Neuer (c), Plattenhardt, Hector, Ginter, Hummels, Khedira, Draxler, Kroos, Werner, Ozil, Reus, Trapp, Muller, Goretzka, Sule, Rudiger, Boateng, Kimmich, Rudy, Brandt, Gundogan, Ter Stegen, Gomez (Manager: Joachim Low)
PLAYER TO WATCH
Germany, as usual, have a stacked squad to take to Russia, but the main main of the operation is Bayern Munich talisman Thomas Muller, who will be appearing at his third World Cup at the young age of 28. Already with 91 international caps to his name, and a dazzling 38 goals despite being used mainly as an attacking midfielder rather than a main striker, Muller has developed into one of the most consistently damaging players in world football. A regular in Bayern’s loaded midfield, Muller made 29 league appearances, scoring 8 goals and racking up 14 assists. Strong on the ball and with an eye for a pass, Muller has a knack for finding himself in the right place at the right time, a nod to his elite positional awareness. Able to play both centrally and on the right, as a forward or central midfielder, Muller’s versatility and efficiency are a vital piece to the German machine.
UNDER THE RADAR
Young striker Timo Werner is coming off a good season for RB Leipzig, hitting 13 goals and adding a further 7 assists in 32 Bundesliga appearances. Blazing quick and with an eye for goal, the 22-year-old Stuttgart product has been even better for the national team, having already scored 8 goals in 14 appearances for Die Mannschaft. He will be a constant danger for opposing defences and will likely get a fair share of minutes, despite the presence of more experienced campaigners like Marco Reus and Mario Gomez. He may not pose the aerial threat of someone like Gomez, but his pace and direct running with the ball will allow him to get behind defences often, if he can stay onside.
KEY MAN OUT
Many eyebrows were raised when Joachim Low decided to leave out Manchester City winger Leroy Sane from the final squad after his highly impressive and productive season for the English champions. Scoring 10 goals and dishing 15 assists is no easy feat in the Premier League, especially for a 22-year-old only in his second season in the English game. A rather rangy, tall winger, Sane is exceptionally good with his feet, hence the assists, with his key passing game and general playmaking ability lauded by many pundits. Able to take on a man and work combinations with teammates well, he is considered by many as a one way player, perhaps leading to his omission from the squad, with his defensive work in a wide area often a little on the lax side. Still, with dazzling offensive ability, and usually touted as one of the best young players in the world, it was a shock to see Sane not on the final 23-man list.
Germany should top this group fairly comfortably, entering the tournament ranked as the best team in the world. They have athleticism and skill all over the park, with a mobile defence anchored by Mats Hummels, Antonio Rudiger, Jerome Boateng, Niklas Sule and Matthias Ginter and supported by attacking wingbacks such as Joshua Kimmich and Jonas Hector. Germany play a very powerful and efficient brand of football, highlighted by quick transfer of possession from the defence to the midfield playmakers like Thomas Muller and Mesut Ozil. With plenty of skill and solid tactics, Germany can beat teams in multiple ways. They have the ability to pass opponents to death, they can destroy opponents with neat combinations, or they can simply beat them with pace and trickery up front. A team without a real glaring weakness, complacency is the major obstacle hindering this German squad from defending their title successfully. A squad loaded with some of Europe’s elite, anything other than at least the semifinals could be considered a failure.
Antonio Rudiger - 2017-current: 45 appearances, 3 goals
There isn’t much to say for Germany’s qualifying form. In Group C with Northern Ireland, Czech Republic, Norway, Azerbaijan and San Marino, Germany had an absolute cakewalk, winning all 10 games, scoring 43 goals while only conceding 4. Thomas Muller and Sandro Wagner each scored 5 goals during qualifying, while the team didn’t concede more than a single goal in any game. Their campaign was full of absolutely dominating performances, headlined by a combined 15-0 scoreline in the two games against San Marino.
Played: 10. Won: 10. Drawn: 0. Lost: 0. Goals For: 43. Goals Conceded: 4. Points: 30.
J. J. Corona, Ayala, Salcedo, Marquez, Gutierrez, J. dos Santos, Layun, Fabian, Jimenez, G. dos Santos, Vela, Talavera, Ochoa, Hernandez, Moreno, Herrera, J. M. Corona, Guardado (c), Peralta, Aquino, Alvarez, Lozano, Gallardo (Manager: Juan Carlos Osorio)
PLAYER TO WATCH
Former Barcelona and Tottenham Hotspur attacker Giovani dos Santos is one of Mexico’s most experienced and most integral players. A pacy forward who can play both centrally and on the wing, he had an up and down career in Europe, struggling at Tottenham before finding his feet at Villarreal in Spain. Now at LA Galaxy, he isn’t a prolific marksman, but his off ball movement and ability to pick up the ball and dribble and defences set him apart from most MLS attackers. Dos Santos had an excellent 2016 season with 13 goals before faltering slightly last season, only netting 5 times. His link-up play with the main striker will be critical in creating space — it’s a tantalising prospect to see how he pairs with Javier Hernandez, an equally worthy candidate for this slot. Gio has the ability to break a game open, with his flair and creativity imperative in creating chances for this Mexican side.
UNDER THE RADAR
It’s not often that a 145-cap veteran and international captain can be considered under the radar, but given the level of talent in this Mexican squad, Andres Guardado is somewhat of a forgotten man. Formerly of Valencia, Bayer Leverkusen and PSV, the Betis wide man is incredibly versatile, able to play centrally in midfield, as well as anywhere on the left flank, from winger to full back. Not a goal scorer usually, Guardado beats opponents with searing pace and a wicked left foot. Those who read the scouting report will know to force him back onto his noticeably weaker right foot. Originally a winger, he has transitioned into central midfield, with his high work rate and passing ability and long through balls proving effective.
KEY MAN OUT
Porto central defender Diego Reyes was pencilled in as a definite starter ... until a hamstring injury ruled him out of the World Cup two days ago. Composed and skillful on the ball, Reyes has been deployed both as a central defender and in defensive midfield, with his passing ability on full display when launching counter attacks or providing useful possession in the midfield. He is also an excellent defender, combining positional nous with strong aerial ability. Reyes was always under an injury cloud though, only completing 70 minutes of club action between the end of March and now.
Mexico are a strong yet underrated side, featuring plenty of experience, including four players with over 100 caps (G. dos Santos, Hernandez, Guardado and Rafael Marquez). However, with both Diego Reyes and Nestor Araujo ruled out through injury, the usually strong defence has been weakened, leaving them vulnerable. Still, boasting a strong midfield group including the Dos Santos brothers and Andres Guardado, and a very opportunistic striker in Javier Hernandez, ”El Tri” will have a chance against any opposition. It would be advantageous for them to play a very methodical style, prioritising possession and not allowing their opponents to hit them on the counter.
Javier ”Chicharito” Hernandez — scores against us every time
Mexico exhibited strong form in the final round of CONCACAF qualifying, only losing the one game, a 3-2 defeat away to Honduras. Displaying the best attacking and defensive record in the region, Mexico comfortably topped the group in the end, helped by the absence of a serious challenge from the USA. Mexico won 4 of their 5 home games, being held to a 1-1 draw by the USA, while holding fellow qualifiers Panama and Costa Rica to draws on the road.
Played: 10. Won: 6. Drawn: 3. Lost: 1. Goals For: 16. Goals Conceded: 7. Points: 21.
Kim Seung-gyu, Lee Yong, Jung Seung-hyun, Oh Ban-suk, Yun Young-sun, Park Joo-ho, Son Heung-min, Ju Se-jong, Kim Shin-wook, Lee Seung-woo, Hwang Hee-chan, Kim Min-woo, Koo Ja-cheol, Hong Chul, Jung Woo-young, Ki Sung-yueng (c), Lee Jae-sung, Moon Seon-min, Kim Young-gwon, Jang Hyun-soo, Kim Jin-hyeon, Go Yo-han, Cho Hyun-woo. (Manager: Shin Tae-yong).
PLAYER TO WATCH
Son Heung-min is the obvious answer here, with the Tottenham Hotspur star the most recognisable name in Korean football right now. Extremely versatile, Son can play anywhere in the three positions behind the striker, as a second striker or even as the main striker itself. Good with both feet, Son has garnered a reputation since his move to Tottenham as an elite finisher and one who displays excellent attitude and workrate, exemplified in his forward pressure and off ball movement. Still only 25 years old, Son is the focal point of all Korean attacks. In the 2015 Asian Cup Final, which Korea lost in extra time to Australia, Son put in a near man of the match performance, with his creativity nearly pulling Korea back for a win. He actually did score a stoppage time equaliser to force extra time before an Australia winner, but was still named in the team of the tournament for his efforts.
UNDER THE RADAR
Koo Ja-cheol is a name that most football fans may not be familiar with. A midfielder who currently plays in Germany for Augsburg, Koo has exceptional technique and vision, and an often Lampard-esque ability to make the late run and find the back of the net from midfield. It will be this goalscoring knack that will be crucial for Korea in taking pressure off Son Heung-min and allowing other players to get into the game. Forming a partnership with Swansea midfielder Ki Sung-yueng in midfield, Koo being productive would go a long way to allowing Korea advance.
KEY MAN OUT
A legend of South Korean football, Lee Keun-ho won’t be going to the World Cup due to injury, ruled out after being named in the preliminary squad. A winger by trade, Lee has played most of his career in his native Korea, racking up 63 league goals in 210 league appearances, displaying quick dribbling ability and a willingness to run with the ball and attack defenders. An important piece of the national team for over a decade now, Lee would’ve brought leadership and experience in addition to his goalscoring ability. South Korea are also missing is Crystal Palace’s Lee Chung-yong, taking out another large chunk of experience from the squad.
I can’t see Korea advancing out of this tough group, especially missing key players like Lee Keun-ho. If they do manage to make it out, it will be down to the play of Son Heung-min as well as their midfield pairing of Koo Ja-cheol and Ki Sung-yueng. Ranked only 57th in the world, one of the lowest in the tournament, Korea’s defensive pressure, structure and willingness to work hard will be key, especially against fleet-footed Germany and Mexico. When they do have the ball, it could really be as simple as feeding Son and allowing him to make the decisions.
South Korea weren’t exactly world beaters during their AFC qualifying campaign. In the final round of qualifying, it was that worrying defence that nearly let them down, conceding 10 goals in 10 games, equal second-worst in the group. Korea struggled to put away the bad teams like China and Uzbekistan, and displayed some absolutely horrid away form, only managing two draws, in Syria and Uzbekistan, in five games. In the end, they did just enough to scrape through in second place and secure automatic qualification, but their poor form doesn’t warrant much hope for the tournament proper.
Played: 10. Won: 4. Drawn: 3. Lost: 3. Goals For: 11. Goals Against: 10. Points: 15.
Olsen, Lustig, Lindelof, Granqvist (c), Olsson, Augustinsson, Larsson, Ekdal, Berg, Forsberg, Guidetti, Johnsson, Svensson, Helander, Hiljemark, Krafth, Claesson, Jansson, Rohden, Toivonen, Durmaz, Thelin, Nordfeldt (Manager: Janne Andersson)
PLAYER TO WATCH
Three-time Swedish midfielder of the year Emil Forsberg brings creativity and goal scoring to a midfield that struggles to score goals at times. Predominantly a winger for RB Leipzig, Forsberg can also play centrally in the midfield and possesses excellent vision, exhibited in his passing and crossing ability, as provides excellent delivery from free kicks. Forsberg had a down year in the Bundesliga, only making 15 starts and providing 2 assists and only 2 goals, but his playmaking will still be vital. With several good forwards at Sweden’s disposal, Forsberg will be key in creating chances.
UNDER THE RADAR
A regular 90-minute performer for Werder Bremen, Ludwig Augustinsson is capable of playing left back, on the left wing and even in defensive midfield if needed. Capable on the ball, Augustinsson has very good defensive awareness for a modern fullback, displaying a knack for reading the play and intercepting passes. His tackling isn’t the strongest part of his game, and he doesn’t dive into many challenges, but he was a regular performer for Werder, playing 29 games in the Bundesliga. As is a requirement for modern day wing-backs, he is also very good in attack, with good pace and a left foot delivery. He models his game on the likes of Gareth Bale and David Alaba.
KEY MAN OUT
Sweden will be without their greatest player ever, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic who retired from international duty back in 2016. Sweden’s greatest ever goal scorer, Zlatan had a tough couple of years with injury, reduced to 5 games in his second season at Manchester United before transferring to LA Galaxy to enjoy the twilight years. A revolutionary at the striker position, Zlatan could score however he wanted, with his size contributing to a power game and ability to hold up possession, but also possessing the elite dribbling ability of a winger, with an ability to create a goal from nowhere, like a 40 yard bicycle kick. The likes of Marcus Berg and Ola Toivonen will have to provide the goals instead.
Sweden are a strong team without an abundance of big names and star players. What they do have is a strong defence anchored by Victor Lindelof and Andreas Granqvist, while providing attacking ability through Augustinsson and Martin Olsson. For Sweden to be successul, their midfield cannot afford to be overrun and the likes of Seb Larsson will be vital in maintaining possession and providing quality supply to the forwards and wingers. Sweden aren’t a team that will destroy you on a counter attack, but they have enough playmakers to be able to create quality chances consistently. Forsberg will be the key to unlocking opposition defences, while further back, Albin Ekdal will be entrusted with the screening role so the Swedish defence isn’t under siege, while also launching counter attacks with this passing range.
Sweden qualified for the World Cup in UEFA’s Group A by finishing second to France, beating the Netherlands on goal difference to advance to the playoff round. Sweden’s defence was key in their qualification, only conceding 9 goals through the group stage compared to the Dutch team‘s 12. In the end, Sweden handled business against minnows Luxembourg and Belarus, winning those games by combined scorelines of 9-0 and 8-0, respectively. Marcus Berg was the leading light for Sweden, having scored 8 goals in qualifying, the most of anyone in Group A. A vital win at home against France helped, with Sweden defeating the favourites 2-1 in a sure confidence booster.
Played: 10. Won: 6. Drawn: 1. Lost: 3. Goals For: 26. Goals Conceded: 9. Points: 19.
* All times shown in Moscow Standard Time (UTC + 3)
17/6/18 - 6pm - Germany vs. Mexico - Moscow
18/6/18 - 3pm - Sweden vs. South Korea - Nizhny Novgorod
23/6/18 - 6pm - South Korea vs. Mexico - Rostov-on-Don
23/6/18 - 9pm - Germany vs. Sweden - Sochi
27/6/18 - 5pm - South Korea vs. Germany - Kazan
27/6/18 - 5pm - Mexico vs. Sweden - Yekaterinburg
Germany should be expected to breeze through this group, and rightly so, but the difference here compared to many of the other groups is that there appears to be a somewhat established hierarchy. If Germany avoid complacency and injuries, they can use the group stage as a tune up for the latter stages. Mexico should finish second, but only if key performers stand up, and some of their younger stars step up. Sweden are solid and steady and will be there to take advantage of any errors of those ahead of them, while Korea are similar but a rung below the Scandinavians.