Teams (world ranking in brackets): Switzerland (8), Ecuador (23), France (19), Honduras (41)
Switzerland vs Ecuador, Brasilia
France vs Honduras, Porto Alegre
Switzerland vs France, Salvador
Honduras vs Ecuador, Curitiba
Honduras vs Switzerland, Manaus
Ecuador vs France, Rio de Janeiro
Coach: Ottmar Hitzfeld
Captain: Gokhan Inler
World Cup Appearances: 9 (1934, 1938, 1950, 1954, 1962, 1966, 1994, 2006, 2010)
Best Result: Quarter Finals (1934, 1938, 1954)
Qualified: 1st Group E
Qualification Top Scorer: Fabian Schar (3)
The Swiss were not given a very hard qualifying group, drawing Iceland, Norway, Slovenia, Albania and Cyprus. As a result Ottmar Hitzfeld’s team qualified comfortably, not losing any of their ten games and only conceding 6 goals. Due to their qualifying success they were seeded in the draw.
The Swiss defence has always been very strong, and the current team is no exception. They only conceded 6 goals in qualifying, and this is made all the more remarkable by the fact that 4 of those came in a 4-4 home draw with Iceland. The midfield is also strong and Tranquillo Barnetta and Gokhan Inler bring a lot of experience into the team. Right-back Stephan Lichtsteiner has had an excellent season with Juventus and he will provide welcome support down the right wing, where he has been playing regularly for the Italian giants. Bayern Munich midfielder Xherdan Shaqiri may also be dangerous.
While the defence didn’t let in many goals there weren’t an awful lot of goals scored either. That centre-back Fabian Schar was the leading scorer in qualifying speaks volumes about the lack of a target up front. Mario Gavranovic and Haris Seferovic look the most likely options, but although the latter is enjoying some success at Real Sociedad they are clearly not the best strike partnership in the tournament, and as a result a goal conceded could have the Swiss struggling to equalise, let alone win. This means that a couple of goals to the other team, as happened in 2010, could see the Swiss out of the tournament.
Coach: Reinaldo Rueda
Captain: Antonio Valencia
World Cup Appearances: 2 (2002, 2006)
Best Result: Round of 16 (2006)
Qualified: 4th in CONMEBOL qualifying
Qualification Top Scorer: Felipe Caciedo (7)
While the Ecuadorians have struggled to defeat their neighbours in past years they started well and held on, claiming automatic qualification over Uruguay on goal difference. In their last game against Australia they overcame a 3-0 half time deficit to win 4-3, showing that they are very capable of holding on when it is necessary.
The Ecuadorian midfield has a lot of experience, with players like captain and Manchester United winger Antonio Valencia and Segundo Castillo having 147 internationals between them. Cristian Noboa, Luis Saritama and Jefferson Montero will also boost the midfield, as will young Vitesse midfielder Renato Ibarra. Felipe Caciedo had a great qualifying campaign, scoring 7 times, and his experience will also be vital up front, although he will be ably supported by Jaime Ayovi, Enner Valencia and veteran Edison Mendez.
Quite a lot of players in the Ecuadorian team play in the weak Ecuadorian league, which has almost no international standing. In their most recent squad only 5 players played in Europe, with only one player (Antonio Valencia) having any real European aspirations. This points to a lack of depth in the side, which could be a major issue when coming up against teams like France or Switzerland who have better depth at their disposal.
Coach: Didier Deschamps
Captain: Hugo Lloris
World Cup Appearances: 14 (1930, 1934, 1938, 1954, 1958, 1966, 1978, 1982, 1986, 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010)
Best Result: Champions (1998)
Qualified: 2nd Group I, went on to defeat Ukraine in play-off
Qualification Top Scorer: Franck Ribery (5)
France were drawn into a tough group with reigning world champions Spain, and were unable to qualify automatically against their Southern neighbours. A 2-0 away defeat against Ukraine in the first play-off leg had the French on their knees but they managed a 3-0 home win to snatch qualification against the odds.
France have a very strong footballing tradition and their world cup squad will doubtless contain stars who feature at Europe’s top clubs. Star player Franck Ribery has enjoyed plenty of recent success with Bayern Munich, and with players like Yohan Cabaye, Blaise Matuidi and Paul Pogba enjoying club success this season the midfield looks to be in great shape. Arsenal’s Olivier Giroud and Real Madrid star Karim Benzema ensure the attack is in good shape, and with a solid defence at their disposal the French have the team to get into the latter stages of the tournament.
France’s last world cup campaign was an unmitigated disaster, the French exiting the tournament in the group stage with no wins and only 1 goal in their three games. Since then they have not been altogether convincing, and public opinion is pragmatic, to say the least. One reason for these struggles was the removal of the players who delivered them to the 2006 world cup final. Their retirement after hit the side hard, and as a result it has since struggled to regain that experience. The side is quite young going into the tournament and as a result they may struggle against more seasoned opponents.
Coach: Luis Fernando Suarez
Captain: Noel Valladares
World Cup Appearances: 2 (1982, 2010)
Best Result: Group Stage (1982, 2010)
Qualified: 3rd in CONCACAF qualifying
Qualification Top Scorer: Jerry Bengtson (9)
Honduras managed to qualify for the tournament comfortably enough, but getting to the final round proved a challenge, with the Hondurans defeating Canada 8-1 to knock them out of the tournament and get over the line themselves. Once in the hexagonal though, their steady home form helped them obtain automatic qualification.
Honduras have, for a while, been one of the strongest teams in CONCACAF, and their team looks as strong as ever for this tournament. Strikers Jerry Bengtson and Carlo Costly (who scored 16 goals between them in qualifying) provide targets up front, and should ensure the Hondurans at least score a goal after failing to do so in 2010. Wilson Palacios, Maynor Figueroa and Roger Espinoza, all of whom will presumably start, have Premier League experience and left-back Emilio Izaguirre plies his trade at Celtic where he is a consistent starter and has made Champions League appearances against the world’s best.
Despite players such as Figueroa, Izaguirre, Espinoza and Palacios the squad has a lot of players from the Honduran league, which is not very strong. First and second choice keepers Noel Valladares (who is national captain) and Donis Escobar both play for Olimpia Tegucigalpa, raising the question as to how much game time Escobar picks up. Juan Carlos Garcia, who may start in defence, has played once this season for his club, Wigan Athletic, and this is a worry. The Hondurans may well struggle with the lack of depth in the squad. The side is also quite old, with only 4 players under 25 in the final squad.
The games in this group should be reasonably close as the teams are pretty evenly matched and there are no real standouts. Honduras and Ecuador may struggle with their lack of depth and I would expect Switzerland and France to win out.
1. France, 2. Switzerland, 3. Honduras, 4. Ecuador
Next: I preview Group F, where Argentina and Nigeria meet yet again in the group stage.