Sunday, June 8, 2014

2014 World Cup Group E Preview

Group E is one that figures to be an easy one to decode, and yet there is some complexity in it. It may not be as clear cut as first glances would dictate. But on the flipside, there doesn't seem to be many true challengers to the heir apparent to the throne.

France is the class of this group as you might expect, but this is not the same France team as past editions (for very good reason). The 2010 World Cup was nothing short of a titanic disaster for Les Blues, and therefore the decks have mainly been swept from then to now. Didier Deschamps is thankfully not Raymond Domenech (and therefore not a raving lunatic), so France may have some stability in their ranks for once. They are also transitioning away from an older generation that was partially responsible for the failures in 2010 to a younger one with immense promise. It seems that the youth will dictate France's fortunes in this tournament, especially players like Paul Pogba, and maybe others like Antoine Griezmann and some of the youth in the back 4. The injury concerns for Franck Ribery are concerning most certainly, but the way that France play should be able to adapt if he's not around, even if a player like Clement Grenier cannot directly replace him.Their major concern will likely come in the center of defense, with the incumbent centerbacks being two solid Premier League players in Koscielny and Sakho, but do they inspire confidence like what other teams (or specifically Mehdi Benatia, a player France let slip from their grasp) have? But even then, France could be this tournament's true sleeper thanks to their group and run that they have to eventual promise. If the squad can stay cohesively together and unite with their manager, this France team may have a deep run in them.

Remember in their first game in 2010 that Switzerland beat Spain? Some may neglect to tell you that. They've been solid if unspectacular through qualifying for this World Cup despite the presence of names that many will be familiar. There is the strong Napoli contingent of Inler, Behrami, and Dzemaili and there are a number of solid Bundesliga players in there as well such as Xhaka, Shaqiri, and Josip Drmic. The way to describe the Swiss team would probably go just as they did in qualifying: Solid if unspectacular. There is no standout name on this team, but then again you can't particularly find a terribly weak link in the group either. Much of that has to do with the great Ottmar Hitzfeld, who is stepping down after this World Cup, who has instilled that sort of belief into this team. They may not be the most talented team around, but they'll be in every game no matter the opponent, and just look back to when they beat Brazil last August as an example of that. They will be quietly good in this tournament; never making a ton of noise but solidly going about their business probably on their way to the knockout rounds.

We would be remiss when talking about Ecuador if we do not talk about Chucho Benitez, who sadly passed away last year and is a player that Ecuador hasn't, and probably can't replace. He was the center of almost everything his teams did for both club and country, and Ecuador have just not looked the same without him. That being said, playing with inspiration is often a catalyst, and maybe it will be for this team as well. Their strength comes through their wing play with players like Antonio Valencia and Jefferson Montero, even if it comes at the expense of the middle of the park for them. Whether they have the forwards to put away the fruits created by these dynamic wingers is another question, and that is asking a lot of Felipe Caicedo and Enner Valencia, even though the latter began to dominate Liga MX this past Clausura. They were always a difficult team to beat in Quito, but they struggled away from home in CONMEBOL qualifying, so the lack of an altitude advantage might prove to be fatal for them in Brazil.

Thanks to Mexico's cataclysmic qualifying campaign, Honduras gained CONCACAF's 3rd auto berth to this tournament, and it's hard to say they didn't deserve it. They've always been a pesky team, even if they are weaker than the US, Mexico and Costa Rica. The strength of this squad comes mainly from MLS through the likes of Victor Bernardez, Boniek Garcia, Roger Espinoza (now at Wigan) and Jerry Bengston, which is nice for the head office of Don Garber but not particularly amazing for the team at large. Some will say they are in Brazil to make up numbers and their first handful of friendlies in the build-up hasn't really disproven those theories as they have been handled by Turkey and Israel; two teams that are not going to the World Cup. They have enough quality to cause problems in game for a team like Ecuador or Switzerland, but probably not enough to trouble the group on a larger scale.

Prediction: France and Switzerland will duke it out to win the group, and if France wins it they have a clear run to the quarterfinals to pick up some momentum.

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