Ooh, now here is a group to be excited about. The reigning champions, GERMANY, have been completely dominant under Joachim Löw; their dismantling of Brazil and then defeat of Argentina to lift the trophy at the Estádio do Maracanã in Rio de Janeiro four years ago was a delight to watch. A disappointing semi-final defeat to hosts France in the Euros, the retirement of Philipp Lahm, concerns over the fitness of iconic goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, and questions over the recent performances of the back four, however, mean there is more attention on this German team than usual. Defeat to Austria and a pedestrian display over an awful Saudi Arabia side in warm ups to the finals did little to win over the would-be doubters. There are the usual faces oozing class – Thomas Müller, Marco Reus, Mesut Özil, Mats Hummels, and the industrious Toni Kroos – alongside a flurry of young guns such as Niklas Süle, Julian Brandt and RB Leipzig’s prolific striker Timo Werner. Werner could start alongside Müller in Löw’s traditional 4-2-3-1 formation. The Germans should be there or thereabouts at the business end of the competition. Personally, I have a sneaky feeling they could find themselves in trouble early and need to dig deep to pull them through. A tricky first game against MEXICO could prove to be a stumbling block. El Tricolor made Juan Carlos Osorio their 12th coach in the last 9 years after the last World Cup in Brazil. Osorio’s side breezed through the CONCACAF qualifying phases, only losing one game (3-2 to Honduras) as Osorio experimented with the side after already securing qualification. The Mexicans are an ageing squad with plenty of tournament experience – legendary captain Andrés Guardado has 145 caps and is still only 31; El Káiser, Rafa Márquez will see his 5th consecutive World Cup; and well-traveled duo Giovani dos Santos and Carlos Vela are now pushing 30. There is a feeling that if this Mexican generation is going to achieve it has to be in Russia. PSV’s Hirving Lozano, nicknamed “Chucky”, is pushing to be included, as is Porto’s Jesús Manuel Corona, who has earned rave reviews in the Portuguese Primeira Liga this season. A win against Die Mannschaft in their opening game is almost essential for this side to believe they can be a force in the finals. SWEDEN have a squad about as well known as coach Janne Andersson is outside of his home country. Andersson guided IFK Norrköping to their first Allsvenskan title in 26 years in 2015, surprising the entire country. It was enough for the Svenska Fotbollförbundet to hand him the national team role and he hasn’t looked back since. Moving on from Zlatan Ibrahimović, the squad has been rebuilt with the principles of structural discipline and good old hard work. You won’t find a back four with a better understanding than Lustig, Lindelöf, Granqvist and Olsson. They are ably protected by Albin Ekdal and Emil Forsberg in midfield, which has allowed ex-Arsenal midfielder Sebastian Larsson to take up a more attacking role. Marcus Berg has fired 25 goals in 21 games for U.A.E club side Al Ain FC this season. He is a terrific finisher who only needs a sniff of goal to get a shot in. Blågult (The Blue-Yellow) could well surprise the big hitters in the group. Shin Tae-yong’s SOUTH KOREA have a mountain to climb to get out of the group. After a dismal display in Brazil, a patchy qualification campaign nearly ended in disaster as they survived a late onslaught from Uzbekistan in Tashkent to just creep through in second place in the group ahead of Syria. The aegeuk Jeonsa, (Taegeuk Warriors) named 11 defenders in their 23 man squad which tells you a lot about their intentions in Russia. Spurs superstar Son Heung-min will be asked to feed off scraps and produce moments of magic to try steal points. Boasting one of the tournaments more intriguing tactical set-ups, former Seongnam FC legend Shin Tae-yong has lined up with a back 7 (3 deep centre backs behind a protective defensive 4 including Ki Sung-yueng) in recent games. It might not be pretty to watch, but needs must for the South Koreans.
Players to watch: Toni Kroos, Julian Draxler, Joshua Kimmich, (MEX), Hirving Lozano, Jesús Manuel Corona and Érick Gutiérrez (MEX), Victor Lindelöf, Oscar Hiljemark (SWE), Lee Seung-woo, Son Heung-min (KOR)
Fun fact: Mexico’s three goalkeepers (José de Jesús Corona, Alfredo Talavera, and Guillermo Ochoa) have a combined age of 104 (the oldest in the tournament) and a combined cap count of 173 (the most in the tournament).