Wednesday, 4 June 2014

The Football Hipster World Cup Preview: Group E

Reminder: don't forget our other previews of Group A, Group B, Group C and Group D.

Welcome once again to the World Cup Preview that's already being celebrated across the world for its combination of longness and interestingness. We've got to Group E and will be picking up the pace a bit. On paper this is one of the weakest groups in the tournament, with its best side (i.e. France or Switzerland depending on your view) arguably little better than the weakest side in, say, Group G (i.e. the USA). As usual that means it could be one to watch for neutrals looking for a bit of the unexpected. Seeding the Swiss may look like the kindest thing FIFA has ever done for its home country, but they earned it. This year they look set neither to fulfill their stereotypical role of dour, goal-shy grinders, nor to explode out of the group and conquer the world with their young talent; progress to the quarters is a realistic ambition. France should win the group if they don't self-destruct but the dark horses here are Ecuador, a pacy side who could cause problems on the break if they can capture the attacking potential within their team. Honduras are unlikely to progress but have sufficient resources to have some influence on the group.


Valencia: now the main man
Ecuador are by now a familiar presence at World Cups, with the altitude advantage they enjoy in home qualifiers often rather unfairly cited as the reason. This side of things shouldn’t be over-estimated however; while Ecuador did rely on home form, with victories over Colombia, Chile and Uruguay in Quito, their performance in qualifying comfortably exceeded that of fellow thin-air specialists Peru and Bolivia. Progress to the second round in 2006 showed they are no pushovers on the world stage. Ecuador have established themselves in a second tier of South American sides behind Argentina, Brazil, and the more recently emerged force of Chile.

The Ecuador team had the heart torn out of it in mid-2013 with the untimely death of their striker and leading scorer, one time Birmingham City forward Christian Benitez. Without him the team has looked somewhat goal-shy, and was not prolific in qualifying. The primary choice at centre forward is Felipe Caceido, who somewhat unpromisingly plays his club football in the relatively weak UAE league even in his prime (he’s 25). He does score useful goals for Ecuador though. Despite a lack of real quality options, two strikers are often played, and the speedy and wide-roving Enner Valencia seems to have established himself as Caicedo’s partner. A more direct and conventional alternative would be Jaime Ayovi whose goalscoring record at international level is decent.

Fans of the no longer fashionable art of wing play should keep an eye on Ecuador, who are likely to be among the tournament’s premier employers of wide men. At 28, Antonio Valencia is Ecuador’s leading player and, since the loss of Benitez, their talisman. Opponents will focus on shackling his progress on the flanks but will then face the challenge of what to do with Jefferson Montero, likely to start on the left. Fond of hugging the touchline, and genuinely terrifying when flat out with the ball at his feet, Montero started to add some end product to his game in qualifying and popped up with useful goals.

With all of this fizz up front and on the flanks, Ecuador’s central midfield can sometimes risk being overrun. Colombian coach Reinaldo Rueda seems to prefer the experienced combination of Christian Noboa, of Dynamo Moscow, and 32-year-old Segundo Castillo, once briefly of Everton but now playing in Saudi Arabia. With 120 caps between them, these two represent a disciplined unit with useful international experience, albeit little of it at truly top level. Midfield options are in theory an Ecuadorian strength, but in reality there are more of them than Rueda seems to know what to do with. One obvious switch would be to bring 108-cap veteran Edison Mendez into a 4-5-1 formation. Still feisty at 35, Mendez packs a Lampard-like howitzer shot and might arguably give the team a more natural shape than Rueda’s first choice 4-4-2. A bit more shuffling would be required in order to accommodate deep-lying playmaker Luis Saritama. Then there are, remarkably, more wingers: Renato Ibarra has European experience with Vitesse (and is reportedly coveted by Swansea) while Fidel Martinez plays for Mexico’s Tijuana and sports Neymar-like hair. Joao Rojas is another quick-stepping dribbler who can play anywhere across the front line. There are two other options in midfield: Michael Arroyo, a loping advanced midfielder who can play through the centre, and eighteen year old Carlos Gruezo, a defensive midfielder. Wih the youthful Gruezo his only cover it looks likely that Castillo will start every game; indeed, for all these options, Rueda’s preferences are fairly settled.
A clear first choice lineup also exists in defence. It’s in the centre where Ecuador’s simplest and perhaps most important weakness – a lack of proven top quality players with high-end club experience – is most apparent. Frickson Erazo may be likely to be a sticker-collector’s favourite due to his quirky name, but he has had little game time since moving to Flamengo at the start of the Brazilian season; his likely partner Jorge Guagua, while hugely experienced, lacks real international quality and is losing his pace. There is at least experienced cover in Gabriel Achilier, though with him the only recognized reserve centre-back, Rueda’s midfield-heavy squad selection does look quixotic. This being Ecuador, the wide defenders are of an attacking nature. Juan Carlos Paredes on the right offers yet more rapidity while the veteran Walter Ayovi (cousin of Jaime) also likes to get forward, though perhaps at a more sedate pace. Long-time backup fullbackup Oscar Bagui also makes the squad. Goalkeeper Alexander Dominguez is no Lloris, Cech or Courtois but his position is secure.

Ecuador appear a curious prospect. Apparently packed to the gills with pace and flair in attack, they nonetheless struggle to score many goals. Their midfield is replete with attacking options, to the obvious expense of defensive cover, yet Rueda’s record of actually using these in his starting lineups is limited. His team plays a formation, 4-4-2, which exacerbates one of its key weaknesses in the lack of a proven second striker. Given their squad, Ecuador seem destined (or doomed) to be a fairly open side with limited cover in midfield, so they will be hoping that their attacking resources are able to expose some of the fairly clumsy defences that may confront them in this group. To Ecuador’s advantage is the fact that none of their first round opponents look to have a lot of goals in them; this may allow them, despite their dubious defence, the chance to sit back a bit and look to counter. With Valencia and other pacy runners at their disposal, the Ecuadorians have the potential to be a bit of a crack counter-attacking unit; if only they had a little stronger a spine.

Strengths: Pace. With startling numbers of speedy athletes in their prime, all used to running their lungs out at high altitude, Ecuador could be quite a prospect when attacking down the flanks. There’s also plenty of experience in the squad, but not too many thirtysomethings. Of likely starters only Enner Valencia and keeper Dominguez have  fewer than 20 caps.

Weaknesses: Centre of defence slow and cumbersome and poorly covered by an open midfield. Odd squad selection and no clarity as to preferred alternative selections in midfield, despite loads of options. Limited goal threat despite all the pace, and uninspiring strikers.

Young player to watch: Young Gruezo’s place in the squad is important given the lack of other cover, so it will be interesting to see if he gets game time. He has a good club platform on which to work at Stuttgart.

Prediction: Second round. Given their strengths and weaknesses, have been dealt a fairly kind group. None of their opponents is a devastating goal threat – not even France – and there are some slow defenders. Could be a problem for France on the counter and could have too much mobility for the Swiss to handle.


Ribery: one more time?
France have been at something of a low in terms of expectations, after eight years of underperformance and, at times, embarrassment, epitomized by the defeatism and acrimony South Africa in 2010. However, in recent months, a renewed awareness of the depth of resources within the French squad has led to the French quietly acquiring “dark horse” status in the eyes of many pundits. In our opinion the expectations had best stay muted, as this remains a somewhat transitional, or emergent, French side whose prospects probably only stand to be weakened by unnecessary hype. France could do good things at this tournament, but there are a number of things they’ll have to prove in doing so.

On the face of things the French team benefits from that traditional boon in the eyes of the pundit, a strong “spine”. It’s worth noting however that two of the players around whom the team will be built are, while already established for their clubs, still very young and lacking international experience. Raphael Varane, now a regular and a European Cup winner at Madrid (and apparently coveted by Chelsea), seems mature beyond his years on the field. However he still has aspects of a young man’s temperament, as shown by his triumphant kicking of the ball at Atletico coach Simeone during the Champions’ League final. Reflecting the somewhat transitional nature of this France team, although very likely to be first choice in the World Cup he wasn’t a regular starter in qualifying. The same can’t be said of Paul Pogba, who has made the national shirt his own after only 9 caps. Blessed with both power and skill, Pogba is an astonishingly complete midfielder for a 21 year old and can play anywhere in the midfield. He has two years of first choice domestic and Champions’ League football behind him at Juventus, even if the ease with which he strolled into their first team aged 19 says a little about the decline of Serie A. There’s little doubt as to the basic quality of either Varane or Pogba, but there are at least some remaining questions as to how they’ll fit into the team unit, especially when the pressure is on.

Of France’s more established stars the most impressive are Karim Benzema, Franck Ribery and Hugo Lloris. Benzema in principle is probably the team’s biggest asset, and on his day one of the world’s ery best centre-forwards. He combines many of the qualities of both the classic no.9 and the Henry-style runner from deep, and has had a great season with Real Madrid. On the other hand, at international level he isn’t a really heavy goalscorer – with 19 goals in 65 appearances for les bleus – and he did not make a great impact in qualifying. Ribery on his day is a genuine star, but seems to be carrying a back injury into this, his final World Cup (so he says). One wonders whether he will ever take an international tournament by the scruff of the neck – he played well in 2006 when still young, but faded in the final. Time is running out. The urbane and bouffant-haired Lloris, despite a recent lack of Champions’ League experience, is one of the world’s best goalkeepers even if the sweeper-keeper role he has adopted does sometimes lead to alarming dashes from goal. A good propect for the golden glove, he is also a decent contender for a rush-of-blood-to-head sending-off.

The supporting case that France can put around these key men is mostly solid rather than spectacular, with a couple of emerging talents. In defence, there are solid options at fullback but not much depth in the centre. Matthieu Debuchy, a rare bright spot in Newcastle’s season, will probably start at right back with Bacary Sagna an experienced alternative.  Patrice Evra, like his contemporary Ashley Cole, may no longer be a contender for world’s very best left-back, but he is still an impressive player even if his club form has been unpredictable in recent seasons. The emergence of Lucas Digne, included in the final squad with one cap to his name, suggests Evra’s long term replacement. In the middle, Varane’s partner Laurent Koscielny is one of the most assured starters in the team, but his determination is not matched by faultless reliability. Backup centre-backs are the promising but inexperienced Eliaquim Mangala, of FC Porto, and Liverpool’s powerful but sometimes clumsy Mamadou Sakho. Selected as captain in pre-World Cup friendlies, Sakho has a chance of starting. With Varane green and Evra still fading, this isn’t a back line with the ring of world class quality to it.

Elsewhere, Didier Deschamps has generally preferred not to play two strikers, which is a shame in many ways because France could in theory put together one of the best strike partnerships in world football. Despite Benzema’s status, Olivier Giroud is potentially a real threat to his place in the team. Giroud remains enormously underrated; often portrayed as a mere workhorse target man, he is in fact a forward of subtle gift, with good positional sense and excellent touch. France look rather underinvested at centre-forward with the only other option at 9 being Loic Remy, who has Benzema’s turn of pace but plays more as a poacher. In midfield, a fairly conservative selection alongside Pogba in the centre looks likely, and PSG’s Blaise Matuidi looks likely to play the ballwinning role. A similar option would be Lille’s Zlatan-baiting centreman Rio Mavuba, whose father played in the famous but somewhat ill-starred Zaire side at the 1974 World Cup. Or there is the one man chaos engine that is Moussa Sissoko, a player of tremendous energy and real goal threat who has often seemed to lack focus or subtlety at Newcastle. In front of the deep lying two will range Ribery (if he’s fit) and a couple of other subtler midfielders. On the right, diminutive winger Mathieu Valbuena got a lot of game time in qualifying and is probably the favourite to start although an intriguing option is Antoine Griezmann. A direct winger/utility forward who can play anywhere across the forward part of midfield, he is a potential long term replacement for Ribery although his strengths are acceleration and aggression rather than tricks.  For now, his role is probably mainly to learn; some fancy him to start games but appearances as substitute for Ribery or  Valbuena are likelier. Yohan Cabaye is now a fixture in the modern no.10 role, although his ability to influence games at the top level is perhaps questionable, and he tends to blow hot and cold. Clement Grenier is another option in Cabaye’s position, as would be Sissoko in a more attacking role, but France do not have a wealth of options for changes of shape in the centre.

It’s easy enough to pass time spotting flaws in France’s game plan. There is a slight lack of ultimate quality in parts of the midfield and defence, individually a lot of the better players are very young, or ageing, or of questionable fitness, and there’s a lack of a Plan B in terms of either selection or tactics (Deschamps is a consistent devotee of 4-5-1/4-2-3-1). More pertinently perhaps, despite the quality of some of the forwards, there’s a bit of a lack of goals in the side. Benzema has not been on strong goalscoring form for France recently, while Giroud and Remy each have less than a goal every four international games. Of the midfield, only Ribery really gets goals; Cabaye’s contribution in this regard is disappointing. With Samir Nasri not selected, it’s also a team with relatively little capacity for the genuinely unexpected if Ribery is unfit or doesn’t perform. 

On the other hand, France do have real strengths, which require a more careful examination to appreciate. Pogba and Varane do not need to be older to perform to world class standard, if they gel with the team. Ribery, Benzema, Lloris and - to a lesser extent, now – Evra are operators of the very top class. The side’s work rate and commitment can’t be faulted, with Pogba and Matuidi an ultra-committed midfield, Koscielny a defender of utmost determination and even Ribery a real grafter by “flair player” standards. Moreover, although France don’t have that sense of a single generation maturing together, as winning sides sometimes do, it could be argued that their combination of youth and experience is actually a strength. Admittedly, even some of the more established players – like Koscielny, Matuidi, and Valbuena – have only become established since Euro 2012, but the squad did handle qualification fairly well. Beating Spain in the group was always a big ask and in the event, all that separated the two sides was the 1-0 Spanish win in Paris. The playoff was hairy but when the pressure was on, France delivered, with a 3-0 win over Ukraine to overturn a two goal deficit. It is possible to win a world cup with a patchy team, and France themselves did it in 1998. Les bleus – who have had a fairly stable and happy preparation for this World Cup, the Ribery injury scare apart – will be hoping to retain the element of surprise.

Strengths: Excellent emerging players in Pogba and Varane; world class personnel in goal, up front and on the left; relative stability; though variable, quality is at least solid in all areas of the pitch.

Weaknesses: Lack of alternative selection and tactical options; uneven quality; doubts about Ribery’s fitness; potential lack of goal threat; some of best players very inexperienced.

Young player to watch: In a World Cup not replete with rising youth, France are a breath of fresh air. Watch out for Varane.

Verdict: Whatever their intrinsic qualities, France have not been served a difficult group. Slip-ups are possible but at least five points looks likely from their first phase matches. If they finish first, then a winnable second round match will follow. Germany in the quarters will probably be too good for them, but with the luck of the draw and the wind in their sails France could get to the semis.


Figueroa: first name on team sheet
One of the lesser-known sides at the World Cup, Honduras nonetheless take a squad packed with international experience to Brazil. At its heart, still, is a historically talented generation of Honduran footballers, but it’s now an ageing one. In 2010 the team were reasonably competitive and managed to snaffle one point off Switzerland, against whom they find themselves matched this time, too. Firmly the underdogs in Group E, Honduras are probably rightly regarded as no more than potential spoilers, but their opponents would do well to take them seriously in that role.

The team was not shy of goals in CONCACAF qualifying, but the step up has proven very difficult before (Honduras didn’t score a single goal in South Africa) and neither of the two strikers usually deployed, Carlos Costly and Jerry Bengtson, has World Cup experience. They do both possess a good goalscoring record for the national side however (Bengtson with 18 goals in 40 caps, Costly with 30 in 68) even though both have struggled to score goals regularly during spells abroad. Bengtson gets plenty of games at New England Revolution but has only hit the net four times. Alternative striking option Jerry Palacios has been found rather wanting at international level, although he does have the privilege of once having played for excellently-named Chinese club Hunan Billows. Fast up the track comes Rony Martinez, who has scored 34 goals in only 58 games for Real Sociedad. That’s the Honduran Real Sociedad, not the La Liga version, but Martinez has fought his way into contention nonetheless. Still, there’s no obvious reason why coach Luis Suarez (no apparent relation to the Uruguayan firestarter) would deviate from his established lineup of Costly and Bengtson in a 4-4-2; they won’t scare the defences in Group E but will be more than capable of opportunism.

Midfield selection is usually fairly defensive, although Wilson Palacios plays more of an all-round role for Honduras than he has typically adopted in England, where he has been perhaps the most successful of the Honduran imports. While expected to tackle, he also makes the play. With box-to-box man Roger Espinoza and holding player Luis Garrido usually employed alongside, the main outlet for Palacios is often Oscar Boniek Garcia, whose middle name reveals his father’s enthusiasm for eighties European football. There are options for a change of shape however, and one name to look out for is Andy Najar, a US-born winger currently with Anderlecht in Belgium. With frightening acceleration and a good final ball, Najar can add more width and creativity from deep, and if Suarez decides that two out and out strikers is a bit unsubtle for the World Cup then Najar may well get to start in a 4-5-1. Mario Martinez provides an attacking option in central midfield and may be an impact substitute, while goalscoring winger Marvin Chavez would allow the pace outlet to be switched to the left.

Honduras shipped quite a lot of goals in qualifying, comfortably more at 12 in 10 games than anyone else who got through CONCACAF Round 4. This is worrying given the defensiveness of their typical lineup and the fact that the back line is ostensibly where Honduras have the most internationally proven talent. The likely starting fullbacks play their club football, slightly bizarrely, on opposite sides of Scotland’s Old Firm divide. Rangers’ Arnold Peralta takes the right hand side and Celtic’s Emilio Izaguirre the left. The latter has established impressed for his club and is evolving into one of Honduras’ real stars. The central defensive partnership of Premiership regular Maynor Figueroa and San Jose Earthquakes’ Victor Bernadez boasts 176 caps between the two players, although both as past or passing their primes. As throughout the side, even the backup is pretty experienced, with 21-cap Brayan Beckeles pushing for Peralta’s spot but Juan Carlos Garcia unlikely to dislodge Izauirre. Backup at centre-back is from 52-cap Osman Chavez, who earns his living in the Polish league, and Juan Pablo Montes. Behind the defence there’s still no real threat to the evergreen Noel Valladares, who at 37 has 119 caps while his two reserves have six between them.

With a defence that leaked in qualifying, a stuffy midfield and an attack that’s short on international-class menace, Honduras look like they could be in trouble. Defences often improve under the pressure of tournament play however, particularly since attacking teams are wary of overcommitting. With the quality they have, expect Honduras to become more miserly when things get serious. In 2010 they were not especially easy to score against, and many of the same defenders are back. The problems then are more likely to be at the other end, then, and the key to mounting a goal threat may be to find a new shape in midfield. Their traditional 4-4-2 looks likely to see Honduras struggling to link the ball to isolated strikers who will relatively easily be picked off by world cup defenders.

Strengths: Bags of experience, even in reserve; still real quality in Wilson Palacios and some of the defenders; plenty of options in midfield, in principle.

Weaknesses: Predictable, especially in 4-4-2; general lack of top class quality save for a few big names; usually play a defensively minded midfield and lack top class forwards; defence has been suspect of late; some key players ageing.

Young player to watch: Andy Najar is a former MLS Rookie of the Year and has pace and panache to give away. He could perhaps become more productive, but still has time. Ripe to be the next Honduran to step into the Premiership, but whether the World Cup is the right stage to impress will depend on whether his team give him an outlet.

Verdict: Early bath. May be obdurate but unlikely to spring major surprises.


Hips don't lie: Shaqiri
The Swiss have got steadily stronger since becoming the first side ever to be eliminated from a World Cup without conceding a goal in 2006. On paper the current team is the country’s best in decades, combining as it does a number of players who won the Under-17 World Cup in 2009. In an era when football is becoming ever more of a diasporic game – as a look at many of this year’s squads will show – the Swiss are a particularly polyglot unit, drawing heavily on players of Balkan descent. The Swiss coaching system seems to have little difficulty in producing balanced and technically adept footballers with real flair, but they perhaps lack a little ruthlessness. The current golden generation was disappointed to miss out on Euro 2012 and will be looking to go one better than that goalless second round departure in Germany eight years ago.

Given the attention being lavished on their young talent it’s perhaps a surprise to find that the Swiss squad has more than a few tournament veterans in it. Starting from the back, the net will be minded by Diego Benaglio, a tall and reassuring figure who has won the Bundesliga with Wolfsburg. In front of him there is certainly plenty of tournament experience to draw on. Both Johan Djourou, now established as a regular at Hamburg after several stuttering years with Arsenal, and his former Gunners colleague Philippe Senderos have World Cup and European Championship experience although both seem to have lost their positions as first choice starters for Switzerland. That’s partly due to the emergence of Basle’s young Fabian Schar and partially due to coach Ottmar Hitzfeld’s recently developed preference for long time squad member Steve von Bergen. Despite the experience, and Schar’s promise, this may not be the most confident defensive unit when facing mobile attackers like France’s or Ecuador’s. The fullbacks are an area of greater strength with the relentless Stephan Lichtsteiner, Juventus’ “Swiss Express”, on the right and 21 year old Ricardo Rodriguez probably keeping out Reto Ziegler on the left. If these two don’t get too pinned back helping their less pacy defensive colleagues, then they will be able to bolster the Swiss attacking threat.

In fact though what Switzerland could do with more of in the attacking third is not more creativity, nor more personnel, but direct goal threat. Centre forward is a weakness for the team, and one of the strikers of the unsung 1990s Swiss teams, like Stephane Chapuisat or Kubilay Turkyilmaz, would be welcome in the current era. The team didn’t struggle too badly for goals in the qualifying rounds, but the opposition was fairly weak. With centre-half Schar the highest scorer, the goals were spread around the team; that’s a good sign in many ways, but in tighter situations Switzerland may find themselves needing more incision up front.  To be fair, in Josip Drmic, they may have found their man; mobile, opportunistic and two-footed, he has been scoring freely in the Bundesliga aged only 21 and has earned a move to Leverkusen. But he is very inexperienced at international level.  The other options at no.9, Admir Mehmedi and Mario Gavranovic, are unconvincing and both failed to prosper in their club careers when they left Switzerland for bigger leagues. 22 year old Haris Seferovic is another option but has played relatively little top flight club football to date and hasn’t set the penalty box ablaze thus far internationally. Given the relative weakness of this area of the roster, and the preference for 4-2-3-1, it is rather surprising that Hitzfeld has chosen to take as many as four strikers to Brazil.

That all is not lost for Switzerland in the final third is due to the real quality of their attacking midfielders. Like any truly modern team, the Swiss arrive in Brazil with seemingly fifty or so no.10’s at their disposal. Xherdan Shaqiri is prince of them all. Maturing nicely at Bayern, he is blessed with masterful technique and vision, and remarkable power considering his short stature. Shaqiri is one of these modern super-utility forwards, particularly prevalent in the Germanic game, who can really play anywhere; but he’ll probably play as the right-hand one of the three advanced midfielders with fellow Swiss-Kosovar, Granit Xhaka, just inside. Xhaka is less of a goal threat than Shaqiri and may drop deeper; he is a combative playmaker who excels in tight situations. His distribution will probably feed Valentin Stocker on the left. Stocker is a modern winger who can stay wide or drift in, and has a useful goalscoring record for his club. These three form a balanced and skilful attacking unit which can change its shape readily and play a pressing, possession game high up the field if need be.

With all this silk, you’ll be wondering where the steel is, and yes, the Swiss do back up this fresh-faced, fashionably-quiffed boy-band of an attack with a bit of old school muscle in the deeper midfield (albeit still fashionably coiffed in the case of Valon Behrami). Behrami has had a long and pretty successful club career in the top European leagues, and like his likely partner in the engine room, Gokhan Inler, he played at Euro 2008 and World Cup 2010. Although Inler is a tough tackler, he does have an attacking side; he scores the odd goal and gets plenty of assists. There’s little real chance of this twosome being broken up unless injuries strike, and squad members Gelson Fernandes and Blerim Dzemaili are straightforward cover options. Indeed one Swiss weakness is the predictability of their selection; it looks pretty clear who Hitzfeld’s first choices are and there’s not much to keep opposing coaches guessing. The experienced Tranquillo Barnetta does offer a pacy and positive option in midfield but dramatic changes of shape seem unlikely, raising the usual questions about Plan B. Switzerland will hope the inherent verve of Shaqiri and his ilk will provide sufficient capacity for the unexpected.

Much has been made of whether Switzerland will be able to cope with the climatic conditions in Brazil, particularly in Manaus where they face Honduras. The side is much more mobile and athletic than previous Swiss sides, however, and most of the players are still well shy of 30 so exhaustion should not be an issue. Outright pace is what is most likely to trouble the Swiss defence. A skilled and technical midfield, on the other hand, gives the Swiss a fair chance of hanging on to the ball and dictating the pace. The most obvious problem will be scoring goals; if they do get ahead then, with many of their more experienced players in reserve, Switzerland may opt to bring on older heads to see things out. Neither a gung-ho all-out attacking side nor a steel trap defensive unit, Switzerland will need to get their tactics right; ultimately, despite their talent, they look worryingly short in the key central areas of attack and defence.

Strengths: Well balanced and skilful midfield; good blend of youth and experience; relatively settled selection and squad cohesion; quality attacking fullbacks; wily and decorated coach.

Weaknesses: Susceptibility in central defence; slight predictability (the flipside of consistent selection); lack of goal threat.

Young player to watch: Drmic has real talent and with weak competition could get the chance to impress at no.9.

Verdict: There is the possibility of springing a surprise on slow starters France, but if les Bleus turn up then Switzerland are most likely to find themselves locked in a battle for second with Ecuador. The match between the two could be a real royal rumble, with a fascinating clash of styles. We’d back Ecuador to edge it if they get their tactics right, but the Swiss have a real chance.

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