2014 World Cup Preview: Groups E&F

One of the most interesting things about the World Cup every four years, is it gives us a chance to see international sides we’ve likely never seen before.  This will certainly be the case for groups E&F. The groups aren’t without household names, however, as Group E is headlined by 1998 World Cup champion France and Group F is anchored by the always dangerous Argentina. France is the last team to win a World Cup on its home turf and Argentina has won the tournament twice. While France is still rebuilding, and a few Cups out from really making a run for the trophy, Argentina always fields one of the most prolific soccer teams in the world. Of course, Argentina’s captain is Lionel Messi, the 26 year old is arguably the best player in the world and is just now entering the prime of his career. Messi alone is worth a watch, even if you have no rooting interest in Argentina, but there’s some quality players throughout both groups. Let’s take a look at who’s best suited to make a deep run in Brazil, who’s going to struggle and some quality underdogs in Groups E&F of the 2014 World Cup!

Group E:

Antonio Valencia could help punch Ecuador’s ticket into the next round, repeating their magical run in 2006.

Ecuador – Ecuador, like many of its South American brethren, are hoping the heat, humidity and sticky Brazilian summer lends itself well for a spot in the knockout stage. Ecuador doesn’t just have to rely on their foes not acclimatizing to the Brazilian heat, they’ve got plenty of talent on the team that makes them a tough out for anyone in Group E. Ecuador is home to Manchester United midfielder Antonio Valencia, the 28 year old was coming into his own as Ecuador made a surprisingly deep World Cup run in 2006. Ecuador finished fourth in qualifying (CONEMBOL), right below Chile. This year, Ecuador is a solid team, but they’re likely beneath that top group of teams in CONEMBOL, good “La Tri” drew a favorable group in Brazil. Ecuador will need to take care of business against Switzerland and Honduras, but if France strolls into their final matchup, against Ecuador, already holding a spot in the knockout stages, Ecuador could squeeze its way out of Group E.

Franck Ribery is likely the most talented player in a France uni, will he live up to his billing?

France – France is certainly among one of the most prideful soccer nations in the world, which is why their disastrous, and honestly, flat out embarrassing performance in 2010 is still a pressing story for this year’s squad. France not only disappointed on the field in 2010, but the team’s players held a mutiny after then Chelsea striker Nicolas Anelka was booted from the team mid-tourney. France didn’t just go out of the group stage with a whimper, they flamed out in historic fashion and the program had to literally press the reset button. France barely made the cut this year, despite yet again having one of the more talented rosters in all of UEFA. France should finish no lower than second in Group E, and it should be expected they win the group. Franck Ribery is not only a star on one of the world’s most powerful teams, Bayern Munich, he’s the face of French soccer and one of the bridges between the team’s past and next generations. Ribery is one of the most entertaining players to watch in the group, he seamlessly moves through traffic on the field unlike virtually anyone else in the world, he’s among the world’s absolute best dribblers. He’s had a so-so year for Munich, and he’s never quite matched the highs he’s had on the club side when donning the France jersey; France will need him to live up to his name this year if they want to move out of the group. What’s more interesting for France this year is the new group of stars “Les Bleus” are putting on the field to represent the renaissance of French soccer. One of the team’s new stars should be 21 year old Juventus midfielder Paul Pogba, formerly of Manchester United. France has never had a problem cultivating top talent either among their own domestic clubs or across Europe, it seems to be internal affairs that are troubling the team moving forward. Can they overcome these squabbles in 2014 and do what’s expected: winning Group E? On second thought…does France even want to win the group? They rightfully should edge out Ecuador and Switzerland on talent alone…but is a second round matchup against Argentina, instead of say, Bosnia or Nigeria really what the team wants?

Honduras – Honduras made its first World Cup in 1982 and was absent every iteration until 2010. Despite their struggles, Hondurans take their soccer very seriously. The nation threw a hell of a party in 2010, the national soccer federation even told its players to stay home and not return to their club sides around the world, as to not miss out. Honduras is among the weaker teams in this year’s tournament, but making two consecutive World Cups is a great result for the nation that went decades between appearances. It’s highly unlikely the team makes it out of Group E, but the nation should build on its experience in 2014 moving forward. Leading Honduras into the World Cups is New England Revolution player Jerry Bengtson, he was on fire during qualifying, scoring 9 goals. Another former MLS star on the squad is midfielder Andy Najar, Najar was cultivated through DC United’s academy.

Switzerland – Switzerland has enough talent to challenge France for the top, or runner-up of Group E, but the Swiss will have to avoid a disappointing result against Ecuador to move forward. Switzerland rivals only France in talent among Group E’s teams. Switzerland has an impressive number of its players making their living in Europe’s top leagues, but the nation has disappointed in recent history on the world’s biggest stage. This year, the group is ripe for the taking for an under the radar team like Switzerland, without the pressure of France, but still having more talent than the darkhorse Ecuador. Surprisingly, Switzerland is ranked #8 in the world, according to FIFA. This would put the Swiss squarely at the top of Group E, according to the world soccer federation’s ranking system. However, there’s a little more to the story regarding Switzerland’s lofty world ranking, that has them above not just France, but Italy, England, the United States and the Netherlands. Switzerland had one of the easiest roads to Brazil in the world, their UEFA group contained names like Iceland, Slovenia, Norway and Albania. Considering the strength distributed across UEFA, Switzerland drew the most opportune group possible. Still, the Swiss are not entirely devoid of talent. One of the World Cup’s most promising stars is 22 year old Xherdan Shaqiri of Bayern Munich, he’s as dynamic and exciting a player as they come in this year’s field. Another youngster playing at Europe’s highest level is midfielder Granit Xhaka, of Borussia Monchengladbach. The Swiss have the talent to compete with France in winning the group, but like France, could finishing runner-up be a better draw? Better yet, can the Swiss finally translate their talent and potential into results at the World Cup, given recent disappointments?

Group F:

The pressure is on: Messi will wear the armband for Argentina in this year’s World Cup.

Argentina – Argentina finished first in CONEMBOL qualifying, luckily avoiding Brazil; the host nation automatically qualifies. Still, Argentina’s road to qualifying was among the toughest in this year’s field, having to match up against teams like Colombia, Uruguay and Chile multiple times. Qualifying was a mere formality for the two time World Cup champs, but is it now or never for Argentina to win it all with Lionel Messi?  At age 26, Lionel Messi still has many more quality years playing soccer at the game’s highest level for FC Barcelona, or wherever his career takes him, but Messi will be 30 when he and Argentina head to Russia for the 2018 iteration of the World Cup, and 34 when the tournament heads to Qatar. I’ll wager most nations would sell their souls for a 30 year old Lionel Messi, but the pickings are ripe for Argentina right here, right now. Messi is in his prime, the tournament is close to home and Argentina has been given a favorable group draw and should be able to handle the Group E winner or runner-up with relative ease. Among teams with world class talent, Argentina is almost unrivaled in this year’s World Cup, aiding Messi on his quest are former Real Madrid (now Napoli) striker Gonzalo Higuain, Real Madrid winger Angel Di Maria and Manchester City forward Sergio Aguero. Messi, Higuain and Aguero all play on the same line in Argentina’s 4-3-3 formation…that’s about as scary a front as you’ll see in the world. The road to glory sets up very nicely for “La Albiceleste”…is this the year it comes together in claiming the vaunted third star on the jersey?

Bosnia-Herzegovina – This is Bosnia’s first World Cup appearance, not bad for a nation that didn’t gain its independence until 1992. The Bosnians (and Herzegovinans, the official demonym for the nation’s residents from Herzegovina) aren’t just a great story, they’re bringing some heat to Group F this summer. The team has a pair of forwards that are as competitive as any in the group, rivaling only Argentina. The nation’s attack is led by Manchester City striker Edin Dzeko and VFB Stuttgart’s Vedad Ibisevic, Ibisevic was the club’s leading scorer this past season. Add Roma midfielder Miralem Pjanic and you might have one of the most fun teams to watch, and root for, in Brazil this summer. Best for “BiH”? Their road to the next round doesn’t hinge on Argentina, it relies on taking care of business against Nigeria and Iran. Advancing to the next stage shouldn’t be unexpected for the team in their first ever appearance in the tournament.

Iran – Iran sits atop nations like Japan, Korea and Australia in the Asian Confederation (AFC), but the Iranians will have a tough go in a group with much more proven talent and world class athleticism. A look at the country’s national team’s results over the last year brings up serious questions. While Japan and Australia have kept their form through international friendlies, Iran’s record is mostly confined to weaker Asian Confederation nations. Iran was grouped with Bahrain, Qatar and Indonesia in qualifying, and their last three results, draws with Montenegro, Belarus and a defeat to Guinea don’t bode well for the team’s form heading into Brazil. The team’s avoidance of Japan and Australia also question their #1 ranking in the AFC. Iran will likely finish last in the group, due to inexperience, a questionable approach to preparing for the Cup and a lack of top flight talent. Still, Ashkan Dejagah of EPL club Fulham is a player to watch as the team looks for a favorable result against Nigeria or Bosnia-Herzegovina.

John Obi Mikel will be the catalyst for the Super Eagles this summer, if they want to make it to the knockout stage.

Nigeria – The “Super Eagles” are one of the strongest national teams in the African Cup of Nations historically, making it to the round of 16 twice in the World Cup and after winning the African Cup in 2013, the team could be finding its way back on top of the continent’s ladder. Nigeria had a disappointing effort in 2010, failing to win a game in their group, their best result was a draw against South Korea. Still, the team had a moral victory of sorts against, of all teams, Argentina, they fell 1-0 to the Argentinians, but goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama made a name for himself, holding off a relentless attack from Argentina after letting an early goal in the 16th minute, earning man of the match. This year, Nigeria should continue to ride the momentum of its African Cup of Nations victory by expecting no less than group runner-ups, but they’ll have a serious contender in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The team’s captain is Chelsea midfielder John Obi Mikel, the team will need a strong performance out if its midfield, defense and goal given the dynamic attacks of Bosnia and Argentina. Can the Nigerians regain some of their former glory and advance to the knockout stages? It’s not unthinkable, but the team’s defense will have to play its best day in and day out, even against Iran, as the shots will be firing nonstop in Group F. A win, not a draw, against Iran, and a favorable result against Bosnia would go a long way in securing a spot out of the group stage.