Group C promises to be the most hotly contested of all the opening round groups: two European giants, a dash of South American flair (with added grit), and the wily Aussies who always show up at major tournaments. FRANCE are looking to go one better than they did on home soil at the Euros in 2016 where they lost to Portugal 1-0 in extra time thanks to a goal from Eder. Coach Didier Deschamps has a ridiculous pool of talent to choose from but the question will be whether he can find a system and selection that works as a unit. Too often the French have been plagued from within. A unfathomable goalless draw with Luxembourg and losing 2-1 in Stockholm in qualifying shows the unpredictability of Les Bleus (The Blues). Often flattering to deceive, players such a global superstar Paul Pogba, journeyman Olivier Giroud, and tournament flop Blaise Matuidi could be looked over for an eclectic crop of young wonderkids. Monaco’s energetic play-maker Thomas Lemar dazzled in the 4-0 drubbing of the Netherlands in August; and the potential of forwards Kylian Mbappé (PSG) and Barcelona’s Ousmane Dembélé to run riot may force Deschamps hand. I actually fancy DENMARK to pip the French to top spot in Group C. Although I am unconvinced by the pedigree of their coach, Norwegian Åge Hareide, his system is designed to give one man the ball – Christian Eriksen. The Spurs maestro has been sensational over the past couple of years, and still only 26 he is destined to bring football poetry to Russia this summer. His sensational hat-trick in the playoff match against the Irish in Dublin proved he can make the difference at the big stage. A strong defensive unit plays in front of one of the tournaments best goalkeepers, Kasper Schmeichel. The Danes have conceded only 3 goals in the last 10 games in preparation for the tournament and captain Simon Kjær skillfully marshals a promising group of young defenders including Chelsea’s Andreas Christensen. PERU reach the finals for the first time since Spain 1982 after a phenomenal performance in the extremely difficult CONMEBOL qualification group. Despite losing 4 of their opening 6 matches, impressive wins home and away against Bolivia, Ecuador and Paraguay alongside draws against Argentina (twice), Uruguay and Colombia meant La Blanquirroja
(The White and Red) did enough to face a playoff against New Zealand. Lokomotiv Moscow’s Jefferson Farfán scored in a 2-0 win at the Estadio Nacional in Lima to send the Peruvians to Russia. Farfán and Edison Flores (who plays at Danish club Aalborg) give them pace and potency on the counter attack, something Argentinian coach Ricardo Gareca, nicknamed El Tigre – Tiger, covets highly. Peru are unbeaten in 15 games leading up to the tournament and recently beat Iceland and Croatia in warm up games. The return of Flamengo star (the club, not the dance) Paolo Guerrero means Gareca goes into the tournament quietly optimistic. Officially nicknamed the Socceroos, AUSTRALIA have benefited from switching to the AFC Confederation qualification route by reaching the last three World Cup finals. Disappointing draws against Iraq and Thailand were followed by a disastrous defeat to the United Arab Emirates in qualifying. This saw Saudi Arabia clinch an automatic place and send Australia to a nervy playoff against Honduras. A second half meltdown by the Hondurans gifted the Socceroos a seat on the plane to Russia. It became evidently clear that coach Ange Postecoglou and Football Federation Australia (itself in a bureaucratic quagmire) didn’t see eye to eye. Deposed ex-Saudi coach Bert van Marwijk replaced Postecoglou, who walked away and took a job in the money-happy J-League. With good knowledge of what is an average playing group in terms of world football standards, the Dutchman will look to impose a more pragmatic, structured style. A recent 4-0 win against the Czech Republic highlighted this further: the Socceroos had only 5 shots compared to the Czechs 12 but they were impressively clinical. It would take a footballing miracle to see them progress but you can always rely on the Socceroos for a spirited display.
Players to watch: Thomas Lemar & Kylian Mbappé (FRA), Christian Eriksen & Yussuf Poulsen (DEN), Paolo Guerrero, Christian Cueva & Miguel Trauco (PER), Daniel Arzani & Aaron Mooy (AUS)
Fun fact: Peru’s Paolo Guerrero tested positive for a metabolite of cocaine at a World Cup qualifier against Argentina in October. He argued at two FIFA hearings, and his appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, that the stimulant did not offer chemical help to his performance and was accidentally consumed in tea. Where can I buy that tea?