World Cup Preview: Swiss, Ecuador battling to advance from Group E

Switzerland's players attend a training session at the Municipal Stadium in Porto Seguro on June 9,...

Switzerland's players attend a training session at the Municipal Stadium in Porto Seguro on June 9, 2014 ahead of the 2014 FIFA World Cup football tournament in Brazil. (AFP PHOTO/ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT)

Kurtis Larson, Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 11:28 PM ET

SWITZERLAND

  • Best finish: Quarterfinals (1934, ’38, ’54)
  • Appearances: 10
  • Marquee player: Gokhan Inler (Napoli)
  • Oddsmakers say: 125/1 to win the 2014 World Cup
  • How they got here: Finished unbeaten atop a UEFA qualifying group containing Iceland, Sweden and Norway, among others.

The skinny: The Swiss blew a massive opportunity to progress past the group stage four years ago after shocking eventual champions Spain on Matchday 1. Disaster struck. Although falling 1-0 to Chile in the middle of three group games wasn’t unexpected, the Swiss played Honduras to a goalless draw on the final day, a result that saw them fail to advance after starting so strongly. Ironically, the Swiss will meet Group E opponents Honduras in their final Group E game once again, following difficult fixtures against UEFA pals France and tricky South American qualifiers Ecuador. Historically, the Swiss have been tight from front to back. They also possess one of the most experienced central tandems in the group. Swiss captain Gokhan Inler plays with a certain simplicity that’s invaluable in an environment that breeds a tendency to ignore composure. With more than 200 games played in Serie A, Inler will act as the first outlet for Switzerland’s centre backs before joining the attack and looking to unlock opponents with long-range efforts. He’ll be even more comfortable next to his Napoli teammate, Valon Behrami, who is likely to be in the lineup. The pair are both box-to-box players who put in a shift every time out. One concern for manager Ottmar Hitzfeld is the play of his centre backs. Former Arsenal man Philippe Senderos serves as a safety net in the centre of defence behind Basel’s Fabian Schar, who has shown a tendency to give away possession. The Swiss open the tournament against an Ecuador side that’s buzzing with confidence following a solid 2-2 draw with England in a pre-World Cup tune-up. The South Americans pose an awkward scenario for the Swiss, who won’t be used to playing at such a high tempo. Look for Switzerland to sit back and choose its moments in an effort to get to the final Matchday against Honduras with at least a point.

ECUADOR

  • Best finish: Round of 16 (2006)
  • Appearances: 3
  • Marquee player: Antonio Valencia (Anderlecht)
  • Oddsmakers say: 1500/1 to win the 2014 World Cup
  • How they got here: Finished fourth in CONMEBOL qualifying, three points behind third-place Chile.

The skinny: As one of the dark horses at this tournament, the Ecuadorians will be hoping a pair of positive results out of the gate will render their final group stage match against France somewhat meaningless. With superior athletes from front to back, look for the South Americans to turn every game into a track meet. Ecuador also possesses a number of individuals who are capable of taking matters into their own hands. Midfielders Jefferson Montero and Michael Arroyo are dangerous around the periphery of the penalty area and everyone knows what Manchester United winger Antonio Valencia is capable of out wide. Beyond the run of play, the Ecuadorians also pose problems for their opponents on set pieces. La Tri is excellent in the air and use their big bodies to bully opponents on restarts. At the opposite end, first-choice goalkeeper Maximo Banguera is prone to bad decisions — so much so he lost his place during qualifying for a stretch of games. As we saw in 2010 — Robert Green (England) and Julio Cesar (Brazil) — goalkeeping mistakes can doom a side in a tournament that leaves little room for error. In front of Banguera, Ecuador’s back four has experience at the international level, but none play at big clubs outside the Americas. Like any other South American side in this tournament, La Tri could find playing close to home quite comfortable. It’s a side that has the talent and horses up front to run with anyone in the tournament. The South Americans’ fate will be based on their ability to adapt to the circumstances game-to-game. Playing three vastly different opponents will test Ecuador in unfamiliar ways.

HONDURAS

  • Best finish: Group Stage (1982, 2010)
  • Appearances: 3
  • Marquee player: Andy Najar (Manchester United)
  • Oddsmakers say: 150/1 to win the 2014 World Cup
  • How they got here: Finished third in CONCACAF qualifying, four points ahead of Mexico

The skinny: Canadian fans will remember Honduras as the side that embarrassed them in World Cup qualifying — an 8-1 butt-kicking that will forever stick with those who were there. And while nobody is comparing Canada to the French or Swiss, it was evidence that the Central Americans have players who can punish the opposition when given the chance. They’re also the second-oldest team at the tournament with an average age of just under 29 — not a bad thing when you consider this is the second time around for many in the squad. One positive for Los Catrachos is the worst will be over after Matchday 1, when they’ll play France in their opening game. Group fixtures against Switzerland and Ecuador are more manageable, although Honduras will be sizeable underdogs in both. Four years ago, the Hondurans made a fairly decent account of themselves, losing twice, drawing once and only conceding three times in a difficult group. In terms of the squad, manager Luis Fernando Suarez has a fairly solid, foreign-based first 11, with a back four consisting of Hull City’s Maynor Figueroa, Celtic’s Emilio Izaguirre and San Jose Earthquakes centre back Victor Bernardez. More importantly, Honduras’ midfield has experienced players in Stoke City’s Wilson Palacios and Wigan’s Roger Espinoza. Former MLSer Andy Najar, 21, will also provide Honduras a threat in wide positions. It’s a middle third that will cause at least one team in this group some problems. Moving further up field, strikers Jerry Bengtson and Carlo Costly have scored a lot of international goals and won’t need many chances to make one stick. After that, however, the talent level throughout the squad drops off considerably. All three goalkeepers play in the Honduran league, which tells you something about the quality between the pipes. Outside their starting midfield, Honduras has little in terms of help off the bench, a must for any side hoping to progress to the second round. For Honduras, it’s about improving on the single point they earned four years ago. A Group E upset is possible here, but it’s not probable.

FRANCE 

  • Best finish: Champions (1998)
  • Appearances: 14
  • Marquee player: Karim Benzema (Real Madrid)
  • Oddsmakers say: 25/1 to win the 2014 World Cup
  • How they got here: Finished second to Spain in UEFA Group I before beating Ukraine in a two-leg playoff

The skinny: The French are a prime example of why chemistry matters more than anything at this tournament. Four years ago, the French downright embarrassed themselves after a rift in camp saw the players abandon head coach Raymond Domenech mid-practice. A team that should have been competing for a spot in the last four bowed out at the group stage following a stunning loss to South Africa. Don’t expect anything that controversial this time around, though. French coach Didier Deschamps has held over just five players from the 2010 edition and even elected to controversially leave Manchester City midfielder Samir Nasri off the roster in an effort to find more continuity on the team. But while Les Bleus’ spirit is no longer in question, the absence of one of their biggest contributors continues to leave French hopes hanging in the balance. Bayern Munich winger Franck Ribery will miss the tournament with a back injury, a massive blow to the team’s core group. Still, the French have experience up front to hang with giants in this competition. Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema has a fantastic European strike rate and possesses the rare combination of size and speed. His ability to involve his teammates is a less highlighted aspect of his game. Behind Benzema, 21-year-old Paul Pogba is one of the more exciting young midfielders in the tournament. And everyone knows what to expect from left fullback Patrice Evra, who will look to join the attack late to provide service to Les Bleus’ big boys. If France is, well, France this time around, it should be a lock to get through this group on a minimum of seven points. France is better — on paper — than the other three squads on this page. But we said something similar last time around. And the French are a far cry from where they were when they won the whole thing in 1998.


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