France may be the biggest footballing power in Group E, but it is Switzerland who were top seeds when the draw was made on 6 December last year, and coach Ottmar Hitzfeld, retiring after the competition, will be hoping his team can give him a worthy send-off.
This is a tough group to call, partly because Switzerland are widely considered the weakest of the seeded teams having gained the status after topping a qualifying group in which relative minnows Iceland proved their closest rivals. As such there is a degree of scepticism about their true ability, although being somewhat of an enigma to opponents may work in the country’s favour. 24 points from a possible 30 and a seven-point winning margin is hardly a shabby record to take into a major competition.
Nevertheless, one definite concern lies in the Swiss attack, which has struggled somewhat following the retirement of Alexander Frei, who scored a whopping 42 goals in 86 internationals. In Bayern Munich midfielder Xherdan Shaqiri, however, Hitzfeld has a proven match-winner at his disposal, and the coach is keen to unleash similar young talent in Brazil.
France have gradually improved following a horror show both on and off the pitch in South Africa four years ago. As was the case then they had to settle for second spot in qualifying, but with Spain for company this time around it was hardly a disgrace.
On the back of an extraordinary comeback against Ukraine in their subsequent play-off, the belief amongst the French squad will be high. Indeed, Didier Deschamps has already made his mark by omitting Manchester City stars Gael Clichy and Samir Nasri from the squad. Clichy is perhaps not such a surprise as the left-back was often behind Aleksandar Kolorov in the pecking order for City, but playmaker Nasri was a regular starter for his club.
“I built the best squad, I did not pick the 23 best French players,” was Deschamps’ analysis, and he suggested that Nasri was not a popular player when on France duty due to a suspect temperament when he wasn’t picked. It is a move that has put Deschamps under pressure with the media, although in his defence, Deschamps was part of the France World Cup winning squad in 1998 that excluded David Ginola, and as such is used to furore surrounding high-profile individuals.
Although Switzerland and France on paper are the favourites to make the last 16, Ecuador should certainly not be ruled out. For a start they qualified automatically from the South American group and forced Uruguay into a play-off with Jordan. It was a campaign that was tinged with sadness, however, following the death of striker Christian Benitez from heart failure at the age of just 27 last July.
In Manchester United’s Antonio Valencia, Ecuador also possess one of the few traditional touchline wingers remaining in the game, although for his country he often operates centrally.
Honduras have are playing in their second successive World Cup. Intriguingly they are managed by Colombian Luis Fernando Suarez, who took Ecuador to the last 16 in 2006. The country finished third in the CONCACAF qualifying group, and although outsiders in Brazil, they may yet spring a surprise if their familiarity with the humid conditions of South America betters that of their opponents.
There is also an acquaintance with English fans on show in the shape of Hull’s Maynor Figueroa, Stoke’s Wilson Palacios and Wigan duo Roger Espinoza and Juan Carlos Garcia, who all made the squad.
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