Saturday, June 7, 2014

2014 World Cup Preview: Group E

Group E is the most wide open of any group in the World Cup this year. Top-seeded Switzerland is a defensive-minded side that hasn't advanced past the opening round in a World Cup since 1954. France boasts the most talented team in the group, but being French there is always the potential for a gigantic choke-job meltdown. Ecuador has been terrible outside of their home soil and Honduras has never won a game at the World Cup. Somehow, two teams will advance from this group, though the potential for any one of them to lay an egg is incredibly high.

I've teamed up with Pat (follow him on Twitter @The_Incline) to preview the 32 teams in the tournament.

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World Cup Appearances: 10
Best Result: Quarterfinals (1934, 1938, 1954)
How they Qualified: Won UEFA Qualification Group
FIFA Ranking: 8

In 2010, Switzerland had the distinction as the only team to defeat Spain in the tournament, but they failed to reach the second round. This will be the third consecutive World Cup appearance for the Swiss, who qualified with relative ease with 7 wins and 3 draws. The Swiss have steadily rose through the World Rankings over the last four years and appear to be peaking at the right time with a young lineup that plays a very sound defensive game. Much like their hockey team from the Winter Olympics, the Swiss aren't going to overwhelm anyone with their offensive prowess, but their stifling defense will keep them competitive in most games. They were fortunate to draw a relatively weak group and are capable of advancing to the knockout stage.

Pat's Players to Watch

  • Xherdan Shaqiri: The 22 year-old Bayern Munich midfielder is the offensive spark plug for side that needs a boost. Switzerland have scored five goals in their last seven World Cups. It’s a lot ask for a young player making his World Cup debut, but there is always one young player who shines every four years and becomes a household name. It may Shaqiri’s turn.
  • Gokhan Inler: Not your typical Swiss names here. Actually, Inler is part Turkish. He is a defensive midfielder for a traditionally defensive side. Inler has played his last three seasons in Napoli and has managed a low goal total, but that is not his job. He’ll be tasked with protecting the back line against the attacks of France and Ecuador. 

World Cup Appearances: 3
Best Result: Round of 16 (2006)
How they Qualified: Finished fourth in CONMEBOL Qualification group
FIFA Ranking: 28

Ecuador and Uruguay finished tied with 25 points in the CONMEBOL Qualification and Ecuador earned an automatic qualification place in the World Cup based on a better goal differential (+4 to 0) while Uruguay was sent to the Intercontinental Playoff. While Ecuador was the lowest scoring of the South American teams to qualify, they were paced by striker Felipe Caicedo who finished 5th in scoring in qualifications with 7 goals. Ecuador rode an undefeated home record through qualification, making the most of the high altitude advantage. The problem that looms for La Tri is their inability to win outside of their home nation - posting only 3 draws and 5 losses in qualification and never scoring more than 1 goal in a match. Ecuador is talented up front and on the wings, but their overall style lacks strong organization and they can be broken down by more technically sound teams.

Pat's Players to Watch

  • Antonio Valencia: The speedy Manchester United winger is somewhat an enigma. At times he shows flashes of brilliance, at other times he is invisible. The same can be said for many Red Devils in 2013-14, but Valencia is captaining a side in Brazil that will be underdogs to the two European teams in the group. Valencia is by far the best player for his team, but whether or not he performs will dictate Ecuador’s chances of advancing. 
  • Felipe Caicedo: Caicedo, who plays for Al-Jazira in the United Arab Emirates, is now the main central striker. He has experience playing for Manchester City in the Premier League and with Spanish club Malaga. The 25-year-old Caicedo debuted for Ecuador when he was 16 and is known for his strength, speed and ability to hold up play. Caicedo scored seven goals in nine appearances in South American qualifying.

World Cup Appearances: 14
Best Result: Champions (1998)
How they Qualified: Defeated Ukraine on Aggregate in UEFA Playoff
FIFA Ranking: 16

After hoisting the World Cup in 1998, the French have alternated disappointing showings when they were eliminated in the first round in 2002 and 2010, sandwiched around a second place finish in 2006 when they lost to Italy in the Championship. The French team has never been without controversy in the qualifying stages, as they reached the 2010 World Cup after Thierry Henry obviously committed a hand ball foul that resulted in a goal that sent France to the World Cup and eliminated Ireland.

This year, after finishing second to Spain in their qualification group, France drew the Ukraine in the playoff leg and dropped the first game 2-0. France would advance on aggregate score thanks to a 3-0 victory in the second leg, but their second goal was scored by a ridiculously offside player, giving them another controversial qualification.

France has the talent and is capable of winning this group and making a run to at least the quarterfinals of this tournament. However, that would assume that this team of petulant French whiners comes together as a team. The French have a penchant for being, well, French. This makes them easy to dislike and even more hilarious when they go out in the first round.

Pat's Players to Watch

  • Blaise Matuidi: Everyone may know about Ribery and Benzema, but Matuidi, the defensive midfielder is a tireless workhorse who tackles and distributes. He won’t blow you away with flash or brilliance, but Matuidi will be the link between France’s defense and talented attack. His stellar season for PSG has allowed him to become a mainstay under new French manager Didier Deschamps.
  • Paul Pogba: The 21 year-old Juventus midfielder is like a FIFA player’s dream come true. The human video game character can play just about any midfield position, dribble past defenders, beat fullbacks with pace, and score goals from insane distances and angles. Pogba started in the Manchester United youth academy and transferred to Juventus in 2012. Many of his goals are highlight reel worthy. Definitely worth a YouTube search and worth watching in Brazil. 

World Cup Appearances: 3
Best Result: First Round (1982, 2010)
How they Qualified: Finished third in CONCACAF Hexagonal Qualification
FIFA Ranking: 30

Honduras got a great start to the last stage of qualification by defeating the United States 2-1. They also scored a 2-1 victory in Estadio Azteca in Mexico City, one of the most difficult venues to play in the world. This will be Honduras' second straight trip to the World Cup, a stage where they have yet to win a game (3 draws, 3 losses). However, they could be a sleeper team to advance out of this group given the struggles of Ecuador to win at lower altitudes, France's recklessness and Switzerland's inability to score. They battled to a 0-0 draw with Switzerland in the 2010 World Cup and reached the semi-finals in the CONCACAF Gold Cup last summer. Honduras does have some scoring punch as Jerry Bengtson and Carlo Costly led the World Cup Qualification group with 4 goals and Rodolfo Zelaya finished second in the Gold Cup scoring with 4 goals. As an added wrinkle, Honduras Manager Luis Fernando Suarez was the manager of the Ecuadorian side that reached the knockout stage back in 2006 and will need to secure a result against Ecuador in order to take this Honduran team beyond the group stage.

Pat's Players to Watch

  • Carlo Costly: Not just a fun name, but a striker who poses a threat to defenders everywhere. The journeyman has played in England, America, China, Romania, Mexico, Poland, Greece, and his native Honduras. He has scored 31 goals in 69 international appearances. 
  • Andy Najar: The winger, raised in Alexandria, VA, is a product of D.C, United and has migrated to Anderlecht of the Belgian Pro League. The 21 year-old will hope to spark an outmatched Honduran side in Brazil. Najar has only scored one goal in international play, but his speed is an asset the Honduras will need to capitalize on is they have any chance of advancing. He is one of eight current or former MLS players named to the Honduras roster. 

Ian's PredictionPat's Prediction

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