E for Enigmatic
Continuing with GOALden Times‘ World Cup group preview series, Tamal Kanti Santra brings you the dynamics of Group E.
The two European teams France and Switzerland will fancy their chances against the lesser known South and Central American pair of Ecuador and Honduras in Group E of the World Cup 2014, Brazil. While Switzerland qualified for the tournament easily by winning the UEFA Group E, France scraped through to the finals with a difficult win against Ukraine in the play-offs. Ecuador and Honduras also struggled to qualify for the tournament. Honduras pulled a spirited performance against Mexico in Azteca to confirm their qualification.
After a group stage exit in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, the 1998 champions were desperate to get back to winning ways. Laurent Blanc was appointed the coach after the 2010 debacle to rebuild a squad for the Brazil World Cup 2014. He started his managerial stint by suspending all 23 players of the squad involved in an ugly incident during the 2010 World Cup where they refused training. As a result, Blanc lost his first match against Norway playing with a depleted team. The multi- ethnic nature of the French squad made it very difficult for Blanc to manage the French team. In April 2011, Blanc stirred up a controversy after he was accused of secretly agreeing to implement a quota system to limit the players of dual-citizenship in the French academies. Finally, he stepped down after a dismal 2012 Euro Cup outing and was soon replaced in July 2012 by Didier Deschamps, the captain of the French team that won the 1998 World Cup and the 2000 Euro Cup. Even a person of the calibre of Deschamps found it very difficult to get a cohesive unit up and running.
France was pitted against the reigning champions Spain along with Finland, Georgia and Belarus in the UEFA Group I for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Qualifying round. Only one direct qualification spot for the winners of the group made qualifying for the World Cup a very difficult task for Deschamps. Eventually, France struggled through the World Cup Qualification rounds and came second to Spain forcing them to the play-offs. They had to beat Ukraine for a place in the 2014 World Cup. Leading up to the play-off match against Ukraine, France lost all their matches against good opponents like Germany, Spain, Brazil and Uruguay but won convincingly against average teams like Georgia, Belarus, Australia and Finland. This has been the trend for France even in the qualifying rounds. They scored more goals than Spain in their qualifying group, but a draw and defeat against a formidable Spain forced them to the play-offs. France lost the first leg of the play-off away to Ukraine 2-0. However, they fought back and confirmed their participation with a controversial 3-0 win against Ukraine in the return leg at home.
The French side under Deschamps is still following the traditional 4-3-3 formation. The 23- man squad includes goalkeeper Hugo Lloris (Totenham Hotspur), who will lead the French team in the World Cup. He had a mixed campaign with Totenham Hotspur where he displayed his brilliance inconsistently. The defensive responsibilities lie on the young Rafael Varane (Real Madrid) and Eliaquim Mangala (Porto). The French defense may not have much to deal with during the group stage but needs to be much more compact and organized during the knock-out stage when they will face stronger opponents. The midfield comprising Blaise Matuidi (Paris Saint German), Yohan Cabaye (Paris Saint German) and Paul Pogba (Juventus) needs to perform consistently against good opponents to lead a successful campaign.
The forward positions for France have some of the finest players of world football. Franck Ribéry (Bayern Munich) and Karim Benzema (Real Madrid) are one of the most technically gifted players. The temperamental Ribéry has the unique ability to split defences by cutting in through either of the wings. His partnership with Arjen Robben for Bayern Munich was a spectacle to watch. The French team needs Ribéry, the most capped player in the current squad, to take more responsibility to take the team beyond the quarter finals. Karim Benzema has improved immensely as an out-right striker under the guidance of Carlo Ancelotti and French legend Zinedine Zidane while playing for Real Madrid.
With less than a month left for the tournament, the French team is again hitting the headlines for all the wrong reasons. The exclusion of Samir Nasri from the squad prompted his girlfriend to go all out against the current coach. In spite of Nasri’s exclusion, the 23- man squad contains some of the finest players of Europe. The French team is unlikely to face any problems against Switzerland, Ecuador or Honduras in the group stage and should top the group. The recent 2-0 victory against Netherlands is a positive sign for the team. With a few international friendlies remaining against Norway, Paraguay and Jamaica, Didier Deschamps has a very difficult task at hand – that of carrying the form displayed against the Netherlands in to the World Cup.
The Swiss will be participating in the FIFA World Cup, 2014 for the 10th time, but they have never been able to come up with a strong team that could survive till the latter stages of the tournament. The last time they reached the quarter-finals of the World Cup was way back in 1954, when it was played in their own backyard. . The story is the same this time around. Although they are the only team in Group E who reached the finals pretty easily by topping their Qualifying Group, things are going to become extremely difficult here on.
Switzerland was placed in the UEFA Group E for 2014 World Cup Qualifying round with Iceland, Slovenia, Norway, Albania and Cyprus. They remained unbeaten throughout the qualifying round, thanks to a strong defensive line up. They won seven and drew three matches scoring 17 goals and conceding only 6, out of which they let in four in a single match against Iceland during a crazy 4-4 draw. Barring the match against Iceland, the Swiss conceded only 2 goals in 9 matches. They even defeated the Brazilians in a friendly in 2013, displaying how much they have improved.
The Swiss team is led by Gökhan Inler under the guidance of the German, Ottmar Hitzfeld, still considered the all-time best coach of the Bayern Munich. Hitzfield won 18 titles as a player and coach. This is his swansong tournament. Hitzfield has been the coach of Switzerland since 2008. The faith shown by the management towards Hitzfield provided stability and was instrumental in building a decent team which is at present ranked 8th in the FIFA Rankings. The 23- man squad has been greatly influenced by the U-17 World Cup winning team of 2009 and the runners-up team of the Euro U-21 Championship. Ricardo Rodriguez, Haris Seferovic were part of the 2009 U-17 squad and Xherdan Shaqiri, Yann Sommer, Admir Mehmedi were part of the 2011 U-21 squad. Granit Xhaka is the only player of the current squad who was part of both the U-17 2009 and U-21 2011 team.
Diego Benaglio (Wolfsberg) will be the first choice keeper. The central defence will be managed by Philippe Senderos (Valencia) and Johan Djourou (Hamburger SV) with Steve von Bergen (Young Boys) as a reserve. Both Snederos and Djourou have been playing for a very long time in England, Spain, Italy and Germany. The left-back and right-back position will have Ricardo Rodríguez (Wolfsburg), Reto Ziegler (Sassuolo) or Stephan Lichtsteiner (Juventus).
The Swiss boasts of a decent midfield led by Gökhan Inler (Napoli). Inler has been a key member of the Napoli side helping them to a third place finish in the Serie A along with the Coppa Italia triumph. The other players in the fray are Valon Behrami (Napoli), Granit Xhaka (Borussia Mönchengladbach) and the highly rated Xherdan Shaqiri (Bayern Munich). Both Behrami and Barnetta are experienced campaigners who have played at the highest level. Xherdan Shaqiri is the one to look out for. He has been rated as one of the most promising talents in Europe. He plays as a winger for Bayern Munich and is known for his creativity and speed.
The forward line is of average quality consisting of Admir Mehmedi (Frieburg), Mario Gavranović (Zurich), Haris Seferović (Real Sociedad) and Josip Drmić (Bayer Leverkusen). Drmić’s 17 goals in his first season with Nurnberg earned him a new five-year contract with Bayer Leverkusen. Out of the 17 goals scored in the qualifying round only three were scored by the strikers. Centre-back Fabian Schaer was the team’s top scorer with three goals. Given the quality of the strike force, the Swiss will probably play a single striker Drmić upfront with five in the midfield giving them more freedom to display their creativity. This team may be the strongest team ever in Swiss history. Under the able guidance of Hitzfield, Switzerland has everything to play for. They have a great chance in qualifying for the knock out stage, but will find it very difficult there on. A second place finish in the group is the most likely scenario, which will bring them face to face with Argentina in the round of 16.
Ecuador is one of the lesser known football playing nations from South America. They qualified for the tournament for the very first time in 2002 and their best ever performance saw them reaching the round of 16 in 2006. The 2014 World Cup will be their third time in the tournament. La Tri does not boast of any famous name of world football. Many players are from the domestic league. A few play in Mexico, Colombia and the MLS. The only known face is that of their captain — Antonio Valencia of Manchester United. However, this Ecuadorian side has made a name for themselves for their grit and determination. They prefer a more direct approach to the game using their physical strength as the most potent weapon. They fought hard in the qualifying rounds in the CONMEBOL group and finished fourth ahead of the reigning Copa America champions Uruguay on a better goal difference. Ecuador started their qualifying campaign with two wins and two losses out of the first four matches, but quickly turned things around with a string of good performances and remained unbeaten in six consecutive matches winning four of them. Suddenly they found themselves second in the group. However, they lost momentum and could not win any of the next four matches while losing two. A difficult 1-0 win against Uruguay in the penultimate match of the qualifying round ensured their qualification. In a recent international friendly against a strong Netherlands side, they drew 1-1.
Besides Valencia, the responsibility of the Ecuadorian midfield will be shouldered by Christian Noboa (Dynamo Moscow) and Jefferson Montero (Morelia). Frickson Erazo, in the defense has made a name for himself with his strong performance for Ecuador and was rewarded with a transfer away to Flamengo in the Brazilian League. The defensive line up also has veterans like Walter Ayoví and Jorge Guagua. The forward line will be spearheaded by Felipe Caicedo (Al-Jazira). Caicedo is a decent striker who had a stint with Manchester City between 2008 and 2011. During this period he was mostly loaned out to a few clubs in Spain and Portugal.
Ecuador could not win a single match away from home. But this is a group which does not have a clear favorite. So, with a little bit of luck, plus the advantage of playing in home continent – they might just cause an upset or two.
The Central American nation of Honduras will be playing their third World Cup in Brazil, 2014. They qualified from the CONCACAF finishing third ahead of the Mexicans. The 2001 third place finish in the Copa America was just the beginning of a major shift in attitude towards football in Honduras. In the following years, they consistently reached the semi-finals of the CONCACAF Gold Cup, won the Copa Centroamericana in 2011, finished runners-up in 2013 and finished as the champions of the Central American Games in 2013. Luis Fernando Suárez was given the responsibility of the Honduras national football team in 2011. Los Catrachos started their World Cup 2014 qualifying campaign from the CONCACAF third round where they topped their group convincingly. They found themselves amongst United States, Costa Rica, Mexico, Panama and Jamaica in the fourth round from which the top three teams had an opportunity to qualify directly. Honduras started on a positive note defeating The United States and drawing against Mexico. They were inconsistent throughout their qualifying round and finished with four wins, three draws and three losses out of 10 matches. They scored 13 goals and conceded 12. The highlight of the qualifying round was the 2-1 win against Mexico in Azteca.
10 players in the 23-man squad play in the domestic league. The few known faces in the Honduras defensive line up are Maynor Figueroa (Hull City), Emilio Izaguirre (Celtic) and Juan Carlos García (Wigan Atheletic). Emilio Izaguirre features regularly in the Celtic team as left back and was named as the Premier League Player of the Year in 2011.
The midfield consists of Wilson Palacios (Stoke City), Roger Espinoza (Wigan Athletic) and the experienced Óscar García (Houston Dynamo). Both Espinoza and Palacios play as defensive midfielders, whereas Garcia prefers the role of a winger.
The forward line up consists of Carlo Costly (Real Espana), Jerry Bengtson (New England Revolution), Jerry Palacios (Alajuelense) and Rony Martínez (Real Sociedad). Jerry Bengtson and Jerry Palacios are the favourites for the starting eleven.
Suarez made a name for himself by helping the Ecuadorian side reach two consecutive World Cups in 2002 and 2006. He has the ability to transform lesser known teams into a formidable force. With Honduras, he followed a simple 4-4-2 formation with a direct approach keeping a compact midfield and defense. In the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, they were knocked out of the group stage with two losses and a draw. They conceded thrice and could not score a single goal. Honduras is still in search of their first win in the World Cup. The kind of progress they have shown in the recent times, a series of spirited performances may take them to the knock out stage.
France and Switzerland are best positioned to finish the group as first and second. Switzerland may face some stiff challenge from Ecuador. It will be very difficult for Honduras to finish ahead of France, Switzerland or Ecuador. Honduras may not be able to get past the group stage, but will greatly influence which two teams qualify from Group E. In the 1982 World Cup, Spain finished second in the group due to a draw against Honduras, whereas the Swiss were knocked out of the group stage in the 2010 World Cup due to a similar result. Group E has been paired with Group F where Switzerland may face Argentina. France may get a relatively easier tie (Nigeria/ Bosnia and Herzegovina) and are most likely to progress to the quarter final stage where their campaign may end against Germany.
Switzerland and Honduras have again been drawn in the same group just like in 2010. It was a drab goalless draw, a game to forget. And that which sent the Swiss home packing after so much of early promise.
Ecuador’s World Cup spot sealing victory against Uruguay was dedicated to key forward Christian Benitez, who died suddenly in July from heart failure.