F Is For Fortitude
They say that there are no easy games in World Cup, or in any major tournament for that matter. While that may be a tad exaggerated, Group F in FIFA World Cup 2014 is indeed tricky with the unpredictable Argentina, debutant Bosnia and Herzegovina, Nigeria – the exciting Super Eagles – and Iran, with the endangered Asiatic cheetah featuring in their away kits. Readers may note that all the four teams in the group had topped their respective groups in the World Cup qualifiers.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man. Group F features Lionel Messi led Argentina. But will they not face any challenge in the Group stage? Read on to know more with Indranath Mukherjee
The winner of the group will face the runners-up from a relatively easy Group E but let us wait and watch how things unfold.
From Guillermo Stábile, Luis Monti to Juan Román Riquelme, Lionel Messi – with the plethora of talent that Argentina has, it is fair to say they haven’t played to their potential in over a decade in the FIFA World Cup. It was the genius of Diego Armando Maradona that took a not so great Argentina side to the final in 1990 World Cup when they were beaten 1-0 by the resilient Germans. Since then, Argentina has failed to go past the quarter final stage.
Argentina had a disastrous time in 2010 World Cup followed by 2011 Copa primarily because they didn’t seem to have any game plan. The men in charge, Diego Maradona and Sergio Batista, were both tactically poor. Alejandro Sabella, the current manager, looks more pragmatic and has the knack of grinding out results. La Albiceleste under Sabella had a good run in the qualifiers and finished top of the South American group ahead of Chile and Colombia scoring 35 goals and conceding only 15 in 16 matches. More importantly, Messi has been instrumental in the qualification and was the top scorer of the team with 10 goals. Fellow striker Gonzalo Higuaín scored 9. In Messi, Agüero and Higuaín, Argentina probably have the best front line. Forwards who will not make the first team like Rodrigo Palacio, Ezequiel Lavezzi are hunted by the top European clubs. Carlos Tevez has been in scintillating form with Juventus but expectedly not included in the final squad.
But as fellow author Gino had articulated nicely Attack Wins Games, Defence Wins Titles, Argentina’s defence is at best mediocre. Pablo Zabaleta is probably the best player among the back four but the Manchester City right back has not been the same player for the national team yet. Ezequiel Garay and Federico Fernández will probably make up the center back pair and one of José María Basanta and Marcos Rojo will start in the left. The bigger worry for Argentina in the defence is actually the man behind these four. Sergio Romero, Sabella’s first choice goalkeeper has been warming the bench for a while at Monaco. A local strapline in January, “How can Sabella sleep at night?” highlighted the fact that after six weeks on the bench, Mariano Andújar started a game only to concede four goals.
Will the midfield help to hide the weak defence? Very unlikely. Ángel di María is in the form of his life lately with Real Madrid but he adds more to the attack than defence. Javier Mascherano will have to hold the fort if the Albicelestes want to go far in the tournament. Fernando Gago was a key member in Sabella’s midfield but his recent injury is a blow for the team. He has been selected in the final squad and also made an appearance in the starting XI in the friendly against Trinidad and Tobago. Lazio’s Lucas Biglia and veteran Maxi Rodriguez will probably be the two main backups for Sabella in the midfield.
At the least, Argentina are expected to top the group. However, the irony is, anything other than winning the title will be considered a failure for Messi and company.
Bosnia as an independent nation will play its first major tournament in Brazil and don’t be surprised if they indulge in their attacking brand of football. Bosnia made it to Brazil by being the UEFA Group G winners, finishing ahead of Greece on goal difference. Just look at their astonishing statistics in the qualifying: 8 wins, 1 draw and 1 defeat. They scored 30 goals in those 10 games and conceded only 6.
The Manchester City man Edin Dzeko scored 10 goals in the qualifying stage for Bosnia and he is ably supported in front by the VfB Stuttgart striker Vedad Ibišević. Zvjezdan Misimović is the most capped Bosnian footballer and his partnership with the Roma attacking midfielder Miralem Pjanic adds flamboyance to Bosnia’s attacking football.
Coach Safet Sušić is likely to continue with his team’s attacking flair. In the national team’s official website he has been quoted saying: “We will play the way we have always played because it would be wrong to change our approach now, although we are aware that our style may be a tactical gamble.”
“When you have players like Pjanic, Misimovic, Dzeko and Ibisevic, it would be unfair to the game itself and the fans not to unleash all that talent.”
The Stoke keeper Asmir Begovic and the Leverkusen centre-back Emir Spahić lead the defensive set up and keep it rock solid.
Bosnia played Argentina in a friendly in November 2013 and lost 2 – 0 but when they start their World Cup campaign against them at the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro on June 15, expect them to be far more competitive. A very strong candidate for making it to the last 16.
Iran is a football loving country but for the Iranian fans none of the previous World Cups has really been a fairy tale. They have not gone past the group stages in any of their three earlier appearances. Iran’s world cup moment of glory was the 2-1 victory against USA in 1998. Ali Daei, Karim Bagheri, Mehdi Mahdavikia were the key players of the golden generation of Iran. The former Manchester United, Real Madrid and Portugal coach Carlos Queiroz is not that lucky to have got such a generation of gifted footballers, but he has managed his team reasonably well through the qualifying stage.
Iran had a fairly disappointing Asian Cup in 2011 where they were eliminated in the quarter-final after going down to South Korea. World Cup qualifying started really well for them though. With five wins and three draws and an average of nearly three goals per match till Round 3, Iran started struggling in Round 4 where they were grouped with South Korea, Uzbekistan, Qatar and Lebanon. They lost twice and drew once in the first five matches and qualification looked uncertain. But they came back to win their matches against Qatar, Lebanon and Korea Republic on the final day and booked their spot for Brazil.
Reza Ghoochannejhad, nicknamed “Gucci”, followed the path of Karim Bagheri to be the second Iranian to join Charlton Athletic in England in January 2014. He scored the winner against South Korea and has been tagged as Iran’s “golden boy” by FIFA. Javad Nekounam, nicknamed “Neku”, is the inspiring leader of the team providing the creative juice from the midfield with support from Andranik Teymourian, Ashkan Dejagah and Masoud Shojaei.
Qualifying from the group stage for the first time in the World Cup may be the right target for Iran this time, but it is not going to be an easy ride for them.
Nigeria had started their journey into the World Cup back in 1994 and they have been drawn with Argentina with unbelievable regularity since then. Even the current captains of the respective teams Lionel Messi and John Obi Mikel have been in a face off thrice in major competitions at different age levels: 2005 FIFA U-20 World Cup final, 2008 Beijing Olympic Football final and World Cup 2010 group stage in South Africa. All these results have gone in favour of Argentina, but Nigeria had established themselves as one of the most exciting teams in world football from the very beginning. They topped their group in 1994 which had the tournament’s eventual semi-finalist Bulgaria, Greece and of course Argentina. Rashidi Yekini, Jay-Jay Okocha, Daniel Amokachi and Nwankwo Kanu became fairly familiar names amongst the football followers across the world. In 1998, coached by the prolific Bora Milutinović, they made it past the group stage again causing a major upset beating Spain 3-2. But in their next three World Cup appearances, they have gone out at the group stage with fairly poor performances.
The current Nigeria team under the coach Stephen Keshi is expected to do much better especially after they won the 2013 CAF Africa Cup of Nations. Their performance in the qualifying was not earth shattering though. They were drawn in a relatively easy group with Malawi, Kenya and Namibia. With three 1-1 draws with each of the three opponents in the group and three wins they move to final play-off and faced the lowest-ranked team Ethiopia which they negotiated comfortably winning 1-2 away and 2-0 at home.
Victor Nsofor Obinna, now playing in Serie A with A.C. Chievo Verona (on loan from FC Lokomotiv Moscow), has scored 11 goals in 44 games so far for Nigeria but he has not been included in the final squad. So the Nigerian attack will have to depend on the likes of Victor Moses, Ahmed Musa and Emmanuel Emenike. The veteran keeper Vincent Enyeama and the captain John Obi Mikel will orchestrate the defence.
Nigeria starts their campaign in Brazil playing Iran in Curitiba on June 16th. If they get a good start, the next game against Bosnia will probably decide who joins Argentina to the last 16 from group F.
Even with Messi’s recent dip in form, Gago’s injury, Kun’s injury prone season, Argentina is likely to finish at the top of the group. The Bosnia versus Nigeria game will probably decide who else is joining them in the last 16. One huge advantage that the teams from this group will enjoy is that depending on how far they progress in the tournament, they will never have to play going any higher up the country than Brasilia.
Apart from Argentina-Nigeria match, all the other fixtures in the group will be between teams who have never played each other before, apart from a few meaningless friendlies. So be ready for some surprises and keen contests between different traditions and styles.