Led by the unstoppable Lionel Messi, Argentina are the story of Group F.
The little magician hopes to propel his country fulfill their international potential and close his case as the best player in the history of the sport.
A favorable draw should be a first step towards elusive world cup success for Argentina, as the three remaining teams will be likely be mired in a dog fight for second place.
That includes World Cup debutants Bosnia-Herzegovina, who have been one of the hottest teams in Europe over the last year.
Nigeria are coming off an Africa Cup of Nations victory, and are fielding one of their most talented sides in recent history.
Underdogs Iran round out the group, hoping to advance to the knockout stages for the first time ever.
But this is Argentina’s group to lose, and will be a must-win for a country trying distance themselves from recent World Cup disappointment.
How they’ll finish
SPI Rank: 2; FIFA World Ranking: 5
2010 World Cup: Eliminated in Quarter-final
Odds to advance to knock-out stages: 94.7 percent*
While Argentina may be synonymous with World Cup success, the South American’s haven’t managed to make it past the round of 16 in over 20 years. As the second-ranked team in the world – with the best player on the planet no less - La Albiceleste will be looking to do much more than just win their group this go around.
Let’s get the obligatory out of the way: Lionel Messi is the greatest player in the world. He hasn’t always excelled in his country’s kit, but his recent success under new manager Alejandro Sabella is a fantastic sign for Argentina’s hopes.
For his club, nobody has more responsibility than Messi does for FC Barcelona. Messi scored a seemingly impossible 46 goals and 12 assists in 32 La Liga games last season. After missing time this campaign, he managed 28 goals and 10 assists in 29 games, a dip that was probably the biggest reason Barcelona failed to defend their La Liga title.
Messi is a world-class dribbler foremost, but is also in the conversation for best passer and finisher in the world. The man is a genius. Okay, enough. Just watch this compilation:
Argentina have some other good players too by the way. Their strike force features three OTHER world-class talents – Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain, and Angel Di Maria – making them the most potent attack featuring in Brazil.
Messi will play a deeper role in Argentina’s 4-3-3 formation, playing behind the central striker — either Higuain or Aguero — feeding balls from the midfield and making runs in from behind. Di Maria will have an equally important role, being tasked with tracking back to make sure Argentina doesn’t get burnt on the counter attack.
That’s the story for Argentina: unstoppable in attack, questionable at the back. The fact that goalkeeper Sergio Romero didn’t even start for his club side Monaco all last season certainly doesn’t help.
Argentina have always had the talent to be successful on the international stage, they just haven’t had the proper idea how to use it.
With Messi now comfortable in his role — 10 goals in 14 during qualifying— Argentina have soared with only two loses in 16 qualifiers, and finishing with a 20-plus goal differential. If they can hold defensively even a little, the Argentines are one of a handful of favorites to win this tournament.
SPI Rank: 15; FIFA World Ranking: 21
2010 World Cup: Did not qualify
Odds to advance to knock-out stages: 47.8 percent
What to drink when watching Bosnia-Herzegovina: Mead — Made by fermenting honey with water, this can be made at home and is a great way to save money on alcohol. People will probably think you’re pretty strange though.
The only nation making its World Cup debut, this country of less than 4 million people dominated during UEFA qualifying. They may be completely untested in this tournament, but BiH have the potential to be much more than just a cinderella story.
First lets start with the facts. The Dragons scored a monumental 30 goals in 10 games, while conceding only six. True the group was weak — with Greece as the only real competition — but you play who you draw, and BiH were better than everyone they faced.
At the center of BiH’s success is Manchester City regular Edin Dzeko. Dzeko is awesome. A 6-foot-4 striker you’d expect to be used solely as an areal specialist, Dzeko is blessed with a beautiful touch and finishing ability in front of goal. Dzeko was so good for City this season, the man who was brought in to replace him – Spanierd Alvaro Negredo – found himself relegated to the bench by January.
BiH have two other key outfield players, in the exceptionally creative Miralem Pjanić — who may soon become one of the most sought after midfielders in Europe — and the unusually offensive minded center-back Emir Spahić, who’s tackling and ball interception skills were part of a Bayern Leverkusin defense that ranked third in the Bundesliga this season.
Add a world-class goalkeeper to the mix in Stoke City’s Asmir Begovic and you have a side that should be a favorite to advance. They may be the most inexperienced team in the tournament, but Bosnia-Herzegovina are a team nobody want to play.
SPI Rank: 39; FIFA World Ranking: 43
2010 World Cup: Did not qualify
Odds to advance to knock-out stages: 43.5 percent
What to drink when watching Iran: Aab-e Havij — This Iranian milkshake consisting of carrot juice and ice cream is the perfect combination of two divergent flavors. Sweet and bad.
Entering their fourth World Cup, Iran have never managed to advance past the group stage, and will have to show the defensive fortitude that got them through qualifying if they want a chance in a three-way race for second place in Group F.
The Iranians are led by unflappable central-midfielder Javad Nekounam, who with 136 appearances, is the second most capped player in the country’s history.
Iran also have a few interesting options up top with Fulham’s Ashkan Dejagah as probably the most talented of the bunch. Dejagah is versatile enough to play anywhere in the midfield, and his combination of skill and physical play can make him a handful for opposing defenses.
In the striker role is Reza “Gucchi” Ghoochanneijhad, who’s scored in his last three world cup qualifiers. Gucchi has actually been a pretty poor finisher for England’s Charlton Athletic, doing most of his damage as a distributer. If he can bring both skills to Brazil, Iran could be a sleeper.
Like they did in qualifying, the Iranians are going to play as defensive as possible, looking to steal games 1-0. Iranian-American, and former San Jose Earthquake, right-back Steven Beitashour is a perfect example of this careful approach, with the defender turning the ball over just 18 times in his last two season in MLS.
Nobody is expecting Iran to do anything in this group, let alone the knockout stages. If they keep their discipline defensively, they might have a shot to beat out the two other question marks in this group, and capture second place.
SPI Rank: 8; FIFA World Ranking: 7
2010 World Cup: Eliminated in Group Stage
Odds to advance to knock-out stages: 37.7 percent
What to drink when watching Nigeria: Ninkasi beer — Nigeria doesn’t have a national drink so I’d go for a Ninkasi since they both start with N-I. So does nitrous, but I can’t technically recommend that.
Coming off a surprise victory at the Africa Cup of Nations, Nigeria surly have their sights on advancing past the group stage in Brazil.
They will have to perform better than they did during the Confederation’s Cup last summer, where they managed a disappointing 1-0-2 record.
That competition was marred by controversy, as the Super Eagle players arrived late in protest after not receiving bonuses. Since then the players have bought into manager Stephen Keshi’s ethic and are looking to replicate their African success.
The quality of Chelsea midfielder John Obi Mikel will go a long way into determining how well Nigeria are able to function. Known for his ability in as a defensive shield in the Premier League, for his country Mikel plays a more attacking role, where Nigeria can take advantage of his superb passing ability.
Mikel will also have a talented partner to link up with in the center of the park, as 21-year-old midfielder Ogenyi Onazi is coming off a breakout year for Italian club Lazio.
Up top is classic No. 9 striker Emmanuel Emenike, who must continue his impressive goal scoring form – a goal per game in qualifying and one every other game in the Turkish league – if Nigeria want to keep up with the potent attacks of Argentina and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Emenike will need help though, as Nigeria has the 27th-worst rate of shots on goal in the 2010 World Cup.
With Premier League quality talent scattered throughout the squad such as Newcastle’s Shola Ameobi and Liverpool’s Victor Moses – Nigeria are certainly not minnows by any stretch. A win against Iran is a must, and the showdown between Bosnia-Herzegovina will probably determine which up and coming side moves on the the knockout stages.
* Percentages based on 10,000 simulations of the six group games using ESPN’s Soccer Power Index.