England outclass Sweden to sail into the semis

Before this tournament, the British press was strangely subdued. For 50 years, they had proclaimed England champions-in-waiting at every major tournament. For some reason, this young and inexperienced team didn’t receive such lofty pre-tournament support. Now, for the first time since 1990, and for only the second time since lifting the trophy in 1966, the Three Lions are in the semi-finals of the World Cup. They did it without breaking a sweat, comfortably outclassing Sweden and announcing themselves as a genuine contender as they cruised into the tournament’s final four.

Perhaps the greatest sign of England’s progress came from the inherent Englishness of the opponents they were playing. Sweden’s footballing development has been influenced heavily by England, and their mostly lifeless and uninspired performance was the kind of effort plenty of talented English sides had served up in the past. Their system was introduced by the English, the kind of simple tactical plan England had gone for in years gone by. Now, England’s young stars dismantled their opponents’ disciplined but ultimately toothless structure with their exciting new brand of play.

The game started slowly, with neither side able to offer any real threat and neither defence looking tested. England, unsurprisingly, began to take the ascendency against Sweden’s previously solid defence, but the Swedish knew their roles and didn’t seem to be too troubled. Then England scored, from one of their main sources: the humble corner kick. Ashley Young delivered the corner in question to where a mass of players awaited the ball’s arrival. There seemed to be plenty of defenders there, and Sweden looked to have set up well. Then Harry Maguire’s header shot into the bottom corner, and it was clear that something hadn’t quite worked. English centre-back Maguire, the second heaviest player at the tournament, was marked by diminutive Swedish playmaker Emil Forsberg. Forsberg never stood a chance.

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Harry Maguire (right) scores England’s first goal from Ashley Young’s well-directed corner. The goal came from a defensive breakdown, and it left Sweden chasing the game.

Sweden offered little attacking threat for the rest of the half, and England kept pushing. Raheem Sterling had a series of chances to double the lead in the minutes before the break as he found the ball in behind and began to terrorise the Swedish defence with his pace. A long ball picked him out over the top of the Swedish defence, but Victor Lindelöf was just able to bundle the ball away. Robin Olsen was forced into a good one-on-one save when Sterling slipped through again a couple of minutes later, and Sweden barely survived (he was offside anyway, so the goal wouldn’t have counted). He wasn’t offside when he got in behind again, and this time only a fingertip save from Olsen and a sliding block from Andreas Granqvist stopped him from scoring. It didn’t feel like Sweden would be so lucky if he slipped past them once more, and Sweden’s record in stopping him from slipping through the net wasn’t exactly looking great.

Sweden started the second half more aggressively, and they had their first genuine chance a few minutes after the game restarted. It was a good chance too, as Jordan Pickford was forced into a tough diving save when Marcus Berg rose above Young to head towards the bottom corner. When Forsberg started to get involved, even going so far as to send what was possibly a shot flying fairly close to the bar (it may have been a really bad cross, but it looked vaguely dangerous) the Swedish looked like they had an equaliser in them. That equaliser never came. England began to reassert themselves on the game, controlling possession well and looking increasingly dangerous when they had the chance to deliver a corner. Then, after slowing the game down and steadying the ship after Sweden’s fast second half opening, England got their second and began to professionally kill the game.

Dele Alli scored it, and again it came from a good cross into the box. Jesse Lingard delivered the pass, receiving the ball on the edge of the box and targeting a cluster of teammates on the back post with a delightful looping ball. Alli, having pushed into the box from midfield, rose above the rest as Lingard’s cross hit him perfectly on the forehead. Once he put the header on target, Olsen had no chance of making the save. England were 2-0 up, Sweden had barely threatened, and the Three Lions were almost certainly heading for the dizzy heights of the last four.

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Robin Olsen attempts in vain to save Dele Alli’s close range header. Alli’s goal gave England a 2-0 buffer which Sweden never looked capable of overcoming.

Sweden did threaten when some excellent combination play between Ola Toivonen, Berg and Viktor Claesson provided Claesson with a chance and forced Pickford into another brilliant save, but England survived. They had their third real chance of the game when Pickford made another great save to tip Berg’s very dangerous shot over the bar, but they couldn’t break through. The latter chance even created tension within the English team, as Pickford politely bellowed at his defenders in pursuit of an explanation for the ease with which Berg found space to shoot. Presumably the matter was resolved amicably, as England didn’t look like conceding again.

For the most part, England just sauntered around the pitch doing as they pleased while the Swedish desperately chased them trying to get the ball back. Occasionally they got a corner, and really tested the Swedes. In four previous matches, Sweden’s defence had been extremely solid, especially in the air. Here, every corner seemed likely to pull them apart. Considering this strange effect has happened to all of England’s previous opponents, it may simply be that England are very good at corners. Sweden tried to make use of their height by bombing the ball long at every opportunity, and they even brought on Pontus Jansson, a central defender, solely to control said long balls. It didn’t work, and barely created so much as a half chance.

In the end, England weren’t tested by Sweden, who based their success around organisation and didn’t have the requisite skill or game plan to react to falling behind. As such, England’s cruisy run towards the latter stages of the World Cup continues unhindered, and the claims that the tournament is “coming home” will only intensify in the days to follow. Such statements started as something of a joke, as England weren’t actually expected to get this far. Now, they could well prove to be prophetic. Some will point out that Sweden had just three chances, and it may not be advisable for English fans to get ahead of themselves. After such a comfortable win, however, it seems unlikely that such advice will actually be heeded. Before this tournament began, the British press was strangely subdued. They’re unlikely to be so subdued now.

Samara – Cosmos Arena
Sweden 0
England 2 (Maguire 30, Alli 59)
Referee: Björn Kuipers (Ned)
Sweden (4-4-2): Olsen – Krafth (Jansson 85), Lindelöf, Granqvist, Augustinsson; Claesson, Larsson, Ekdal, Forsberg (Olsson 65); Berg, Toivonen (Guidetti 65).
England (3-5-2): Pickford – Walker, Stones, Maguire; Trippier, Lingard, Henderson (Dier 84), Alli (Delph 77), Young; Kane, Sterling (Rashford 90+1).

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Jordan Pickford makes a diving save to keep out Marcus Berg’s dangerous header. Pickford wasn’t called into action very often, but he was still required to make some very difficult saves to preserve England’s lead.

Top 5
1. Jordan Pickford (England)
Sweden had three golden opportunities to score in the second half, and just one of them going in could have turned the game on its head. Thankfully for England, Pickford was there to ensure that England’s clean sheet remained intact and that there were no nervous moments. He made three stunning saves, and justified his selection with an excellent performance.
2. Raheem Sterling (England)
Watching Sterling play, it’s hard to see how he has managed just two goals in over 40 English caps. Here, he was too quick for the Swedish defence and he put himself into all the right positions. Somehow, he was still denied. His dynamic runs in behind scattered the previously well-organised Swedish defence, and he was England’s most dangerous attacker by some distance.
3. Harry Maguire (England)
Not for the first time this tournament, Maguire’s attacking exploits outshone his defensive work. The centre-back made good use of his size as he threw himself around in the box, and he managed to find himself a goal and create some chances with his dangerous headers. He is a big part of England’s success at set pieces.
4. Marcus Berg (Sweden)
Berg didn’t give up in his pursuit for a goal, and he was involved in all of Sweden’s dangerous attacking moves. His positioning was good, and he will consider himself unlucky to be leaving the tournament without a goal to his name. Had a lesser goalkeeper than Pickford been present he could have scored a couple.
5. Ashley Young (England)
Young looked dangerous as he moved up and down the left wing, and it was his corner that provided the assist for Maguire’s opener. His influence waned somewhat after that moment, but he continued to threaten and he put in some dangerous crosses. He asked plenty of questions of the Swedish defence.

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Sweden calmly remove Switzerland with Forsberg’s fortunate strike

There was less than a minute remaining in the round of 16 clash between Sweden and Switzerland when Isaac Kiese Thelin received the ball in the centre of the field. Sweden led courtesy of Emil Forsberg’s slightly fortunate opener, and they had found an opening as the Swiss desperately committed men forward to their last ditch attack. Kiese Thelin played the ball into space, where Martin Olsson was running onto the ball at speed. There seemed to be no way to deny the onrushing Swedish left-back. Then Michael Lang entered the scene. The Swiss right-back, deputising for suspended captain Stephan Lichtsteiner, was quicker than Olsson, and he was breathing down his neck as the Swede reached the edge of the box. Lang gave him a push. It was subtle, but it was enough to send Olsson toppling to the ground, and enough to convince Damir Skomina to award a penalty and expel Lang for the foul. Lang left without complaint, and he was already off the field when the video assistant referee decided that the foul had actually been committed outside the box. Yann Sommer saved the resultant free-kick, but it was little consolation for the Swiss.

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Martin Olsson (right) is brought down on the edge of the box by Michael Lang. Lang was sent off for the challenge, but his expulsion had no impact on the outcome of the match.

The opening exchanges weren’t exactly filled to the brim with goalmouth action. Sweden had some early chances, mostly coming as a result of Swiss turnovers coming out of defence, but none of them really tested Sommer. When Switzerland settled, they began to control the ball and Sweden began to sit back and watch as their opponents played the ball around harmlessly. Occasionally Xherdan Shaqiri or Lang would slip in a dangerous ball, and occasionally Blerim Džemaili would squander a brilliant chance, but otherwise the Swiss posed little threat. The Swedish, despite conceding the lion’s share of possession, had the better chances in a generally slow first half. Albin Ekdal missed a couple of shots, most notably a close-range volley which should have been put away. Marcus Berg made his presence felt in attack, but he couldn’t quite combine his excellent positioning with the finishing touch required. Through all of it, Sommer’s nice diving save to turn away Berg’s dangerous volley was the only real save either goalkeeper had to make in the first 45 minutes.

The second 45 started similarly to the first, and it seemed like more of the same was imminent. Switzerland continued to look in control, even taking four corner kicks in a row early in the half, but they still couldn’t find a way through Sweden’s very well drilled defensive unit. They tried crosses, but most of them didn’t even reach the middle, let alone their intended target. Sweden’s direct, counter-attacking style looked more effective than Switzerland’s attempts at slow build-up play with their best finishers isolated in non-dangerous positions, but it wasn’t like Sweden’s counter-attacks were really worrying their opposition. Then they went ahead.

Forsberg, Sweden’s previously underperforming star, was the man who finally broke a deadlock which had lasted for over an hour and was threatening to carry on past the standard 90 minutes. The Swedish attacked the Swiss with a bit of urgency, and they managed to reach the edge of the area with the defence slightly out of position. That was enough for Forsberg. He received the ball from Ola Toivonen just outside the box, and he proceeded to take a touch before firing a shot at the Swiss goal. Between the posts, Sommer sunk into a low crouch, ready to make the save that seemed to be coming. The ball was headed straight to the ever-alert Swiss goalkeeper. It never reached him. Instead, it flew into the top corner, courtesy of Manuel Akanji’s incautiously outstretched leg. The ball hit the defender’s foot and took off, leaving Sommer with no time to react and no hope of making the save.

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Emil Forsberg (right) gets in the way of Breel Embolo’s header as Robin Olsen watches on. The slightly threatening corner was one of Switzerland’s only real chances as they looked to equalise.

Switzerland put some dangerous balls in. They tested Robin Olsen from range on a couple of occasions. They had corners, lots of corners. Nothing came of them, save for one threatening clearance which was cleared by Forsberg and Andreas Granqvist. Breel Embolo made an impact, but he could do no more than threaten to threaten. Ricardo Rodríguez put in plenty of crosses, both from set pieces and in open play, but none of them really tested the Swedish defence, and none of them provided Olsen with anything to do. Shaqiri’s crosses were even less dangerous. Attackers were thrown into the box, but Switzerland’s lack of a good finisher rather undermined their attempts to breach the Swedish defence through their numbers in the box. One of Rodríguez’s crosses finally found its mark shortly before the last act of Switzerland’s tournament ended in Lang’s expulsion. Haris Seferović actually got the header on target, but Olsen made the save and it came to nothing. Ultimately, Switzerland were just too short on talent in the final third, and they paid a heavy price.

Saint Petersburg – Krestovsky Stadium
Sweden 1 (Forsberg 66)
Switzerland 0
Referee: Damir Skomina (Svn)
Sweden (4-4-2): Olsen – Lustig (Krafth 82), Lindelöf, Granqvist, Augustinsson; Claesson, Svensson, Ekdal, Forsberg (Olsson 82); Toivonen, Berg (Kiese Thelin 90).
Switzerland (4-2-3-1): Sommer – Lang, Djourou, Akanji, Rodríguez; Behrami, Xhaka; Shaqiri, Džemaili (Seferović 73), Zuber (Embolo 73); Drmić.
Sent-off: Lang 90+4

Top 5
1. Emil Forsberg (Sweden)
Forsberg finally found some of his best form just when Sweden needed it, and his goal, while lucky, was a fitting reward for a strong performance. He looked threatening when he received the ball in the attacking third, and he made good things happen. It bodes well for Sweden’s quarter-final clash.
2. Ricardo Rodríguez (Switzerland)
Rodríguez was involved in most of Switzerland’s attacking play, and there was little wrong with his deliveries into the box. He put in plenty of crosses overlapping from the left side of defence, but he was never found wanting despite his aggressive forward play. With some quality players in the middle he could have easily picked up a few assists.
3. Andreas Granqvist (Sweden)
Granqvist has been a dominant force in Sweden’s penalty area throughout this tournament, and he saw them through to the quarter-finals with another big effort in the heart of the defence. He is seemingly never beaten in the air, and he just continues to hold the fort for his side.
4. Marcus Berg (Sweden)
Berg worked into plenty of good spots, but once again he left goalless after a series of saves and misses conspired to thwart him for the fourth match in succession. He has specialised in making a nuisance of himself at this tournament, and he was always heavily involved in Sweden’s attack.
5. Manuel Akanji (Switzerland)
Akanji is so composed that it’s hard to believe he has just 11 international caps to his name. He has slotted into the Swiss defence effortlessly at this tournament, and he didn’t miss a beat here despite losing his group stage partner, Fabian Schär, to suspension. He is a massive talent, and seems to have a big future ahead of him.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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