Groups E-H provide some mouth-watering ties. Only group G should be seen in the “group of death” category, but the others provide some real underdog nations who could, at the very least, provide some upsets and allow for more intriguing last-16 ties than first expected.
On paper, a walk in the park for Didier Deschamps and his team. But for a nation so decorated with footballing glory, the French are also all too familiar with failure. Having won in 1998, they crashed out in the groups in 2002, and suffered the same fate again last time round, having come second in the 2006 World Cup. France have a young and rejuvenated squad; Deschamps has continued in similar vein to his predecessor Laurent Blanc in terms of selection, purging the national side of the trouble makers that marred the 2010 campaign – only Patrice Evra has survived.
Whether the team will miss talents like Samir Nasri is yet to be seen, but recent results, most recently an 8-0 thumping of Jamaica, suggest they should be fine, to get out of the group at least. Ribery’s World Cup-ending injury too should be no issue; despite all the hype surrounding the Bayern Munich winger (much of it from the man himself), he has underperformed for his club this season, and the men fighting for what would have been his starting spot, Antoine Griezmann and Mathieu Valbeuna are more than capable of filling in. Add them to stars like Benzema, Pogba, Cabaye, Koscielny, Varane and Lloris and this team has a strong spine and exceptional talent. They could go a very long way once again, though if they don’t, expect Nasri’s girlfriend to be back on your twitter feeds.
The key for France will be the crunch match against a Switzerland who must not be underestimated. With a record as giant-killers following last World Cup’s defeat of Spain in the group stage, the Swiss have brought a young but disciplined squad to Brazil. The team’s coach, former Bayern Munich manager Ottmar Hitzfeld prides himself on the ability to build teams difficult to break down. They have a good recent record in competitive matches against France and should have the talent in Gokhan Inler (Napoli), Xherdan Shaqiri (Bayern Munich) and Josip Drmic (Nuremberg) to score goals on the break. However, they have struggled for said goals in recent games, and will be wary of failing to pick up points against Ecuador and Honduras – having beaten Spain in 2010, they failed to win either of their games against Chile or the Central American team (they have been paired with Honduras twice now), and as a result, crashed out at the first hurdle.
The reason the match against France is so crucial is that it could well decide who faces Argentina in the next round, and who faces one of Bosnia-Hercegovina, Nigeria or Iran (of course dependent on which teams come first and second in each group). With Ecuador’s abysmal record away from home, and Honduras’ seeming inability to win a World Cup game (they are 0 from 6 in the competition), the neighbours from Europe should come through – though if Honduras’ hostile performance against England is anything to go by, it may be tougher than expected.
Another group, another clear winner. The Argentinians are second-favourites for the tournament, behind hosts Brazil, and with good reason. Messi, Aguëro, Higuain, Lavezzi, Palacio – and that’s just the strikers. World-class talent flows through this team. The attacking flair is almost unrivalled: only Brazil can claim to boast similar stocks of world class attacking players. If Argentina do win, coach Alejandro Sabella will deserve all the plaudits he will receive – he will have had to organise his defence and midfield in a way that hides the insecurities in the Argentinian defensive ranks.
The midfield will not be so much of an issue provided Fernando Gago remains fit – he will give the side balance and allow players like Angel Di Maria, for me Real Madrid’s outstanding player this season, and the aforementioned striking superstars to flourish. Of course, much rests on the shoulders of arguably the best player to ever live, Lionel Messi. He has stumbled at major international championships before, and will be looking to right those wrongs this time round.
As a team, Argentina’s recent World Cup record has been abysmal. Since the 1990 World Cup (where they came 2nd), Argentina have won just three knockout games, including two against Mexico (the third coming against England). That means they have made it to the quarter-final just once, and have made it no further. But the past two years have been exceptional for the team from South America – Sabella has seen his side gel and cruise through qualification, top of the table. If Messi plays well, Argentina are the team to fear this summer.
Nobody really knows what to expect from Bosnia-Hercegovina. Džeko’s name has been banded about as a potential dark horse for the Golden Boot, and if he gets anywhere close his will be the team that progresses with Argentina. Pjanić is the other attacking player to watch, and his creative style will be crucial to feeding the Manchester City striker with the correct service. Begović will have to have a good tournament for Bosnia-Hercegovina to progress, though, since coach Safet Sušić does not have a wealth of defensive talent at his disposal. The two centre-backs have been found out in European football this term, and the manager’s attacking style does not leave much other protection for the highly-rated goalkeeper. After an easy qualifying group, the hype has been overdone, and if Džeko doesn’t fire, or if the team fall out with their coach (as has happened recently) they could crash out spectacularly.
Nigeria may be the team to watch in this group. Winning the African Cup of Nations and going unbeaten in qualifying is no mean feat, but recent results have been poor for Stephen Keshi’s men. The team does not have a superstar like Džeko or Pjanić, but if they recapture their form as a team they may be the surprise package. Important too is the fixture list: while Nigeria play Carlos Quieroz’s Iran first (for whom this campaign is expected to be difficult), Bosnia have to play Argentina. If results go Nigeria’s way, the momentum may carry them through the groups – though probably to face France in the next round.
This is the group everyone will be watching. Four teams, no guaranteed results. It looks like Germany and Portugal should go through at first glance, but it will surely be made difficult for them by Ghana and the USA. Germany have reached at least the quarter-final of the past five tournaments, and won nothing. There is a sense that this is their best chance, however: those who were too young four years ago are now at the peak of their powers. Kick-off times and conditions are not going to suit the Germans, but this will be the case too for the other teams in their group, none of whom are from South America.
The bigger worry for Joachim Löw may be goals. While Müller pulled it out the bag by winning the Golden Boot last time round, it is difficult to see someone not designed as an out-and-out striker bagging those goals twice in a row. Klose will have some responsibility, and his record is phenomenal at World Cups too, but he is now 36. Even should they score goals, injuries to their holding midfield players present a real worry – Khedira, Schweinsteiger, Lahm, have all had injury issues in the run-up to this summer.
The Germans should be strong enough to win their group, and will likely play one of the weaker teams in the first knockout round. The best news for Löw, then, is that they won’t meet any of the favourites until the semi-finals (probably), and with their squad of players at that stage, you just never know.
Ronaldo played against the Republic of Ireland on Wednesday morning, and looked unhampered by the niggling injuries that had worried the Portuguese camp hitherto. But it was Hugo Almeida who stamped his authority on the game, and that could be crucial: teams will gang up on Ronaldo and, as has happened at various points for Real Madrid this season, he could go missing completely. Portugal need another player that can utilise the space created by this, and Almeida could be the man with that bit of quality that ensures Portugal’s progression regardless of Ronaldo’s performance.
Ghana won hearts and minds last time round. Had Luis Suarez remembered his morals that day, the African nation would have made it to the Semi-Final, an incredible feat for a team to whom nobody gave a chance. However, expectations have not risen this time, and Ghana’s task wasn’t made any easier by being placed in this group. With an ageing group of players and no home crowd, Ghana’s best chance is to pick up a win against the USA and a draw elsewhere, and hope that is enough to get through.
But beating Jurgen Klinsmann’s American side won’t be as easy as it has been in the past. Klinsmann is seen as an outstanding international manager, and has instilled incredible discipline in his side. Since Landon Donovan’s exclusion, much will rest on the performances of Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley and Tim Howard, who all have experience playing against the best club teams in the world. It will not be a huge surprise if one of these teams go through (as long as it is Portugal that are replaced), but it will still be an upset.
Belgium are no longer underdogs. Even if they had a difficult group, the hype that surrounds the young and exciting squad means that there is expectation to perform. Courtois, Kompany, Vermaelen, Vertonghen, Dembélé, Fellaini, De Bruyne, Hazard, Lukaku, Mirallas – this is a squad that should do well. Realistically, they should have no problems in the group stages: yes, this is a young squad, but that does not make it an inexperienced squad. Lacking in World Cup caps maybe, but there is Champions League quality all over the pitch, and the mix of a youthful and free attack with an experienced and disciplined defence may prove to be the perfect cocktail for success.
The stumbling block may well be the first knockout round, where they will most likely face Germany or Portugal, both of whom have the ability to beat the Belgians. As always, Kompany as leader is key.
Common sense suggests Russia would be the other team to progress. Fabio Capello has assembled a young team, much like Belgium’s, most of whom play their club football in Russia. Don’t expect to know many of the names, but the style of play instilled in them by Fabio Capello stands them in good stead to progress with Belgium.
The other two teams, South Korea and Algeria, are, much like the latter two in group G, dark horses that could cause upsets in their group, though are very unlikely to progress any further than the first knockout phase.
Algeria face a rather strange problem, as do all the other nations with Muslim players in their ranks: Ramadan. If their players choose to stick to their fast despite games in the middle of the day with soaring temperatures, this could be an issue. Some may choose to break their fast, and some will undoubtedly choose not to. Various interviews with famous Muslim athletes illuminates an interesting point though: many note that it makes them feel stronger and more passionate about what they are doing. Could Ramadan be the boost to Muslim players and teams to rise to glory this World Cup?
All football fans will know that offering predictions is as dangerous as doing the hop-scotch barefooted through a burning hotel – it is almost a certainty that you will get burnt – and that is why I offer this as a guide and no more. Some groups will follow the form book but others will spring many a surprise and it is on that note that I urge you to leave the bookies, get the popcorn out and enjoy the glorious unpredictability of the World Cup.