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Germany

Leroy Sané. Mario Götze. Sandro Wagner. These are just some of the players Germany left out of their World Cup squad.

Baby-faced Götze scored the winning goal in the 2014 World Cup final, but German coach Joachim Löw showed there’s no room for sentiment by leaving the Borussia Dortmund attacker out of his 2018 squad. And it’s their strength in depth that makes Germany an obvious favourite to win the tournament.

Qualification couldn’t have come any easier, even if Germany were drawn in a relatively easy group. Ten games played for ten wins, with 43 goals scored and just four conceded are the testament to Germany’s total dominance. But it wasn’t all smooth sailing. Having finished as equal top scorer alongside Thomas Müller in qualifying, Bayern Munich striker Wagner promptly retired from international duty after being overlooked for the final squad. And despite racking up some impressive pre-tournament statistics, there are still some question marks over the team Löw will field in Russia.

Foremost among them are what Löw will do with Müller. The Bayern Munich “interpreter of space” scored all five of his goals early in the qualification campaign, but the 2010 Golden Boot winner has looked a shadow of his former self for the past couple of seasons. At national team level he clearly misses the presence of the retired Miroslav Klose, and Germany may need one of either veteran Mario Gómez or youngster Timo Werner to fire at the point of attack if Müller is to rediscover his best form.

Then there’s Manuel Neuer. The Bayern shot-stopper has long been regarded as one of the world’s best goalkeepers, but Neuer has been plagued by injury over the past few years, and he’s only just returned from a metatarsal injury. Is he fit? There are serious doubts. And neither Kevin Trapp, nor Marc-André ter Stegen have excelled as Neuer’s understudy.

Yet the reality is that no matter who Löw fields, Germany will be tough to beat. No team has won back-to-back world titles since Brazil in 1962. Can Die Mannschaft buck the trend?

Head coach:  Joachim Löw

Key player:  Manuel Neuer

One to watch:  Leon Goretzka (pictured)

Mexico

What would the World Cup be without Mexico? 

Hardly the most successful side in international football, the World Cup finals are nevertheless always enlivened by Mexico’s presence. They’ve made the Round of 16 in each of the past six tournaments – and they were banned from competing in Italia 90 – yet the next step has proved frustratingly elusive for El Tricolor. They were bundled out in incredible circumstances by the Netherlands in 2014, as a Wesley Sneijder equaliser in the 88th minute was followed by a stoppage-time winner from the penalty spot after national Rafael Márquez had brought down Arjen Robben in the box. Márquez is still involved – he’ll become just the third player to play at five World Cup finals if he gets on the park – and elsewhere coach Juan Carlos Osorio will take a typically experienced squad to Russia.

The entire squad boasts more than 1,400 caps between them and the household names include goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa, the legendary Márquez, skipper Andrés Guardado and West Ham United striker Javier Hernández. But while the Mexicans may play plenty of football in the convoluted confederation that is CONCACAF, there are question marks over whether that’s the kind of competition they need to excel at the elite level. Beating the United States on a regular basis is one thing, but Mexico have lost in the World Cup Round of 16 to Bulgaria, Germany, arch-nemesis the United States, Argentina twice and the Netherlands in the meantime.

All that history means Osorio will need to work overtime to instil a sense of self-belief in his entertaining but often erratic squad. And pre-tournament friendly results won’t have helped. It started well enough with a 3-0 win over Iceland as part of one of Mexico’s perennial tours around the United States. But a subsequent 1-0 defeat to Croatia and scoreless draw with Wales meant local fans were already simmering by the time El Tricolor pitched up for a farewell friendly against an understrength Scotland at the Azteca. And the narrow 1-0 win, coupled with Osorio’s refusal to send the popular Hernández into the fray, didn’t exactly win him any new admirers. Nor did the news that Mexico’s squad threw a wild party replete with escorts immediately after the match. 

There’s no denying the fact that Mexico have found themselves in a tough group. Whether Osorio is the man to lead them out of it is anyone’s guess.

Head coach:  Juan Carlos Osorio

Key player:  Giovani dos Santos (pictured)

One to watch:  Carlos Vela

Sweden

Italy’s pain is Sweden’s gain after Janne Andersson’s team secured their passage to Russia with a win in the European playoffs.

No Zlatan Ibrahimovic, no problem? There had been rumours Sweden’s long-time talisman may come out of retirement for one final fling in Russia, but after receiving short shrift from the Swedish football establishment, Ibrahimovic will instead be watching the tournament from the comfort of corporate seats. And that may not be the worst thing for a team short on stars but big on collective unity.

For all his undisputed talent, Ibrahimovic registered just a solitary shot on goal as Sweden crashed out of Euro 2016 at the group stage. It took the Swedes a while to warm up World Cup qualifying, but an important 2-1 win over France in Solna – helped in part by a huge goalkeeping error from Hugo Lloris – ensured Sweden had done just enough to see off the third-placed Netherlands on goal difference, despite a final-day defeat to the Dutch. And having been pipped to top spot by the French, Sweden made the most of their second chance in the European playoffs by beating a dismal Italy 1-0 on aggregate to qualify for the World Cup finals.

Once there, Sweden will rely upon the likes of skipper Andreas Granqvist – who plays his club football in Russia, veteran midfielder Sebastian Larsson, the mercurial John Guidetti and top scorer Marcus Berg for inspiration. And they may need plenty of that given the fact pre-tournament friendly results have been poor. A 2-1 loss to Chile in Solna was followed by a 1-0 defeat to Romania in Craiova and another scoreless draw with Nordic neighbours Denmark in Solna again, and for all the absence of ego in the Swedish squad nowadays, there’s a sense that coach Janne Andersson’s side may be missing a creative spark.

Andersson himself typifies Sweden’s new low-key approach. A no-nonsense tactician, he’s served his entire career in Sweden – in 2015 even leading unfashionable IFK Norrköping to an unexpected Allsvenskan title. Will that be enough to unsettle the world’s best? After years of Zlatan, Sweden fans may need to adjust expectations accordingly.

Head coach:  Janne Andersson

Key player:  Emil Forsberg (pictured)

One to watch: John Guidetti

South Korea

Have the wheels fallen off South Korean football? After a dismal 2014 World Cup and Asian Cup heartbreak in Australia, coach Shin Tae-yong will hope it’s a case of third time lucky.

There’s no two ways about it: the South Korean national team revolves around Son Heung-min. It was Son who single-handledly dragged the Taegeuk Warriors back into that epic Asian Cup final defeat against Australia, only for the Koreans to come undone in extra-time. And long-serving German-born coach Uli Stielike paid the ultimate price during World Cup qualifying, as a series of underwhelming performances saw him replaced by the storied Shin.

The latter saw his team sneak into second spot in their Third Round qualifying group – finishing a worrying seven points behind Iran – and to make matters worse for Shin, he goes into the World Cup finals missing a slew of important players through injury. Kim Min-ja, Yeom Ki-hun and veteran striker Lee Keun-ho will all watch the World Cup from back home, but perhaps worst of all for South Korean fans is the Achilles injury to Dijon midfielder Kwon Chang-hoon – who enjoyed a stellar campaign in France’s Ligue 1.

Much will therefore rely on Tottenham striker Son. He is undoubtedly South Korea’s biggest star, although he’s aided by combative captain and former Swansea midfielder Ki Sung-yueng – who, for those who weren’t aware, attended Brisbane’s John Paul College for much of his high school career. Combined with Augsburg midfielder Koo Ja-cheol, the trio possess more than 200 caps between them – but big-match experience is the least of Shin’s problems. The towering Kim Shin-wook is the obvious Plan B should Son struggle to find the back of the net, while Vissel Kobe goalkeeper Kim Seung-gyu has overtaken Cerezo Osaka shot-stopper Kim Jin-hyeon as first-choice in goal.

But it’s up front where South Korea stand to do the most damage in Russia. Have they got the firepower to make their mark? All eyes are on Son Heung-min.

Head coach: Shin Tae-yong

Key player: Son Heung-min

One to watch: Lee Jae-sung (pictured)


Categories: Analysis | World Cup

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