Friday, May 9, 2014

World Cup Preview, Groups E and F

By Kevin Beane

Continuing with our four-part series, here's a look at Group E and Group F in this summer's World Cup.

Group D

SWITZERLAND — The Swiss sort of fly under the radar, but they are solid. This will be their third consecutive World Cup, and they impressively allowed no non-shootout goals in the 2006 World Cup. They continue to be defensive-minded, making them something like the Baltimore Ravens of FIFA.

They are also like the Baltimore Ravens of FIFA offensively, as no one on their current squad has netted more than 10 goals for the national team, and that's a midfielder with 73 caps. They also are not really challenging themselves in the run-up to the World Cup, playing only one World Cup qualifier (a loss against South Korea). Expect more 1-0 games going either way with them.

ECUADOR — The way South American qualifying works is like this: Brazil and Argentina are always a given, a third team will often look very strong (most recently, Uruguay), and every other country takes turns at semi-relevancy.

Now it's Ecuador's turn. They are, by far, the lowest-ranked South American qualifier. But they will be battle-tested. Since qualification ended in October, all of their pre-World Cup friendlies have been, and will be, against other World Cup qualifiers. Specifically, they have draws against Argentina and Honduras, and have beaten Australia. Next up: Netherlands, Mexico, and England. That is how you prepare for a World Cup.

FRANCE — Ah, France. Either great, or horrid (like Italy). Either winning the whole thing (1998) or crashing out in the first round (2010, amid a player mutiny).

They are coming off an impressive win over the Dutch, and other than that, they easing into the tournament, playing three more pre-World Cup friendlies, all at home, all against countries that didn't qualify. What may save the French is that Group E is ridiculously unchallenging. Many of their key players are in the 30s (Franck Ribery, Patrice Evra, Bacary Sagna) so this is either going to be a terrific swan song or a geriatric wheeze.

HONDURAS — This is the second consecutive World Cup for Honduras, who now firmly challenges Costa Rica as the third strongest squad in CONCACAF.

But it's a distant third behind the U.S. and Mexico, neither of whom are setting the world on fire. That draw with Ecuador was nice, but it came on the heels of a 5-0 shellacking by Brazil. Their upcoming matches before the World Cup, all in the United States, will be against Turkey, Israel, and England. That's decent. I'm looking for a way they or anyone squeaks by France into the knockout stages, but I'm just not seeing it.

Predicted Order of Finish

1. Switzerland
2. France
3. Ecuador
4. Honduras

Group F

ARGENTINA — It seems strange, but Argentina has not made it out of the quarterfinals of the World Cup since 1990. Is this the year they turn it around? Quite possibly. They have the best player in the world in Lionel Messi, and a robust and deserved FIFA ranking of 6th. You'd expect them to coast through qualifying with Brazil not taking part (qualifying automatically as hosts), and so they did, pipping Colombia for the top spot.

Thus far, their run-up to the World Cup has been unimpressive, with draws against Ecuador and Romania bookending a win over Bosnia, and they're taking it easy on the way out, hosting Trinidad and Slovenia at home.

BOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA — Europe doesn't produce many Cinderella stories, but they might have one in Bosnia, who will be participating in their first major tournament (they've never qualified for the Euro). Then again, it's hard to call them Cinderella when they blitzed through qualifying with an 8-1-1 record, and won the group, thanks to goal differential, over Greece. Can you win a tiebreaker on a blowout? Their goal differential was +24; Greece's was +8.

They have the lightest slate of post-qualifying, pre-World Cup matches I've seen, with just four. They have a pair of 2-0 losses to Argentina and Egypt, with Mexico and Cote D'Ivoire to come. Those losses, especially to Egypt, are disappointing, but you know with their qualification record they probably have a star you haven't heard of, and indeed, that would be Manchester City's Edin Dzeko (33 goals in 60 matches for his country).

IRAN — This will be the fourth World Cup in Iran's history, and they are still looking for their second win in the competition. The first came in 1998, against the United States.

I'm not sure they're going to get it. This is the absolute worst World Cup tuneup schedule, entirely against countries that didn't even come close to qualifying: Guinea, Belarus, Montenegro, Angola, and Trinidad. The Guinea match has already taken place, and Iran lost, Ye Gods.

Their most intriguing player is probably Reza Ghoochannejhad, who has scored 9 goals in 11 games for his country since switching FIFA allegiance from the Netherlands. His club strike rate is equally impressive for the most part, although he seems to have hit a wall this year at England second division squad Charlton (one goal in 15 matches).

NIGERIA — Throughout this series, I've been looking (and looking and looking and looking) for a dark horse squad. I think I may have finally found one. You know I place a lot of weight on who a team schedules and how they do in the friendlies leading up to the World Cup. In the case of Nigeria, they played an entire continental tournament the African Nations Championship, where they finished third. Since then, they have drawn against Mexico.

Their squad is peppered with young stars in Europe like Jon Obi Mikel, Ogenyi Onazi, and Victor Moses. In addition to that bronze at the African Nations Championship, last year they won the more prestigious African Cup of Nations. I don't see anything to dislike about this team.

Predicted Order of Finish

1. Nigeria
2. Argentina
3. Bosnia
4. Iran

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