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 F, containing Argentina, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Nigeria and Iran.
Argentina usually start a World Cup as many peoples' fancy, but for a long while they have flattered to deceive on the biggest stage. Yet, if Argentina are ever going to add a third World Cup to their cabinet they may not get a better chance than Brazil 2014.
In their favour Argentina have home-like conditions and their previous two successes came in the Americas. Secondly, they have the best player of his generation (and arguably the best ever) in Barcelona’s Lionel Messi - and we haven’t even begun to mention the likes of Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain and Angel Di Maria.
In qualification Argentina met expectations by winning the CONMEBOL region, losing just two of their 18 matches, and, more positively, Lionel Messi finally began to show the form in the blue and white of La Albiceleste that has lit up the Nou Camp for a decade, finishing as Argentina’s top scorer with 10 goals.
The attacking trio of Messi, Manchester City’s Aguero and arch-poacher Higuain of Napoli is a frightening prospect and with support to come from Angel Di Maria, Ezequiel Lavezzi and even Maxi Rodriguez, no team can boast riches in attack that come anywhere close to matching this.
There are some concerns about Argentina’s defensive vulnerability, but Javier Mascherano will do all the unseen hard graft in front of the back line in his usually exemplary manner, and in Martin Demichelis they have a centre back in form, coming off the back of an excellent second half of the season with Manchester City.
They do lack a top class midfield operator in the mould of Veron or Riquelme to really dictate the play, but if they prove as irresistible up front as expected it probably won’t matter.
Key player: Sergio Aguero
Messi is the obvious choice, but it is likely Messi will be picked out for special double and even triple marking whenever he gets the ball. Of course Messi will be the man Argentina will look to in the same way the teams of the 1980s looked at Maradona to be the difference, but Aguero is more than capable of standing alongside the Barcelona forward.
If Messi is heavily marked it will only create more space for Aguero to be at his destructive best and, as followers of the Premier League will testify, he doesn’t need much.
The chemistry between Aguero and Messi will be vital and it will also be part of Aguero’s role to help ease the momentous burden that will be placed on the shoulders of the Barcelona number 10. If the pair can combine in fantasy football fashion then it could be a very fruitful pairing.
World Cup best
Winners: 1978 & 1986
Odds: 9-2 (William Hill)
Bosnia & Herzegovina
More than twenty years on from independence in 1992 Bosnia & Herzegovina are ready to emerge as one of the new forces of European football. The rise has been steady and gradual, with no shortage of heartbreak, but there is real belief that this Bosnian squad is one that could make a huge impact on the world stage this summer.
After several near misses, including successive playoff defeats to Portugal, under the management of Safet Susic Bosnia & Herzegovina make their major championship debut as an independent nation. They qualified in dominant fashion ahead of Euro 2004 winners Greece to win their qualification group (scoring 30 goals and conceding just six in ten games). That it was one of the weakest groups in UEFA’s qualifying competition should put it all in perspective, but none could deny Bosnia haven’t earned a shot at the World Cup.
They will be dangerous opponents too and have players capable of putting on a run similar to previous eastern European surprise packages Bulgaria (1994) and Turkey (2002), although a potential round of 16 match against France and then Germany in the quarter-finals would certainly test the Bosnians to their limit.
Key player: Miralem Pjanic
The Roma midfielder has promised much for a number of years. Once thought of as one of the finest young players in Europe, you wouldn’t quite say he has failed to live up to the height but at 24-years-old now is the time for Pjanic to really raise his game and deliver on his undoubted extraordinary technical abilities.
A versatile midfielder whose wide range of abilities mean he can operate as a deeper playmaker or as a more advanced attacking midfielder, Pjanic will be the man expected to provide the ammunition for the prolific Edin Dzeko.
In Brazilian conditions he could excel as it is expected midfield players who rely more on touch, passing and efficiency of movement will excel rather than the more athletic or dynamic.
World Cup best
Odds: 150-1 (BetFred)
After their World Cup debut at USA '94 promised much for the hopes of an African world champion, the Super Eagles have never really managed to live up to that hype and haven’t managed a result of note since their shock 3-2 defeat of Spain in France 1998.
Their last two World Cup appearances have ended with winless first round eliminations, so you have to go back 16 years to find their last World Cup victory.
The current squad lacks the attacking flair and flamboyance of those 1990 teams and in truth, despite being African Champions, you will find few outside Nigeria who believe Stephen Keshi’s team will do little more than make up the numbers.
That sounds harsh because they bring a squad deep with experience of European football’s top leagues, but their biggest pedigree comes from predominantly defensively minded players Joseph Yobo and John Obi Mikel. Chelsea’s Victor Moses can be a match winner on his day, and the wily Peter Odemwingie should provide some guile and pace after a decent 2014 with Stoke City. But the overall feeling with the squad at Keshi’s disposal is that it lacks the talent and experience the other African nations can call upon.
Qualification is unlikely as both Argentina and Bosnia should prove too strong, but even that hope of breaking their long wait for another World Cup win could prove difficult as Iran will provide stubborn opposition.
Key player: Joseph Yobo
Followers of the Premier League will be familiar with the all-action defender after nine successful years at Everton. As captain of the Super Eagles the 33-year-old will be charged with bringing a measure of experience and composure to the field.
It is unlikely Nigeria will be overly aggressive in attack, so Yobo (and Mikel’s) role in organising the defensive side will be key to Nigeria’s tactic of exploiting the pace of Moses and Odemwingie on the counter attack.
World Cup best
Round of 16: 1994 & 1998
Odds: 250-1 (StanJames)
Iran’s biggest contribution to the World Cup was a famous 2-1 victory over international political rivals USA at France 1998. In fact it remains to date the only Iranian World Cup finals victory.
However, ranked #43 in the FIFA World Rankings, Iran are Asia’s number one ranked team and will be hoping to add a second finals victory at least against Nigeria.
Coached by former Real Madrid and Portugal national manager Carlos Queiroz, the Princes Persia are well led and you can expect them to be well-organised with a thorough and clear tactical plan.
Iran are not a team packed with recognised names or particularly outstanding individual talents, but they do boast Fulham midfielder Ashkan Dejagah among their own and what they may lack in obvious talent they will make up in commitment, determination and national spirit.
In addition there is a vast amount of international experience throughout the squad and while they may not set competition alight, there will be hopes in Iran the team can create another moment of history to go along with that famous win in Lyon 16 years ago.
Key player: Javad Nekounam
Captain Nekounam, 33, is a veteran of 140 internationals, is arguably Iran’s greatest ever player and has pedigree in Europe having made more than 300 appearances across two spells in Spanish football.
Nekounam is an accomplished tactician on the pitch; his discipline, defensive prowess and eye for a pass will make him the focal point of Queiroz’s team. His midfield partnership with former Bolton midfielder Andranik Teymourian is almost telepathic such is the experienced they have playing together.
With a deadly long-range shot Nekounam could well be Iran’s best hope for a moment of glory and his battle with Nigeria’s Mikel should provide an intriguing watch.
World Cup best
Group Stage: 1978, 1998 & 2006
Odds: 3000-1 (Ladbrokes)
Argentina v Bosnia & Herzegovina (15 June, Rio de Janeiro, 19.00 local time)
For Bosnia it doesn’t get much better than making your World Cup debut in the iconic Maracana in Rio de Janeiro against the world’s best player - Lionel Messi.
Bosnia will not want to be overawed by the occasion and will look to try and catch Argentina cold. For Messi & co it is the perfect opportunity to lay down a marker for this tournament in the spiritual home of their great South American rivals, and tournament hosts, Brazil.
There can be no doubt the home crowd will be cheering on Bosnia and it could certainly make for a raucous atmosphere and a firecracker of a match.
Easily the most eye-catching fixture in the group and an early test of the credentials of both teams.
Iran v Nigeria (16 June, Curitiba, 16.00 local time)
In the group’s other opening game the two underdogs in the group slug it out to end wretched recent World Cup records.
Nigeria have the more established names; more experience and you would expect too much pace and power for the Iranians. However, Nigeria’s temperament will come under scrutiny from a stubborn and organised Iran side.
This is probably the key game for both sides as I don’t expect them to take very much from their encounters with Argentina and Bosnia & Herz, and don’t be surprised to see Iran full off another unlikely World Cup victory.
Argentina and Bosnia & Herz comfortably through to the round of 16; Nigeria to just edge past Iran.
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