World Cup holders Germany appear to have been given a fairly kind draw in Group F alongside Mexico, Sweden and South Korea, as they aim to become the first country to successfully defend the trophy since Brazil in 1962.
The defending champions have their biggest test up first as they lock horns with Mexico. The North Americans won Concacaf qualifying once again and, although they are a regional powerhouse, they will strive to go beyond the pre-quarters this time.
South Korea and Sweden appear out of their depth, but this is the World Cup and both teams can throw the cat among the pigeons by nicking a point or two off the favourites in their group.
The team coming second in this group risks a last-16 meeting with Brazil.
Group F: Germany, Mexico, Sweden, South Korea
Such is the strength in depth available to coach Joachim Loew – who recently extended his contract through to 2022 – that there was no place in the squad for Mario Goetze, scorer of the winning goal against Argentina in the 2014 final.
Manuel Neuer’s fitness has been the biggest concern, but given that Barcelona’s Marc-Andre ter Stegen can step in for him, they might not even really need the Bayern Munich goalkeeper.
Germany won last year’s Confederations Cup in Russia with a young squad that showcased their great strength in depth. Julian Draxler, at 23, was the captain of the squad and although they have struggled in the friendlies, expect them to put all that behind them once the whistle blows.
Key Player: Thomas Muller
When it comes to the World Cup, very few have a record as good as Thomas Muller’s. The Rammdeuter has 10 goals in two appearances, and a good tournament in Russia will see him close in on compatriot Miroslav Klose. Golden Boot winner at 20 in South Africa, eight years later, the man with the famous surname still retains the ability to ghost in and finish teams off.
World Cup record:
No European team has been more successful than Germany, as they and Italy have four World Cup wins each. They have also reached the semi-finals of the last four, so expect some consistency.
Mexico might trouble them, but Die Nationalmannschaft did destroy them 4-1 at the Confederations Cup a year earlier. Germany should have too much in the tank for Sweden and South Korea. Expect them to breeze through to the round of 16.
The Mexicans qualified comfortably for Russia but El Tri have fallen in the last 16 in each of the last six World Cups, and matching that is probably the height of their ambitions this time.
It could be an interesting battle between Juan Carlos Osorio’s side, Sweden and the Koreans for second place behind the Germans.
The core of the team, which won the Olympic gold at London in 2012, is about to enter the peak phase of their careers and could have a significant impact on where the team finish.
The attack is well stocked with Javier Hernandez, Carlos Vela and Raul Jimenez complemented by the fresher faces of Oribe Peralta and Hirving Lozano.
Key Player: Hirving Lozano
The 22-year-old, also nicknamed Chucky, has been earmarked as one of the players to watch out for in the tournament and the winger will look to follow up on a stellar first season at PSV Eindhoven where he notched 19 goals. He has seven in 26 for El Tri and is easily his nation’s brightest talent in Russia. He could prove to be a major head-ache for right-backs throughout the tournament.
World Cup record:
Their best performance came at home in 1970 and 1986, where they reached the quarter-finals both times. Have been knocked out at the Round of 16 the last six times, and could spring a surprise or two this time as well.
Second place is surely for the taking, but Mexico will aim higher, knowing that a potential encounter against Brazil may await if they do finish runners-up in the group.
Sweden are back at the tournament after dramatically ousting Italy in a play-off – they also beat France in qualifying so should not be underestimated in this post-Zlatan Ibrahimovic era.
Ibrahimovic’s departure though does leave the attack a bit light, with the onus falling on ex-Manchester City man John Guidetti and Ola Toivonen.
It is undoubtedly the midfield where Sweden’s strengths lie, with Sebastian Larsson, Emil Forsberg and Oscar Hiljemark looking to dominate rivals in the middle of the park. Not a lot of star power for the Scandinavians, but one must never discount a team that knocked Italy out.
Key Player: Emil Forsberg
The Red Bull Leipzig winger is the biggest name that Sweden have to offer and it is Forsberg who has to take up the mantle of star player this time around. He has enjoyed four good seasons with the German club and even finished second in their debut season in the Bundesliga. Scored four goals in World Cup qualifying and will look to add to that.
World Cup record:
Their best result came at home, albeit six decades ago in 1958, when they were swept aside by Pele’s Brazil 5-2 in the final. A regular feature in the finals, this will be their 12th appearance.
They will struggle to score goals with a weakened front line. The best case scenario is for them to stay sturdy at the back and hit teams on the counter. Will have to get something out of the Mexico game to progress.
The Koreans have made little impression on the World Cup finals apart from reaching the semis as co-hosts in 2002.
With a squad mainly made up of players based at home, or in China and Japan, they will hope to spring a surprise here. The Taeguk Warriors are the weakest team on paper in the group, but will hope that the England-based trio of Ki Sung-Yeung, Lee Chung-Yong and Son Heung-Min can inspire the team to greater heights.
One of the strongest teams in Asia, they finished second behind Iran in their qualifying group and sealed an automatic berth.
Their opening match against Sweden in Nizhny Novgorod on June 18 will be crucial.
Key Player: Son Heung-Min
No questions about it, Son Heung-Min is South Korea’s and Asia’s best player at the World Cup. Twice Asian player of the year, the forward has had another memorable season at Tottenham Hotspur and his national team will be overly reliant on him. It remains to be seen whether the Chuncheon-born man can take the pressure and thrive on it.
World Cup record:
Their tenth appearance at the finals, they will always be remembered for their 2002 run at home where, under Guus Hiddink, they ended up fourth, the highest-ever finish by an Asian team.
Difficult to see them progressing beyond the group stage, in the absence of a balanced squad. It may be a point or two at best for the two-time Asian champions.