2014: What lies through football's crystal ball?

Story highlights

  • 2014 will see Brazil bid to win the World Cup for a record sixth time
  • The South American country plays host to football's four-yearly showpiece event
  • Bayern Munich bidding to become the first team to retain the European Champions League
  • Manchester City and Arsenal level on points at the top of the English Premier League
There's nothing like a World Cup year to get football fans buzzing, but there is still plenty to play for between now and June, when Brazil hosts the sport's biggest spectacle.
While CNN doesn't have a soothsaying octopus at hand -- rest in peace, Paul -- Jonathan Hawkins has taken a look into his crystal ball to predict the coming year's big winners.
World Cup -- Brazil
After a draw that served up more groups of death than a December turkey farm, the World Cup in Brazil looks mouth-watering.
England may be football's birthplace, but this vast South American country can justifiably call itself the game's spiritual home.
While political controversies and infrastructure headaches are still making headlines, talk of actual football is thankfully now also underway. On the pitch at least, everything points to a classic tournament.
Climate and logistics will play their part in deciding this World Cup's winners.
Brazil's steamy, equatorial north will present a demanding physical challenge to those unaccustomed to the conditions, while lengthy travel times between venues will challenge fans and players alike.
Of the European contenders, cracks are evident in Spain's football fortress -- some of which were exposed in last summer's Confederations Cup.
Nevertheless, the Iberians will believe they can retain their crown -- especially if they are successful in their bid to naturalize their very own Brazilian, Diego Costa.
Germany, like Spain, face a brutally tough qualifying group; but this side may actually be a better prospect for glory than the current holders.
The country's recent dominance of European club football has been carried on some immensely talented and relatively young shoulders, players who now have the experience to match their promise.
Elsewhere in Europe, while Italy looked impressive at the Confederations Cup, the emergence of Belgium has captured the imaginations of fans and commentators alike.
The likes of Vincent Kompany and Eden Hazard could light up the tournament; but the question is whether Marc Wilmots' young squad has the depth to cope with the rigors of a World Cup.
No European team has ever taken the crown in South America.
The prospect of an African winner has been talked about for decades, and this year the Ivory Coast's star-studded team has a decent chance of progressing from one of the weaker looking groups.
Beyond that, however, they will need to reverse their habit of under-performing at major tournaments to have any hope of success.
As in the Confederations Cup, Japan should represent Asia admirably, but are a long way from being contenders.
As for the Americas, Argentina's attacking fulcrum needs no introduction, but while Lionel Messi will be tormenting opposition defenses, his team's propensity to leak goals is a concern.
Elsewhere, Chile present an intriguing prospect with the likes of Claudio Bravo, Matias Fernandez and Alexis Sanchez, while Uruguay's Luis Suarez -- in the form of his life at Liverpool -- and Edinson Cavani will tax even the best defenders.
A spirited Mexico will also be more than capable of pulling off the odd shock.
The hosts, while not without their flaws, will be the favorites.
Brazil hit their compellingly impressive stride at the Confederations Cup, while a season in Europe will only have helped the prodigious Neymar, whose fleet feet and razor-sharp shooting should see him thrive at home.
If last year's rehearsal is anything to go by, the locals' enthusiasm for the game will also help power their side. The pressure will be immense, but this robust and skilful team should still be equal to it.
Champions League -- Bayern Munich
The UEFA Champions League has its detractors, with its drawn-out format, Europa League parachutes, and fat TV contracts drawing criticism from those hankering after a simpler age of football; but once the competition reaches its knockout phase it is hard to beat for both quality and excitement.
This year the draw for the last 16 has thrown up some fascinating encounters, while the domestic form of the likes of Arsenal and Atletico Madrid brings an extra layer of intrigue into what has the makings of a classic year.
Of the traditional giants, Real Madrid should dispatch Schalke 04 with relative ease, while Borussia Dortmund will fancy their chances of rejuvenating their disappointing season by beating Zenit.
Manchester United too should progress against Olympiakos, but the Red Devils' stuttering domestic form has made that tie harder to call.
Barcelona, meanwhile, saw their worst nightmares realized with a draw against Manchester City, who look to be finally finding their feet in Europe.
Chelsea will have studied Juventus' failure to beat Galatasaray with interest. They will be hoping to withstand the Turkish side's assault in Istanbul, and banish the European jitters that plagued the Londoners in the group stage.
Paris Saint-Germain should be favorites to beat Bayer Leverkusen, and will be hoping to surpass their 2013 achievements after their unlucky exit at the quarterfinal stage last term.
Then we have the champions:
Bayern Munich may have lost at home to an English Premier League side -- Manchester City -- in the group stages, and Arsenal's resilience in the Premier League has seen them deservedly top the table, but few would dispute that the Bavarians are the better of the two sides.
Coasting to complete dominance domestically, they have the squad depth and technical prowess to progress.
Most importantly, both the team and the manager Pep Guardiola know exactly what it takes to go all the way. They have to be the favorites.
Germany -- Bayern Munich
German football may be enjoying a rich period of success, but the team that won so many hearts with its spirited Champions League campaign last year, Dortmund, has found life a lot harder this term.
The last weeks of the year were particularly taxing for Jurgen Klopp's team, with a run of three home defeats capping a decidedly downbeat period for the normally sprightly manager.
Striker Robert Lewandowski continues to fire, with 11 goals so far, but injuries have taken a huge toll on Dortmund's campaign, with Lukasz Pizczek, Neven Subotic, Mats Hummels, Marcel Schmelzer and more all spending time on the sidelines.
Lying in fourth, 12 points adrift of the top, their title challenge is already all but over.
Above Dortmund are Borussia Monchengladbach, for whom Raffael Araujo and Max Kruse are providing ample firepower.
Winning eight games in a row at home -- a club record -- they finished 2013 with a flourish and sit in a richly deserved third place.
Sami Hyypia has had an enormously productive stewardship of BAyer Leverkusen, in second, losing just ten of his first 56 matches in charge, and winning 35.
That form has seen steady progress, and with Dortmund faltering, it is no surprise that Bayer have taken up the slack.
In many other leagues this would be highly relevant to the destination of the title.
But this is the Bundesliga, the home of Bayern.
Very possibly the best club side in the world, the European champions have been in no mood to relinquish their domestic crown and lie seven points clear at the top. Forty two goals scored in 19 games, and just eight conceded, says it all.
There is nothing, repeat, nothing that can stop Bayern this year, and very possibly many more to come.
England -- Manchester City
Sometimes a successful franchise needs a reboot to keep it interesting.
Like Christian Bale's Batman and Daniel Craig's Bond, this season's English Premier League has proven to be a muscular, unpredictable and enigmatic affair.
The cast of characters on the pitch has been freshened up a little, but it is the new men calling the shots from the sidelines who have made this season's competition the most intriguing in years.
With newcomers at Manchester United, Manchester City, Tottenham and Everton, a returning maestro at Chelsea, and a sophomore youngster at Liverpool, it is perhaps unsurprising that the script has been ripped up.
Likewise, this being football, patience has already evaporated at one of the top sides, with Spurs writing Andre Villas-Boas out of their own particularly tortuous saga.
The Premier League's crowded Christmas schedule usually helps clarify the title race, and the side at the top on Christmas Day is a decent bet for success.
This year that honor fell to a resurgent Liverpool, for the first time since 2008; but by New Year's Day they had fallen to fourth, six points from top spot, partly down to some particularly dubious refereeing calls over the festive season.
The omens are not good for the newly roused Merseyside giants: 2008 was the last time that a team in first place on the 25th of December failed to win the league.
While David Moyes continues to wrestle with the scale of his task at Manchester United, the Premier League's longest serving manager, Arsene Wenger, has provided arguably the season's biggest surprise by guiding his Mesut Ozil and Aaron Ramsey-inspired Arsenal team into pole position.
But while the game's romantics might dream of a title for the north Londoners, Arsenal's more divisive and moneyed neighbors, Chelsea, and the possibly even flusher Manchester City, are beginning to find their feet.
Chelsea may not look especially cohesive on the pitch, but they are picking up points regardless. City, on the other hand, are looking ominously irresistible.
Having begun to clinch the away victories to match their imperious, free-scoring home form, expect the bookies' favorites to be making a tearful acceptance speech come May.
Spain -- Barcelona
Inevitably, any look at Spain's La Liga quickly turns into a story of two teams, one from Barcelona, the other from Madrid.
This year, however, that tale has a twist -- because the team from the capital firing its way to the top isn't Real, it's Atletico.
With a 100% home record and the swaggering brilliance of the Brazilian-born Diego Costa up front, Madrid's "other" team has well and truly stepped out from the shadow of their regal neighbors.
Indeed, were it not for a late winner from youth team graduate Jese in Real's final game before La Liga's winter break, they would have been staring at a seven point gap to their city rivals.
Even the mighty Barcelona look less than comfortable. Level on points with Atletico, they top the table on goal difference alone.
What's more, they are also facing allegations of financial irregularities in the transfer of Neymar, with 40 million Euros ($54 million) said to have been misappropriated, claims the club denies.
Whether that will have an impact on the pitch is a matter for debate, but the atmosphere around the Nou Camp has certainly shifted.
The whiff of scandal aside, all of this can only be good news for La Liga.
The emergence of a challenge to the Barca-Real hegemony is long overdue, and with the news of a Singapore-based multi-million Euro bid for financially stricken Valencia, the prospect of a more competitive league will be welcomed by all but the most rabid of Barca and Real fans.
Having said all of that, the Catalan giants and their fierce Castilian rivals are still the two strongest squads in the league. The fact that there is a third team in the mix makes things a lot more interesting, but it has taken a superhuman feat for Atletico to even draw level with Barcelona. Most expect Gerardo Martino's side to exert their superiority in the second half of the season.
Italy -- Juventus
Serie A's days of dominating European football may be in the past, but this year's competition has so far served as a timely reminder of the Italian league's ability to seduce and delight.
The arrival of Rudi Garcia at Roma certainly promised attacking football, but no one predicted the record-busting run that propelled the Giallorossi to the top of the table in November with 10 straight wins.
Napoli, in spite of the loss of the talismanic Edinson Cavani, also burst sharply out of the blocks, as Rafa Benitez's team continued to win friends and points with their stylish exuberance.
Elsewhere, however, Fiorentina have struggled to keep pace, in spite of the abundance of goals from the boots of fit-again Giuseppe Rossi.
The Viola already look out of the race in a distant fourth. With Inter struggling to find consistency, AC Milan all at sea in mid-table, and Lazio busy firing their manager, the title race has already narrowed.
The main reason for that is, of course, Juventus. Roma and Napoli may have set the early pace, but both have stumbled since, leaving the Old Lady to glide elegantly past them to Serie A's summit.
Antonio Conte has been hailed by none other than Fabio Capello as the best coach in Italy, and with good reason.
His side plays with both fluency and toughness, and the arrival of Carlos Tevez has given them an additional layer of panache and finishing power. Juventus play Roma on Sunday. If the Bianconeri win they will extend their lead at the top to eight points. It is a gap their rivals are unlikely to bridge.
France -- Paris Saint Germain
Not so long ago, France's Ligue 1 would have been a footnote in any European football round-up, but an injection of cash and glamor has seen its top club vying for European honors and competing for star names in the transfer market.
The most controversial recipient of that cash, and subsequent influx of star talent, is of course AS Monaco. The team from the world's most famous tax haven has never struggled for glamor, but it now has a team to match its opulent surroundings.
Claudio Ranieri's side is beginning to gel after an occasionally faltering start, hauling itself into second place.
Radamel Falcao and Emmanuel Riviere are finding the net regularly, while James Rodriguez finally broke his duck at the beginning of December, adding goals to complement his widely acclaimed playmaking skills.
With six goals apiece, Nolan Roux and Solomon Kalou might not be Ligue 1's deadliest strike partnership, but third place Lille are built on the bedrock of a particularly mean defense, which has conceded just eight goals in the campaign so far.
This toughness has helped the team to within four points of the top, and well within touch of the leaders.
Those leaders are, of course, Paris Saint-Germain. After adding Edinson Cavani to their attacking armory, PSG have picked up where they left off last season.
The irrepressible Zlatan Ibrahimovic is Ligue 1's top striker with 15 goals already to his name, but Cavani's 12 have helped propel the Parisians to the top in relatively effortless style.
Their longstanding unbeaten run may have been ended -- after 26 games -- with a shock defeat to Evian last month, but when goals are as easy to come by as PSG seem to find them, it is difficult to see them giving up their title.