2014 World Cup: Breaking down Group F

The Sports NetworkJune 9, 2014 

(SportsNetwork.com) - The most compelling story coming out of Group F prior to the World Cup is the success or failure of Argentina.

The Argentines will go in search of a third World Cup title, led by forward Lionel Messi, who will hope to carry his country to glory and fill the one glaring omission on his stellar resume.

Messi's trophy case is filled with both individual and team honors. From a team perspective Messi has led Barcelona to six La Liga titles with the most recent triumph coming in 2012-13.

In addition to the domestic league titles, Messi helped the Catalan club capture two Copa del Rey titles, six Spanish Super Cups, three UEFA Champions Leagues two UEFA Super Cups and two FIFA Club World Cups.

On the individual level, he has won three straight FIFA Ballon d'Or awards from 2010-2012, three La Liga Player of the Year honors and was the Champions League top scorer in four consecutive seasons from 2009-2012.

But Messi has struggled on the big stage for his country. In eight World Cup appearances, he has only scored one goal.

Messi will not have to carry the offensive burden on his own, however, and will have perfectly capable sidekicks in Gonzalo Higuain and Sergio Aguero.

The Napoli forward, Higuain, has 36 caps to his name and had a solid season in Serie A, scoring 17 goals in 31 appearances and helping Napoli claim the Coppa Italia.

Aguero netted 17 goals in 23 appearances for Premier League Champions Manchester City last season. He was slowed a bit by injury, but poses a significant threat in front of goal having scored 21 goals for his country.

Other than Argentina, Bosnia-Herzegovina provides some intrigue as the young nation will be making its first appearance at the World Cup.

Leading a potent attack will be Manchester City forward Edin Dzeko and Vedad Ibisevic. Dzeko is the biggest name on the squad and delivered in a big way during the qualifying campaign when he scored 10 goals.

Dzeko was buried on Manchester City's depth chart early in the season, but flourished late on, scoring several key goals down the stretch to help City win the Premier League. He finished the season with a solid 16 tallies in 30 league appearances.

Ibisevic also pulled his weight in qualifying with eight goals and had a good season in the German Bundesliga, scoring 10 goals in 26 league appearances for Stuttgart.

Nigeria will aim for a better showing than the 2010 World Cup when the Super Eagles finished at the bottom of their group and were eliminated in the group stage.

Nigeria has an opportunity this year to become the first African nation to reach the knockout round on three separate occasions.

The side's two most influential players both come from the Premier League in Chelsea midfielder John Obi Mikel and forward Victor Moses, who spent last season playing sparingly at Liverpool.

Iran appears to be the outsiders in the group hoping to turn heads on the big stage.

Form could be an issue, however, as the Iranians have had minimal game preparation prior to heading to Brazil. Japan, by contrast, has have faced Uruguay, the Netherlands, Belgium and Ghana in an effort to raise the level of competition.

Iran is led by midfielder and captain Javad Nekounam, who is the country's longest-serving player with 135 appearances over a 13-year stretch.

Nekounam will play in his second World Cup after appearing in Germany. The deep-lying playmaker became the first Iranian to play in La Liga when he joined Osasuna following the 2006 tournament.

Charlton Athletic forward Reza Ghoochannejhad will lead the forward line, having joined up with his birth nation in 2012. He scored seven goals for the side in his first nine appearances and could be the key to Iran's hopes of advancing past the group stage.

Iran faces a significant challenge in Group F and will be fortunate to win a game in Brazil.

Game of the Group: Nigeria vs. Bosnia-Herzegovina (June 21)

With Argentina pegged as the class of the group, the crucial match will come down to Nigeria and Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Bosnians opening match is against Argentina, which will make its second match of the group stage even more important as a result for either side will go a long way toward determining who finishes in second place.

Nigeria's first match of the group stage is against Iran, a fixture that is likely to produce three points, so both Nigeria and Bosnia-Herzegovina will need three points on June 21 for different reasons.

Player to Watch: Lionel Messi (Argentina)

As if there was any other choice for the player to watch in Group F, Messi will be desperate to prove he is as effective on the world stage as he is on the domestic front for Barcelona in past seasons.

By his extremely high standards, Messi had a down season for the Catalans last term. He struggled with injury at various points of the campaign and finished the La Liga season with 28 goals in 31 appearances and added eight goals in European competition.

Barcelona missed out on the La Liga title on the final day of the season after the club failed to beat Atletico Madrid at the Camp Nou, but with that disappointment in the rearview mirror, Messi will be ready to lead his country to glory.

Breakout Player: Miralem Pjanic (Bosnia-Herzegovina)

Pjanic's stock has steadily been rising since completing a transfer to Serie A side AS Roma in 2011. His breakout campaign came last season for the Italian runners-up as he scored six goals in 35 appearances, establishing himself as one of Italy's premier attacking midfielders.

Pjanic made his debut for Bosnia-Herzegovina in 2008-09 and as amassed 46 caps for his country to go with an impressive eight goals and 15 assists. Pjanic is a key cog in the Bosnian midfield, and much like the Bosnia team as a whole, Pjanic is primed to breakout on the international stage in a big way.

Predictions:

Group Winner: Argentina

The group is really Argentina's to lose, and no side in the group should give Messi and co. any real trouble. The first three group games will likely serve as a warm-up for Messi to find his form as Argentina moves deeper into the tournament. A knockout-round matchup with either Switzerland or Ecuador would be intriguing but the Argentines should breeze to the quarterfinals. After that, it's up to how much magic Messi can conjure.

Second Place: Bosnia-Herzegovina

Most teams would simply be happy to make a first World Cup appearance, but the Bosnians are packed with talent and belief. While Dzeko is a known assassin up top, Pjanic is more of an unknown quantity in midfield -- but not for long. Bosnia should beat Nigeria in its second group-stage match and comfortably finish in second place ready to make waves in the knockout round.

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