With the start of the 2014 World Cup only a few days away, excitement is growing across the planet with the group stages looming. Perhaps one of the less glamorous groups on paper is Group E, with France, Switzerland, Honduras and Ecuador. Though France will be tipped by many as certainties to progress to the knockout stage, their shambolic performances in South Africa showed that in the World Cup, nothing can be taken for granted.
That World Cup was overshadowed by internal disputes and struggles within the camp, but under Didier Deschamps, the squad is a much more harmonious one. The former World Cup and European Championship-winning captain of Les Bleus commands a talented young squad, and one which is arguably underrated by many, especially considering the relatively simple nature of their group.
It is a squad which can boast talents such as Paul Pogba and Raphael Varane, but an injury to Franck Ribery which could leave their star man out of the tournament could leave Karim Benzema as the most internationally experienced player. The general consensus is therefore that this tournament will come too early to the majority of the squad for France to make a huge impact, but another group stage exit would be a disaster.
Though their squad is laced through with talent, perhaps France’s greatest area of strength is in defense, with Mamadou Sakho and Laurent Koscielny both having enjoyed fruitful seasons in the Premier League and Hugo Lloris one of the better goalkeepers in Europe. However, it has come as a shock to many that Samir Nasri has been omitted from the final squad, and with Benzema often struggling to find the net for his country - he once went 1,222 minutes without an international goal - his goals from midfield could be missed.
However, when all is said and done, it must be remembered with all respect that their opening match of the World Cup will come against Honduras, a team who could walk unrecognized down even the most football-loving street. They finished third in the final CONCACAF qualifying round, knocking out Panama and Jamaica, and though Celtic favorite Emilio Izaguirre and Hull City defender Maynor Figueroa add some top-flight experience, they are unlikely to have the French quaking in their boots.
However, that is something they could use to their advantage. With nine goals in qualifying, New England Revolution striker Jerry Bengtson clearly knows where the goal is, and could prove to be something of a surprise package in this tournament, especially if Deschamps’ men become overconfident.
Manager Luis Fernando Suarez has previous history as an underdog in the World Cup, taking Ecuador to the last 16 in 2006, and only bowing out 1-0 to a David Beckham-inspired England. With all to play for for the second spot in Group E, Suarez’ nous and experience could prove to be the difference for a relatively unknown team.
Switzerland shocked the world at the last tournament in South Africa with a Gelson Fernandes goal seeing them beat Spain in the opening match of the group stage - however, it wasn’t enough to see them through, though they did finish above this year’s opponents Honduras. Though they may not boast strength in depth, forward Josip Drmic has enjoyed an impressive season for Nurnberg, and Xherdan Shaqiri remains an exciting talent after a good season for Bayern Munich.
Though they do boast some impressive quality for a small nation - Serie A pair Stephan Lichsteiner and Goekhan Inler to name just two - perhaps their greatest asset is their manager, experienced German Ottmar Hitzfeld. With seven Bundesliga titles and two Champions Leagues at Bayern and Dortmund, he brings a wealth of experience to the post he has held as Switzerland manager for the last six years.
FIFA currently have them in an impressive sixth spot in the world rankings - ahead of Colombia, England and a full eleven spaces ahead of France, for that matter - so they are clearly no pushovers. With a better squad and more high-level experience in their side than Honduras or Ecuador, many expect them to make the knockout round, where they would be likely to meet Argentina.
Finally, there is Ecuador, the side who drew with England in a friendly match just a few days ago. Though captain Antonio Valencia was sent off in that game for attacking Raheem Sterling after an unnecessarily hefty challenge, the Manchester United winger is vital to his side’s chances of progressing.
Their entire side is blessed with an abundance of pace, and as a result they can be devastating on the counterattack, but they may be hindered by their abysmal form away from home. They beat Uruguay to the final automatic qualification place, having only dropped two points from eight games at home, but they only picked up three points from a possible twenty-four on their travels. Without the pleasures of home around them, they can be unpredictable and erratic in defense.
In attack, though, they do have some genuine talent. Jefferson Montero and Valencia are both very capable wingers, dribbling at pace to create opportunities for former Manchester City forward Felipe Caicedo, who sits eighth on his nation’s top-scorers list with fifteen goals. Though he is one of those players who seems to have been around forever, he is still only 25 years old and has the record of 31 firmly in his sights. Edison Mendez, still turning out for his nation at the ripe old age of 35, sits above him on the list with 18, and is also the second most-capped player for La Tri - he is something of a living legend for his country.
Their current manager Reinaldo Rueda’s previous job was that of Honduras manager before stepping down after widespread criticism of his tactics at the World Cup, so he will have something to prove going into this tournament - however, most expect France and Switzerland to fly the flag for Europe in this group and advance to the knockout round.