South Korea doesn’t have a convincing qualification campaign behind them to raise people’s expectations. In the decisive third round, South Korea drew three and lost three of its 10 matches including a shock loss to long-term foe China. It also succumbed to Qatar and Iran. But they still managed to qualify as runners-up in their group, just in time for German manager Uli Stielike to be sacked as a result of the disappointing campaign. Shin Tae-yong has since taken over the top job.
Any hope of progressing beyond the group stage will come down to the performance of their star player Son Heung-min. The Tottenham Hotspur attacker can play as a winger as well as a center forward. The 25-year-old has enjoyed two fantastic seasons in North London, scoring 21 goals last season and 18 this season in all competitions. However, as has been shown in the Premier League, Son tends to be anonymous on the big occasions and this has been a major disappointment for Spurs fans towards the hugely talented player.
Coach: Shin Tae-yong
Captain: Ki Sung-yeung
FIFA Ranking: 61 Odds: $501.00
World Cup appearances: 9
Best World Cup performance: Semi-finals – 2002
What a miss. Euro 2016 saw the end of the Zlatan Ibrahimovic era and previous talk that the great one might come out of international retirement just for the World Cup finally came to an end with the Swedish giant declaring his unavailability.
Ibrahimovic still has so much to give in football, scoring two fabulous goals in an outrageous Major League Soccer debut for LA Galaxy just a few months ago after his trans-Atlantic switch. But now Sweden must move on.
The new Swedish team under Janne Andersson is extremely hardworking and disciplined. They knocked Italy out of the playoffs by “playing like Italy”, according to then Italian coach Gian Piero Ventura, thus ensuring the Azzurri missed the World Cup for the first time in six decades.
Physical and well-organized, Sweden’s rigid defense in their 4-4-2 formation will make them difficult to break down. But the current Sweden squad lacks the stars of previous eras, with most of its players now spending their time in the weaker European leagues of Denmark, Greece, Russia and Scotland.
Coach: Janne Andersson
Captain: Andreas Granqvist
FIFA Ranking: 23 Odds: $151.00
World Cup appearances: 12
Best World Cup performance: Runners-up – 1958
Some said that Germany’s loss to France in the semifinal of Euro 2016 was the end of the Joachim Löw era. But that judgement appears to be premature. The 2014 World Cup champions bounced back powerfully by qualifying for Russia with 10 wins from 10 matches, scoring a joint European-record 43 goals. They also won the Confederations Cup last summer despite having plenty of key players missing.
Germany’s dominance in recent years is reflected by the fact that there is an endless production line of talent coming through its very well-structured youth development system. Germany featured fairly young national teams in both South Africa 2010 and Brazil 2014 and were again the second youngest team to qualify for Russia at an average age of 25.7 years, older than only Nigeria.
The Golden Boot winner at the Confederations Cup last summer, Timo Werner, has proved to be the perfect replacement for retired great Miroslav Klose. The 22-year-old RB Leipzig forward made history as the youngest player in Bundesliga history to reach 150 top-flight appearances this season and it seems that he is looking to break more records in the upcoming World Cup.
Coach: Joachim Löw
Captain: Manuel Neuer
FIFA Ranking: 1
World Cup appearances: 18
World Cup titles: 4 – 1954, 1974, 1990, 2014
In the last six World Cups without exception, Mexico has been knocked out in the Round of 16. Surely El Tri will look be looking beyond the group stage this time, with the opening fixture against Germany to be by far their biggest challenge. However, the lack of truly exceptional talent in the squad has made them vulnerable against stronger opponents in recent times.
Against lesser teams, Mexico has a relatively strong track record. They are the winner of their CONCACAF Group ahead of Costa Rica and Panama, but when they played in more demanding fixtures their results were miserable.
Colombian coach Juan Carlos Osorio is still being questioned about his input even though they qualified for Russia with ease. The problem isn’t just their losses to the big guns but the size of the scorelines, including a 7-0 defeat by Chile and 4-1 loss to Germany in the Confederations Cup.
Mexico’s all-time top goalscorer Javier Hernández, who has scored 49 times in 100 appearance so far, has been struggling for match time at West Ham United.
Coach: Juan Carlos Osorio
Captain: Andrés Guardado
FIFA Ranking: 15
World Cup appearances: 15
Best World Cup performance: Quarter-finals – 1970, 1986