European giants Spain and Germany face off in World Cup Group E, the only one featuring two nations who have previously won the tournament.
The other two teams, Japan and Costa Rica, will be looking to cause an upset, with most expecting the heavyweight sides to sew up the top spots and reach the latter stages.
Both Spain and Germany suffered at Russia 2018, eliminated in the last 16 and group stage respectively, but hopes are significantly higher ahead of kick-off in Qatar, with their clash booked for November 27.
Germany, four-time World Cup winners and the defending champions in the previous edition, were humiliated by finishing bottom of their group, failing to progress for the first time since 1938 in one of the biggest shocks in the competition’s history.
Joachim Loew’s side, who romped to a famous 7-1 win over Brazil in the 2014 World Cup and then beat Lionel Messi and Argentina in the final, also suffered at Euro 2020, where England knocked them out in the last 16.
It spelt the end for Loew, and former Bayern Munich coach Hansi Flick took the reins, giving the team an overdue refresh and operating with a high-pressing, intense gameplan.
Germany have a crop of exciting players, including Bayern duo Serge Gnabry and Jamal Musiala, plus Chelsea’s Kai Havertz, as well as established stars like Joshua Kimmich and Thomas Mueller.
Time again for Spain?
Spain are in a similar position, with youngsters like Pedri, Gavi and Ansu Fati, mixed in with older heads like Sergio Busquets and Alvaro Morata.
La Roja won their only World Cup trophy in 2010, beating Germany in the semi-finals on the way. They also beat Germany in the Euro 2008 final.
Luis Enrique’s side produced a stunning 6-0 win over Germany in November 2020 when Loew was still at the helm, with Ferran Torres scoring a hat-trick in the emphatic Nations League triumph.
However Spain went on to lose to France in the final of that tournament and were knocked out in the Euro 2020 semi-finals by Italy, leaving fans hungry for more silverware after their golden era between 2008-2012.
Spain’s last international trophy was the 2012 Euro, followed by an appalling showing of their own as defending World Cup champions in 2014, knocked out in the group.
In Russia they did not fare much better, sacking coach Julen Lopetegui on the eve of the tournament after he was announced as Real Madrid’s next manager, before being eliminated by the hosts on penalties in the last 16.
Coach Luis Enrique splits opinions in his homeland for some of his selection decisions but his results have been good with Spain, who also press high and maintain plenty of possession.
With both Germany and Spain among the favourites to win the tournament, Japan and Costa Rica are facing a rough ride.
The former, Asian Cup 2019 finalists under coach Hajime Moriyasu, have never made it beyond the last 16 of a World Cup, and face Germany in their opening game on November 23.
Kaoru Mitoma hit a brace for Japan as they beat Australia to qualify with a game to spare and send their opponents into the play-offs.
Monaco attacker Takumi Minamino and Arsenal defender Takehiro Tomiyasu are two of Japan’s most important players, along with Real Sociedad winger Takefusa Kubo and Celtic’s Daizen Maeda.
Like Australia, Costa Rica eventually qualified through the intercontinental play-offs, beating New Zealand 1-0 in June to seal their place at the World Cup.
Although on paper they are Group E’s underdogs, the same was supposed to be true in 2014 when incredibly they ended up finishing first, above Uruguay, Italy and England.
The Netherlands eventually knocked out the Central American side on penalties in the quarter-finals, their best ever finish.
Coach Luis Fernando Suarez, who took over in 2021, will depend on Paris Saint-Germain and former Real Madrid goalkeeper Keylor Navas, along with Leon’s former Arsenal striker Joel Campbell and Alajuelense’s Bryan Ruiz, previously at Fulham, for creativity.
They will open their tournament against Spain on November 23, while the clash against Japan on November 27 could be crucial in determining which, if either, of the two underdog nations have a chance at making it through.
Country profile - Spain
Best World Cup performance: Winners in 2010
Other honours: European champions in 1964, 2008, 2012
FIFA ranking: 7
Main clubs: Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid
How they qualified: Spain finished first in European qualifying Group B
Coach: Luis Enrique, 52, was appointed in 2018 after Spain’s disappointing World Cup campaign in Russia. The former Barcelona manager, who won the treble with the Catalan giants in 2015, splits opinions in his homeland despite helping La Roja reach the Euro 2020 semi-finals and two Nations League final fours. Luis Enrique sadly had to step down from the post in June 2019 because his daughter Xana, who sadly passed away aged nine, was suffering from bone cancer. He returned to coach his country in November 2019, replacing his former assistant Robert Moreno, whom he accused of not wanting to step aside for him.
Key player: Talented Barcelona youngster Pedri has become essential for club and country at just 19 years old. The midfielder was named the Euro 2020 Young Player of the Tournament and was in the Team of the Tournament after a string of brilliant performances which helped Spain reach the semi-finals, where they were beaten by Italy. In 2022 Pedri has improved his finishing, which was the one area of his game which needed work, and he will be Spain’s creative hub in Qatar.
November 23: Spain v Costa Rica
November 27: Spain v Germany
December 1: Japan v Spain
Goalkeepers: Unai Simon, Robert Sanchez, David Raya.
Defenders: Dani Carvajal, Cesar Azpilicueta, Eric Garcia, Hugo Guillamon, Pau Torres, Aymeric Laporte, Jordi Alba, Alex Balde.
Midfielders: Sergio Busquets, Rodri, Gavi, Carlos Soler, Marcos Llorente, Pedri, Koke.
Forwards: Ferran Torres, Nico Williams, Yeremi Pino, Alvaro Morata, Marco Asensio, Pablo Sarabia, Dani Olmo, Ansu Fati.
Country profile - Germany
Best World Cup performance: Winners in 1954, 1974, 1990, 2014
Other honours: European Championship winners in 1972, 1980, 1996; FIFA Confederations Cup winners 2017
FIFA ranking: 11
Main clubs: Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, Bayer Leverkusen, Eintracht Frankfurt, Borussia Moenchengladbach, RB Leipzig
How they qualified: Finished first in European qualifying Group J
Coach: Hansi Flick, 57, will lead Germany into a major tournament for the first time, having taken over from former mentor Joachim Loew after the European Championship in 2021. While Flick may be making his debut as head coach in Qatar, he is no stranger to big tournaments, having served as deputy in Germany’s 2014 World Cup triumph as well as leading Bayern Munich to a treble in 2020. Despite lacking a top-class striker and overseeing a rebuilding project in charge of Germany, Flick has lost just one of his 15 matches in charge.
Key player: Despite a wealth of options between the sticks, Germany’s captain and goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, 36, remains his side’s most important player. Alongside Thomas Mueller and possibly Mats Hummels, Neuer will be one of only a few members of Germany’s victorious 2014 World Cup squad to make the trip to Qatar. Besides his leadership, experience and familiarity with the sizeable Bayern contingent, sweeper-keeper Neuer is essential to the way Flick’s Germany want to play. Neuer, who has won two Champions League titles and is on a record streak of 10 consecutive Bundesliga titles with Bayern Munich, enters the tournament under a significant injury cloud, having missed most of October due to a shoulder problem.
November 23: Germany v Japan
November 27: Spain v Germany
December 1: Costa Rica v Germany
Goalkeepers: Manuel Neuer, Marc-Andre ter Stegen, Kevin Trapp
Defenders: Matthias Ginter, Antonio Rudiger, Niklas Sule, Nico Schlotterbeck, Thilo Kehrer, David Raum, Lukas Klostermann, Armel Bella-Kotchap, Christian Gunter
Midfielders: Ilkay Gundogan, Jonas Hofmann, Leon Goretzka, Serge Gnabry, Leroy Sane, Jamal Musiala, Joshua Kimmich, Thomas Muller, Julian Brandt, Mario Gotze
Forwards: Kai Havertz, Youssoufa Moukoko, Niclas Fullkrug, Karim Adeyemi
Country profile - Japan
Best World Cup performance: Last 16 in 2002, 2010, 2018
Other honours: Asian Cup winners 1992, 2000, 2004, 2011
FIFA ranking: 24
Main clubs: Kawasaki Frontale, Yokohama F Marinos, Urawa Reds
How they qualified: Japan finished second behind Saudi Arabia in Group B in the third round of Asian qualifying
Coach: Hajime Moriyasu, 54, was appointed in 2018 to replace Akira Nishino, who led the Blue Samurai to the last 16 of the World Cup in Russia. Moriyasu took Japan to the final of the Asian Cup six months after his appointment. Also served as Japan’s Olympic manager at the Tokyo Games and took the team to the semi-finals, only to miss out on a medal. A former Japan international midfielder himself, he played for Sanfrecce Hiroshima and later steered them to three J-League titles between 2012 and 2015.
Key player: Wataru Endo, 29, is the gumshield-wearing midfield lynchpin who holds Japan together. A non-playing member of the squad in 2018, Endo won the AFC Champions League with Urawa Red Diamonds before moving to Europe. He played for Sint-Truiden in Belgium and then joined Stuttgart, the side he now captains and for whom he scored the stoppage-time goal that kept them in the Bundesliga on the final day of last season.
November 23: Germany v Japan
November 27: Japan v Costa Rica
December 1: Japan v Spain
Goalkeepers: Shuichi Gonda, Daniel Schmidt, Eiji Kawashima.
Defenders: Miki Yamane, Hiroki Sakai, Maya Yoshida, Takehiro Tomiyasu, Shogo Taniguchi, Ko Itakura, Hiroki Ito, Yuto Nagatomo.
Midfielders: Wataru Endo, Hidemasa Morita, Ao Tanaka, Gaku Shibasaki, Kaoru Mitoma, Daichi Kamada, Ritsu Doan, Junya Ito, Takumi Minamino, Takefusa Kubo, Yuki Soma.
Forwards: Daizen Maeda, Takuma Asano, Shuto Machino, Ayase Ueda.
Country profile - Costa Rica
Best World Cup performance: Reached quarter-finals at 2014 World Cup.
Other honours: CONCACAF Championship/Gold Cup winners: 1963, 1969, 1989
FIFA ranking: 31
How they qualified: Defeated New Zealand 1-0 in a CONCACAF-Oceania playoff.
Advanced to playoff after finishing fourth in CONCACAF qualifiers behind Canada, Mexico and the United States.
Coach: Luis Fernando Suarez. The 62-year-old Colombian is best known for leading Ecuador to their best ever showing at a World Cup, when they reached the last 16 at the 2006 finals only to be eliminated by England after a David Beckham free-kick in a 1-0 defeat.
He was sacked during qualifiers for the 2010 tournament but made a triumphant return to football’s greatest stage after guiding Honduras to the 2014 finals in Brazil, where the team were beaten by France, Switzerland and Ecuador in the group stage.
Key player: Keylor Navas. The 35-year-old goalkeeper is an icon in his homeland, beloved after his heroics at the 2014 World Cup where his saves in a penalty shoot-out win over Greece helped Costa Rica reach the quarter-finals for the first time.
He produced another man-of-the-match performance in the last eight against the Netherlands despite finishing on the losing side in the shoot-out.
Blessed with agility and superb reflexes, Navas enjoyed a dazzling career with Real Madrid, winning three Champions League titles in 2016, 2017 and 2018, before joining French giants Paris Saint-Germain in 2019.
Group E fixtures:
November 23: Costa Rica v Spain
November 27: Costa Rica v Japan
December 1: Costa Rica v Germany
Goalkeepers: Keylor Navas, Esteban Alvarado, Patrick Sequeira.
Defenders: Francisco Calvo, Juan Pablo Vargas, Kendall Waston, Oscar Duarte, Daniel Chacon, Keysher Fuller, Carlos Martinez, Bryan Oviedo, Ronald Matarrita.
Midfielders: Yeltsin Tejeda, Celso Borges, Youstin Salas, Roan Wilson, Gerson Torres, Douglas Lopez, Jewison Bennette, Alvaro Zamora, Anthony Hernandez, Brandon Aguilera, Bryan Ruiz.
Forwards: Joel Campbell, Anthony Contreras, Johan Venegas.
With text inputs from AFP