Stop me if you’ve heard this before: The World Cup is unpredictable. The tournament is too short and despite a relatively small list of favorites, there are many variables that affect the performance and odds of each country. And yet, here we are every four years trying to read the tea leaves and figure out how to fill our brackets. But don’t feel discouraged, we’re here to help. Here’s a look at some of the main factors that will help or hinder the Latin American teams in the cup.

1

Group Difficulty

Easiest: Uruguay

On paper, the Charruas have accessible rivals. The team’s first game is against Egypt, whose star forward, Mohamed Salah, is just coming out of an injury and then it faces Saudi Arabia, which lost three of its last four friendlies, including a 0-3 defeat against Peru. By the time Uruguay face the hosts on June 25, it could have already qualified for the next round.

Brazil is also expected to easily make it past the group round.

Hardest: Panama

Panama’s first World Cup ever is going to be a trial by fire. Not only does it have to play England – which features a young, but experienced squad – but also Belgium, one of the most promising and talented teams in Europe. Add Tunisia, who has plenty of World Cup experience and went toe-to-toe with Portugal and Spain in the last couple of weeks, and the perspectives of Los Canaleros look very dim.

Unfortunately for Mexico and Peru, the World Cup will also bring them lots of challenges.

2

Path to the Cup

Easiest: Brazil

World Cup paths are the hardest to predict, because one upset can change the field completely (Remember Costa Rica four years ago?), but if it wins its group, Brazil would face either Mexico, Sweden, or South Korea (assuming Germany wins Group F). The quarter finals would be tougher, but the team would avoid a confrontation with Germany, Argentina or Spain until the final.

If Uruguay wins its group, it also faces an easy path to the cup.

Hardest: Colombia

Whether they win their group of come in as second, James, Falcao, and Cuadrado would have to face either Belgium or England. Los Cafeteros reward for winning that game? A clash against Germany or Brazil. The silver lining is that if it survives that gauntlet, Colombia should be strong contenders for the Cup.

For Mexico, the path to el quinto partido would likely go through Brazil.

3

Defense

#Defensas celestes en #Rusia2018

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Best: Uruguay

A solid backline with experience and synchronicity – anchored by Diego Godín and José María Giménez (who play together at Atletico de Madrid) and a veteran goalkeeper with great timing and reflexes like Fernando Muslera – should be able to frustrate rival forwards and let Edison Cavani and Luis Suarez unleash their attacks.

Colombia also has a strong defense. Two young, world-class center backs and the best left fullback of the Eredivisie give some assurances to José Pékerman.

Worst: Costa Rica

Although it has one of the best goalkeepers in the world, in recent games its back line has looked like a shadow of the impenetrable wall we saw in Brazil four years ago. The Ticos could surprise us again, but the team will have to improve a lot to stop Neymar or Xherdan Shaqiri.

Panama stands at the bottom as well.

4

Midfield

Best: Brazil

A mix of muscle, talent, and reliability, Brazil’s midfield might not dazzle as much as Canarinha’s teams of old, but it provides quick ball recovery, fast transitions and solid support for its deadly attack. Casemiro, Fernandinho, Coutinho, and Paulinho are some of the best in the world in their positions and are versatile enough to adopt other roles if the game requires it.

Following Brazil is Argentina. Although it’s a bit worrisome that Jorge Sampaoli didn’t take pure defensive midfielders, beside Javier Mascherano, to Russia, the team’s attacking midfield is very talented and it counts on Leo Messi. That’s more than enough to fear them.

Worst: Costa Rica

Manager Oscar Ramírez has tried several formations in recent friendly games to help an overwhelmed Yeltsin Tejeda and give some assistance to aging playmaker Celso Borges, even dropping captain Bryan Ruiz to midfield. But so far, he hasn’t found a good formula to feed its forwards and protect its back line.

Panama also has a weak midfield.

5

Attack

Best: Brazil

Any team that has the luxury of leaving in the bench a forward like Roberto Firmino – who scored 26 goals last season and reached the final of the Champions League – is sure to be a nightmare for rival defences. Neymar looks fully fit and ready to leave his mark on World Cup history, along with talented youngster Gabriel Jesús, who in just 19 starts this season for Manchester City scored 13 goals. For Brazil, the question is not if the team score, but how many goals will it score.

Argentina also has a strong attack. Sure, the past World Cup performances of Higuaín and Aguero cast a shadow over their names, but they are still two of the best forwards in the world. If they click with Messi, Argentina will be a finalist.

Worst: Mexico

El Tri only scored one goal in the past four games – a worrying position to be in when kicking off the tournament against the reigning champions. But that might be a symptom of a much deeper problem: Its three centre forwards: Javier “Chicharito” Hernández, Oribe Peralta, and Raúl Jiménez had disappointing seasons with their clubs and don’t seem to have replacements lined up to compete for their spots. If you add to that the wave of criticism against the team and recent scandals, Mexico could be in for trouble.

Costa Rica’s and Panama’s attacks will also bring them issues.

6

Qualification campaign and recent record

Best: Brazil

With its pride hurt after facing humiliation at the last World Cup – which took place on its soil – Brazilian took its frustration out on the rest of the South Americans teams, becoming the first team to qualify for the tournament this year (besides the hosts). Since then, it has won all its friendlies, showing an impressive form.

Uruguay also has a great record going in. The Charruas also qualified early, and like Brazil, have won friendlies in convincing fashion.

Worst: Argentina

The Argentinians brought its fans to the edge of a heart attack by qualifying on the last match day, coming back after conceding an early goal to Ecuador. The doubts about the team have remained ever since, particularly after two ill-conceived matchups against Italy and Spain, the latter resulting in an embarrassing 6-1 without Messi on the field. The controversial cancellation of its last warm-up game against Israel didn’t help either.

Costa Rica’s recent record is unsettling. Although the second of the CONCACAF hexagonal to qualify, the Ticos’ form hasn’t convinced yet. And the recent defeats against England and Belgium have only increased doubts.

7

Best overall

 

Captained by one of the biggest superstars in soccer, surrounded by a team with solid performers on every line with a burning desire to erase its recent past, and led by a coach that has found a way to restore harmony in the locker room and give hope and pride back to the torcerdores, Brazil stands as one of the best – if not the best – team in the world right now.

Brazil has all the necessary qualities to win the World Cup. But better teams have tried and failed. The road to the final is treacherous and full of surprises and to win it’ll need a bit of that magic that the soccer gods concede to a lucky few every four years.