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 8by8mag.com

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).

Quarterfinals:

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

Semifinals:

Germany over Brazil, Argentina over Italy.

Final:

Germany over Argentina.

 

 

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

* * *

Enrico:

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!!!

 

Best of NBA: Harden's 38-points fuels Rockets past Bucks

Best of NBA: Harden's 38-points fuels Rockets past Bucks

HOUSTON -- James Harden had 38 points, eight assists and six rebounds, and the Houston Rockets beat the Milwaukee Bucks 111-92 on Wednesday night.

Harden drilled a straightaway 3-pointer with six minutes left to give Houston a 13-point lead and shimmied his shoulders down the court in a celebratory dance as the Bucks called timeout.

After losing three of four, the Rockets regained their form while improving to 17-4 at home this season.

Giannis Antetokounmpo had 32 points, 11 rebounds, six assists and three blocks for Milwaukee (see full recap).

Rose powers slumping Knicks past Celtics 117-106
BOSTON -- Derrick Rose matched his season high with 30 points, and the slumping New York Knicks beat the Boston Celtics 117-106 on Wednesday night.

New York played without injured starters Kristaps Porzingis and Joakim Noah, but Mindaugas Kuzminskas and Willy Hernangomez each scored 17 points to help make up for their absence. It was just the third win in 14 games for the Knicks.

Isaiah Thomas led Boston with 39 points, his 13th time this season with 30 or more points. Jae Crowder added 21 for the Celtics, who lost for only the fourth time in 17 games.

Al Horford, Boston's big free-agent acquisition during the summer, had five points on 2-of-14 shooting. He was 1 for 8 on 3-point attempts.

Boston closed to 97-96 on Jaylen Brown's two free throws with just under eight minutes to play, but Justin Holiday and Courtney Lee nailed 3-pointers 29 seconds apart, pushing New York's lead back to seven. Rose then capped an 8-0 spree by putting in his own miss after Thomas missed a jumper -- his seventh straight shot that was off (see full recap).

Home cooking: Wiz top Grizz 104-101, 13th win in row in DC
WASHINGTON -- A vastly different team at home, the Wizards won their 13th consecutive game in Washington by edging the Memphis Grizzlies 104-101 Wednesday night behind two late layups from John Wall, who finished with 25 points and 13 assists.

James Ennis III missed a potential tying 3-pointer at the buzzer for Memphis.

The Wizards are just 4-13 on the road but now 18-6 at home, where they've compiled their longest winning streak since a 15-game run in the 1988-89 season.

Washington never trailed and led by as many as 19 points in the first half, then held on after a 10-0 run by Memphis made it a two-point game with 2 1/2 minutes left. That's when Wall took over, scoring on consecutive drives (see full recap).

Walker, Hibbert lead Hornets past Blazers 107-85
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Kemba Walker scored 23 points, Roy Hibbert provided a huge boost off the bench, and the Charlotte Hornets stopped a five-game slide with a 107-85 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers on Wednesday night.

Nicolas Batum added 17 points for the Hornets, who limited the Trail Blazers to 35 percent shooting and snapped an eight-game streak of allowing at least 100 points. But it was the 7-foot-2 Hibbert who stole the show.

Hibbert, who came in averaging 5.2 points per game, had a season-high 16 points on 7-of-8 shooting.

Damian Lillard scored 21 points and C.J. McCollum had 18 for Portland, which has lost three straight and 16 of 22 since Dec. 5 (see full recap).

Penn State falls to Indiana, 78-75, on buzzer 3-pointer

usa-indiana-penn-state.jpg
USA Today Images

Penn State falls to Indiana, 78-75, on buzzer 3-pointer

BOX SCORE

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Shep Garner gathered his teammates along Penn State's bench to remind them they needed one more stop to head to overtime.

Indiana's James Blackmon was ready to head home, however.

Blackmon took an in-bounds pass with less than five seconds to go, sprinted down the court and drained a 3-pointer to lift the Hoosiers to a 78-75 win over Penn State on Wednesday night.

Blackmon, Thomas Bryant and Robert Johnson all scored 17 points for the Hoosiers (13-6, 3-3 Big Ten) who survived a late Penn State rally.

"They definitely grew up," Indiana coach Tom Crean said. "It wasn't easy, but they definitely earned the victory. It would've been a shame if they hadn't gotten this win because they earned it."

Tony Carr scored a career-best 24 points and Garner added 15 for the Nittany Lions (11-8, 3-3) who trailed by 14 with 9:19 left. Garner brought Penn State within striking distance with a 3-pointer that cut it to 75-73 with 39 seconds to play.

It was the second straight win for the Hoosiers (13-6, 3-3 Big Ten) who took control by halftime and led the entire second half until a pair of Lamar Stevens free throws tied the game with less than five seconds left.

"I'm really proud of the kids, the way they fought back," Penn State coach Patrick Chambers said. "I felt like Penn State really hurt Penn State tonight, missed layups, little things. If we shoot better from the free-throw line, maybe the outcome's different."

Memories of Watford
There's a good reason Blackmon's shot was strikingly similar to the one Christian Watford sank at the buzzer to beat then-No. 1 Kentucky in 2011.

"It was the same play-call," Crean said. "But we got open differently. Usually we run off a screen but in this case we knew they'd switch it so James did a great job of setting it up."

Penn State coaches and players knew they'd have to defend a similar play, Chambers made note of it in his scouting report, but Blackmon was able to slip past Josh Reaves at midcourt and pull up over Julian Moore to hit the winning basket.

Rim un-protected
Indiana didn't have as big of a challenge on the glass with Penn State's designated rim-protector Mike Watkins in early foul trouble. Penn State's leading rebounder played just 13 minutes and finished with no rebounds.

The Hoosiers won the battle on the glass 37-33 and Penn State made just 21 of 31 free throws.

Hurt Hoosier
Indiana lost OG Anunoby on the final play of the first half to a right knee injury. The sophomore forward came down after battling for an offensive rebound and crumpled to the floor where he clutched at his right knee before trainers helped him slowly to the locker room. He did not return.

Anunoby started eight games and was tied for sixth in the Big Ten with 1.4 steals per game.

Crean said Anunoby would be evaluated when the team returned to Bloomington.

The big picture
Indiana: The Hoosiers entered Wednesday's game having lost five of their last eight. They'll have a chance to gain momentum with four of their next five against middle-of-the-pack Big Ten foes before a trip to Madison to take on No. 17 Wisconsin on Feb. 5.

Penn State: The Nittany Lions' inability to put a full game together has to be grating on coach Patrick Chambers. Even in their last win against No. 24 Minnesota, the Nittany Lions were out of sorts early before a late rally paid off. They were competitive early and late in this one but sluggish and mistake-prone midway through when Indiana took over.

Up next
Indiana hosts Michigan State on Saturday.

Penn State plays at No. 22 Purdue on Saturday