By Jacko Jones
Germany, Switzerland and France. Three European teams with lofty ambitions ahead of the World Cup in Russia this summer. While Switzerland have considerable opposition with the likes of Brazil and Serbia in Group E, France and Germany will be looking further ahead in the tournament. Both countries have groups they are expected to manage with relative ease. Although that doesn’t guarantee a thing.
France and Germany are at 14/1 to meet each other in the final. The shortest odds after a potential Brazil and Germany meeting on July 15th in Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium, at 12/1. What is clear, however, is that the three countries will have a significant role to play in this summer’s tournament. Central to each nation’s success could well be three Arsenal players who will head into the tournament with significant expectations weighing on them.
If Mesut Özil ever needed a clear sign that he was a pivotal part of Arsenal’s immediate future, his newly signed three-year £350,000-a-week contract should do it. Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger said in the aftermath of the former Real Madrid playmaker signing his contract extension that he expects the German midfielder to become the side’s technical leader.
Wenger has made his intention clear that the side will be constructed around the midfielder. It was a significant blow to lose Alexis Sanchez to Manchester United in the January transfer window, all though it was unlikely the Chilean was ever going to stay. Wenger and the clubs owners were intent though on retaining Özil; losing both players could have been a blow they would have struggled to come back from.
His ball retention, adroit passing game and instinctive reactions will be as relative to his national team in June and July as they are in North London. Much was made of Bayern Munich’s Joshua Kimmich winning Germany’s player of the year award last month. The context is that Özil had won five of the previous six.
The point with Kimmich though is that he and Özil could well be the core around which Joachim Löw cultivates his midfield in Russia. The two compliment each other and performed well alongside one another in November’s 0-0 draw with England in Wembley.
The responsibility though, like it clearly does now at Arsenal, rests with the Arsenal midfielder. How he handles that responsibility, for club and country, is something that will be judged in the coming months.
Switzerland may have odds like 5/1 stacked against them to qualify as group winners to the last 16 in Russia, but their odds shorten significantly when it comes to escaping from the group. The game against Brazil on June 17th in the Rostov Arena in Rostov-on-Don is seen as the group’s key fixture.
Switzerland, however, will need to navigate a Serbian side that will be well organised defensively. Also to contend with are Óscar Ramírez’s Costa Rican team who qualified with two games to spare, and may well prove hard to break down if they set up as expected in a 5-4-1 formation.
It is at times like this that players like Granit Xhaka, through whom so much of Switzerland’s traffic goes, will need to step up to the mark. The 25-year-old is far from the only creative spark in a side that contains Xherdan Shaqiri and Steven Zuber as well as marauding right-back Stephan Lichtsteiner. But expectations are high that the former Borussia Mönchengladbach player will showcase some of his trademark grit. If he does and Vladimir Petković’s side progress, they are likely to face a German side in the next round of the tournament, who are coming into the tournament as favourites, with sites like Oddschecker listing them as low as 9/2 to go all the way.
In the event of France and Germany meeting in a World Cup final, there will be a recent template for both countries to work off. In November in Cologne, a brace from Alexandre Lacazette was nearly enough for France to secure a 2-1 victory. However, Lars Stindl’s 93rd-minute equalizer put paid to a home defeat.
It was Lacazette’s 29th and 30th goals of 2017 and a further justification for Wenger to break the clubs transfer record to sign the striker from Lyon for £46.5M. Form has slipped somewhat for Lacazette though, and Wenger has added to the pressure for a starting berth with the signing of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
Two goals since the beginning of December is not the return or the type of form the 26-year-old will want to bring to Russia. Australia, Peru and Denmark may not seem like the most intimidating of group opposition but the tournaments third favourites will only need to examine each of their respective qualifying campaigns to realise Group C is no guaranteed saunter into the last 16.
With that, Lacazette will need to bring his rounded game with him to Russia. Smart on the ball, positionally aware and a polished finisher when on form, he will need to be sharp in what will be a challenging group. Ranked ninth in the World, France are only two and three places ahead of Peru and Denmark respectively.
Opportunity for France to progress will lay somewhat, if not solely, on the shoulders of Arsenal’s Frenchman.
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