The Countdown: #16-13

Posted: 05/27/2014 by levcohen in Soccer

We’re now in the top half of the ranking of all 32 World Cup teams, and from this point forward I expect all but two teams, one from group B and one from group D, to qualify for the last 16. Here again are the rankings from #32 to #17: Australia, Iran, Cameroon, Ecuador, Algeria, Costa Rica, Honduras, Greece, Ghana, South Korea, Bosnia, Mexico, Croatia, Russia, Japan, United States. After the Landon Donovan news, I’ve rethought my ranking of the US. It’s not that I hate that Jurgen Klinsmann (it doesn’t make a ton of sense, but I don’t hate it) left perhaps America’s best player ever off the 23 man roster, it’s that I now believe that Klinsmann is building this program with the intention of being full strength for the 2018 World Cup. I’d move them a bunch down, possibly to between South Korea and Bosnia. But I’ll do a quick revised ranking in the days leading up to the beginning of the tournament when we know whether guys like Radamel Falcao and Luis Suarez will be at all close to full strength for the World Cup.
Reminder: I value both the quality of a team and the chance I see them having of advancing past their group and beyond.

#16 Switzerland: I really don’t know what to make of this Switzerland team. On the one hand, you have their tremendous qualifying campaign. Switzerland didn’t lose a game, going 7-0-3, although the 4-4 tie against Iceland after blowing a huge lead seems more like a loss. It’s true that there was no other great team in the group, but the fact that they were able to amass a +11 goal differential (17 scored, six allowed) against quality teams like Norway, Cyprus, and Iceland is very impressive. It’s especially impressive when you consider the youth this team has. Their stars, Xherdan Shaqiri, Granit Xhaka, Josip Drmic, are all 21 or 22 years old, and central defender Fabian Schaer, top scorer in qualifying, is also 22. That isn’t to say the Swiss don’t have talent, because they do. Shaqiri plays for Bayern Munich and could be a part of the full-time starting lineup as soon as next season. Xhaka, who also plays in the Bundesliga (that’s a theme when it comes to this Switzerland team), was a regular starter for Borussia Mönchengladbach at just 21 years old. And Drmic, who has emerged as the frontrunner to start up top for the Swiss, scored 17 goals in 33 Bundesliga appearances for struggling Nuremburg. The perception when it comes to Switzerland is that they are very organized defensively but can only score from set-pieces. Basically, people think they are bland. That used to be the case, but I think the Swiss are finally developing some legitimately good offensive creators, from Shaqiri to the all-Napoli central midfield of Gokhan Inler and Valon Behrami (heck, at 29 years old those guys are basically ancient compared to the Shaqiri/Xhaka/Drmic trio). I think we can be sure that the four goals allowed against Iceland in qualifying was a fluke and that this team also defends extremely well. In the end, this is a team a lot like Belgium, with a progressing soccer program but a team that still needs time. I like Belgium better simply because they have more high-end talent, but I see Switzerland playing pretty well in the World Cup and making it difficult to win three points against them. The last friendly they played, a 2-2 tie against Croatia, was one that was encouraging because Drmic was able to score two goals and the Swiss thoroughly outplayed their opponents, with eight shots on target to Croatia’s one. I don’t think they are quite ready for a deep run in the World Cup, but in a soft group I think qualification for the last 16 is likely.

#15 Nigeria: You can make a very strong argument that Nigeria is the best team from Africa. They did, after all, win the African Nations Cup last year, beating Ivory Coast, the one African team I have above them (just one spot, but still) along the way. So why do I have Nigeria ranked below Ivory Coast? Well, part of it has to do with the dysfunction of Nigerian soccer. The Nigerian FA is known for discarding coaches (20 in 20 years) and as a result, current coach Stephen Keshi (one of two African coaches in the World Cup), who has been quite good, has threatened to quit the team and seemed on his way out before the African Nations Cup win. There is still tension there, which is not good for the team. Also not good for the team is its group. Unlike Group C, which features Ivory Coast, Group F has a clear alpha dog in Nigeria. I’d be shocked if the African team were to get any sort of positive result from the Argentina game, which leaves their chance to advance to the round of 16 up in the air. I do think they’ll get through over Bosnia, though, which is why I think the #15 rank is perfect. I think this team on paper and based on their results is very good. They didn’t lose a game in qualifying, eventually beating Ethiopia 4-1 in a two-game playoff. In their last game, a friendly against Mexico that was basically a road game (it was played in Atlanta), Nigeria tied the North Americans 0-0, and neither team was clearly superior. This team is very fun to watch with great speed and skilled strikers, and they have some great individual talent. It all starts from the back. Victor Enyeama, the goalie, is the team’s most important player, and he played very well this season for Lille, with just 26 goals conceded in 38 starts. The team’s best non-goalie is likely Chelsea’s John Obi Mikel, who has played much better for his country than he has for his team. That is evidenced by how he played against Ivory Coast in the African Nations Cup. By all accounts, the Chelsea player simply outplayed Yaya Toure, one of the best and most imposing soccer players in the world. By no coincidence, they won that game 4-1, so Mikel is also pivotal to Nigeria’s success. Nigeria also has players like Victor Moses, Ahmed Musa, and Ogenyi Onazi, who have played at a high level in England, Russia, and Italy respectively. Pretty impressive. I think Nigeria will beat Bosnia head-to-head en route to the round of 16, where they’ll likely play France. Could they advance to the quarterfinals? With the way France plays sometimes, it’s possible, but I expect the more talented team to win that game.

#14 Ivory Coast: And here’s Ivory Coast (Côte d’Ivoire), my top-ranked African team. This team is a confusing one. Although they probably have the most talent of any African country, they couldn’t escape the group stage in either 2006 or 2010 (their first two trips to the World Cup), when they were at the height of their powers. To be fair, they were in the so-called “Group of Death” in both tournaments, as they’ve had to play Brazil, Argentina, Netherlands, and Portugal in their six World Cup games to this point. On the bright side, they won their other two games in previous World Cups, and this year they have a much more forgiving group. Even the presumptive favorite, Colombia, has suffered recently with the devastating knee injury to star striker Radamel Falcao, who may miss the World Cup but will certainly not be full strength. Ivory Coast now has the shot to not only get out of their group but finish on top and have a winnable game against one of Italy, England, or Uruguay in the round of 16 (what a mess that group is. You’ve noticed that all three of those teams are in the top 13. That is also the case in Group B). I think they’ll finish behind Colombia, but they should be able to get through the group. Unfortunately, their recent play hasn’t been great. They’ve won just four of their past 11 games in a stretch that spans the last calendar year, and that includes embarrassing 4-1 losses to Mexico and Nigeria. I’m not panicking, though, because Ivory Coast has played just one game in the last six months and change, and that was a respectable 2-2 tie against Belgium in which they bounced back after falling behind 2-0 and dominated the run of play, holding 60% of possession and being fouled 21 times. The fact that they played well against a team I’ll have in my top eight alleviates my concerns and brings my focus to the actual roster, which happens to be very good. The headliner is, of course, Yaya Toure. Toure absolutely dominated the Premier League this season and was the best player on a title-winning team. By definition, you can’t say that about a lot of players. He has a lot of strength, and should dominate Japan and Greece, if not Colombia. And Toure isn’t alone. Gervinho, a former Arsenal player, was terrific for Roma, starting nearly every game and gaining valuable confidence. Salomon Kalou, the former Chelsea and current Lille player, scored 16 goals and started every Ligue 1 game. He’s going to be a big asset. So still is Didier Drogba, who is now 36 years old and will be participating in what is likely to be his last World Cup. Drogba was once one of the best strikers in the world. He’s no longer that, but he still is a productive player who played in the Champions League for Galatasaray. With Toure, Gervinho, Kalou, and Drogba (not to mention a tremendous backup to Drogba in Swansea City’s Wilfred Bony), Ivory Coast has the potential to be deadly on the attack. The defense is a different story, having given up 13 goals in six games against fellow World Cup teams in the past calendar year (Mexico, Nigeria, Ghana, Belgium). It’ll be an all hands on deck approach at the back, but  if Kolo Toure and Didier Zokora can play well, Ivory Coast has a legitimate chance to advance to the quarterfinals.

#13 England: Here is the cutoff. I had a really tough time picking the #13 team, and at one point had Uruguay, Chile, and Colombia all penciled in to the #13 spot. Speaking of those three countries, what do all have in common? That’s right: they are all located in South America. And where is the World Cup? Oh that’s right. It’s in Brazil, which also happens to be in South America. Where, may I ask, is England? Not only is it not in South America, but it’s in a part of the world that has a much different climate than Brazil and South America. That is really the reason that I have Chile, Colombia, and Uruguay ahead of England. I think that England is a very solid team. Although they sorely lack a top player, Wayne Rooney (who, it must be noted, has had no success in the World Cup) is good and England have a bunch of solid young players. I think that, although they have the talent to get through to the round of 16, the fact that they’ve been drawn into a group with Italy and Uruguay might doom them in the end. Could 2018 be a more realistic time for England to go far in the tournament? While they were undefeated in qualifying, they weren’t all that impressive. They ran up the score against pushovers San Marino and Moldova, but struggled against tougher competition, going just 2-0-4 against Poland, Ukraine, and Montenegro and sometimes struggling to score goals in that time. Expectations of an England team have rarely been this good, and rightfully so. They have some speed and youth in Raheem Sterling (19 years old), Ross Barkley (20) and Daniel Sturridge (24), but their defense is shallow and goalie Joe Hart has been shaky. I could see England making a run to the quarterfinals, but I think they are more likely to look like the inexperienced team they are, make some mistakes, and miss out on the round of 16. That’s not ideal, but it’s not the end of the world, because this looks like a team that will be at its best in four years.

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