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.

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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.

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.

Sweden do it comfortably against disappointing South Koreans

Kim Young-gwon’s long ball sailed into the Swedish penalty area. The clock had just ticked past 90 minutes, and Sweden were holding on to a one-goal lead against a determined but slightly lacking South Korean team. Now, they were desperately bombing the ball into the penalty area, hoping for something – anything – that could give them a lifeline in the match and the tournament. Kim Young-gwon’s pass found Lee Jae-sung, who managed to get a header back into the centre, where an unmarked Hwang Hee-chan was in a perfect position to grab a late equaliser, or at least test out Swedish keeper Robin Olsen. He did neither. Hwang’s miss came from Korea’s best chance of the match, and put a stopper in any hopes the Taeguk Warriors had of salvaging a point from their disappointing performance. They just weren’t clinical enough on the day.

It was a physical opening, with plenty of rough challenges from both sides leading to an abnormally high foul count and giving Salvadorian referee Joel Aguilar plenty to do. He performed his duties with enthusiasm and intensity, at one point giving a stern talk to Jang Hyun-soo and Marcus Berg complete with animated – and intriguing – hand gestures. In general play, South Korea had much of the early running, but they didn’t create any real chances and soon the Swedes had taken control. Over 15 minutes had passed before the first real chance of the game, when Swedish centre-back Andreas Granqvist ran straight through the middle of South Korea’s defence, played a one-two with Marcus Berg and was only denied by Kim Young-gwon’s last-ditch sliding challenge. Minutes later, Berg had an even better opportunity, but inexperienced goalkeeper Cho Hyun-woo made a brilliant save to keep the scores level.

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Son Heung-min (right) attempts to keep the ball under pressure from Sebastian Larsson. Son was well-marked during the game, although he did threaten on a couple of occasions.

South Korea gave a glimpse of their counter-attacking threat as the half went on, with Son Heung-min twice finding space on the break and twice being thwarted by Granqvist, who blocked Son’s potentially dangerous cut back on one occasion and, less legally, threw himself in front of Korea’s fast-moving star player on the other. Sweden still had control, however, and had a string of great chances as the half drew to a close. Berg managed to latch onto a lofted ball into the penalty area and put a ball past Cho into a very dangerous spot, but no-one was there to take advantage of the open goal. Seconds later, Ki Sung-yueng’s excellent slide challenge was all that prevented Ola Toivonen from breaking through, and there were more nervous moments as Viktor Claesson nearly headed home in the dying embers of the first period. The half ended, fittingly, with the ball in the hands of Cho, one of the busiest players on the pitch.

Sweden picked up where they left off in the second half, nearly catching South Korea out almost immediately with a quickly taken free-kick. The resultant move gave Emil Forsberg space to shoot, but his effort whistled safely over the bar. More chances came as the game progressed, with one of the biggest thwarted when Kim Young-gwon acted swiftly to clear the ball after Cho did well to parry Toivonen’s header. South Korea had a bit more play than the first half, with Koo Ja-cheol’s header into the side netting causing some nervous moments, but they were still conceding possession and territory. Then, finally, the Swedish broke through. It came from a penalty, created by a slight error from Cho and a much bigger one from replacement left-back Lee Min-woo.

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Andreas Granqvist (left) celebrates after opening the scoring during the second half. Granqvist stepped up to take the penalty, and slotted it home coolly.

The opening was created by Cho’s slight mishandling of the ball as he attempted to claim Ludwig Augustinsson’s cross against Berg. The Swedish striker’s positioning made things tough for the Korean keeper, and the fumble gave Viktor Claesson a chance to take the ball in a dangerous position. Then his legs were taken out. Lee Min-woo, only on the field because Park Joo-ho picked up an injury stretching for an errant pass, initially appeared to take the ball, but when replays showed that Claesson had knocked it away before being tripped there was no question surrounding the correct call. The newly-introduced video assistant referee has made its fair share of controversial calls this tournament, but this was not one of them. Granqvist was the man who stepped up to take the penalty, and he stayed calm as he stroked the ball into the bottom corner. If finish was composed, the celebrations were anything but as Granqvist, his face red and animated, charged towards the Swedish fans.

South Korea couldn’t recover. They retook control of territory by pushing higher up the pitch, but Sweden were more than capable of resisting South Korea’s slightly dangerous but ultimately feeble forays into the final third. In the end, Hwang’s chance was their only real opportunity to rectify the deficit, and his miss was a perfect representation of the lack of clinical finishing which cruelled their chances of victory. For Sweden, the win was unspectacular but comfortable, the kind of professional performance they were looking for to start their tournament right.

Nizhny Novgorod – Nizhny Novgorod Stadium
Sweden 1 (Granqvist 65 pen)
South Korea 0
Referee: Joel Aguilar (Slv)
Sweden (4-4-2): Olsen – Lustig, Jansson, Granqvist, Augustinsson; Claesson, Larsson (Svensson 81), Ekdal (Hiljemark 71), Forsberg; Toivonen (Kiese Thelin 77), Berg.
South Korea (4-3-3): Cho Hyun-woo – Lee Yong, Jang Hyun-soo, Kim Young-gwon, Park Joo-ho (Kim Min-woo 28); Lee Jae-sung, Ki Sung-yueng, Koo Ja-cheol (Lee Seung-woo 72); Hwang Hee-chan, Kim Shin-wook (Jung Woo-young 67), Son Heung-min.

Top 5
1. Andreas Granqvist (Sweden)
Granqvist was extremely solid at the back, and found his way onto the scoresheet with a perfectly taken penalty. The goal was not his only foray into attack, and his energy on both sides of the ball was a huge bonus for his side. He led by example, and set the tone for Sweden’s composed performance.
2. Cho Hyun-woo (South Korea)
Cho was the least experienced goalkeeper picked in the Korean squad, but he more than justified his inclusion in the starting line-up with an excellent performance. He made some great saves, including a brilliant one-on-one stop to deny Berg, and kept South Korea in the game with his performance.
3. Viktor Claesson (Sweden)
Claesson was everywhere, especially early on in the match. He was a threat inside the box and tested the Koreans with his delivery from the right wing. His determination to hunt the ball all over the pitch will serve him and Sweden well for the rest of the tournament.
4. Kim Young-gwon (South Korea)
Kim saved his side’s blushes on a number of occasions, twice making last-ditch challenges to deny Swedish attackers in dangerous spots and avoiding an awkward situation early in the second half by reacting quickly to a dangerous ball. His defensive work was excellent, and he will be a key player going forward.
5. Marcus Berg (Sweden)
At times, Berg lacked the poise needed to finish from the great positions he found himself in, but his positioning was perfect and if his finishing improves he will be a force to be reckoned with. He was very active throughout, and can make an impact at this tournament.

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