(This breakdown is brought to you by Stepien Rules blogger Alex Raffalli, who is also a native of France.)
Group E might be the least competitive group of this World Cup. France, who came into the World Cup draw with absolutely no reason to be hopeful given their recent past, ended up the favorite of a group that seems very much theirs to take control of. But they will have to compete with Switzerland and Ecuador for the first place which will be the only way ensure they don’t face one of the pre-tournament favorites Argentina who boast the best player in the world, Lionel Messi, in the round of 16.
How they got to Brazil
The Swiss finished first in UEFA qualifying group E, a very easy group where the biggest opposition was Iceland. They didn’t lose any of their 10 games (7 wins and 3 draws) while allowing only six goals. They’re a well coached team with strong defensive principles and real talent on offense, but at the same time they are very young and inexperienced at the highest international level.
The Manager – Ottmar Hitzvel
The former Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund manager has a lot of experience coaching. He has won two UEFA Champions League, and seven Bundesligas, the German championship. He is considered one of the greatest coaches in German history. As a national team manager, though, he has not really shown yet that he has what it takes to take a team to the top. His first try as the mastermind of this Switzerland team has been interesting nonetheless (27 wins, 11 losses in 56 games). Hitzvel has also taken full advantage of the immigration changes of the last few decades. Switzerland is now a multicultural team and has completely changed its style of play by going away from a boring and very compact/defensive style to now showcasing its quick and skilled players on offense that are a real threat to any backline.
The Star – Xherdan Shaqiri
Leading the new generation of Swiss soccer talent is Xherdan Shaqiri. Born in Yugoslavia, Shaqiri emigrated to Switzerland as a one-year old. The former FC Basel star – a team that has revealed many of the promising talents on the Nati, such as Fabian Schär, a newly discovered talent – was the most expensive Swiss player ever when FC Bayern Munich acquired him in 2012 for roughly 15 million dollars. Even if he has not been able to play many starts for a strong Munich squad, he has shown, when given the opportunity, that he has a real knack to create goalscoring chances. He will be playing in his second World Cup after Hitzveld trusted the then 18 year old to join the squad in South Africa in 2010. This will not be a one-man team as several of the starters play for top flight european clubs such as Stephan Lichsteiner (Juventus) or captain Gökhan Inler (Napoli).
(Xherdan Shaqiri scoring against Wolfsburg for Bayern.)
Biggest Strength – Defensive Solidity
This team is clearly inexperienced (twelve of the 23-man squad was born before 1988), but Switzerland’s defense is very potent and will be tough to break down. Johan Djourou, still under contract with Arsenal, struggled with his club team Hamburg, avoiding relegation by one point, but the 27 year old will be well supported with perhaps the best right back in the world in Stephan Lichsteiner and the young Schär, who has the potential to become one of the great defenders of his generation. The defense will have a pair of formidable defensive midfielders in front of them with Inler and Behrami who are teammates with their Italian club, Napoli. Their defensive quality usually allows Switzerland to win the ball from their opponents and set up their offense using the space created by their quickness on the wings.
(Stephan Lichtsteiner has been embroiled in his fair share of controversy with Juventus.)
Measurement of Success
In a manageable group, they can possibly hope to snatch the top spot that seems destined for France if they can pull off an upset in their match up against the group favorites. If they lose to France, they will have to compete with Ecuador for the rights to the second spot in the group. Anything beyond that would be difficult as the second place team is most likely to face off against one of the pre-tournament favorites, Argentina, in the round of 16.
How they got to Brazil
Ecuador finished fourth in their CONMEBOL qualifying group, snatching the last automatic spot away from Uruguay who had to go through a playoff to secure their ticket to Brazil. They finished with the same amount of points as Luis Suarez’s team (7 wins, 4 draw, 5 losses) but were ahead in the table due to a +4 goal differential versus Uruguay’s 0. Even though they are the least competitive team of the South American countries to make it to the World Cup and were likely only able to make it because Brazil was automatically qualified as the host country, they could compete with Switzerland to advance in this group.
The Manager – Reinaldo Rueda
The Colombian manager, who has been at the helm of the Ecuador team since 2010, is not exactly an unknown in the soccer world since he has coached both the Colombian and Honduras national teams previously. His success with Honduras, qualifying them for the 2010 World Cup, got him his next job despite the criticisms launched against his tactics that were perceived to be to have cost the small Central American country a quick exit in the group stage in 2010. He will have an opportunity to show his former team that they should have kept him around in Brazil.
The Star – Antonio Valencia
Even though most of the players on the national team play in their home country’s Serie A, a few of them are featured in the upper echelons of European club soccer. The leader of this Ecuadorian squad is a prime example. Antonio Valencia has been playing for Manchester United since 2009 now, and is clearly the best player in the history of his country. Even though he’s not always a starter for a stacked United club, he has proved his worth and his the team’s success speaks for itself. He will have the immense responsibility of attempting to lead an his side the second round as the main attacking(and maybe only) threat.
(Antonio Valencia firing home a Wayne Rooney cross after a far post run on the right wing.)
Biggest Strength – Fast/Explosive Wingers
Valencia being the best player, it only seems natural that the strength of the team would be where he lines up. He is not the only one who can actually create chances on the for Ecudaor on the flanks though. Opposite his own position on the right is the other key player for this team, Renato Ibarra, another quick and tricky player who plays in the Eredivisie for Vitesse Arnhem. The 23 year old just had a very complete season for the sixth placed team in the Dutch championship and will hope to continue that form into the World Cup. Tragically, neither Valencia or Ibarra will be able to feed goals to a very talented striker as Christian Benitez, who scored 24 goals in 58 appearances for Ecuador, died of a heart attack at 27 last summer. Ecuador doesn’t have anyone who comes close to replacing Benitez, but it is possible that his loss could prove a rallying cry for this team.
Measurement of Success
Ecuador would definitely feel very good about their World Cup if they could get past the first round and get a shot at Argentina in the round of 16. The favorable group draw leaves them hoping that they can defeat Switzerland and match their 2006 World Cup achievement of advancing out of the first stage.
How they got to Brazil
As favorable as the draw is in this World Cup group for the heavy favorite of Group E, France had to battle very hard to get to Brazil in the first place after landing in the same qualifying group as reigning champions Spain, who beat out France for the automatic spot in their UEFA group. France performed perhaps the best in UEFA qualifying of all the second place teams, forcing a draw in Madrid before losing to the World champions in Paris. They had to play a home & away match up against the Ukraine secure qualification. After losing in Kiev 2-0 in the first leg of the playoof, they completed a miraculous comeback to win 3-0 four days later in Paris.
The Manager – Didier Deschamps
The French soccer legend, who captained the 1998 team who won the only World Cup in France’s history was not just picked because of his player’s pedigree but also because ha proved as a coach over the last ten years that he was one of the top managers in Europe. He took a very young Monaco team to the Champions League Final in 2004, brought Juventus back to Serie A after they were administratively relegated, being found guilty in a game fixing scheme. He then coached Marseille to their French championship in more than two decades, putting the biggest French club back where it belongs. Since he took over the national team in 2012, he has tried to change the scorned image they carry since the 2010 World Cup debacle where the players went on strike and refused to practice after one of their teammates was sent home for physically threatening the coach. The legend says that Deschamps has is followed by some sort of luck, that everything always goes right for him. The group stage draw defnitely supports that theory and should allow France to get out of the first round without any problem. From then on, there is no limit to what that very talented team can hope for.
The Star – Franck Ribery
There are a lot of uncertainties surrounding the Bayern Munich winger coming into this World Cup. First and foremost, him taking part in the tournament is not even a given at this point, since he’s still recovering from a back injury that has sidelined him for weeks and only allowed him to play 76 total minutes since Munich won their second consecutive German Gup on May 17. Moreover, after a spectacular 2013 season, he has not been the same since he lost the FIFA Ballon d’Or to Cristiano Ronaldo in January, rewarding the best individual year in soccer. The fact that he should have won is irrelevant here, but people have been speculating it impacted his performances greatly. It could also simply be the fact that he played close to a 100 games in 18 months and his 31 year old body could be rebelling. He was cleared by doctors early this week, but is still day to day and could miss the last exhibition game France plays on Sunday against Jamaica. If that happens, Deschamps, who has been avoiding questions regarding his best player’s health, could very well leave him out of the 23 man squad and pick an able body to fortify France’s bench. Reports state that he could miss the first two group stage matches, but given the opposition, the manager could take the risk to bring him with the group and work him back in shape for the round of 16, which is still a month away. His role in the locker room could also guarantee him a spot as he is one of the few respected leaders on this team.
(Ribery scoring against Viktoria Plzen in the Champions League.)
Biggest Strength – Tremendous Midfielders
If I was to make a list of players who will have their breakout in front of the global audience that the World Cup entails, the first one I would write down is Paul Pogba. The twenty-one year old has a tremendous opportunity to confirm the incredible potential he has shown all year as one of the best player in a stacked Juventus squad. On this French team who likes to control the ball, he is the most skilled player in the midfield and will have to initiate most of their chances, if he doesn’t finish them himself. His name is floated around for a potential transfer this offseason and he could increase his value exponentially if France were to fare well in Brazil (Paris and Madrid would be willing to break the bank, and spend up to 90 million dollars to acquire him). As talented as Pogba is, he will not be alone in the midfield. Blaise Matuidi has exploded the last two seasons for Paris Saint-Germain and has become the most consistent and reliable player for the French national team. His role is a much more unrewarding since he is the kind of player who runs a lot and wins back possession. Very smart and athletically as gifted as anyone, he has developed more technique this season allowing him to play a large role near the opponent’s box. A true box-to-box player, he has even become a scoring option because of his relentless movement and activity. The third man in the midfield is another PSG player and takes position in front of a very physical and talented center back duo of Raphael Varane (Real Madrid) and Mamadou Sakho (Liverpool). Yohann Cabaye is a unique player in that he has the skill of a true playmaker but plays up to 60 yards away from the other team’s goal. His ability to deliver long passes and set up the team’s offense is very important in Deschamps’ system. His delivery from free kick is also extremely valuable asset for France.
(Paul Pogba scoring a ridiculous goal for Juventus.)
Measurement of Success
France does not have a choice. They need to secure the first spot in the group stage and advance to the round of 16. Their likely face off against Bosnia-Herzegovinia would definitely then be manageable. I would say nothing less than the quarterfinals would be considered a bust for France. If they can then upset Germany, they would meet again with Brazil in the semis, the host country. After eliminating them in three previous World Cups in recent history (1986, 1998 and 2006), Brazil fear no other team as much as the French.
How they got to Brazil
Honduras will take part in their second straight World Cup after faring quite well in the CONCACAF hexagonal, automatically qualifying by finishing third behind the USA and Costa Rica, and ahead of Mexico. They used their strong play at home (four win, one draw) to compensate for their poor performances on the road (didn’t win one game away from Tegucigalpa). That will be their biggest challenge this year as Honduras is winless in its World Cup history.
(Juan Carlos Garcia scoring a great goal against the USMNT during qualifying.)
The Manager – Luis Fernando Suárez
When Honduras faces Ecuador on June 20, both Rueda and Suárez will play against their former teams. Like Rueda, Suárez is Colombian, and he was in charge of the Ecuadorian national team in 2006 when he took them to the round of 16. Considered a hero after such an unexpected result, he refused the extension that was offered to him and saw the team collapse, leading to his sacking in 2007. Now with Honduras, he will try to create yet another surprise with a small team on the biggest stage though it will be an uphill battle as Honduras appears the least talented of the four teams in Group E.
The Star – Jerry Bengtson
The New England Revolution striker is the main threat on this team as he’s had a high scoring rate in both the MLS and for the national team. Nine time scorer in ten qualifying matches, defenders will have to keep an eye on him at all times. He leads a group of pretty much unknown players, with the exception of Wilson Palacios, the defensive midfielder who has had a decent Premier League career (played Wigan and Tottenham, currently with Stoke City). The other familiar name is the starting left back, Emilio Izaguirre, who plays for Celtic Glasgow in Scotland and who has done a fairly good job protecting their left flank.
Biggest Strength – Set Pieces
Honduras scored a large number of their goals on corners, free kicks or other set pieces during the qualifying round. It will be their best chance a stealing a win in this group given the problems they will encounter against much more experienced and talented teams. If they can defend correctly and get a couple chances then maybe they can go home with the satisfaction of having done better than in 2010, where they were not able to score a single goal in any of their three games.
Measurement of Success
It is clear that Honduras would feel good about simply scoring this time around, and winning a game would be one of the biggest feats of this World Cup as there is little chance of them advancing.