Only one day left! On to Groups E and F!
Pretend, for a moment, that you don’t know anything about the 2010 World Cup. Then, say I were to tell you a story that went something like this: In one of the group-stage games, a coach addresses his team at half-time, with the score 0-0. He criticizes one of his players for venturing out of position, and the player responds with a profanity-laced tirade that culminates in the player telling the coach to go f*%! himself, in front of the whole squad. The coach removes said player from the game, and afterwards, the nation’s FA announces that they will be punishing him.
How do his teammates respond? Well, they go on strike, of course, and refuse to practice the next day. Predictably, there is a huge media storm at home, the team’s on-field performace suffers, and they fail to get out of their group. The whole affair is viewed as a great national embarrassment.
Now, if I were to ask you to guess which country’s 2010 World Cup experience I’ve just described, you’d guess France, wouldn’t you? Sometimes, the world just plays to our stereotypes, I suppose.
Given the chaos of their last World Cup adventure, one might wonder why anyone would pick France to win Group E this time around. I could talk about the new coach, the new players, everyone’s fervent desire to atone for 2010… but none of that means as much as the simple fact that they drew pretty much the easiest possible opposition here.
Honduras seems to have regained their optimism after their 0-0 draw with England, but recent defeats to Turkey (2-0) and Israel (4-2) may be more indicative of their level. Still, they played quite well in CONCACAF qualifying, and they’re used to playing in the heat. They will look to play conservatively and counter-attack once their opponents have exhausted themselves.
Ecuador have some quality players in the likes of Felipe Caicedo, Enner Valencia, Antonio Valencia and Michael Arroyo, but they’ve struggled to remain consistent, and their defense is widely seen as shaky. They will attack with gusto, but their approach may prove naive in this setting. I suspect that the Europeans will be more troubled by Honduras’ defensive set-up.
Switzerland are France’s most likely challengers. They looked very good in UEFA qualifying, winning their group by seven points. One of their brightest stars, Xherdan Shaqiri, made a big-time move to Bayern Munich in 2012, but that led to him spending most of last season on the bench behind Arjen Robben. Lack of games is always a concern, but that shouldn’t hold the Swiss back here. They are a solid, well-organized team and they should get out of this group.
At the end of the day, though, France has a long list of big names in their squad – Lloris, Koscielny, Sagna, Evra, Pogba, Cabaye, Giroud, Remy… All experienced players from big clubs that should be able to get the job done in Group E (assuming, of course, they don’t decide to faire la grève this time around).
Group E Winner: France
Group E Runner-Up: Switzerland
For the last several years, Lionel Messi has been one side of a two-way debate over the identity of the world’s best player. This past season, the balance of opinion seems to have tipped in Christiano Ronaldo’s favor, but let’s all take a deep breath and remember that Messi still scored 41 goals in 46 appearances in all competitions with Barcalona this season. Standards have gotten pretty high when people see that kind of production as an “off” year.
Of course, it was Messi himself who set those standards by winning everything that there is to win with his club, and then winning it again. His resume glitters with accomplishments, but there is one mountain he hasn’t yet managed to climb: he’s never really shone on the World Cup stage. 2014 is his chance to do it in style on his home continent.
He’ll have plenty of help, as Argentina will field one of the most impressive squads in the tournament. Higuain, Lavezzi, Mascherano, Di Maria, Zabaleta… everywhere you look, you find a star player coming off a good season at a big club. It’s hard not to feel optimistic about their chances in Brazil.
Argentina’s cause is bolstered further by the fact that they got a pretty favorable draw here. Iran’s best player toils in the second tier of English football, and the majority of his compatriots have never tested themselves outside of their own domestic league. The gulf in class and experience will surely be too wide for them to overcome; the more realistic aim will be to avoid humiliation in defeat.
Nigeria is a step up from Iran, but it’s hard to see them worrying Argentina, either. Premier League fans will recognize Victor Moses, Peter Odemwingie and Shola Ameobi – decent players all, but not exactly the type of guys that you would expect to shine in this competition. Emmanuel Emenike and Uche Nwofor are decent attacking options as well, but most of the pre-tournament analysis that I’ve seen has focused on John Obi Mikel. That’s not a good thing. Based on what I’ve seen from him at Chelsea, it’s pretty clear that any team that needs John Obi Mikel to be their main man is in trouble.
That leaves Bosnia-Herzegovina as the last team with a chance to spoil Argentina’s party, and they’re an interesting one. This is their first appearance at the World Cup, so there is a sense that they’re a bit of a wild card; they’ll certainly be playing with a ton of national pride (the benefits of which may be partially negated by the nerves that come with it). I happened to watch their friendly last week against Mexico, and I thought they looked very capable. I also know that they had a very strong qualification campaign, and that they have a star striker in Edin Dzeko. Does all of this add up to a credible challenge to Argentina’s dominance? Probably not, but it should be enough to get them out of one of the tournament’s weaker groups and into the Round of 16.
Group F Winner: Argentina
Group F Runner-Up: Bosina-Herzegovina