SAO PAULO – Playing in front of its own fans, Brazil is expected to easily advance from Group A, leaving Croatia, Mexico and Cameroon fighting for the other spot in the second round.
The squad led by Neymar and coach Luiz Felipe Scolari has won 13 of its last 14 matches and should be the team to beat in the group. Croatia and Mexico just barely made it through qualifying and will be hoping to regain their top form in Brazil, while Cameroon will be relying on striker Samuel Eto'o.
The Group A match between Brazil and Croatia will open the World Cup on June 12 in Sao Paulo.
Here are five things to know about Group A:
Brazil is one of the favorites to go all the way to the final so it's no surprise that few expect the hosts to face difficulties in the group stage.
The five-time champions have reached the second round every time since 1970, and after escaping some more traditional opponents in the draw, it should be able to avoid a major surprise in its group this time. Brazil has a winning record against all of its first-round opponents.
Boosted by its boisterous fans and confident following the Confederations Cup victory last year, Brazil will be looking to do better than it did at the last two World Cups, when it was eliminated in the quarterfinals.
After just barely qualifying, Mexico hopes to finally get past the second round in Brazil. The Latin Americans were eliminated in the round of 16 in the last five World Cups, by Argentina the last two times. At least this time there is no chance the Mexicans will play their nemesis right away, as the Argentines are in a different side of the bracket.
Mexico has reached the quarterfinals only twice, at home in 1970 and 1986.
Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez is Mexico's biggest star, but his place as a starter in Brazil is not guaranteed because of his lack of minutes at Manchester United.
The Mexicans have never played Cameroon at the World Cup, and it had only one match against Croatia (a 1-0 group win in 2002). It hasn't had good fortune against Brazil, losing all three matches (1950, '54 and '62). It also lost to the Brazilians in the group stage of the Confederations Cup last year.
After reconsidering a decision to retire, Samuel Eto'o will be back at the World Cup carrying Cameroon's hopes of a surprising performance in Brazil.
The striker, who will be 33 in Brazil, has been playing well with Chelsea and his experience of three World Cups will be key for the Indomitable Lions, who had some help qualifying after a loss to Togo was overturned because of an ineligible player.
Cameroon hasn't advanced past the group stage since 1990, when it became the first African team to reach the quarterfinals.
It will play Mexico and Croatia before facing the hosts in its final Group A match.
Croatia already knows it won't be at full strength for the difficult opener against Brazil.
Croatia coach Niko Kovac won't have forward Mario Mandzukic, who was red-carded in a decisive qualifier against Iceland. The suspension carried over from qualifying so he will have to sit out against the hosts. Kovac also knows he will be without defender Josip Simunic, who was banned for 10 games by FIFA for leading fans in a pro-Nazi chant after the Iceland match in Zagreb.
Back at the World Cup after not qualifying in 2010, Croatia will play its second match against Cameroon and then close out group play against Mexico.
No matter which teams advance from the group, a tough road is expected. The Group A qualifiers will have to play one of the top two teams in Group B, which has defending champion Spain, Netherlands, Chile and Australia.
Beyond that, the Group A winner has a chance to play against one of the teams in Group D, which has former world champions Uruguay, England and Italy, in addition to Costa Rica.
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