This is going to be the first time that almost half of Switzerland’s World Cup squad is under the age of 25 and they will be looking to emulate their successful under-17 players, who triumphed in the under-age version in 2009. Three players from that 23 will be in coach Ottmar Hitzfeld’s selection – Gladbach’s Granit Xhaka, Real Sociedad striker, Haris Seferovic and Wolfsburg defender Ricardo Rodriguez.
The triumvirate were key to the win five years ago and they will agin be so if Rossocrociati are to go deep into this year’s tournament in Brazil. One absentee who impressed so much in Nigeria and won the Silver Ball award for the second-best player, is Wolfsburg attacker Nassim Ben Khalifa who hasn’t kicked on since. It’s disappointing not to look forward to his performances, as he was excellent under the age-restrictions. He was selected in the 30-man provisional squad for the World Cup in South Africa 2010, but didn’t make the cut for the 23. However, he never even made this 30 and again he won’t be with the above trio. Xherdan Shaqiri of Bayern Munich has yet to show his true ability consistently, such is the incredible strength of the Bavarians, but he will be keen to demonstrate what he is all about. They could win this group and at least equal their best performance of reaching the quarter-finals on three occasions in history – yet not since their hosted the competition in 1954. The only thing is to achieve that, they may have to win this group, or face the might of Argentina in the first knockout stage.
France : Four years ago, the French camp was not unlike their Netherlands equivalent – at a state of complete unrest. With the more experienced players threatening to walk out in disgust and turning in performances less than desirable, Les Bleus bowed out at the group stage with coach Raymond Domenech ridicules and subjected to behaviour which amounted to insubordination. Quite simply, it was a car crash.
Laurent Blanc couldn’t rescue their hopes for Euro 2012 and once again they under-performed, winning just one match and were elminated by defending champions and eventual winners, Spain. When Didier Deschamps – who was captain when France won their first-ever World Cup on their home turf in 1998 took over almost immediately after the Euros two years ago, hope sprung eternal. In a difficult qualifying group, managed a 1-1 draw in Madrid and when Finland took a point in Gijon, with France defeating Georgia 3-1 at the Stade de France, there was real hope a shock table reading after all eight games had been played.
However, following defeat at home to Spain and then a disappointing stalemate in Tbilisi, the runners-up spot was the best they could achieve. They even had to come back from a 2-0 first-leg deficit against Ukraine, before scoring three times unanswered in the return leg at home to prevail. Results in the warm-ups have been mixed; 4-0 and 8-0 demolitions handed out to Norway and Jamaica respectively have been impressive, but a 1-1 home draw against Paraguay, who won’t be in Brazil, has slightly tempered matters. As will the absence of Ballon D’Or third-placed, Franck Ribery, who was forced to pull out with an injury to his lower back. However, they do possess the excellence of Olivier Giroud and Karim Benzema up front, with Paul Pogba and Blaise Matuidi in midfield. But it’s at the back that France will be found out. Deschamps has picked 11 defenders in less than two years and still with only relative success.
As is obvious, the second-placed side in this group will almost certainly face the unenviable task of playing Argentina in the knockout stages. The winners will have an easier match, but they probably face wither Germany (my fancy) or Portugal. Tough call.
Ecuador proved to England in a recent warm-up match that they will be a force to be reckoned with on their own continent. Scoring two quality goals – although England’s defending left a lot to be desired – and showing glimpses of their collective bursts of speed on the counter-attack, they will offer a lot of entertainment for at least their three guaranteed games. However, they only qualified on goal difference in the CONMEBOL group which always contains Argentina, Colombia, Peru and Uruguay (Brazil didn’t compete due to being hosts).
Playing their home games away from the 2,500-metres above sea-level capital Quito wasn’t to the squad’s liking and showed in their results, but more worrying for the coach Reinaldo Ruedo is the form of his players at club level, as well. Not many of the 23 are playing at a high level, with the exception of captain and Manchester United winger Antonio Valencia and as we all know in England, he wasn’t exactly on fire last term. If the terrible passing of former team-mate Christian Benitez doesn’t inspire them to perform to the best of their ability then nothing will. Expect tears at goals/wins and t-shirt celebrations bearing his image.
The minnows of Honduras were not over-awed again as opponents of England in a pre-World Cup fixture, in which the most exciting thing to happen was a match-delaying electrical storm in the hurricane-central of Miami. They go into the tournament as 1500/1 outsiders, but playing a fairly rigid 4-4-2 with their players not tremendously high on flair, as opposed to scoring 20 in the determination box in terms of Football Manager ratings. They may cause a few problems for their opponents in this section, but I don’t see them taking points off any of them – you’ll be sorry to hear. They will press high up the pitch, but if they don’t win the ball, they will leave themselves unexposed at the other end of it and could be on the wrong end of the possession stats in every game.
Coach Luis Fernando Suarez is a man more interested in destroying and disrupting the oppositions intentions while all but forgetting about what to do with the ball when they have it. They won’t be this year’s Cameroon of Italia 90, but hardly the Zaire of 1974 in the Netherlands. The Hondurans will score and they won’t concede into double-figures, but they will ultimate go home empty-handed.
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