The other South American giant
If there’s one team that poses a truly considerable threat to overtaking Brazil in pursuit of a WC trophy–and revive the tragic memories tied to the last time the Brazilians hosted the tournament–then it’s the rivals from down south: Argentina.
After the appointment of Alejandro Sabella as manager in July of 2011, superstar Lionel Messi has excelled at a level previously unseen of him on the international stage. With 10 goals in 14 CONMEBOL qualifiers, and a total of 20 since the new coach took over the reigns, one of the best players in the world has played as such for him home nation, finding a way to reproduce the same exceptional ability he shows while playing with his club, Barcelona. Furthermore, in doing so, Messi has shattered any remnants of doubt concerning his chemistry with the rest of the team, priming him to finally break out in a World Cup competition.
Messi will pair up with a host of other European-club standouts up top, which collectively stand as the most high-powered, intimidating, and irrepressible quartet of footballers in the entire WC. The attack still revolves around Messi–as most of the team’s goals come from the center of the field where he plays–but Sergio Aguero and Angel di Maria to his sides, and an authentic striker in Gonzalo Higuain running ahead of him, play nearly as important a part in allowing the Argentine offense to function. The top four have discovered a way and proved that they can work well in tandem, and all create a lot of space for each other to operate in the offensive third of the field.
With their imposing agility, the Argentines can also really punish opponents with a ferocious counterattack, on which they maximize the usage of speed and skill going from one end of the pitch to the other. Midfielder Angel Di Maria especially will play the crucial role of connecting the midfield with the attack, using his speed to push the ball forward to the unrivaled core of Messi, Higuain, and Aguero, that spends most of the time high up the field, and not so much bridging the gap in the midfield like di Maria does.
Without question, the most striking weakness for La Albiceleste exists on the defensive line. The experience and steadiness of Manchester City stalwart Pablo Zabaleta will be crucial to shielding the goal and then subsequently sending the ball back to the talented attackers. In addition to only maintaining a clean sheet in 25% of the team’s qualifying matches, the defense will not exactly receive much support from their goalkeeper behind them: the projected starter, Sergio Romero, will start rusty after getting displaced at goal at AS Monaco and sitting on the bench for most of last season. Yet the defense–composed of individuals playing for top European clubs–can surely still hold ground within the group stage; it’s only once Argentina progresses through a likely lengthy tournament run that the back four will simply not be able to effectively compete and match up against the greatest offenses the world has to offer. That, of course, does not deter the entire team’s path; a dynamic offense has the capacity to make up for inadequacy in the back, and quickly morph a contest into a goal-scoring extravaganza.
Who else advances?
Iran: A defensive-first team, the Iranians will bank on the counter-attack to produce goal-scoring opportunities; when the ball does reach the top of the formation, 26-year old striker Reza Ghoochannejhad, who plays in the English second division, will hope to continue recent success with representing his country, having netted nine goals in his first 11 caps. Considering that some regard this squad as a golden generation of sorts for the country, it’s truly unfortunate that Iran will enter the WC unprepared and untested, with hardly any prior experience against top-flight–or at least average–international competition completely due to lack of funding for the team and politics.
Nigeria: Against the likes of Argentina and Bosnia-Herzegovina, veteran goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama–currently moonlighting for Lille in the French Ligue 1, and having experienced a successful club career in general–will have to perform in the net better than ever before if the Nigerians are to advance to the second round. A midfield organized by EPL players John Obi Mikel and Victor Moses, capable of significant offensive impacts, play ahead of a strong defense. The Super Eagles as a whole are very unified and unselfish, and bring valuable international exposure stemming from the diverse array of their clubs.
Bosnia-Herzegovina: A June 15th date with powerhouse Argentina will serve as quite the reality check, but the Bosnians are a talented and offensively dangerous group, and will play the most inspired football: with many of the players having actually endured the tragic Yugoslavian Civil War, a trip to the WC in Brazil itself is a crowning achievement of perseverance. An attacking onslaught best defines this World Cup debutant, as at the forward line, the pair of Edin Dzeko–who has played a good part in his club Manchester City’s success–and Vedad Ibisevic–amassing 33 goals in 71 appearances for Bundesliga team VfB Stuttgart–combined for the most prolific goal-scoring duo (with 18) during UEFA qualification, and will seek to wreak havoc once again in Brazil. The presence of 24-year old Miralem Pjanic–having solidified his spot and playing wonderfully with Roma in the last few years–in the midfield will also be vital to bolstering the attack. Moving on to the back of the lineup for the Dragons, one of the best English Premier League goalies in Stoke City’s Asmir Begovic will certainly help mask a questionable defense, and diminish this Achilles’ heel of a back line’s potential effect of undoing the team’s offensive efforts; with an explosive and well-rounded attack, and just enough support in the defensive third of the pitch, Bosnia-Herzegovina should clinch a round of 16 berth.
Key match: Bosnia-Herzegovina vs. Nigeria, June 21st
1) Argentina (9 points)
2) Bosnia-Herzegovina (6 points)
3) Nigeria (3 points)
4) Iran (0 points)