By DAN KARELL
One of the most dramatic World Cups in recent memory continues with a three-match slate on Sunday, highlighted by Lionel Messi’s first-ever visit to the Maracana.
Messi, Sergio Aguero, and favorites Argentina take on World Cup newbies Bosnia and Herzegovina in Rio de Janeiro, looking to begin their tournament campaign on a high note. Plenty of Argentine nationals are expected to spill over the border and fill the stadium in a sea of blue and white.
Argentina were comfortably the best South American side in World Cup qualifying and cruised through their friendly matches, but now it all comes down to how well Messi and Aguero can play together up top. Fernando Gago and Angel Di Maria will be important cogs in the midfield but Argentina head coach Alejandro Sabella has admitted that he has reservation’s about the team’s defense, which will be lead by Benfica defender Ezequiel Garay.
Bosnia and Herzegovina scored 30 goals in World Cup qualifying, the most out of UEFA, and forwards Edin Dzeko, Vedad Ibisevic, and midfielder Miralem Pjanic are all entering the tournament in fine form. For all their attacking prowess, defenders Emir Spahic and Ermin Bičakčić will have to be on their game to keep the Dragon’s chances alive in the match.
Here are some more notes ahead of today’s World Cup action:
FRANCE vs. HONDURAS
Didier Deschamps quest to avoid an embarrassing group stage exit like at the 2010 World Cup begins on Sunday with a match against CONCACAF nation Honduras at Estádio Beira-Rio in Porto Alegre.
Only two players return in Les Blues from the 2010 team which failed spectacularly, but a key question will be how France overcome the loss of winger Franck Ribery. The Bayern Munich star was ruled out of the tournament with a back injury.
What France do have is a number of budding young stars, including the likes of Paul Pogba in central midfield, Raphael Varane in defense, and Antoine Griezmann out wide. Add in-form Mathieu Valbuena in midfield and forwards Karim Benzema and Olivier Giroud to the lineup and you see a team that could go all the way if they live up to their potential.
Honduras have arguably had the worst run of any World Cup team in their recent slate of friendly matches, failing to win any of their three games and being exposed by Turkey and Israel in two of them. Unlike other Latin American nations, Honduras has the size and strength to match up to the French but it’s going to take a big effort from Jorge Claros and Oscar Boniek Garcia, returning from injury, to slow down France through the middle.
As we saw on Saturday though, a giant killing isn’t out of the question and maybe Honduras can extend CONCACAF’s unbeaten run in the World Cup.
SWITZERLAND vs. ECUADOR
Switzerland may not have the international pedigree of the other seeded teams at the 2014 World Cup but there’s no doubt that they’re in Brazil on merit.
A side mixed with young and old players, including a number of dual-nationals, is ready to bring pride back home to the approximately eight million Swiss citizens back home when they take on Ecuador at Estádio Mane Garrincha in Brasília.
Some of the best young stars of the tournament will likely be wearing the red and white of Switzerland, with defender Fabian Schär, Granit Xhaka, Xherdan Shaqiri, and Josip Drmic all expected to see plenty of playing time. Combine them with the veteran Tranquillo Barnetta in midfield and the steady heads of Stephan Lichtsteiner and Philippe Senderos in defense, you get a team that could cause trouble for a side in transition such as Ecuador.
The speedy Ecuadorians have become World Cup regulars in the last three tournaments, thanks in part to the high altitude in their home nation. However, their team does have talented players who are going to get a chance to shine on the world’s stage.
One player who should see a lot of the ball on the left wing is Jefferson Montero. The 24-year-old possesses a bag of tricks that’s used frequently to beat defenders on the outside and send balls in to the middle. With Montero on one side and Antonio Valencia on the other, Ecuador could be a real menace to the Swiss along the wings.
The key for Ecuador will be up top, with either Felipe Caicedo or Enner Valencia starting in place of the late Christian Benitez, who sadly passed away in July 2013. Valencia is coming off a huge season for Pachuca where he nearly led his side to the Clausura title, and could be a guy at least off the bench for La Tri if they’re trailing in the second half.
What do you think of today’s slate of matches? Do you believe there could be plenty of goals in Argentina vs. Bosnia and Herzegovina? Do you expect France to beat Honduras? Think that Ecuador can defeat Switzerland?
Share your thoughts below.