Considering the hardship sustained by the French Football Federation in South Africa four years ago, and a qualification route that nearly excluded the team from Brazil, a fortuitous group draw for France seems a long overdue lucky break. A Switzerland team erroneously placed by FIFA rankings among the world’s eight best teams, and two of the weaker sides from their respective qualifying zones in Honduras and Ecuador, headline a soft pool of competition for France; its one disadvantage would come into play if the French overlook the group stage and set their minds in the team’s likely knockout stage road. This would lead to an even worse situation of evoking an attitude of arrogance that has often poisoned team chemistry and helped spur the debacle during the last World Cup.
But manager Didier Deschamps has sought to displace this mentality, and help set his players’ egos–at least while representing the nation–to rest. Vocalizing this desire to the media and to his players is an important step, but what was it that truly revealed the resolve in his effort, and showed that he would actually follow through with his message? Leaving Samir Nasri off the 23-man squad. The Manchester City player surely had the talent and skill to make the cut and contribute, but Deschamps made the decision with the idea of doing what was best for the team, and therefore demonstrated that the 2014 World Cup-edition of Les Bleus would be built around unity and character (presumably indicating that Nasri would not figure usefully in this intention).
Of course fate had to deal the French a blow at some point. That eventuality came when it was announced that Franck Ribery, a regular Ballon d’Or finalist, had succumbed to a back injury and would miss the tournament in Brazil. France will sorely miss their best player in Ribery–and all the flair, energy, and craftiness he unveils on the pitch–and even more so after likely group stage success; the damaging fallout from the winger’s absence will increase and will be felt to a greater degree as the tourney progresses and the team faces more stringent opposition.
Nevertheless, there’s still the low level of group competition, and even more importantly, what the roster contains–even with Ribery out. Leading Les Bleus into Brazil, in what will likely become his “breakout” tourney–21-year old phenom Paul Pogba might just be the most essential player on the French side. Developing in the Italian Serie A for the last years at Juventus, Pogba competes powerfully with his imposing frame on both offense and defense, but couples this strength nicely with creativity and a penchant for breathtaking plays and goals. Regarded as one of the best center midfielders, Pogba acts as a mobile enforcer, impacting the game on both ends of the pitch, as well as noted for his speed with the ball and lightning strikes on goal. If he can replicate the same stabilizing effect and inventive style on offense–mostly seen at the club level–for France at the World Cup, Pogba will leave the tournament more popularized than ever, and potentially help transform his country into serious contenders while still in Brazil.
Also among the young and bustling group of midfielders, 28-year old Yohan Cabaye will help control the ball for Les Bleus, utilize his excellent technical ability to help move the ball upfield, and showcase proficiency on free kicks and penalties. With the forwards corps, there are some effective and tested options; this comes even with the absence of Ribery up top, which will force Deschamps to tinker with the lineup, as Loic Remy currently appears as most suitable to fill the void at the wing. Movement in the offensive third of the pitch will center around Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema, who will cooperate with the central MF pair of Pogba and PSG’s 27-year old Blaise Matuidi–both of whom also assigned the responsibility of dropping back for defensive support. Their two-way duty, and the consequent required energy fulfill it, reflects the necessity for the whole team to supply maximum effort and with diligence and vigor. Pogba and Matuidi’s aid on defense will prove especially critical to a back line that–albeit experienced and shrewd–was unsteady and suspect to dubious play in qualifiers; captain and goalkeeping mainstay Hugo Lloris should add further reinforcement in this aspect of the game.
Over the last couple of months, the French have impressed spectators and overpowered opponents in the friendlies since a narrow victory over Ukraine in a UEFA qualification playoff–such progress constitutes as evidence of the manager gradually determining the right strings to pull on his team; Deschamps has helped calibrate a group composed of once raw and disjointed talent, while effectively amalgamating youthful and experienced players.
On top of all this this pure talent and burgeoning cohesiveness, France also has history on its side. The last few decades have seen Les Bleus alternate between successful WC campaigns and horrendous ones, or even worse, none at all. After placing fourth and third in 1982 and 1986, respectively, the French missed out entirely on the tournament the next two times. In 1998 they rebounded with authority–as a host nation–by winning the championship, only to falter in the group stage in 2002, then coming a headbutt away from potentially winning another title in 2006 (instead settling as runners-up), and finally, stumbling miserably in their group in 2010–thereby making WC success over the next few weeks almost probable, if to follow this persisting historical trend. A light travel schedule, composed of games only on the coast, certainly doesn’t hurt either.
The rest of the pack
While undoubtedly sustaining challenges by the other two teams from the Americas, Switzerland–overestimated by FIFA rankings’ accounts, but underrated by the rest of world–should comfortably prevail out of Group E, entrusting a group of youthful and speedy talent to lead the way. In the role of attacking midfielders, Xherdan Shaqiri (22 years old) and Granit Xhaka (21) will help develop the offense for Switzerland, which relies heavily on establishing a fast pace with the ball moving forward, and thrives on set pieces: ranking the best among UEFA qualification group winners, 5 of 17 goals were off corners or free kicks. The defensive line is marked by experienced veterans, who must play a more coordinated game to thwart opposing attacks. Overall, the fact that young, skillful stars lead the team (particularly on offense) signifies that although the Swiss can certainly prove a formidable squad in the ’14 tourney, the group’s full impact will come into effect in the future.
Finally, while both Ecuador and Honduras can effectively counter-attack and create opportunities off a fast pace, they each have their own deficiencies on defense. Ecuador will do most of its attacking work on the wings–an effort spearheaded by Man-United’s Antonio Valencia–and generally employ a fast tempo, and rely on crosses to create chances. Though they have some potent attacking options, a lacking Ecuadorian defensive unit, in desperate need of organization, will be easily exploited by the attacking firepower of the French and Swiss; moreover, the team has a recent track record of underperforming away from home. For Honduras, the performance of team veterans will be key to attaining at least some points. Although forward Jerry Bengston–who led the team with nine goals in qualifying–could factor in prominently during group play, the porous nature of the defense will undo Los Catrachos in the end.
Key match: France vs. Switzerland, June 20th
1) France (7 points)
2) Switzerland (6 points)
3) Honduras (3 points)
4) Ecuador (1 point)