2018 FIFA World Cup Review

It’s all over. A brilliant World Cup filled with excitement has ended with France taking their second World Cup title as many of football’s traditional giants crashed out earlier than expected. A semi-final line-up without Germany, Brazil, Spain and Argentina was certainly unexpected, but the teams that came through in their place delivered plenty of excitement and some quality performances. England looked a rejuvenated side under Gareth Southgate, and Belgium’s best ever side looked very dangerous on their way to the final four. Croatia had a dream run through to the final, showing resolve, skill and plenty of verve as they slugged it out with the consistent French in the tournament’s decider. It was a tournament full of excitement, and plenty of good memories will come from it. This review will take a look at the tournament, with the players and teams that impressed and the teams whose campaigns fell flat.

Best Team: France

It’s not often that a team wins the trophy as comfortably as the French did. They only trailed their opponents at one point during the tournament, with Argentina leading them 2-1 for less than 10 minutes. France then scored three goals in about 10 minutes, and that finished the Argentinians off. Everyone played well, with scarily young players standing tall (19-year-old winger Kylian Mbappé was particularly impressive) and all of France’s proven performers delivering when they needed to. They scored first in every game they played, and they breezed past some very dangerous opponents on their way to the title.

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France celebrate after their World Cup final win over Croatia. The French were comfortably the best side at the tournament, and their march to the trophy was as comfortable as it gets.

Best Fairytale: Croatia

There wasn’t a clear cut fairytale side at this tournament, but there was no shortage of contenders. England, with their young talents and newfound enthusiasm, made it further than any English side in 28 years and captivated a nation in the process. Russia, with the public just hoping the hosts didn’t embarrass themselves, made it all the way to the quarter-finals and knocked out Spain along the way. Sweden made a quarter-final despite having little more than a good system and exemplary team spirit, and Japan defied expectations to nearly make the last eight in spite of a managerial change just two months out from the tournament. In the end, though, Croatia’s journey was more impressive. They had skill, but they needed all of their resilience to go the distance against Denmark, Russia and England, and the 4-2 scoreline of the final didn’t really do them justice. They fought right to the end, and they put in some remarkable efforts along the way.

Biggest Disappointment: Germany

There were plenty of sides who disappointed at this tournament. Portugal and Argentina, despite being powered by two of the world’s biggest stars in Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, just scraped through to the round of 16 and found themselves exiting early. Spain were thrust into turmoil days out from the tournament when they sacked Julen Lopetegui, and they failed to fire amidst reports of division in the squad. Brazil were ominously solid in their first four games, but it all fell apart against the determined Belgians in the quarter-finals. In the end, however, all of these teams at least made the knockout stage. Germany didn’t. They looked uninterested and a shadow of the team which won the World Cup four years before, and they never really recovered from a shock opening defeat to Mexico. Their limp exit will have huge ramifications, as the Germans search for the reasons behind their dismal showing.

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South Korea’s players celebrate after upsetting Germany and eliminating them from the World Cup. Germany’s poor performance was unexpected, and it will have ramifications for the future.

Unluckiest Team: Morocco

There were plenty of teams who could be considered unlucky not to go further in this World Cup. Peru looked brilliant against Denmark, held their own against eventual champions France and beat Australia comfortably, and yet they couldn’t pass the group stage. In Group H, Senegal fell foul of the new fair play tiebreaker, thus squandering their chance to become the only African team to make it through. It was another African team, however, who were completely luckless. Morocco were the better team in all of their three games, but the Atlas Lions finished with just one point to show for it. They never took a backwards step, but a 95th minute own goal against Iran (who were also hard-done-by in the end) and a 1-0 loss to Portugal sealed their fate before the final game had been played. They were one of a few unlucky African sides, as none of the five CAF nations made it past the group stage.

Team of the Tournament

Picking the best combined team of the tournament was a difficult task. There were plenty of players who put in strong performances throughout the tournament, with plenty of attackers proving very difficult to separate. The team is picked in a 4-2-3-1 formation, and France’s dominance is reflected in the selection of six of their players in the side.

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Thibaut Courtois makes a diving save during Belgium’s quarter-final win over Brazil. Courtois won the golden glove for his performances as Belgium progressed to the semi-finals.

Goalkeeper: Thibaut Courtois (Belgium)
Courtois is a classy player. It’s not often a goalkeeper can be described in such terms, but Courtois is no regular goalkeeper. His unflustered air allows him to move with incredible grace, and his extraordinary reach allows him to make difficult saves look incredibly easy. In the end, he was the best of the goalkeepers who featured in the tournament’s final stages, and although Mexico’s Guillermo Ochoa and Denmark’s Kasper Schmeichel had brilliant tournaments neither of their sides made it far enough to warrant their selection.
Honourable mentions: Guillermo Ochoa (Mexico) and Kasper Schmeichel (Denmark)

Right-back: Thomas Meunier (Belgium)
There were two standout right-backs at this tournament, with Meunier playing some brilliant football on Belgium’s right-flank and Kieran Trippier performing a similar role for England with plenty of skill. The two shone at all stages of the tournament, with Trippier’s set piece delivery becoming an integral part of England’s game plan and Meunier’s crosses from the right causing plenty of issues for opposing defences, but in the end the third-place play-off between the teams decided the selection issue in Meunier’s favour. Fresh after missing the semi-final against France (his loss was a massive one) Meunier scored a goal against the English and showcased his attacking and defensive qualities in a brilliant performance.
Honourable mention: Kieran Trippier (England)

Centre-backs: Raphaël Varane (France) and Andreas Granqvist (Sweden)
Much like the French, Varane got better as the tournament progressed, and he had a big hand in their success with his aerial strength and his ability to match the world’s top strikers. He even provided a threat at the other end, scoring a couple of very nice goals. Granqvist was even more important for Sweden. He picked up a couple of goals from the penalty spot, and he used his imposing physique to good effect in some dominant defensive performances, and he thoroughly deserves his spot in this side. Others could have easily won a spot, with Diego Godín holding Uruguay’s defence together and Swiss young gun Manuel Akanji playing with a composure that belied his lack of international experience, but neither were quite able to get a spot.
Honourable mentions: Diego Godín (Uruguay) and Manuel Akanji (Switzerland)

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Andreas Granqvist celebrates after scoring Sweden’s first goal against South Korea. Granqvist was the main man in Sweden’s defence, and he was the key reason for their success.

Left-back: Lucas Hernández (France)
Of all the positions, left-back was one of the hardest to pick due to a lack of strongly performing players in the position. Hernández, however, was consistent throughout and gave France plenty with his excellent all-round performances. He was able to push forward when required and he swung in some dangerous crosses, but his defensive work stood out. He was composed under pressure, displaying an ability to cleverly draw fouls when France were in need of a breather. He had no real competition, and deserves a spot in this team.
Honourable mention: Yūto Nagatomo (Japan)

Central midfielders: Paul Pogba (France) and N’Golo Kanté (France)
Pogba and Kanté’s brilliant midfield performances ensured both men basically picked themselves, and there wasn’t anyone who really came close to dislodging either. Kanté was brilliant despite an underwhelming effort in the final, and no other holding midfielder was able to exact his level of influence on matches. Alongside Pogba, who pushed forward well and managed to score a key goal in the final, Kanté led the best midfield duo in the tournament – by some distance. Paulinho was good for Brazil, and some, like Ivan Rakitić and Aleksandr Golovin, showed some skills, but Pogba and Kanté’s consistency was unmatched.
Honourable mentions: Paulinho (Brazil), Aleksandr Golovin (Russia) and Ivan Rakitić (Croatia)

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N’Golo Kanté (left) and Paul Pogba (centre) chase Belgian captain Eden Hazard during France’s semi-final win. Kanté and Pogba complemented each other perfectly, and their efforts were a key part of France’s success.

Right-wing: Kylian Mbappé (France)
Mbappé was so good that he was the only possible winner of the award for best young player of the tournament, and he announced himself on the world stage with some breathtaking efforts. In two short bursts he brought Argentina to their knees, and he consistently made opposing defences nervous with his unbelievable pace and well-honed skills. He seemingly has it all, and his brilliant efforts allowed him to win a place in the team over all-action Croatian winger Ante Rebić. He already is a star, and at 19 it’s scary how good a player he could become.
Honourable mention: Ante Rebić (Croatia)

Attacking midfielder: Luka Modrić (Croatia, captain)
Modrić was a deserving winner of the golden ball for the tournament’s best player as he led Croatia to the final with his typically dependable performances. When he is in the zone, he can take a game by the scruff of the neck without anyone realising it, and his exceptional vision allowed Croatia’s talented attackers to thrive. Philippe Coutinho was brilliant in Brazil’s run to the last eight, but he was no match for Croatia’s captain and midfield star.
Honourable mention: Philippe Coutinho (Brazil)

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Luka Modrić (left) battles for the ball with Kylian Mbappé during the World Cup final. Modrić’s efforts in taking Croatia to the final earned him the golden ball, while Mbappé was the tournament’s best young player and burst onto the scene with some dynamic performances.

Left-wing: Antoine Griezmann (France)
There were plenty of dangerous wingers who could accompany Mbappé, with Belgium’s Eden Hazard playing well throughout, Russian winger Denis Cheryshev bursting onto the scene with some great performances and Croatia’s Ivan Perišić delivering massive efforts in the semi-finals and the final. In the end, however, the berth went to Griezmann. Griezmann didn’t actually play on the left-wing, instead starting centrally and drifting wherever he want, but he had a massive impact and he was simply too good to leave out.
Honourable mentions: Eden Hazard (Belgium), Denis Cheryshev (Russia) and Ivan Perišić (Croatia)

Centre-forward: Edinson Cavani (Uruguay)
Cavani scored three goals in four matches at the tournament, sending Uruguay into the quarter-finals with two sublime goals against Portugal and then missing the match with a calf injury. The impact his loss had on Uruguay’s play showed just how important his hard work in both defence and attack was, and makes him a deserving leader of the line over the more prolific but less influential Romelu Lukaku and Harry Kane. His effort was remarkable, and he brought plenty of class to Uruguay’s attack.
Honourable mention: Romelu Lukaku (Belgium)

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Germany crash out spectacularly against determined Koreans

Ju Se-jong won the ball in the middle of South Korea’s half. All of South Korea’s players were back trying desperately to defend their shock 1-0 lead over Germany, and the act of winning the ball shouldn’t have been too dangerous. Unfortunately for Germany, the man Ju dispossessed was their goalkeeper, Manuel Neuer, who had parked himself in attack to try and make something happen as the reigning world champions fought in vain to take the win they needed to avoid an embarrassing elimination. Ju slammed the ball long. In normal circumstances, a goalkeeper would be there to clean it up. Instead, the goalkeeper was so far away it wasn’t funny, and Niklas Süle, the one man in Germany’s defensive half, had no chance against the pace of Son Heung-min. Son tapped it in from close range, and Germany’s fate was emphatically sealed. You couldn’t make it up. You couldn’t make it up purely because the idea of Germany exiting a World Cup so early, let alone in such comical circumstances, was inconceivable.

Germany hadn’t started their campaign convincingly, but a last-gasp win over Sweden had seemed to set them back on track after a first-up defeat to Mexico. All they had to do was beat South Korea, who had been pretty poor in losing their first two games, and their progress would be basically sealed. The Germans came out like they knew that all they had to do was beat the South Koreans, and they treated their victory like a foregone conclusion. The result was a drab and uninspired first half performance, with the South Koreans repelling Germany’s slow attacking play with remarkable ease. The South Koreans weren’t much better, obviously wanting to play on the counter-attack but failing to hit the Germans on the break with any real conviction. Germany had dominated, but the score was still 0-0 when the teams went into the break for half time.

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Son Heung-min scores South Korea’s second goal into an open net. The goal rubbed salt into the Germans’ wounds, coming as it did with Manuel Neuer in the other half of the field.

The Germans came out brightly after play resumed, creating a couple of brilliant opportunities. Joshua Kimmich worked into space on the right, and Cho Hyun-woo’s brilliant full-length diving save was all that prevented Leon Goretzka from finding the back of the net. Minutes later, Mesut Özil found space in the box, and Germany were only denied by Timo Werner’s inability to put away the volley. South Korea posed more of an attacking threat, and Son’s darting run in behind the defence attested to that, but the Germans were controlling possession well and it didn’t really look like South Korea would score. The Germans continued to play without intensity, seeming to expect that eventually, they would break through.

Then things began to turn as the Germans started to find themselves denied in increasingly frustrating circumstances. Miscommunication between Özil and Marco Reus led to the ball rolling harmlessly out of bounds. Toni Kroos found space to shoot, and drilled it straight into the back of Goretzka’s legs. Mario Gómez got on the end of one of Kimmich’s excellent crosses, and headed it straight to Cho. Another dangerous ball fell for Gómez in a similar position, but Yun Suk-young got his foot in the way and denied Germany once again. The misses and blocks just kept adding up, and the Koreans continued to hold firm against a German attacking structure that was no more animated than it had been at the start of the game.

As the minutes ticked by, the Germans became increasingly concerned. Every South Korean attack seemed more dangerous than it was to the already keyed-up Germans, and the realisation that the game could end in a draw was starting to dawn on the players on the pitch. Suddenly the Germans were nervous, and they did the unthinkable: they began to panic. Mats Hummels had a brilliant chance, but the centre-back headed the ball square into his own shoulder and missed. Kroos sent a shot flying over the bar. Now the Germans were just hoping something would fall for them. Previously their build-up had looked certain but slow. As the clock ticked past 90 minutes, the build-up just looked uncertain.

Germany’s players react after the final whistle. The result was a massive shock, and such a humiliating defeat will have massive ramifications.

As the board went up to signify how much time was to be added on, the South Koreans were preparing to take a corner. The corner wasn’t the Germans’ concern. The time Son was taking over delivering it was. With Lee Yong receiving treatment after being hit in the groin by Kroos’ errant pass, the delay between the awarding of the corner and its actual delivery was becoming unsatisfactory for the increasingly desperate Germans. The South Koreans wouldn’t actually score it. Then they scored it. After a mad scramble, the ball fell to Kim Young-gwon, who blasted the ball into the back of the net from point blank range. Then they didn’t score it. Then they weren’t sure. The video assistant referee was called in, and players on both teams were left in limbo.

Kim had initially celebrated his goal, before his attention was drawn to the linesman with a raised flag. Replays showed that he had received the ball in an offside position, therefore invalidating his strike. Unfortunately for Germany, those same replays showed that the ball had last come off Kroos, therefore revalidating the goal, invalidating the offside goal, and leaving Germany in a very bad position. Confusion reigned, but the upshot was that Germany needed two goals in no time at all.

Son’s goal was the final nail in the coffin, and it came as Hummels missed two more headers at the other end and Cho made another stunning save to deny Julian Brandt. As the final whistle blew, in the 100th minute of the match, Germany’s fate was sealed. The margin of the defeat meant that they finished last in their group, and the nature of the defeat means that its full ramifications are yet to be seen. Pre-match, assurances were given that coach Joachim Löw’s position was safe no matter what, but given Germany’s storied history and immense footballing pride, this loss to South Korea may be the worst defeat they have ever suffered. Given Germany’s storied history and immense footballing pride, the mere thought of the Kazan Arena – and that game – may be the subject of German nightmares for years to come.

Kazan – Kazan Arena
South Korea 2 (Y G Kim 90+3, H M Son 90+6)
Germany 0
Referee: Mark Geiger (USA)
South Korea (4-4-2): H W Cho – Y Lee, Y S Yun, Y G Kim, C Hong; J S Lee, H S Jang, W Y Jung, S M Moon (S J Ju 69); J C Koo (H C Hwang 56 (Y H Go 79)), H M Son.
Germany (4-2-3-1): Neuer – Kimmich, Süle, Hummels, Hector (Brandt 78); Khedira (Gómez 58), Kroos; Goretzka (Müller 63), Özil, Reus; Werner.

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South Korean goalkeeper Cho Hyun-woo rises above all others to safely claim the ball. Cho played the game of his life to cap off a brilliant individual World Cup campaign.

Top 5
1. Cho Hyun-woo (South Korea)
Cho was brilliant throughout, always showing good judgement and pulling off some spectacular saves. After surprisingly being picked as the first-choice goalkeeper for South Korea’s first game, Cho has more than repaid the faith, and his extraordinary effort against the Germans led the Taeguk Warriors to a famous victory.
2. Kim Young-gwon (South Korea)
Kim’s added time goal was enough to get South Korea over the line, but it was his defensive work that kept his side in the game. He continued his excellent tournament by making plenty of good blocks and getting himself into good positions, and he played a huge role in the consolation win.
3. Joshua Kimmich (Germany)
Kimmich was one of the only German players who looked like creating something with his excellent crosses from the right wing, and his quality in attack will be one of the few positives Germany can take away from the wreckage of their catastrophic title defence. He nearly broke through on a few occasions, and that’s more than can be said for most.
4. Son Heung-min (South Korea)
Son was the subject of all of South Korea’s counter-attacks, and he became increasingly dangerous as the game progressed and more space opened up for him. He was slightly fortunate to bag such an easy goal against Germany’s non-existent defence, but it was a deserved reward for his efforts.
5. Marco Reus (Germany)
Reus was another German who fought hard all day, nearly making things happen on a few occasions as he combined with Özil and others in dangerous spots. His efforts through all three games have been fairly consistent, and he can hold his head high as one of the Germans’ lone bright spots.

Germany breathe a sigh of relief as Kroos classic leaves Sweden heartbroken

Toni Kroos stood over the free-kick. Germany’s crunch clash with Sweden was coming to an end, with the teams level and the Germans desperately searching for a winner. After nearly 95 minutes of action, the Germans were fighting to keep their World Cup destiny in their own hands, and the pressure of a nation’s high expectations sat on Kroos’ shoulders. The Germans didn’t expect to be in for a group stage fight when they came to Russia. Then their defence was decimated by Mexico’s lethal counter-attacks, and they sunk to a 1-0 loss. Now, with the score at 1-1 against the Swedes, and with just 10 men on the field, Germany were relying on Kroos. The recriminations if he couldn’t create something would be massive.

Kroos was on a tight angle which made shooting difficult. He shot anyway. He rolled the ball to Marco Reus, who trapped it and left it alone. In the Swedish wall, Jimmy Durmaz and Sebastian Larsson, free to run at the ball, attempted to charge Kroos down. They didn’t worry him. Having ever-so-slightly improved the angle, he stepped back up to the ball and took his shot. Robin Olsen didn’t stand a chance as the ball curved and, as if floating, bypassed his desperate dive. It was, thanks to its importance, timing and, above all, difficulty, a goal that will stick in the memory long after this tournament is done. Germany won, and Kroos’ classic strike may well have saved their tournament.

Germany got off to a fast start, shooting out of the blocks as if possessed and placing their opponents under immense pressure. The chances came thick and fast. Sweden clumsily dealt with Joshua Kimmich’s cross and required a desperate goal line block from Larsson to repel Julian Draxler’s shot from a dangerous position. Soon after, the ball was set up for Jonas Hector to volley, but Andreas Granqvist did well to interpose his body between ball and goal. The chances kept coming. Draxler slipped a half-cross-half-shot just past the post. Victor Lindelöf just managed to bundle the ball out when Reus slipped past Ludwig Augustinsson and centred the ball for Timo Werner. Less than 10 minutes had elapsed.

Toni Kroos celebrates after scoring Germany’s late winner. A German win wasn’t looking likely until Kroos found the back of the net with a well-hit shot into the top corner.

Signs of their vulnerabilities against Mexico did remain, and Sweden managed to exploit them once or twice. Just under 15 minutes had gone when Antonio Rüdiger made a mistake in possession and Marcus Berg surged towards the German goal. He was only denied by a questionable challenge from Jérôme Boateng and a typically excellent save from an onrushing Manuel Neuer. Sweden continued to protest Boateng’s non-punishment for a good five minutes, but no change in decision was forthcoming. After Germany’s early surge pushed Sweden to the brink, the heat had gone out of the game, and the Swedish defence was looking much more assured. Then Sweden scored.

As was the case against Mexico, Germany conceded from a turnover. The normally solid Kroos made an uncharacteristic mistake in possession, allowing Sweden to flood forward in transition. The ball found Viktor Claesson, whose lofted pass towards the centre found Ola Toivonen. Toivonen held off Antonio Rüdiger as he controlled the ball, and with the big centre-back lunging desperately to stop him the Swedish striker lifted the ball over Neuer towards the back of the net. Time seemed to stand still as Toivonen’s shot, aided by a slight deflection from Rüdiger, looped towards the goal line. As it finally buried itself in the back of the net, it cued delirium for Sweden and devastation for Germany. Suddenly, Germany were on the brink of the unthinkable: a group stage exit.

Olsen denied the Germans shortly afterwards with two brilliant stops in rapid succession. İlkay Gündoğan started it, forcing the Swedish keeper into a diving parry, and when he only managed a slight – and slightly inadvertent – deflection on Thomas Müller’s follow-up effort it looked as if the Germans had scored. Mercifully for Sweden, and agonisingly for Germany, the ball rolled just wide of the goalpost while a now helpless Olsen watched on. Sweden continued to make occasional forays forward, with Claesson denied by a last-ditch challenge from Hector and Berg forcing Neuer to pull out a stunning save with a brilliant header, but they couldn’t add to their lead. They didn’t really have to. When the half time whistle blew, Toivonen’s goal was still the difference between the sides.

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Jérôme Boateng is shown the red card by referee Szymon Marciniak. The decision left Germany with only 10 men, but it didn’t stop them from winning the match.

Germany needed to respond after half time, and they did. Finally, after a catastrophic defeat against Mexico and a potentially scandalous first half against Sweden, the Germans found the back of the net. Finally, they responded with their backs against the wall. It came from Werner, who slipped through on the left and pulled the ball back looking for one of his attackers. He had options. It went past Müller, rolling on through and taking a slight deflection off Lindelöf. It went behind Mario Gómez, taking a slight deflection off the half time substitute on the way. It went to Reus, and he didn’t miss. He bundled the ball past Olsen, and Germany breathed a slight sigh of relief. It wasn’t pretty, and it came straight off his knee, but Germany didn’t care.

There was still the small matter of winning the game, and the second half passed without too much goalmouth action. The Germans were on top in terms of possession and territory, but time seemed to fly as they pressed the Swedish defence without creating too many chances. Sweden still had some opportunities, and Neuer only just recovered from losing his balance in time to stop John Guidetti from getting on the end of a very dangerous ball. Then Boateng, already booked for a poor challenge on Emil Forsberg, took out Berg’s legs. Szymon Marciniak had no choice but to send him off, and Germany’s task got a lot harder. They kept pushing, but it looked like they were going to be denied.

They started to find better chances as the game entered its final moments. Kroos put in a beautiful cross, and Gómez met it with a perfectly-timed header. It seemed destined for the back of the net before Olsen reacted. He leapt to tap it over the bar, keeping the Germans at bay. Julian Brandt came off the bench and had a chance when he found space to shoot outside the box. His shot was driven with tremendous force. It had Olsen completely beaten. It also rammed into the bottom of the post, leaving the Swedish goal threatened but unharmed. Then, with seconds left, Kroos scored. It didn’t erase the stress of the first two games. It didn’t completely undo the harm that Germany have done their World Cup chances. But it put their fate back in their hands, and that’s all that matters.

Sochi – Fisht Olympic Stadium
Germany 1 (Reus 48, Kroos 90+5)
Sweden 1 (Toivonen 32)
Referee: Szymon Marciniak (Pol)
Germany (4-2-3-1): Neuer – Kimmich, Boateng, Rüdiger, Hector (Brandt 87); Rudy (Gündoğan 31), Kroos; Müller, Draxler (Gómez 46), Reus; Werner.
Sent-off: Boateng 82
Sweden (4-4-2): Olsen – Lustig, Lindelöf, Granqvist, Augustinsson; Claesson (Durmaz 74), Larsson, Ekdal, Forsberg; Berg (Kiese Thelin 90), Toivonen (Guidetti 78).

Top 5
1. Marco Reus (Germany)
Reus scored the crucial equalising goal, and created plenty of chances with his movement in attacking midfield. His ability to make things happen in and around the penalty area more than justified his selection over Mesut Özil, and he seems to be in excellent form.
2. Andreas Granqvist (Sweden)
Granqvist led the Swedish defence, and he was in top form as they held firm until the last minute. He was always determined to stop his opponents, and he pulled off some excellent pieces of defensive play throughout. He has been in excellent form, and he will be the key to Sweden’s chances as they aim to beat the odds and make the second round.
3. Toni Kroos (Germany)
Kroos was largely responsible for Sweden’s goal, but he built into the match as it went on and he played a crucial role in the win with his brilliant late goal. He was usually solid in possession, and his class began to assert itself as the game came to a close. His winner was incredible.
4. Timo Werner (Germany)
A half time switch to the left-wing paid dividends for Werner, who began to attack the Swedish defence from wide areas and put dangerous balls into the box. He assisted Reus for the equaliser, and his combination with Hector provided Germany’s most potent second half threat.
5. Robin Olsen (Sweden)
Olsen made some brilliant saves to deny the Germans, and his work improved as the game went on. His double save to deny Gündoğan and Müller and his reflex stop to deny Gómez’s brilliant header kept the Swedish in the game.

Mexican blitz brings Germans undone

“Football is a simple game. Twenty-two men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans win.”

These famous words were spoken by Gary Lineker, and they still ring true to this day. Now expertly coached by Joachim Löw and full of champion players, the Germans entered the World Cup among the favourites. Sure, there were slight questions about their form heading in to their tournament opener against Mexico, but if the first game of the tournament isn’t dedicated to blowing away a few cobwebs then what’s the point of it? They’re Germany, after all.

The signs of German fragility were there from the start, but, surely, they’d be right. The Mexicans started the game with a fast attack that gave Hirving Lozano space to take a shot, and although Jérôme Boateng threw himself in front of Lozano’s effort the danger was apparent. The sides had played less than a minute. From the resultant corner, Marvin Plattenhardt let the ball hit him and roll into a very dangerous area. Manuel Neuer, in his first competitive game since September, threw himself on top of the ball, but the nerves were there. The ball was turned over in their defensive half, and Mexico were looking increasingly dangerous on the break. They were playing well, but the Germans were just working into it. Nothing to see here. They’re Germany, after all.

The Germans were still a threat in attack. Timo Werner’s early shot trailed across the face of goal, and Carlos Salcedo was nearly forced into turning the ball into his own net. Right-back Joshua Kimmich was a constant threat on the right flank. He may have been caught out a few times by the scintillating combination of Carlos Vela, Javier Hernández and the dangerous Lozano, but Germany were still holding up. Would Germany’s defence crack? Surely not before Mexico’s. They’re Germany, after all.

Hirving Lozano celebrates after scoring the only goal of the game. Lozano showed all of his class and power in finishing the chance after a well-executed breakaway.

Then Germany’s defence cracked. Mats Hummels was out of position, and Hernández had time and space to find Lozano on the left side of the area. One touch beat Mesut Özil, who had worked desperately to get back and help out, and another set him up for the shot. As for the finish, it was lashed into the bottom corner, barely managing to elude Neuer’s desperate dive. But surely it wasn’t time to panic just yet. An early goal was just the motivation Germany needed to start playing their best football. It’d turn around. They’re Germany, after all.

The goal seemed to be the incentive to greater heights the Germans needed. They began to play with renewed vigour, putting the Mexicans on the back foot and forcing Guillermo Ochoa to make an incredible save to tap Toni Kroos’ near-perfect free-kick into the bar. Mexico held their lead for the rest of the first half, but it couldn’t last against Kroos, Müller, Werner, Draxler, Özil and Kimmich. They’re Germany, after all.

The Germans began to dominate proceedings as the second half commenced. Mexico weren’t counter-attacking or pressing like they had been in the first half, and they were sitting ducks against a constant wave of German attack after German attack. There was no one chance that could be pinpointed. Instead, every moment seemed to contain a chance for the Germans to grab the equaliser. Mexico were holding out well, but the Germans would soon get the leveller. They’re Germany, after all.

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Joshua Kimmich runs with the ball during the match. Kimmich provided Germany with an attacking threat from right-back, but Mexico also managed to exploit his aggressive positioning.

Löw tried to turn things around. He gutted his midfield, then his defence, to reinforce his attack. Against Germany’s back two of Boateng and Hummels, Miguel Layún threatened with a couple of raids on the break. At the other end, the chances were piling up. Kimmich’s overhead kick was just wide. Ochoa made save after save. Mario Gómez had a brilliant headed chance, but somehow lifted it over the bar. After a pinball style sequence within the German penalty area, Julian Brandt unleashed a murderous looking strike on the edge of the box, but it cleaved the air just wide of the left goalpost. An equaliser just had to come. They are Germany, right?

And yet, Germany or not, Mexico continued to keep them at bay. Thomas Müller and Hummels gave away unnecessary yellow cards in frustration. Neuer was moved forward in the desperate final moments, and still the Mexicans refused to budge. The final whistle followed shortly afterwards, signalling the end of the match and confirming Mexico’s monumental triumph against the odds. Mexican fans rejoiced in a brilliant victory that will shape the rest of this competition, and the players rushed onto the field to celebrate a confidence-boosting win. For once, the aura of invincibility that has cloaked Germany’s recent performances was shattered. For once, the Germans didn’t win.

Moscow – Luzhniki Stadium
Germany 0
Mexico 1 (Lozano 35)
Referee: Alireza Faghani (Irn)
Germany (4-2-3-1): Neuer – Kimmich, Boateng, Hummels, Plattenhardt (Gómez 79); Khedira (Reus 60), Kroos; Müller, Özil, Draxler; Werner (Brandt 86).
Mexico (4-2-3-1): Ochoa – Salcedo, Ayala, Moreno, Gallardo; Herrera, Guardado (Márquez 73); Layún, Vela (Álvarez 58), Lozano (Jiménez 66); Hernández.

Javier Hernández (right) and Carlos Vela chase after the ball during Mexico’s upset win. Hernández and Vela played a key role in breaking down Germany’s defence.

Top 5
1. Javier Hernández (Mexico)
Hernández was in excellent form throughout, providing the assist for Mexico’s goal and keeping up his dangerous runs on the break for the entirety of the match. The open spaces provided to him by Germany’s attacking full-backs allowed him to wreak havoc, and his combination with Vela, Lozano and Layún formed a mobile attack that repeatedly picked the German defence apart.
2. Guillermo Ochoa (Mexico)
Mexico’s dynamic attack gave them the lead, but without Ochoa there to deny the Germans it wouldn’t have counted for much. His save to deny Kroos’ brilliant free-kick was top class, and was one of many excellent stops he made on the day. He showed all of his experience in denying the reigning champions, and will take plenty of confidence from his efforts.
3. Toni Kroos (Germany)
Kroos allowed the Germans to control the game with his work in the middle of the park, dictating all of their attacks and often directing traffic to players in dangerous positions. He had Germany’s best chance of the match with his almost flawless free-kick, and his ability to pick out incisive passes made him one of the most dangerous players on the pitch.
4. Hirving Lozano (Mexico)
Lozano scored the only goal of the match, and he exploited the void left by Kimmich’s high positioning to devastating effect. He showed a brilliant first touch and an incredible control over the ball when it fell at his feet, and his finish to pick up the Mexican goal was classy and powerful at the same time. If he keeps this form up he will be a force at this tournament.
5. Carlos Vela (Mexico)
Vela may have been subbed off just before the hour but he was still able to leave an indelible mark on the game. His pace through the middle was a key factor in Mexico’s early counter-attacking success, and he picked out some brilliant passes playing in behind Hernández. His pace and skill created massive problems for the German defence.

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 F

Group F

Teams (world ranking in brackets): Germany (1), Mexico (15), Sweden (24), South Korea (57)
Fixtures:
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

Germany

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)

Squad

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.

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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.

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.

Verdict

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.

Mexico

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)

Squad

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.

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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.

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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.

Verdict

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.

Sweden

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)

Squad

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.

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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.

Verdict

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.

South Korea

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)

Squad

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.

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.

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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.

Verdict

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.

Prediction

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

UEFA Euro 2016 Knockout Stage Preview – Germany vs France

Germany vs France, Stade Velodrome, Marseille


Match Log

Germany

Germany 2 (Mustafi 19, Schweinsteiger 90+2), Ukraine 0
Germany 0, Poland 0
Northern Ireland 0, Germany 1 (Gomez 30)
Germany 3 (Boateng 8, Gomez 43, Draxler 63), Slovakia 0
Germany 1 (Ozil 65), Italy 1 (Bonucci 78 pen) (a.e.t, Germany won 6-5 on penalties)

France

France 2 (Giroud 57, Payet 89), Romania 1 (Stancu 65 pen)
France 2 (Griezmann 90, Payet 90+6), Albania 0
Switzerland 0, France 0
France 2 (Griezmann 58, 61), Republic of Ireland 1 (Brady 2 pen)
France 5 (Giroud 12, 59, Pogba 20, Payet 43, Griezmann 45), Iceland 2 (Sigthorsson 56, Bjarnason 84)

Top Scorers

Germany

2 – Mario Gomez.
1 – Jerome Boateng, Julian Draxler, Shkodran Mustafi, Mesut Ozil, Bastian Schweinsteiger.

France

4 – Antoine Griezmann.
3 – Olivier Giroud, Dimitri Payet.
1 – Paul Pogba.

Team News

Germany

Mario Gomez and Sami Khedira are both ruled out with injuries, and Bastian Schweinsteiger is in serious doubt with a knee problem. Furthermore, Mats Hummels picked up a second booking against Italy and is suspended, leaving Joachim Low with some serious selection issues. The Germans are likely to revert back to a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Julian Draxler and Mario Gotze returning to play on the wings and Emre Can replacing Khedira. Thomas Muller should fill the void left by Gomez up front.
Likely team (4-2-3-1): Neuer – Kimmich, Howedes, Boateng, Hector; Can, Kroos; Draxler, Ozil, Gotze; Muller.

France

N’Golo Kante and Adil Rami are back from suspension, and it is likely that Samuel Umtiti and Moussa Sissoko will make way to accommodate their returns. Didier Deschamps has no other injury or suspension concerns, and he is not likely to make any big changes after a convincing 5-2 win over Iceland.
Likely team (4-3-3): Lloris – Sagna, Rami, Koscielny, Evra; Matuidi, Kante, Pogba; Griezmann, Giroud, Payet.

Keys to success

Germany

The Germans are likely to make three forced changes to the side that beat Italy on penalties, and the replacements will need to step up. The midfield will lose some of its solidity in the absence of Khedira, and the defence will need to be ready to deal with the step-up in pressure. With so many big outs the Germans will rely on Mesut Ozil, Toni Kroos and Thomas Muller to step-up and get them through, and these players have to fire.

France

The French were in top form against Iceland, and they will be looking to play even better against the Germans. Dimitri Payet, Olivier Giroud and Antoine Griezmann have formed an incredibly dangerous combination, and they will look to keep up their excellent form. Paul Pogba and Blaise Matuidi looked very good against Iceland, and they will look to assert themselves over a relatively weak German midfield.

Prediction

This game is shaping up as a thriller, and it is very hard to see who will come out on top. The German defence is likely to face their toughest challenge yet from the French attack, and without Hummels they could struggle. The French are likely to gain the supremacy in midfield, but the Germans are clinical in possession and have the ability to hurt at the other end while keeping France at bay. Germany 2-1.