Teams (world ranking in brackets): Argentina (3), Bosnia and Herzegovina (21), Iran (45), Nigeria (31)
Argentina vs Bosnia and Herzegovina, Rio de Janeiro
Iran vs Nigeria, Curitiba
Argentina vs Iran, Belo Horizonte
Nigeria vs Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cuiaba
Nigeria vs Argentina, Porto Alegre
Bosnia and Herzegovina vs Iran, Salvador
Coach: Alejandro Sabella
Captain: Lionel Messi
World Cup Appearances: 15 (1930, 1934, 1958, 1962, 1966, 1974, 1978, 1982,1986, 1990, 1994, 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010)
Best Result: Champions (1978, 1986)
Qualified: 1st in CONMEBOL qualifying
Qualification Top Scorer: Lionel Messi (10)
Argentina cruised to qualification for the world cup, finishing at the top of the CONMEBOL section with only 2 losses (one of which came in the last game against Uruguay after qualification had been sealed). The team has played in every world cup since 1974 and have been in the top 10 of the world for quite a long time.
The Argentinian attack, led by Barcelona star Lionel Messi, is arguably the best in the world. The fact that Alejandro Sabella did not select in-form Juventus star Carlos Tevez speaks volumes about the strength of an attack which contains players such as Gonzalo Higuain and Sergio Aguero. These players complement Messi, a 4-time Ballon d’Or winner, and the attack will be ably supported by wingers Ezequiel Lavezzi and Angel Di Maria. Javier Mascherano brings experience and versatility to the team and he will be helped by players like Fernando Gago, Lucas Biglia and Ever Banega to control the centre of midfield.
The Argentinian team may be one of the strongest when it comes to attack, but they may struggle in defence. First-choice goalkeepers Sergio Romero and Mariano Andujar have not had much game time at Monaco and Catania respectively, and this is worrying if they are looking to have some match practice going into the world cup. The defence is reasonable but not extremely experienced at this level, with the most experienced, Martin Demichelis, facing a struggle to make the first team against younger centre-backs such as Ezequiel Garay and Federico Fernandez, as well as Hugo Campagnaro.
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Coach: Safet Susic
Captain: Emir Spahic
World Cup Appearances: None
Best Result: N/A
Qualified: 1st Group G
Qualification Top Scorer: Edin Dzeko (10)
Bosnia and Herzegovina qualified for their first major tournament in style, blitzing Group G to finish first with an astonishing 30 goals scored at an average of 3 a game. The campaign included some massive victories, including an 8-1 away win over Liechtenstein, as well as a 5-0 drubbing of Latvia as well as 4-1 home wins against both.
As one would expect from such a prolific goal scoring team, the Bosnians are extremely strong in attack. Led by Edin Dzeko and Vedad Ibisevic, who contributed 18 goals between them over qualification, the Bosnians scored the fourth most goals of any side during UEFA qualification. The midfield is also strong, and players like Zvjezdan Misimovic and Miralem Pjanic contribute well to the scoreboard. The defence is also strong, led by Leverkusen centre-back Emir Spahic and Stoke City goakeeper Asmir Begovic.
While the first team line-up is strong, the side lacks depth. This means that if any injuries were to occur the side would struggle to fill the void. While in their respective top divisions many players play at slightly weaker clubs, with Manchester City star Dzeko the main exception. Apart from Spahic the defence is lacking experience, with the other 8 defenders named averaging just 9 caps each, and 5 players falling below this average. This inexperience may also affect the midfield, which also struggles to strike the right balance between experience and youth.
Coach: Carlos Queiroz
Captain: Javad Nekounam
World Cup Appearances: 3 (1978, 1998, 2006)
Best Result: Group Stage (1978, 1998, 2006)
Qualified: 1st Group A
Qualification Top Scorer: Javad Nekounam (6)
Iran cruised through the second round of AFC qualifying, beating the Maldives 4-0 and 1-0 to progress easily. The Iranians only lost three more times in 14 games to qualify comfortably enough. Both qualification and first place were achieved in the final match against Korea Republic in Ulsan.
The Iranians are very experienced, with players such as Javad Nekounam, Jalal Hosseini, Andranik Teymourian and Mohammad Reza Khalatbari having represented their country on numerous occasions. The side also has some good young players coming up, however, with Ashkan Dejagah, Alireza Jahanbakhsh and Reza Ghoochannejhad all young and starting to get opportunities in Europe, as with Braunschweig goalkeeper Daniel Davari. In defence Ehsan Hajsafi has 60 caps at the age of 24, and he has a bright future ahead of him.
A majority of the Iranian players play in the relatively weak Iranian league, and this means they will struggle when faced up with sides like Argentina who are of the highest order. No members of the squad will have had much experience facing up against such opposition, and this is also a concern. The side also lacks a striker who can score goals. Karim Ansarifad, who has been the first-choice for a while, averages 1 goal every 5 games. On this form he would struggle to score during the tournament, and this is a major concern for a side drawn into a tough group.
Coach: Stephen Keshi
Captain: Vincent Enyeama
World Cup Appearances: 4 (1994, 1998, 2002, 2010)
Best Result: Round of 16 (1994, 1998)
Qualified: 1st Group F, went on to defeat Ethiopia in play-off
Qualification Top Scorer: Emmanuel Emenike (3)
Nigeria were drawn into an easy group containing Mali, Kenya and Namibia, and progressed without losing a game. For the play-offs they were drawn against Ethiopia, and two goals from Emmanuel Emenike gave them a 2-1 away victory and the upper hand. They then won 2-0 at home to gain qualification.
The Nigerian side is first rate, with Premier League star John Obi Mikel leading the charge. Victor Moses has been given more chances while on loan at Liverpool and he will form an effective partnership on the wings with Ahmed Musa. Players like Peter Odemwingie, Victor Obinna and Emmanuel Emenike will form a great attack, and Joseph Yobo will provide experience and solidity in defence. He will be ably assisted by players such as Elderson and Efe Ambrose, while captain and goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama is in great form with Lille and will provide support.
While the midfield in the first-team will be quite strong, the rest of the midfield will be quite inexperienced. Apart from Mikel, who has 57 caps, the next most experienced midfielder is Sunday Mba with 21. Another issue with the side is balance between experience and youth, with a lot of young players and quite a few old players. There are a few players such as Elderson, Ambrose or Mikel who fit this bracket, but I don’t think that there are enough of those players in the side.
This will be a good group to watch, but Argentina should win easily. I would expect Nigeria and Bosnia and Herzegovina to challenge for the second spot. Look out for the game between Argentina and Nigeria, as the two have faced off in three of Nigeria’s four world cups.
1. Argentina, 2. Nigeria, 3. Bosnia and Herzegovina, 4. Iran
Next: I look at Group G, which will be one of the most exciting groups in the tournament.