Teams (world ranking in brackets): Germany (1), Mexico (15), Sweden (24), South Korea (57)
Germany vs Mexico, Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow
Sweden vs South Korea, Nizhny Novgorod Stadium, Nizhny Novgorod
South Korea vs Mexico, Rostov Arena, Rostov-on-Don
Germany vs Sweden, Fisht Olympic Stadium, Sochi
South Korea vs Germany, Kazan Arena, Kazan
Mexico vs Sweden, Central Stadium, Yekaterinburg
Head Coach: Joachim Löw
Captain: Manuel Neuer
Previous Appearances: 18 (1934, 1938, 1954, 1958, 1962, 1966, 1970, 1974, 1978, 1982, 1986, 1990, 1994, 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010, 2014, 2018)
Best Finish: Champions (1954, 1974, 1990, 2014)
Qualified: UEFA, 1st Group C
Qualification Top Scorer: Thomas Müller, Sandro Wagner (5)
Goalkeepers: 1. Manuel Neuer (Bayern Munich), 12. Kevin Trapp (Paris Saint-Germain), 22. Marc-André ter Stegen (Barcelona).
Defenders: 2. Marvin Plattenhardt (Hertha Berlin), 3. Jonas Hector (Köln), 4. Matthias Ginter (Borussia Mönchengladbach), 5. Mats Hummels (Bayern Munich), 15. Niklas Süle (Bayern Munich), 16. Antonio Rüdiger (Chelsea), 17. Jérôme Boateng (Bayern Munich), 18. Joshua Kimmich (Bayern Munich).
Midfielders: 6. Sami Khedira (Juventus), 7. Julian Draxler (Paris Saint-Germain), 8. Toni Kroos (Real Madrid), 10. Mesut Özil (Arsenal), 11. Marco Reus (Borussia Dortmund), 14. Leon Goretzka (Schalke), 19. Sebastian Rudy (Bayern Munich), 20. Julian Brandt (Bayer Leverkusen), 21. İlkay Gündoğan (Manchester City).
Forwards: 9. Timo Werner (Leipzig), 13. Thomas Müller (Bayern Munich), 23. Mario Gómez (Stuttgart).
The reigning champions never looked likely to be challenged in qualifying, but the ease with which they blew their opposition away (they averaged over four goals a game and finished with a perfect record) should send out a clear warning to opponents in Russia. The key strength of Joachim Löw’s team is consistency: you know what you’re going to get and that it’s probably going to be a win. Goalkeeper Manuel Neuer has returned from injury in time to take his place in the side, with Barcelona’s star keeper Marc-André ter Stegen very unlucky to miss out. Neuer is protected by a formidable defence spearheaded by two brilliant centre-backs in Jérôme Boateng and Mats Hummels. Joshua Kimmich and Jonas Hector are arguably the best full-back pairing at this tournament, and a midfield of Toni Kroos, Sami Khedira and Mesut Özil is full of talent. With Julian Draxler, Marco Reus, Thomas Müller and Timo Werner providing a strong attack, the Germans may just have the side to go back-to-back.Embed from Getty Images
Toni Kroos runs with the ball during a World Cup qualifier against the Czech Republic. Kroos is one of Germany’s most skilled playmakers in the centre of the park, and he will look to provide plenty of chances in Russia.
Neuer’s injury worries, however, are one of a few niggling concerns surrounding the squad. When he is fully fit, the Bayern Munich keeper is undoubtedly the best in the world, but a fractured foot limited him to just three Bundesliga games this season and he will come into the World Cup short on match practice. Germany’s attacking stocks have improved since the last World Cup, but they could still have issues up front. The non-selection of in-form Manchester City winger Leroy Sané shows the depth Löw has at his disposal, but the young star would have provided an x-factor that the Germans may be lacking in Russia. Not helping their issues is the omission and subsequent retirement of Sandro Wagner, who was Germany’s equal top scorer in qualifying and could have provided them with a quality outlet for their attacking play. The Germans are almost certain to feature in the latter stages of this tournament, and these issues may prove more problematic when facing the best.
Star Player: Toni Kroos
Kroos was in brilliant form as Germany won the trophy in 2014, and he will be looking to stand up again this time around. His delivery from set pieces is exceptional, and he provides plenty of opportunities in open play from the centre of the park. His combination with Khedira is very effective, and is likely to deliver excellent results in Russia.
Key Player: Manuel Neuer
Neuer’s spectacular goalkeeping has allowed Germany to thrive for years, and his lack of game time this season has led to understandable concern about his ability to return to top form. By all accounts he seems to be back at full fitness, but he remains the most significant question mark surrounding Löw’s team. If he hits top form, he is almost impossible to beat.Embed from Getty Images
Manuel Neuer saves a penalty during a shoot-out against Italy at Euro 2016. Neuer is known for his brilliant goalkeeping, but injury issues have interrupted his build-up to the tournament and have led to doubts about how he will perform.
One to watch: Joshua Kimmich
When legendary right-back Philipp Lahm retired after the 2014 World Cup, he seemed almost irreplaceable. Then Germany plucked Kimmich, a seemingly ready-made replacement, out of nowhere. He is versatile, with the ability to play in midfield as well as defence, and he can push forward to create chances from the right flank while performing his defensive duties. He is a very good player, and could have a huge impact.
Germany are a consistent unit who know how to win, and they’ve been doing it non-stop for years. They look likely to feature in the latter stages of this tournament, and their seasoned core of high-quality players could win it all.
Likely Team (4-2-3-1): Neuer; Kimmich, Hummels, Boateng, Hector; Khedira, Kroos; Müller, Özil, Reus; Werner.
Head Coach: Juan Carlos Osorio
Captain: Andrés Guardado
Previous Appearances: 15 (1930, 1950, 1954, 1958, 1962, 1966, 1970, 1978, 1986, 1994, 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010, 2014)
Best Finish: Quarter-finals (1970, 1986)
Qualified: CONCACAF, 1st
Qualification Top Scorer: Hirving Lozano (4)
Goalkeepers: 1. José de Jesús Corona (Cruz Azul), 12. Alfredo Talavera (Toluca), 13. Guillermo Ochoa (Standard Liège).
Defenders: 2. Hugo Ayala (UANL), 3. Carlos Salcedo (Eintracht Frankfurt), 4. Rafael Márquez (Atlas), 5. Diego Reyes (Porto), 7. Miguel Layún (Sevilla), 15. Héctor Moreno (Real Sociedad), 21. Edson Álvarez (América).
Midfielders: 6. Jonathan dos Santos (Los Angeles Galaxy), 8. Marco Fabián (Eintracht Frankfurt), 16. Héctor Herrera (Porto), 18. Andrés Guardado (Real Betis), 20. Javier Aquino (UANL), 23. Jesús Gallardo (UNAM).
Forwards: 9. Raúl Jiménez (Benfica), 10. Giovani dos Santos (Los Angeles Galaxy), 11. Carlos Vela (Los Angeles FC), 14. Javier Hernández (West Ham United), 17. Jesús Manuel Corona (Porto), 19. Oribe Peralta (América), 22. Hirving Lozano (PSV Eindhoven).
While their main rivals in North America, the USA, sputtered towards an embarrassing non-qualification, Mexico cruised to Russia on the back of a solid defence that only conceded eight goals in 16 qualifying games. Mexico’s strength will come from the experienced players they have all over the pitch, especially down back. Guillermo Ochoa is a dependable goalkeeper, and there are plenty of quality options in a defence led by Héctor Moreno and Miguel Layún. Héctor Herrera and Andrés Guardado are both excellent midfielders, and they will be well supported by Diego Reyes and Jonathan dos Santos. Up front, dos Santos’ half-brother Giovani has returned from injury and will boost a dangerous attack of Carlos Vela, Javier Hernández, Hirving Lozano and Jesús Manuel Corona. Mexico have progressed from the group stage at the last six World Cups (although they haven’t made it past the round of 16 in any of them) and with an experienced and well-rounded squad they are a good chance of making it through once again.Embed from Getty Images
Captain Andrés Guardado (left) and Héctor Herrera discuss how to best make use of a free-kick in a friendly against Denmark. Guardado and Herrera are both experienced midfielders who will play a big part in Mexico’s tournament.
Unfortunately for coach Juan Carlos Osorio, Mexico’s lead-up has been severely hampered by injuries to key players. Both of the dos Santos brothers have had concerns in the lead-up, as have captain Guardado, Reyes and Moreno. Moreno’s partner in central defence, Néstor Araujo, isn’t part of the squad, having been ruled out with a knee injury. With so many key parts of the side missing, Mexico may struggle to perform at their best in Russia, something which could hurt their chances of progress from a competitive group. It’s not yet clear who is in their first-choice defence, a problem that is exacerbated by the absence of Araujo, and they are yet to settle on a player who can fill the void at right-back. Many of the fans are not supportive of the work Osorio has done, and questions over the coach’s future could prove an unwanted distraction at the final tournament.
Star Player: Héctor Herrera
As captain of Porto, one of Europe’s biggest clubs, Herrera has experience of playing at the highest level and is a dependable presence in midfield. He is a hard-working box-to-box midfielder, and his ability to contribute in both defence and attack will be invaluable for the Mexicans. He combines excellent skills with hard running, and he is a very important player.
Key Player: Héctor Moreno
Moreno will anchor the Mexican defence, and he will be able to rely on plenty of experience at the top level. He is a strong centre-back who has marshalled Mexico’s defence for some time, and he will be a key part of any success they enjoy in Russia. If he is able to play well, Mexico will be a very hard side to break down and their chances of a good outcome will increase dramatically.Embed from Getty Images
Hirving Lozano celebrates after scoring against Russia in the 2017 Confederations Cup. Lozano is one of Mexico’s brightest young stars, and he can have a big impact at the World Cup.
One to watch: Hirving Lozano
Lozano made his Mexican debut in 2016, and since then he has become an integral part of the team’s success. He has pace and a dangerous shot cutting in from the left wing, and he will be the man Mexico turn to if they need a goal. He is coming into the World Cup after a brilliant season with Dutch champions PSV Eindhoven where he scored 17 goals and established himself in Europe. A good tournament will further his reputation.
Mexico are a solid team who have been performing consistently for some time, and they will be a challenging opponent. They will aim for at least the round of 16, but it remains to see how big an effect their injuries will have.
Likely Team (4-3-3): Ochoa; Salcedo, Ayala, Moreno, Layún; Herrera, Reyes, Guardado; Vela, Hernández, Lozano.
Head Coach: Janne Andersson
Captain: Andreas Granqvist
Previous Appearances: 11 (1934, 1938, 1950, 1958, 1970, 1974, 1978, 1990, 1994, 2002, 2006)
Best Finish: Runners-up (1958)
Qualified: UEFA, 2nd Group A (beat Italy in play-offs)
Qualification Top Scorer: Marcus Berg (8)
Goalkeepers: 1. Robin Olsen (Copenhagen), 12. Karl-Johan Johnsson (Guingamp), 23. Kristoffer Nordfeldt (Swansea City).
Defenders: 2. Mikael Lustig (Celtic), 3. Victor Lindelöf (Manchester United), 4. Andreas Granqvist (Krasnodar), 5. Martin Olsson (Swansea City), 6. Ludwig Augustinsson (Werder Bremen), 14. Filip Helander (Bologna), 16. Emil Krafth (Bologna), 18. Pontus Jansson (Leeds United).
Midfielders: 7. Sebastian Larsson (Hull City), 8. Albin Ekdal (Hamburg), 10. Emil Forsberg (Leipzig), 13. Gustav Svensson (Seattle Sounders), 15. Oscar Hiljemark (Genoa), 17. Victor Claesson (Krasnodar), 19. Marcus Rohdén (Crotone), 21. Jimmy Durmaz (Toulouse).
Forwards: 9. Marcus Berg (Al Ain), 11. John Guidetti (Deportivo Alavés), 20. Ola Toivonen (Toulouse), 22. Isaac Kiese Thelin (Waasland-Beveren).
Marcus Berg scores against Luxembourg during World Cup qualifying. Berg will be Sweden’s main striker in Russia, and they will be hoping he can find the back of the net.
Sweden knocked out two big footballing nations on their way to Russia, first edging out the Netherlands to claim a spot in the play-offs before beating the Italians in two legs to seal their spot in Russia. Their defence was very strong, especially in the play-offs (where they shut out the Italians in both games), and a back four of Mikael Lustig, Victor Lindelöf, Andreas Granqvist and Ludwig Augustinsson provides experience and solidity. Albin Ekdal and Sebastian Larsson are strong performers in midfield, and they will receive support from the classy Emil Forsberg. Forsberg is an excellent provider and should ensure there is good service for Ola Toivonen and Marcus Berg in attack, where the latter’s brilliant form in the UAE bodes well for the campaign ahead. Sweden have a settled side with very few holes, and this consistent performance across the board saw them through a challenging qualifying group. They have the pieces to push for a berth in the knockouts.
As a team, however, the Swedes are not in good form. Up front, Toivonen failed to score in 23 Ligue 1 games this season, while his back-up, John Guidetti, didn’t fare much better in La Liga. Berg did find the back of the net regularly in the UAE, but he may be short on match practice against top-quality opponents. Meanwhile, Forsberg’s form dropped off after a brilliant first season in the Bundesliga, with a meagre total of two goals and two assists very poor for a player of his quality. Down back, Lindelöf’s big-money move to Manchester United didn’t go as planned, while first-choice goalkeeper Robin Olsen missed most of the back-end of the season with a fractured collarbone. With key players down on form and fitness coming into the World Cup, a potential lack of support for Forsberg and some questions about the depth of the squad, Sweden have some big issues. They fought hard to get here, and it will be a tough fight if they want to progress from the group stage.
Star Player: Emil Forsberg
It’s fair to say Forsberg is coming into the World Cup after a season to forget. He had issues with injury and form, and capped it all off with a suspension that ruled him out of the last three games. He is, however, a very talented playmaker, and if he can find his form of 2016-17 (where he managed a remarkable 22 assists in the Bundesliga) he will have a big impact for the Swedes. He is more than capable of making a mark.Embed from Getty Images
Emil Forsberg (right) competes for the ball during Sweden’s crucial second-leg match against Italy. Forsberg is coming off a disappointing season, but he is still capable of having a big tournament.
Key Player: Victor Lindelöf
Lindelöf made a big money move to Manchester United in the off-season, but the centre-back never really found form in his new colours. He only managed 13 starts, and he could come into Russia underdone as a result. Despite this, he is still an important part of Sweden’s team, and the solid central defender will need to put his poor season behind him and perform well if they are to progress.
One to watch: Ludwig Augustinsson
Augustinsson was a regular part of Sweden’s team in qualifying, and the left-back is coming off a strong season in Germany. He can provide an attacking threat and complement Forsberg effectively, and the way he slotted into higher level competition at Werder Bremen suggests he won’t be overawed by the occasion of the World Cup. He will feature prominently in Russia.
The Swedish are fairly reliable, but they may lack the quality to compete with the best. With so many of their best players coming off poor seasons, the Swedes may struggle to make it through.
Likely Team (4-4-2): Olsen; Lustig, Lindelöf, Granqvist, Augustinsson; Claesson, Ekdal, Larsson, Forsberg; Toivonen, Berg.
Head Coach: Shin Tae-young
Captain: Ki Sung-yueng
Previous Appearances: 9 (1954, 1986, 1990, 1994, 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010, 2014)
Best Finish: Fourth Place (2002)
Qualified: AFC, 2nd Group A
Qualification Top Scorer: Son Heung-min (7)
Goalkeepers: 1. Kim Seung-gyu (Vissel Kobe), 21. Kim Jin-hyeon (Cerezo Osaka), 23. Cho Hyun-woo (Daegu FC).
Defenders: 2. Lee Yong (Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors), 3. Jung Seung-hyun (Sagan Tosu), 4. Oh Ban-suk (Jeju United), 5. Yun Young-sun (Seongnam FC), 6. Park Joo-ho (Ulsan Hyundai), 12. Kim Min-woo (Sangju Sangmu), 14. Hong Chul (Sangju Sangmu), 19. Kim Young-gwon (Guangzhou Evergrande), 20. Jang Hyun-soo (FC Tokyo), 22. Go Yo-han (FC Seoul).
Midfielders: 8. Ju Se-jong (Asan Mugunghwa), 10. Lee Seung-woo (Hellas Verona), 13. Koo Ja-cheol (Augsburg), 15. Jung Woo-young (Vissel Kobe), 16. Ki Sung-yueng (Swansea City), 17. Lee Jae-sung (Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors), 18. Moon Seon-min (Incheon United).
Forwards: 7. Son Heung-min (Tottenham Hotspur), 9. Kim Shin-wook (Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors), 11. Hwang Hee-chan (Red Bull Salzburg).
South Korea didn’t face too much of a challenge in qualifying for their ninth consecutive World Cup, even if they only sealed their passage with a scoreless draw on the final day of qualifying. They aren’t carrying too much expectation into the World Cup, but they could be a tough opponent. Son Heung-min has been in excellent form with Tottenham Hotspur, and the dangerous attacker will be a constant goal threat. Hwang Hee-chan has been in strong form and will help him out, while Lee Jae-sung and Lee Seung-woo are quality wide players who can create plenty of chances. In midfield, Ki Sung-yueng, Jung Woo-young and Koo Ja-cheol provide experience and versatility. The Taeguk Warriors are backed up by a defence that let in just 10 goals in 18 qualifiers, and this should hold them in good stead as they look to progress from a competitive but not impossible group.Embed from Getty Images
Son Heung-min shoots during a qualifier against Iran. Son is South Korea’s best player, and they will need him at his best if they want to make it through to the round of 16.
If they want to get past the group stage, however, Shin Tae-young’s side will need to fix some major issues. Shin has been tinkering with the formation since the end of the qualifying campaign, but he hasn’t found the right combinations and the results have been poor. Son may be asked to shoulder too much of the scoring burden (Hwang is talented, but hasn’t yet developed into a regular goal-scorer for club or country). The South Koreans have had injury issues which have harmed their build-up, and the losses of attacking midfielders Kwon Chang-hoon and Lee Chung-yong, as well as key defensive midfielder Kwon Kyung-won, are all big blows for the Taeguk Warriors. The squad is fairly inexperienced, with over half the squad entering the tournament with less than 20 caps to their name. This could lead to more experienced players being forced to pick up the pieces, putting extra pressure on stars Son and Ki. Most of all, the Taeguk Warriors don’t have the top players to match up with the best, something which could harm them in Russia.
Star Player: Son Heung-min
Son is a two-time Asian footballer of the year, and his exploits in the Premier League with Tottenham Hotspur have made him South Korea’s biggest hope going into the World Cup. Son is naturally a winger, but he is likely to play as the main striker in Russia and also has the ability to drop back into midfield to create chances. He is one of the most dangerous players in world football, and should not be underestimated.
Key Player: Ki Sung-yueng
Ki has been a key part of both South Korea’s midfield for a number of years, and the Taeguk Warriors will be relying on his hard work through the middle. He has the ability to provide opportunities in attack and effectively shield the defence, and the experience he has gained over six seasons in the Premier League and two previous World Cups will be invaluable for the Koreans.Embed from Getty Images
Lee Seung-woo attempts to beat a defender during a friendly against Honduras. Lee was an unexpected selection for the World Cup, but he is very talented and could be a star for years to come.
One to watch: Lee Seung-woo
For much of his early career, Lee was known as the “Korean Messi”. Such comparisons were inevitable: he had prodigious skills, an ability to find the back of the net, and he played for Barcelona. Oh, and he was in his mid-teens. Lee has been known as a future star ever since he signed for the Spanish giants at just 12, but his selection for the World Cup was a shock despite his domination of youth football. Now he’s here, he could be very influential.
The Taeguk Warriors may struggle, especially with injuries to some key players, but they do have plenty of talent. Son is a very good forward, and Hwang, Lee Seung-woo and Lee Jae-sung could provide a handy boost. They could be interesting to watch.
Likely Team (4-4-2): Kim Seung-gyu; Lee Yong, Jang Hyun-soo, Yun Young-sun, Park Joo-ho; Lee Seung-woo, Ki Sung-yueng, Jung Woo-young, Lee Jae-sung; Hwang Hee-chan, Son Heung-min.
Aside from the Germans, who are almost guaranteed to progress, this will be a very competitive group. Mexico and Sweden would naturally be expected to battle it out for second place, but their issues (Mexico with fitness, Sweden with form) could open the door for a South Korean team that could be a surprise package in Russia. The South Koreans’ inability to settle on a formation is likely to hold them back, but a win over Sweden in their first game is definitely a possibility and would set them well on the path to progression. In a tight race, the Mexicans’ quality and experience may just set them apart, but they are not going to have it easy against any of their group stage opponents.
1. Germany, 2. Mexico, 3. Sweden, 4. South Korea