Reigning champions Germany will have to navigate their way out of Group F to launch a defence of their trophy and will be confident of doing so. Mexico consistently make World Cups and bring plenty to the party, but lack the stature to put fear in the heart of the very best teams, while Switzerland and South Korea are more likely to be described as hard-working than world beaters.
That said, in sport anything can happen. Let’s take a look at how the Group F contenders shape up.
Joachim Low’s men finally delivered on their potential in Brazil 2014 when Mario Gotze’s acrobatic winner sealed the nation’s long-awaited fourth World Cup. Only Brazil, with five, have won more and Low has plenty of reasons to believe that his side can equal that tally in Russia.
A “perfect ten” in qualifying (ten wins out of ten) was matched by a smooth triumph at last summer’s Confederations Cup where, despite resting many of their star players, the Germans were peerless. As you’d expect there is depth aplenty in the German squad.
Perhaps even more pleasingly for Low, he appears to have a perfect blend of experienced pros and energetic emerging talents at his disposal. Leon Goretzka, Timo Werner and Man City’s Leroy Sane are among the young guns pushing hardest for a first team spot, while the likes of Mezut Ozil, Toni Kroos, Manuel Neuer and Mats Hummels are a coach’s dream: highly experienced yet still in their prime.
Low has now been the German manager for 12 years, having taken up the reigns in 2006, and such continuity is evident in the consistency of his team’s performances. It would be a colossal shock if the Germans didn’t make it out of Group F, not least because they have the mental and tactical discipline not to take any of their opponents lightly.
Mexico cruised through the CONCACAF qualifying section to make it to their seventh successive World Cup and their track record suggests they’re likely to join Germany in the last-16. The Mexicans haven’t failed to make it out of the group stage of a World Cup since 1966 and have appeared in the last-16 (though no further) at the last six World Cups.
The Mexicans have experience throughout their team. Captain Andrés Guardado is approaching 150 caps, while Giovanni Dos Santos and Javier Hernandez have both reached the 100 cap mark in their 20s – a sign of both their quality and commitment. With a half century of international goals Hernandez will once again be the Mexicans’ main threat, but Carlos Vela and Dos Santos are mobile left-footed attackers who should be able to chip in, too.
At the back Héctor Moreno, Miguel Layún and Diego Reyes have experience playing at the highest level in Europe, but questions have been asked of the Mexican defence (and manager Juan Carlos Osorio) on the back of the heavy 7-0 and 4-1 defeats against Chile and Germany that put an end to their participation in the Copa America and Confederations Cup.
Struggling against bigger teams doesn’t bode well for Mexico’s hopes of making it past the last-16 (or for their rematch against Germany) but they should have the quality to make it out of the group.
The Swedes produced the biggest upset of the qualification play-offs to seal their place in Russia 2018, shutting out an increasingly desperate Italy at the San Siro to protect a slender first leg lead. Italy was, in many ways, a fitting location for such a performance.
The Swedish version of catenaccio was every bit as disciplined, resilient and worldly wise as anything an Italian team has produced in recent years and, in many ways, characterised the current Swedish side. Michael Lustig, Victor Lindelöf and Andreas Granquist are the kind of tough, resilient players you’d want on your side in a battle, but they’re a far cry from the more eye-catching trio of Henrik Larsson,
Freddie Ljunberg and Zlatan Ibrahimovic who starred for Sweden the last time they made it to a World Cup. Such attacking riches are beyond the Swedish side now but star players come with big egos – Ibrahimovic makes no attempt to deny his – and coach Janne Andersson may consider it a blessing that he’s been able to build his team as one solid unit rather than a vehicle for the indulgence of a great talent.
That being said, a clamour is already growing for “Ibra” to be tempted out of international retirement for one last World Cup. Without Ibrahimovic Sweden would be workmanlike and disciplined. With him they could be more potent going forward, but would they also be prone to costly lapses into individualism?
South Korea stunned everyone at their home World Cup in 2002 by making it to the semi-finals, but it would be wrong to see them as a one hit wonder. The Koreans have now qualified for nine straight World Cups and also made it out of the group stage in South Africa in 2010.
However, qualification was a major struggle this time around – so much so that manager Uli Stielike was removed from his post and replaced by his assistant Shin Tae-yong in the hope of re-energising the team. Much depends on South Korea’s two big stars, Swansea City’s Ki Sung-yueng, who captains the side, and Tottenham Hotspur’s in form Son Heung-min.
An injury to one or both would rob the team of their biggest creative and goalscoring threats. Tactically, the team are in a form of limbo. Tae-yong seems unsure of whether to set his side up with a back three or a back four and has work to do ahead of the summer if the Koreans are to compete in the group. Given their lacklustre form it’s tough to see them as anything other than the group outsiders.
Germany v Mexico (Sunday June 17th) is a glamorous game to open the group. Two good footballing sides who like to attack will go head-to-head and the Mexicans will hope to fare better than they did in Sochi last year (where they lost 4-1). The winner of this game will likely win the group.
Mexico v Sweden (Wednesday June 27th) on the last day of the group could be a straight fight for qualification. The Mexicans will hope they go into the game ahead of Sweden on points. If not Sweden may be able to replicate their catennacio act against Italy and stifle their way into the last-16.
Group E looks like one of the easier groups to call. Germany should come top and Mexico a comfortable second. Both sides look to have the individual and collective quality to see off a workmanlike Sweden and a South Korean squad that are currently at a low ebb. Sweden showed against Italy that they can pull off upsets so can’t be written off entirely, but look short of the firepower required to knock out a higher seed.