With the start of the FIFA World Cup 2014 less than a week away I take a look at each group: the teams, the key players and matches, and offer my predictions. Here I look at Group E, containing France, Switzerland, Ecuador and Honduras.
France’s relationship with the World Cup in the past two decades can be characterised as ‘boom or bust’. Failure to qualify for USA 94 was followed up with the historic win in their own World Cup four years later. Embarrassed in 2002 and eliminated in the group stage with ignominy of being the only holders to go home without managing to score a goal. They were within a penalty shoot-out of a second World Cup success with a shock run to the final in Germany 2006; what followed in South Africa four years ago was an astonishing inept performance when so much was expected, eliminated at the group stage for the second time in eight years.
Les Bleus are always a bit of a mystery in a major tournament, but this time around expectations will be modest even though they are led by 1998 World Cup winning captain Didier Deschamps. Preparations haven’t been helped by the loss of star player Franck Ribery through injury. As France’s biggest threat and only recognisable world class player, the Bayern Munich forward will be missed. The loss of Ribery may have been soothed by the presence of Manchester City’s Samir Nasri, but Deschamps has opted not to include the midfielder.
It means there is now greater responsibility on the shoulders of Yohan Cabaye as a creative source. In attack France possess two threatening forwards in the shape of Karim Benzema and Arsenal’s Olivier Giroud. This combination should prove strong enough to get France through the group stage, but neither have convinced throughout their career when faced with top class opposition.
The reality for France is that this will be a transitional and experimental tournament. Their squad is youthful and Brazil 2014 will probably be considered as a stepping stone and major tournament experience ahead of a more realistic challenge when they host Euro 2016 or in the Russian World Cup in four years time.
Key player: Paul Pogba
Sir Alex Ferguson made few mistakes in his 27 years as manager of Manchester United, but allowing French midfielder Pogba to leave and join Juventus on a free transfer in 2012 will surely be considered a catastrophic one.
Pogba has been a revelation in Serie A for the past two seasons, was voted Golden Boy (best U21 player in Europe) in 2013, and is the best candidate to take on the mantle left behind by the peerless Patrick Vieira.
At just 21-years-old Pogba should have at least two more World Cups ahead of him after this one, so his time may come in the future but he is the one player really worth being excited about in the French squad. If he gets his motor going, Pogba’s lung bursting displays could be enough to propel France toward an unlikely challenge.
World Cup best
Odds: 25-1 (StanJames)
A curious fact about Switzerland is that in 2006 they became the first team to be eliminated from a World Cup without conceding a goal - eliminated in the round of 16 on penalties.
In past tournaments they have been exponents of an cautious style of play - choosing efficiency over ambition - and I would be very surprised if we saw anything that differed from that in Brazil.
The Swiss qualified as winners of their group, unbeaten in ten matches, but in truth it was a weak group absent of any of Europe’s major footballing forces. The draw for the World Cup has also be fairly kind: they will believe their discipline should see them through against Ecuador and Honduras. Having upset eventual winners Spain four years ago in the group stage, if the French are dysfunctional, the Swiss may even fancy another major scalp.
A solid round of 16 finish should be the order of the day.
Key player: Xerdan Shaqiri
The Bayern Munich winger is the one stand-out player in a Swiss squad that has ‘workmanlike’ written all over it. A tricky and skillful dribbler with a devastating cannon for a left foot, Shaqiri can strike from nowhere when cutting in from the right hand side.
His days at Bayern look numbered so the World Cup offers something of an audition for the former Basel player. Liverpool are believed to be suitors, so that should attract some interest to the Swiss games.
World Cup best
Quarter-Finals: 1934, 1938 & 1954
Odds: 125-1 (Paddy Power)
Anyone writing off Ecuador before the tournament begins should know in familiar conditions they could certainly repeat their debut World Cup performance and reach the final 16.
On each flank Ecuador possess dangerous, attacking wingers the likes of which are a rare breed in the modern game. Fans of the Premier League will be familiar with Manchester United’s Antonio Valencia (who captains the Ecuador side), but on the left hand side Jefferson Montero will present an equal threat.
Montero was reportedly close to a move to the Premier League last summer, but his proposed move to Cardiff City was halted by apparent work permit issues. If Montero is still looking for a move to Europe, the next four weeks could be pivotable in selling his talents.
In attack Ecuador will look to feed the powerful Felipe Caicedo from out wide; Dynamo Moscow’s Christian Noboa will be tasked with running the engine room, while experienced hand Segundo Castillo will provide protection for a vulnerable back four.
Ecuador surprised many by finishing above the much-fancied Uruguay in qualification (forcing Luis Suarez and co into an Intercontinental Play-off). However qualification was based on formidable home form, and a failure to win a single away game suggests Ecuador do not travel well.
They may not show enough consistency to win the group, but should present a serious challenge to the Swiss team as creditable recent draws against Netherlands and England suggest.
Key player: Christian Noboa
Dynamo Moscow midfielder Noboa has become increasingly important to Ecuador in recent years, with his touch, passing ability and responsibility for orchestrating attacks key to the success of the team.
The 29-year-old has plied his trade in Russia since 2007, so he will be familiar with Ecuador’s European opposition and understand how to engage himself with their style.
Ecuador’s main threat is posed by their pace out wide feeding striker Felipe Caicedo, but Noboa is instrumental in that, feeding the ball into the channels and operating around the fringes of the opposition penalty area.
Noboa can expect to be targeted for special marking, but if he can find the space to operate he could well organise a famous upset in this tournament.
World Cup best
Round of 16: 2006
Odds: 150-1 (Totesport)
In two previous World Cup finals appearances Honduras have failed to win a match. Few will expect it, but if they can end that run it would probably be considered a incredible success for what has been something of a golden generation for Honduran football.
Honduras’ route to Brazil would suggest while hopes for a first World Cup finals victory may be remote, they are not impossible. Honduras did, after all finish, above CONCACAF giants Mexico, defeating the Mexicans 2-1 on their own turf (to go along with a 2-1 home success against the region’s other giant, the USA).
Honduras also showed in their friendly against England this weekend they are a tough, well organised outfit who are not afraid to put it about. While they may not threaten a victory, Honduras will certainly make an impact on their opponents and their expected highly physical approach will not be easily forgotten.
Los Catrachos do boast some familiar faces in experienced Premier League players Maynor Figueroa, Wilson Palacios and Roger Espinoza; Celtic’s Emilio Izaguirre will also provide a threat from the left flank.
However, an overall lack of quality and experience drawn from the top level of club football will hamper Honduras’ hopes. They will certainly target that first ever finals win, but don’t be surprised if they collect more red cards than goals in their campaign.
Key player: Noel Valladaras
The 37-year-old goalkeeper is Honduras’ second most capped player of all time, and has been the mainstay of the national team for a decade.
If Honduras are to achieve that much-wanted first ever World Cup finals win then you expect it will have to come off the back of a career-defining performance from their number one.
Valladaras is a daring and fearless goalkeeper who isn’t afraid to put his body on the line. You can expect him to have plenty of work in Brazil, and in what will surely be his final World Cup he will no doubt look to make his name with an historical performance.
World Cup best
Group Stage: 1982 & 2010
Odds: 4000-1 (Ladbrokes)
Switzerland v Ecuador (15 June, Brasilia, 13.00 local time)
In the Brazilian capital the Swiss and Ecuador open their campaign against each other in a match that could have huge consequences for the rest of the tournament.
First round group games are usually cagey affairs, but you feel Ecuador can only achieve success by positive play - all of their strength lies in attack. The Swiss way is to play with caution, so that clash of styles should make for an interesting game of cat and dog.
France v Honduras (15 June, Porto Alegre, 16.00 local time)
Three hours later France open their campaign against Honduras. Les Bleus will be overwhelming favourites, but this is a key contest because it will provide a glimpse of what France has arrived in Brazil.
The World Cup disasters of 2002 and 2010 began with insipid performances from which the French never recovered, so a good start could be vital if Deschamps’ team is to avoid another embarrassment in the groups.
If Honduras produce a shock it will probably go down as one of the World Cup’s greatest, and with much tougher assignments to follow it is an absolute must-win match for the French.
The manner of France’s qualification suggests Deschamps’ side do possess some spirit, but with the French you just never know. Historically French teams have self-destructed under pressure and you can expect some to be exerted by Switzerland and Ecuador.
The anticipated battle for second between the Swiss and Ecuador is an intriguing one and I hope provides some impetus to their encounter. I suspect it will be discipline overcoming adventure and the Swiss will qualify along with France.
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