This is the 2nd part in our World Cup Preview. Which sides will fly through the group stages with ease and who will struggle? Read on to find out…
Ecuador’s qualification hopes were boosted by their home record in Quito but away from home they have struggled and that will be a concern for them in Brazil. They were left stunned by the death of Christian Benitez who was also a key player leading their frontline. Their boss Reinaldo Rueda still has a few dangerous options going forward with the likes of Antonio Valencia and Jefferson Montero but their defence lacks any real quality and will likely be found out against stronger European opposition.
Key man: Antonio Valencia- The pacey winger, who plays for Manchester United, will be viewed as a vital component of Ecuador’s attack and he will carry the weight of Ecuadorian hopes upon his shoulders.
Issues: Put simply: their defensive frailties. With players such as Franck Ribery, Karim Benzema and Xherdan Shaqiri set to be testing them, it remains to be seen whether this side can cope with such attacking talent.
Prediction: They should beat Honduras but that’s the best they can hope for. Expect them to finish 3rd in the group stages.
You never know which France will turn up at a big tournament. In the last four World Cups they have either crashed out at during the group stages or they have reached the final. There is an abundance of quality within a squad that boasts Karim Benzema, Franck Ribery, Paul Pogba and so on so forth. This side, on paper at least, looks like it could be considered as serious contenders for the championship as a whole, however, Didier Deschamps, a world cup winner in 1998, will be all too aware of France’s recent inconsistencies and will be certain to guard against complacency. They have a favourable group and should be tipped to win it. Finishing first in this group is very important as 2nd place will likely lead to a last 16 match against Argentina.
Key man: Franck Ribery- Ribery came third in the Ballon D’or last year and is a dangerous performer. France will be hoping that the wide man can bring his best form to the world cup.
Issues: Put simply, France’s biggest enemy is themselves. There always seems to be a source of unrest within the French dressing room and they must work really hard to avoid any such problems arising during this tournament. If they can avoid it then they will be a force to be reckoned with.
Prediction: France to overcome their past demons and win the group, expect them to fall at the quarterfinal stage though as they will face a strong Germany side.
Similarly to Australia, there aren’t many people who can see Honduras getting past the group stages and it’s for good reason. They simply lack the quality and technical ability to make an impact on a tournament at this level. Luis Fernando Suarez’s side do have more of a chance of escaping their group than Australia due to slightly less fearsome opposition but it would still be a surprise if they came anywhere near to qualifying for the last 16. Interestingly, Honduras did manage to grab a draw against Switzerland at this stage in 2010 and they will be clinging to that experience to hope that they can find a way through.
Key man: Wilson Palacios is a heavily capped member of the side and will be an important player for them. The tough tackling, experienced midfielder will epitomise the energy levels required of this side to make their games competitive.
Issues: Lack of genuine quality. There are no really stars or game changers in this side and that will be their downfall.
Prediction: Be very surprised if Honduras don’t finish bottom of the pile in this group and be slightly surprised if they even muster a point in the process.
Switzerland, under experienced coach Ottmar Hitzfeld, has managed to become one of the seeded nations for the tournament after a very solid qualifying campaign. They are strong defensively, work very well as a unit and have pace up front to spring a counter attack against their opponents. In Bayern Munich star Xherdan Shaqiri, Juventus’ Stephan Lichtsteiner and Napoli’s Gokhan Inler, they have quality Champions League performers and should be considered a threat. Switzerland should expect to qualify but will also hope to pip France to top spot in the group in order to avoid a last 16 clash with Argentina.
Key man: Xherdan Shaqiri- The Bayern Munich winger is an extremely pacey and tricky customer for defenders to deal with. He will be key to providing Switzerland’s attacking threat.
Issues: Whilst they will most likely come out of the group, they are a few players short of genuinely challenging the top teams in this competition. They will be well organised and difficult to beat but we are sceptical of their ability to go deep into the competition.
Prediction: Not improbable but unlikely that they will be able to knock France off the top of this group but expect them to put up a good fight. Should fall in the last 16 if they fail to finish 1st as Argentina will await.
The Argentines enjoyed a relatively easy route to qualification, topping the South American qualification table, and are now viewed as one of the favourites of the competition and for good reason. Coach Alejandro Sabella has the most envious attacking force in the competition. The list of potent strikers and dangerous attacking midfielders in his squad Lionel Messi, Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Aguero, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Angel Di Maria and Rodrigo Palacio are all top performers in the top European leagues that are likely to strike fear into the hearts of any defender in the competition. Argentina have also really bolstered their defensive options since the last world cup where they were humbled by Germany in the quarter-finals. Ezequiel Garay and Pablo Zabaleta are just two examples of their newfound strength in that department. Expect this side to be reaching at least the semi-finals and comfortably winning this group.
Key man: Lionel Messi- A multiple Ballon D’or winner who has had a “poor” season by his lofty standards and still managed to score well over 30 goals for Barcelona this season. He has won every club competition possible with Barcelona and will be desperate to win the World Cup with Argentina to truly cement his place as the greatest player of all time.
Issues: The biggest weakness in this side is the man between the sticks. None of the goalkeepers in their squad are good enough for a side this talented. Will Sabella rue the decision not to include goalkeeper Willy Cabellero into his side?
Prediction: They will win the group and should reach the semi finals. There is a potential Messi vs Ronaldo clash in the quarter-finals, if our predictions are correct, and will be one to watch out for.
Boznia and Herzegovina
This is the only national side to be making their World Cup debut in the competition but no one really expects them to be pushovers in this tournament. With Argentina the clear favourites and Iran appearing to be the weakest side in this group there should be a direct shoot-out between Bosnia and Herzegovina and Nigeria as to who will take their place in the last 16. Choosing between the two is like tossing up a coin but we’re giving the edge to Bosnia and Herzegovina, as they seem to have that extra quality in the final third. Players such as Roma’s Miralem Pjanic and Manchester City’s Edin Dzeko are top performers and have enjoyed excellent seasons at their respective clubs. Coach Safet Susic won’t be taking anything for granted but he will genuinely believe that his side can come through this group.
Key man: Edin Dzeko- Dzeko enjoyed a terrific second half of the season and has found form at just the right time for his fellow countrymen. He is likely to pop up with a few important goals in the group stages.
Issues: As is so often the case with national teams, if a side is hit by a couple of injuries to key players, namely Pjanic and Dzeko, you wonder where they will muster their creative attacking force from. Lack of depth in the squad and lack of big tournament experience will be an issue as they try to advance deep into the latter stages of the competition.
Prediction: A good side who should be able to hold off the challenge of Nigeria and finish behind Argentina in the group but don’t expect them to go much further than the last 16.
The Iranians have never progressed past the group stages at a World Cup and it is difficult to find a case for them to exceed that feat on this occasion. It will also be tough for them to add to their measly tally of just one win at the World Cup finals. The coach will be a familiar face to Manchester United fans as their former assistant manager Carlos Queiroz, also formerly of Real Madrid and Portugal, takes charge. A lot of the players are based in their domestic league and question marks will be raised as to whether they will be able to cope with the opposition that will face them, particularly Argentina. There has also been an uneasy build up for the Iranians with a lack of funding being cited as one of the main reasons why they will fail in Brazil. There is a serious lack of testing preparation games for the squad to tackle before the tournament and a proposed pre-tournament camp in Queiroz’s native Portugal was also cancelled through a lack of funding. All in all, the Iranian’s slim hopes of qualifying look even slimmer due to disharmony amongst their ranks and lack of preparation.
Key man: Ashjan Dejagah- The Fulham man has shown some glimpses of devastating quality to provide Fulham hope in a desperately poor season. If he is given a chance, he has the quality to upset opposition.
Issues: The biggest problem this Iranian side faces is lack of game time against top opposition. Due to most their players playing in their own domestic league, there are question marks over whether they can really cut it against the world’s top stars. They may yet spring a surprise but don’t hold your breath.
Prediction: Expect to see Iran finish firmly bottom of this group and to get the biggest spanking of the tournament courtesy of Argentina.
The current champions of the African Cup of Nations will certainly be a threat in this group and should battle Bosnia for the 2nd qualifying place. They qualified for the tournament with consummate ease, winning their qualifying group by 5 points, and will be more than up for a fight here. Stephen Keshi has overseen a quick and recent transformation in Nigeria’s fortunes and must be heralded for the job he has done to get Nigeria playing the way they are. Some may be surprised to hear that John Obi Mikel, Chelsea’s deep sitting midfielder, is often given the number 10 role for his country which may demonstrate a lack of talent and creativity within their midfield ranks. Victor Moses is also a player of great importance for the Super Eagles.
Key man: John Obi Mikel- As alluded to earlier; Mikel is the creative force in the side and arguably their most high profile player. He could be vital against Miralem Pjanic in the group’s big match against Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Weaknesses: They could easily be found out defensively at this tournament against the likes of Messi, Aguero and Dzeko and there is also a lack of killer instinct in the squad, which means there will be a lot of weight on the shoulders of Victor Moses.
Prediction: It will be close and they could sneak through but expect Nigeria to finish 3rd and fall at the group stages.
United States of America
Germany always seem to be serious contenders in any major tournament, and that trend is showing no signs of wavering. A different beast entirely to German sides of the past, the current squad is abundant with attacking flair and quality, boasting a pool of midfielders that could easily fit into most international starting XI’s. Players such as Bastian Schweinsteiger and the evergreen Philipp Lahm ooze class, and the Germans have unbelievable attacking options in Bayern Munich’s Thomas Muller and Dortmund’s Marco Reus on either wing. Coach Joachim Low will be hoping his side can go all the way this time and bring home the trophy after some near-misses in his 8-year tenure. With a fairly solid back line and outstanding goalkeeper in Manuel Neuer, one would expect the Germans to go far in the tournament.
Key Man: Philipp Lahm- A difficult call, as there are so many outstanding players in this young side that they don’t really rely on individuals, however Philipp Lahm seems the obvious choice. After a stellar season with Bayern Munich, Lahm has progressed into a midfield anchor role, adapting from his natural right-back position. Expect Mr. Dependable not to put a single foot wrong in Brazil.
Issues: Strikers. Whilst the midfield prowess of Germany is well documented, there has been no real replacement for the ageing Miroslav Klose. One could point to emerging star Julian Draxler as a source of inspiration going forward, although he certainly isn’t a traditional centre forward by any means. Germany certainly lack a sharpened spear-head to their attack. Klose is now 36, and with Podolski also the wrong side of 30 Germany could struggle in this department.
Prediction: Germany should go far, and can certainly be considered one of the favourites, however I think they will fall at the final hurdle again. Unless there’s a penalty shootout involved. They should win the group and expect them to reach the semi finals at the very least
After reaching the quarter-finals in the 2010 world cup, (and only narrowly missing out on a semi-final place thanks to the hand of a certain Luis Suarez) expectations were high coming into this year’s tournament. Chances of a repeat performance have been hampered slightly by a very difficult group, but you can bet that Ghana themselves hold no such concerns. With midfield general Michael Essien back in the international picture and quality attacking options in Shalke’s Kevin-Prince Boateng and former Sunderland striker Asamoah Gyan, Ghana could cause a few surprises in this group. Will Ghana be able to shock us all once again and make it out of the group stage? Coach Akwasi Appiah will hope so…
Key Man: Michael Essien. The former Chelsea midfielder is still a powerhouse, despite not having the legs to cover every blade of grass these days. His tactical guile and experience will be essential if Ghana are to navigate their way through this tricky group
Issues: Whilst they won their qualifying group with 5 wins out of 6, doubts could still be raised over the defence. Clean sheets haven’t been a regular occurrence for ‘The Black Stars’ and they could be exposed at the back by the likes of Germany and Portugal.
Prediction: They will probably be outclassed in what looks like one of the toughest groups of the tournament, and will probably be going home early. Might just pip USA to 3rd place.
Portugal made hard work of qualifying, coming through an enthralling play off with Sweden thanks to a sublime hat-trick from Cristiano Ronaldo, and they will need a few more moments of magic from him if they are to progress in this tournament. They possess defensive quality in the likes of Ronaldo’s Real Madrid team mates Pepe and Fãbio Coentrão, with João Moutinho and Miguel Veloso running the midfield. The coach, Paulo Bento, is a former defensive midfielder for the national side and has definitely tried to instil a more disciplined mentality in his team, which could be crucial in this tournament. Playing in a nation where Portugese is the main language, Paulo Bento’s side will receive rapturous support, and are expected to progress to the quarter-finals.
Key Man: Cristiano Ronaldo- Ruben Amorim? Beto? There is only one possible candidate; Cristiano Ronaldo. Never has there been a more obvious Portugese Talisman since the days of Eusebio. He is arguably the world’s greatest player at this moment in time, and on his day can single-handedly win games for his team. The stage is set for him to shine.
Issues: With Helder Postiga certainly past his best, there is no recognised striker of any real quality in the side. The responsibility lies with Ronaldo, and if he is having a bad day at the office, Portugal will struggle.
Prediction: Expected to come out of the group, Portugal will probably make it to the quarter-finals, but weaknesses in certain areas will be exploited as the quality of opponent improves.
As fate would have it, Jürgen Klinsmann will face his home nation Germany in his first World Cup as the manager of the USA. A coach who is not afraid to make the tough decisions, Klinsmann dropped national treasure Landon Donovan from the squad. He will be hoping the call pays off, as it wasn’t too popular with the USA faithful. The Americans have been growing in confidence, and will quietly fancy themselves as dark horses to sneak through to the last 16. Whilst there are certain defensive frailties, former Roma midfielder Michael Bradley is a linchpin in midfield, and forward Clint Dempsey has a very good goalscoring record in his country’s colours. Not to be underestimated, Klinsmann has turned the USA into a solid side and they have the potential to ruffle a few feathers in group G.
Key man: Clint Dempsey has a knack for scoring goals, and alongside Jozy Altidore up front he is the focal point for most of the USA’s attacking play. After being withdrawn from a pre-tournament friendly with a slight groin strain, Klinsmann will be praying the injury isn’t too serious.
Issues: Goalkeeper aside, USA could struggle at the back. In a group with a plethora of attacking talent they could be exposed in this department. Also, as mentioned above if the injury to Clint Dempsey proves serious, they will be vastly depleted going forward.
Prediction: Despite Klinsmann asserting that the knockout phase is the minimum target for the USA, I don’t think they will make it out of the group stage. It will be a close battle between Ghana but they could end up bottom of an incredibly strong group. An early flight home beckons.
The only Arab nation to feature in this year’s world cup, Algeria could be considered the surprise participant in Brazil. After beating Burkina Faso in their play-off qualifier, Algeria took the last spot of Africa’s representation in Rio. One would naturally assume they will be battling it out with South Korea for 3rd place, however former footballing legends would have us think otherwise. Diego Maradona has recently predicted that Algeria will “cause a surprise” and whilst you may initially dismiss this as the manifestation of a cocaine relapse, Brazil legend Rivaldo added “the possibilities of (Algeria) reaching the second round are abundant”. Young Sofiane Feghouli of Valencia is certainly a threat for them, and Bosnian coach Vahid Halilhodzic will be hoping his decision to bring in a new generation of Young players will pay dividends.
Key man: Sofiane Feghouli is Algeria’s most recognised player, a regular starter for Valencia and arguably Algeria’s most creative outlet, playing either on the right-wing or in a attacking midfield role behind the striker.
Issues: Whilst they have done relatively well in qualifying, Algeria haven’t really had to face a side of real quality. The step-up in class could, and should be too much for them in Brazil.
Prediction: We struggle to see them finishing higher than 3rd in their group, despite what former world cup stars would have us think… Expect them to crash out early.
Tipped by many as this tournaments ‘dark horses’, Belgium boast a powerful young side with a variety of attacking options. With the talismanic Vincent Kompany wearing the captain’s armband, the team is built around a solid spine; the imposing frames of Axel Witsel and Marouane Fellaini provide brutish protection to the back four in a 4-2-3-1 formation. Defensively solid, they can also rely on Thibaut Courtois between the sticks who is quickly emerging as one of the world’s best goalkeepers. After an inspiring season with Chelsea, the stage is also set for young starlet Eden Hazard to make his mark at his first major tournament. The winger is blessed with an abundance of pace, and alongside Everton’s Kevin Mirallas and Napoli’s Dries Mertens a side which has been near-impossible to break down in qualification (The ‘Red Devils’ clocked up a 7-match unbeaten run to reach Rio) can also add lightning-fast counterattacking to its repertoire. With Christian Benteke injured, Romelu Lukaku will spearhead the attack, his direct and powerful approach should trouble any defence in the tournament if his goal-tally for Everton this season is anything to go by. A lack of major-tournament experience could prove the downfall for this young side, but expect them to progress from the group with ease.
Key Man: Eden Hazard. After an astonishing premier league campaign, earning him the PFA Young Player of the Year award, the football world’s gaze will undoubtedly be fixed on this multi-talented 23-year old. Can he be the catalyst for Belgium’s charge to the latter stages?
Issues: Head coach Marc Wilmots has already voiced his concerns over the lack of playing time for some first team regulars. Marouane Fellaini, Kevin de Bruyne and Thomas Vermaelen in particular have been starved of first-team football for much of this season. This, coupled with a lack of experience at major-tournament level could be the chink in Belgium’s otherwise impressive armour.
Prediction: Should progress from the group stages unscathed, however a last-16 tie with Portugal probably looms. Hard to predict, but Paulo Bento’s side could prove too much for Belgium.
Arguably the second strongest team in Group H, Russia are heading into this year’s world cup on the back of a decent qualifying campaign, just about winning group F above Portugal. Under the familiar disciplinarian Fabio Capello they have developed into a decent defensive unit, with a workmanlike attitude that typifies the Italian’s managerial style. Players such as Vladimir Bystrov, Igor Akinfeev and Roman Shirokov provide the Russian side with plenty of experience, and they carry an attacking threat in the form of Euro 2012 joint top-goalscorer Alan Dzagoev and clinical striker Aleksandr Kerzhakov. Conceding only 5 goals in 10 qualifying games would suggest Capello’s side will be a tough nut to crack, and should have enough quality to make it out of the group stages.
Key Man: Alan Dzagoev. Whilst Dzagoev has been mainly on the periphery under Capello, he has shown promise in recent friendlies and is a serious attacking threat if he can find some form and is given the opportunity. His 3 goals at euro 2012, where he scored as many as any other player, shows he can perform at the highest level.
Issues: Russia rely on a high-tempo midfield pressing game, starving the opponents of comfortable possession. However, it’s questionable whether Russia will be able to maintain possession themselves against some of the top sides that employ this same tactic.
Prediction: Russia should head through to the last 16, but this could be a deceptively tricky group. Not enough quality to reach the quarter-finals.
South Korea have appeared in the last 7 consecutive world cup finals, and have progressed from the group stage in 2 of the last 3 tournaments. Name them whipping boys at your peril; the South Koreans could be set to cause a few upsets in this group. In Bayer Leverkusen striker Son Heung-Min they have a real attacking talent, and anyone watching Sunderland midfielder Ki Seung-Yeung (on loan from Swansea) this season will see they possess quality in midfield. Coach Hong Myung-bo will be hoping to replicate his success in the recent Olympics, when he guided the South Korea team to a bronze medal in London. They face a tough test to get out of the group, but could surprise a few people.
Key Man: Son Heung-min. Bayer Leverkusen signed the striker for 8.5m last summer – a club record fee – and the young South Korean is the obvious starlet in this side. With a real eye for goal, Heung-min could be the man to cause an upset and take South Korea through to the last 16.
Issues: They had a very tricky qualifying campaign, only beating Uzbekistan on goal difference. The quality of opponent in this group could prove too much for them, with a relatively inexperienced side at this level.
Prediction: Unlikely that they will topple Russia for 2nd spot so they will be battling it out with Algeria for 3rd place in the group. Expect an early flight home.
Teams to qualify (in order of 1st and 2nd):
Group E: France & Switzerland
Group F Argentina & Bosnia and Herzegovina
Group G: Germany & Portugal
Group H: Belgium & Russia