Mexico’s fight not enough against clinical Brazilians

Fernandinho picked out Neymar in acres of space. It was a rare treat for Neymar, who had seemingly been hacked, stamped on and brutalised every time he received the ball. With Mexico’s defence caught out, Brazil’s talismanic winger surged forward, revelling in the chance to show his markers a clean pair of heels. Unlike Mexico’s attackers, whose play was riddled with unnecessary touches in the final third, Neymar just ran straight at the Mexican goal, making no beelines and clearly outstripping the futile attempts to pursue him. Eventually, he found himself one-on-one with Guillermo Ochoa, and with a brilliant chance to score his second goal and seal Brazil’s place in the quarter-finals. Ochoa, not for the first time, denied Brazil with an excellent save, getting his foot to Neymar’s shot to keep it from finding the back of the net. Not for the first time, his defence let him down. Roberto Firmino, introduced from the bench a few minutes earlier, won the race to the ball, and scored with a straightforward tap in. Brazil were through, and Mexico’s World Cup campaign was over.

Brazil looked distinctly off colour in the opening exchanges as Mexico started confidently. The Mexicans never really threatened Alisson in the Brazilian goal, with many of their attempts being blocked and most of their attacks lacking a clinical touch in the final third, but the warning signs were there. More worryingly for Brazil, their attacks looked disjointed and unthreatening, and they didn’t lay a glove on the Mexican defence for much of the first half hour. At one point, Brazil won a throw-in, and Fagner managed to throw it to none of his teammates. Mexico went up the field dangerously, but Hirving Lozano couldn’t complete a cross in the final third. That one piece of play was an almost perfect representation of Brazil’s fragility and Mexico’s poor conversion of opportunities.

Then Neymar made something happen. He danced past Edson Álvarez and Hugo Ayala, and forced Guillermo Ochoa into a save with a shot from a ridiculously tight angle. He never had a realistic chance of scoring, but the ball began to ping around the Mexican defence, causing chaos at every turn. When Philippe Coutinho blasted a shot over the bar Mexico could breathe after a minute or two of goalmouth action, but the warning was clear. Mexico hadn’t forced Alisson into a difficult save despite all of their dangerous-looking attacks, while one run from Neymar had nearly broken their defence open.

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Roberto Firmino scores Brazil’s second goal from point-blank range. Firmino’s goal snuffed out any hopes Mexico had of causing an upset and progressing to the quarter-finals.

There were more signs of Brazil’s danger in the minutes that followed. Neymar found space on the left, and only an excellent slide tackle from Álvarez kept him from breaking through. More bedlam in the box ensued when Gabriel Jesus ran into space and fired a left-footed shot at Ochoa, who parried it away. Even that wasn’t enough, as Brazil got another shot away and it had to be cleared off the line. Neymar won a free-kick, and Álvarez found himself in the book, when the young right-back kicked at the ball and instead upended the Brazilian superstar rather emphatically. Neymar’s free-kick whizzed past the bar. Brazil had found their mojo, and it wasn’t looking too good for Mexico when the half time whistle blew.

Brazil kept pushing after the break, and they were soon ahead. They started well as Coutinho ran straight through the Mexican defence and Ochoa needed all of his reflexes to bat the ball away. They scored a few minutes later. Neymar started it, darting in from the left and playing a brilliant back-heel for Willian as the Brazilian wingers crossed over. Willian took a fraction of a second to weigh up his options before taking a heavy touch and bursting past the Mexican defence to find space in the box. His dangerous ball across goal beat Ochoa’s dive, and no Mexican defender was there to clear the ball away. Instead, Jesus and Neymar were sliding in, hoping to capitalise. Jesus just missed it, but Neymar connected and steered the ball into the back of the net.

Mexico kept playing with verve and ambition, but they couldn’t break down the Brazilian defence. Alisson finally needed to make a save when Vela unleashed a dangerous looking shot on the break, and he casually tipped the ball over the bar. His manner suggested he could have saved the shot with his eyes closed. Mostly, however, they took one touch too many, or missed passes, or did both. In the end, Brazil’s centre-backs had a busy but not too difficult time getting in the way of Mexico’s attempts on goal, and the Mexicans didn’t really look like scoring. It was a different story at the other end, where Ochoa was still making all of the tough saves. He needed to act quickly to deny Paulinho and Willian after good attacking moves, and Brazil’s attacks seemed to become more and more threatening as Mexico pushed harder and space began to open up.

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Neymar reacts after receiving a stamp on the foot from Miguel Layún. Layún wasn’t punished for the incident, but it showed the heated nature of the contest.

In the middle of it all, there were the fouls. Neymar, and to a lesser extent his teammates, were treated very physically by the Mexican defenders, culminating in a touchline incident which left Neymar writhing on the ground in seeming agony and Miguel Layún fiercely protesting his innocence. More fouls were committed as the game drew on, most of them emanating from overly rough Mexican defence, but Brazil kept their heads and kept marching on. The second goal, starting with some good play in the middle and displaying the clinical touch Mexico lacked, was a fitting way to end a slightly nervous but ultimately comfortable win. They’re in the quarter-finals, and they are sure to be a tough opponent.

Samara – Cosmos Arena
Brazil 2 (Neymar 51, Roberto Firmino 88)
Mexico 0
Referee: Gianluca Rocchi (Ita)
Brazil (4-2-3-1): Alisson – Fagner, Thiago Silva, Miranda, Filipe Luís; Paulinho (Fernandinho 80), Casemiro; Willian (Marquinhos 90+1), Philippe Coutinho (Roberto Firmino 86), Neymar; Gabriel Jesus.
Mexico (4-3-3): Ochoa – Álvarez (J dos Santos 55), Ayala, Salcedo, Gallardo; Herrera, Márquez (Layún 46), Guardado; Lozano, Hernández (Jiménez 60), Vela.

Top 5
1. Willian (Brazil)
Willian was patchy in the group stages, but he found his best form against Mexico with a dynamic performance on the right wing. He created Neymar’s first goal, and plenty of good things came when he ran at the Mexican defence with purpose and composure. Above all, he looked confident, something that bodes well for the road ahead.
2. Neymar (Brazil)
Neymar knows how to make things happen. He won countless free-kicks thanks to Mexico’s overly physical treatment of him, but he continued to get up and he was rewarded with a goal and an assist. When he had space to run with the ball he put the Mexicans under pressure.
3. Guillermo Ochoa (Mexico)
Ochoa completed a brilliant tournament with another stunning performance in the Mexican goal, parrying a number of dangerous looking shots to safety and repelling attack after attack with his reflexes and excellent positioning. It’s hard to know what more he could have done.
4. Philippe Coutinho (Brazil)
Coutinho’s excellent form continued with another strong effort in attacking midfield, and his combinations with almost all of his teammates had good results. He worked into little pockets of space perfectly, and he found plenty of room to take on his dangerous shots from outside the box. He looks like the creative force Brazil need to go a long way.
5. Andrés Guardado (Mexico)
With Rafael Márquez drafted into the starting line-up Guardado was freed to push further up the field early on, and he challenged the Brazilians with some good runs and some dangerous crosses. In the second half, with Márquez removed, he played well in a more defensive role, showing his versatility and his determination to give his all.

Mexico progress, but confidence in tatters after Swedish blitz

Bizarre scenes ensued as the final whistle blew to end Mexico’s clash with Sweden. In the stands, the majority Mexican crowd was cheering, having learned of Germany’s spectacular collapse against the South Koreans. On the pitch, the Mexican players huddled together, reeling from a shock 3-0 defeat and thinking their World Cup campaign was over despite starting their tournament with two wins. The Swedish were happily oblivious to the impromptu Mexican gathering that was taking place in the middle of the pitch, instead contenting themselves with celebrating the crushing victory which emphatically sealed their spot at the top of a volatile Group F. Eventually, relief washed over Mexico as they learned of Germany’s demise, but the scars of an unexpected and crushing defeat will remain as they head for the round of 16.

It didn’t start well for Mexico. Referee Néstor Pitana dispensed the fastest yellow card in World Cup history, with Mexican left-back Jesús Gallardo going in the book after less than 15 seconds. The resultant free-kick was headed across goal by Marcus Berg and was only just dealt with by the Mexican defence. Not long afterwards, Mexican goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa was penalised for handling the ball outside the box, and was forced to make a reflex save to deny Emil Forsberg’s free-kick. Berg and Andreas Granqvist combined to make Mexico very nervous as they got on the end of Ludwig Augustinsson’s corner, with Berg’s overhead kick only just missing the goal.

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Hirving Lozano (left) and Sebastian Larsson battle for the ball. Larsson was booked for the challenge, and a previous yellow card means that he will be suspended for Sweden’s round of 16 clash as a result.

Carlos Vela had a great chance at the other end when Sweden turned the ball over in a dangerous position, but he couldn’t quite test out the desperate dive of Robin Olsen with a shot that just flew wide. Mexico hadn’t quite weathered the storm, however. Forsberg had a brilliant opportunity when he got on the end of Mikael Lustig’s perfect cross, but he sent his shot flying over the bar.  Pitana checked for a potential handball in the box with the aid of technology, and Swedish coach Janne Andersson was fuming when the Argentinian referee determined that Javier Hernández had not committed an offence and no penalty was given. Ochoa was called into action almost immediately afterwards, tapping the ball over the bar from close range. Mexico started to get more opportunities, but the Swedish were still on top when the half time whistle blew.

The first goal came just after half time, with Augustinsson finding the back of the net after Berg’s cross bobbled around in the box. Viktor Claesson was in position to score when Berg rolled the ball in from the right, but he couldn’t hit his shot well enough and the ball looped up off his boot. As luck would have it, Augustinsson was perfectly positioned to take advantage of his teammates miscued shot, having pushed into the box from his normal defensive position. The left-back slammed it goalward, and it had too much force for Ochoa. The Mexican keeper got a touch, but he was never going to keep it out. Then, not long afterwards, centre-back Granqvist scored the second.

Héctor Moreno gave away the penalty which really put Mexico in trouble. Berg found some space to run into the box, and Moreno slid in from behind, took his legs out and conceded the penalty. Beads of sweat dripped down Granqvist’s forehead as he prepared to take the penalty, suggesting the Swedish captain was nervous. If he was, it didn’t affect his kick. The penalty was perfect, stroked above Ochoa’s dive and into the top corner. Sweden’s lead was doubled, and the Mexicans were in deep trouble. Juan Carlos Osorio threw attackers on, hoping against hope that his team could reduce the deficit, but they faced a determined Swedish defence who were ready to stop them at every turn. They only ended up going further behind.

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Guillermo Ochoa tries in vain to stop Andreas Granqvist’s excellent penalty. Ochoa did all he could, but the Mexican keeper couldn’t prevent the Swedish from turning their dominance into goals.

The third goal was a farce. Claesson heaved a long throw into the box, and the Mexicans panicked. Isaac Kiese Thelin managed to beat both Moreno and Carlos Salcedo in the air, and he flicked the ball towards the goalmouth. Ola Toivonen fought desperately to get a touch on the ball, but it eventually eluded his lunge and found its way to Edson Álvarez, who attempted a clearance. Somehow, Álvarez’s clearance never made it out of his own six-yard box. He muffed his attempted kick, and his poorly hit clearance ricocheted into his other leg and rolled into the back of his own net. There have been an unusually high number of own goals this tournament, but none have been quite so comical.

Mexico had chances as the game wound down, but they were struggling to get one goal, let alone three. Sweden’s defence was unyielding, and they held on to a clean sheet to cap off a near-perfect performance that will fill them with confidence heading into the knockout stages. For Mexico, their horror performance will have impacted their confidence going into the round of 16, and progress beyond that point suddenly seems a long way off.

Yekaterinburg – Central Stadium
Mexico 0
Sweden 3 (Augustinsson 50, Granqvist 62 pen, Álvarez 74 og)
Referee: Néstor Pitana (Arg)
Mexico (4-2-3-1): Ochoa – Álvarez, Salcedo, Moreno, Gallardo (Fabián 64); Guardado (J M Corona 75), Herrera; Layún (Peralta 89), Vela, Lozano; Hernández.
Sweden (4-4-2): Olsen – Lustig, Lindelöf, Granqvist, Augustinsson; Claesson, Larsson (Svensson 57), Ekdal (Hiljemark 80), Forsberg; Berg (Kiese Thelin 68), Toivonen.

Top 5
1. Andreas Granqvist (Sweden)
In terms of size, Granqvist was the biggest player on the pitch, and he seemed to tower above all others thanks to his sheer presence in the air. He was rarely, if ever, beaten in an aerial duel, he was always in good defensive positions and he even managed to score a penalty at the other end. A truly dominant defensive performance.
2. Guillermo Ochoa (Mexico)
Ochoa stood up once again for the Mexicans, making some truly brilliant saves to deny Sweden as they besieged the Mexican goal in the first half. He kept them in the game, but he couldn’t clear up all of their defensive errors and he really couldn’t have done much to stop the three goals.
3. Ludwig Augustinsson (Sweden)
Augustinsson scored a rare goal running forward from left-back, and his attacking raids were a handy addition to his typically solid defensive work. He put in some nice crosses, and put the Mexican defence under a bit of pressure on the overlap while staying in good positions when Mexico attacked.
4. Marcus Berg (Sweden)
Berg managed to play a key role with his aerial work in the box and his ability to get into good positions. He has been extraordinarily unlucky not to score in all of Sweden’s three games, and he won the penalty which all but sealed the win for the Swedes.
5. Viktor Claesson (Sweden)
Claesson did plenty of hard work on the right flank, and it was his poorly dealt with long throw which created Sweden’s third goal. He was energetic in attack and defence, and he was involved in most of Sweden’s play thanks to his desire to chase the ball.

Son scores late, but Mexico get the win

Son Heung-min received the ball on the edge of the box in the dying moments of South Korea’s clash against Mexico. Very little had happened since Mexico took a two-goal lead midway through the second half, and the intensity had since disappeared from the contest as both sides went through the motions. Son readied himself to try a shot at the Mexican goal with his lethal left boot. There wasn’t much reason to think South Korea’s star would be successful, having failed to score with eight previous shots, many in better positions than this one. This shot, however, was perfect. Guillermo Ochoa had previously been unbeatable in goal, but this time he had no chance as Son curled the ball past his desperate full-length dive and into the back of the net. Two minutes still remained, and Son’s goal ensured Mexico were set for a nervous finish. Their experience kicked in, and they ran down the little time remaining with no real fuss. For South Korea, it was too little, too late.

Mexico controlled possession early, but they couldn’t find too many chances against a well-organised South Korean defence who were willing to play physical. Hirving Lozano, the goal-scorer in Mexico’s upset win over Germany, came in for particularly rough treatment from right-back Lee Yong, suffering a number of fouls in the opening minutes. It was South Korea, however, who had the better opportunities on the break. Lozano saved Mexico’s blushes when Moon Seon-min and Hwang Hee-chan combined to cross the ball dangerously for Lee Yong, getting in the way of Lee’s murderous swing of the boot to ensure the right-back never connected with the ball. As the game went on, South Korea started to get more chances on the break. Son came particularly close to scoring, with Carlos Salcedo getting back to block the shot and Héctor Moreno blocking the follow-up effort. Son’s third shot in the space of seconds was deflected out for a corner, and when Ki Sung-yueng’s well-placed header was tapped over the bar by Ochoa it looked like the Mexicans were under a bit of pressure. Then Mexico scored.

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Son Heung-min looks on after the final whistle. Son had a big game, taking nine shots and netting a late goal, but it wasn’t enough to get South Korea over the line.

It started with a counter-attack. Mexico’s swift counter-attacks had torn the German defence to shreds in their opening match, but their control over possession and territory had deprived them of the chance to hit South Korea on the break. Now, with South Korea committed to the attack, the Mexicans struck. Kim Min-woo’s error allowed Miguel Layún to collect the ball in acres of space, but his ball across goal was too far away from a sliding Lozano for the left-winger to convert. If South Korea thought that was the end of the danger, however, they were wrong. The previously organised Korean defence was still out of shape when, seconds later, Andrés Guardado’s cross struck centre-back Jang Hyun-soo flush on the arm and Milorad Mažić pointed to the spot. Cho Hyun-woo did his best to draw an error, delaying the taking of the penalty and jumping around as Carlos Vela approached the ball, but Vela made no mistake.

There were few other chances as the half drew to a close, with Layún and Lozano getting into great positions but failing to hit the target and Ochoa coming off his line well to deny Son as he got in behind the Mexican defence. Then, in the second half, Mexico began to find more space, and the chances began to flow more freely. Lozano and Javier Hernández took on (and missed) shots from distance. Guardado found space just inside the box, and forced Cho Hyun-woo into a full-length dive to deny his left-footed strike. Lozano managed to slip in behind once again, but he was denied by Ki’s sliding block. Vela’s shot came perilously close to the top corner, but just missed. Then, with Korea throwing players forward to try and erase the deficit, Mexico struck again.

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Javier Hernández (left) beats Jang Hyun-soo before scoring Mexico’s second goal. The goal gave Mexico a seemingly unassailable lead, although they were challenged when Son Heung-min scored late.

Héctor Herrera started the break by dispossessing Ki, and eventually the ball found Lozano with Mexico’s defence in tatters. Lozano charged down the middle with options on either side, and he eventually chose to pass to the open Hernández on the left. The striker took one touch, watched as Jang slid harmlessly past him in an attempt to block a shot that hadn’t yet come, and slotted it effortlessly past the helpless Cho. Mexico had a two-goal buffer, South Korea were beginning to draw the ire of Mažić with their aggressive challenges, and the game seemed all but over.

Before Son’s very late consolation goal, there was little to suggest that Mexico’s lead would be seriously challenged. A poor back-pass from Rafael Márquez, Mexico’s veteran of five World Cups, put Ochoa under plenty of pressure, but some desperate Mexican defence denied South Korea’s equally desperate attack and the chance fizzled out. It didn’t look like the Taeguk Warriors would receive a better opportunity, and aside from Son’s goal the Mexicans closed the match out comfortably. The win all but seals their passage to the knockout stages, and they will be a dangerous opponent going forward.

Rostov-on-Don – Rostov Arena
South Korea 1 (H M Son 90+3)
Mexico 2 (Vela 26 pen, Hernández 66)
Referee: Milorad Mažić (Srb)
South Korea (4-4-2): H W Cho – Y Lee, H S Jang, Y G Kim, M W Kim (C Hong 84); S M Moon (W Y Jung 77), S J Ju (S W Lee 64), S Y Ki, H C Hwang; J S Lee, H M Son.
Mexico (4-3-3): Ochoa – Álvarez, Salcedo, Moreno, Gallardo; Layún, Herrera, Guardado (Márquez 68); Vela (G dos Santos 77), Hernández, Lozano (J M Corona 71).

Top 5
1. Hirving Lozano (Mexico)
Lozano had a rough time of it as the victim of many Korean fouls, but he still managed to have an impact when he had room to move on the break. He picked up an assist with a well thought-out ball for Hernández, and managed to find space to shoot on a number of occasions. If his shooting had been on song he could have had a big day.
2. Son Heung-min (South Korea)
Son worked very hard all day, and his late goal was a good reward for his efforts. He looked more dangerous playing in a central role, and he created plenty of problems slipping in behind the Mexican defence. He finished the game with nine shots, and on another day he could have scored more than he did.
3. Javier Hernández (Mexico)
Hernández finished with a goal in a strong attacking performance, and he worked hard up front all day. He was always a threat when Mexico found space on the break, and he showed a good turn of pace which allowed him to combine very potently with Lozano, Vela and Layún.
4. Carlos Vela (Mexico)
Vela was in top form in the upset win over Germany, and his form didn’t drop off in Mexico’s second game. His combination with Mexico’s attackers was as dangerous as ever, and he managed to get himself the opening goal of the match with a very well-taken penalty.
5. Guillermo Ochoa (Mexico)
Ochoa continued his brilliant form against the South Koreans, coming tantalisingly close to picking up his second clean sheet of the tournament and looking very solid whenever the ball came his way. He made some good saves, and provided the Mexicans with plenty of confidence with his assured performance.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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

Cameroon fall to dominant Mexico

Mexico have beaten Cameroon 1-0 in Natal to ensure a perfect start to their World Cup campaign. The Mexicans won through a 61st minute goal to Oribe Peralta, after controlling possession and territory for most of the game. Mexico started very well, with fullbacks Miguel Layun and Paul Aguilar pressing the Indomitable Lions with some great runs down the wing. Mexico were able to find the net in the 11th through Giovani dos Santos, although the goal was disallowed due to offside. Cameroon began to get back into the game, having a goal of their own, to Samuel Eto’o, disallowed in much the same manner. Mexico continued to press with some excellent passing, with Rafael Marquez just missing a header. A few minutes later the offside rule was again brought into the spotlight, with Giovani being controversially denied again. Replays showed the Mexican was onside for the corner, but offside when the ball deflected off a defender and allowed him to head the ball in. The half finished without much more event, although the Mexicans were not particularly pleased with the offside calls.

Cameroon keeper Charles Itandje was called into action early in the second half, forced off his line to block the run of Peralta, who, along with Giovani, was proving a thorn in Cameroon’s side. Cameroon had a chance about ten minutes after, with Jose Juan Vazquez deflecting a Benoit Assou-Ekoto free kick just wide of the post. Two minutes later, however, the goal had been scored. Hector Herrera made a nice run and opened up Giovani, whose shot was blocked very well by Itandje. The rebound, however, fell straight to Peralta, catching Itandje in an impossible position and allowing Peralta to roll the ball into an open net. Cameroon tried to press, although Mexico continued pressing, with Javier Hernandez injecting energy into the game as a substitute. Inefficiency up front cost Cameroon, and Mexico were the ones creating chances, Dany Nounkeu needing to slide to get to a Hernandez cross before Marco Fabian. Cameroon had one final chance in the first minute of injury time, but Benjamin Moukandjo’s header was brilliantly stopped by a diving Guillermo Ochoa as Mexico claimed a solid win.

Natal – Arena Das Dunas
Mexico 1 (Peralta 61)
Cameroon 0
Referee: Wilmar Rondan (Col)

Mexico: Ochoa – Layun, Moreno, Marquez, Rodriguez, Aguilar, Vazquez, Guardado (Fabian 69), Peralta (Hernandez 73), Giovani, Herrera (Salcido 90+2).

Cameroon: Itandje – Assou-Ekoto, Chedjou, N’Koulou, Djeugoue (Nounkeu 46), Enoh, Song (Webo 79), M’Bia, Choupo-Moting, Eto’o, Moukandjo.