Rio de Janeiro, June 2 :
Former champions France hope to put behind an unimpressive qualifying campaign while Switzerland will be looking to justify their perfectly-timed rise as a seeded nation in Group E that promises to dish out exciting fare in the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
The other two teams in the group, Honduras and Ecuador, will be keen to shed the tag of also-rans and upset the calculations of the top two.
The last four World Cups (1998, 2002, 2006 and 2010) have been a roller-coaster ride for France. They were champions in 1998 and runners-up in 2006 but made first round exits in 2002 and 2010 after failing to win a single match.
The French were hit by a players’ rebellion in 2010 after a row between coach Raymond Domenech and Nicolas Anelka that saw the striker expelled from the team. Domenech was later sacked and was replaced by Laurent Blanc, who also resigned after France were eliminated in the Euro 2012 quarterfinal.
Current manager Didier Deschamps, who captained the team to victories in the 1998 World Cup and the 2002 Euro, however, has brought some stability to the side. He has worked hard in the last two years since taking over from Blanc in improving the image of the side and also re-building relations with the fans, who still haven’t forgiven the team for its misdemeanor in South Africa.
Deschamps, however, raked up a controversy after he left out Manchester City’s Samir Nasri and this was followed by an ugly Twitter rant by the player’s girlfriend. Deschamps logic was Nasri was a regular starter with his club but not with France and that he doesn’t like coming in as a sub.
French hopes took a big knock over the weekend when it was revealed that star Frank Ribery may even be ruled out of the World Cup with a chronic back problem. The dodgy back has plagued him the entire last season and he made only 18 starts for Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga. However, Deschamps and French Football Federation president Noel Le Graet are confident of his playing in the World Cup. Le Graet said that Ribery had been given the all-clear after he underwent tests in a hospital in Paris on Saturday and is due to travel to Nice, where the French squad is preparing for a friendly with Paraguay.
Though it will be too early to predict if the Nasri snub would prove costly, France’s hopes for sure will depend on the form of Ribery and Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema. But all eyes will be on 21-year-old Paul Pogba, who has established himself as one of Europe’s finest midfielders since joining Juventus from Manchester United.
This time, the mantra for France is “Impossible is not French” and they proved it as they overturned a two-goal deficit against Ukraine in a stunning fashion at home in the play-off to just squeeze through. Going by history, 2014 should be a good outing for the Les Blues.
Like the French, the Swiss would also be looking to make the second round after failing to get past the group stage in South Africa despite a 1-0 win over eventual champions Spain.
Switzerland, who surprisingly failed to make it to the 2012 Euro, qualified for the World Cup with a match to spare and kept clean sheets in seven of their 10 qualifying matches in what a relatively weak group.
What will stand in good stead for the Swiss is be their 1-0 win over Brazil in a friendly last year. The Swiss are known for their resolute defence and coach Ottmar Hitzfield was criticised for his defensive tactics. And the German legend responded well by replacing his rigid 4-4-2 formation with a more creative 4-2-3-1 that is more suited for counter-attack.
Though replacements are yet to be found for the retired Alex Frei and Marco Streller, Hitzfield has heavily invested in young players, thanks to Switzerland’s success in the junior tournaments. The Swiss won the the Under-17 World Cup in 2009 and also reached the final at the 2011 European Under-21 Championship.
The biggest name to miss out was striker Eren Derdiyok but the Swiss will be banking on Kosovo-born midfielders Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri. The 21-year-old Xhaka has made an instant impact with Borussia Monchengladbach and was compared with Germany’s Bastian Schweinsteiger by Hitzfeild, who had coached both the players.
Another player who will be looking to make an impact is striker Haris Seferovic, 22, who scored the winning goal for Switzerland in the final of the U-17 World Cup.
Switzerland and France will meet on June 20 in Salvador and the match will probably decide the Group E winners, who possibly avoid Argentina in the second round.
Ecuador, who made their maiden appearance in 2002, are back after missing out in South Africa while Honduras have qualified for back-to-back World Cups for the first time.
Of the six South American teams, Ecuador look the weakest, but they can spring a surprise. The team had to cope with last year’s tragic death of talented striker Christian Benitez, who suffered a heart attack at the age of 27 in Qatar.
The likes of Felipe Caicedo, wingers Antonio Valencia and Jefferson Montero will carry Ecuador’s hopes. Playmaker Christian Noboa will be the key while 34-year-old captain Walter Ayovi will be instrumental in the defence.
Ecuador’s second game will be against Honduras and bagging three points from the match will be crucial if they want to get beyond the group stage.
Honduras have a relatively experienced squad in Premier League players like Wilson Palacios and Maynor Figueroa. Celtic left-back Emilio Izaguirre will be Hondura’s main attacking man. The target will be to get at least one World Cup win in their third appearance.
Manager Luis Fernando Suarez had led Ecuador to the last 16 in Germany in 2006, but this time, Honduran fans expect just the elusive win from Suarez. Anything beyond that will be a bonus for the central American country.