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WORLD CUP RUSSIA 2018: PREVIEW



WORLD CUP 2018: RUSSIA


It's almost here, four years of waiting done, a chance for each nation & it's fans to dream of winning footballs ultimate prize - The World Cup. The tournament takes place this year in Russia & with the help of a guest writer we have a preview of this summers feast of football & each team competing...

THE GROUPS





GROUP A: PREVIEW

RUSSIA


Qualifying as hosts, Russia didn’t have to battle their way through any groups to get to this years World Cup Finals, which is probably a good thing as they have only won two games since their 1-1 draw with England in the 2016 Euros, losing to Slovakia, Wales, Portugal, Mexico, Brazil, France and Austria and drawing with Turkey since then. Placed in a group with Saudi Arabia, Uruguay and Egypt, coach Stanislav Cherchesov will have to rely on a team drawn mainly from the Russian leagues to manoeuvre out of the group.

Manager : Stanislav Cherchesov (August 2016 – present)

Played : 19 Won : 5 Drawn : 5 Lost : 9 (Win rate 26.31%)

SQUAD

Goalkeepers: Igor Akinfeev (CSKA Moscow), Vladimir Gabulov (Club Brugge), Andrey Lunyov (Zenit St Petersburg).

Defenders: Vladimir Granat, Fyodor Kudryashov (both Rubin Kazan), Ilya Kutepov (Spartak Moscow), Andrei Semyonov (Akhmat Grozny), Sergei Ignashevich, Mario Fernandes (both CSKA Moscow), Igor Smolnikov (Zenit St Petersburg)

Midfielders: Yury Gazinsky (Krasnodar), Aleksandr Golovin, Alan Dzagoev (both CSKA Moscow), Aleksandr Yerokhin, Yuri Zhirkov, Daler Kuzyaev (all Zenit St Petersburg), Roman Zobnin, Aleksandr Samedov (both Spartak Moscow), Anton Miranchuk (Lokomotiv Moscow), Denis Cheryshev (Villarreal)

Forwards: Artem Dzyuba (Arsenal Tula), Aleksei Miranchuk (Lokomotiv Moscow), Fyodor Smolov (Krasnodar)

VERDICT

Surprisingly Russia's best chance of progressing out of the Group rely on a player from another team – Mo Salah. Should Salah be unable to take part in the World Cup for Egypt, the Russians may have a chance of scraping through in second place after Uruguay. Its very rare for a host team not to make it out of the Group stages though, but even with what is probably the easiest Group in the Finals, much will depend on the outcome of their match against Egypt.


SAUDI ARABIA


Making their first appearance at the finals since 2006, Saudi Arabia qualified in second place behind Japan in the AFC conference group ahead of Australia, UAE, Iraq, and Thailand. They won six out of their ten group matches, scoring 17 goals and conceding ten. Midfielder Nawaf Al Abed was top scorer for Audi Arabia with four goals, although three of those were penalties, and he hasn’t made the final squad of 23 players. Argentinian born, but ex Spanish, professional player Juan Antonio Pizzi will be hoping for a good showing against hosts Russia, Uruguay and Egypt.

Manager : Juan Antonio Pizzi (November 2017 – present)

Played : 8 Won : 3 Drawn : 1 Lost : 4 (win rate 37.50%)

SQUAD

Goalkeepers: Mohammed Alowais, Yasser Almosailem (both Al Ahli), Abdullah Almuaiouf (Al Hilal)

Defenders: Mansoor Alharbi (Al Ahli), Yasser Alshahrani, Mohammed Alburyak (both Al Hilal), Motaz Hawsawi (Al Ahli), Osama Hawsawi (Al Hilal), Omar Othman (Al Nassr), Ali Albulayhi (Al Hilal)

Midfielders: Abdullah Alkhaibari (Al Shabab), Abdulmalek Alkhaibri, Abdullah Otayf (both Al Hilal), Taiseer Aljassam, Hussain Almoqahwi (both Al Ahli), Salman Alfaraj, Mohamed Kanno
(both Al Hilal), Hatan Bahbir (Al Shabab), Salem Aldawsari (Al Hilal), Yahia Alshehri (Al Nassr)

Forwards: Mohammed Alsahlawi (Al Nassr), Muhannad Asiri (Al Ahli), Fahad Almuwallad (Al Ittihad)

VERDICT

Currently ranked 67th in the FIFA rankings, its hard to see Saudi Arabia making any impression on the Finals unless its in the “goals against” column. With a new Manager and most of their team seemingly playing in Spain (the Saudi Arabian FA paid Spanish teams to take the players on loan, which they did but then declined to play most of them), this Saudi Arabian team is not only lacking talent, but crucially also fitness.


EGYPT


The Pharaohs qualified for their third appearance at a World Cup Finals by topping their CAF Group ahead of Uganda, Ghana and Congo scoring a mere eight goals and conceding four. However, Egypt are the most successful National Team in Africa having won the African Cup of Nations a record SEVEN times. Coach Hector Cuper, the former Argentine player, will be hoping that genuine star player Mo Salah recovers from his Champions League shoulder injury in time to make an impact.

Manager : Hector Cuper (2 March 2015 – Present)

Played : 35 Won : 19 Drawn : 7 Lost : 9 (win rate 54.29%)

SQUAD

Goalkeepers: Essam El Hadary (Al Taawoun), Mohamed El-Shennawy, Sherif Ekramy (both Al Ahly).

Defenders: Ahmed Fathi, Saad Samir, Ayman Ashraf (all Al Ahly), Mahmoud Hamdy (Zamalek), Mohamed Abdel-Shafy (Al Fateh), Ahmed Hegazi (West Brom), Ali Gabr (Zamalek), Ahmed Elmohamady (Aston Villa), Omar Gaber (Los Angeles FC)

Midfielders: Tarek Hamed, (Zamalek), Abdallah Said (Al Ahli), Sam Morsy (Wigan Athletic), Mohamed Elneny (Arsenal), Ramadan Sobhi (Stoke City), Mahmoud Hassan (Kasimpasa)

Forwards: Mohamed Salah (Liverpool), Marwan Mohsen (Al Ahly), Shikabala (Zamalek), Amr Warda (Atromitos), Mahmoud Kahraba (Al Ittihad)

VERDICT

In a group with hosts Russia, Uruguay and potential World Cup whipping boys Saudi Arabia, much will rely on the fitness of Mo Salah. However Egypt aren’t necessarily a one man team, with another four players in the squad currently plying their trade in England. Whilst Uruguay should be too strong for Egypt, don’t be surprised if they claim the second place spot ahead of Russia.


URUGUAY


The Sky Blues are surprisingly the sixth smallest country by population to have ever qualified for a World Cup but there is a resilience and a strength in depth in the South American team that has seen them not only win this tournament twice (1930 and 1950) but have also win the Copa America a record breaking 15 times. Ranked 14th in the FIFA rankings Uruguay finished second in the CONMEBOL qualifying group behind Brazil, but ahead of Argentina, Colombia, Peru, Chile, Paraguay, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela scoring 32 goals and conceding 20. With Edison Cavani hitting ten goals in those matches, Luis Suarez was the next highest scorer for Uruguay with five.

Manager : Oscar Tabarez (1988 – 1990 and 2006 – present)

Played : 191 Won : 93 Drawn : 48 Lost : 50 (win rate 48.69%)

SQUAD

Goalkeepers: Fernando Muslera (Galatasaray), Martin Silva (Vasco da Gama), Martin Campana (Independiente).

Defenders: Diego Godin, Jose Maria Gimenez (both Atletico Madrid), Sebastian Coates
(Sporting Lisbon), Maximiliano Pereira (Porto), Gaston Silva (Independiente), Martin Caceres
(Lazio), Guillermo Varela (Penarol)

Midfielders: Nahitan Nandez (Boca Juniors), Lucas Torreira (Sampdoria), Matias Vecino
(Inter Milan), Rodrigo Bentancur (Juventus), Carlos Sanchez (Monterrey), Giorgian De
Arrascaeta (Cruzeiro), Diego Laxalt (Genoa), Cristian Rodriguez (Penarol), Jonathan
Urretaviscaya (Monterrey)

Forwards: Cristhian Stuani (Girona), Maximiliano Gomez (Celta Vigo), Edinson Cavani (Paris
St-Germain), Luis Suarez (Barcelona)

Barcelona striker, Luis Suarez will be one of Group A's star names at this years World Cup

VERDICT

Easily the strongest team in Group A, Uruguay could realistically finish the Group with maximum points to set themselves up with a knock out match against the runners up of Group B (likely to be Portugal or Spain). With a talented and resilient squad including Edison Cavani, Luis Suarez, Diego Godin, Matias Vecino and Cristian Rodriguez Uruguay will feel confident of success, although that knockout match in round two could well be a match too far.


GROUP B: PREVIEW

PORTUGAL


Portugal won their qualifying group by narrowly beating Switzerland to the top spot on goal difference, and the current Euro 2016 Champions will be looking to move on from that triumph by raising the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Portugal scored 32 goals in qualifying and conceded only four – however in a Group that included Latvia, the Faroe Islands and Andorra those stats look a little flattering.  Unsurprisingly, Cristiano Ronaldo was top scorer for The Navigators (Portugal's National Teams nickname) with 15 goals, and such is the strength in depth that The Portuguese have at the moment manager Fernando Santos has left out several of the Euro 2016 team.

Manager : Fernando Santos (24 September 2014 – present)

Played : 48 Won : 32 Drawn : 7 Lost : 9 (Win rate 66.67%)

SQUAD

Goalkeepers: Anthony Lopes (Lyon), Beto (Goztepe), Rui Patricio (Sporting Lisbon)

Defenders: Bruno Alves (Rangers), Cedric Soares (Southampton), Jose Fonte (Dalian Yifang), Mario Rui (Napoli), Pepe (Besiktas), Raphael Guerreiro (Borussia Dortmund), Ricardo Pereira (Porto), Ruben Dias (Benfica)

Midfielders: Adrien Silva (Leicester), Bruno Fernandes (Sporting Lisbon), Joao Mario (West Ham), Joao Moutinho (AS Monaco), Manuel Fernandes (Lokomotiv Moscow), William Carvalho (Sporting)

Forwards: Andre Silva (AC Milan), Bernardo Silva (Manchester City), Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid), Gelson Martins (Sporting Lisbon), Goncalo Guedes (Valencia), Ricardo Quaresma (Besiktas)

Fans of the current European Champions, Portugal, will be looking forward to see what Cristian Ronaldo will produce in Russia this summer. As will the majority of football fans & pundits.

VERDICT

Where previously Portugal have been considered a One Man Team with the emphasis of Ronaldo to secure the results, players such as Andre Silva, William Carvalho, Bernado Silva and Joao Moutinho will help provide more outlets for the team this time round, whilst seasoned campaigners Pepe and Bruno Alves will help shore things up at the back. In a Group that also contains Spain, Morocco and Iran, Portugal should qualify, however whether they finish first or second will depend on the pivotal first match against Spain.


SPAIN



Qualifying as winners of Group G in a pool that also contained Italy, Albania, Israel, Macedonia and Liechtenstein, La Roja will be seeking to win the World Cup for the second time in their history after hoisting the trophy aloft at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Unbeaten in qualifying with a record of nine wins and one draw, Spain scored an impressive 36 goals and conceded just three (we’ll gloss over the fact that 16 of those goals were scored over 2 games against Liechtenstein) Four of the Spain squad scored five goals in qualifying – Diego Costa, Isco, Alvaro Morata and David Silva, although head coach Julen Lopetegui has decided that he has too many strikers and has omitted Morata from the final 23 man squad.

Manager : Julen Lopetegui (21 July 2016 – present)

Played : 18 Won: 13 Drawn : 5 Lost : 0 (Win Rate 63.28%)

SQUAD

Goalkeepers: David de Gea (Manchester United), Pepe Reina (Napoli), Kepa Arrizabalaga (Athletic Bilbao).

Defenders: Jordi Alba (Barcelona), Nacho Monreal (Arsenal), Alvaro Odriozola (Real Sociedad), Nacho Fernandez (Real Madrid), Dani Carvajal (Real Madrid), Gerard Pique (Barcelona), Sergio Ramos (Real Madrid), Cesar Azpilicueta (Chelsea)

Midfielders: Sergio Busquets (Barcelona), Isco (Real Madrid), Thiago Alcantara (Bayern Munich), David Silva (Manchester City), Andres Iniesta (Barcelona), Saul Niguez (Atletico Madrid), Koke (Atletico Madrid)

After helping Manchester City lift the Premier League, David Silva will have high hopes of Spain's chances this summer in Russia.

Forwards: Marco Asensio (Real Madrid), Iago Aspas (Celta Vigo), Diego Costa (Atletico Madrid), Rodrigo Moreno (Valencia), Lucas Vazquez (Real Madrid)

VERDICT

Strong on paper with experience & depth throughout the side, Spain will be disappointed if they don’t reach at least the Quarter Finals of this years World Cup, with a squad selected from some of the biggest names in club football. The key to success will be if they can curtail their infamous card magnet ways in the Group stages against Portugal, Morocco and Iran allowing them to be suspension free for the knockout stages.


MOROCCO


Morocco booked their flights to this years World Cup by finishing top of Group C in the CAF qualification process, which involved five Groups of four African teams playing with only the winner of each Group progressing to the finals. Unbeaten in Group C, Morocco saw off Gabon, Mali and surprisingly the Ivory Coast, scoring eleven goals over six games and conceding none. With a raft of players pulled from some of Europe's biggest clubs including Real Madrid, Juventus and Galatasaray, Morocco will be looking to progress out of a Group that includes Portugal, Spain and Iran.

Manager : Herve Renard (February 2016 – present)

SQUAD

Goalkeepers: Mounir El Kajoui (Numancia), Yassine Bounou (Girona), Ahmad Reda Tagnaouti (Ittihad Tanger)

Defenders: Mehdi Benatia (Juventus), Romain Saiss (Wolves), Manuel Da Costa (Basaksehir), Badr Benoun (Raja Casablanca), Nabil Dirar (Fenerbahce), Achraf Hakimi (Real Madrid), Hamza Mendyl (LOSC)

Midfielders: M'barek Boussoufa (Al Jazira), Karim El Ahmadi (Feyenoord), Youssef Ait Bennasser (Caen), Sofyan Amrabat (Feyenoord), Younes Belhanda (Galatasaray), Faycal Fajr (Getafe), Amine Harit (Schalke 04)

Forwards: Khalid Boutaib (Malatyaspor), Aziz Bouhaddouz (Saint Pauli), Ayoub El Kaabi (Renaissance Berkane), Nordin Amrabat (Leganes), Mehdi Carcela (Standard de Liege), Hakim Ziyech (Ajax).

VERDICT

If Morocco had have been drawn in any other Group then they would have probably qualified in second place but their matches against Portugal and Spain will most likely mean that Morocco will fail to get to the knockout stages alongside potential whipping boys Iran. However, with Morocco playing their first match against Iran a day before Portugal take on Spain, a convincing Morocco win could have a bearing on how Portugal and Spain approach their match – one that they will both be desperate not to lose, but maybe because of how the matches have been scheduled, one that they also won’t want to draw. It could give Morocco a chance of stealing second place in the Group and causing a massive upset by knocking either Spain or Portugal out.


IRAN


Iran qualified for their fifth (yes, fifth!) World Cup Finals by topping Group A in the AFC qualifying sector ahead of South Korea, Syria, Uzbekistan, China and Qatar. They scored ten times in ten matches, conceding just two goals. Ruben Kazan striker Sardar Azmoun was a key player, having chipped in with four goals in qualifying. Could manager Carlos Queiroz use his previous experience at Portugal, Real Madrid and Manchester United to spring a surprise?

Manager : Carlos Quieroz (4 April 2011 – present)
Played : 86 Won : 53 Drawn : 23 Lost : 10 (win rate 61.63%)

SQUAD

Goalkeepers: Alireza Beiranvand (Persepolis), Rashid Mazaheri (Zob Ahan), Amir Abedzadeh (Maritimo)

Defenders: Majid Hosseini (Esteghlal), Ramin Rezaeian (Ostende), Mohammad Reza Khanzadeh (Padideh), Morteza Pouraliganji (Alsaad), Pejman Montazeri (Esteghlal), Milad Mohammadi (Akhmat Grozny), Roozbeh Cheshmi (Esteghlal)

Midfielders: Saeid Ezatolahi (Amkar Perm), Masoud Shojaei (AEK Athens), Mehdi Torabi (Saipa), Omid Ebrahimi (Esteghlal), Ehsan Haji Safi (Olympiacos), Karim Ansarifard (Olympiacos), Vahid Amiri (Persepolis)

Forwards: Alireza Jahanbakhsh (AZ Alkmaar), Mehdi Taremi (Al Gharafa), Sardar Azmoun (Rubin Kazan), Reza Ghoochannejhad (Heerenveen), Saman Ghoddos (Ostersunds), Ashkan Dejagah (Nottingham Forest).

VERDICT

Despite having Quieroz as team manager with his excellent stats, being drawn in Group B alongside Portugal, Spain and Morocco will most likely mean that Iran will not get any further than the Group stages this time around.


GROUP C: PREVIEW


FRANCE


Perennial World Cup visitors France are one of only three teams that have qualified for every World Cup since it began, winning it in 1998, and this year are one of the bookies favourites having topped their Group in qualifying with Sweden and knocking out the Netherlands in the process. Across ten qualifying matches France scored 18 goals and conceded six, with forwards Olivier Giroud and Antoine Griezmann scoring four goals each. Coach Didier Deschamps has a raft of experienced players from across Europe to call on meaning that high profile players such as Adrien Rabiot, Anthony Martial, Moussa Sissoko and Alexandre Lacazette have all missed this summer out for Les Bleus.

Manager : Didier Deschamps (8 July 2012 – present)

Played : 74 Won : 46 Drawn : 13 Lost : 15 (Win rate 53.85%)

SQUAD

Goalkeepers: Hugo Lloris (Tottenham Hotspur), Steve Mandanda (Marseille), Alphonse Areola (Paris Saint-Germain)

Defenders: Lucas Hernandez (Atletico Madrid), Presnel Kimpembe (Paris Saint-Germain), Benjamin Mendy (Manchester City), Benjamin Pavard (Stuttgart), Adil Rami (Marseille), Djibril Sidibe (Monaco), Samuel Umtiti (Barcelona), Raphael Varane (Real Madrid)

Midfielders: N'Golo Kante (Chelsea), Blaise Matuidi (Juventus), Steven N'Zonzi (Sevilla), Paul Pogba (Manchester United), Corentin Tolisso (Bayern Munich)

Forwards: Ousmane Dembele (Barcelona), Nabil Fekir (Lyon), Olivier Giroud (Chelsea), Antoine Griezmann (Atletico Madrid), Thomas Lemar (Monaco), Kylian Mbappe (Paris Saint-Germain), Florian Thauvin (Marseille)

France have heaps of top European Talent in their squad this summer, Antoine Griezmann is one of those hoping to shine.

VERDICT

Placed into Group C alongside Australia, Peru and Denmark, this French team should have enough quality across all areas of the pitch to top their Group, leading to a knock out game against the runners up in Group D (most likely to be Croatia or Nigeria). A victory in that match could see them face either Spain or Portugal in the quarter finals. A potentially kind route to the final on Sunday 15 July makes France one to watch but will the bookies pricing make it worthwhile to place a wager?


AUSTRALIA


Australia squeezed into the Finals by virtue of a 2-3 (AET) win over Syria in a play-off after finishing third in their AFC Group behind Japan and Saudi Arabia. In a Group also containing the UAE, Iraq and Thailand, the Socceroos scored 16 goals and conceded eleven. Currently ranked 36th in the FIFA rankings, Australia have been placed into Group C with France, Peru and Denmark and coach Bert Van Marwijk will have high hopes for the team in the Group stages.

Manager : Bert Van Marwijk (24 Jan 2018 – present)

Played : 3 Won : 1 Drawn : 1 Lost : 1 (win rate 33.33%)

SQUAD

Goalkeepers: Brad Jones (Feyenoord), Mat Ryan (Brighton), Danny Vukovic (Genk).

Defenders: Aziz Behich (Bursaspor), Milos Degenek (Yokohama F. Marinos), Matthew Jurman (Suwon Samsung Blue Wings), James Meredith (Millwall), Josh Risdon (Western Sydney), Trent Sainsbury (Grasshopper Zurich)

Midfielders: Jackson Irvine (Hull City), Mile Jedinak (Aston Villa), Robbie Kruse (VfL Bochum), Massimo Luongo (QPR), Mark Milligan (Al-Ahli), Aaron Mooy (Huddersfield), Tom Rogic (Celtic), Tim Cahill (Millwall)

Forwards: Daniel Arzani (Melbourne City), Tomi Juric (Luzern), Mathew Leckie (Hertha Berlin), Andrew Nabbout (Urawa Red Diamonds), Dimitri Petratos (Newcastle Jets), Jamie Maclaren (Hibernian)

VERDICT

Australia are a bit of enigma this time out, with coach Van Marwijk only having had three games to prepare for the tournament, whilst the squad has depth, will it gel in time? Maybe we are getting nostalgic about the days of Harry Kewell & Craig Johnston here, but the highly rated Aaron Mooy and Tom Rogic and the perennial aerial power of Tim Cahill could provide an upset in Group C by finishing second behind France. 


PERU


Coming into Russia 2018 by virtue of a two legged play off over New Zealand which they won 2-0 after finishing fifth in the CONMEBOL qualifying group, the 11th highest ranking FIFA team at the moment did manage to hit 27 goals over 18 matches, conceding 26. This will be Perus fifth appearance at a World Cup Finals. Winger Edison Flores and Striker Paolo Gurrero both notched five goals apiece in qualifying.

Manager : Richard Gareca (2015 – present)

SQUAD

Goalkeepers: Pedro Gallese (Veracruz), Carlos Caceda (Deportivo Municipal), Jose Carvallo (UTC).

Defenders: Aldo Corzo (Universitario), Luis Advincula (Lobos Buap), Christian Ramos (Veracruz), Miguel Araujo (Alianza Lima), Alberto Rodriguez (Atletico Junior), Anderson Santamaria (Puebla), Miguel Trauco (Flamengo), Nilson Loyola (Melgar)

Midfielders: Renato Tapia (Feyenoord), Pedro Aquino (Leon), Yoshimar Yotun (Orlando City), Paolo Hurtado (Vitoria Guimaraes), Christian Cueva (Sao Paulo), Edison Flores (Aalborg), Andy Polo (Portland Timbers), Wilder Cartagena (Veracruz)

Forwards: Andre Carrillo (Benfica), Raul Ruidiaz (Morelia), Jefferson Farfan (Lokomotiv Moscow), Paolo Guerrero (Flamengo)

Peru could possibly be a dark horse in Russia this summer. In a competitive group they will have been buoyed by the news their striker Paolo Guerrero is free to play.

VERDICT

Playing at their highest FIFA ranking ever, Peru are another team that could cause a couple of upsets – indeed their match against Australia could well determine who qualifies in second place in a Group also containing France and Denmark. This is one tough Group to call.


DENMARK


Sitting only one place behind Peru in the FIFA rankings, Denmark got to Russia 2018 by finishing second in the Group E qualifying behind Poland and ahead of Montenegro, Romania, Armenia and Kazakhstan scoring 20 times and conceding eight times in ten matches. Placed in a tough Group alongside France, Peru and Australia the Danish Dynamite under head Coach Age Hareide will have to rely of Christian Eriksen to unlock the opponents defences to add to his tally of eight goals in qualifying.

Manager : Age Hareide (1 March 2016 – Present)

Played : 22 Won : 11 Drawn : 8 Lost : 3 (win rate 50%0

SQUAD

Goalkeepers: Kasper Schmeichel (Leicester), Frederik Ronnow (Brondby), Jonas Lossl (Huddersfield)

Defenders: Simon Kjaer (Sevilla), Mathias Jorgensen (Huddersfield), Andreas Christensen (Chelsea), Henrik Dalsgaard (Brentford), Jannik Vestergaard (Borussia Monchengladbach), Jens Stryger Larsen (Udinese), Jonas Knudsen (Ipswich)

Midfielders: Christian Eriksen (Tottenham), Lasse Schone (Ajax), Michael Krohn-Dehli (Deportivo La Coruna), Thomas Delaney (Werder Bremen), William Kvist (FC Copenhagen), Lukas Lerager (Bordeaux)

Forwards: Andreas Cornelius (Atalanta), Kasper Dolberg (Ajax), Martin Braithwaite (Middlesbrough), Nicolai Jorgensen (Feyenoord), Pione Sisto (Celta Vigo), Viktor Fischer (FC Copenhagen), Yussuf Poulsen (RB Leipzig)

VERDICT

Consistently consistent, Denmark have the capabilities to upset any side that doesn give them enough respect. Resilient in defence with Danish legend Peter Schmiechels son Kasper between the sticks, with highly rated Kjaer and Christensen in front of him and then the mercurial Christian Ericksen pulling the strings in midfield, scoring against Denmark will not be an easy task, but with most of the goals coming for Ericksen in qualifying, shackling him could throw the teams balance. With three of the teams in this Group ranked in the FIFA top 12, Group C really could be the Group of Death with a single mistake from any of the teams potentially campaign ending.



GROUP D: PREVIEW


ARGENTINA


Only just making the 2018 Russian World Cup by coming third in a ten team Group where the top four qualify (and there were only four points between Argentina in 3rd and Paraguay in 7th), Argentina only qualified with a win in their last group match away to Ecuador. The two time Winners of the World Cup in 1978 and 1986 & five time finalists have seen their FIFA ranking fall from 1st to 5th during the qualifying campaign. Argentina only scored 19 goals across 18 matches and conceded 16 with the ever dangerous Lionel Messi bagging seven of the teams goals. It's also worth noting that, there are six British based players in the 23 man squad this summer.

Manager : Jorge Sampaoli (1 June 2107 – present)

Played : 11 Won : 5 Drawn : 3 Lost : 3 (Win rate 58.48%)

SQUAD

Goalkeepers: Sergio Romero (Manchester United), Willy Caballero (Chelsea), Franco Armani (River Plate).

Defenders: Gabriel Mercado (Sevilla), Federico Fazio (Roma), Nicolas Otamendi (Manchester City), Marcos Rojo (Manchester United), Nicolas Taglafico (Ajax), Javier Mascherano (Hebei Fortune), Marcos Acuna (Sporting Lisbon), Cristian Ansaldi (Torino).

Midfielders: Ever Banega (Sevilla), Lucas Biglia (AC Milan), Angel Di Maria, Giovani Lo Celso (both Paris St-Germain), Manuel Lanzini (West Ham), Cristian Pavon (Boca Juniors), Maximiliano Meza (Independiente), Eduardo Salvio (Benfica).

Forwards: Lionel Messi (Barcelona), Gonzalo Higuain, Paulo Dybala (both Juventus), Sergio Aguero (Manchester City)

Argentina are a squad rich in quality this year in Russia, but all eyes will be on the of the worlds best, Lionel Messi.

VERDICT

After a rocky qualification in a highly competitive CONMEBOL group, Argentina should find their World Cup Group D run a little easier with their opening game against Iceland being followed up by matches against Croatia and Nigeria. A group win would potentially see them play Denmark/Peru/Australia in the first knock out round, but then potentially come up against either Portugal or Spain in the Quarter Finals.


ICELAND



Enjoying their first ever trip to a World Cup, Iceland are the smallest nation by population in the Finals, and are certain to become everyones second team due to their fans famous Viking Handclap celebration. Iceland topped Group I ahead of Croatia, Ukraine, Turkey, Finland and Kosovo, scoring 16 goals and conceding seven, not a bad return against some pretty strong teams. With six British based footballers making the squad, the Head Coach, Heimir Hallgrimsson will be keen to pitch his squad against the other teams in Group D; namely Argentina, Croatia and Nigeria.

Manager : Heimir Hallgrimsson (14 October 2011 as joint manager with Lars Lagerbeck, 1 Feb as sole Manager – present)

Played : 51 Won : 23 Drawn : 9 Lost : 19 (Win rate 62.75%)

SQUAD

Goalkeepers: Hannes Thor Halldorsson (Randers FC), Runar Alex Runarsson (FC Nordsjælland), Frederik Schram (FC Roskilde).

Defenders: Kari Arnason (Aberdeen), Ari Freyr Skulason (K.S.C. Lokeren Oost-Vlaanderen), Birkir Mar Saevarsson (Hammarby), Sverrir Ingi Ingason (FC Rostov), Hordur Magnusson (Bristol City), Holmar Orn Eyjolfsson (Maccabi Haifa), Ragnar Sigurdsson (FC Rostov).

Midfielders: Johann Berg Gudmundsson (Burnley), Birkir Bjarnason (Aston Villa), Arnor Ingvi Traustason (Malmo FF), Emil Hallfredsson (Udinese), Gylfi Sigurdsson (Everton), Olafur Ingi Skulason (Kardemir Karabukspor), Rurik Gislason (FC Nurnberg), Samuel Fridjonsson (Valerenga), Aron Gunnarsson (Cardiff City).

Forwards: Alfred Finnbogason (FC Augsburg), Bjorn Bergmann Sigurdarson (FC Rostov), Jon Dadi Bodvarsson (Reading), Albert Gudmundsson (PSV Eindhoven).

VERDICT

Unfortunate to be drawn in a very tough Group alongside Argentina, Croatia and Nigeria, the battling Icelandic team will have to be at the their very best to proceed into the knockout stages. However, we have a feeling that they might be like Romania in France 1998 when they managed to get to the last 16 replete with matching blond haircuts.

Iceland, along with their passionate fans, won a lot of people over in 2016 at the European Championships, they will be looking to do the same this summer in Russia.

Iceland wont win it, but they will win lots of friends and this may help as a twelfth man in some matches allowing for a couple of upsets along the way; after all this is a team used to shocks as we all know, after victory over England at Euro 2016. Whatever happens – it will be fun.


CROATIA



One of the tournaments new teams (formed in 1990 just before indepence from Yugoslavia), this will only be Croatias second appearance at a World Cup Final – however, at their previous appearance in 1998 they finished third inspired by Davor Suker. Finishing runners up behind Iceland in Group I, Croatia managed to score 15 goals in ten games against Iceland, Ukraine, Turkey, Finland and Kosovo, conceding four. Placed into Group D alongside Argentina, Nigeria and weirdly Iceland again, coach Zlatko Dalic will be keen to improve his record against opponents of this quality.

Manager : Zlatko Dalic (7 October 2017 – present)

Played : 6 Won : 3 Drawn : 1 Lost : 2 (win rate 50%)

SQUAD

Goalkeepers: Danijel Subasic (Monaco), Lovre Kalinic (Gent), Dominik Livakovic (Dinamo Zagreb).

Defenders: Vedran Corluka (Lokomotiv Moscow), Domagoj Vida (Besiktas), Ivan Strinic (Milan), Dejan Lovren (Liverpool), Sime Vrsaljko (Atletico Madrid), Josip Pivaric (Dynamo Kiev), Tin Jedvaj (Bayer Leverkusen), Duje Caleta-Car (Red Bull Salzburg).

Midfielders: Luka Modric (Real Madrid), Ivan Rakitic (Barcelona), Mateo Kovacic (Real Madrid), Milan Badelj (Fiorentina), Marcelo Brozovic (Inter Milan), Filip Bradaric (Rijeka).

Forwards: Mario Mandzukic (Juventus), Ivan Perisic (Inter Milan), Nikola Kalinic (AC Milan), Andrej Kramaric (Hoffenheim), Marko Pjaca (Juventus), Ante Rebic (Fiorentina).

VERDICT

There’s definitely enough quality in this team with players like Modric, Mandzukic, Perisic, Kalinic and Lovren, to see off all the teams (including Argentina if its their day) and top the Group ahead of Argentina, Iceland and Nigeria. However bearing in mind that they have already played Iceland twice in qualifying (winning 2-0 and losing 0-1) an improvement will be needed and second place in the Group is probably the best that Croatia can hope for.


NIGERIA


The Super Eagles finished top of Group B in the CAF Qualification stages ahead of Zambia, Cameroon and Algeria scoring eleven goals in six games and conceding six, with Chelseas Victor Moses top scorer with three goals. Placed in a Group with Iceland, Croatia and top seeds Argentina, Nigeria will need more firepower with Premier league players Iheanacho and Iwobi giving themselves the chance to put themselves in the transfer window spotlight.

Manager : Germot Rohr (August 2016 – present)

SQUAD

Goalkeepers: Francis Uzoho (Deportivo La Coruna), Ikechukwu Ezenwa (Enyimba), Daniel Akpeyi (Chippa United)

Defenders: William Troost-Ekong, Abdullahi Shehu (both Bursaspor), Tyronne Ebuehi (Benfica), Elderson Echiejile (Cercle Brugge), Bryan Idowu (Amkar Perm), Chidozie Awaziem (Porto), Leon Balogun (Brighton), Kenneth Omeruo (Chelsea)

Midfielders: Mikel John Obi (Tianjin Teda), Ogenyi Onazi (Trabzonspor), Wilfred Ndidi (Leicester), Oghenekaro Etebo (CD Feirense), John Ogu (Hapoel Be'er Sheva), Joel Obi (Torino, Italy)

Forwards: Ahmed Musa, Kelechi Iheanacho (both Leicester), Victor Moses (Chelsea), Odion Ighalo (Changchun Yatai), Alex Iwobi (Arsenal), Simeon Nwankwo (Crotone)

VERDICT

The lowest FIFA ranked team in the Group (position 48) Nigeria have some special talent in the squad but overall probably not enough of it to push out of the Group. In Moses, Iheanaco and Iwobi they have the pace to threaten, but all three can and do suffer from a lack of end product. In a team where even the evergreen John Obi Mikel can score two goals in qualifying (and he only scored one goal in 249 games for Chelsea) Nigeria are going to have to concentrate on not conceding as opposed to attacking outright against Group rivals Argentina, Iceland and Croatia.


GROUP E: PREVIEW


BRAZIL


Ranked second in the World according to FIFA (behind current holders Germany) Brazil are the most successful team ever to take part in the World Cup winning the tournament five times and are the only team to have ever won the World Cup on four different continents (Europe – Sweden 1958, South America – Chile 1962, North America – Mexico 1970 and 1994 United States, and Asia – Korea/Japan 2002). Coach Tite will be confident of raising the Jules Rimet trophy for a sixth time in Russia after topping the CONMEBOL Group a full ten points ahead of second placed Uruguay, scoring 41 goals and conceding eleven, across 18 qualifying matches. 

Manager: Tite born Adenor Leonardo Bacchi (20 June 2016 – present) 

Played : 19 Won : 15 Drawn : 3 Lost : 1 (Win rate 78.95%) 

SQUAD

Goalkeepers: Alisson (Roma), Ederson (Manchester City), Cassio (Corinthians)

Defenders: Danilo (Manchester City), Fagner (Corinthians), Marcelo (Real Madrid), Filipe Luis (Atletico Madrid), Thiago Silva, Marquinhos (both PSG), Miranda (Inter Milan), Pedro Geromel (Gremio)

Midfielders: Casemiro (Real Madrid), Fernandinho (Manchester City), Paulinho (Barcelona), Fred (Shakhtar Donetsk), Renato Augusto (Beijing Guoan), Philippe Coutinho (Barcelona), Willian (Chelsea), Douglas Costa (Juventus)

Forward: Neymar (PSG), Taison (Shakhtar Donetsk), Gabriel Jesus (Manchester City), Roberto Firmino (Liverpool)

Brazil, perhaps unsurprisingly, find themselves at the top of the betting market for this years World Cup. They will be relying on plenty of their star names, including Neymar.

VERDICT

Featuring some of the most famous players currently playing across the Globe this Brazil team has enough about it to go a long way. Even with Neymar included in the squad although he is recovering from an injury, Coach Tite obviously feels that the PSG player will be able to take part in the latter parts of the tournament with Firmino and Jesus more than capable replacements in the interim. With some of the Worlds most ruthless defenders supporting a midfield of genuine stars all with pace, flair, skill and great engines, Brazil should make short work of their Group E opponents Switzerland, Costa Rica and Serbia heading towards a first knock out round against the Runners up in Group F (potentially Mexico) and then maybe even a Quarter Final against (whisper it) England…. 


SWITZERLAND


Switzerland played a lot of matches to book their flights to Russia 2018. Having finished second to Portugal in Group B of qualifying they then had to play a further eight playoff games, eventually topping this playoff Group ahead of Italy, Denmark, Croatia, Sweden, Northern Island, Greece, Republic of Ireland and Slovakia. The top eight in this group then were drawn in a knock out formula over two legs, with the winners of each match qualifying for the World Cup Finals. Switzerland edged out Northern Island over two matches with a 1-0 win to make it to the Finals, after having played a total of 20 games, scoring a whopping 41 goals and conceding only seven. 

Manager : Vladimir Petrovic (1 July 2014 – present) 

Played : 39 Won : 24 Drawn : 7 Lost : 8 (win rate 61.54%) 

SQUAD

Goalkeepers: Roman Buerki (Borussia Dortmund), Yvon Mvogo (Leipzig), Yann Sommer (Borussia Monchengladbach). 

Defenders: Manuel Akanji (Borussia Dortmund), Johan Djourou (Antalyaspor), Nico Elvedi (Borussia Monchengladbach), Michael Lang (Basel), Stephan Lichtsteiner (Juventus), Jacques-Francois Moubandje (Toulouse), Ricardo Rodriguez (Milan), Fabian Schaer (Deportivo La Coruna). 

Midfielders: Valon Behrami (Udinese), Blerim Dzemaili (Bologna), Gelson Fernandes (Eintracht Frankfurt), Remo Freuler (Atalanta), Xherdan Shaqiri (Stoke City), Granit Xhaka (Arsenal), Steven Zuber (1899 Hoffenheim), Denis Zakaria (Borussia Monchengladbach). 

Forwards: Josip Drmic (Borussia Monchengladbach), Breel Embolo (Schalke), Mario Gavranovic (Dinamo Zagreb), Haris Seferovic (Benfica). 

VERDICT

On paper being placed in a Group with Brazil, Costa Rica and Serbia you may think that Switzerland would struggle to make it out of the group stages. However, you might not know that Switzerland are ranked 6th in the FIFA rankings ahead of such teams as France, Spain and England. With a raft of players plying their trade all over Europe including Lichsteiner, Fernandes and Drmic, Switzerland should consolidate second position in the Group. 


COSTA RICA


With a population smaller than that of London, Costa Rica (maybe surprisingly ranked 25th in the World FIFA rankings) qualified for the 2018 World Cup in Russia by finishing second to Mexico in the CONCACAF group. Costa Rica are the most successful National football team in the history of Central America having won three CONCACAF Championships and qualified for four World Cups. Costa Rica scored 14 goals across ten qualifying games and conceded eight, with striker Marco Urena scoring four times to be Costa Ricas top scorer, in a group that apart from Mexico also contained Panama, Honduras, United States and Trinidad and Tobago. 

Manager : Oscar Ramirez (August 2015 - present) 

SQUAD

Goalkeepers: Keylor Navas (Real Madrid), Patrick Pemberton (Liga Deportiva Alajuelense), Leonel Moreira (C.S. Herediano) 

Defenders: Cristian Gamboa (Celtic), Ian Smith (Santos de Guapiles FC), Ronald Matarrita (New York City), Bryan Oviedo (Sunderland), Oscar Duarte (Espanyol), Giancarlo Gonzalez (Bologna), Francisco Calvo (Minnesota United), Kendall Waston (Vancouver Whitecaps), Johnny Acosta (Rionegro Aguilas) 

Midfielders: David Guzman (Portland Timbers), Yeltsin Tejeda (FC Lausanne-Sport), Celso Borges (Deportivo de La Coruna), Randall Azofeifa (CS Herediano), Rodney Wallace (New York City), Bryan Ruiz (Sporting), Daniel Colindres (Deportivo Saprissa), Christian Bolanos (Deportivo Saprissa) 

Forwards: Johan Venegas (Deportivo Saprissa), Joel Campbell (Real Betis), Marco Urena (Los Angeles FC) 

VERDICT

Being placed in Group E alongside Brazil, Switzerland and Serbia, its highly likely that goalkeeper Keylor Navas will have a much busier time between the sticks than he usually does at Real Madrid. With the oldest squad in Russia with an average age of just under 29 years old its unlikely that Costa Rica will get past the Group stages 


SERBIA


Beating the Republic of Ireland into second place to secure top spot in Group D, Serbia scored 20 goals and conceded ten on their way to the finals in a Group that also contained Wales, Austria, Georgia and Moldova. With Aleksandar Mitrovic, the hotheaded Newcastle player top scoring for The Eagles (not to be confused with Nigeria's nickname, The Super Eagles), Southampton's Dusan Tadic also chipped in with four goals, whilst Gacinovic, Kolarov, Kostic all scored two goals a piece in qualifying. 

Manager : Mladen Krstajic ( October 2017 – present) 

SQUAD

Goalkeepers: Vladimir Stojkovic (Partizan Belgrade), Predrag Rajkovic (Maccabi Tel Aviv), Marko Dmitrovic (Eibar)

Defenders: Aleksandar Kolarov (Roma), Branislav Ivanovic (Zenit St Petersburg), Dusko Tosic (Guangzhou R&F), Antonio Rukavina (Villarreal), Milos Veljkovic (Werder Bremen), Milan Rodic (Red Star Belgrade), Uros Spajic (Krasnodar), Nikola Milenkovic (Fiorentina)

Midfielders: Nemanja Matic (Manchester United), Luka Milivojevic (Crystal Palace), Sergej Milinkovic-Savic (Lazio), Marko Grujic (Liverpool), Adem Ljajic (Torino), Dusan Tadic (Southampton), Filip Kostic (Hamburg), Andrija Zivkovic (Benfica), Nemanja Radonjic (Red Star Belgrade)

Serbia have a golden chance to make it past the group stages in Russia this summer, they have a host of young talented players who will be hoping to leave an impression on those watching.

Strikers: Aleksandar Mitrovic (Newcastle United), Aleksandar Prijovic (PAOK Salonika), Luka Jovic (Benfica)

VERDICT

Pitched in with Brazil, Switzerland and Costa Rica it looks like it will be a slug fest for second spot behind Brazil for the other qualifying position. Switzerland are higher ranked than Serbia, but with steely players like Matic, Milivojevic (who committed the most fouls in the Premier league last season), Tadic and Mitrovic in the team, it may be more of a challenge for Serbia to keep their full complement of players on the pitch during their matches.



GROUP F: PREVIEW

GERMANY


Current World Cup holders topped Group C in qualifying by seeing off Northern Island, Czech Republic, Norway, Azerbaijan and San Marino on the way. Die Mannschaft (seriously) scored a huge 43 goals across ten matches, conceding only four. Goals came from all over the pitch with Thomas Muller and Sandro Wagner hitting five each, and Darida, Draxler, Gnabry, Goretzka and Werner all scoring three each in qualifying. In all Germany had 21 difference scorers on their way to these finals.

Manager : Joachim Low (12 July 2006 – present)

Played : 161 Won : 106 Drawn : 30 Lost : 25 (win rate 65.84%

SQUAD

Goalkeepers: Manuel Neuer (Bayern Munich), Marc-Andre ter Stegen (Barcelona), Kevin Trapp (Paris St-Germain)

Defenders: Jerome Boateng (Bayern Munich), Matthias Ginter (Borussia Monchengladbach), Jonas Hector (Cologne), Mats Hummels (Bayern Munich), Joshua Kimmich (Bayern Munich), Marvin Plattenhardt (Hertha Berlin), Antonio Rudiger (Chelsea), Niklas Sule (Bayern Munich)

Midfielders: Julian Brandt (Bayer Leverkusen), Julian Draxler (Paris St-Germain), Leon Goretska (Schalke), Ilkay Gundogan (Manchester City), Sami Khedira (Juventus), Toni Kroos (Real Madrid), Mesut Ozil (Arsenal), Sebastian Rudy (Bayern Munich)

Reigning World Champions Germany, will be looking to defend their crown & attempt to match Brazil's record of FIVE world titles. They have huge depth in quality & Tony Kroos is one of just many starts of the side.

Strikers: Mario Gomez (Stuttgart), Thomas Muller (Bayern Munich), Marco Reus (Borussia Dortmund), Timo Werner (RB Leipzig).

VERDICT

One of the bookies favourites and its easy to see why with a squad that is well drilled and has such strength in depth that they even managed to leave out Manchester City starlet Leroy Sane. With manager Joachim Low having been at the helm for ten years, there is a cohesion and understanding through the squad that shows why they are as short as 5/1 to lift the trophy this year. 


MEXICO


Ranked 15th in the FIFA ratings, Mexico finished top of the CONCACAF qualifying group ahead of Costa Rica, Panama, Hondura, United States and Trinidad and Tobago, scoring 16 times and conceding seven. Manager Juan Carlos Osorio will need more than the three goals that Hirving Lozano scored in qualifying.

Manager : Juan Carlos Osorio (October 2015 – present)

Played : 47 Won : 31 Drawn : 9 Lost : 7 (win rate 65.96%)

SQUAD

Goalkeepers: Guillermo Ochoa (Standard Liege), Alfredo Talavera (Toluca), Jesus Corona (Cruz Azul).

Defenders: Carlos Salcedo (Eintracht Frankfurt), Diego Reyes (Porto), Hector Moreno (Real Sociedad), Hugo Ayala (Tigres), Edson Alvarez (America), Jesus Gallardo (Monterrey), Miguel Layun (Sevilla).

Midfielders: Rafael Marquez (Atlas), Hector Herrera (Porto), Jonathan dos Santos, Giovani dos Santos (both LA Galaxy), Andres Guardado (Real Betis), Javier Aquino (Tigres), Jesus Corona (Porto).

Forwards: Javier Hernandez (West Ham), Raul Jimenez (Benfica), Oribe Peralta (America), Carlos Vela (Los Angeles FC), Hirving Lozano (PSV Eindhoven), Marco Fabian (Eintracht Frankfurt).

VERDICT

Coach Osorio might have impressive looking stats, but a lot of Mexicos matches have been against poorer quality opponents in the past such as Panama, Honduras and Trinidad and Tobago. Lumped into a group with pre tournament favourites Germany, and Sweden and South Korea, it may well be that third place in the group could be the best that Mexico could ask for. 


SWEDEN


Sweden booked their tickets to the 2018 World Cup in Russia by finishing second in qualifying Group A to France, to then win via a playoff versus Italy, beating Netherlands, Bulgaria, Luxembourg and Belarus to the runners up berth in Group A. The Blaguit no longer have the iconic Zlatan Ibrahimovic to rely on for goals, but Marcus Berg finished as the Top Scorer in Group A with 8 of the 26 goals that Sweden scored against only nine conceded across the ten qualifying matches. Emil Forsberg bagged four goals, and Ola Toivonen, Andreas Granqvist and Mikael Lustig all chipped with three goals apiece, showing that goals are possible from different areas of the squad.

Sweden have made eleven World Cup appearances and finished second in the 1958 World Cup and third in both 1950 and 1994.

Manager : Janne Andersson (23 June 2016 – present)

Played : 18 Won : 9 Drawn : 3 Lost : 6 (Win rate 50%)

SQUAD

Goalkeepers: Robin Olsen (Copenhagen), Karl-Johan Johnsson (Guingamp), Kristoffer Nordfeldt (Swansea).

Defenders: Mikael Lustig (Celtic), Victor Lindelof (Manchester United), Andreas Granqvist (Krasnador), Martin Olsson (Swansea), Ludwig Augustinsson (Werder Bremen), Filip Helander, Emil Krafth (both Bologna), Pontus Jansson (Leeds United).

Midfielders: Sebastian Larsson (Hull), Albin Ekdal (Hamburg), Emil Forsberg (RB Leipzig), Gustav Svensson (Seattle Sounders), Oscar Hiljemark (Genoa), Viktor Claesson (Krasnador), Marcus Rohden (Crotone), Jimmy Durmaz (Toulouse).

Forwards: Marcus Berg (Al Ain), John Guidetti (Alaves), Ola Toivonen (Toulouse), Isaac Kiese Thelin (Waasland-Beveren).

VERDICT

With a 23 man squad drawn from the second tier of most countries football leagues, apart from Victor Lindelhof, who is mainly a bit part player at Manchester United), only Michael Lustig can really lay claim that he plays at a big club, and even then that big club is only Celtic. Sweden are going to have to be at their most organised to progress from a Group F that also includes current World Cup holders Germany and winners of the CONCACAF qualifying Group Mexico with potential enthusiastic whipping boys South Korea making up the numbers. Expect a third place finish in the Group.


SOUTH KOREA


Finishing second in the AFC qualifying group to Iran, this will be the tenth appearance at a World Cup finals for South Korea, making them the most successful Asian football team at the time. They also managed a semi-final appearance when ten co-hosted the tournament with Japan in 2002. Scoring eleven times and conceding ten, in matches against Iran, Syria, Uzbekistan, China and Qatar, South Korea might find their placing in Group F a little tougher come the 2018 Finals. 

Manager : Shin Tae-yong (June 2017 – present)

SQUAD

Goalkeepers: Kim Seung-gyu (Vissel Kobe), Kim Jin-hyeon (Cerezo Osaka), Cho Hyun-woo (Daegu FC)

Defenders: Kim young-gwon (Guangzhou Evergrande), Jang Hyun-soo (FC Tokyo), Jung Seung-hyun (Sagan Tosu), Yun Yong-sun (Seongnam FC), Oh Ban-suk (Jeju United), Kim Min-woo (Sangju Sangmu), Park Joo-ho (Ulsan Hyundai), Hong Chul (Sangju Sangmu), Go Yo-han (FC Seoul), Lee Yong (Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors)

Midfielders: Ki Sung-yueng (Swansea), Jung Woo-young (Vissel Kobe), Ju Se-jong (Asan Mugunghwa), Koo Ja-cheol (Augsburg), Lee Jae-sung (Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors), Lee Seung-woo (Hellas Verona), Moon Seon-min (Incheon United)

Forwards: Kim Shin-wook (Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors), Son Heung-min (Tottenham), Hwang Hee-chan (Red Bull Salzburg)

Son Heung-Min has impressed at Tottenham over the past few seasons, he has tough task on his hands captaining South Korea this summer, but no doubt he is an exciting player to watch.

VERDICT

Whilst the enthusiasm that the Warriors display will win them new fans during the World Cup, the reality is that this South Korean team doesn’t have enough to move it out of the Group stages. Indeed with its potentially most high profile player being Son Heung-Min at Tottenham, and he only scored one goal for South Korea in qualifying, matches against Germany, Mexico and Sweden may be too much for them.


GROUP G: PREVIEW


BELGIUM



Belgium topped qualifying Group H to ensure that they qualified for their thirteenth World Cup Finals, beating Greece, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Estonia, Cyprus and Gibraltar on the way. Scoring a massive 43 goals in ten matches and only conceding six may look impressive on paper, but of those goals scored 25 of them came in the matches against Gibraltar and Estonia. Having said that though, all 43 goals scored came from twelve different players showing a massive ability to cut through teams from all ahead of the pitch. Romelu Lukaku was top score in the Group with eleven goals, whilst Eden Hazard chipped in with six, and Dries Mertens and Thomas Meunier both got five apiece. Such is the current strength in depth across the squad that coach Roberto Martinez has omitted highly rated Roma player Radja Nainggolan, with Martinez saying that his omission is “a tactical one”.

Manager : Roberto Martinez (3 August 2016 – present)

Played : 17 Won : 12 Drawn : 4 Lost : 1 (Win rate 70.6%)

SQUAD

Goalkeepers: Koen Casteels (Wolfsburg), Thibaut Courtois (Chelsea), Simon Mignolet (Liverpool), Matz Sels (Newcastle United)

Defenders: Toby Alderweireld (Tottenham Hotspur), Dedryck Boyata (Celtic), Laurent Ciman (Los Angeles FC), Christian Kabasele (Watford), Vincent Kompany (Manchester City), Jordan Lukaku (Lazio), Thomas Meunier (Paris St-Germain), Thomas Vermaelen (Barcelona), Jan Vertonghen (Tottenham Hotspur)

Midfielders: Yannick Carrasco (Dalian Yifang), Kevin de Bruyne (Manchester City), Mousa Dembele (Tottenham Hotspur), Leander Dendoncker (Anderlecht), Marouane Fellaini (Manchester United), Eden Hazard (Chelsea), Thorgan Hazard (Borussia Monchengladbach), Adnan Januzaj (Real Sociedad), Dries Mertens (Napoli), Youri Tielemans (Monaco), Axel Witsel (Tianjin Quanjian)

Belgium will be looking to come out of their "Dark Horse" shadow this summer, with many fancying their chances of going far in Russia. They will be calling on many of their star names, including Kevin De Bruyne who has brilliant for Man City this season in England.

Forwards: Michy Batshuayi (Chelsea), Christian Benteke (Crystal Palace), Nacer Chadli (West Brom), Romelu Lukaku (Manchester United)

VERDICT

Always the bridesmaid and never the bride, the Belgium team has often been accused of underperforming at major tournaments despite the number of excellent players that it has. Drawn in Group G alongside Tunisia, Panama and England, the Red Devils will comfortable in easing out of the Group stages, although depending on whether they finish top or second in the group will determine their path through the knockout phases. Coach Roberto Martinez will be hoping to improve on Belgium's best ever finish (fourth in the 1986 World Cup) so could their thirteenth appearance finally be a lucky one for them?


PANAMA



Whilst many think that Panama are the lowest FIFA ranked team in the World Cup (they aren’t, its actually Russia), they only qualified on goal difference from Honduras in the CONCACAF qualifying groups. The second lowest scorer in the group Panama only managed nine goals, conceding ten making them one of the only teams to qualify for Russia 2018 with a negative goal difference.

Manager : Hernan Dario Gomez (15 February 2014)

SQUAD

Goalkeepers: Jose Calderon (Chorrillo), Jaime Penedo (Dinamo Bucharest), Alex Rodriguez (San Francisco)

Defenders: Felipe Baloy (Municipal CSD), Harold Cummings (San Jose Earthquakes), Erick Davis (Dunajska Streda), Fidel Escobar (San Miguelito), Michael Murillo (New York Red Bulls), Adolfo Machado (Houston Dynamo), Luis Ovalle (Olimpia), Roman Torres (Seattle Sounders)

Midfielders: Jose Luis Rodriguez (Gent), Yoel Barcenas (Cafetaleros de Tapachula), Armando Cooper (Universidad de Chile), Anibal Godoy (San Jose Earthquakes), Gabriel Gomez (Bucaramanga), Valentin Pimentel (Plaza Amador), Alberto Quintero (Universitario)

Forwards: Abdiel Arroyo (Alajuelense), Ismael Diaz (Deportivo La Coruna), Blas Perez (Municipal), Luis Tejada (Sports Boys), Gabriel Torres (CD Huachipato)

VERDICT

Despite coach Gomez being one of only four people to lead at least three National teams to a World Cup finals (he also managed Colombia and Ecuador to Finals), the problem The Canal Men will have is a lack of goals and general quality through the squad at this standard. Games against Belgium, Tunisia and England will all sadly be against their favour and Panama will more than likely, be one of the first on the plane home.

TUNISIA



Topping Group A of the CAF qualifying stages ahead of DR Congo, Libya and Guinea, Tunisia managed to score eleven goals in the six games they played, conceding four and remaining unbeaten in the Group. Whilst you can only beat the teams you are given to play, a world Cup group including Belgium, England and Panama will allow the FIFA ranked 21st team to hopefully be able to flex their muscles a little more in Russia.

Manager : Nabil Maaloul ( 27 April 2017 – present)

Played : 9 Won : 5 Drawn : 4 Lost : 0 (win rate 55.56%)

SQUAD

Goalkeepers: Farouk Ben Mustapha (Al Shabab), Mouez Hassen (Nice), Aymen Mathlouthi (Al Baten)

Defenders: Rami Bedoui (Etoile du Sahel), Yohan Benalouane (Leicester), Syam Ben Youssef (Kasimpasa), Dylan Bronn (Gent), Oussama Haddadi (Dijon), Ali Maaloul (Al Ahly), Yassine Meriah (CS Sfaxien), Hamdi Nagguez (Zamalek)

Midfielders: Wahbi Khazri (Rennes), Anice Badri (Esperance), Mohamed Amine Ben Amor (Etoile Sportive du Sahel), Ferjani Sassi (Al Nasr), Ellyes Skhiri (Montpellier)

Forwards: Saifeddine Khaoui (Marseille), Fakhreddine Ben Youssef (Al Ettifaq), Saber Khalifa (Club Africain), Bassem Srarfi (Nice), Naim Sliti (Lille), Ahmed Khalil (Club Africain), Ghaylen Chaaleli (Esperance)

VERDICT

With a squad made up of players representing mainly French, Belgian and Arabian teams, the Lions of Carthage are well placed to cause at least one upset in a Group comprising themselves, England, Panama and top seeds Belgium. They have a genuine goal threat in Youssef Msakni and it wouldn’t be surprise if they raise their game on the big stage. It's entirely possible that they could cause a shock by taking points from either England or Belgium, and if they do that then a path into the knock out stages could become a reality.


ENGLAND



England qualified for this years World Cup by being unbeaten in their Qualifying Group with victories against Slovakia, Scotland, Slovenia, Lithuania and Malta, scoring 18 goals in the process and conceding only three Top scorer in Qualifying was Harry Kane with five goals, with the remaining 13 goals being scored by no less than 11 different players. England's best finishes in previous World Cups were 1st in 1966 and 4th in 1990.

Manager : Gareth Southgate (27 September 2016 – present) 

Played: 16 Won: 8 Drawn: 6 Lost: 2 (Win Rate 50%)

SQUAD

Goalkeepers: Jack Butland (Stoke), Jordan Pickford (Everton), Nick Pope (Burnley)

Defenders: Trent Alexander-Arnold (Liverpool), Gary Cahill (Chelsea), Fabian Delph (Manchester City), Phil Jones (Manchester United), Harry Maguire (Leicester), Danny Rose (Tottenham Hotspur), John Stones (Manchester City), Kieran Trippier (Tottenham Hotspur), Kyle Walker (Manchester City), Ashley Young (Manchester United)

Midfielders: Dele Alli (Tottenham Hotspur), Eric Dier (Tottenham Hotspur), Jordan Henderson (Liverpool), Jesse Lingard (Manchester United), Ruben Loftus-Cheek (Chelsea)

Forwards: Harry Kane (Tottenham), Marcus Rashford (Manchester United), Raheem Sterling (Manchester City), Jamie Vardy (Leicester), Danny Welbeck (Arsenal)

VERDICT

Despite Southgate having named the third youngest England squad ever for a World Cup with an average age of 26 years and 18 days, and having only one player with more than 40 caps (Gary Cahill has 58), England are expected to Qualify from Group G alongside Belgium setting up a potential Group of 16 Knockout Match against either the Winner or Runner Up of Group H (Poland Senegal, Colombia or Japan)

England have been handed a kind draw at this Summers World Cup & fans will surely be expecting Southgate's side to make the Quarter Finals at the very least.


GROUP H: PREVIEW

POLAND


Poland topped Group E in qualifying ahead of Denmark, Montenegro, Romania, Armenia and Kazakhstan, scoring 28 goals and cocending 14 over the ten matches they played. Way out front in the goal scoring stakes captain Robert Lewandowski managed an amazing 16 goals in qualifying including six penalties. Poland are currently enjoying their highest ever FIFA ranking of 8th.

Manager : Adam Nawalka (October 2013 – present)

Played : 45 Won : 24 Drawn : 14 Lost : 7 (win rate 53.33%)

SQUAD

Goalkeepers: Bartosz Bialkowski (Ipswich), Lukasz Fabianski (Swansea City), Wojciech Szczesny (Juventus).

Defenders: Jan Bednarek (Southampton), Bartosz Bereszynski (Sampdoria), Thiago Cionek (SPAL), Kamil Glik (Monaco), Artur Jedrzejczyk (Legia Warsaw), Michal Pazdan (Legia Warsaw), Lukasz Piszczek (Borussia Dortmund).

Midfielders: Jakub Blaszczykowski (Wolfsburg), Jacek Goralski (Ludogorets Razgrad), Kamil Grosicki (Hull City), Grzegorz Krychowiak (Paris St-Germain), Rafal Kurzawa (Gornik Zabrze), Karol Linetty (Sampdoria), Slawomir Peszko (Lechnia Gdansk), Maciej Rybus (Lokomotiv Moscow), Piotr Zielinski (Napoli).

Forwards: Dawid Kownacki (Sampdoria), Robert Lewandowski (Bayern Munich), Arkadiusz Milik (Napoli), Lukasz Teodorczyk (Anderlecht).

VERDICT

None of the other teams in Group H (Senegal, Colombia and Japan) will relish playing against the Red and Whites in this years World Cup Finals. With an experienced squad that includes genuine superstar Robert Lewandowski, Poland should easily top this group setting themselves up for a knock out round match against the runners up of Group G (any one of England, Belgium or Tunisia). Any progress onwards from, should suggest Lewandowski has a genuine chance of winning the Golden Boot.


SENEGAL


Senegal qualified for the 2018 World Cup in Russia by topping Group D of the CAF region of qualifying. They only had to play six games against Burkina Faso, Cape Verde and South Africa, but only scored ten goals across these games, conceding just three. Naby Keita, Diafra Sakho, Cheik N’Doye and Vincent Aboubakar all scored twice in the group stages and head coach Aliou Cisse will be hoping that his seven British based players will be able to carry the team through to the knockout stages by finishing in the top two in a Group that also contains Poland, Colombia & Japan.

Manager : Aliou Cisse (5 March 2015 – present)

Played : 26 Won: 16 Drawn : 7 Lost : 3 (Win rate 61.53%)

SQUAD

Goalkeepers: Khadim Ndiaye (Horoya AC), Abdoulaye Diallo (Rennes), Alfred Gomis (Torino)

Defenders: Kara Mbodji (Anderlecht), Kalidou Koulibaly (Napoli), Moussa Wague (Eupen), Saliou Ciss (Angers), Youssouf Sabaly (Bordeaux), Lamine Gassama (Alanyaspor), Armand Traore (Nottingham Forest), Salif Sane (Hannover 96)

Midfielders: Pape Alioune Ndiaye (Stoke), Idrissa Gueye (Everton), Cheikhou Kouyate (West Ham), Cheikh N'Doye (Birmingham)

Forwards: Sadio Mane (Liverpool), Diao Balde Keita (Monaco), Ismaila Sarr (Rennes), Diafra Sakho (Rennes), Moussa Konate (Amiens), Mame Biram Diouf (Stoke), Mbaye Niang (AC Milan)

Senegal have managed to avoid the heavy hitting big names that top the betting market & with the help of Sadio Mane, hopes are high the African nation can qualify out of Group H.

VERDICT

Favourably placed into what we consider the second weakest group in the initial World Cup phase (after Group A), the experience that the Senegal players have should be enough to see them through to the knockout stages ahead of Japan and Colombia but possibly behind Poland. This second placing would mean that they would potentially have to play either Belgium or England in the first round of knockout games and either of those teams should be too strong for the Lions of Teranga


COLOMBIA


Despite finishing 4th in the CONMEBOL qualifying group behind Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina, Colombia are no strangers to World Cup Finals, this being their 6th appearances. Coach Jose Pekerman will be hoping Los Cafeteros (nicknamed because of the coffee production in Colombia) will be able to push on from their qualifying group where they scored 21 goals and concended 19 across 18 matches. Colombia could possibly be over reliant on the qualities of striker James Rodriguez. who scored six goals in qualifying.

Manager : Jose Pekerman (February 2012 – present)

Played : 73 Won : 40 Drawn : 19 Lost : 14 (win rate 54.79%)

SQUAD

Goalkeepers: David Ospina (Arsenal), Camilo Vargas (Deportivo Cali), Jose Fernando Cuadrado (Once Caldas).

Defenders: Cristian Zapata (Milan), Davinson Sanchez (Tottenham), Santiago Arias (PSV Eindhoven), Oscar Murillo (Pachuca), Frank Fabra (Boca Juniors), Johan Mojica (Girona), Yerry Mina (Barcelona)

Midfielders: Wílmar Barrios (Boca Juniors), Carlos Sanchez (Espanyol), Jefferson Lerma (Levante), Jose Izquierdo (Brighton), James Rodriguez (Bayern Munich), Abel Aguilar (Deportivo Cali), Mateus Uribe (America), Juan Fernando Quintero (River Plate), Juan Cuadrado (Juventus)

James Rodriguez will be hoping he bring his form from the past season at Bayern Munich, to help Colombia's chances of making it to the second round of this years World Cup.

Forwards: Radamel Falcao (Monaco), Miguel Borja (Palmeiras), Carlos Bacca (Villarreal), Luis Fernando Muriel (Sevilla)

VERDICT

In a group alongside Poland, Senegal and Japan, all four teams can on paper beat each other although its likely that Poland and Senegal will progress into the knockout stages. However, you can never rule out Colombia when they have players like David Ospina, Cristian Zapata, James Rodriguez and Radamel Falcao. It could all depend on wether the famous South American attitude/passion can be tamed & that should determine how far they end up going this summer in Russia.


JAPAN


The Samurai Blue won six of their ten Group B qualifying games to top the group ahead of Saudi Arabia, Australia, the UAE, Iraq and Thailand, scoring 17 goals and conceding seven. This will be there 6th consecutive appearance at a World Cup finals, although that have only progressed out of the Group stage twice (in 2002 and 2010). Fortuna Dusseldorf player Genki Haraguchi managed four goals in the qualifying games.

Manager : Akira Nishino ( April 2018 – present)

SQUAD

Goalkeepers: Eiji Kawashima (Metz), Masaaki Higashiguchi (Gamba Osaka), Kosuke Nakamura (Kashiwa Reysol).

Defenders: Yuto Nagatomo (Galatasaray), Tomoaki Makino, Wataru Endo (both Urawa Reds), Maya Yoshida (Southampton), Hiroki Sakai (Marseille), Gotoku Sakai (Hamburg), Gen Shoji, Naomichi Ueda (both Kashima Antlers).

Midfielders: Makoto Hasebe (Eintracht Frankfurt), Keisuke Honda (Pachuca), Takashi Inui (Eibar), Shinji Kagawa (Dortmund), Hotaru Yamaguchi (Cerezo Osaka), Genki Haraguchi (Hertha Berlin), Takashi Usami (Augsburg), Gaku Shibasaki (Getafe), Ryota Oshima (Kawasaki Frontale).

Forwards: Shinji Okazaki (Leicester), Yuya Osako (Werder Bremen), Yoshinori Muto (Mainz).

VERDICT

Placed in a group with Colombia, Senegal and Poland, for all the enthusiasm that Japan bring to the pitch, the 61st FIFA ranked team will find it a struggle to move out of the group, and will probably consider it a success if they aren’t bottom. With manager Nishino having only been in the role for a matter of weeks it will be interesting to see if he can spring any surprises.