Subašić finally trumps Schmeichel as Croatia finally trump Denmark

Croatia entered their clash with Denmark on a high. Having won all three of their group stage matches at a canter, they had slotted into the easy side of the draw. With plenty of quality and a relatively simple path to the final made easier by Russia’s upset win over Spain hours earlier, Croatia had reason to be confident. Denmark, whose progress to the round of 16 was solid rather than spectacular, were expected to provide a test, but the Croatians seemed good enough to progress without too much trouble. Eventually, they did progress – with the last penalty of a drama-filled shootout.

Denmark couldn’t have started better. Just 58 seconds after kick-off, the ball was in the back of the net, courtesy of a long throw-in. Jonas Knudsen hurled the ball a remarkable distance after Denmark won the throw on the right, and the Croatians didn’t know what to do. The ball slipped over the back to Mathias Jørgensen, whose hastily scrambled shot rebounded off Croatian goalkeeper Danijel Subašić and the post before going in. A team with star players from Real Madrid, Barcelona, Juventus, Liverpool and Atlético Madrid had been undone by a remarkably long heave from Ipswich Town’s left-back. It wasn’t the prettiest way to score a goal, but the throw was a brutally effective means of breaking down Croatia’s defence.

Denmark’s lead didn’t last long. To be precise, it lasted all of one minute and 52 seconds. Šime Vrsaljko found space on the right, and played a fairly routine ball into the box. It should have been cleared easily by Henrik Dalsgaard, who found the ball at his feet with no opponents around. Instead, he firmly planted the ball into the face of teammate Andreas Christensen, and the ball bounced kindly for Mario Mandžukić in the box. The big striker had little problem putting the chance away from close range, and suddenly the game was back on level terms. In less than four minutes, both sides had scored, and the frenetic beginning suggested that an exciting match was in the offing.

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Mario Mandžukić (front) and Mathias Jørgensen battle for the ball in the air. Both men scored their team’s only goals, both of which came in the opening five minutes of the match.

Then neither side scored for the rest of the match. Unsurprisingly, things started to settle down after the frenetic beginning. Croatia seemed to take control of possession, and they began to find the better chances. Ante Rebić was fouled on the edge of the area, but Ivan Perišić’s free-kick was drilled into the wall and away for a corner. Perišić’s dangerous cross caused more problems for Denmark as Knudsen and Mandžukić tussled in the box and the striker appealed for a penalty. Néstor Pitana, the intense-looking Argentinian referee, was unmoved, telling Mandžukić in no uncertain terms that he had not been fouled and that he should get up. Rebić forced Kasper Schmeichel to parry his shot from close range, and Perišić bungled a golden opportunity when his second-chance shot thudded harmlessly into the turf and didn’t even reach the six-yard box. Dejan Lovren connected with Luka Modrić’s free-kick, but his header didn’t have enough on it and it flew wide of its mark. As the game progressed, however, Croatia’s opportunities began to dry up against Denmark’s well-drilled defence.

Denmark had some opportunities, particularly in the second half, but they didn’t have the clinical touch in attack to trouble Croatia. Martin Braithwaite had – and missed – most of their best chances. Early on, he went one-on-one with Subašić, but the Croatian keeper saved his shot well. Then the ball kicked up into his face and trailed away for a goal-kick. Yussuf Poulsen created a chance for him in the centre, but Braithwaite blasted the shot a long way wide. Thomas Delaney ran straight through the heart of the Croatian defence, and then completed his seemingly endless run with a pass for Braithwaite. Braithwaite missed. There were other chances, like when Danish star Christian Eriksen hit the bar (it never really looked like testing Subašić) and when Nicolai Jørgensen forced Subašić into a save from a decent position, but Denmark weren’t really worrying the Croatians.

In the last 10 minutes of normal time, Croatia began to step up their game. Perišić headed the ball onto the roof of the net, and Rebić made a couple of dangerous runs down the right after Perišić’s quickly-taken throw-in caught Denmark unawares and heralded a short period of goalmouth action. It passed, however, and there was no goal in the first 90 minutes. The Danish started extra time well, putting Croatia under pressure with a series of Knudsen’s gigantic throws and some good attacks. Domagoj Vida was a little hasty in coming out of position, and Denmark threatened as Eriksen perfectly threaded the ball through the gap he left in the defensive line. Knudsen won a corner with some good work down the left, and Denmark continued to threaten, but they couldn’t break through.

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Luka Modrić reacts with relief after scoring during the penalty shootout. Modrić had a golden opportunity to win it for Croatia in the final minutes of extra time, but Kasper Schmeichel managed to save his penalty.

Then Modrić began to get involved. Croatia’s star created a brilliant chance out of nothing with a beautiful ball for Andrej Kramarić, but Denmark survived as Schmeichel tapped a potentially dangerous cross over the bar. Then Modrić produced another moment of inspiration which seemingly confirmed Croatia’s victory. Upon receiving the ball in midfield, he threaded a delightful pass through the heart of the Danish defence, putting Rebić one-on-one with Schemichel. At pace, Rebić rounded Schmeichel on the edge of the box, and all that was left to do was slot the ball into an open net. He didn’t get the chance as Mathias Jørgensen slid in from behind, conceding the penalty and putting his further participation in the match in serious doubt. Mercifully, he was only booked by Pitana, but Modrić was almost certain to score. He didn’t. Schmeichel dived the right way and clutched the ball gratefully, and the game was destined for penalties. Schmeichel was brimming with confidence, and Denmark seemed to have the upper-hand as Eriksen stepped up to take the first kick of the shootout.

Enter Subašić. Eriksen’s penalty was saved by the Croatian goalkeeper, who flung himself the right way, diverted the ball into the post, and celebrated with understandable gusto. Croatia had the edge. Then Schmeichel, determined to match his counterpart, denied Milan Badelj with his feet. The teams were back level. Finally, with the fourth penalty taken in the match, Simon Kjær scored. He drilled an unstoppable shot into the top corner, and the goalkeepers’ desperate attempts to one-up each other proceeded to take the back seat as the shootout began to follow a more familiar pattern. Kramarić scored, and Schmeichel was warned for coming off his line before the kick was taken. Michael Krohn-Dehli scored. For once, Modrić looked unsure of himself, and nervous. He scored anyway, going straight down the middle and only just eluding Schmeichel’s feet before trotting away relieved.

Then Subašić made another save. Lasse Schöne took the kick, drilling it to the left and watching as it was emphatically parried by the diving goalkeeper. Once again, Croatia had the ascendency as Josip Pivarić prepared to take his penalty. Unfortunately for Croatia, anything Subašić could do, Schmeichel could seemingly do better. Pivarić took a long run up, taking a few sidesteps and running at the ball with some aggression. Schmeichel was unperturbed, and made the save. The battle of the two goalkeepers was back on, and the penalty-takers were becoming increasingly nervous. Subašić did it again. Brimming with confidence, he denied Nicolai Jørgensen with his feet. Croatia just needed to score to win, with Rakitić entrusted with the crucial kick. Unlike so many before him, he made no error. Relief washed over Croatia as they ensured they would not become the next highly-rated team to fall by the wayside, and booked a date with the hosts in Sochi. Their performance was shaky, and probably their worst of the tournament thus far, but it was a win. The fact that they’re still in the competition means that the drama, tension and the very late night was worth it.

Nizhny Novgorod – Nizhny Novgorod Stadium
Croatia 1 (Mandžukić 4)
Denmark 1 (M Jørgensen 1) (a.e.t, Croatia won 3-2 on penalties)
Referee: Néstor Pitana (Arg)
Croatia (4-2-3-1): Subašić – Vrsaljko, Lovren, Vida, Strinić (Pivarić 81); Rakitić, Brozović (Kovačić 71); Rebić, Modrić, Perišić (Kramarić 97); Mandžukić (Badelj 108).
Denmark (4-3-3): Schmeichel – Dalsgaard, Kjær, M Jørgensen, Knudsen; Christensen (Schöne 46), Delaney (Krohn-Dehli 98), Eriksen; Poulsen, Cornelius (N Jørgensen 66), Braithwaite (Sisto 106).

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Luka Modrić and Danijel Subašić celebrate after Croatia’s victory. Subašić played a key role in the shootout with three penalty saves.

Top 5
1. Kasper Schmeichel (Denmark)
Schmeichel made all of the saves he had to in general play, and then went to a whole new level as the match was drawing to a close. He saved Modrić’s penalty to ensure the game went to a shootout, and he kept Denmark in the shootout by making a couple of excellent saves. At times, he looked unbeatable.
2. Danijel Subašić (Croatia)
Subašić had a quieter game than his opposite number, and then proceeded to win Croatia the game with his penalty shootout heroics. He made three saves from five Danish penalties, and his efforts were eventually enough for Croatia to come away with the win. He will take massive confidence from some of his penalty stops.
3. Ante Rebić (Croatia)
Rebić is having a brilliant individual tournament, and the dynamic winger continued to feature prominently with his all-action approach. Mathias Jørgensen’s foul from behind was all that stopped him from putting away a late winner, and he made a number of dangerous runs from both wings and through the middle.
4. Thomas Delaney (Denmark)
Delaney used his physicality to good effect, making his presence felt against Croatia’s star-studded midfield and providing an attacking threat with his dangerous forward runs. One such run took him well in the area, and his slightly inadvertent assist for Denmark’s only goal showed his attacking threat.
5. Ivan Rakitić (Croatia)
Rakitić showed his cool temperament when he calmly slotted the winning penalty, and he stood up to fill the void when Modrić had a quiet game (an event which may never occur again). He seemed to take on the majority of Croatia’s playmaking duties, and he created some decent opportunities with his excellent passing.

Wasteful Australia made to pay as Denmark take a draw

Where was Timmy? As Australia badgered the Danish defence, controlling possession and creating promising opportunity after promising opportunity, Australia’s 38-year-old talisman was conspicuously absent. Australia were desperately searching for some kind of inspiration, something that would take them past the Danish and seal a crucial win. Why then, with the game winding down and Australia pushing hard for a goal, was Tim Cahill, the Socceroos’ all-time leading scorer, sitting on the bench wearing an ugly green shirt and a dull brown vest? Bert van Marwijk used Tomi Juric, and the gangly striker got in the way. Jackson Irvine was used, and had no impact. For all of Australia’s efforts, they got a draw.

Australia may have been disappointed with the final result, but they would have taken it gratefully had they been offered it 10 minutes in. Australia started slowly, and went behind when they bungled a defensive clearance, turning the ball over in a vulnerable position. Nicolai Jørgensen received the ball on the edge of the box, and managed to evade Trent Sainsbury before playing a bouncing pass into the centre. It was Christian Eriksen, Denmark’s star playmaker and most dangerous attacking threat, who ran onto the ball in plenty of space. Aziz Behich tried to get there, but he was too far away to make a difference as Eriksen hit an unstoppable side-footed shot into the top corner. Mathew Ryan dived, but the Australian keeper had no chance.

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Pione Sisto (front) leads Matthew Leckie to the ball. Sisto was one of Denmark’s few attacking threats during a poor second half display.

As Denmark continued to control play and stifle most of Australia’s attacks, it seemed like the Socceroos had little chance of breaking down their solid defence. Matthew Leckie found chances, and made a few things happen with his pace down the right wing, but Robbie Kruse’s lack of poise in the attacking third meant such moves broke down on more than one occasion. Then, more through good fortune than anything else, Australia levelled. The goal was almost identical to the one they scored in their game against the French. Like the first game, they won a penalty after a handball in the area (although this one was more controversial), and Mile Jedinak’s shot was almost identical to his spot kick against the French. Kasper Schmeichel obviously hadn’t done his homework, and he flung himself the wrong way. Australia were level at half time as a result, and they looked to go on to better things after the break.

The Socceroos came out after half time and created plenty of trouble for the Danish defence. Early on, Jens Stryger Larsen was forced to head Behich’s dangerous cross away from an onrushing Matthew Leckie. Aaron Mooy and Tom Rogic both challenged Schmeichel from distance, with the latter forcing the Danish keeper into making a solid save and the former sending the ball whistling over the bar. Denmark couldn’t attack with any fluency, Eriksen was basically anonymous and Mooy’s creative talents were starting to come to the fore. Australia just needed the finishing touch. They just needed Timmy. When striker Andrew Nabbout dislocated his shoulder, van Marwijk had his chance. A change was made, but it was Juric who came on. Soon after, Leckie had a chance as he attempted a volley. Juric made himself a nuisance, the shot went wide, and it became clear that Australia needed a clinical touch. Where was Timmy?

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Tomi Juric (front) competes with Andreas Christensen. Juric was introduced for Andrew Nabbout in favour of talismanic striker Tim Cahill, and didn’t justify his inclusion.

One Australian substitute did have a big impact, but it just wasn’t enough. Daniel Arzani was introduced with just over 20 minutes left, replacing Kruse after his poor effort on the left wing. After a slightly slow start, the World Cup’s youngest player began to get on the ball, and his impact was immediate. He breezed past Pione Sisto on the right wing with one remarkable touch, and whipped in a cross that, unfortunately for Australia, flew past everyone and out for a throw-in. Then, after getting the ball on the left, he weaved his way into the box and drilled a shot at Schmeichel. For the rest of the match, he provided nuggets like that, receiving licence to roam and dropping into space to cause Denmark plenty of problems. Unfortunately for Australia, the lack of an outlet to finish his chances meant most of the young gun’s best work was unrewarded. As Denmark held on for a draw that massively boosts their progress but seriously jeopardises Australia’s, there was one question on the lips of all Socceroos fans. Where on earth was Timmy?

Samara – Cosmos Arena
Denmark 1 (Eriksen 7)
Australia 1 (Jedinak 38 pen)
Referee: Antonio Mateu Lahoz (Esp)
Denmark (4-3-3): Schmeichel – Dalsgaard, Kjær, Christensen, Stryger Larsen; Delaney, Schöne, Eriksen; Poulsen (Braithwaite 59), Jørgensen (Cornelius 68), Sisto.
Australia (4-2-3-1): Ryan – Risdon, Sainsbury, Milligan, Behich; Jedinak, Mooy; Leckie, Rogic (Irvine 82), Kruse (Arzani 68); Nabbout (Juric 75).

Top 5
1. Matthew Leckie (Australia)
Leckie was the only Australian who consistently threatened for the entirety of the match, showing pace, strength and skill and making life very difficult for Stryger Larsen at left-back. He put in plenty of dangerous balls, and with better finishing in the box he could have easily finished with an assist or two.
2. Aaron Mooy (Australia)
Mooy grew into the game as it progressed, working well with Jedinak to take control of the midfield and put Denmark under the pump. He was pulling the strings in most of Australia’s second half attacks, and his excellent work both on and off the ball nearly got his team over the line.
3. Pione Sisto (Denmark)
Sisto was one of Denmark’s only real threats in the second half, finding himself space on the break and using his pace to seriously test the Australian defence. He came up with a couple of dangerous efforts from distance, and seemed the only Danish player able to acquit himself well when Eriksen’s input was stifled.
4. Daniel Arzani (Australia)
Arzani is special. He has pace, skill and composure, and lifts his side when he comes on the pitch. He only had 20 minutes to make his mark after replacing the dangerous-looking but ultimately ineffective Kruse, but if his sparkling cameo isn’t enough to justify an elevation into the starting line-up it’s not clear what will be.
5. Aziz Behich (Australia)
Behich found plenty of space overlapping from left-back, putting in dangerous crosses and combining well with Kruse and then Arzani in attack. He managed to have a big attacking input without getting caught out on the break, and he will have a big say in Australia’s eventual finish at this tournament.

Denmark hold firm against desperate Peru

Christian Cueva stepped up to take the penalty just before half-time. Minutes before, he had been tripped in the box, and after play had continued for some time the video assistant referee brought it back and awarded the fairly obvious penalty. Now, on an emotional day for Peruvian football, he had a big chance to score Peru’s first World Cup goal for over 30 years as he started his run-up on the edge of the box. He paused a few paces into his approach, did a little stutter step upon resumption, and lifted the ball clean over the crossbar. The small section of Danish supporters in the Mordovia Arena gave a small cheer. The rest of the Peruvian-dominated Saransk crowd were in complete disbelief. In the dugout, coach Ricardo Gareca sat open-mouthed as he contemplated the opportunity his side had just passed up. In the match, Peru never got a better opportunity, and failed to score despite dominating territory and putting the Danish defence under siege.

The game started very openly. There were nervous moments early as the Danish looked to settle into the game, especially when Yussuf Poulsen came close to giving away a penalty with a rough looking challenge inside the area. The Peruvians had most of the early running, passing the ball well and giving Danish keeper Kasper Schmeichel something to think about with a series of ambitious but powerful shots from long-range. The most ambitious shot came from right-back Luis Advíncula, who blazed away from ridiculous distance and ended up miles away from the target. Not so trivial was a perfect shot from André Carrillo, who cut in from the right wing and forced Schmeichel into making a diving save to keep it out of the bottom corner. Carrillo and Advíncula’s purposeful overlapping play created plenty of work for Andreas Christensen, with Carrillo drifting around and creating his fair share of problems.

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Luis Advíncula sings the Peruvian national anthem before the match. Peru had not appeared in the tournament for 36 years before their clash with the Danish.

The Danish seemed to be settling, but Peru still had the best opportunities and a diving lunge from Simon Kjær was all that prevented Jefferson Farfán from finding the back of the net when Carrillo played him through. Their consistent defence meant clear-cut chances like Farfán’s were few and far between, but Peru’s excellent structure meant they couldn’t muster any early threat in attack. For the first half hour, Denmark’s lone attempt on goal was Thomas Delaney’s ambitious and ultimately wild shot from distance. Star man Christian Eriksen couldn’t get into the game, and Denmark didn’t have the fluency to find the back of the net. Then, almost out of nowhere, Peru got their penalty. After Cueva’s miss, it was a rueful Peru and a relieved Denmark who left the field at half time.

Peru had another brilliant chance to score just after the break, when Cueva found himself in behind the Danish defence with plenty of space to work with. His ball across goal gave Carrillo a chance, but he bungled his first time shot and Edison Flores’ attempt to salvage his teammates’ mistake was just as poorly-hit and limped harmlessly over the goal line. Denmark took the lead a couple of minutes later. It came on the counter, with Eriksen finding some rare space to run at the Peruvian defence and his forwards making good runs in support. With the defenders caught between a rock and a hard place he threaded a pass to Poulsen, who slipped the ball past Pedro Gallese into the back of the net. It was a simple attacking move, but it caught out an undermanned Peruvian defence with brutal efficiency. Then, as if they’d been stung, Peru begun to attack with earnest. Soon they were pressing hard and dominating the game.

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André Carrillo runs with the ball during his brilliant performance on the right wing. Carrillo used his pace and skill to his advantage and caused plenty of trouble for the Danish defence.

First, Flores drilled a shot at Schmeichel, who stuck out his left glove to deny Peru once more. Then talismanic captain Paolo Guerrero was introduced, and Peru’s all-time leading goal-scorer tested Schmeichel with a strong header mere seconds after entering the fray. Miguel Trauco found Alberto Rodríguez in the box, and his header across goal came tantalisingly close to the outstretched legs of Farfán and Carrillo. A Carrillo cross managed to evade Schmeichel, and a goal was only averted by Poulsen’s headed clearance at the back post. Guerrero’s classy backheel shot caught Schmeichel off guard, and it only missed the goals by less than half a metre. Carrillo found space in the box once again and distributed to Farfán in a dangerous spot, but once again Schmeichel and Kjær were up to the challenge and combined to clear the ball to safety. Peru came from all angles, and the Danish were pushed back deeper and deeper.

Somehow, they weathered the storm. Peru’s chances came less frequently as the game went on, and Eriksen even managed to force Gallese into a one-on-one save in the dying moments. Denmark were still defending for their lives, but Peru’s clinical build-up play gave way to desperation, and then despair as the final whistle sounded. Their win, lucky as it may have been, puts them in the box seat to progress from Group C, and their remarkably resilient defensive showing bodes well for the road ahead. For Peru, there were plenty of positives, but they will be scant consolation for a scoreline which reads, some would say unjustly, Denmark 1, Peru 0.

Saransk – Mordovia Arena
Peru 0
Denmark 1 (Poulsen 58)
Referee: Bakary Gassama (Gam)
Peru (4-2-3-1): Gallese – Advíncula, Ramos, Rodríguez, Trauco; Tapia (Aquino 87), Yotún; Carrillo, Cueva, Flores (Guerrero 62); Farfán (Ruidíaz 85).
Denmark (4-2-3-1): Schmeichel – Dalsgaard, Kjær, Christensen (M Jørgensen 81), Larsen; Kvist (Schöne 36), Delaney; Poulsen, Eriksen, Sisto (Braithwaite 66); N Jørgensen.

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Kasper Schmeichel (in black) rises above all others to punch away a Peruvian cross. Schmeichel was in top form during Denmark’s win, keeping a clean sheet and making some crucial saves.

Top 5
1. André Carrillo (Peru)
Carrillo was everywhere. He played a bit on the right and a bit on the left, contributed to defence and attack with well-thought out interceptions and incisive pieces of offensive play. He combined well with Advíncula and Farfán, and he created most of Peru’s many chances with his pace and skill. He was in good touch, and could be a scary opponent to face.
2. Kasper Schmeichel (Denmark)
If there’s one person Denmark can thank for their win, it’s Kasper Schmeichel. He showed all of his skills to deny Peru time and again, breaking the Danish record (held by father Peter) for most consecutive clean sheets in the process. He looked completely comfortable against the Peruvian attack, making plenty of excellent saves and ensuring Denmark held on to their lead.
3. Jefferson Farfán (Peru)
Farfán had plenty of pace and troubled the Danish defence with his very threatening runs in behind. He showed his experience through his excellent positioning, and gave Schmeichel a serious working-over with his skill with the ball at his feet. There were multiple occasions where he was unlucky not to score, and on another day he could have had a huge impact on the scoreboard.
4. Simon Kjær (Denmark)
The Danish captain was in the right spots all day, cutting off attack after attack with his excellent tackling and his brilliant leadership. He barely gave away any fouls, and he had good presence in the air. His hard work, shown in particular by a desperate goal line block late in the game, served him well against the dynamic Peruvians and will continue to do so.
5. Yussuf Poulsen (Denmark)
For good and bad, Poulsen found himself heavily involved in both attack and defence. He did plenty of good things going forward, recovering from giving away a potentially costly penalty (and nearly conceding another) by scoring the only goal of the game. His clearance when Schmeichel was evaded by a good cross prevented a Peruvian goal and showed the value of his defensive efforts.

2018 FIFA World Cup Preview – Final Prediction

Who will win the World Cup? As ever, it’s a complicated question, and much of the fascination of the tournament is watching the drama play out. When assessing the 32 teams’ respective chances to take home the ultimate prize, it becomes clear that these sides can be grouped based on their levels of ambition. At the top, the main contenders are set to be the ones battling it out at the end. They are the teams who historically win the tournament, and will set victory as their goal coming in. Then there’s the second-tier, or the dark horses who have a legitimate chance of winning if things fall their way. They are more consistent performers, with quality to match anyone. The wildcards are the teams that could make it as far as the semi-finals and are capable of pulling off a big upset, while the knockout hopefuls are the largely unspectacular sides setting their sights on the round of 16. The early exiters round out the competition, being the teams with no realistic chance of winning and slim hopes of progressing past the second round. This preview will touch on all of these groups, before eventually predicting the winner of the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

The Contenders

Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany, Spain
Thanks to the non-qualification of Italy, and a number of other factors, the usual suspects may be a bit thin on the ground in Russia. Germany will always be there at the end, as will Brazil, and both sides should be considered the top favourites going into the tournament. France are the third of the contenders with a very good chance of taking home the trophy, and their quality is undeniable. Then there’s Argentina and Spain, both of whom may struggle at the tournament after distracted preparations. Argentina’s decision to cancel a pre-tournament friendly against Israel not only left them underdone but also created a diplomatic incident. Meanwhile, Spain’s decision to sack their coach two days out from the tournament is certain to impact their results, and they will now do well to escape from a tough group.

The Dark Horses

Belgium, Poland, Portugal, Uruguay
With so few of the main contenders still primed for a deep run, the door may be open for one of these sides to sneak in and buck the trend. Belgium and Poland are strong, but their runs may be hindered by the draw. If one doesn’t win their group, they may find themselves facing off in the second round. Even if Belgium, as expected, win Group G and the Poles take out Group H, quarter-final dates with Brazil (for Belgium) and Germany (for Poland) would probably finish them off. Uruguay and Portugal are probably best placed to take advantage of Spain’s woes, and both are consistent teams who are capable of going a long way.

The Wildcards

Colombia, Croatia, Egypt, England, Iceland, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal
Three of these wildcards are in Group D, where a vulnerable Argentina means that Croatia, Iceland and Nigeria are not a bad chance of taking them out. Of the three, the Croatians are probably the most damaging. They are as good, if not better than, the Argentinians, and could easily pry them out of top spot. Of course, everything could fall in a heap as well, especially with their off-field concerns, but a semi-final run is not out of the question. Nigeria and Senegal are both in tough groups where they will either thrive or crash out, while Egypt could also make a splash if they can overcome Mohamed Salah’s injury issues. The turmoil surrounding Spain leaves Morocco with a chance of edging them out, and they may be a tough opponent in the knockouts. The same can be said for Iceland, and the English are unpredictable – and dangerous.

The Knockout Hopefuls

Denmark, Mexico, Peru, Serbia, Sweden, Switzerland
These teams come from just three groups, and are in competition with each other. As a general rule, they shouldn’t make too much of a splash. The Swiss are the best of the teams in terms of ranking and consistency, but they may face stiff competition if Serbia are on their game. In Group C, Denmark and Peru will be an intriguing early match-up, while Mexico and Sweden are likely to fight it out for second place in Group F. None of these teams have much of a chance of winning it all, but they should be looking at the round of 16 as a realistic goal.

The Early Exiters

Australia, Costa Rica, Iran, Japan, Panama, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Tunisia
To put it bluntly, these teams have no hope of winning the World Cup, and they will probably be out by the round of 16. Iran are the most talented of them, but their position in a tough group with Spain, Portugal and Morocco means progress is unlikely. Of course, Spain’s issues may leave the door open, but Morocco seem better suited to take the opportunity. The Russians are hosting the event, and of these teams they are most likely to go through. They just aren’t a very good team, however, and they’d do well to get to the second round. Australia and South Korea may just slip past their opposition and take a berth in the knockout stages, while Saudi Arabia could give their campaign a big boost with an opening game win over Russia. Costa Rica will struggle to repeat their quarter-final run of 2014, especially after declining in quality, and Tunisia’s placement alongside Belgium and England is likely to cut short their participation. Japan have plenty of off-field issues, and they will struggle in a tough group. Bringing up the rear is Panama, who are clearly the least-talented team at this tournament and will do well to bring home a point.

Looking through the draw based on my predicted outcomes for each group (with Group B changed to reflect the likelihood of Portugal finishing above Spain), the second round will consist of matches between Uruguay and Spain, Portugal and Egypt, France and Argentina, Croatia and Denmark, Brazil and Mexico, Germany and Switzerland, Belgium and Colombia and Poland and England. With these clashes in mind, Portugal, Croatia, Brazil and Germany should win fairly comfortably. Poland are too good for England, and Belgium should beat Colombia (although a match between the two would be great to watch). France are too good for Argentina, and Uruguay should be too good for Spain, if La Furia Roja even make it that far. According to these results, the quarter-finals will see Uruguay play France, Portugal take on Croatia, Brazil go up against Belgium and Germany face Poland. Once again, Brazil and Germany should be too strong, as should the French. The last match-up is an intriguing one. Croatia are probably more talented than the Portuguese, and would start as favourites, but it would be a close-run affair. In the semis, the Germans would be likely to defeat the Croatians fairly comfortably, although a mouth-watering match-up between France and Brazil shapes as one of the games of the tournament. In the end, I think France’s talent will win out in the end, and I think that Les Bleus will take out the World Cup over the Germans. One thing’s for sure: with the World Cup, you just never know. Right now, with the fun beginning in a little over 12 hours, the whole tournament is a complete mystery. Let’s hope it stays pretty mysterious right to the end.

Predictions

Champions: France
Runners-up: Germany
Third Place: Brazil
Fourth Place: Croatia
Quarter-finals: Belgium, Poland, Portugal, Uruguay
Round of 16: Argentina, Colombia, Denmark, Egypt, England, Mexico, Spain, Switzerland
Top scorer: Antoine Griezmann (France)
Golden Ball: Neymar (Brazil)

2018 FIFA World Cup Preview – Group C

Group C

Teams (world ranking in brackets): France (7), Australia (36), Peru (11), Denmark (12)
Fixtures:
France vs Australia, Kazan Arena, Kazan
Peru vs Denmark, Mordovia Arena, Saransk
Denmark vs Australia, Cosmos Arena, Samara
France vs Peru, Central Stadium, Yekaterinburg
Denmark vs France, Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow
Australia vs Peru, Fisht Olympic Stadium, Sochi

France

Head Coach: Didier Deschamps
Captain: Hugo Lloris
Previous Appearances: 14 (1930, 1934, 1938, 1954, 1958, 1966, 1978, 1982, 1986, 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010, 2014)
Best Finish: Champions (1998)
Qualified: UEFA, 1st Group A
Qualification Top Scorer: Olivier Giroud, Antoine Griezmann (4)

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Hugo Lloris (Tottenham Hotspur), 16. Steve Mandanda (Marseille), 23. Alphonse Areola (Paris Saint-Germain).
Defenders: 2. Benjamin Pavard (Stuttgart), 3. Presnel Kimpembe (Paris Saint-Germain), 4. Raphaël Varane (Real Madrid), 5. Samuel Umtiti (Barcelona), 17. Adil Rami (Marseille), 19. Djibril Sidibé (Monaco), 21. Lucas Hernández (Atlético Madrid), 22. Benjamin Mendy (Manchester City).
Midfielders: 6. Paul Pogba (Manchester United), 8. Thomas Lemar (Monaco), 12. Corentin Tolisso (Bayern Munich), 13. N’Golo Kanté (Chelsea), 14. Blaise Matuidi (Juventus), 15. Steven N’Zonzi (Sevilla).
Forwards: 7. Antoine Griezmann (Atlético Madrid), 9. Olivier Giroud (Chelsea), 10. Kylian Mbappé (Paris Saint-Germain), 11. Ousmane Dembélé (Barcelona), 18. Nabil Fekir (Lyon), 20. Florian Thauvin (Marseille).

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Antoine Griezmann bows to supporters after France’s semi-final win over Germany at Euro 2016. Griezmann scored twice in the match on his way to becoming the tournament’s top-scorer.

After coming incredibly close to winning at home in Euro 2016 (they were edged out in extra time by Portugal) the French didn’t have too many issues booking their spot in Russia as their quality allowed them to stay well ahead of their misfiring opposition. Now they’re here, Les Bleus will be incredibly hard to beat. Coach Didier Deschamps has selection quandaries in just about every position. Hugo Lloris is one of the few guaranteed starters, and the experienced goalkeeper will be hard to get past. Shielding him is a back four consisting of some top-level defenders, with centre-backs Raphaël Varane and Samuel Umtiti both proven performers. In midfield, Paul Pogba (Manchester United), Blaise Matuidi (Juventus), N’Golo Kanté (Chelsea) and Corentin Tolisso (Bayern Munich) will compete for three spots, with one of them stiff to miss out. Meanwhile an attack of Antoine Griezmann, Ousmane Dembélé and young gun Kylian Mbappé (plus a couple of others) is likely to terrorise opposing defences with pace and skill. Perhaps the scariest thing about Deschamps’ side is, with 15 players aged 25 or less, they’re still peaking.

The French did, however, come off a qualifying campaign that was not all smooth sailing. A 50-yard winner from Ola Toivonen led to an embarrassing loss to Sweden, and they were held by minnows Belarus and Luxembourg along the way. Such lapses could prove costly in the World Cup, where they can’t just wait and let their quality assert itself. Many of their players haven’t featured at the World Cup before, and this dangerous combination of inexperience and expectation could prove costly. They still lack a top-class full-back on either side, and none of Benjamin Pavard, Djibril Sidibé, Lucas Hernández or Benjamin Mendy have much international experience. Since winning the World Cup in 1998, France’s efforts in the tournament have been inconsistent, and it would not be unheard of for them to collapse out of the blue.

Star Player: Antoine Griezmann

Griezmann is coming into his prime, and the diminutive striker can make a big impact in Russia. He is a complete forward who has pace, skill, an eye for goal and the ability to create chances for his teammates. His six goals at Euro 2016 helped take the French to the final, and with a more dynamic attack alongside him at the World Cup he could be an unstoppable force.

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Paul Pogba shoots during a World Cup qualifying match against Sweden. Pogba has struggled since joining Manchester United, amid questions over his best position.

Key Player: Paul Pogba

How do you solve a problem like Paul Pogba? Two seasons ago, the powerfully built central midfielder was the hottest commodity in European football, and attracted the heftiest transfer fee in history to move from Juventus to Manchester United. Since then, he’s been…alright. His physicality can overshadow his immense technical ability, and he can hit the scoresheet while simultaneously providing assists. If he plays at his best, he could carry France to the World Cup. Will he?

One to watch: Kylian Mbappé

It turns out Mbappé’s remarkable breakout season with Monaco was no fluke, and that’s bad news for all of France’s opponents. At just 19, he is coming off his first season with Paris Saint-Germain, where his scoring barely dropped off despite the quality of his new teammates. For France, he is likely to play on the right wing, but he is capable in the centre and will be very dangerous.

Verdict

This French team is exciting and a very dangerous opponent. There is a ridiculous amount of talent all over the park, and if they can convert that talent into results they could cruise to a second World Cup title.
Likely Team (4-3-3): Lloris; Sidibé, Umtiti, Varane, Mendy; Kanté, Matuidi, Pogba; Mbappé, Griezmann, Dembélé.

Australia

Head Coach: Bert van Marwijk
Captain: Mile Jedinak
Previous Appearances: 4 (1974, 2006, 2010, 2014)
Best Finish: Round of 16 (2006)
Qualified: AFC, 3rd Group B (beat Syria and Honduras in play-offs)
Qualification Top Scorer: Tim Cahill (11)

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Mathew Ryan (Brighton and Hove Albion), 12. Brad Jones (Feyenoord), 18. Danny Vukovic (Genk).
Defenders: 2. Milos Degenek (Yokohama F. Marinos), 3. James Meredith (Millwall), 5. Mark Milligan (Al-Ahli), 6. Matthew Jurman (Suwon Samsung Bluewings), 16. Aziz Behich (Bursaspor), 19. Josh Risdon (Western Sydney Wanderers), 20. Trent Sainsbury (Grasshoppers).
Midfielders: 8. Massimo Luongo (Queens Park Rangers), 13. Aaron Mooy (Huddersfield Town), 15. Mile Jedinak (Aston Villa), 17. Daniel Arzani (Melbourne City), 22. Jackson Irvine (Hull City), 23. Tom Rogic (Celtic).
Forwards: 4. Tim Cahill (Millwall), 7. Matthew Leckie (Hertha Berlin), 9. Tomi Juric (Luzern), 10. Robbie Kruse (VfL Bochum), 11. Andrew Nabbout (Urawa Red Diamonds), 14. Jamie Maclaren (Hibernian), 21. Dimitri Petratos (Newcastle Jets).

If it’s all about the journey, then Australia haven’t had a great World Cup experience. Their journey was about as hard as it gets, spanning 22 matches and proving a hard slog at every turn. Then their coach resigned. Bert van Marwijk is still getting used to his new side after taking over from Ange Postecoglou, but the Dutchman has pedigree at this level and can get the side in shape. On the pitch, there’s plenty to like. Aaron Mooy is coming off a brilliant season with Huddersfield Town in the Premier League, and he can unlock defences with his remarkable vision. He will be well supported by captain Mile Jedinak and Massimo Luongo in midfield, and Tom Rogic is a dangerous player in attack. Mathew Ryan is a solid goalkeeper, and will be well protected by classy centre-back Trent Sainsbury. In-form attackers Andrew Nabbout and Daniel Arzani will give the team a fresh edge alongside Matthew Leckie and Robbie Kruse, and Tim Cahill is a talisman who can find big goals.

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Tim Cahill rises to score against Syria in World Cup qualifying. Cahill is no longer a regular part of the starting line-up, but the veteran still has an impact off the bench.

The Australians will, however, face an uphill battle to make it through. Postecoglou’s sudden departure has left a void even though his attack at all costs strategy was part of the reason for the Socceroos’ arduous road to Russia. Adding to the pressure on van Marwijk is the temporary nature of his position (Graham Arnold will take over after the World Cup), and this could impact results. In a tough group, Australia’s defence is unproven, and van Marwijk has little time to add the steel the side desperately lacked in qualifying. It is unclear who the team’s best striker is, with Tomi Juric developing a propensity for missing chances and Cahill coming off a season where he barely played for either Melbourne City or Millwall. This missing link means the brilliant work of Mooy is often wasted, something Australia cannot afford to happen if they want to take it up to giants like France.

Star Player: Aaron Mooy

Mooy’s first season in the Premier League has shown he is more than capable of adjusting to high-level competition, and his hard work in midfield may well be Australia’s only chance of escaping a tough group. His ability to pick out an incisive pass rivals some of the best playmakers at this World Cup, and he is a set-piece specialist who can hit the target from range and reads the play well.

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Aaron Mooy (right) and Mile Jedinak celebrate after Jedinak’s goal against Honduras in Australia’s final qualifier. Mooy and Jedinak will be a key part of Australia’s campaign.

Key Player: Mile Jedinak

Jedinak was Australia’s second-highest scorer in qualifying (showing the benefits of being a regular penalty taker) but his defensive qualities are far more important. Jedinak has plenty of experience and is almost never caught out of position, allowing him to clean up counter-attacks with ease. His work as a holding midfielder will be a crucial part of Australia’s defensive set-up in Russia.

One to watch: Daniel Arzani

Arzani hadn’t played for Australia before his call-up to the World Cup squad, but the 19-year-old winger is coming off a brilliant season for Melbourne City and could well be the spark the Socceroos need. He is quick, skilled and has the ability to provide for his teammates, and he has the potential to shine at this World Cup if given the opportunity.

Verdict

Most of the 2006 golden generation is now gone, and van Marwijk’s younger team has some established players in European teams. Whether that will be enough is another question, and the Socceroos need their stars to fire.
Likely Team (4-2-3-1): Ryan; Risdon, Sainsbury, Milligan, Behich; Jedinak, Luongo; Leckie, Mooy, Kruse; Nabbout.

Peru

Head Coach: Ricardo Gareca
Captain: Paolo Guerrero
Previous Appearances: 4 (1930, 1970, 1978, 1982)
Best Finish: Quarter-finals (1970)
Qualified: CONMEBOL, 5th (beat New Zealand in play-offs)
Qualification Top Scorer: Paolo Guerrero (6)

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Pedro Gallese (Veracruz), 12. Carlos Cáceda (Deportivo Municipal), 21. José Carvallo (UTC).
Defenders: 2. Alberto Rodríguez (Junior), 3. Aldo Corzo (Universitario de Deportes), 4. Anderson Santamaría (Puebla), 5. Miguel Araujo (Allianza Lima), 6. Miguel Trauco (Flamengo), 15. Christian Ramos (Veracruz), 17. Luis Advíncula (Lobos BUAP), 22. Nilson Loyola (Melgar).
Midfielders: 7. Paolo Hurtado (Vitória de Guimarães), 8. Christian Cueva (São Paulo), 13. Renato Tapia (Feyenoord), 14. Andy Polo (Portland Timbers), 16. Wilder Cartagena (Veracruz), 18. André Carrillo (Watford), 19. Yoshimar Yotún (Orlando City), 20. Edison Flores (AaB), 23. Pedro Aquino (Lobos BUAP).
Forwards: 9. Paolo Guerrero (Flamengo), 10. Jefferson Farfán (Lokomotiv Moscow), 11. Raúl Ruidíaz (Morelia).

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Jefferson Farfán celebrates after scoring in Peru’s play-off with New Zealand. Farfán will be a key member of the Peruvian attack in Russia.

In March last year, the idea of Peru breaking their 36-year World Cup drought was inconceivable. They sat eighth in South America, and needed a miracle to progress to their first tournament since 1982. They got it, taking 11 points from their last five games and picking up another three after a previous loss to Bolivia was overturned. In the end, they snuck into the play-offs, where progression against New Zealand was never in doubt. Since qualification, the good news has continued to flow. Captain and all-time leading scorer Paolo Guerrero’s doping ban has been stayed, allowing him to take the field in Russia. His presence will add to an attack that already includes dangerous wingers Jefferson Farfán and André Carrillo. Yoshimar Yotún and Renato Tapia provide a solid central midfield presence, and Ricardo Gareca has put together a tight-knit group that has not lost a game since 2016. They are solid all over the park, and they could make an impact.

The Peruvians will, however, suffer from a lack of experience at the top-level. Their competition with other South American teams will serve them well at the tournament proper, but a lack of players in Europe’s top leagues could be an issue. The World Cup will come with much greater pressure than anything the players have ever faced, and this could test the bonds that have built up in the last 18 months. The distractions surrounding Guerrero’s court cases (in the Court of Arbitration for Sport and the Swiss Federal Court) could also affect the squad, especially with the drama hanging around for as long as it has. In general, Peru are short on quality around the park, especially with key players Guerrero and Farfán both past their respective primes. This was reflected in their start to qualifying, during a campaign which didn’t get off the ground until their frenetic final run. If they are to progress, they will need their defence to step up in a big way.

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Captain Paolo Guerrero sings the national anthem before a qualifier against Colombia. Guerrero was suspended for the World Cup, but his ban has since been stayed to allow him to play in Russia.

Star Player: Paolo Guerrero

After a lengthy legal saga, Guerrero is free to play in Russia. The 34-year-old has been an inspirational leader for Peru, and such is his popularity that news of his impending suspension spurred protests in the streets of Lima. He has scored more international goals than any other Peruvian, and his presence at the World Cup will have a big impact on the team.

Key Player: Christian Ramos

Ramos, along with Alberto Rodríguez, has a key role to play in the Peruvian defence. He is a proven performer with 66 caps’ worth of international experience, and his solidity at the back underpins Peru’s success. If they are to progress to the knockout stages in Russia, Ramos and the rest of the defence will need to be at their best.

One to watch: Renato Tapia

Tapia is a versatile player who has featured prominently for Peru since making his debut as a 19-year-old in 2015. Now 22, Tapia is a key part of Peru’s midfield, and has the ability to play in defence if required. His experiences with Feyenoord in both the Dutch top flight and European competition will serve the Peruvians well as they look to make their mark.

Verdict

Peru may struggle to progress, but they have good team unity and Gareca is an excellent coach. With talisman Guerrero free to play, they could be a dangerous opponent.
Likely Team: Gallese; Advíncula, Rodríguez, Ramos, Trauco; Yotún, Tapia; Carrillo, Cueva, Farfán; Guerrero.

Denmark

Head Coach: Åge Hareide
Captain: Simon Kjær
Previous Appearances: 4 (1986, 1998, 2002, 2010)
Best Finish: Quarter-finals (1998)
Qualified: UEFA, 2nd Group E (beat Republic of Ireland in play-offs)
Qualification Top Scorer: Christian Eriksen (11)

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Kasper Schmeichel (Leicester City), 16. Jonas Lössl (Huddersfield Town), 22. Frederik Rønnow (Brøndby).
Defenders: 3. Jannik Vestergaard (Borussia Mönchengladbach), 4. Simon Kjær (Sevilla), 5. Jonas Knudsen (Ipswich Town), 6. Andreas Christensen (Chelsea), 13. Mathias Jørgensen (Huddersfield Town), 14. Henrik Dalsgaard (Brentford), 17. Jens Stryger Larsen (Udinese).
Midfielders: 2. Michael Krohn-Dehli (Deportivo La Coruña), 7. William Kvist (Copenhagen), 8. Thomas Delaney (Werder Bremen), 10. Christian Eriksen (Tottenham Hotspur), 18. Lukas Lerager (Bordeaux), 19. Lasse Schöne (Ajax).
Forwards: 9. Nicolai Jørgensen (Copenhagen), 11. Martin Braithwaite (Bordeaux), 12. Kasper Dolberg (Ajax), 15. Viktor Fischer (Copenhagen), 20. Yussuf Poulsen (Leipzig), 21. Andreas Cornelius (Atalanta), 23. Pione Sisto (Celta Vigo).

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Christian Eriksen celebrates one of the goals in his hat-trick during the last game of World Cup qualifying. Eriksen was Denmark’s leading scorer, and he is their best player.

Denmark travelled to Dublin for their last game of qualifying needing a win to progress to Russia, and Christian Eriksen stepped up with a brilliant hat-trick to send them through. Eriksen has gone from strength to strength in the last few years, and the attacking midfielder has developed into one of the world’s best. His creative talents mixed with a dangerous attack of Nicolai Jørgensen, Yussuf Poulsen and Andreas Cornelius will make for a potent mix. The rise of young guns Pione Sisto and Kasper Dolberg only adds to the depth at Åge Hareide’s disposal, and the Danish should not be short on goals. Down back, Simon Kjær and Andreas Christensen are a solid centre-back pairing backed up by quality defenders in Jannik Vestergaard and Mathias Jørgensen, and Kasper Schmeichel is a tough player to beat in goal. With a pair of strong holding midfielders in William Kvist and Thomas Delaney holding the team together, the Danish will be a very tough side to face.

There are some problems that Hareide will need to solve, however. The full-back situation is a major worry, with no clear starter on either side of the defence. Jens Stryger Larsen, Jonas Knudsen and Henrik Dalsgaard are all options, but none of them have made a spot in the side their own. The problems got so bad that Christensen was shifted to right-back for the all-important second leg of the play-offs, a scenario which is far from ideal. There are some issues in midfield, and while Kvist and Delaney are both imposing players in defence they can struggle to transition into attack. This is combined with a potential over-reliance on Eriksen, who scored nearly half of Denmark’s goals in qualifying. None of Hareide’s potential attacking options at the World Cup contributed more than two, and this could spell trouble if the side’s creative fulcrum is shut down.

Star Player: Christian Eriksen

Eriksen has developed from a classy playmaker to a bona-fide superstar in the last couple of years, and his hat-trick in the decisive qualifying game dragged Denmark into the final tournament. He has incredible vision, brilliant technical ability and the ability to provide a goal-scoring threat from distance, and he can be tough to stop if he gets going. He could be the player that sets Denmark apart in a competitive group.

Key Player: Thomas Delaney

Delaney has the potential to make an impact in both attack and defence, and he showcased his skills in qualifying with a hat-trick against Armenia. He has been in good form since moving to Werder Bremen, and Denmark will be relying on him to provide a strong midfield presence and give Eriksen some much-needed support in Russia. If he plays at his best, the Danes will be a formidable side.

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Thomas Delaney (right) battles for the ball during a friendly against Germany. Delaney will be a key player in the Danish midfield at the World Cup.

One to watch: Kasper Dolberg

Dolberg is a dangerous attacker who knows how to find the back of the net, and at just 20 he has a big future ahead. His performances this season weren’t quite as impressive as his first season at Ajax, but the versatile frontman has tremendous upside and can add something extra to the Danish attack. He could be the x-factor for Denmark in Russia, and he has the talent to make an impact.

Verdict

Denmark are a solid side all over the park with few glaring weaknesses, and they will be a hard team to beat. If Eriksen gets going and things fall their way, they could make a run into the knockout stages.
Likely Team (4-2-3-1): Schmeichel; Dalsgaard, Kjær, Christensen, Larsen; Delaney, Kvist; Poulsen, Eriksen, Sisto; Jørgensen.

Prediction

This group should be fairly tight, although the French are likely to go through comfortably barring a sudden and calamitous collapse (it can never be ruled out). For the rest, it is an intriguing race. Denmark are a solid side with established players, while Peru and Australia are largely unknown quantities heading into the tournament. The Australians are unlikely to make an impact without a big improvement defensively, and the match between the Danish and the Peruvians may be the one to watch. The Danish look like the best of the chasing pack, and the class of Eriksen may just separate them from their rivals. If anyone can take points off the French, they will probably move into the box seat.
1. France, 2. Denmark, 3. Peru, 4. Australia