Saturday October 21st, 2017 6:28AM

Here's a look at 10 things to watch as World Cup kicks off today

By Morgan Lee Sports Editor
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With the World Cup kicking off today, let's take one last look at what to look for, what to expect and what questions to ask as we soak in the enjoyment of the world's largest sporting event.<br /> <br /> With that in mind here are 10 questions/talking points to keep in mind over the coming weeks.<br /> <br /> <br /> <b>1. U-S-A! U-S-A!</b><br /> <br /> Let's start with the local boys. <br /> <br /> Few are giving the US any real chance to advance from one of, if not the, group(s) of death. The road blocks that lie in store include world powers Germany and Portugal, as well as bogey team Ghana (which has knocked the US out of each of the last two World Cups). The team is also missing its talismanic attacker in Landon Donovan, whom coach Juergen Klinsmann left at home.<br /> <br /> That said, the key to this team lies in its two World Class players: midfielder Michael Bradley -- who has been given a freed-up attacking role of late -- and goalkeeper Tim Howard. If those two can lead the way -- along with striker Clint Dempsey -- then the U.S. has a legitimate shot at reaching the knockout phase. If Bradley is shackled, or Howard has a poor Cup, the U.S. is in trouble. <br /> <br /> Of course with the group the U.S. finds itself in, it could still play very well and not advance. The key game is Ghana. Win that to open group play (Monday, June 16) and everything else could fall into place.<br /> <br /> <br /> <b>2. Neymar, Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo -- or someone else?</b><br /> <br /> There are three recognized ultra-mega stars set to unleash themselves on the tournament, including Brazil's Neymar, Argentina's Lionel Messi and Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo. Each of the trio carry huge expectations -- and the hopes of nations -- on their shoulders, and each has the ability to dominate a game. Of the three Ronaldo has the hardest task, as Messi and Neymar are flanked by plenty of similarly talented teammates, while Portugal features several other good though not great players. <br /> <br /> The World Cup always has a way of crowning new stars, however, and while the previously mentioned trio (not to mention Spain's Andres Iniesta) will likely shine, there will also inevitably be a relatively obscure player see his name in lights by the end of the tournament. The question is who will that be. There are plenty of options: Colombia's James Rodriguez, Switzerland's Josip Drmic, England's Ross Barkley, Belgium's Adnan Januzaj, France's Paul Pogba, Italy's Ciro Immobile... the list goes on. Of course I'm just throwing darts at a board here, but all of these players have the ability to string together a few special performances.<br /> <br /> <br /> <b>3. Darkhorses galore</b><br /> <br /> There are plenty of favorites -- Brazil, Argentina, Spain -- but there are even more teams with the ability to upset. The world game has never been more equal, so don't be shocked if there are more than a few shocks.<br /> <br /> Teams like Japan, Algeria, Chile, Belgium (which is a sexy pick as a darkhorse for many pundits) and Switzerland may have relatively quiet World Cup histories (though Belgium was a power in the 80s), but that won't keep them from making a lot of noise this time around.<br /> <br /> <br /> <b>4. Brilliant Brazil or backlash?</b><br /> <br /> This is perhaps the biggest question facing this World Cup and FIFA, the sport's governing body. Will the host nation, which has faced all manner of financial, infrastructural and political issues, be up for the whole event? Or will protests (understandable protests), stadium issues (just Google "Manaus" and see what kind of news comes up) and worries about future tournaments (Qatar anyone?) overshadow the play on the field in a country rife with socio-political concerns? It's doubtful, but don't be surprised to hear plenty about the direction of the world's game.<br /> <br /> <br /> <b>5. New tactics/evolution of the game</b><br /> <br /> Not every tournament, but once every few tournaments, we bear witness to the birth of a new style of play or tactical formation that dominates soccer for years. In the 1970s it was the Dutch and "Total Football;" in the last World Cup (and just beforehand) it was Spain's "tikka-takka" pressure and ball-retention, just to name two. Will that development continue in 2014? There is little hint of any major changes on the horizon. Most teams have adopted a system that will allow plenty of cover for its defense while allowing a few players to concentrate on spear-heading the attack. That said, there are plenty of teams bringing different styles to Brazil, whether it be possession-oriented, counter-attacking or something in between.It will be interesting to see how it plays out.<br /> <br /> <br /> <b>6. The real group of death?</b><br /> <br /> Every year one of the initial four-team pods -- teams that play each other to reach the knockout stages -- is labeled the "group of death." This year there is two. The U.S. is in one of them -- Group G -- along with serial semifinalist Germany (also three time champion), a dangerous Portugal and a Ghana team that was a missed penalty kick away from reaching the semifinals in 2010. The other -- Group D -- contains Italy (four-time champion), England (one title) and Uruguay (two championships), along with a game Costa Rica squad. It will be interesting to see how which proves the toughest and which surviving squads (the top two in each group reach the knockout stages) make the deepest runs.<br /> <br /> <br /> <b>7. Can't we all just get along?</b><br /> <br /> Anytime you get 22 people together, you're likely to have some differences of opinion. When you get 22 top-class athletes together, you're lucky if you don't have some all-out fights. And that's what many teams do with each other at the World Cup. The Dutch, in particular, are notorious for intra-squad acrimony -- while in-fighting destroyed the French team in 2010. Fighting doesn't always mean bad things, however, and teams that can't get along off the pitch can often get along just fine on the pitch if there is enough respect amongst the players. But make no mistake, some favorite will go down early, and you can almost bet you'll hear tales of bickering among teammates in its wake.<br /> <br /> <br /> <b>8. Bucking a trend -- or familiar foes?</b><br /> <br /> While everyone picks out a pre-tournament winner -- mine is Argentina for what its worth -- you would be crazy to pick a non-South American team. No European team has ever won a World Cup played on this side of the globe -- whether in the U.S., Mexico or South America. And while there is always a first time for everything, the strength of teams like said Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay make it a safe bet that the final champ will be winning in its own backyard.<br /> <br /> <br /> <b>9. Managing the pressure</b><br /> <br /> Speaking of Brazil, the Selecao (as they are referred to by the host nation's fans) will be expected to continue its nation's stirring history in the World Cup that includes five tournament victories. Though the last came in 2002, EVERYONE in Brazil will expect its national team to make it six in 2014. It's the kind of pressure very few people will ever know. But these players will never be able to go anywhere within their own nation without someone reminding them of their duty to win -- not to mention their friends and family. Some teams can thrive under that kind of pressure -- it crushes others, no matter how talented, and it is something to bear in mind as the tournament continues.<br /> <br /> <br /> <b>10. Who will be the villain?</b><br /> <br /> Every tournament there is a villain -- whether it be one player, team or referee. In 2010, for instance, Uruguay's Luis Suarez became a lowlife when he used his hand to block a goal-bound shot in a quarterfinal against Ghana. The goal would almost certainly have put an African team through to the semifinals for the first time in tournament history. As it stood, Suarez blocked the goal and was dismissed for the action -- though his team actually prospered, as Ghana missed the ensuing penalty kick and went on to lose to Uruguay. Of course one nation's baddy is another nation's hero -- like Argentina's Diego Maradona, who used his hand to score an infamous goal against England in the 1986 quarterfinals. There was also France legend Zinedine Zidane, who helped blow his team's chance at the 2006 Cup, when he opted to head-butt Italian defender Marco Matterazi and get sent off for his troubles. There have also been a few referees who went down in infamy. One thing is certain, there will be an anti-hero this time around. The only question is who.<br /> <br /> Over the next few weeks we should have a lot of fun learning the answers to all of these questions and wonderings.
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