Ryan, Degenek, Meredith, Cahill, Milligan, Jurman, Leckie, Luongo, Juric, Kruse, Nabbout, Jones, Mooy, Maclaren, Jedinak (c), Behich, Arzani, Vukovic, Risdon, Sainsbury, Petratos, Irvine, Rogic (Manager: Bert van Marwijk)
PLAYER TO WATCH
Australia have a nice collection of midfielders at their disposal, but none are more important than Huddersfield Town mainstay Aaron Mooy. The Western Sydney product, once on the books of Manchester City after coming through the youth system at Bolton Wanderers, is Australia’s most influential and creative force in the centre of the park. Adept with either foot from set pieces and in general play, the 27-year-old has a diverse passing arsenal and is capable testing the goalkeeper from range. Mooy made a name for himself at Melbourne City (owned by Manchester City), scoring 18 goals in 53 league appearances from midfield, setting up his move to the noisy neighbours. Now at Huddersfield, Mooy was integral to their survival last term, scoring 4 goals in 36 league games, and can play as both a screening midfielder and a number 10.
UNDER THE RADAR
There are seven teenagers heading to the world cup, including the likes of France’s Kylian Mbappe, and Trent Alexander-Arnold of England, but it is Australia’s Daniel Arzani who is the youngest and the only one born in 1999 or later. Arzani emigrated to Sydney from Iran as a seven-year-old with his family, and started playing in the youth team for Sydney FC before signing for Melbourne City at the start of 2016-17. Despite only establishing himself as a regular this past season, appearing in 18 league games and scoring just 2 goals, Arzani has done enough to impress interim boss Van Marwijk. A two-footed winger, Arzani is small in stature but possesses elusive dribbling capabilities and an eye for a pass. There are calls for him to start the first game of the tournament over established veteran Robbie Kruse.
KEY MAN OUT
James Troisi is one who can consider himself unlucky to not be on the plane to Russia given his contributions to the national team over the past few years. Previously on the books of Newcastle United and Juventus, Troisi spent the past season back home, playing for Melbourne Victory in the A-League, managing 4 goals in 25 league appearances on the way to winning the domestic title. Part of a damaging attacking triumvirate at Victory with Albanian Besart Berisha and the Netherlands’ Leroy George, Troisi operates on the right side and has a dangerous shot. He scored the winning goal as Australia won the AFC Cup (Asia’s version of the Euros) in 2015, and has made 37 appearances for the national team.
Australia advanced past the group stage in 2006 (their first world cup in 32 years) in a group containing Japan, Croatia and Brazil, but haven’t really made an impression since. They lost all three games in 2014, against Spain, Chile and the Netherlands, while in 2010, a 4-0 rout at the hands of Germany ensured they missed out via goal difference as Ghana advanced. They did beat Serbia, which makes that their last World Cup win (June 23, 2010). Australia will have to run through the midfield to have success, with a core group of players like Aaron Mooy, Tom Rogic, Massimo Luongo, Jackson Irvine and Mile Jedinak all playing regular football in the United Kingdom. Matt Leckie always turns up for the World Cup on the right wing, and he is a major source of goals, while Tim Cahill will be looking to become just the fourth player in history to score in four separate World Cup campaigns (joining Pele, Miroslav Klose and Uwe Seeler). The weakness for Australia is at fullback. Both Josh Risdon and Aziz Behich can bomb forward with the best, but struggle covering their tracks and often leave their central defenders on an island.
Australia had a rocky road to Russia, becoming the 31st team to qualify for the tournament via a myriad of playoffs as a result of poor group stage play in AFC qualifying. In a group with Japan, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Iraq and Thailand, the Socceroos could only managed a 3rd place finish, despite only losing one game all group stage (2-0 in Japan), on goal difference behind Saudi Arabia and winners Japan. This forced them into a playoff with the other third placed finisher, Syria, whom they defeated 3-2 on aggregate thanks to a Tim Cahill goal in the 109th minute of the second leg in Sydney. Following that, they advanced to the AFC vs. CONCACAF playoff against Honduras and their team of Figueroa and Palacios brothers. The score was 0-0 after the away leg in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, before a Mile Jedinak hat trick (a free kick and two penalties) ensured a 3-1 victory and qualification (I was at the game; it was raucous).
Played: 10. Won: 5. Drawn: 4. Lost: 1. Goals For: 16. Goals Against: 11. Points: 19.
* Stats shown for AFC Third Round qualifying
Schmeichel, Krohn-Dehli, Vestergaard, Kjaer (c), Knudsen, Christensen, Kvist, Delaney, N. Jorgensen, Eriksen, Braithwaite, Dolberg, M. Jorgensen, Dalsgaard, Fischer, Lossl, Larsen, Lerager, Schone, Poulsen, Cornelius, Ronnow, Sisto (Manager: Age Hareide)
PLAYER TO WATCH
Christian Eriksen is the key to any success that Denmark may have in the tournament. Coming off an absolutely stellar season for Tottenham, where he managed 14 goals in 46 appearances, the creative midfielder is the gem of Denmark’s midfield. Charged with both scoring goals and providing quality supply to the likes of Nicolai Jorgensen and Martin Braithwaite, Eriksen has the technique and the guile to dominate. Premier League defences are all too familiar with his thunderbolts unleashed from the top of the box, and if defenders in Russia give Eriksen too much space he will make them pay. Clinical with either foot, he also provides dangerous delivery on set pieces and will draw a lot of fouls thanks to his quick feet. Eriksen could be one of the stars of the tournament if Denmark make a good run.
UNDER THE RADAR
As tempting as it is to put Andreas Christensen here, I’m going with former Ajax and Middlesbrough winger Viktor Fischer, now plying his trade back in Denmark with Copenhagen. When his successful stay at Ajax was brought to a rather abrupt end in 2016, Fischer made the move to the Premier League, but was unable to adapt, going scoreless in his 13 league appearances for Boro as they went one and done in the Premier League. Still only 24 years old, Fischer is recovering some value back in his homeland, scoring 5 goals in 11 league games after a January move from Mainz, despite only joining Mainz the summer before from Middlesbrough. Tall and tricky, Fischer was once considered among the best of a very talented crop of Ajax youngsters, but enters the tournament under a minimum of fanfare and fuss.
KEY MAN OUT
Nicklas Bendtner may get a lot of fun prodded at him, but the truth is he’s one of the best strikers Denmark has ever produced. A groin injury sustained while playing for Rosenborg in Norway means he won’t be at Russia, leaving a talented crop of strikers behind, but one that lacks a true figurehead. Bendtner has 30 international goals, 12 more than the other forwards in the squad combined. Tall and a good target man, he would’ve provided a useful focal point and someone with whom Christian Eriksen and Lasse Schone could’ve linked up effectively. His absence is not quite of Zlatan-esque proportions, but he might tell you it’s close.
This will only be Denmark’s fifth World Cup appearance and first since 2010, but in a group with Peru, France and Australia, they will be quietly confident of advancing into the knockout rounds for the first time since 2002. The Danes possess quality in all phases, and are ranked a rather surprising 12th by FIFA. The likes of Christensen, Eriksen and Jorgensen up front will be key in maintaining stability while both Pione Sisto and Fischer will be tasked with providing good service from out wide. If Eriksen is marked out of the game (a likely aim for opponents), the likes of Lasse Schone and Thomas Delaney will need to step up and provide forward impetus from midfield.
Andreas Christensen — 2012-current: 43 appearances, 0 goals
Denmark finished second in UEFA Group E behind Poland, and ahead of Montenegro, Romania, Armenia and Kazakhstan. By finishing second, they were forced into a continental playoff, where they entered the draw as the third best runner-up, drawing Ireland in the playoff. After a 0-0 draw on home soil, things were looking shaky for the Danes, before blowing Ireland out of the water 5-1 in Dublin, with goals from Christensen, Bendtner, and an Eriksen hat trick. In the group stage, Eriksen scored 8 goals while midfielder Delaney added 4.
Played: 10. Won: 6. Drawn: 2. Lost: 2. Goals For: 20. Goals Conceded: 8. Points: 20.
Lloris (c), Pavard, Kimpembe, Varane, Umtiti, Pogba, Griezmann, Lemar, Giroud, Mbappe, Dembele, Tolisso, Kante, Matuidi, Nzonzi, Mandanda, Rami, Fekir, Sidibe, Thauvin, Hernandez, Mendy, Areola (Manager: Didier Deschamps)
PLAYER TO WATCH
France are one of the best teams in the world and their team is studded with an assortment of glittering talents from the highest echelons of European football, but none more so than Antoine Griezmann, Atletico Madrid’s main man. Owner of both ridiculous skills and hairstyles, Griezmann is equally devastating as both a central attacking midfielder and out wide on the right wing, although it is the former where he is most comfortable and preferred. It is even possible that France will line him up in a false nine/solo striker formation for portions, as well as pair him with a bigger body like Olivier Giroud. At Atletico, he has transformed from promising winger to damaging hitman, hitting the 25-goal plateau every season for Los Rojiblancos.
UNDER THE RADAR
The French team is full of incredible partnerships throughout the pitch, from Varane and Umtiti at the back to Kante and Pogba further upfield. In all the shuffle and the glamour of such a high profile squad, one player that has slipped in somewhat unnoticed is Monaco winger Thomas Lemar. After a scintillating 2016-17 campaign for the Principality, he came back down to earth somewhat, finding the net only 3 times in all competitions, a sheer drop from the 14 goals the season prior, although he did pick up 8 assists in Ligue 1. With the likes of Mbappe, Dembele and Fekir all entering the tournament as part of an invigorated French onslaught, Lemar has had a bit of attention diverted. Still, at just 22 years old and with a host of top clubs still circling for his signature, one good showing on the world stage could reignite all the hype.
KEY MAN OUT
You could probably make a squad of French castoffs and still have a reasonable shot at winning the World Cup. One name that stands out however is Manchester United’s Anthony Martial. The 22-year-old had an up-and-down season for the Red Devils. Despite scoring 9 times in 30 league appearances, he was never truly a regular in Mourinho’s lineups, often splitting time with the likes of Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford. Still considered one of the brighter lights in French football, Martial and his trickery out wide will be watching the festivities from the couch this summer.
Anything less than a first place finish in the group stage would be a disappointment for France. With easily the best squad in the group, they will enter games as the odds-on favourite every single time. France blends an elite mix of skill and athleticism, and their midfield is the driving force behind that, with engines like N’Golo Kante and Steven Nzonzi running the show. This France squad is so good that I haven’t even found the space to give Paul Pogba a shoutout. The Manchester United man will undoubtedly be a main creative influence and a focal point for all French attacks, and his connection with Antoine Griezmann is a tantalising prospect that is sure to leave many defenders’ heads spinning. The French defence is also such a strong point that they could afford to leave the likes of Kurt Zouma, Lucas Digne and Mathieu Debuchy at home. Varane and Umtiti form an athletic wall of impenetrability in the middle, while the likes of Sidibe, Pavard and Mendy will provide width to French attacks and service into the box for Olivier Giroud to feast on.
Didier Deschamps - 1999-2000: 47 appearances, 1 goal
Olivier Giroud - 2018-current: 18 appearances, 5 goals
N’Golo Kante - 2016-current: 89 appearances, 3 goals
France didn’t have it all their own way in Group A of UEFA qualifying, only scoring 18 goals in the group, less than both Sweden and third place Netherlands. A couple of nervy draws late in the campaign set the table for Sweden to potentially win the group, but their efforts faltered and France clinched it relatively comfortably in the end. Giroud and Griezmann led the charge, scoring 4 goals each during qualifying. France’s one loss in qualifying came at the hands of Sweden, 2-1 in Solna, at the ironically named Friends Arena.
Played: 10. Won: 7. Drawn: 2. Lost: 1. Goals For: 18. Goals Against: 6. Points: 23.
Gallese, Rodriguez, Corzo, Santamaria, Araujo, Trauco, Hurtado, Cueva, Guerrero (c), Farfan, Ruidiaz, Caceda, Tapia, Polo, Ramos, Cartagena, Advincula, Carrillo, Yotun, Flores, Carvallo, Loyola, Aquino. (Manager: Ricardo Gareca).
PLAYER TO WATCH
Tried as I could, I couldn’t split the two of them, so this is a dual feature on Paolo Guerrero and Jefferson Farfan, who have over 170 international caps and 59 goals combined for Peru. Farfan, now plying his trade in Russia with Lokomotiv Moscow, is the pace and power of the operation, while Flamengo’s Guerrero, who almost missed out thanks to some doping controversy, is the traditional striker who is adept playing on his own or as a duo. In all likelihood, Farfan will play wide right while Guerrero occupies the middle, but both are equally dangerous. You may remember Guerrero from the FIFA Club World Cup Final in 2012, where he appeared for a victorious Corinthians side against Chelsea. Guerrero had a long career in Germany with Bayern Munich and, more notably, Hamburg, scoring 47 league goals over an eight year span. Farfan also enjoyed a long and, probably more prosperous European career, making over 100 league appearances for both PSV and Schalke before departing for UAE side Al Jazira — a short spell that ended in dispute before Farfan linked up with the Russian capital outfit, enjoying a successful 18 months with 14 goals in all competitions in 2017-18.
UNDER THE RADAR
Renato Tapia is a versatile youngster who is currently playing in the Netherlands with Feyenoord, after being brought over to Europe by FC Twente as an 18-year-old in 2013. Tapia had an impressive youth career back in Peru with Esther Grande, to the point where he was on the verge of joining Liverpool before being rejected, he claims, due to his height (for reference, he is now listed at 6 feet tall). Tapia plays mostly a central midfielder for Feyenoord, but can also play both in the heart of defence and on the right side of a back four. Game time has been spotty since joining the Rotterdam-based outfit, having only played 14 matches in all competitions in 2017-18, but the young jack-of-all-trades still figures to be an important cog in the Peruvian machine.
KEY MAN OUT
Peru doesn’t have a particularly deep talent pool of upper-echelon level players, but one man who hasn’t made it onto the plane is Charleroi midfielder Cristian Benavente. Spanish-born, the attacking midfielder is a youth product of Real Madrid, playing two years professionally for their B team before moving to MK Dons in 2015, where he made a grand total of 5 appearances across all competitions before being released in January and moving to Belgium. For Charleroi, he has had more success, scoring 9 goals in 35 Jupiler League appearances. Tricky and fleet-of-foot on the ball, the 24-year-old already has 16 international caps, but he won’t be adding to those in Russia. Benavente may have been the little spark plug that Peru could have needed, especially when starved of possession against the likes of France and Denmark.
Peru certainly have a few excellent pieces, especially up front with the likes of Farfan and Guerrero. The question will be whether the midfield is capable of giving these two enough supply to allow them to be effective. This is where the likes of Tapia and Christian Cueva come into play. They need to be able to keep possession well enough so as not to be overrun. The other issue with Peru will be the overall level of physicality and athleticism throughout the squad. A lot of the key pieces in the team are aging, with Farfan and Guerrero both in their 30s. Peru’s collection of smaller players, like Cueva and Raul Ruidiaz, may also get overpowered against the bigger midfields of France and Australia. Still, they’re ranked 11th in the world, and are a dangerous proposition on the counter attack, with their bags of pace and attacking skill, so opposition teams can’t afford to attack all out for fear of a backlash.
Peru, like Australia, had to go through an inter-continental playoff in order to qualify for the World Cup, actually becoming the 32nd and final team to book their spot in the tournament. In CONMEBOL qualifying, Peru finished 5th overall, behind Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina and Colombia. Peru’s form was a mixed bag overall, with strong home results against Uruguay and Argentina countered by a bizarre loss to Chile and a draw with last placed Venezuela. Away form wasn’t much different, losing to Brazil, Uruguay and Colombia while salvaging a scoreless draw against Argentina. Heading into the final matchday, Peru were in 6th position behind Chile, but a 1-1 draw against Colombia thanks to a 77th minute David Ospina own goal salvaged a point, equalling them with Chile. However, Chile had a superior goal difference (+2 vs. +1), but, thanks to a 3-0 loss in Brazil, Chile dropped to -1, allowing Peru to leapfrog them into fifth and a place in the playoffs against OFC champions New Zealand. Peru held the Kiwis to a 0-0 draw in Wellington before travelling back home and defeating them 2-0 behind goals from Farfan and Christian Ramos, advancing them to the World Cup Finals.
Played: 18. Won: 7. Drawn: 5. Lost: 6. Goals For: 27. Goals Against: 26. Points: 26.
* Stats shown for CONMEBOL qualifying round
* all times given in Moscow Standard Time (UTC + 3)
16/6/18 - 1pm - France vs. Australia - Kazan
16/6/18 - 7pm - Peru vs. Denmark - Saransk
21/6/18 - 3pm - Denmark vs. Australia - Samara
21/6/18 - 6pm - France vs. Peru - Yekaterinburg
26/6/18 - 5pm - Denmark vs. France - Moscow
26/6/18 - 5pm - Australia vs. Peru - Sochi
France are the obvious favourite to advance out of the group in first place. The interesting battle will be for that second spot. At this point, I believe Denmark are the slight favourites over Peru due to the presence of Christian Eriksen and the strength of the Danish defence and midfield over the Peruvians, but don’t discount the Australians. Australia alway turn in good performances at the World Cup, and were unlucky not to get anything out of games against the Netherlands and Chile in Brazil 2014. For France to advance, they need to not get in each others way and avoid a mutiny of 2010 proportions. For Peru, Farfan and Guerrero will need constant, good quality supply and their midfield needs to hold its own. For Denmark, Christian Eriksen will need some support, whether it’s from Schone or someone further forward like Fischer or Jorgensen. For Australia, the wingbacks need to not allow their flanks to be overrun, and the likes of Aaron Mooy and Tom Rogic need to fire as Australia’s two midfield maestros.