Group E: France get lucky
After the playoffs, exhale. Didier Deschamps must have a potent horseshoe somewhere in his bag; after a disastrous first leg of the playoffs against Ukraine, everything has gone right since, with a rousing comeback at the Stade de France in the return that gave way to this favourable draw. Neighbouring Switzerland will also be pretty pleased, scoffing at the inference that lightning doesn’t strike twice -- they cruised through a clement group containing Iceland, Slovenia and a very off-colour Norway.
It was Ecuador’s early form that got them through the notoriously tough South American qualifiers; they have been in poor form of late, winning just once in their past 10 games, although they did beat Colombia and Chile earlier in the qualification campaign. They also already beat Honduras -- surely the group's dark horses -- in a March friendly. Luis Fernando Suarez’s team are not in sparkling form, either, having won one in six, but that was a crucial victory in the qualifying campaign over a horribly out-of-nick Mexico.
We should expect France to take the group, Switzerland to be runners-up, Ecuador in third and Honduras to finish bottom.
Team by team
France: Having scraped into the draw for Brazil by the skin of their teeth, France have the quality to go deep in this competition, with members of the long-feted 1987 generation such as Karim Benzema and Samir Nasri expected to step up. There are doubts over whether Didier Deschamps really knows what his best team is, and their defending can be occasionally shambolic, so expect captain Hugo Lloris to see a bit of action between the posts, too.
Switzerland: It is hard to believe that in Ottmar Hitzfeld’s first competitive game as Switzerland boss, the Nati suffered a humiliating loss to Luxembourg in qualifying for World Cup 2010. It’s been all uphill since then, as they recovered to finish first in that qualifying group and are now at a third successive finals. Hitzfeld is leading a far different side than 2006’s version -- or even the side that shocked Spain in 2010 -- with the squad’s diverse origins lending it a fresh flair. Switzerland have huge strength in the goalkeeping department with Diego Benaglio and Yann Sommer, and some of the world’s brightest midfield players in captain Gokhan Inler, Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri.
Ecuador: Reinaldo Rueda’s side have had a rough year, struggling for form and mourning the tragic death of striker Chucho Benitez. Their greatest strength -- much as with the Swiss -- lies in midfield, with Manchester United’s Luis Antonio Valencia and Dynamo Moscow’s Christian Noboa adding quality and penetration. Felipe Caicedo and Jefferson Montero are dangerous up front, although neither has really built on the early promise shown in European club football. Ecuador’s defence, however, has been leaky for the past year.
Honduras: They will not be fancied but are used to holding their own in competitive fixtures against Mexico, the U.S. and Costa Rica, so they are no pushovers. There is creativity and industry in Wilson Palacios and Roger Espinoza, while Maynor Figueroa is well-known as a doughty competitor. The reliable Carlo Costly and New England Revolution’s Jerry Bengtson will be required to chip in with some goals.
Best individual battle: Stephan Lichtsteiner vs. Franck Ribery
This head-to-head, when Switzerland meet France, should be no-holds-barred. These are two of the most energetic -- and fit -- players in the modern game, with the Juve wing-back a threat going forward as well as a defender who bends the rules to their absolute limit on occasion. Ribery, a similarly high achiever, has become a dynamo at both ends of the pitch in the past couple of years, and he will use all of his box of tricks to try to get the better of his opponent. They might even get a warm-up in the Champions League if Juventus face Bayern.
Best game: France vs. Switzerland
This will be in the second round of matches and will take place in Salvador’s Arena Fonte Nova. It should be fairly mild temperature-wise and suit both teams, and it promises to be a vast improvement on the snorefest the pair served up in 2002. These are two athletic teams that like to attack, but what would make it really interesting is if one of the pair failed to win its first game, making sure that holding what it has is not an option.
X factor: French frailty
The psychological scars of the mutiny in Knysna four years ago have nowhere near healed, and there is still a very difficult relationship between the squad and the general public. Whatever happens, they should be fine to exit the group, but Euro 2012 showed how those past problems still dog them -- Les Bleus went into the tournament on a long unbeaten run and in fine fettle, yet losing a dead rubber to Sweden opened up all the old divisions and precipitated Laurent Blanc’s exit as coach. Proceed with caution.
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