By Andrew Downie
SAO PAULO (Reuters) - With Brazil odds-on favorite to top Group A in their home World Cup, there will be a dogfight between Mexico, Croatia and Cameroon to secure the second qualifying place for the last 16 with little between any of them.
The Brazilians have played in every World Cup and only once have they failed to make it past the opening round, in England in 1966.
A repeat on home soil is beyond unthinkable and with players such as Neymar, David Luiz and Thiago Silva in the side they are expecting nothing less than to win the trophy.
They may be rusty in the tournament's opening game against Croatia on Thursday but it would be a seismic shock if they did not go on to win the group.
So the real intrigue is in the battle for second, with Mexico and Croatia marginally ahead of Cameroon in the betting stakes.
The Mexicans were perhaps the luckiest team in qualifying and only squeaked a place in the playoffs thanks to late goals by the US in their match against Panama.
However, new manager Miguel Herrera has instilled a new-found confidence in the side. They spanked New Zealand home and away in the playoffs and have lost just one of their six friendlies since.
They start their campaign against Cameroon on Friday and a win against the group outsiders is probably vital if they are to have any chance of progressing.
"We'll be playing the biggest part of our ticket (to the knockout phase) against Cameroon, it's always important to start with a win," Herrera said at Mexico's World Cup base in Santos on Sunday."We saw that Spain lost (to Switzerland in their 2010 opener) and then became world champions but in our case it really is very important to win," he added.
Croatia started the European qualifiers well but limped into the playoffs after taking just one point from their last four group matches.Coach Niko Kovac took over from the sacked Igor Stimac for the elimination double-header against Iceland and they squeezed through 2-0 on aggregate against what was probably the weakest of the eight sides in the playoffs.
Kovac has since led Croatia on an unbeaten run of three wins and two draws and if they can get a point from Brazil, or avoid a confidence-deflating thrashing, he will be confident they can progress.The Croatians have an outstanding midfield in Real Madrid's Champions League winner Luka Modric and Sevilla's Ivan Rakitic but their defense is decimated by injuries and suspensions.
Towering striker Mario Mandzukic is banned for the opener against Brazil and the Croatians will have to dig very deep into their slim resources if they are to advance into the knockout rounds for the first time since 1998, when they stunned the world to reach the semi-finals in their first World Cup as an independent nation.
The outsiders in the group are Cameroon. The Indomitable Lions are led by Samuel Eto’o and have several other players with top class experience but they look unlikely of reaching the heights of 1990 when they became the first African team to reach the quarter finals.
What already looks the group's key match is when Croatia take on Mexico in Recife on June 23 - in the final round of Group A fixtures.
Cameroon will have a different view, despite being unconvincing in the qualifiers and needing points given to them after Togo fielded an ineligible player to progress.
They arrived in Brazil later than planned this week after a rows with their federation over bonuses.
With their last group game against Brazil, Cameroon know they need to hit the ground running and do have the power to push Mexico in their first game on Friday.
(Additional reporting by Zoran Milosavljevic and Rex Gowar)