Argentina have the shortest odds of any World Cup team to top their group, with the bookies giving Iran, Nigeria and Bosnia little chance of upsetting the 1986 World Cup winners. This is likely to see the tournament’s only debutants Bosnia, the meticulously planned Iran and Confederations Cup participants Nigeria vying for second spot.
Unbeaten in qualifying with the exception of their dead-rubber finale with Uruguay in Montevideo, Alejandro Sabella will be hoping to lead Argentina to their first World Cup triumph since 1986. Having only progressed beyond the quarter-finals once since then, La Albiceleste have a lot to prove. Ambitions within the camp are high, captain Lionel Messi is the same age now as Diego Maradonna was in 1986, which is reason enough for some to suggest a third star will be knitted above the team crest. The Barcelona forward has finally started to replicate his club form on the international scene under Sabella’s guidance. Higuain and Aguero have been moulded into the perfect foils for the three-time Ballon D’or nominee, sacrificing themselves by dragging defenders out of position in order to open up gaps for Messi to exploit.
Lining up in a 4-3-3, Argentina try to obliterate their opponents with a series of quick, penetrative attacks. With Gago and Mascherano holding, Angel Di Maria carries a lot of weight on his shoulders in the central midfield role he has excelled in this season. While Messi will grab the headlines, the Real Madrid man is key to the system, responsible for turning defence into attack and carrying the ball through the midfield. As ever, defence is the biggest concern, having conceded in 14 of 20 competitive games since the last World Cup, they will be reliant on the old belief that attack is the best form of defence holding true. A dream draw, which sees them travel a mere 2,240 miles in the group stages (the third fewest in the tournament) from their base near the Argentinian border, it’s hard to ignore them for potential glory this summer. All things considered, it’s almost now or never for Lionel Messi to deliver the World Cup his critics say he needs, anything other than reaching at least the semi-finals will go down as a major disappointment back home in Argentina.
BOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA
The only debutants in the tournament, the combined forces of Bosnia and Herzegovina will be hoping to leave a lasting impression and truly announce themselves to world football. Safet Susic’s gung-ho attacking style will be a breath of fresh air to a tournament that has become increasingly defensive and tactical in years gone by. The Bosnians took their qualifying group by storm, winning eight and losing only one of ten games, scoring a whopping 30 goals in the process.
A patriotic bunch, the Zlatni Ljiljani will fight tooth and nail in their quest for qualification. Expect them to line up in a massively unbalanced 4-4-2, operating with a midfield diamond. The form of Edin Dzeko and Vedad Ibisevic, the only two strikers ever called upon by Susic, is pivotal to any success, while elsewhere Miralem Pjanic will be looking to continue his impressive form with Roma during this summer’s event. The lack of spread of talent in the squad could be a major cause for concern under the scorching Brazilian sun, with Susic relying on as little as 10-12 outfield players. With little emphasis or regard for the defence, a lot will be asked of the capable Asmir Begovic between the sticks. Critics have labelled them one dimensional and tactically naiive, however Susic is confident his plan A will be sufficient. With just four defeats since the last World Cup, including a 2-0 loss to group favourites Argentina, Bosnia will fancy their chances of progressing from the group. However, an early start in the Salvador cauldron means the small group of players that are so heavily relied upon will be pushed to their absolute limit and progression will leave the team exhausted for the last 16, should they get there.
Coach Stephen Keshi, heralded as a God back in Nigeria, has impressed at the helm since taking over in 2011. Capturing the hearts of a nation with his amazing motivational skills, Keshi led The Super Eagles to their third African Cup of Nations success in 2013. Favouring a squad of local players, as well as the household Premier League names, he has successfully dispelled any trouble makers from the camp, creating a strong bond and harmony between the 23-man squad. Unbeaten, but uninspiring during qualifying, Nigeria laboured through the weakest group, participating in a series of low scoring games, six out of six having less than three goals.
Another team who favour a 4-3-3 formation, the Nigerians can be breathtaking on the break, using their pace to punish over-ambitious opponents, as seen during last summer’s Confederations Cup. Worryingly for the Africans, however, given Iran’s expected approach, they could struggle to break down oppositions who are content to sit back. Relying on Chelsea’s Jon Obi Mikel as their creative force, they have been known to fail to unlock tight defences. Too pedestrian and slow in possession at times, Iran will be happy to give them the ball and sit tight. The pace and power of the front three is not to be under-estimated, with Victor Moses and Ahmed Musa expected to flank Fenerbahce’s Emmanuel Eminike who top scored in qualifying. At the back, they’re quite inexperienced with Omeruo and Oboabona expected to get the nod ahead of former Everton man Joseph Yobo. Taking their chances will be key to any success, after their wasteful showing in front of goal cost them dearly last summer. Games against Bosnia and Iran will be decisive – if they can unlock the Iranian defence and manage to keep the Bosnians at bay, they should progress to the next round, however for me, these “ifs” are a bridge too far, and though I think it will be close, I can see the Nigerians falling at the first hurdle.
Together as a squad since March, there won’t be a player in the Iranian squad who doesn’t know their job when they line up for their opener with Nigeria. Carlos Querioz’s meticulous planning and attention to detail will ensure Iran will still have a say in Group F. Ranked seventh in Asia when he took over, Sir Alex Ferguson’s former assistant has guided The Persian Stars to first in the Asian standings. Leaking just twice in eight qualifiers, Iran will be reliant on their defence holding off wave after wave of attacks from their opposition. Political unrest in the country disrupted preparations, with the team having to wait 119 days for a game at one stage, while training camps had to be put on hold. Despite this, the squad is united and the mood inside the camp is very positive. Backed by passionate supporters who flooded the streets after qualification was secured, the Iran team will be hoping to give them even more reason to celebrate at the tournament.
The squad is comprised of few familiar names, with the exception of Fulham’s Ashkan Dejagah, who will line up on the right flank of either a heavily defensive 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 system. The bookmakers’ favourites to concede the most goals is a little harsh, given their strong defensive record of 15 clean sheets from 26 games since the last World Cup, albeit against relatively weak opposition. The Iranians have a good chance of getting something from their opener with Nigeria, given their organization and Nigeria’s flaws, however after that, any success looks to be a long-shot.