Teams (world ranking in brackets): France (7), Australia (36), Peru (11), Denmark (12)
France vs Australia, Kazan Arena, Kazan
Peru vs Denmark, Mordovia Arena, Saransk
Denmark vs Australia, Cosmos Arena, Samara
France vs Peru, Central Stadium, Yekaterinburg
Denmark vs France, Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow
Australia vs Peru, Fisht Olympic Stadium, Sochi
Head Coach: Didier Deschamps
Captain: Hugo Lloris
Previous Appearances: 14 (1930, 1934, 1938, 1954, 1958, 1966, 1978, 1982, 1986, 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010, 2014)
Best Finish: Champions (1998)
Qualified: UEFA, 1st Group A
Qualification Top Scorer: Olivier Giroud, Antoine Griezmann (4)
Goalkeepers: 1. Hugo Lloris (Tottenham Hotspur), 16. Steve Mandanda (Marseille), 23. Alphonse Areola (Paris Saint-Germain).
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Defenders: 2. Benjamin Pavard (Stuttgart), 3. Presnel Kimpembe (Paris Saint-Germain), 4. Raphaël Varane (Real Madrid), 5. Samuel Umtiti (Barcelona), 17. Adil Rami (Marseille), 19. Djibril Sidibé (Monaco), 21. Lucas Hernández (Atlético Madrid), 22. Benjamin Mendy (Manchester City).
Midfielders: 6. Paul Pogba (Manchester United), 8. Thomas Lemar (Monaco), 12. Corentin Tolisso (Bayern Munich), 13. N’Golo Kanté (Chelsea), 14. Blaise Matuidi (Juventus), 15. Steven N’Zonzi (Sevilla).
Forwards: 7. Antoine Griezmann (Atlético Madrid), 9. Olivier Giroud (Chelsea), 10. Kylian Mbappé (Paris Saint-Germain), 11. Ousmane Dembélé (Barcelona), 18. Nabil Fekir (Lyon), 20. Florian Thauvin (Marseille).
Antoine Griezmann bows to supporters after France’s semi-final win over Germany at Euro 2016. Griezmann scored twice in the match on his way to becoming the tournament’s top-scorer.
After coming incredibly close to winning at home in Euro 2016 (they were edged out in extra time by Portugal) the French didn’t have too many issues booking their spot in Russia as their quality allowed them to stay well ahead of their misfiring opposition. Now they’re here, Les Bleus will be incredibly hard to beat. Coach Didier Deschamps has selection quandaries in just about every position. Hugo Lloris is one of the few guaranteed starters, and the experienced goalkeeper will be hard to get past. Shielding him is a back four consisting of some top-level defenders, with centre-backs Raphaël Varane and Samuel Umtiti both proven performers. In midfield, Paul Pogba (Manchester United), Blaise Matuidi (Juventus), N’Golo Kanté (Chelsea) and Corentin Tolisso (Bayern Munich) will compete for three spots, with one of them stiff to miss out. Meanwhile an attack of Antoine Griezmann, Ousmane Dembélé and young gun Kylian Mbappé (plus a couple of others) is likely to terrorise opposing defences with pace and skill. Perhaps the scariest thing about Deschamps’ side is, with 15 players aged 25 or less, they’re still peaking.
The French did, however, come off a qualifying campaign that was not all smooth sailing. A 50-yard winner from Ola Toivonen led to an embarrassing loss to Sweden, and they were held by minnows Belarus and Luxembourg along the way. Such lapses could prove costly in the World Cup, where they can’t just wait and let their quality assert itself. Many of their players haven’t featured at the World Cup before, and this dangerous combination of inexperience and expectation could prove costly. They still lack a top-class full-back on either side, and none of Benjamin Pavard, Djibril Sidibé, Lucas Hernández or Benjamin Mendy have much international experience. Since winning the World Cup in 1998, France’s efforts in the tournament have been inconsistent, and it would not be unheard of for them to collapse out of the blue.
Star Player: Antoine Griezmann
Griezmann is coming into his prime, and the diminutive striker can make a big impact in Russia. He is a complete forward who has pace, skill, an eye for goal and the ability to create chances for his teammates. His six goals at Euro 2016 helped take the French to the final, and with a more dynamic attack alongside him at the World Cup he could be an unstoppable force.
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Paul Pogba shoots during a World Cup qualifying match against Sweden. Pogba has struggled since joining Manchester United, amid questions over his best position.
Key Player: Paul Pogba
How do you solve a problem like Paul Pogba? Two seasons ago, the powerfully built central midfielder was the hottest commodity in European football, and attracted the heftiest transfer fee in history to move from Juventus to Manchester United. Since then, he’s been…alright. His physicality can overshadow his immense technical ability, and he can hit the scoresheet while simultaneously providing assists. If he plays at his best, he could carry France to the World Cup. Will he?
One to watch: Kylian Mbappé
It turns out Mbappé’s remarkable breakout season with Monaco was no fluke, and that’s bad news for all of France’s opponents. At just 19, he is coming off his first season with Paris Saint-Germain, where his scoring barely dropped off despite the quality of his new teammates. For France, he is likely to play on the right wing, but he is capable in the centre and will be very dangerous.
This French team is exciting and a very dangerous opponent. There is a ridiculous amount of talent all over the park, and if they can convert that talent into results they could cruise to a second World Cup title.
Likely Team (4-3-3): Lloris; Sidibé, Umtiti, Varane, Mendy; Kanté, Matuidi, Pogba; Mbappé, Griezmann, Dembélé.
Head Coach: Bert van Marwijk
Captain: Mile Jedinak
Previous Appearances: 4 (1974, 2006, 2010, 2014)
Best Finish: Round of 16 (2006)
Qualified: AFC, 3rd Group B (beat Syria and Honduras in play-offs)
Qualification Top Scorer: Tim Cahill (11)
Goalkeepers: 1. Mathew Ryan (Brighton and Hove Albion), 12. Brad Jones (Feyenoord), 18. Danny Vukovic (Genk).
Defenders: 2. Milos Degenek (Yokohama F. Marinos), 3. James Meredith (Millwall), 5. Mark Milligan (Al-Ahli), 6. Matthew Jurman (Suwon Samsung Bluewings), 16. Aziz Behich (Bursaspor), 19. Josh Risdon (Western Sydney Wanderers), 20. Trent Sainsbury (Grasshoppers).
Midfielders: 8. Massimo Luongo (Queens Park Rangers), 13. Aaron Mooy (Huddersfield Town), 15. Mile Jedinak (Aston Villa), 17. Daniel Arzani (Melbourne City), 22. Jackson Irvine (Hull City), 23. Tom Rogic (Celtic).
Forwards: 4. Tim Cahill (Millwall), 7. Matthew Leckie (Hertha Berlin), 9. Tomi Juric (Luzern), 10. Robbie Kruse (VfL Bochum), 11. Andrew Nabbout (Urawa Red Diamonds), 14. Jamie Maclaren (Hibernian), 21. Dimitri Petratos (Newcastle Jets).
If it’s all about the journey, then Australia haven’t had a great World Cup experience. Their journey was about as hard as it gets, spanning 22 matches and proving a hard slog at every turn. Then their coach resigned. Bert van Marwijk is still getting used to his new side after taking over from Ange Postecoglou, but the Dutchman has pedigree at this level and can get the side in shape. On the pitch, there’s plenty to like. Aaron Mooy is coming off a brilliant season with Huddersfield Town in the Premier League, and he can unlock defences with his remarkable vision. He will be well supported by captain Mile Jedinak and Massimo Luongo in midfield, and Tom Rogic is a dangerous player in attack. Mathew Ryan is a solid goalkeeper, and will be well protected by classy centre-back Trent Sainsbury. In-form attackers Andrew Nabbout and Daniel Arzani will give the team a fresh edge alongside Matthew Leckie and Robbie Kruse, and Tim Cahill is a talisman who can find big goals.
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Tim Cahill rises to score against Syria in World Cup qualifying. Cahill is no longer a regular part of the starting line-up, but the veteran still has an impact off the bench.
The Australians will, however, face an uphill battle to make it through. Postecoglou’s sudden departure has left a void even though his attack at all costs strategy was part of the reason for the Socceroos’ arduous road to Russia. Adding to the pressure on van Marwijk is the temporary nature of his position (Graham Arnold will take over after the World Cup), and this could impact results. In a tough group, Australia’s defence is unproven, and van Marwijk has little time to add the steel the side desperately lacked in qualifying. It is unclear who the team’s best striker is, with Tomi Juric developing a propensity for missing chances and Cahill coming off a season where he barely played for either Melbourne City or Millwall. This missing link means the brilliant work of Mooy is often wasted, something Australia cannot afford to happen if they want to take it up to giants like France.
Star Player: Aaron Mooy
Mooy’s first season in the Premier League has shown he is more than capable of adjusting to high-level competition, and his hard work in midfield may well be Australia’s only chance of escaping a tough group. His ability to pick out an incisive pass rivals some of the best playmakers at this World Cup, and he is a set-piece specialist who can hit the target from range and reads the play well.
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Aaron Mooy (right) and Mile Jedinak celebrate after Jedinak’s goal against Honduras in Australia’s final qualifier. Mooy and Jedinak will be a key part of Australia’s campaign.
Key Player: Mile Jedinak
Jedinak was Australia’s second-highest scorer in qualifying (showing the benefits of being a regular penalty taker) but his defensive qualities are far more important. Jedinak has plenty of experience and is almost never caught out of position, allowing him to clean up counter-attacks with ease. His work as a holding midfielder will be a crucial part of Australia’s defensive set-up in Russia.
One to watch: Daniel Arzani
Arzani hadn’t played for Australia before his call-up to the World Cup squad, but the 19-year-old winger is coming off a brilliant season for Melbourne City and could well be the spark the Socceroos need. He is quick, skilled and has the ability to provide for his teammates, and he has the potential to shine at this World Cup if given the opportunity.
Most of the 2006 golden generation is now gone, and van Marwijk’s younger team has some established players in European teams. Whether that will be enough is another question, and the Socceroos need their stars to fire.
Likely Team (4-2-3-1): Ryan; Risdon, Sainsbury, Milligan, Behich; Jedinak, Luongo; Leckie, Mooy, Kruse; Nabbout.
Head Coach: Ricardo Gareca
Captain: Paolo Guerrero
Previous Appearances: 4 (1930, 1970, 1978, 1982)
Best Finish: Quarter-finals (1970)
Qualified: CONMEBOL, 5th (beat New Zealand in play-offs)
Qualification Top Scorer: Paolo Guerrero (6)
Goalkeepers: 1. Pedro Gallese (Veracruz), 12. Carlos Cáceda (Deportivo Municipal), 21. José Carvallo (UTC).
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Defenders: 2. Alberto Rodríguez (Junior), 3. Aldo Corzo (Universitario de Deportes), 4. Anderson Santamaría (Puebla), 5. Miguel Araujo (Allianza Lima), 6. Miguel Trauco (Flamengo), 15. Christian Ramos (Veracruz), 17. Luis Advíncula (Lobos BUAP), 22. Nilson Loyola (Melgar).
Midfielders: 7. Paolo Hurtado (Vitória de Guimarães), 8. Christian Cueva (São Paulo), 13. Renato Tapia (Feyenoord), 14. Andy Polo (Portland Timbers), 16. Wilder Cartagena (Veracruz), 18. André Carrillo (Watford), 19. Yoshimar Yotún (Orlando City), 20. Edison Flores (AaB), 23. Pedro Aquino (Lobos BUAP).
Forwards: 9. Paolo Guerrero (Flamengo), 10. Jefferson Farfán (Lokomotiv Moscow), 11. Raúl Ruidíaz (Morelia).
Jefferson Farfán celebrates after scoring in Peru’s play-off with New Zealand. Farfán will be a key member of the Peruvian attack in Russia.
In March last year, the idea of Peru breaking their 36-year World Cup drought was inconceivable. They sat eighth in South America, and needed a miracle to progress to their first tournament since 1982. They got it, taking 11 points from their last five games and picking up another three after a previous loss to Bolivia was overturned. In the end, they snuck into the play-offs, where progression against New Zealand was never in doubt. Since qualification, the good news has continued to flow. Captain and all-time leading scorer Paolo Guerrero’s doping ban has been stayed, allowing him to take the field in Russia. His presence will add to an attack that already includes dangerous wingers Jefferson Farfán and André Carrillo. Yoshimar Yotún and Renato Tapia provide a solid central midfield presence, and Ricardo Gareca has put together a tight-knit group that has not lost a game since 2016. They are solid all over the park, and they could make an impact.
The Peruvians will, however, suffer from a lack of experience at the top-level. Their competition with other South American teams will serve them well at the tournament proper, but a lack of players in Europe’s top leagues could be an issue. The World Cup will come with much greater pressure than anything the players have ever faced, and this could test the bonds that have built up in the last 18 months. The distractions surrounding Guerrero’s court cases (in the Court of Arbitration for Sport and the Swiss Federal Court) could also affect the squad, especially with the drama hanging around for as long as it has. In general, Peru are short on quality around the park, especially with key players Guerrero and Farfán both past their respective primes. This was reflected in their start to qualifying, during a campaign which didn’t get off the ground until their frenetic final run. If they are to progress, they will need their defence to step up in a big way.
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Captain Paolo Guerrero sings the national anthem before a qualifier against Colombia. Guerrero was suspended for the World Cup, but his ban has since been stayed to allow him to play in Russia.
Star Player: Paolo Guerrero
After a lengthy legal saga, Guerrero is free to play in Russia. The 34-year-old has been an inspirational leader for Peru, and such is his popularity that news of his impending suspension spurred protests in the streets of Lima. He has scored more international goals than any other Peruvian, and his presence at the World Cup will have a big impact on the team.
Key Player: Christian Ramos
Ramos, along with Alberto Rodríguez, has a key role to play in the Peruvian defence. He is a proven performer with 66 caps’ worth of international experience, and his solidity at the back underpins Peru’s success. If they are to progress to the knockout stages in Russia, Ramos and the rest of the defence will need to be at their best.
One to watch: Renato Tapia
Tapia is a versatile player who has featured prominently for Peru since making his debut as a 19-year-old in 2015. Now 22, Tapia is a key part of Peru’s midfield, and has the ability to play in defence if required. His experiences with Feyenoord in both the Dutch top flight and European competition will serve the Peruvians well as they look to make their mark.
Peru may struggle to progress, but they have good team unity and Gareca is an excellent coach. With talisman Guerrero free to play, they could be a dangerous opponent.
Likely Team: Gallese; Advíncula, Rodríguez, Ramos, Trauco; Yotún, Tapia; Carrillo, Cueva, Farfán; Guerrero.
Head Coach: Åge Hareide
Captain: Simon Kjær
Previous Appearances: 4 (1986, 1998, 2002, 2010)
Best Finish: Quarter-finals (1998)
Qualified: UEFA, 2nd Group E (beat Republic of Ireland in play-offs)
Qualification Top Scorer: Christian Eriksen (11)
Goalkeepers: 1. Kasper Schmeichel (Leicester City), 16. Jonas Lössl (Huddersfield Town), 22. Frederik Rønnow (Brøndby).
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Defenders: 3. Jannik Vestergaard (Borussia Mönchengladbach), 4. Simon Kjær (Sevilla), 5. Jonas Knudsen (Ipswich Town), 6. Andreas Christensen (Chelsea), 13. Mathias Jørgensen (Huddersfield Town), 14. Henrik Dalsgaard (Brentford), 17. Jens Stryger Larsen (Udinese).
Midfielders: 2. Michael Krohn-Dehli (Deportivo La Coruña), 7. William Kvist (Copenhagen), 8. Thomas Delaney (Werder Bremen), 10. Christian Eriksen (Tottenham Hotspur), 18. Lukas Lerager (Bordeaux), 19. Lasse Schöne (Ajax).
Forwards: 9. Nicolai Jørgensen (Copenhagen), 11. Martin Braithwaite (Bordeaux), 12. Kasper Dolberg (Ajax), 15. Viktor Fischer (Copenhagen), 20. Yussuf Poulsen (Leipzig), 21. Andreas Cornelius (Atalanta), 23. Pione Sisto (Celta Vigo).
Christian Eriksen celebrates one of the goals in his hat-trick during the last game of World Cup qualifying. Eriksen was Denmark’s leading scorer, and he is their best player.
Denmark travelled to Dublin for their last game of qualifying needing a win to progress to Russia, and Christian Eriksen stepped up with a brilliant hat-trick to send them through. Eriksen has gone from strength to strength in the last few years, and the attacking midfielder has developed into one of the world’s best. His creative talents mixed with a dangerous attack of Nicolai Jørgensen, Yussuf Poulsen and Andreas Cornelius will make for a potent mix. The rise of young guns Pione Sisto and Kasper Dolberg only adds to the depth at Åge Hareide’s disposal, and the Danish should not be short on goals. Down back, Simon Kjær and Andreas Christensen are a solid centre-back pairing backed up by quality defenders in Jannik Vestergaard and Mathias Jørgensen, and Kasper Schmeichel is a tough player to beat in goal. With a pair of strong holding midfielders in William Kvist and Thomas Delaney holding the team together, the Danish will be a very tough side to face.
There are some problems that Hareide will need to solve, however. The full-back situation is a major worry, with no clear starter on either side of the defence. Jens Stryger Larsen, Jonas Knudsen and Henrik Dalsgaard are all options, but none of them have made a spot in the side their own. The problems got so bad that Christensen was shifted to right-back for the all-important second leg of the play-offs, a scenario which is far from ideal. There are some issues in midfield, and while Kvist and Delaney are both imposing players in defence they can struggle to transition into attack. This is combined with a potential over-reliance on Eriksen, who scored nearly half of Denmark’s goals in qualifying. None of Hareide’s potential attacking options at the World Cup contributed more than two, and this could spell trouble if the side’s creative fulcrum is shut down.
Star Player: Christian Eriksen
Eriksen has developed from a classy playmaker to a bona-fide superstar in the last couple of years, and his hat-trick in the decisive qualifying game dragged Denmark into the final tournament. He has incredible vision, brilliant technical ability and the ability to provide a goal-scoring threat from distance, and he can be tough to stop if he gets going. He could be the player that sets Denmark apart in a competitive group.
Key Player: Thomas Delaney
Delaney has the potential to make an impact in both attack and defence, and he showcased his skills in qualifying with a hat-trick against Armenia. He has been in good form since moving to Werder Bremen, and Denmark will be relying on him to provide a strong midfield presence and give Eriksen some much-needed support in Russia. If he plays at his best, the Danes will be a formidable side.
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Thomas Delaney (right) battles for the ball during a friendly against Germany. Delaney will be a key player in the Danish midfield at the World Cup.
One to watch: Kasper Dolberg
Dolberg is a dangerous attacker who knows how to find the back of the net, and at just 20 he has a big future ahead. His performances this season weren’t quite as impressive as his first season at Ajax, but the versatile frontman has tremendous upside and can add something extra to the Danish attack. He could be the x-factor for Denmark in Russia, and he has the talent to make an impact.
Denmark are a solid side all over the park with few glaring weaknesses, and they will be a hard team to beat. If Eriksen gets going and things fall their way, they could make a run into the knockout stages.
Likely Team (4-2-3-1): Schmeichel; Dalsgaard, Kjær, Christensen, Larsen; Delaney, Kvist; Poulsen, Eriksen, Sisto; Jørgensen.
This group should be fairly tight, although the French are likely to go through comfortably barring a sudden and calamitous collapse (it can never be ruled out). For the rest, it is an intriguing race. Denmark are a solid side with established players, while Peru and Australia are largely unknown quantities heading into the tournament. The Australians are unlikely to make an impact without a big improvement defensively, and the match between the Danish and the Peruvians may be the one to watch. The Danish look like the best of the chasing pack, and the class of Eriksen may just separate them from their rivals. If anyone can take points off the French, they will probably move into the box seat.
1. France, 2. Denmark, 3. Peru, 4. Australia