World Cup Preview: Argentina favoured, but keep eye on Bosnia in Group F

Argentina's Sergio Aguero heads the ball during their international friendly soccer match against...

Argentina's Sergio Aguero heads the ball during their international friendly soccer match against Slovenia ahead of the 2014 World Cup in Buenos Aires June 7, 2014. (REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci)

Morris Dalla Costa, The London Free Press

, Last Updated: 11:29 PM ET

ARGENTINA

  • Best finish: World Cup champions (1978, 1986)
  • Appearances: 15
  • Marquee player: Lionel Messi (Barcelona)
  • Oddsmakers say: 9/2 to win the 2014 World Cup
  • How they got here: Finished first in South American qualifying group.

The skinny: There is no secret that Brazil will be under unfathomable pressure to win at home. But if there is a team that is under almost as much pressure, it’s Argentina. Despite Argentina’s reputation for success, it would surprise some people to know that, after making the World Cup final in 1990, Argentina has never advanced beyond the quarterfinals. This is a team with massive talent that has underachieved, much as Spain was accused of underachieving before its string of successes. Lionel Messi is the name that has become synonymous with Argentina, but it’s going to take more than the little magician to make things right in 2014. He has been dominant playing with his club side, but he disappointed in 2010 in South Africa. He also has to deal with injuries that may affect his play. Even though Messi has a lot of years left in his career, this may be the definitive World Cup for the superstar. Diego Maradona made his mark in soccer history in Mexico in 1986. If Messi wants to be considered among the all-time greats in the game, he must win a World Cup — and there may not be a better opportunity for him than Brazil. He needs help, though. Everyone understands his importance to Argentina. The team’s failures in recent tournaments have forced them to try something different. There is no Carlos Tevez. Veteran Javier Mascherano, young Angel Di Maria and Ever Banega are the keys in the midfield. But there are some surprises on the team list, including Catania midfielder Fabian Rinaudo and right-back Gabriel Mercado of Argentine title favourites River Plate. Joining Messi up front will be Gonzalo Higuain and Sergio Aguero. Ezequiel Lavezzi is often overlooked, but he is an impressive workhorse who lets the individual stars do what they do best. The Albiceleste have the ability to drive defenders crazy with imaginative football. The backline is a different matter. Pablo Zabaleta and Marcos Rojo are the regulars, with Jose Maria Basanta and Hugo Campagnaro also being named to the squad. But, too often, the Argentine defence collapses at key moments. That, along with their inability to loosen Messi against good defences, has prevented Argentina from winning a third World Cup.

BOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA

  • Best finish: No previous appearances
  • Appearances: First
  • Marquee player: Edin Dzeko (Manchester City)
  • Oddsmakers say: 200/1 to win the 2014 World Cup
  • How they got here: Finished first in European qualifying group.

The skinny: Bosnia and Herzegovina will play at the world’s major football tournament for the first time. It shouldn’t be much of a surprise, then, that experience is a major concern. The Dragons dominated their qualifying group, losing only once in 10 matches and giving up just six goals. It’s a nice record, but their group did not contain the kind of teams that struck fear in the hearts of the football world. Despite giving up only six goals in qualifying, defence and defensive midfielders are going to be a problem. The good news is that scoring, thanks to a creative midfield, should make this side interesting to watch. Edin Dzeko has scored 33 goals in 60 matches, including 10 in the qualifying campaign. Dzeko is the top scorer in the history of the country. Attacking midfielders Senad Lulic, Zvjezdan Misimovic and Miralem Pjanic are very good, but more interested in going forward than coming back. Coach Safet Susic was gifted a good young defender when Sead Kolasinac decided to play for Bosnia rather than attempt to break in with the German senior team. Kolasinac played for the German under-21. He is a left-back, a solid defender with grit, but he is young. Centreback Emir Spahic is the team’s captain and provides tremendous experience, but finding him a suitable pairing has always been difficult. There is no issue with goalkeepers: Asmir Begovic is the clear No. 1. The lack of depth on Bosnia-Herzegovina could prove troublesome in a compacted tournament. It has some internationally solid components, but if one of those fizzles out, it’s hard to find a replacement part. Bosnia and Herzegovina’s starting 11 plays as a real team. It may not be the most individually talented team, but the way the players work together makes the Dragons difficult to deal with as a group. There is a tendency to overlook teams such as Bosnia-Herzegovina because of its World Cup inexperience. But a team that has nothing to lose won’t face the same type of pressure other teams do. It may not win a tournament, but it may produce shock results.

NIGERIA 

  • Best finish: Round of 16 (1994, 1998)
  • Appearances: 4
  • Marquee player: John Obi Mikel (Chelsea)
  • Oddsmakers say: 250/1 to win the 2014 World Cup
  • How they got here: Won African qualifying group and beat Ethiopia in playoff

The skinny: Nigeria put African soccer on the map in 1994 with its free-flowing, lightning-quick and often undisciplined style of soccer. It was a shocking style that stunned many opponents, but allowed it to advance to the second round of the tournament. It was the beginning of what many believed would be the coming-out party for African soccer. The world still waits for that party. The 2014 version of the Super Eagles is not expected to provide the same kind of shock value to the 2014 tournament. They lack the charisma and personality of many Super Eagles teams past. They would still like to play high-risk, high-reward soccer, but their talent — or lack of it — causes more risk than reward. Like many African squads, Nigeria can run, pass and attack, but when it comes to defending, it has little clue. Stephen Keshi played on that breakout team of 1994, which led Italy until the final minutes and went on to lose in extra time. He is now the Super Eagles’ coach. It isn’t easy being the coach of an African national team —Keshi submitted the list of the players he wanted on his preliminary team and it was turned down by his football association. He didn’t include some of the association’s favourite players. The second list did include some surprises. Stoke striker Peter Odemwingie, after ending a well-publicized battle with Keshi, and Newcastle forward Shola Ameobi have both been included. Odemwingie has been off the squad since 2012. The captain, Joseph Yobo, was named and has not played for Nigeria since it won the Africa Cup of Nations in South Africa last year. This Nigerian squad is led by England’s Premier League players John Obi Mikel of Chelsea and Liverpool’s Victor Moses. Neither plays regularly for their club side. Uwa Elderson Echiejile, Efe Ambrose, Godfrey Oboabona, Azubuike Egwuekwe and Kenneth Omeruo are also on the squad.Despite its issues, Nigeria won the African Nations Cup last year, which means it does have some talent and toughness. Not much defence, but talent and toughness. The question is, can they bring the good stuff to the World Cup? The betting says no.

IRAN 

  • Best finish: Group stage
  • Appearances: 3
  • Marquee player: Reza Ghoochannejhad (Charlton)
  • Oddsmakers say: 1500/1 to win the 2014 World Cup
  • How they got here: Won Asian qualifying group

The skinny: Even before being drawn into a group with Argentina, Nigeria and Bosnia, it was never going to be easy for Iran to do much damage at the World Cup. Its biggest asset may be the experience of former Real Madrid and Portugal coach Carlos Queiroz. He went hunting around the world for professional players who might qualify to play for Iran — and found some.No matter, it will be a case of "Thanks very much for coming." Iran will play with emotion and spirit, but it takes more than that to move on to the second round. Queiroz has at least given the team some hope, even though he hasn’t had much cooperation from Iranian club sides to prepare for this World Cup. His World Cup preparation camp coincided with the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Champions League, the region's premier club competition. Esteghlal and Sepahan Isfahan both refused to release their players to the national team to get ready for the World Cup. Queiroz had to release the players from Foolad and Tractor Sazi, who were also in the Champions League, but had agreed to let their players join the national team. Iran qualified for the World Cup by winning its last three games without conceding a goal. Striker Reza Ghoochannejhad, a Dutch-born striker, scored that goal and is expected to be their main man in Brazil. Queiroz also brought in Ashkan Dejagah, a former Germany youth international who played eight years in the Bundesliga before moving to Fulham. Daniel Davari will challenge Rahman Ahmadi for the goalkeeping position. Davari plays for Eintracht Braunschweig in the Bundesliga. Iran also features midfielder Andranik Teymourian, who did some time with Bolton in the Premier League. Left off the squad is 35-year-old striker Ali Karimi, who has won 127 caps for his country. Preparation time is the major issue for Iran. The truth is. though, it could have begun preparation last year. but the result would be the same.


Videos

Photos