With all the action kicking off on the BBC & ITV in just over three weeks time, heres a quick giude to every team competing in the World Cup!
The biggest talking point has been the exclusion of Igor Denisov, who is arguably Russia’s best defensive midfielder but fell out with manager Stanislav Cherchesov at Dynamo Moscow. Cherchesov became the manager after disappointing performances at Euro 2016 and the former goalkeeper has changed a lot, mainly in defence where he has brought in the youngsters Viktor Vasin (CSKA), Fedor Kudryashov (Rubin Kazan) and Georgi Dzhikiya (Spartak Moscow) to replace Sergei Ignashevich and Vasily Berezutski. He also plays three at the back instead of four. Russia’s attack is impressive. Alan Dzagoev is still going strong and the strikers Fyodor Smolov and Aleksandr Kokorin scored a lot of goals in 2017. Special attention should be paid to the twins Aleksei and Anton Miranchuk from Lokomotiv Moscow and Aleksandr Golovin from CSKA. They are young technical midfielders who could have their breakthroughs at the World Cup.
The squad have some talent but lack international experience. Saudi Arabia may be the lowest-ranked qualifiers but there is never a dull moment when the Green Falcons are around. Few managers last more than a year in the hottest of hot seats but Bert van Marwijk was in charge for two and led the team to a first World Cup since 2006. It was not always pretty but the side took maximum points from the weakest teams and did enough against Japan and Australia to squeeze into the second automatic spot. Days later Van Marwijk was heading home after a disagreement with the Saudi FA, replaced by Edgardo Bauza. The Argentinian lasted two months and five friendlies before getting the boot. Three days before the draw in Moscow, Juan Antonio Pizzi – who led Chile to the 2016 Copa América but could not take them to Russia – was appointed. There has been talk of arranging La Liga loans. It sounds impractical but who knows?
Egypt’s squad are a mixture of youth and experience, with the goalkeeper Essam El-Hadary set to become the oldest player at a World Cup at 45. In front of him Egypt have the solid defensive partnership of Rami Rabia and West Brom’s Ahmed Hegazi. Happy to sit back and defend, Egypt are difficult to break down. Only once (in 30 games) have the Pharaohs conceded more than one goal under Hector Cúper. But despite taking Egypt to the Afcon final and a 63% win rate, the Argentinian has been criticised for his defensive style. The midfield is built around Mohamed Elneny and Al Ahly’s Abdallah Said, who at 32 will bring a creative spark. Egypt hope Mohamed Salah’s fine form continues and on the other wing can choose from Ramadan Sobhi, Kahraba and Mahmoud Hassan “Trézéguet”, one to watch for his direct runs into the box.
Óscar Tabárez’s team went through qualifying with unusual serenity. After four consecutive World Cup play-offs they finished second behind Brazil to qualify in style. Now, though, he has a big decision to make: will he continue to rely on the attacking approach that has served him so well or make changes? The answer seems to lie in the changing of the guard in midfield. Federico Valverde (Real Madrid, on loan at Deportivo La Coruña), Matías Vecino, (Internazionale), Nahitan Nández (Boca Juniors) and Rodrigo Bentancur (Juventus) are young and attack-minded players who have earned a place in the team, leading to this increased focus on attack. However, the November friendlies ended with a 0-0 draw against Poland and a 2-1 defeat against Austria, so expect some tinkering before the World Cup.
“Brazil, Argentina, Spain, Germany and France are the favourites to win the World Cup,” says the Portugal coach, Fernando Santos, before adding: “Then we have other candidates, who want to get as far as possible, and win the tournament if possible, and Portugal are in this second group.” Santos is cautious, despite winning Euro 2016 but he is looking forward to the World Cup with optimism and does so with good reason: Portugal seem stronger now than a year and a half ago, having added creativity to the defensive organisation that underpinned the 2016 title. Bernardo Silva and André Silva have been important factors in this attacking upgrade and in general the team have more depth. The one area which is perhaps weaker is the defence, where it has been hard to find replacements for Pepe (who will be 35 next summer), José Fonte (34) and Bruno Alves (36).
Eight of the team who lost against Italy in Paris would start in Russia if the World Cup started now: David De Gea, Gerard Piqué, Sergio Ramos, Jordi Alba, Sergio Busquets, Andrés Iniesta, David Silva and Álvaro Morata. La Roja are still La Roja and crashing out at the group stage in Brazil 2014 and the disappointment of France 2016 were not at all cathartic in the end. At the age of 51, and without much experience as a coach at elite level, Julen Lopetegui has managed to conserve the essence of what made Spain so successful. The backbone of the team who qualified brilliantly for Russia 2018 are the same as those who failed in France a year and a half ago. In addition, the wonderful Isco has found his feet with the senior squad, as have several of the under-21s who won the Euros with Spain and Lopetegui in 2013.
Twenty years after a heartbreaking elimination from the group stage at France ’98, the first African team to reach the last 16 are back at the World Cup and The Atlas Lions are roaring again. Morocco, the only African team to qualify for Russia without conceding a goal, have built their game on solid defence and hard work. The experience of Karim El Ahmadi, M’barek Boussoufa and Juventus’s Mehdi Benatia fits well with the intelligence of Hakim Ziyech and the strength of Nordin Amrabat. Hervé Renard is in charge but the advice coming from one of his assistants, Patrice Beaumelle, is vital. The former Coventry City midfielder Mustapha Hadji is also key in the setup, sharing his experiences and acting as a role model for this generation. The team’s main weakness used to be on the left but Real Madrid’s Achraf Hakimi has filled the gap admirably since September.
Team Melli are playing in a second successive World Cup for the first time. Carlos Queiroz’s men were the first Asian side to qualify for this tournament and did so with 12 consecutive clean sheets. The main aspect of Queiroz’s tactics is “reactive football” with a deep-lying defence and quick counterattacks. However, in recent friendlies against Russia, Panama and Venezuela, Iran played with a different tactic, pressing higher up the pitch and adopting a more aggressive approach. Queiroz, despite a temper and petulance that has caused many seemingly pointless controversies in recent years, is very popular in Iran because of the results and performances. Many believe he has given a real character to the national team. Iran have many Europe-based players this season and Queiroz tends to select those who play outside their homeland.
“We are not at the same level as Germany, Spain and Brazil – yet,” says Didier Deschamps. “We may not control all our games with the same authority but still, we have a strong and competitive team with a great potential.” France blew hot and cold in qualifying, winning their group despite losing to Sweden and drawing against Belarus and Luxembourg. Deschamps has a thrilling and explosive attack of Antoine Griezmann, Kylian Mbappé and Ousmane Dembélé (if fit). There is a strong midfield built around Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kanté, lots of technical ability all around with such as Thomas Lemar and a sound defensive axis. Still, France appear more effective when playing on the break and using their speed. The weakest link? The left-back position if Manchester City’s Benjamin Mendy does not recover from his knee injury.
The 31st team to qualify worked harder than anyone else, with around 250,000km travelled and trips to far-flung destinations such as Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh, Tajikistan, Iran, Japan, Malaysia and Honduras. The Socceroos’ place in Russia is secure but the identity of the manager who will lead them there remains a mystery after Ange Postecoglou quit following the play-off win over Honduras in November. As such, Australia present something of a challenge for opponents scouting them, and uncertainty hangs over whether Postecoglou’s preferred – and controversial – 3-2-4-1 will be retained, as well as over the names that will fill those starting slots. There is still an over-reliance on Tim Cahill – who will be 38 this month – for goals but with Aaron Mooy, Tom Rogic and Massimo Luongo, there is talent elsewhere; how to get the best out of them and their team-mates will depend on who takes the job.
Peru are back at the World Cup after 36 years, having gone back to their roots. They are a young side who have responded to tougher discipline with increased commitment. Ricardo Gareca has brought in new, young players and reintroduced a style that had been lost for some time. Short passes and possession are part of the football DNA of Peru again – with excellent results. The spine is made up of a very confident goalkeeper in Pedro Gallese; the skilful leader Alberto Rodríguez in defence; the physical and intelligent Yoshimar Yotún, who runs the midfield; and Jefferson Farfán and Paolo Guerrero up front. The wing-backs Aldo Corzo and Miguel Trauco are tactically astute and important. For a bit of inspiration to unlock opposing defences, there is the talented Christian Cueva.
Not only did a World Cup qualifying campaign end successfully for the first time since 2009 but the public fell back in love with the team. Denmark crushed Poland 4-0 and the Republic of Ireland 5-1 in the space of two months in the autumn, with Christian Eriksen reaching a Michael Laudrup-level of play, scoring 11 goals in 12 matches. “The World Cup deserves a star like him,” says the coach, Age Hareide. “We will be a danger to all teams because of him.” Denmark will continue with the direct style of play that Hareide turned to in the autumn, an approach that suited the box-to-box midfielder Thomas Delaney, who was the second-highest scorer for Denmark in qualifying. Up front Nicolai Jorgensen, Andreas Cornelius and Nicklas Bendtner fight for one place, while in central defence Brentford’s Andreas Bjelland and the captain Simon Kjær are picked ahead of Chelsea’s Andreas Christensen.
The team were unreliable in qualifying but made it in the end, although it will be a farewell party for a lot of senior players. Sergio Romero, Ángel Di María, Sergio Agüero, Gonzalo Higuaín, Lucas Biglia and Éver Banega, among others, are almost certainly about to play in their final tournament. For Lionel Messi – the captain and main reason they reached Russia – it is also pretty much a case of now or never. With that in mind, Jorge Sampaoli is likely to go on the attack in his attempt to secure Argentina’s first World Cup since 1986. It is up to Sampaoli to make them stronger in defence. Gabriel Mercado, Javier Mascherano and Nicolás Otamendi are likely to occupy the spots in the back three, with Biglia and Enzo Pérez expected to take the central midfield places.
Will supporters from the smallest nation ever to qualify for the World Cup be able to support their team in Russia in the way they did in France where almost 10% of the nation travelled. There could be similar levels next summer but Moscow and Saint Petersburg are obviously easier to reach than Ekaterinburg and Volgograd. Iceland had to overcome a series of problems to qualify: the loss of their main striker Kolbeinn Sigthorsson to injury, Lars Lagerback’s departure and a draw that placed them with three teams who reached Euro 2016. However, they won their group and Heimir Hallgrimsson, who is now in sole charge, has shown more tactical flexibility than Lagerback did. Iceland still mainly play 4-4-2 but Hallgrimsson changes this to a 4-5-1 in certain games, to good effect. Apart from Sigthorsson, everybody from the starting lineup in France is expected to be in Russia.
Perennial dark horses, Croatia’s results became progressively worse during the qualifiers before, as usual, the manager was fired. The new man in charge, Zlatko Dalic, was appointed two days before the final – and decisive – group game but it was enough for a triumph of improvisation in Kiev, and then Croatia disposed of Greece with authority in the play-offs. Luka Modric is 32 and most of the other likely starters will be 29 or older – and the tournament may well be the last realistic shot at something big for this extraordinary generation, the best Croatia has had since the 1998 bronze-winning team. They have been caught in a web of internal divides involving key national federation men, the fans, the media and politics, decimating their support at home and making it difficult for them to focus.
Placed in a group with Algeria, Cameroon and the 2012 African champions Zambia, the Super Eagles qualified with a game to spare. The comeback victory over Argentina in a recent friendly in Russia further fed optimism regarding what the team can achieve under Gernot Rohr. The German manager has radically improved the side, infusing the freshness of youth into a team who failed to qualify for two consecutive Africa Cup of Nations tournaments before his appointment. Since he took over last year, the former Bordeaux manager has lost one game and knitted together a ruthless counterattacking side who feature the outstanding Alex Iwobi and with Chelsea’s wing-back Victor Moses playing as a dynamic, talismanic winger. The team are based on a sturdy defence, with energetic ball-winners at the base of midfield and the calming presence of Mikel John Obi to funnel balls to the attack.
Tite has not had 20 games in charge but Brazil’s transformation from a rudderless wreck to World Cup contenders has been astonishing. Tite has implemented a 4-1-4-1 and carefully navigated the lack of club playing time for some of his players. He has accommodated Neymar on the left, Casemiro in front of the backline, Gabriel Jesus in the centre of attack and has got the best from the full-backs Dani Alves and Marcelo. Renato Augusto is another performing at his peak, and Paulinho, one of Tite’s favourite players, has managed the transformation from the Chinese league to Barcelona remarkably well. The process has risks attached to it, too. Apart from the regulars in the starting XI there is not much depth. Willian and Roberto Firmino aside, Tite does not seem to have faith in many other players.
People in Switzerland expect their team to reach major finals these days so there was no euphoria when the place in Russia was booked. The expectation is for Vladimir Petkovic’s squad to reach at least the last 16. “My team has a got an excellent team spirit and have a tremendous will to succeed,” says Petkovic. Granit Xhaka is at the heart, dictating the pace of the game. With creative and quick players such as Xherdan Shaqiri and Steven Zuber, Switzerland are always capable of creating something on the flanks, especially as the wingers have strong full-backs behind them in Juventus’s Stephan Lichtsteiner, right, and Milan’s Ricardo Rodríguez, left. With Fabian Schär and young Manuel Akanji there is also a solid central defence to lean on. The weakest part of the team is the centre-forward position, which is almost always occupied by Haris Seferović.
Costa Rica may struggle to repeat a place in the last eight, having been a sensation four years ago, but they have the quality to reach the knockout phase. The coach then, Jorge Luis Pinto, has been replaced by Óscar Ramírez and his team showed in qualifying they are the Concacaf team to beat, qualifying with two games to spare. Ramírez has continued to deploy the 5-4-1 that served Pinto so well. It asks a lot of Bryan Ruiz and Celso Borges; Ruiz is the main reference in attack and Borges gives balance in midfield. Keylor Navas is the star, with Marco Ureña, who plays for San Jose Earthquakes in the MLS, adding pace to the attack.
Serbia qualified for their first major tournament for seven years in comprehensive fashion. With only one defeat in 10 matches, they pipped the Euro 2016 semi-finalists Wales and Republic of Ireland to first place in their group, but that was not enough for Slavoljub Muslin to keep his job. The 64-year-old’s conflict with the president of the Serbian FA, Slavisa Kokeza, over the style of play and squad selection – with the star midfielder Sergej Milinkovic-Savic at the epicentre – resulted in Muslin being fired. Mladen Krstajic took over as caretaker and immediately brought Milinkovic-Savic into the team for the November friendlies. The Lazio man repaid the faith with superb performances and an assist, sending a message that he could be trusted to lead a star-studded but ageing Serbia side.
After losing to France in the Euro 2016 semi-final, plenty predicted the Joachim Löw era was slowly coming to an end. However, the team bounced back impressively and qualified for the World Cup with a perfect 10 wins out of 10 while scoring a joint European-record 43 goals. Die Mannschaft have not lost since that defeat against France and, rather frighteningly for their rivals, won the Confederations Cup in the summer without Jérôme Boateng, Mats Hummels, Manuel Neuer, Toni Kroos, Mesut Özil, Thomas Müller, Mario Götze, Ilkay Gündogan, Marco Reus, Sami Khedira and Leroy Sané. New players such as Timo Werner, Lars Stindl and, above all, Leon Goretzka have staked their claim, meaning competition for places in the World Cup squad will be immense. Goretzka’s impressive displays for Schalke should see Löw pick him ahead of Khedira in central midfield.
The team had no problem reaching the World Cup but Juan Carlos Osorio is still being questioned, because in more demanding fixtures, such as against Chile in the Copa América Centenario and Germany in the Confederations Cup, El Tri looked lost, being beaten 7-0 and 4-1 respectively. However, some of the players are in their prime. Guillermo Ochoa, Andrés Guardado, Héctor Moreno, Héctor Herrera and Javier Hernández have at least five years of experience in Europe and this could be the difference for Mexico to finally make it to a fifth game at the World Cup. Osorio’s system has been changing of late. When the Colombian took over he always used a 4-3-3 but in two recent friendlies he played with two midfield enforcers, something he may repeat (along with a five-man defence) in Russia.
Euro 2016 saw the end of the Zlatan Ibrahimovic era as well as that of the manager Erik Hamren. Their play-off win against Italy was deserved and the big talking point now is whether Ibrahimovic will come out of international retirement for the World Cup. If so, will he fit in the collective Janne Andersson has created? The new team, under Andersson, are extremely hardworking and disciplined. The 4-4-2 and tactics are reminiscent of the successful period from Lars Lagerback’s days in the early 2000s but with players from more anonymous clubs. The stars of the Lagerback-era played for teams such as Arsenal, Juventus and Barcelona. Today they represent clubs in Denmark, Greece, Russia, Scotland and the United Arab Emirates (apart from Emil Forsberg at RB Leipzig and Victor Lindelof at Manchester United).
A team lacking world-class talent so the manager has to depend on two standout players: Son Heung-min from Tottenham Hotspur and Ki Sung-yueng from Swansea City. They struggled throughout the qualifiers through being anemic in attack and defence and narrowly qualified after a poor run which resulted in the firing of Uli Stielike. Shin Tae-yong, who was the manager of the under-23s and under-20s, is not a master tactician but he is a good motivator. Only a few people in South Korea have high expectations and, surprisingly, most fans are waiting for the return of the former coach Guus Hiddink. Shin often plays a 4-4-2 but seems obsessed with a fluid back-three system so it is not clear how South Korea will play.
Belgium broke all sorts of records in qualifying: they were unbeaten, they got 28 points from 10 games, they scored 43 goals and Romelu Lukaku became the country’s record goalscorer. However, the last two friendlies, and especially the 3-3 draw against Mexico, have left fans, pundits and players worried. True, Belgium were without Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld and Vincent Kompany against Mexico but the replacements could not fill the void. Kevin De Bruyne, for one, did not hold back. “Mexico were just better tactically,” he said. “Their system made our five defenders sit deep and we were up against it in midfield – it was five against seven. If we don’t have a good tactical system, we will have difficulties against countries like Mexico. It’s a pity that we have not found a solution yet.” The main problem is that, after two years with Roberto Martínez, there is still no real defensive organisation.
“We’ll go to the World Cup to learn and compete. It’s an experience to enjoy,” said Hernán Darío Gómez, and he should know: the Colombian has led four teams at World Cup finals. His experience has been crucial in turning a mature squad who had performed well at age-group levels into the country’s first qualification. That feat owed much to the defensive colossus Román Torres, who scored the goal that took them to Russia, and the midfielder Gabriel Gómez, the brains of the operation. It is a team built on solidity, discipline and hitting on the break. Alberto Quintero’s creativity is the key source of chances for Gabriel Torres and Blas Pérez, the most-used forward pairing. Fidel Escobar, Michael Murillo (both of New York Red Bulls) and Deportivo La Coruña’s Ismael Díaz add youthful endeavour.
After a 12-year absence Tunisia are back at a World Cup but their path was not entirely straight. They sacked Henryk Kasperczak soon after losing in the last eight of the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations. Nabil Maâloul was appointed in April and steered the country to the World Cup, mainly using a 4-2-3-1. The full-backs are encouraged to attack and on the left Ali Maâloul of Al Ahly is key because of how much he contributes going forward. The midfield are dominated by two hard-working ball-winners in Ferjani Sassi and Mohamed Amine Ben Amor, with the MKN trio of Youssef Msakni, Wahbi Khazri and Naïm Sliti adding flair. Msakni, who plays in Qatar, is a tremendous talent and often carries the team. The manager sometimes switches to 4-3-2-1, especially against attacking teams, incorporating the defensive midfilder Ghailene Chaalali instead of Khazri or Sliti.
There are lingering questions about whether England have improved since the ordeal of being eliminated by Iceland at Euro 2016. Fans staged a walkout at the qualifying match in Malta but, amazingly, England have not lost a qualifying match for any major competition since October 2009. It is an incredible run, covering 39 games, with three different managers in place since the team, then led by Fabio Capello, went down 1-0 to Ukraine. Gareth Southgate has certainly had an eventful year since being promoted from his role as the manager of England’s under-21s. Southgate has moved out Wayne Rooney and overseen a period of change that now has England operating with a younger, more experimental team in a 3-4-2-1 formation.
Adam Nawalka’s side always looked certain of qualifying and won eight of their 10 games. The captain, Robert Lewandowski, hit a record-breaking 16 goals and his leadership was crucial as Poland returned to the biggest stage after a 12-year absence but they are not a one-man team: other players also contributed heavily to ensure that Poland ended up in pot one for the draw. The defence is a concern (Poland conceded 14 goals – the most of all groups winners) but Nawalka is capable of sorting it out with Poland having the second-best defence at Euro 2016 until the quarter-finals. He has six months to fine-tune his plans, which include working on a formation with three central defenders. Poland have a strong backbone of Wojciech Szczesny-Kamil Glik-Grzegorz Krychowiak-Robert Lewandowski with Hull City’s Kamil Grosicki another key player with his pace on the left flank.
This will be Senegal’s second World Cup finals after Aliou Cissé, who was the captain of the 2002 side under the late Bruno Metsu, guided his team through a difficult qualification group containing Burkina Faso, South Africa and Cape Verde. Cissé has moulded a team strong in all areas. The addition of M’Baye Niang to a forward line who include Keita Baldé of Monaco and Liverpool’s Sadio Mané has allowed Cissé to play 4-3-3, although in the crucial victory over South Africa West Ham’s Diafra Sakho started in a 4-4-2. Much will be expected of Mané, who has been the star man for several years and has been compared to El Hadji Diouf, the talisman for the 2002 side. His injury problems have slowed down a brilliant start to life at Liverpool and he will need to be at his best in Russia.
Colombia will aim to repeat their performance from the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, when they reached the quarter-finals but it will be harder as they are not among the top seeds. Their best results came when they were more defensive and compact between the lines, hitting on the counter with speed and very few passes. That being said, qualifying was not straightforward. “Qualifying was really hard,” says the coach, José Pékerman. “We’ve never experienced a situation where so few points separated so many teams.” Three factors explain the difficulties Colombia had: the need to inject youth in defence, the lack of playing time for the stars (James Rodríguez at Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, Radamel Falcao at Monaco and David Ospina at Arsenal) and the lack of options going forward. Pékerman often plays 4-2-3-1 but has tried 4-3-2-1 away from home.
Japan have traditionally preferred a possession-based style but Vahid Halilhodzic demands his side look to play on the counter. His drastic reforms have seen Japan’s two biggest stars, Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa, dropped from the squad as they failed to fit into this philosophy – or, in other words, preferred Japan’s traditional approach. There is also no room for Shinji Okazaki of Leicester City, because Halilhodzic opts for a lone forward capable of holding up the play. These choices, and the manager’s overall style, have been the subject of fierce debate in Japan. Halilhodzic has vast experience of international football and took Ivory Coast to the 2010 World Cup (although he was dismissed before the tournament) and Algeria to the 2014 tournament.
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