Group E: FRANCE, ECUADOR, SWITZERLAND, HONDURAS
The two European teams are favorites to make it through to the round of 16, but Ecuador cannot be taken lightly. Winger Valencia is supposed to be the fastest player in the world at 21.8 mph, but if that doesn’t translate into goals, it will be fruitless for the underperforming South American qualifiers. France is without their best player—Ribery, through injury—and will depend heavily on Madrid striker Benzema to drag them through. Benzema, not too long ago, was the butt of many jokes when he went more than 1100 minutes for France without scoring. He is a changed player now and has had a season to remember with Real Madrid. His team didn’t win a game in the 2010 World Cup, much like their doomed 2002 campaign. In 2006, they reached the finals against Italy, before Zidane lost his head. Switzerland, meanwhile, will look to avenge their disappointment in 2010, where they defeated eventual World Champs Spain in the first game (Spain’s only defeat of the campaign), and went on to lose their next two games—striker Shaqiri will be their main hope after a successful season with German Champs Bayern Munich. Honduras, meanwhile, didn’t score a goal in the 2010 edition, but also only conceded 3 goals. They were prolific in qualifying (25 goals), and are fresh from beating Spain in the 2012 Olympics. So, they are capable of a few surprises, but maybe not in this strong group.
Prediction: France and Switzerland will go through.
GROUP F: ARGENTINA, BOSNIA and HERZEGOVINA, IRAN, NIGERIA
This is one of the easiest groups to predict, with no disrespect to African Champions Nigeria. With Messi scoring 20 goals in his last 21 international games, Argentina are overwhelming favorites to go through—to face either France or Switzerland in the next stage. They haven’t gone past the quarters since 1990, falling most recently to an electric Germany side in 2010 4-0 when Maradona was in charge. They could reach the final 8 again, but that is when Messi needs to do better than the sole World Cup goal he has scored in 2 editions. For B&H, Coach Susic is considered to be their greatest-ever player (172 goals for PSG), and this is their first major tournament of any kind. Not much is expected from them, but striker Dzeko contributed majorly to their 30 qualifying goals. On the big stage though, they are yet to be tested. Iran fell in the 2006 group stages, and might fall here too, despite only letting in 7 goals in their qualifying campaign. They aren’t exactly known for their scoring abilities, and will face tough competition against Nigeria. The reigning African Champions will know that their games against Iran and B&H have to be perfect in order to qualify, and they will be craving to pull off a Senegal, especially because fellow African nations find themselves in tougher groups.
Prediction: Argentina and Nigeria will go through.
GROUP G: GERMANY, GHANA, PORTUGAL, UNITED STATES
This is the ultimate Group of Death. Germany and Portugal found themselves in the same group in Euro 2012 too, where they eliminated Netherlands. This time, Ghana—the African team that almost made it to the 2010 World Cup Semis after a handball by Uruguay’s Suarez—is a dangerous proposition. German striker Klose is a goal short of Brazilian legend Ronaldo’s World Cup tally, but that doesn’t take the spotlight off Germany’s lethal group of midfielders. Moreover, after finishing runners up in 2002, 3rd in 2006 and 3rd in 2010, Germany will be craving to seal their place as the best European team along with Spain. Theirs is easily the youngest and most dynamic team once again, and nothing less than a win will do. A Group like this will strengthen their resolve further. Cristiano Ronaldo, reigning Player of the Year, will have something to say about their meeting—after he shot his team into qualifying with a spectacular hat trick against Sweden in the playoffs. Like Messi, he has scored only a few goals in World Cup games, and will be looking to prove a lot after Portugal finished second to Russia in their qualifying group. Germany is at no. 2 and Portugal at no. 3 in the rankings, but that won’t mean much when they face no. 14 USA and no. 38 Ghana—any of whom could be better on the day.
Prediction: Germany and Portugal to go through at 1 and 2.
GROUP H: ALGERIA, BELGIUM, RUSSIA, SOUTH KOREA
Belgium is playing its first Cup since 2002, and are characterized by young playmakers like Hazard (Chelsea). They are one of the youngest and most unpredictable teams in competition, and went unbeaten through Qualifying, winning 8 of their 10 games. Their main threat will remain Russia—who under coach Capello—piped Portugal to top spot in Qualifying. Russia haven’t appeared since 2002 either, and are known as the most unforgiving defensive team (letting in only 5 goals in 10 qualifying games). They are also the 2018 hosts, and will look to boost interest in the sport with a stellar performance. South Korea aren’t the team that reached the 2002 semifinals at home, but they did manage to reach the round of 16 in South Africa (2010). Still, fans can’t be that optimistic after they failed to pip Iran to top spot in Qualifying. Much will depend on free agent Park Chu-young, who was released from Arsenal last month.
Prediction: Russia and Belgium will go through.