Matchday 4 of the 2014 World Cup throws up some heavyweights in the form of Argentina and France and some sides like Ecuador and Bosnia which are relatively young on the world stage. Here we take a look at the major talking points ahead of these games.
Can Messi finally set a World Cup alight?
Having won 3 Champions League medals and 4 Ballon d’Or titles one would say that Lionel Messi has pretty much cemented his place in the pantheon of football’s greatest. Messi can be placed at a pedestal occupied by the likes of Pele, Maradona, Beckenbauer, et al. But the Argentine knows that if he is to become the greatest of them all and be known as the best player in history he must win the World Cup. And at the ripe old age of 26 (he will turn 27 during the tournament) he knows that he will never have an opportunity as good as this again to write his name into La Albiceleste folklore.
This is not the first time when Messi has entered the World Cup with huge expectations on his shoulders. In 2006, he was the youth prodigy being tipped by many to be the new star of the football world and in 2010, he was already the best player in the world. But on both these occasions he was not the central figure in the Argentina team.
Manager Alejandro Sabella though has no qualms about appointing Messi as his main man for this tournament. Pep Guardiola, Messi’s former manager at Barcelona often said that in order to get the best out of Messi he has to have players supporting him and he needs to be loved. Sabella has followed Guardiola’s advice and has appointed Messi captain and designed his entire team around him.
If Messi fails now he can have no excuses but if he succeeds then footballing immortality awaits.
Sabella still undecided on Argentina formation
It is often said that one should not mend what is not broke. But there is no harm in having some tools in hand just in case. This is probably why Sabella has recently practiced the 5-3-2 formation despite Argentina waltzing through their qualification matches with the 4-3-3 in place.
The advantages of the 4-3-3 are already well known as it allows Messi and Sergio Aguero to play off Gonzalo Higuain and with Angel Di Maria improving the defensive part of his game it does not unduly expose the Argentina backline. But with Higuain’s participation against Bosnia-Herzegovina in doubt due to an ankle injury and his replacement Rodrigo Palacio not being in the same class it makes sense to adopt the 5-3-2.
Firstly, this system allows Messi to play in a role he frequently finds himself in Barcelona, as a free attacker with a wing back making space for him to cut inside from the right. Pablo Zabaleta and Marcos Rojo can play as wingers when La Albiceleste have the ball and operate as traditional full backs when they don’t. Secondly, this formation will also give Javier Mascherano and Maxi Rodriguez/Fernando Gago the licence to roam further forward.
Whatever system Sabella decides to adopt against Bosnia we can be rest assured that he will continue changing as the tournament progresses.
No one individual can fill Ribery sized hole
Though the news was only confirmed last week, Didier Deschamps must have known for some time that he would probably have to plan his team without Franck Ribery. He would also have realized that there is no one player in his squad who could replace the mercurial Bayern Munich winger. Ribery is not only one of the top 5 players in the world but was also the leader of this French team. So his absence will not only hurt Les Bleus on the pitch but off it too.
But despite losing his talisman Deschamps will be quietly confident that he has the personnel to ensure that France go deep into this tournament. The recent friendly against Jamaica revealed that Karim Benzema will fit into the left hand side of a front three also comprising of Olivier Giroud and Mathieu Valbuena. Though Benzema plays centrally for Real Madrid he does like to drift onto the left to collect the ball so will not mind this new role. Giroud will most likely play as a target man and Valbuena will be given the licence to roam across the front line.
Though none of these 3 individually can make up for the loss of Ribery but if they work collectively then a solution could just about be found.
France have youth on their side
This is the youngest French side at a World Cup since 1954 and going into such a high pressure tournament there could be some justifiable apprehension in some quarters. But the thing with youth is that they play without fear and once they have a little momentum on their side then they are very hard to stop. This is what makes Les Bleus match against Honduras very important for if they can get a positive result here then the French will start to believe.
The youngsters in Deschamps’s squad will also have more energy as compared to most sides and this could prove crucial with the hot and humid conditions prevailing in Brazil. And it is not just that they are young but some of these French players will probably be the best in the world in a couple of years time if they are not already.
Raphael Varane is already earning rave reviews in Madrid and were it not for injuries he would be the first choice centre back for one of the best club sides in the world. Paul Pogba though has had no injury issues and has established himself as one of the main stays for Juventus and France. He is probably the best young player in the world along with Neymar and many in the French media have already tipped him to surpass the achievements of a player who played the same role in the last great French side – Patrick Vieira.
There is nothing like watching young players making their mark on the world stage and it will be interesting to see how the French youngsters fare in this tournament.
Ecuador’s golden chance to qualify
When the draw to decide the groups for this year’s World Cup took place, Ecuador’s manager Reinaldo Rueda could have been forgiven for thinking that his side have a real chance to qualify for the round of 16.
For that to happen though Ecuador will have to start with a positive result against the Swiss on Sunday knowing that they have a very winnable next match against the Hondurans. Six points from these two matches will all but assure qualification to the next stage.
Switzerland though are no pushovers and their current FIFA ranking of 6 allied with the fact that they comfortably won their qualifying group suggests that they are a team not to be underestimated. Ottmar Hitzfeld has organized them into a very solid outfit and they are a side hard to score against. But their warm up match against Peru showed that without key playmaker Xherdan Shaqiri they looked a little toothless in attack. It was only when the Bayern Munich midfielder came on did the Swiss start to create openings.
If the Ecuadorians can stifle Shaqiri and get wingers Antonio Valencia and Jefferson Montero one on one against the Swiss full backs then they have a real chance of creating history.