15/06 Switzerland v Ecuador 17:00 (Brasilia)
15/06 France v Honduras 20:00 (Porto Alegre)
20/06 Switzerland v France 20:00 (Salvador)
20/06 Honduras v Ecuador 23:00 (Curitiba)
25/06 Honduras v Switzerland 21:00 (Manaus)
25/06 Ecuador v France 21:00 (Rio)
Best finish: Quarter-finals (1934, 1938, 1954)
How they qualified:
Finished 1st in UEFA Group E After missing out on Euro 2012, Ottmar Hitzfeld guided the Swiss to a tenth World Cup in his final fling ahead of his summer departure. Qualification Group E will be best remembered for the heroics of runners-up Iceland who defied to odds to reach a playoff but that would be to overlook a hugely impressive campaign for Switzerland. Seven wins and three draws with only six goals conceded (four of those coming in a second half-collapse at home to Iceland) makes for pleasant reading while the emergence of talents such as Xherdan Shaqiri, Granit Xhaka and Haris Seferovic following successes at underage level in recent years is probably the more crucial aspect of the qualifiers. A 2-1 win in Albania in October sealed their fate with a game to spare.
Since taking the captain’s armband permanently from Alexander Frei in 2011, Inler has become the face of the new generation, leading by example in his deep midfield position and has taken on a similar role under Rafa Benítez at Napoli this season. The former Udinese midfielder’s qualities are plentiful: calm distribution, firm ball-winning and dangerous shooting from distance, the latter exemplified with a thunderous left-footed strike in the very first qualifier, the second in a 2-0 win.
The main difference between this Swiss side and the one that bored their way to a record 557 minutes without conceding a goal over the course of the last two World Cups is an influx of young attacking talent embodied by Albanian-parented Shaqiri. The Bayern Munich winger has had a difficult time in Germany since leaving Basle in 2012 with injuries and the presence of Franck Ribéry and Arjen Robben ahead of him in the pecking order limiting his game time and rumours have linked him with moves to Liverpool and Juventus. Currently struggling with a thigh problem that has kept him out of Bayern’s Champions League exploits of late, the winger should be back and fresh to lead his country’s attack in Brazil.
At just 22, the talented Basle centre-back broke into the side in qualifying and responded by scoring three goals in his first three games including a brace against Norway. Schär, in his second season with Basle, has already established himself as something of a big fish in a small pond and is said to be on the radar of the likes of Arsenal and Barcelona, with Roma also considering him should Mehdi Benatia leave during the summer. A continuation of the kind of performances he has shown at club level this season – composed, assured – into the World Cup should all but confirm his move to a major European league.
After defending their way through to the last sixteen in 2006, Hitzfeld and his side came up short in South Africa despite beating eventual winners Spain in their opening game. Failing to score against Honduras in their final game when a two-goal win would’ve seen them qualify was a damning indictment of the dearth of attacking threat that Eren Derdiyok, Hakin Yakin and Blaise N’Kufo posed four years ago. This time around, the front four is likely to comprise of Shaqiri, Xhaka, Seferovic and Valentin Stocker and will certainly exhibit more youthful exuberance than their predecessors but the question remains – will they score enough goals? Fittingly, everything could boil down to their final game once again.. against Honduras.
A tournament too soon?
Picture this: in two years time, Switzerland (assuming they qualify) are preparing for Euro 2016 in France with Shaqiri starring at Bayern / another top European club, Schär is 24 and anchoring a defence in one of the big leagues and Seferovic has put off the field problems behind him to mature into a proven goalscorer – the foundations of a genuine contender are there. However, at present, this Switzerland team is flawed – talented, but flawed. Certain players need to mature, others need to develop further.
Best finish: Last sixteen (2006)
How they qualified:
Finished 4th in CONMEBOL With the absence of Brazil in CONMEBOL giving every team in South America a genuine chance of finishing in the top five and at least securing a World Cup playoff berth, a third appearance for Ecuador since 2002 is no real surprise. A 1-0 win against Uruguay in the penultimate game all but sealed their place in fourth (their opponents would’ve required a five-goal win in Argentina to dislodge El Trí from the final automatic qualification spot) and dispelled fears of missing out after a disappointing final third to the campaign that resulted in no other wins from their final six games. As always with Ecuador, it was the sky-high setting of Quito that was the backdrop to the majority of their successes – only Argentina avoided defeat at Estadio Olímpico Atahualpa.
The most recognised Ecuadorian footballer has suffered an alarming loss of form over the past couple of seasons and has often been one of the scapegoats of Manchester United’s dreadful Premier League season, moving to right back with little success when former manager David Moyes attempted to change things midway through games. The 28-year old remains a key member of his national side and will be pivotal to a system relying largely on quick breaks down the flanks. After breaking onto the scene in Germany in 2006, being nominated for the team of the tournament, Valencia will hope to rekindle those World Cup memories this time around and emulate the side of eight years ago’s achievement of reaching the last sixteen.
If moving to Europe as a young South American is tough for a young player socially and culturally, returning across the Atlantic to play in Mexico’s top flight is hard to take for a 22-year old’s pride. Nevertheless, that’s the career path that Montero has embarked upon since leaving Villarreal in 2012 after just nine league appearances and loan spells at Levante and Real Betis. At Morelia, his fortunes have changed for the better and the winger has continued that form with his country, netting three times in qualification. While Valencia attracts much of the attention of opposition defences, it is often the threat posed by the man on the left that has the bigger impact.
In a team dependent on counter attacks, playing the “transition pass” to turn defence into attack is often the key to relieving pressure and releasing the forward players. Noboa is responsible for getting Ecuador’s main offensive threats – Valencia and Montero – into the game, scrapping in midfield before releasing them with long diagonals in behind the opposition full backs. This facet of his play should prove especially vital in the game against France, where his side could spend long periods out of possession. Moved to Russia in 2007 and is now at Dinamo Moscow having initially joined Rubin Kazan.
While a World Cup in South America will be beneficial for Argentina, Uruguay and Chile, the advantages that come with playing on home soil may not be felt by the Ecuadorians – seven wins from eight in Quito but zero on the road, a draw in Uruguay the only standout result away from home. Head coach Reinaldo Rueda must come up with a formula to harness that familiar climates without the altitude benefit that Ecuador maximised in qualifying.
Matters bigger than football?
Last July, South American football was shocked by the sudden death of al-Jaish striker Christian Benítez, third in Ecuador’s all-time top scorers list. At just 27, he had scored four goals in qualifying prior to his passing and his loss, whilst obviously hugely emotionally significant, also has left a gap in the team. More important though is the psychological aspect. Benítez was a popular figure in the squad and close friends with key players like Valencia (who has a tattoo dedicated to “Chucho”). The effect could be one of two things – an intense motivation that spurs the side on or a distraction for players and staff still coming to terms with the loss of a friend.
Best finish: Winners (1998)
How they qualified:
Beat Ukraine 3-2 in a playoff after finishing 2nd in UEFA Group Group I From one extreme to the other. After Laurent Blanc disappointed at Euro 2012, France under Didier Deschamps seized the initiative in Group I, beating Finland and Belarus before drawing away to Spain who then drew at home to the Finns, leaving Les Bleus in pole position to qualify automatically. Then the goals dried up. A 1-0 reverse to Spain at the Stade de France was the first of five games in which they failed to score (three of them friendlies) and only after coming from behind to win 4-2 in Belarus did the campaign get back on track. The drama didn’t cease there, however – in the playoffs, Ukraine won 2-0 in Kiev with Laurent Koscielny sent off, leaving the French with an uphill task in the second leg, their World Cup survival on the line before the finals had even begun. The unlikely hero was Liverpool defender Mamadou Sakho, scorer of a brace in a 3-0 victory that maybe papered over some worrying cracks for Deschamps.
Ribéry’s annoyance at Cristiano Ronaldo being named Ballon d’Or winner for the calendar year 2013 was clear to all in subsequent interviews. After a year in which he was the standout player in a Bayern Munich side that conquered all before them, you could see his point. Under Pep Guardiola the former Marseille man has continued to shine in the Bundesliga, scoring in the 3-1 with over Hertha BSC that confirmed a second successive title for his side, though his Champions League performances have been called into question as Bayern (at the time of writing) sit on a precipice in their semi-final with Real Madrid. Five goals in qualifying underlined his credentials as the star of this France side.
One of the most meteoric rises to prominence in modern footballing history. Upon leaving Manchester United in July 2012 for Juventus, Pogba was shrouded in mystery; a reluctance to sign a new contract after limited first-team action despite apparent talent meant it was an odd conclusion to a marriage that promised so much more. In October that year, just three months later, it became clear what the English side were missing out on, as Pogba scored his first Juve goal in a 2-0 win over Napoli and went on to win the Scudetto. Given his France debut by Deschamps against Georgia, the 21-year old was thrown into the deep end against Spain four days later but performed impressively despite a late red card. His stock has grown and grown since and having captained the French Under-2o side to a world title last summer, the hope is that he can repeat the trick with the senior side.
A shining light in a disappointing season for Tottenham Hotspur in the Premier League, Lloris is widely regarded as one of the best goalkeepers around and has consistently been excellent for his country since making his debut in 2008 despite scandals, dressing room revolts and poor performances by teammates dominating the back pages over the last few years. The archetypal sweeper keeper in that he is always ready to sprint off his line allowing his defence to play high up the pitch, safe in the knowledge that he will race out to the feet of onrushing attackers.
You just never know with this France team. Since triumphing in 1998 on home soil and winning the subsequent European Championships, major tournaments have been disastrous for the French with the possible exception of 2006 when they were beaten finalists in Germany (despite a manager that nobody had any faith in). 2010 was probably the biggest farce of all with dressing room revolt against the hugely unpopular Raymond Domenech resulting in suspensions, sackings and widespread derision for the players and FA following the affair. Deschamps is a more amiable man and has kept things largely on track so far but it can only take one bad result to spark another ordeal.
Who plays in the three?
While Ribéry and Karim Benzema are almost certain to start for France in their opener against Honduras in Porto Alegre, the identities of the men surrounding them are far less clear-cut. Samir Nasri, Loic Remy and Olivier Giroud all started the defeat in Kiev before being replaced by Yohan Cabaye, Mathieu Valbuena and Benzema for the second leg in which the former was given much of the credit for turning the side’s fortunes around so dramatically. A 4-3-3 system with Pogba and PSG’s Blaise Matuidi partnering Cabaye with Ribéry and Valbuena out wide seems to be Deschamps’ best bet but don’t discount the inclusion of someone like Real Socidedad’s Antoine Griezmann who has had an outstanding season.
Best finish: Group stage (1982, 2010)
How they qualified:
Finished 3rd in CONCACAF Round 4 It’s two World Cups in a row for the Hondurans who had to endure 28 barren years before qualifying in 2010. Luis Fernando Suárez’s troops capitalised on Mexico’s horrendous campaign to secure third spot behind USA and Costa Rica that was largely due to wins in big games at home to the US and at the Azteca in September. Goals weren’t hard to come by – Carlo Costly and Jerry Bengtson both hit four – but it was at the other end where the problems lay, with four goals conceded to Panama over two games. The same team were in Honduras’ initial group as the pair edged past Canada to qualify with identical records in the third phase.
Costly is a classic journeyman striker, having plied his trade with nine different clubs across three continents and is currently lining out for Honduran outfit Real España in a bid to boost his match fitness ahead of the World Cup. While his club career is rather unimpressive (epitomised by a goalless loan spell at Birmingham City), it’s on the international stage that he has thrived, scoring 30 goals in 68 eight caps. The latest of those goals was a brace against group rivals Ecuador in a friendly which should stand to the 31-year old in Brazil.
A couple of years ago, Wilson Palacios was a player every Premier League club would’ve loved to have had in their squad: a squat midfielder with a real penchant for winning the ball for his Wigan side. Subsequent transfers to Tottenham and Stoke have yielded mixed results and though he has played intermittently for the Potters this season, 11 of his 16 appearances have been from the bench. He remains the Honduras player with the most pedigree however, and his experience will be crucial in the midfield battles against the likes of Pogba, Cabaye and Inler.
Another of those in the squad with top level club experience is Hull City defender Figueroa who has settled in well at the KC Stadium after spending five years at Wigan, where his time is probably best remembered for a free kick from inside his own half against Stoke in 2009. Largely used as a left back or on the left of a back three for his club, the centurion is likely to be the cornerstone of his country’s defence in Brazil and will be required to shine if they are to avoid a repeat of their winless 2010 campaign.
Lack of pedigree?
Make no mistake about it – this Honduras squad is largely made up of nobodys from the perspective of a watcher of major European football. Of the 23 that were named for last month’s friendly with Venezuela, only Figueroa, Celtic’s Emilio Izaguirre, Rangers’ Arnold Peralta and Andy Najar of Anderlecht are based in Europe, with Palacios and Wigan’s Roger Espinoza likely to join them in Brazil. While strikers Costly and Bengtson have good international goal records, their struggles at club level perhaps give a greater indication of their true ability and it would be surprising if Suárez played both of them against France unless he opts for a back three.
In Izaguirre and Figueroa and holding midfielder Palacios, a large portion of the familiar faces hold defensive positions in the team but that didn’t stop a shaky rearguard concede 12 goals in 10 qualifiers, only one fewer than bottom side Jamaica. Between the stickers is 36-year old Noel Valladares who performed well in South Africa four years ago but is no spring chicken and made his professional debut in 1997 as a striker. If Honduras are to perform well at this tournament, they will require their defence to improve hold up against the attacking luminaries that they will face.
David Kennedy, Pundit Arena.