2014 World Cup Brazil: Group E Preview

June 8, 2014

Group E is as perplexing as they come in the 2014 World Cup. If you were to believe FIFA, then Switzerland is the best team in this group as the seeded squad. But unless you’re Swiss or have an undying loyalty to the governing body of world football, you probably don’t believe that. France has the backing of many pundits heading into the tournament, but even Les Bleus aren’t a lock for the knockout stage after an untimely injury to one of its biggest stars.

Predicting which two teams will move on from any given group is always a tough task, but it doesn’t get much more difficult than this.

Let’s preview Group E.

Hi, My Name Is… (Players to Watch)

Karim Benzima, France striker

With fellow attacker Franck Ribery out for the tournament with a back injury, the burden of capitalizing on scoring chances now rests heavy on the shoulders of Benzima. It isn’t as if he is incapable; Benzima scored 17 goals with Real Madrid this season. But the loss of Ribery could potentially make Les Bleus more one-dimensional on offense unless forward Oliver Giroud helps pick up the slack. At any rate, Benzima must now take on the role of both playmaker and leader, which frankly is something that France lacked entirely in the 2010 World Cup.

If France ends up making it out of Group E, Benzima will prove to be a major reason why it was able to do so. He is versatile and can score from either side of the pitch, which is important especially if manager Didier Deschamps experiments with his lineup in Brazil without Ribery. France isn’t doomed, and it has Benzima to thank.

Antonio Valencia, Ecuador midfielder

Talk about a guy with leadership skills. During qualification last summer, Ecuador suffered a terrible loss when its leader scorer Christian Benítez died unexpectedly. But thanks to Valencia and a host of other national team veterans, Ecuador pulled it together and still ended up qualifying for Brazil. Valencia is the main piece to a midfield core that likes to push the ball into the opposing zone, and as a result Ecuador can be tricky to defend against. If his squad is to make it out of the group stage, Valencia will need to be accurate with his passes and keep his team calm.

Speaking of keeping his team calm, the battle often starts with himself. In a recent friendly against England, Valencia was sent off for grabbing the throat of Raheem Sterling after a foul. This absolutely cannot happen in the World Cup, because things often begin and end with the midfielder in Ecuador’s attack.

They’ll Move On If…

Ecuador – They get out to early leads and keep the pressure on for 90 minutes. This team is suspect in the back and teams like Switzerland and France will carefully pick and choose chances to attack. Even one slip up could result in the back breaking concession for La Tri, so it is imperative that this squad does what it does best and hangs on for dear life. It’s unclear whether the talent is there to hang with the European sides in this group, but funny things happen.

France – Play solid defense and stay focused. France is a fickle squad; in 2010 the talent was there to move on to the knockout stage but the leadership was not. The additional bad news of Ribery’s injury will make things tough on Les Bleus, but it is still good enough to scrape together some goals and hold strong on the back end. I’d be surprised if this team didn’t have a shot at making the knockout stage come match three of group play, but they’re known to surprise in a bad way.

Honduras – hope for a clean sheet all three matches. And that’s just to move on as 2E. Honduras was one of two squads that failed to score a single goal in the 2010 World Cup and since that time not much has been done to improve the attack. This isn’t the strongest group of the bunch, but it is still too strong for a team with such goal scoring deficiencies to move on.

Switzerland – Simply just go out and not worry so much about results. This is an extremely green squad but there is still a lot of talent on it. As soon as you look around and realize the type of stage you’re playing on, it can mess with the young players’ heads. But if the Swiss don’t worry about the result and just push for the goals that this attack can produce, good things will happen. The front end is young and fast and the back end is consistent and gritty, so there is no reason to assume that this squad doesn’t have what it takes to live up to its seeding.

Most Crucial Matches

Ecuador vs. Switzerland (June 15, 12 PM ET)

Both sides are ready and willing to attack relentlessly, so don’t be surprised to see a lot of goals in the first half. Switzerland definitely has the better defense, though, so this could be a case where the Ecuador side looks competitive for a half but the talent on the Swiss side takes over in the second 45 minutes. Since both teams will want to light up the scoreboard, expect midfield play to be extremely important. This is where Ecuador could have the advantage, especially if Antonio Valencia is playing well. I’m sure that neither side would be totally disappointed with a draw, but three points by one side could translate into the fast track to securing 1E in the group. Don’t count on either squad letting up in a tie game late.

France vs. Switzerland (June 20, 3 PM ET)

Before the injury to Ribery, I’d have said that France was the favorite in this one. Now I’m not so sure. Switzerland could very well employ a much different strategy in this match compared with the one it goes with against Ecuador, and that’s because France is a more complete team. Don’t be shocked if the Swiss decide to lay back and defend their own goal, especially if they already locked up three points the week before. Switzerland’s defense is no joke so the French may end up doing the same thing simply to avoid giving up an easy transition goal. This is especially true if it finds trouble scoring against Honduras in its first game. Whereas the opening match of this group could be a goal fest, this one could be a defensive game of chess.

How They’ll Finish (picks in bold move on to Knockout Stage)

1. Switzerland – 7 points

2. France – 7 points

3. Ecuador – 3 points

4. Honduras – 0 points

– K. Becks

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