Group F: Of kisses and bad misses
Why they could win the World Cup: They haven’t been the same fluent attacking package we know them to be. But anything Argentina have lacked in showmanship, they’ve made up for with punch. Built around a strikeforce known as the Fab Four, their names placed together form their country’s byword for goals. Three of them - Sergio Aguero, Angel di Maria and Gonzalo Higuain - aren’t delivering like Lionel Messi is yet, but when they do eventually, they could deliver big.
Key moment: It was Argentina’s game with Iran, a country ranked 38 places below them. Instead, it was Carlos Queiroz's plucky side who nearly nicked all three points, with flair appearing to desert the favourites again. Then up popped Lionel Messi with a special goal, sending his team to the next stage. Such was the boost Los Albiceleste took from their captain’s strike, that could have been the moment the momentum tipped in their favour for the tournament ahead.
I’ll fight you if you say he won’t win the Golden Ball: Lionel Messi’s brilliance may just prove enough to steal the show from home crowd favourite Neymar in Brazil. The beating heart of this Argentina side, moves start from his feet and end at his; four of them in the back of the net to be precise.
Not worth the fuss yet: Gonzalo Higuain travelled to the World Cup as the goal twin of Lionel Messi, having found the net 10 times during the qualifiers. At the Finals itself, the former Real Madrid man has looked a shadow of his former self. A run of injuries in the months prior appear to have deprived him of rhythm and sharpness. That quick link up with Messi for the latter’s goal against Bosnia aside, the 26-year-old has failed to combine meaningfully with the rest of the team - potentially a bigger concern than his lack of goals so far.
I wish I had known about him sooner: Sergio Romero had been expected to fulfill the role of Argentina’s biggest liability. But three games in and the Monaco backup’s form has been a tonic for the rest of a defence that has looked shaky at best. His assurance and command of the area have saved his side on countless an occasion, with him really only being culpable for Veded Ibisevic’s strike in the clash with Bosnia and Herzegovina so far.
Memorable quote: Diego Maradona thinks it’s no longer enough for Lionel Messi to try and emulate him: “Argentina fans will expect from Messi what Neymar has done for Brazil. Brazil are depending on him and instead of getting weighed down, he has shown that he can carry the pressure of expectation.” The Barcelona stars are presently tied at the top of the World Cup scoring charts with four goals apiece.
Why they could win the World Cup: Coach Stephan Keshi relies on a solid, if unspectacular, team effort that can be dangerous to opponents on the counter-attack. With no real individual talent to boast off, the 2011 African Nation’s champions count instead on the collective effort of each team member. For a side afflicted by disputes over bonus payment and the absence of several established members heading into the tournament, Nigeria have certainly been punching above their weight so far.
Key moments: Vincent Enyeama’s credentials between the posts was undoubted. But the Lille custodian’s save against the post on Edin Dzeko’s effort in the win over Bosnia and Herzegovina secured the Super Eagles their only win in Group F, victory allowing them to scrape through to the last 16 at Bosnia and Iran’s expense.
I’ll fight you if you say he won’t win the Golden Ball: Little known in Europe but a constant fixture for his country since the age of 17, Ahmed Musa showed himself to be a real livewire on the flanks. Netting two goals against Group F leaders Argentina has been a real highlight so far. The CSKA Moscow starlet could have gotten a hat-trick that time but for some excellent defending by Pablo Zabaleta.
Not worth the fuss yet: Emmanuel Emenike was labelled as one of Nigeria’s focal points in Brazil, but it’s safe to say the Fenerbache forward has disappointed so far. Stephen Keshi will be demanding a better display from the 27-year-old with tepid displays against Iran and Argentina flanking a single standout performance versus Bosnia and Herzegovina.
I wish I had known about him sooner: Fate has not been kind to Michael Babatunde. The unassuming youngster’s tournament ended prematurely after teammate Ogenyi Onazi accidentally broke his arm with a shot on Group F’s final matchday. The little-fancied midfielder had been a real totem at the heart of Nigeria’s midfield before that, assisting Ahmed Musa’s first goal against Argentina.
Memorable quote: The press thank Peter Odemwingie for not being the sharpest striker on the block after Stephen Keshi declared: “For me, scoring a lot of goals is not the most important thing. I want us to score and reach the knockout stages. If we score every game, I'll kiss each and every journalist in here.”
Bosnia and Herzegovina
They’re now the most worthless team in football: The Zmajevi entered the tournament as one of Europe’s most prolific outfits in qualification, apart from the likes of Germany and the Netherlands. But their goals seemed to dry up when it mattered most. Safet Susic’s men put on several notable individual performances, but only came together perfectly for the final group game with Iran, winning 3-1 - when they were already eliminated.
That player deserved to be on a better team: Miralem Pjanic underlined exactly why he is one of Europe’s most coveted midfielders with key performances throughout. The Roma playmaker held his own against his opponents regardless of their stature, with his vision and drive from the centre key to his country’s first World Cup appearance. If his teammates had been up to the task of converting more of the multitude of chances he laid on a plate for them, Bosnia would be through to the next stages now.
He should have stayed at home: He carried the hopes of his country on his shoulders, but when the moment came to deliver, Edin Dzeko went missing instead. The Bosnia top scorer failed to produce anything noteworthy and lift his side. He can consider himself desperately unlucky to be on the receiving end of a wrong offside call, but the 28-year-old was extremely profligate otherwise.
Memorable quote: Captain Emir Spahic finished defiantly despite his nation exiting the World Cup, saying: “Criticism is part of our job. But some other things became a little bit too personal. And I didn't expect that from my own people but obviously I have a lot of enemies. But I'm proud because I'm Bosnian. I'm proud because of my people. "
They’re now the most worthless team in football: Iran had qualified for the World Cup top of a qualifying group that included South Korea, prompting coach Carlos Queiroz to state: “The qualification campaign was a journey through hell. But now begins the journey through heaven.” Their stay in paradise didn’t last very long with a defensive mindset however, after finishing bottom of Group F despite putting in a valiant display versus Argentina.
That player deserved to be on a better team: Reza Ghoochannejhad plays for unfancied Charlton in the Football League Championship, but the striker’s World Cup displays may just earn him a move to greener pastures. He was a constant outlet in his side’s attack despite usually ploughing upfront as a lone striker. After excellent showings against Nigeria and Argentina, Ghoochannejhad finally got the goal he deserved when he fired in past Bosnia.
He should have stayed at home: A veteran of nearly 150 encounters and a survivor from Iran’s World Cup 2006 appearance, Javad Nekounam was supposed to turn up for Team Melli in a big way this summer. And while their negative tactics are partly to blame, the former Osasuna midfielder never covered himself in glory the way people back home would have been expecting.
Memorable quote: Coach Carlos Queiroz cut a figure of realism and didn’t leave many in doubt about his expectations of Iran’s World Cup campaign when he said: “You have to judge our players not as players from Liverpool, Real Madrid, Chelsea, Barcelona, or Corinthians but as players that play in an amateur league.”
Jeremy Lim is a freelance football writer with a particular interest in the Spanish, Italian and South American game. He writes for several online outlets, and can occasionally be heard on Red Card Sports Radio.