek, would be funny to see her family get super-into it, also another solid flag)
1. England (Probably get lots of good songs out of it)

So the England will win because everything I want to happen always does.

* * *

Greg Paone:

I’d just like to preface this by saying I don’t know much about soccer, or futbol, nor do I claim to. I know about the kicking, handballs and Ronaldo’s abs. And that’s about as far as my soccer knowledge stretches.

But it’s the World Cup so of course I’m going to watch. I do honestly find excitement in the world’s most popular sporting event and personally can’t wait for the inevitable moment when FIFA president Sepp Blatter makes an ass out of himself in front of a worldwide audience… again.

As far as my predictions are concerned, I’ll start with the U.S.

That whole “GROUP OF DEATH” thing doesn’t sound too appealing. I hear Germany is quite good at soccer so I see the Germans advancing from atop the group.

From past World Cups, I know Ghana is pretty much the 2002 Tampa Bay Bucs to the U.S. team after crushing the Americans’ dreams of advancing. Not this time, though, as I see the U.S. topping Ghana this go-round and outpointing Portugal to advance to the knockout stage. Seriously, who else does Portugal have outside Ronaldo?

But the dream ends there. The U.S. bows out in the second round to Belgium. Klinsmann was right. The U.S. can’t win.

As for the rest of the tournament, this is all a toss-up for me.

I come from a half-Irish/half-Italian background. Well-placed sources tell me Ireland didn’t qualify this year and I refuse to pick Italy because I don’t get why the Italians wear blue. (Sorry, Enrico. Don’t fire me!)

Gimmie Argentina over host Brazil in the final. Messi – yeah, I know him, too – finally gets Argentina over the hump.

No matter what, I’ll be watching. Go ‘Merica and vivo el futbol!

* * *

The Evster:

If you do not think Brazil is gonna win the World Cup™, you are living a goddamn lie. They are a LOCK to take the trophy. Of the 19 World Cup tournaments ever played, six were won by the host nation, and while I realize that's not a very convincing stat, you can honestly shove your precious stats right into your precious fat face. This sport is not about stats, it's about talent, and joy, and a love for the game, and no one has more fun than the Seleçåo. Then again, Spain is really, really good, and I've never seen any team pop the ball around like they do. Tikki-takka, tikki-takka. It's insane. They could be the best side in the history of the sport. And Germany is just SOLID. So technical, so Schweinsteigery and SO German. But c'mon, you can never count out Italy, right? And ummmmmm, did you forget about a little country called Argentina? THEY HAVE MAYBE THE BEST PLAYER WHO EVER LACED 'EM UP. Seriously, who is going to be able to handle Côte d'Ivoire with Didier Drogba and Yaya? They are a powerhouse. YOU THINK BELGIUM CAN HANDLE THEM? HA! Actually, they might be able to. OMG CAMAROONIANS ARE SO FAST! And don't sleep on the Ukraine! Are they even in it?! The USA can suck my butttttttttttt!!!


In long-awaited NBA debut, Joel Embiid treats Sixers fans to a show

In long-awaited NBA debut, Joel Embiid treats Sixers fans to a show

The crowd erupted as Joel Embiid stepped to the free throw line. They chanted a phrase Embiid has been repeating for the past two years, a fitting welcome to his NBA debut.

“That was great,” Embiid said after the Sixers' 103-97 loss to the Thunder on Wednesday in the season opener (see Instant Replay). “That’s my motto, 'Trust the process.'”

After two years of rehabbing foot injuries, Embiid has his first regular-season game behind him. Embiid scored a team-high 20 points, shooting 6 for 16 from the field, 1 for 3 from long range and 7 for 8 from the line. He also recorded seven rebounds, two blocks, four turnovers and four fouls in over 22 minutes. 

“The beginning I was nervous, but once you make that first shot, it just goes away,” he said. “The fans were so into the game that it was fun. I love having fun.”

Sixers head coach Brett Brown enjoyed watching Embiid on the court as much as the big man liked being on it. Brown has seen the 7-foot-2 center grow and develop during his rehab. Finally, he was able to utilize his versatile skills in a real game setting.

“I can't say this loud enough,” Brown said. “For the city to be rewarded with a player that we all understand has unique gifts, special gifts, for him to go through all the things he has been through and play like he did on opening night, the city deserves it. Most importantly, he deserves it.”

Now that Embiid has been cleared to play, he would like to do so for longer periods of time. He began the preseason at 12 minutes and was increased to 20 in segmented spurts for opening night. Even though he exceeded that limit by over two minutes, Embiid is itching to be cleared to play more extensively. 

“It sucks,” Embiid said. “I feel like I could have played more but you know you’ve got to trust the process, got to trust those guys. If I have my minute restriction at 20 minutes, I guess I’m going to go with that. But obviously I want to play more and more and I think it can help the team better. But they have a plan for me and I’ve got to follow it.”

Embiid has maintained he wants to be a clutch player. Brown looked to him toward the end of the game as the Thunder pulled ahead late in the final quarter. He drained a fadeaway jumper to tie the game at 97 apiece with 50.7 to go. 

Later trailing by four with 10 seconds left, the Sixers went to Embiid. While he was whistled for an offensive foul, Brown was glad to have a go-to unlike in years past. 

“You have a target,” Brown said. “We tried to get the ball to him a lot. … By and large, to have somebody like Joel, where the mystery is solved like, 'What do you do?' You get him the ball as much as you can.”

The more the Sixers found Embiid, the more the Thunder had to try to defend him. Thunder head coach Billy Donovan knew what his team was going up against. He watched Embiid as a high schooler and coached against him during his tenure at Florida. 

“He’s gifted and skilled,” Donovan said. “It was probably our guys' first time seeing him … I knew the talent, the gifts. The one thing with him is, he’s got great footwork. He’s hard to guard because he’s herky-jerky. He moves. He’s got a lot of [Hakeem] Olajuwon to him.”

Opening night had been two years in the making. Even though the Sixers didn't win, the significance of the evening didn't disappoint. 

"I thought this moment was going to be special," Embiid said, "and it was just great."

Best of NBA: Davis' 50 points not enough in Pelicans' loss to Nuggets

Best of NBA: Davis' 50 points not enough in Pelicans' loss to Nuggets

NEW ORLEANS -- Jusuf Nurkic scored 23 points, Will Barton added 22, and the Denver Nuggets survived a dominant performance by Anthony Davis to defeat the New Orleans Pelicans 107-102 in both teams' regular season opener Wednesday night.

Davis had 50 points, 16 rebounds, seven steals, five assists and four blocks. His production helped New Orleans trim a deficit as large as 14 late in the second quarter down to two points in the waning minutes. He simply didn't have enough help.

The rest of the Pelicans combined to shoot 21 of 58. Tim Frazier scored 15 for the Pelicans. E'Twaun Moore added 10 points, but missed a 3-point attempt that could have tied it with 24 seconds left.

Danilo Gallinari scored 15 for Denver and Wilson Chandler added 12 points (see full recap).

Celtics top Nets in Horford's home debut
BOSTON -- Isaiah Thomas had 25 points and nine assists, Jae Crowder added 21 points and Al Horford pitched in 11 in his Boston debut on Wednesday night as the Celtics survived a late scare to beat the Brooklyn Nets 122-117 in their season opener.

Bojan Bogdanovic scored 21 for Brooklyn, including a 3-pointer to make it 120-117 with 47 seconds left after the Nets erased most of a 23-point deficit against the Boston bench. But he missed one with a chance to tie it after Joe Harris intercepted Thomas' cross-court pass, and the Celtics were able to hold on.

Justin Hamilton came off the bench to score 19 points and grab 10 rebounds for the Nets in coach Kenny Atkinson's debut (see full recap).

Turner's opening act leads Pacers past Mavs in OT
INDIANAPOLIS -- Myles Turner scored 30 points, tied his career high with 16 rebounds and made a 3-pointer with 1:18 left in overtime to start an 8-0 run that allowed the Indiana Pacers to close out a 130-121 victory Wednesday night over the Dallas Mavericks.

Three-time All-Star Paul George added 25 points, including another 3 with 55 seconds left to seal Indiana's fifth season-opening win in six years.

Deron Williams scored 25 points, while J.J. Barea and Dirk Nowitzki each added 22 as the Mavs lost their fifth straight in the series. They still haven't won in Indianapolis since February 2014.

Dallas didn't tie the score or take a lead until the fourth quarter, yet still forced overtime when Harrison Barnes' open 3-pointer made it 115-all with 2.3 seconds left.

Turner could have won it with a long buzzer-beating 3, but it bounced off the back of the rim (see full recap).