After winning their opening games, France and Switzerland both have eyes for the knockout rounds, and the winner of Friday’s game in Salvador would almost certainly earn one of Group E’s two tickets to the Round of 16.
KEYED ON KARIM: Karim Benzema comfortably stepped into the attacking void left by Franck Ribery’s absence from the squad, only missing out on a hat trick in France’s 3-0 win over Honduras when opposing 'keeper Noel Valladares fumbled his shot into the goal. Switzerland are unlikely to be as generous, especially with the wily Ottmar Hitzfeld on the bench, and it’s entirely possible France will need to find another outlet for goals. Winger Antoine Griezmann (below, with Benzema) is as good a candidate as any, having looked bright in the the opener and with 16 La Liga goals to his name in the 2013-14 season.
RANKING VS. REALITY: Switzerland sit No. 6 in the FIFA World Rankings while France sit 11 places behind them at No. 17, but ask anyone from the seeded Swiss team, and they’ll tell you it’s France and their star power who will have the advantage in this match. It’s probably the correct assessment, the discrepancy a product of the FIFA's funky ranking methods.
THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS: These two teams boast some of the most exciting young talents in the game today, who we will see not only Friday but in World Cups to come. Many of the French players are already well-known – Paul Pogba is a star for Juventus in Serie A, Raphael Varane has found success at Real Madrid, and Mamadou Sakho was part of Liverpool’s successful Premier League season.
Switzerland have their own big club player in 22-year-old Bayern Munich winger Xherdan Shaqiri, and though much of the rest of their young core doesn’t have the same name recognition, the 2009 U-17 World Cup winning class including Haris Seferovic (below, celebrating his late winner in the 2-1 victory over Ecuador) could well grow their burgeoning reputation with a strong performance against one of the world's top teams.
THE SCENE SHIFTS NORTH: France were able to press Honduras relatively comfortably in the cooler climes of Porto Alegre last Sunday, but they may not have that same luxury 1,400 miles to the north in Salvador, where both teams will get a full dose of the tropical heat and humidity. The Swiss may be more used to the climate, having played their first in Brasilia, and whether they are well-adjusted or depleted because of it could have a role to play in determining the outcome of the game.
THE STAR YOU KNOW:
- Xherdan Shaqiri, midfielder, Siwtzerland: Perhaps the most well-known player on the Swiss roster despite his relatively young age, the Bayern Munich winger's quality will likely be the difference in unlocking a strong French backline. His understanding with Switzerland's fowards was apparent in the opener, and he can connect with them from all over the field, meaning it will be critical for France to collectively keep an eye on him above all others.
THE PLAYER WHO WILL SURPRISE YOU
- Antoine Griezmann, midfielder, France: As expected, Griezmann's star has started to rise after making his name in Spain's Basque Country playing for Real Sociedad. He fully justified his inclusion in the French starting XI against Honduras, where he showed off a mouth-watering combiation of creativity, speed, and skill. If the Swiss defense focuses on Benzema, it will do so at its own peril, because Griezmann is a lethal goalscoring threat in his own right.