THREE DAYS to go! The World Cup is upon us and as the days go by the excitement is increasing! Today we preview Group E which has two European sides competing. Seeds Switzerland and 1998 winners France, South American qualifiers Ecuador and CONCACAF’s Honduras.
The Swiss go into the World Cup with high hopes of reaching the last 16, which is their minimum target. They currently sit in 6th place in the latest FIFA World Rankings and were one of the seeded teams at the World Cup draw back in December of last year. In a group which includes the French they know they will have to be at their best to advance as group winners.
Coach Ottmar Hitzfeld has a youthful squad at his disposal, with the majority of them residing from outside of Switzerland. It is well documented that the Swiss federation runs a youth development programme which enables them to find talent from the immigrant community.
Examples of current players who have benefited include Valon Behrami, Johan Djourou and Gelson Fernandes are key players who were born outside of Switzerland but moved to the country at an early age.
Others like Blerim Dzemaili, Josip Drmic, Mario Gavranovic Pajtim Kasami, Ricardo Rodriguez and Philippe Senderos were born in Switzerland to foreign parents and chose to represent the Swiss after the country’s FA spotted them at an early age.
Switzerland qualified for Brazil unbeaten after being in a group alongside Albania, Cyprus, Iceland, Norway and Slovenia. One problem that they encountered though was their difficulty in front of goal. In ten games the Swiss only managed 17 goals. In two games against bottom side Cyprus they managed one goal, and four of their 17 goals came in the same game (Iceland 4-4).
however scoring has always been an issue for Hitzfeld’s side.
During the 2006 and 2010 World Cups the Swiss struggled to find the back of the net. In Germany they score four goals and were knocked out in the second round against Ukraine after a 0-0 draw. That clean sheet was their fourth consecutive and they became the first side in World Cup history to be eliminated without conceding a goal. Four years later they were sent packing in the group stages after scoring one goals, and conceding one, in three games.
So will this year be any different? Their qualification fortunes say no however this time they have a youthful squad who have a history of winning international honours for their youth sides. Under-17 World Cup champions and runners-up in the 2011 European Under-21 Championship shows signs of hope heading into this tournament.
Victory in their opening game against Ecuador will be very important, and would set them up nicely for the France match. Hitzfeld has already stated how difficult the heat and humidity will be for his players and they may have to adjust their playing style as a result.
“Switzerland has never had such a high-standing collection of players who have imposed themselves at big foreign clubs. They have everything needed to get a good result at the World Cup. I trust them to get at least to last 16. The second-generation immigrants are cheaper than the typical Swiss and carry this through to the rest of the squad.” Rolf Fringer, ex-Grasshoppers an Aarau coach.
Route to the finals: 1st in European qualifying Group E
Preferred formation: 4-2-3-1
Key man: Valon Behrami
Manager: Ottmar Hitzfeld
“The best Ecuador side we have ever had”. That’s the view of Alex Aguinaga, a former player for the South Americans. And on the basis of previous squads it is hard to disagree with that statement.
Ecuador arrive in Brazil in high spirits after being put in a favourable group and will use their experience from 2006 to great use.
Back then they beat Poland to advance to the second round and were narrowly defeated by England 1-0, in what was a battling display.
In the eight years that have followed many players have moved to European countries and that has seen a vast improvement in their play. With the World Cup being closer to home they will be confident of reaching the last 16 once again but will need to overcome their lack of firepower up front in order to realise their dreams.
20 goals 16 qualifiers, with just five away from home, was an issue which they need to address heading into the World Cup. Recent friendly results has breathed new life into Reinaldo Rueda’s men though after a 4-3 win over Australia and a 2-2 draw with England in a World Cup warm-up match.
Physically strong with electrifying pace and skill on the wings it is expected that Ecuador will use this to their advantage. Manchester United’s Antonio Valencia, his countries captain, and Jefferson Montero will be expected to provide the crosses for the likes of Felipe Caicedo Enner Valencia up front.
Ecuador’s centre-back pairing of Fricson Erazo and Jorge Guagua will be severely tested and they are both error-prone and likely to switch off at vital stages of games. If they are to advance to the second round they need these two to be on the top of their games. Rueda even admits problems in his back-line: “We’ve had problems in this sector. It’s no use trying to cover up the sun with our hands.”.
An injury to midfielder Segundo Castillo in the build-up to the tournament was a major blow with his experience and defensive qqualities vital to his side. Without him Ecuador will use Luis Saritama’s passing abilities from deep and hope that Castillo’s injury hasn’t ruined their World Cup chances.
If Ecuador are to qualify for the knockout stages they will need to address their problems in front of goal, and in defence. Friendly results have shown optimism and a World Cup in South America could work in their favour.
“The first match, against Switzerland, is going to be vital to our chances. We have the strength in-depth to beat Honduras, and hopefully Switzerland as well – because things will be a bit more complicated against France, an opponent with much more tradition”. Alfredo Encalada, former national coach.
Route to the finals: 4th in South American qualifying
Preferred formation: 4-4-2
Key man: Antonio Valencia
Manager: Reinaldo Rueda
Which France will turn up? On paper they have one of the best starting line-ups in world football. However in recent years they have struggled when it matters at the big tournaments.
The 2010 World Cup in South Africa was a national scandal. Players falling out with each other, with the manager, and the country embarrassed by a group stage exit, it went down as the worst French side of all-time. at Euro 2012 they were expected to win their group and advance to the semi-finals. They did neither and were knocked out in the quarter-finals. Step forward Didier Deschamps.
The Frenchman is a legend in his country and has overseen a revolution with the national side which now boasts some of the best young players in world football. After being drawn in an easy World Cup group, for their standards, much is expected of them. But they are extremely fortunate to be in Brazil.
After their recent tournament woes they slipped down the FIFA World Rankings and were put in a qualifying group with Spain, who beat France in a winner takes all match. In the play-off they were beaten 2-0 in the first leg by Ukraine and it looked like the French were dead and buried. However they responded in true French spirit and battled to a 3-0 victory in the second leg to advance to Brazil.
The 2006 World Cup runners-up will be confident of going all the way this time and have one of the best goalkeepers in world football between the sticks in Hugo Lloris. The France captain, and Tottenham Hotspur shot stopper, is revered in his homeland and will be backed up by Champions League winner Raphael Varane and Arsenal’s Laurent Koscielny.
A midfield three of Blaise Matuidi, Yohan Cabaye and Paul Pogba will provide the defensive and attacking steel needed for their attacking players and in Pogba they have one of the best young talents in the game.
An injury to Franck Ribery is a major blow for France and, with his absence, much is expected of Mathieu Valbuena to fill the void.
In Karim Benzema and Olivier Giroud they have two in-form strikers who head into the tournament in high spirits.
A potential quarter-final with Germany looks a mouth-watering match-up and France’s first major test in Brazil. Before then they will look to finish top of their group, and avoid a second round match with Argentina, who should win group F. Past experiences won’t have the French taking anyone lightly though and victories over Ecuador, Honduras and Switzerland are fully expected.
“I think France are in good shape. The players are aware of the qualities they have. I’m not talking about individuals, but the team as a whole. They’re a strong group, and in a big tournament that’s the most important thing.” Claude Makelele, World Cup finalist 2006.
Route to the finals: 2nd in European qualifying Group I. Beat Ukraine 3-2 on aggregate in play-off
Preferred formation: 4-2-3-1
Key man: Karim Benzema
Manager: Didier Deschamps
Qualification for Brazil was a massive shock for a side that was expected to struggle in the CONCACAF qualifiers. Victories over fellow finalists Costa Rica, Mexico and the USA showcased their fighting spirit and never say die attitude which they will hope helps them in the World Cup.
In truth Honduras are the most unfancied team in the competition and it is thought that they will struggle to even win a point in South America. In a group containing Ecuador, France and Switzerland they will be up against much stronger opponents however will look back on their past experience for motivation.
In 2010 they were alongside Chile, Spain and Switzerland in a tough group and took a point off the Swiss and narrowly lost 1-0 and 2-0 to Chile and Spain, results which won them huge respect in world football.
Coach Luis Fernando Suarez has continued the good work since then and is regarded as a hero in Central America due to his successes with the national team. He will hope the experiences of key players will set them up nicely for a successful tournament.
Maynor Figeuroa and Wilson Palacios are still two of the best players that La Bicolar have and despite their careers in England stalling, at Hull City and Stoke City, they are key to the Honduran side. Wigan Athletic pair Roger Espinoza and Juan Carlos Garcia are also vital however have struggled so far in the English game.
Plenty of Honduran international’s ply their trade in the MLS with Victor Bernardez’s physical build and the pace of Boniek Garcia a danger to opponents.
Despite their impressive victories in qualifying Honduras were very inconsistent. They were lucky to advance to the final stages of CONCACAF qualifying after just edging out Canada and Panama in the third stage by a solitary point. And if it wasn’t for a very poor campaign from Mexico they could have ended up in a play-off with New Zealand.
Honduras will hope that their battling team-spirit and teamwork can win them some points at the World Cup but it is highly unlikely. A 0-0 draw with England in a World Cup warm-up match will give them some confidence but don’t expect much from Suarez’s side.
“I had about four or five of Ecuador’s current squad when I was there so I know something about them. What might help us more is playing in Manaus against Switzerland as it will be hotter and more humid than France in Porto Alegre which will be cold. Our challenge is to get into the next round.” Luis Fernando Suarez, national coach.
Route to the finals: 3rd in North, Central and Caribbean qualifying.
Preferred formation: 4-4-2
Key man: Wilson Palacios
Manager: Luis Fernando Suarez