Group F: Preview and predictions
This may not be one of the most eye-catching groups, but it does promise to be one of the most punishingly competitive. Argentina are the clear favourites for the group and have already forewarned competition debutant Bosnia of Argentinian power in a November friendly, walking all over Safet Susic’s side despite having a significantly understrength squad. Bosnia have plenty of attacking assets of their own -- this promises to be a group full of goals -- and will enter their first World Cup without any fear, having already hit the jackpot simply by qualifying top of a group featuring Greece.
There is absolutely no room for soft touches here, with African champion Nigeria at their strongest point in many years. It is often forgotten that Africa is one of the toughest continents to qualify from, with playoffs obligatory and relatively few places on offer -- the Super Eagles defeated Ethiopia to seal their place. Iran had their own trials in qualifying, but emerged top of a group containing South Korea and Uzbekistan, which is not to be sniffed at. It is a welcome return to the World Cup for Iran under Carlos Queiroz -- the nation’s first foreign coach since Branko Ivankovic, who guided them to a World Cup appearance in Germany in 2006.
It looks like Argentina winning the group, Nigeria finishing second, Bosnia in third and Iran fourth.
Argentina: Undoubtedly one of the favourites to win the entire tournament, the Lionel Messi factor is enough to put an almighty fear into most opponents in a tournament that the Barcelona man hopes will help define his incredible career. Yet to focus solely on him would be foolish. Argentina have probably the greatest attacking arsenal on the planet, with Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Aguero and Ezequiel Lavezzi among those in tow, with Javier Mascherano and Angel Di Maria among the midfield talents. There are defensive doubts, though, with no obvious choice at left-back -- Sporting Lisbon defender Marcos Rojo is the current favourite.
Nigeria: Stephen Keshi’s side have strength wherever you look, beginning with formidable goalkeeper and captain Vincent Enyeama, who has been outstanding for Lille in France this season. He also takes penalties -- and has 18 career goals -- which could be interesting in a shootout come the knockout rounds. Anchored by John Obi Mikel in midfield, there are also numerous goal scorers available to Keshi, including Emmanuel Emenike of Fenerbahce and Brown Ideye of Dynamo Kiev -- plus Newcastle United’s Shola Ameobi, who has recently joined the Nigeria squad.
Bosnia-Herzegovina: Susic’s squad may not have Argentina’s illustrious personnel, but Bosnia-Herzegovina aren't slouches in the attacking department, with Edin Dzeko and Vedad Ibisevic capable of scoring goals against anyone, and cultured players like Miralem Pjanic of Roma and Hoffenheim’s Sejad Salihovic in midfield. Bosnia-Herzegovina don’t have too much depth in defence, so goalkeeper Asmir Begovic might be busy in a tournament that could act as a springboard to his joining one of Europe’s biggest clubs.
Iran: Many will look at Queiroz’s mainly home-based squad and expect an easy ride for the other three teams in the group, but if Iran finish bottom of this group, it will not be for their own lack of quality. Led by experienced midfielder Javad Nekounam -- a popular figure at Osasuna after his spell in La Liga -- Iran have a good mix of youth and experience, and some cutting edge in the final third. Ashkan Dejagah of Fulham provides pace on the flank, and Standard Liege striker Reza Ghoochannejhad could be one of the surprise hits of the tournament.
Best individual battle: Edin Dzeko vs. Nicolas Otamendi
Susic, the Bosnia manager, will rely heavily on Dzeko, and the Manchester City striker relishes being the main man -- which he never has been at the Etihad, of course. It will be a jarring physical encounter between Dzeko and Otamendi, the Porto centre-back who has plenty to prove after then-manager Diego Maradona perplexingly picked him at full-back in 2010. Otamendi has been tracked by some of Europe’s leading clubs, including City and Monaco. He is as tough as they come but occasionally struggles against players who have quick feet, which could be good news for Dzeko and might be the genesis of a shock.
Best game: Nigeria vs. Bosnia-Herzegovina
Taking place in the intense humidity of the Pantanal -- the players should make sure they stock up on insect spray -- this promises to be the game that defines who will capture second place in the group. For Bosnia, it may well be a mental test, as well as a recovery test if they are given a chasing by Argentina in the group opener. Nevertheless, all the pressure will be on Nigeria to try to sew things up here, though they cannot neglect defending against a Bosnia side with plenty of creativity.
X factor: Iran's role as spoiler
Iran manager Carlos Queiroz was pilloried for his defensive tactics when he coached Portugal in 2010 -- and for stranding Cristiano Ronaldo without any supply line -- and the former Manchester United assistant never recovered at the helm of the seleccao. Queiroz will be looking at this tournament as an opportunity to rebuild his reputation on the international stage. Given the incredible array of attacking talent in this group, he may favour employing that safety-first game plan, and it could make things more difficult than expected for the other three teams.
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