Group E: French stand above the rest

E is for “eh,” with this group featuring only one team that could make a run at hoisting the trophy.

France are still world-class even without star striker Franck Ribery, and will look to get rid of the stigma created from an embarrassing exit in 2010.

Switzerland dominated in qualifying, but didn’t face world cup caliber competition. The same can be said for Honduras, a team that finished ahead of Mexico in CONCACAF qualifying.

Ecuador have the advantage of South America, but the death of their best player leaves their fate in serious doubt. The French are the favorites in World Cup’s most mysterious group.

How they’ll finish

  1. France
  2. Honduras
  3. Switzerland
  4. Ecuador

Ecuador

SPI Rank: 11; FIFA World Ranking: 26

2010 World Cup: Did not qualify

Odds to advance to knock-out stages: 64.6 percent*

What to drink when watching EcuadorCanelazo — Popular in the “highlands,” this is a hot alcoholic beverage containing cinnamon sticks and aguardiente. It’s especially popular during Christmas, where temperatures in Ecuador can sometimes plummet below 60° F.

Despite being the weakest of the six South American countries in the tournament, Ecuador have a favorable draw that sees them holding the second highest SPI in Group E, giving La Tri a punchers chance at advancing to the knockout stages.

You can’t talk about this Ecuadorian team with out mentioning the tragic death of the countries best player, 27-year-old striker Christian “Chucho” Benítez. Benitez suffered fatal respiratory failure last July, after his debut with his new club, El Jaish of Qatar’s Q-League.

The loss was devastating for everybody involved, and probably played a part in Ecuador’s poor finish in qualifying, nearly missing out on Brazil with a 1-2-1 record following Benitez’ death.

But Ecuador did make it, and now have a chance to give their fallen hero a proper dedication by a surprise run in this tournament.

If that’s going to happen, most of the responsibility will fall on the shoulders of Antonio Valencia, the occasionally brilliant Manchester United right-winger. When Valencia is in form he is nearly unstoppable, beating defenders down the flank, and with a proclivity to send dangerous balls into the box.

But finding consistency will be the key to both Valencia’s and Ecuador’s chances in Group E. A 4-0 defeat to Argentina during qualifying is not an encouraging sign nor is the fact that Ecuador look significantly better playing at home, in a stadium 9,127 feet above sea level.

Even if Ecuador manage to get through in a wide-open group, they probably lack the quality to make a run past the round of 16.

France

SPI Rank: 7; FIFA World Ranking: 17

2010 World Cup: Eliminated in Group Stage

Odds to advance to knock-out stages: 78.5 percent

What to drink when watching France: Cognac — This variation of brandy is the national drink of France. But if you really want to feel French it doesn’t matter what you drink, as long as you remember urinate on the sidewalk afterwards.

It was a week ago today that French manager Didier Deschamps announced the country’s best player, Franck Ribery, would not be able to make the trip to Brazil due to injury.

The loss of the Ribery — who finished 3rd in 2014 World Player of the year voting behind Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi — was a tough blow for the French, especially considering the pressure to have a memorable showing following their implosion in 2010.

That French team couldn’t manage to get out of the group stage, but even without their talisman Ribery, this side has enough quality to take their group easily and possibly make some noise in the knockout rounds.

Making up for Ribery’s efficiency in the attacking third is impossible, but France boast a trio of three incredibly talented midfielders that will be tasked with lading the charge for the Les Bleus going forward.

First there’s 23-year-old attacking-mid Antoine Griezmann, who scored 16 goals for Spanish side Real Socialdad this season.

In the middle is Yohan Cabaye, one of the best box-to-box midfielders in the tournament, and an incredible dead ball specialist adept at finishing just as coolly during open play.

Last but certainly not least, is the defensive minded Paul Pogba, a 21-year-old phenom that whoscored.com rated as the second best player in Serie A — Italy’s top league — during 2013-2014.

Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema is still the target man, but he will be looking to set up his teammates as much has he will to score.

Add to all that a young crop of extremely talented and athletic center defenders and you have a team that should dominate Group E with relative ease.

France are not always the most organized and must find a consistent starting XI, but with the talent they have their World Cup fate lies entirely in their hands.

Honduras

SPI Rank: 32; FIFA World Ranking: 33

2010 World Cup: Eliminated in Group Stage

Odds to advance to knock-out stages: 21.5 percent

What to drink when watching Honduras: Giffity — I’ve seen this described as a “knock-you-over blend of herbs and spices that I wouldn’t necessarily drink again.” So, there you go.

Honduras’ football is far from pretty, but that didn’t stop them from finishing third in CONCACAF qualifying en-route to their second consecutive World Cup.

Los Catrachos have quality players spread across Europe and in the MLS, and aren’t easily subdued, employing a physical defensive style. San Jose Earthquakes center-back Victor Bernardez is at the heart of that back-line, with the hulking “Muma” as one of the most intimidating players in the tournament.

Bernardez is also be one of the most dangerous offensive weapons for Honduras, with the 6-foot-2 defender capable of thumping headers into the back of the net via set-piece.

Defensive midfielder Roger Espinoza will play in front of that back four and make Honduras even more difficult to break down, but scoring goals is where this team will have trouble.

Jerry Bengtson was impressive during qualifying scoring nine goals in 12 games, but has been mostly poor for the New England Revolution, managing just two goals in three seasons.

Honduras will put up a fight and are not an “easy out” so to speak. In this group, advancement would not be shocking, but Honduras will have to revive their flaccid attack before that happens.

Switzerland

SPI Rank: 22; FIFA World Ranking: 6

2010 World Cup: Eliminated in Semi-finals

Odds to advance to knock-out stages: 35.5 percent

What to drink when watching Switzerland: Absinthe — This licorice-tasting liquor can run as high as 160 proof and can cause mind-opening effects in some, and stomach-clearing effects in others.

Don’t let the FIFA ranking fool you, the Swiss are not even close to the sixth best team in the world. Sure they dominated during UEFA qualifying, but so would most teams against the likes of Iceland, Slovenia, Albania, and Cyprus.

On the bright side, there is really no pressure on this Swiss team, who see themselves once again in a very favorable group where advancing is a real possibility.

Don’t feel bad if you don’t recognize any of the names on the Swiss roster — neither does 99.9 percent of the population. I Rossocrociati’s do have a couple players who can break open a game however, including highly talented Bayern Munich winger Xherdan Shaqiri.

Yes, Shaqiri is not a first team regular for his German club, but it’s Bayern-fucking-Munich. When Shaqiri does come on as a super-sub he almost always impresses, and his mesmerizing dribbling have him regarded as the best young talent to come out of the country in some time.

Defensively is where the Swiss could struggle. As a Fulham FC supporter I’ve watched more than my fair share of 29-year-old Swiss defender Philippe Senderos, who’s lack of pace at the back makes him susceptible to a game changing mistake ever time he’s on the pitch.

This could be a red flag in the World Cup, especially with the likes of France’s Karim Benzema or Olivier Giroud bearing down on him.

The Swiss are mostly an enigma, who’s lack of real competition during qualifying make them impossible to adequately judge. They had an impressive win against a second team Brazil last year, ending that countries 11-game unbeaten streak, but it’s not clear exactly what that means.

The Swiss are the most interesting team in this group, and could finish at either end of the group.