By: Chris Dagonas
Last week, I dribbled neatly through groups A to D. This week, I turn my attention to the other half of the draw: groups E to H.
This is a suspicious group, where Switzerland mysteriously jumped from 12th in the world to 8th before the drawing of the groups. This allowed them to escape match-ups against tougher teams, such as Argentina or Germany. Will their favourable placement be enough?
Ecuador qualified in fourth in CONMEBOL, the South American qualification tournament. They play in one of the most difficult environments for travelling teams, with high altitude and extreme heat, so they usually have a leg up at home. This year’s tournament is also right in their backyard, so they might be able to surprise some European teams not used to the temperature of South America in June. That being said, this is still a team whose best player, Antonio Valencia, is a reserve for Manchester United, and most of the rest play professionally in Mexico or Brazil, which are decent leagues but far from the quality of Europe. Unless the heat is extremely in their favour, I’d expect Ecuador to be going home after three games. PREDICTION: ELIMINATED IN GROUP STAGE
France had a pretty easy path to the tournament, being placed in a group with Spain, and minnows Finland, Georgia and Belarus. They finished second in that qualifying group, then defeated Ukraine in Round 2 to reach the World Cup. They also completely imploded in 2010, finishing last in their group with only one goal scored in three matches. Since then, however, they have bounced back nicely, and have taken a more cautious approach with potential trouble makers in the locker room. Striker Karim Benzema and winger Franck Ribery are among the world’s best at their positions, and young central midfielder Paul Pogba had a massive season with Juventus. This team is ready to move on past its embarrassing 2010 campaign, and should finish atop this group. PREDICTION: FIRST IN GROUP
Back in October 2012, the Canadian men’s soccer team was still within striking distance of a World Cup qualification spot. They had a big matchup against Honduras, and a win would put them in the driver’s seat moving forward. Honduras went on to stomp Canada, to the tune of 8-1. That was it for Canada, and we learned that Honduras can score a goal or two. They feature a handful of English Premier League players, but the World Cup group stage is a far different level than CONCACAF qualifying. Honduras does not have the necessary overall ability to go very far. PREDICTION: ELIMINATED IN GROUP STAGE
Switzerland is a very young team, but that is not to say that they are inexperienced. Central midfielders Tranquillo Barnetta and Gokhan Inler are both under 30 years old, and have over 140 combined caps. Many of the Swiss play in top-notch leagues, particularly Italy and Germany. Their weakness may be in scoring goals, as the collection of forwards are all under 25 and, between the four of them, have only 50 total appearances. This big stage may be too much for the young kids, but if the midfield can provide some secondary scoring, the Swiss should be on their way past the group stage. PREDICTION: SECOND IN GROUP
This might be Argentina’s dream group. They will have little trouble dispatching their counterparts and may even get to rest some players in the third match before the tough stretch begins.
Argentina boasts an outrageous group of attackers, lead of course by the incomparable Lionel Messi. They blew away most of the competition in qualifying, and have set the stage for what could be a long run in a tournament close to home. There are no real areas of weakness here. If I had to be picky, I would say that Martin Demichelis is a little past his prime as a central defender, and could struggle… ah, screw it. This team is awesome! They’re going to the quarter-finals, at least. PREDICTION: FIRST IN GROUP
I had heard of Edin Dzeko, of course. And Asmir Begovic, that traitor! But I did a little wikipedia look-up on the rest of the Bosnia and Herzegovina roster, and was surprised to see that their players’ credentials are truly widespread, playing in top-level leagues like Italy’s Serie A, the English Premier League, and the German Bundesliga. That’s no accident. These guys can really play, as shown by their qualifying results in which they won eight out of ten games, and scored 30 goals while only surrendering six. I expect Dzeko to be one of the tournament’s top scorers, while 22-year-old Arjen Robben-esque winger Izet Hajrovic will turn some heads. PREDICTION: SECOND IN GROUP
Iran is best explained using a list of pros and cons. PROS: Iran is, by most people’s opinions, the best soccer team in the Middle East. I guess that’s worth something. They qualified in a group ahead of South Korea. They are coached by Portugal’s Carlos Quieroz, who has had some success coaching the Portugal national team recently. CONS: Their best player is a 34-year-old midfielder who plays in the Iranian league. They have never advanced past the group stage in their history. Most of their players play professionally in Iran, which means they are not as often exposed to top-level competition as the others in this group. Overall, they might impress, but will not do enough to get out of the group. PREDICTION: ELIMINATED IN GROUP STAGE
Nigeria, like Bosnia, has professionals playing all over the world. Unlike Bosnia, they did not really impress in their qualification, and they do not feature a striker, or any player for that matter, at the level of Bosnia’s Dzeko. Chelsea’s Jon Obi Mikel will likely be handed the captain’s armband, and his organization and leadership from the centre of midfield will be the engine of this team. Beyond Mikel, this team lacks the depth of the Super Eagles of the 1990s, and will be sent home in short order. PREDICTION: ELIMINATED IN GROUP STAGE
The ‘G’ is for Germany. This is Germany’s group to win, and they will do so with little difficulty. There will be a close battle for second place though, and it could come down to goal difference to choose who moves on behind the Germans.
Germany is just a ruthless, efficient soccer machine. Goalkeeper Manuel Neuer is probably the world’s best right now. Defenders Mats Hummels and Per Mertesacker are big, strong and lethal in the air. The midfield features all of the various necessary pieces a solid midfield needs; defensive-minded stoppers, like Sami Khedira, wingers Lukas Podolski and Mesut Ozil, and creative attackers like Thomas Muller and Mario Gotze. For some reason, coach Joachim Low has brought back 35-year-old striker Miroslav Klose, rather than bury the hatchet with the talented Steffan Kiessling. Klose can still play as a target man for 60-80 minutes, and in a tournament age won’t matter too much, so their “weakness” won’t hurt them too much. PREDICTION: FIRST IN GROUP
Ghana has an impressive recent World Cup history, having reached the round of 16 in 2006, and the quarter-finals in 2010, where they lost to Uruguay after an Asamoah Gyan missed penalty shot. They have the skills to surprise, but this group is extremely difficult, and this team is too young (average age 24) and ill-prepared for the big stage. In four years, watch out. But for now… PREDICTION: ELIMINATED IN GROUP STAGE
Portugal enters the tournament riding the scorching hot coattails of Cristiano Ronaldo, the reigning player of the year and UEFA Champions League’s top scorer. The midfield features an interesting mix of experience and youthful energy, while old heads Bruno Alves and Pepe can provide stability at the back. As long as Ronaldo stays hot, there is no doubt that this team can make a long run through the tournament. PREDICTION: SECOND IN GROUP
The biggest story about the American team so far has been the exclusion of Landon Donovan, the USMNT’s most accomplished player, and among its most talented, even still. I’m more surprised with other exclusions, particularly midfielder Brek Shea and striker Juan Agudelo. But, I guess I can only talk about who they did take. I like watching, and yes, sometimes supporting, the American soccer team. They work hard, and recently have developed a much more fluid style of play than earlier generations. I truly enjoy Clint Dempsey, and my Toronto FC affiliation means I’m fond of Michael Bradley as well (I shared a booth at a Toronto nightclub with him recently, no big deal.) It seems that coach Jurgen Klinsmann wanted to give MLS veterans more recognition with his choices, as seen in his selection of midfielders Brad Davis and Kyle Beckerman, and striker Chris Wondolowski, all of whom have spent their entire careers in the MLS. Good for them, but bad for their chances in such a tough group. PREDICTION: ELIMINATED IN GROUP STAGE
Everyone is talking about Belgium. But what about the other teams in this group? Will anyone give the Belgians a run for their money?
Algeria. I watch a LOT of soccer. I can name one player on this team: Tottenham youngster Nabil Bentaleb. Algeria was the birth place of France legend Zinedine Zidane, but unless he dons an Algeria uniform and a hair piece, we won’t be seeing much from this North African squad. PREDICTION: ELIMINATED IN GROUP STAGE
Belgium enters this tournament as the most hyped team. From top to bottom, they are a young, talented team with plenty of speed, strength, and defensive organization. The strike force partnership of Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard will inspire terror in opposing defences. The midfield is chock-full of energetic, fluid players who can occupy multiple positions. The defence is led by the stingy Vincent Kompany, Thomas Vermaelen, and Jan Vertonghen. In 1986, a young, exciting Belgium squad, captained by Jan Ceulemans (and featuring the father of Belgian tennis player Kim Clijsters) finished in fourth place in the World Cup in Mexico. Given proper execution, and a little bit of luck, this Belgian side could repeat that feat. PREDICTION: FIRST IN GROUP
Russia qualified ahead of Portugal in the lead-up to this World Cup. It seems odd now, based on Portugal’s skyrocketing form, and the general unease most people feel with anything associated with Russia these days. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, the Russian soccer team has never made it out of the group stage at a World Cup. Goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev is their most talented player, and that’s never a good sign. Plus, if it matters, the Russians should expect to be on the receiving end of a lot of hostile crowds. Russia will head home early, and maybe, if we’re lucky, begin preparations for hosting the 2018 World Cup. PREDICTION: ELIMINATED IN GROUP STAGE
Remember, this is South Korea, the one where players are free to think and laugh and move to other countries and stuff. Not that other Korea. They have qualified for every World Cup since 1986, and have advanced past the group stage in two of the past three World Cup finals. While Japan gets a lot of the press as “Asia’s Best Team”, I have long though South Korea to be the more impressive, and consistent, of the two countries. In a weak group, only Belgium will be able to give South Korea much trouble. Their path to the second round is clear. PREDICTION: SECOND IN GROUP
If all goes as predicted, the round-of-16 matchups would look like this:
France (E1) vs. Bosnia and Herzegovina (F2)
Germany (G1) vs. South Korea (H2)
Argentina (F1) vs. Switzerland (E2)
Belgium (H1) vs. Portugal (G2)
There go your group previews. I’m currently lining up a 25-yard free kick, aimed squarely at the elimination rounds, for next week. Plus, look for some bonus infographics! We are one week away! Blow the dust off your vuvuzelas, the World Cup is back baby!