If every World Cup group needs to have a name, let’s call Group E “The Group of Doubt.”
Switzerland is the seeded team and waltzed through qualifying. Of course, that qualification group featured such soccer-rich countries as Iceland and Slovenia. Many believe the Swiss to be the weakest seeded team in the tournament.
France, arguably one of the most talented rosters in the world, struggled to qualify for the tournament and their absolute implosion during the 2010 World Cup is still fresh in everyone’s mind.
Ecuador and Honduras are both young and intriguing teams who could play the spoiler roles, but both have issues creating goals. Which will be vital to beat the more expansive European opponents.
Who’s going to win? Just about any of them.
The Swiss, like Greece, have a reputation for defending as a unit and relying on set pieces to score. However, this isn’t a typical Swiss team. Blessed with several young attackers with world class names — Bayern Munich’s Xherdan Shaqiri, midfielder Granit Xhaka and striker Josip Drmic — this Swiss team can actually play some soccer.
Against Honduras and Ecuador, look for the Swiss to come out swinging. Against France, a bit more pragmatic and defensive shape is more likely. Ottmar Hitzfeld, a Champions League-winning coach nicknamed The General, is a world-class coach and will lead a very proud team that could be out to prove their seed isn’t a fluke.
How They Got Here: Won UEFA Group E
Best World Cup Finish: Quarterfinals in 1954
Following the debacle of the 2010 tournament, when the French team collapsed into chaos and withered with losses to Mexico and South Africa in the group stage. Needless to say, Les Bleus have a lot to prove. The challenge for former French captain and current coach Didier Deschamps is to keep the team from imploding in the heat of Brazil. Many in France believe the country is doomed already, if Deschamps can convince them to realize their potential, a semifinal run is a real possibility.
A three-man powerhouse midfield of Paul Pogba, Blaise Matuidi and Yohan Cabaye has the capacity to overrun any opponent. With Karim Benzema and Franck Ribery, the French shouldn’t want to creativity or goals. The team’s defense is also a strength with Real Madrid youngster Raphael Varane on the verge of super-stardom.
How They Got Here: Finished second in UEFA Group I, defeated Ukraine 3-2 in a two-leg playoff.
Best World Cup Finish: Champions 1998
Unlike the other South American squads, Ecuador might not have a built-in advantage in Brazil. During its qualifying campaign, Ecuador reached the World Cup on the strength of its impressive unbeaten record at home in the altitude of Quito — only Argentina managed a draw. On the road, Ecuador was very average and often poor. The team managed to navigate tragedy last year after the death of 27-year-old striker Christian Benitez to close qualifying strong.
Led by wingers Antonio Valencia and Jefferson Montero, Ecuador is primarily a fast, counter-attacking team. That style could come in handy against the likes of France and Switzerland.
How They Got Here: Finished fourth in CONMEBOL qualification
Best World Cup Finish: Round of 16, 2006
This is a much better draw for Honduras than 2010 (Chile, Spain and Switzerland), and if the favorites suffer a squad implosion, the Hondurans could counter-attack and press their way into qualification for the knockout stage. Manager Luis Fernando Suarez knows how to guide an underdog — in 2006, he took Ecuador to the round of 16. He will face his old team in the second match of the group stage.
The Hondurans are led on the field by Roger Espinoza, a familiar face to Kansas City fans. The Wigan midfielder has become the squad’s best player and his relentlessness could give Switzerland and Ecuador problems.
How They Got Here: Finished third in CONCACAF “Hexagonal” qualifying
Best World Cup Finish: Group stage, 2010
Who Will Advance: France, Switzerland
Dark Horse: Ecuador
Glad to be Here: Honduras
Three Players to Watch
Yohan Cabaye (France): Ribery and Benzema will draw the plaudits and score the goals, but a lot is riding on the seldom-used PSG midfielder. As the point of France’s three-man midfield, Cabaye is the key to unlocking defenses set on preventing Les Bleus from their preferred free-flowing attack. A good tournament for Cabaye could mean a long tournament for France.
Antonio Valencia (Ecuador): His strength and speed on the wing will give the left backs of this group nightmares. While Ecuador don’t score a lot of goals, Valencia on one side and Montero on the other are always dangerous.
Xherdan Shaqiri (Switzerland): With maybe the exception of Brazil’s Neymar, there isn’t another young midfielder (he’s just 22 years old) carrying such a heavy burden. Whether he lines up in the middle or out wide, the Swiss offense will flow through the stocky Bayern Munich forward. He’s confident and capable enough to deliver.
Must Watch Match
France vs. Switzerland, June 20
A winner in this match should determine the winner of the group — and the team that will avoid Argentina in the knockout stage.