One of the favorites to lift the trophy in Rio this year are Argentina, and they have found themselves in an eminently winnable group alongside Bosnia-Herzegovina, Nigeria and Iran. Many see this tournament as a chance for Lionel Messi to retake the title of the best player on the planet from Cristiano Ronaldo, and if he can inspire his nation to victory in Brazil, he could really stake his claim as the best player not only of his generation, but of all time. Group F could therefore be witness to the beginning of footballing history this summer, and with a supremely talented squad around him, Messi is in prime position to run wild and put accusations of under-performing internationally behind him for good.
Messi, Aguero, Higuain, Di Maria, Lavezzi; it is hard to think of a better attacking lineup than Argentina have this summer, and though their midfield and defense is not quite as glittering, they are solid enough to let their forwards do the talking.
One area of weakness could be in goal, where AS Monaco keeper Sergio Romero is not exactly a world-beater. However, manager Alejandro Sabella will be hoping that their forwards can score enough goals to make up for any defensive frailties, and it would be foolish to bet against them. Argentina are a much more cohesive side than they were during the chaotic reign of Diego Maradona at the last World Cup, and this sense of togetherness, mixed with a sense of density for one of the greats in the backyard of his greatest rival nations, could be a dangerous combination.
Argentina’s first game at this World Cup will come in Belo Horizonte against the underdogs of the group, Iran. Ranked 43rd in the world and first in Asia, they have undergone a remarkable change of fortunes in recent years and now have former Manchester United assistant Carlos Queiroz at the helm during what is an exciting time for the fledgling football nation.
Fulham wide man Ashkan Dejagah had a fairly good season in the Premier League despite suffering relegation at the end of it, and some English fans may or may not also be familiar with Charlton Athletic man Reza Ghoochannejhad. This will be the fourth time the ‘Persian Stars’ have appeared at a World Cup finals tournament, and will be hoping to make it out of the group stages for the first time, having fallen at the first hurdle in 1978, 1998 and 2006. Few will have money on them to do so, but anything can happen in a fairly unpredictable group.
On of their other opponents in this tournament will be Bosnia and Herzegovina, competing for the first time having gained independence from the former Yugoslavia in 1992. Talisman Edin Dzeko has spoken of the desire to give something back to the country, admitting that the area is known to the world mostly as a place of war; this is something they will be trying to rectify at this tournament, with a varied squad consisting of some superstars with a supporting cast of unknowns.
Stoke goalkeeper Asmir Begovic will be vital in between the sticks, with Miralem Pjanic, Vedad Ibisevic, Sejad Salihovic and Zvjezdan Misimovic the other star names for a side which finished top of its European qualifying group with 25 points from 10 games and an impressive goal difference of +24.
There is a feeling that the team is too reliant on Dzeko as a leader and goal threat, and if he under-performs it is difficult to see them going far in this tournament. That said, he enjoyed a good season for Manchester City, quietly racking up the goals as the Citizens took the Premier League trophy – his 16 league goals were vital to their title challenge. The Bundesliga contingent are also likely to be key – they have a lot of top-level experience under their belts, and are ready to impress at the very highest level. With something real to play for, they shouldn’t be underestimated.
Nigeria have often been thought to be one of the powerhouses of African football, and the current African Cup of Nations Champions have a good chance of progressing through this group. They hope to be the first African nation to make it past the group stage, and under inspirational manager Stephen Keshi, anything is possible.
Fenerbahce forward Emmanuel Emenike is a threat from three yards to thirty, and goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama enjoyed a stellar season for Lille in France. Ahmed Musa and Elderson Echiejile have some injury worries going into the tournament, and they do seem to confirm the cliché of shaky African defenses from time to time – many will remember the goal they conceded to lowly Tahiti at last summer’s Confederations Cup in Brazil, a tournament they nearly didn’t show up for after monetary struggles with the country’s FA.
John Obi Mikel continues to be the star of this side as he has been for years, often seeming to be twice the player he is at Chelsea. With two very beatable sides in their group, anything other than qualification from the group stage would be a disappointment, but likely second round opponents France have a talented squad with a lot to prove.