Page 1

JUNE 2018

ULTIMATE PREVIEW & ANALYSIS

EVERY TEAM, EVERY PLAYER

RONALDO: NOW OR NEVER

TRAVEL GUIDE TO RUSSIA

SPECIAL EDITION

WORLD CUP


TABLE OF CONTENTS

CONTENTS IN EVERY ISSUE

08 Letter from the Editor 10 Masthead 18 Industry Insider: USA Devastation

IN FOCUS

12 14 20 22

Men for the Moment Final Stand: World Cup Heroics World Cup Complete Preview World Cup Betting

SPORTS

24 Football/Soccer - Every

Country, Every Team, Every Player

TRAVEL

106 Ultimate Russia

Travel Guide 114 Travel Smart

HEALTH & FITNESS

116 Stay Fit on the Trip

M ANLINESS

118 Father’s Day Gift Guide


NOTE FROM THE EDITOR

EDITOR’S LETTER THE WORLD AWAITS MICK MCCABE

editor-in-chief CONTACT EMAIL: MICHAEL@ SPORTSBETMAGAZINE.COM @SPORTSBETMAG @SPORTSBETMAGAZINE

It is with a true pleasure I introduce you to the World Cup Special Edition of SportsBet Magazine. Fours years in the making, “the peoples game” on the grandest of stages is ready to grace us, as the most anticipated sporting event in human history is set for kickoff. Prior to Russia there have been twenty crowned champions, only the elite survive, whilst the competition in Russia promises to be the best we have potentially ever seen. The balance of old guards among young superstars rivals the greatest of all time, with Football at the peak of its powers. Every footballer has a story, and it’s their destiny to tell it. Who will emerge in Russia as the World’s next superstar only time will tell. One thing is for sure, we at SportsBet Magazine have left no stone unturned in trying to find them. We have analyzed every friendly, every injury, every possible intrusion to give you the best possible form guide known to man for Russia 2018! Enjoy, Embrace and Accept. The quality promises to be incredible, the pace intense and the standard off the charts. The World’s finest stage is set to grace us once again.

MICK MCCABE


MASTHEAD

PUBLISHER Michael McCabe

EXECUTIVE M AN AGING EDITOR Ian Wilson

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MULTI- MEDI A DIGITAL DIRECTOR Shannon Dannetelle

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PHOTOGRAPHER Dominic Petruzzi

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MEN FOR THE MOMENT THE TOP 50 IN RUSSIA THE WORLD CUP AND FOOTBALL H AS ALWAYS L ARGELY BEEN CONSIDERED A TEAM GAME, ALTHOUGH IT’S THE INDIVIDUALS WHO WILL M AKE THEIR M ARKS IN RUSSI A. THEY DRIVE THE TICKE TS THROUGH THE TURNSTILES AND THE TRAFFIC THROUGH THE STUDIOS TO HOUSEHOLDS ACROSS THE GLOBE. SPORTSBE T M AGAZINE H AVE ASSEMBLED OUR LIST OF THE TOP 50 PL AYERS FOR THIS YEAR’S WORLD CUP, FACTORING IN IMPACT, FORM AND POTENTI AL FOR SUCCESS.

fool you, Hummels has plenty of style and guile to go with his strength. 45. JOSHUA KIMMICH, GERM ANY Mature beyond his years and already part of the furniture for both Germany and Bayern Munich. 44. KEYLOR N AVAS, COSTA RICA The United States needs no reminding of his abilities. Will be pivotal if Costa Rica is to cause upsets again. 43. ROMELU LUKAKU, BELGIUM Powerful, intense and the front man for one of the tournament’s most exciting teams.

50. IGOR AKINFEEV, RUSSI A Veteran goalkeeper will need to have a big tournament if the host nation is to progress deep.

42. SERGIO BUSQUE TS, SPAIN Long seen as the ultimate team player, he recently surprised many by complaining about not receiving more individual awards.

49. LEROY SANE, GERM ANY Second-most assists in the English Premier League, and a rising force for a new-look and stacked Germany team.

41. SON HEUNG-MIN, SOUTH KOREA Best player from Asia and the creative force behind the South Korean team.

48. BERN ARDO SILVA, PORTUGAL His main duty will be to create chances for Cristiano Ronaldo. Few are better at doing just that.

40. JAMES RODRIGUEZ, COLOMBI A Still has the potential to be one of the very best despite some ups and downs for club and country.

47. M ARIO M ANDZUKIC, CROATI A Frustrated at being used out of position by club side Juventus, will have more license in Russia.

39. RADAMEL FALCAO, COLOMBI A Colombia’s form tends to mirror his own. Was devastated to miss 2014 tournament through injury.

46. M ATS HUMMELS, GERM ANY Don’t let that big, strong physique

38. SADIO M ANE, SENEGAL Pieced together a superb second half of the season for Liverpool and fronts an entertaining and skillful Senegal side. Scored in every round of the Champions League this season. 37. GERARD PIQUE, SPAIN This will likely be the final international tournament for the talented, ball-playing defensive star. 36. MESUT OZIL, GERM ANY Out of sorts at Arsenal, but still a vital part for Germany and motivated after a poor season. 35. THIBAUT COURTOIS, BELGIUM Hasn’t had his finest season, but still possesses remarkable poise for a young goalkeeper. 34. IVAN RAKITIC, CROATI A Lionel Messi is so worried about Rakitic leaving Barcelona he’s ordered club chiefs not to let it happen. High praise. 33.EMIL FORSBERG, SWEDEN Recently linked with a move to Arsenal thanks to consistently elite play in Germany. 32. DELE ALLI, ENGL AND Still improving and will carry a major burden at the heart of England’s midfield. 31. ISCO, SPAIN No-nonsense midfielder who has evolved into a key cog for both Real Madrid and Spain.


30. GONZ ALO HIGUAIN, ARGENTIN A Left broken-hearted when his “goal” in the 2014 final was disallowed as Argentina slipped to defeat to Germany. 29. TIMO WERNER, GERM ANY Should win the battle for Germany’s main attacking spot and has the swagger to pull it off. 28. DAVID SILVA, SPAIN As good as ever, despite personal struggles relating to the health of his baby son. 27. GABRIEL JESUS, BRAZIL Neymar is the man for Brazil. Jesus is the man in waiting. World Cup defenses won’t enjoy facing both of them. 26. EDINSON CAVANI, URUGUAY Scored more goals (10) than any other player in South American qualifying. 25. PHILIPPE COUTINHO, BRAZIL Joined Barcelona in January and did not disappoint, while producing elite performances for Brazil in qualifying. The Magician will be a huge part of Brazil’s campaign.

20. PAUL POGBA, FRANCE Named best young player of the 2014 tournament, says he wants to be “the boss” this time around. Has a lot to show the World after disappointing so far at Manchester United in a game plan that doesn’t really suit his game.

talent that has played with the best and at the top of his game.

19. SERGIO RAMOS, SPAIN Still fiery, controversial and entirely uncompromising. Has hinted retirement is imminent. Spain will miss him.

8. ANTOINE GRIEZM ANN, FRANCE Fast and fun and a deadly finisher, he was the top scorer at Euro 2016.

18. CHRISTI AN ERIKSEN, DENM ARK Gifted and fearless, he will be given the keys to Denmark’s hopeful campaign in a weak group. 17. ANDRES INIESTA, SPAIN Coming toward the end of a glittering career, that included the winning goal in the 2010 final. 16. EDEN H AZ ARD, BELGIUM Seems destined for a summer move away from Chelsea, but first, wants to help Belgium reach its potential.

5. KEVIN DE BRUYNE, BELGIUM A master organizer and creator, there may be no smarter player on the planet.

15. SERGIO AGUERO, ARGENTIN A Knee surgery kept him out of the end of Manchester City’s season but the extra rest might be a blessing.

4. NEYM AR, BRAZIL Plays with joy and craft, but is recovering from a foot injury that has kept him sidelined since February. It’s tough to gain fitness in any tournament, but if he’s 100% he can lead Brazil to glory

14. ROBERT LEWANDOWSKI, POL AND Top scorer in the Bundesliga and hungry for success with his national team.

23. M ARC-ANDRE TER STEGEN, GERM ANY Will get his chance after Manuel Neuer’s injury woes and is an outstanding replacement.

13. KYLI AN MBAPPE, FRANCE Still only 19, and already the secondmost expensive player in soccer history. Big things await.

21. DAVID DE GEA, SPAIN One of the best goalkeepers in the world and with a point to prove as Spain seeks redemption for 2014.

7. TONI KROOS, GERM ANY The heartbeat of the team for the defending champion and at 28, continues to get even sharper. 6.PAULO DYBAL A, ARGENTIN A Coming off a pair of big breakout seasons, he is Argentina’s great hope for the future. If he performs alongside Messi, they are a force to be reckoned with.

24. DRIES MERTENS, BELGIUM He is 5-7 and 140 pounds of lightning pace and constant energy, with a knack of finding the perfect pass.

22. M ARCELO, BRAZIL Ridiculous amounts of skill for a leftback and adds an extra dimension to Brazil with devastating forward runs.

9. N’GOLO KANTE, FRANCE The best defensive midfielder in the world and crucial to France’s hopes of contending for the title.

12. H ARRY KANE, ENGL AND Heavy scorer and full of confidence after an excellent campaign with Tottenham. Shoulders England’s hopes. 11. LUIS SUAREZ, URUGUAY Sanctioned for biting at the last World Cup, but still one of the most dynamic forces in the business. 10. LUKA MODRIC, CROATI A Holds the key for Croatia, a brilliant

3. MOH AMED SAL AH, EGYPT Coming off a sensational season for Liverpool, and full of energy and enterprise. A joy to watch. An unfortunate injury in the Champions League Final, reports he will only miss 1 match. 2. CRISTI ANO RON ALDO, PORTUGAL Still superb at 33 and hungry for a World Cup title to add to Portugal’s Euro 2016 success. The Great Man just knows how to win trophies. Enough said. 1. LIONEL MESSI, ARGENTIN A Unstoppable for most opponents, but still waiting for an elusive major trophy with Argentina.


L A FIN D N A ST

S D N E G E L F O E S P M I L G T S LA


SO OFTEN, WHEN CAUGHT UP IN THE FEVER OF A FIFA WORLD CUP, YOU DON’T GET A CHANCE TO TAKE A STEP BACK AND CONSIDER WHAT YOU’RE SEEING. SOME PLAYERS WE WILL HAVE SPENT HOURS OF OUR LIVES WITH, WATCHING THEM AT WORK, ENTERTAINING FANS AROUND THE WORLD. HOWEVER, ALL GOOD THINGS MUST COME TO AN END. AHEAD OF THE 2018 EDITION, WE EMBRACE FOUR PLAYERS WHO HAVE LEFT AN INDELIBLE MARK ON THE WORLD CUP AND WILL BE TAKING THEIR FINAL BOW ON THE GLOBAL STAGE IN RUSSIA.

ANDRES INIESTA, 34 SPAIN “He’s the most talented Spanish player of all time.” Xavi, exBarcelona and Spain team-mate. 10:37pm local time, Soccer City, Johannesburg. This was when Iniesta’s prominent place in World Cup history was secured forever. While future generations may well remember him most for his extratime volley against the Netherlands, he is rightly regarded as a player who could turn the game into an interpretive art performance. Having earned his Spain debut just a fortnight before Germany 2006 kicked off, he has been a central figure ever since. Now, after playing his final game for Barcelona to end a two-decade long association, he is set to pull on the national team shirt for the last time, It will cap an emotional couple of months for El Ilusionista (The Illusionist). WORLD CUP DEBUT: Saudi Arabia 0-1 Spain, 23 June 2006 TOURN AMENTS: 2006, 2010, 2014 APPEARANCES SO FAR: 10 MEMORABLE WORLD CUP MOMENT: Scoring the goal that won the Final at South Africa 2010.

RAFAEL M ARQUEZ, 39 MEXICO “I don’t think there are enough words to describe what he represents to all Mexican players. If I have to give him my spot, I’d let him have it.”Carlos Vela, Mexico team-mate. Having retired from club football in April, bowing out at Atlas where he began his professional career 22 years ago, Russia 2018 will truly be the final chance to enjoy the man known as El Kaiser. Marquez will equal the all-time record of appearing at five World Cups should he play, matching compatriot Antonio Carbajal and Germany’s Lothar Matthaus. In truth, he could have been setting a new record, having already made his debut in 1997, only to miss out on France 1998 as a 19-year-old. However, when he did belatedly make his arrival he was sporting the captain’s armband at Korea/Japan 2002, leading him to become the first player to skipper his team at four consecutive World Cups. WORLD CUP DEBUT: Mexico 1-0 Croatia, 3 June 2002 TOURN AMENTS: 2002, 2006, 2010, 2014 APPEARANCES SO FAR: 16 MEMORABLE WORLD CUP MOMENT: Scoring the equaliser in the opening game of South Africa 2010.

JAVIER M ASCHERANO, 33 ARGENTIN A “Javier is one of the most intelligent players I’ve ever seen in my career.” Pep Guardiola, former coach at Barcelona. While some people may overlook the value of Mascherano, the fact that he has played every minute of Argentina’s last three World Cups proves that, inside La Albiceleste’s camp, he has never been taken for granted. Prior to coaching them in South Africa, Diego Maradona

described Argentina as “Mascherano and ten more”, later making the defensive midfielder his captain. Coming so close to taking the title four years ago, before being beaten in extra-time by Mario Gotze’s winner for Germany, will no doubt always feel like a missed opportunity. However, he has one last chance to live out his dream with Argentina in Russia. World Cup debut: Argentina 2-1 Cote d’Ivoire, 10 June 2006 Tournaments: 2006, 2010, 2014 Appearances so far: 16 Memorable World Cup moment: His 90th-minute tackle to deny Arjen Robben a winning goal in the Brazil 2014 semi-final.

TIM CAHILL, 38 AUSTRALI A “Timmy was Timmy, that’s why he’s the greatest ever.” Ange Postecoglou, former coach after Cahill sent the Socceroos to their Russia 2018 intercontinental play-off. The only consistent figure across Australia’s modern World Cup era, Cahill wasted little time in making himself a hero, earning them their first ever win at the global finals with a late brace against Japan in their first game of Germany 2006. The Socceroos have never won without him on the scoresheet. He has five goals to his name so far, with his strike against Chile in Brazil 2014 making him the first Australian to score in three World Cups. He could also add to his accolade as the nation’s top scorer by becoming their record caps-holder in Russia. WORLD CUP DEBUT: Australia 3-1 Japan, 12 June 2006 TOURN AMENTS: 2006, 2010, 2014 APPEARANCES SO FAR: 8 MEMORABLE WORLD CUP MOMENT: His thunderous volley against the Netherlands at Brazil 2014.


USA DEVASTATION & WHAT IT MEANS FOR AMERICAN SOCCER

The U.S. Men's Soccer Team failed to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1986. The stunning result brings to an end two disappointing years of qualifying matches for the United States, and reactions to those results could significantly change soccer in America. World Cup qualifying is split into regions; the U.S. plays in CONCACAF, the soccer body covering North and Central America. Its qualifying tournament often is described as "forgiving," as it stacks the odds heavily in favor of stronger teams, including the U.S. and Mexico. Even after one of the worst qualifying cycles in recent history, Bookmakers measured the U.S. odds to qualify for the World Cup in Russia at 97 percent. But a 2-1 loss to Trinidad and Tobago, combined with upset wins by Honduras and Panama, meant the only scenario that could outright eliminate the U.S. became a reality. Now, the country's soccer program must figure out how to rebuild and qualify for the World Cup in Qatar four long years away. The impact of failing to qualify Financially, U.S. Soccer will miss out on at least $10 million in prize money awarded to each country at the World Cup. They're also likely to lose tens of millions of dollars in potential sponsorship deals, merchandise sales and television licenses. U.S. Soccer brought in about $100 million total in 2014, the

year of the most recent World Cup. That would put a significant dent in the organization's revenue, and potentially set back the country's next generation of soccer talent. The United States team wandered aimlessly for 40 years between the World Cups of 1950 and 1990, and have been trying to catch up to the top European and South American countries ever since. A key part of that effort is the fledgling U.S. development academy system. About a quarter of U.S. National Team expenses are spent on the country's youth national teams and player development, around $22 million in 2016. A budget crunch could limit the growth of that program. The failure to qualify for the World Cup also could influence perception of U.S. Soccer around the globe. The United States team may find it more difficult to schedule exhibition matches, and larger international clubs where U.S. players already are few and far between may be less willing to sign Americans. Meanwhile, dual-citizen players, who must choose one country to represent, may be less likely to follow the lead of phenom Christian Pulisic who also has Croatian citizenship and picked the United States. And most importantly younger American athletes may not be inspired to take up soccer in the first place if their country isn't represented at the world's biggest tournament. The excitement level is non existent.

U.S. Soccer will also miss its best opportunity to showcase the sport for potential new fans, which could hinder its growth moving forward. In 2014, about 20 million more Americans watched World Cup games featuring the United States than similar games without them. Next year, none of the games will feature the U.S. and unlike the games from the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, the 2018 matches won't be broadcast in prime time. In addition, the 2014 World Cup Final between Germany and Argentina reached a record number of Americans. Without the boost of the U.S. in the tournament, the 2018 Final may be unable to replicate those ratings. That's all bad news for Fox Sports, which outbid ESPN for the broadcasting rights and will pay $425 million to air next two World Cups. The network already had scheduled more than 350 hours of World Cup-related programming. For now US soccer is left in the wind, I don't feel at all bad for Fox Sports who failed to program the final qualifying game on national TV or even advertise it. I think the general aura surrounded by the sport is summed up by that, instead of being a weekly fixture its fixated on only at World Cup time. Thus the MLS continues to be the retirement cash out league and the cycle and culture of US soccer sadly remains the same.


GROUP A URUGUAY

1.80

RUSSI A

2.60

EGYPT

6.50

SAUDI ARABI A

34.00

GROUP B SPAIN

1.50

PORTUGAL

3.00

MOROCCO

17.00

IRAN

21.00

GROUP C FRANCE

1.29

DENM ARK

5.50

PERU

10.00

AUSTRALI A

19.00

GROUP D ARGENTIN A

1.57

CROATI A

3.40

ICEL AND

11.00

NIGERI A

11.00


THE 2018 WORLD CUP MIGHT BE MISSING SOME BIG N ATIONS, NOTABLE ITALY AND THE UNITED STATES BUT TH AT'S WH AT M AKES THIS TOURN AMENT THE BEST IN SPORTS. BRAZIL ARE LOOKING TO BOUNCE BACK FROM A SHOCKER IN 2014, WHILE SPAIN, ARGENTIN A AND FRANCE ARE HOPING TO DE THRONE DEFENDING CH AMPIONS GERM ANY AND THEIR T YPICALLY DEEP SQUAD. CAN BELGIUM OR PORTUGAL M AKE AN IMPACT? DO ENGL AND H AVE WH AT IT TAKES TO CH ALLENGE TOO? SPORTSBE T M AGAZINE H AS PREVIEWED EVERY TEAM AHEAD OF THE OPENING KICKOFF, DIVING THROUGH DATA TO BRING YOU THE BEST POSSIBLE GUIDE TO RUSSI A. HERE'S WH AT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THE 32 TEAMS SE T TO DO BAT TLE IN RUSSI A BEGINNING ON JUNE 14.

GROUP E BRAZIL

1.25

SWITZERL AND

7.50

SERBI A

8.00

COSTA RICA

21.00

GROUP F GERM ANY

1.40

MEXICO

6.00

SWEDEN

7.00

SOUTH KOREA

13.00

GROUP G BELGIUM

1.80

ENGL AND

2.25

TUNISI A

15.00

PAN AM A

29.00

GROUP H COLOMBI A

2.38

POL AND

2.75

SENEGAL

5.00

JAPAN

8.00


TO WIN THE WORLD CUP BRAZIL

5.50

SWITZERL AND

101.00

GERM ANY

5.50

SENEGAL

126.00

FRANCE

7.00

EGYPT

151.00

SPAIN

7.00

ICEL AND

151.00

ARGENTIN A

10.00

JAPAN

151.00

BELGIUM

11.00

NIGERI A

151.00

ENGL AND

15.00

PERU

151.00

PORTUGAL

26.00

SERBI A

151.00

URUGUAY

26.00

AUSTRALI A

251.00

COLOMBI A

34.00

COSTA RICA

251.00

CROATI A

34.00

MOROCCO

251.00

POL AND

41.00

SOUTH KOREA

251.00

RUSSI A

41.00

IRAN

501.00

DENM ARK

81.00

TUNISI A

501.00

MEXICO

81.00

PAN AM A

1001.00

SWEDEN

81.00

SAUDI ARABI A

1001.00

WINNING GROUP GROUP B

5

GROUP E

5

GROUP F

5

GROUP C

6.5

GROUP G

7

GROUP D

8

GROUP A

15

GROUP H

21


TOP GOALSCORER LIONEL MESSI

10

EDEN H AZ ARD

34

NEYM AR

10

GONZ ALO HIGUAIN

34

CRISTI ANO RON ALDO

11

DRIES MERTENS

34

ANTOINE GRIEZM ANN

13

PAULO DYBAL A

41

GABRIEL JESUS

13

PHILIPPE COUTINHO

41

TIMO WERNER

15

MOH AMED SAL AH

41

ROMELU LUKAKU

17

RADAMEL FALCAO

51

H ARRY KANE

17

ANDRE SILVA

51

THOM AS MULLER

21

YUYA OSAKO

51

SERGIO AGUERO

26

ISCO

51

LUIS SUAREZ

26

LEROY SANE

51

OLIVIER GIROUD

26

RODRIGO MORENO

51

EDINSON CAVANI

26

WILLI AN

67

ROBERT LEWANDOWSKI

26

DELE ALLI

67

DIEGO COSTA

26

DAVID SILVA

67

KYLI AN MBAPPE

34

JAMES RODRIGUEZ

67

THE WINNER & TOP GOALSCORER DOUBLE NEYM AR AND BRAZIL

21

FIRMINO AND BRAZIL

151

GABRIEL JESUS AND BRAZIL

26

GIROUD AND FRANCE

151

MESSI AND ARGENTIN A

26

H AZ ARD AND BELGIUM

151

GRIEZM ANN AND FRANCE

34

MBAPPE AND FRANCE

151

WERNER AND GERM ANY

34

SANE AND GERM ANY

151

KANE AND ENGL AND

51

SMOLOV AND RUSSI A

151

LUKAKU AND BELGIUM

51

SUAREZ AND URUGUAY

151

COSTA AND SPAIN

67

CAVANI AND URUGUAY

201

MULLER AND GERM ANY

67

J RODRIGUEZ AND COLOMBI A

201

RON ALDO AND PORTUGAL

81

LEWANDOWSKI AND POL AND

201

FALCAO AND COLOMBI A

151

STERLING AND ENGL AND

201


GROUP A BETTING

GROUP WINNER

QUALIFY FROM GROUP

TO WIN THE WORLD CUP

URUGUAY

1.80

URUGUAY

1.15

URUGUAY

26.00

RUSSI A

2.80

RUSSI A

1.33

RUSSI A

41.00

EGYPT

6.50

EGYPT

2.50

EGYPT

151.00

SAUDI ARABI A

41.00

SAUDI ARABI A

8.00

SAUDI ARABI A

1001.00

ODDS COURTESY OF @SPORTSBETMAGAZINE WWW.SPORTSBETMAGAZINE.COM TO BET NOW


RUSSIA CAPTAIN: IGOR AKINFEEV M AN AGER: STANISL AV CHERCHESOV NICKN AME: SBORN AYA FIFA RANK: 66 HOW THEY QUALIFIED: HOSTS PREFERRED SYSTEM: 3-5-2 STAR PL AYER: IGOR AKINFEEV (CSKA MOSCOW) ONE TO WATCH: ALEKSANDR GOLOVIN (CSKA MOSCOW)

Stanislav 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. The biggest talking point has been the exclusion of Igor Denisov, who is arguably the best defensive midfielder but fell out with Cherchesov at Dynamo Moscow. 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.

ROAD TO RUSSI A Winning the right to host the World Cup may have been the only way this team, arguably the poorest in the history of Russian football, would get a chance to play at this tournament. The 2017 Confederations Cup at home, therefore, acted as the only real test for Russia, who stopped at a group stage after beating New Zealand but losing to Portugal and Mexico. In total, Russia have played 19 matches since Euro 2016 and won just six (against Ghana, Romania, Hungary, New Zealand, Dinamo Moscow and Korea Republic). They haven’t won since October 2017, and conceded 10 goals in four friendlies against Argentina, Spain, Brazil and France.

STRENGTH Igor Akinfeev can still do wonders between the sticks, and a triangle of Alan Dzagoev, Aleksandr Golovin and Fedor Smolov could produce something non-trivial in attack.


Besides, Cherchesov has been trying to make his team work hard, pressing with quick transitions between defense and attack.

WEAKNESS Defence has been considered the weak link of the Russian national team for many years. When the CSKA trio of Sergey Ignashevich and the Berezutski brothers (who are still considered the best despite being 38 and 35 years old, respectively) decided to quit international football, things only got worse. After his appointment, Cherchesov started playing five at the back, but since the start of 2018 he’s lost two of the regular three centre-backs (Viktor Vasin and Georgi Dzhikiya) to long-term injuries. The coach had to start looking for new partnerships all over again, but six conceded goals and a huge amount of goal-scoring opportunities for opponents in this year’s two friendlies show that it hasn’t been an easy task.

STAR PL AYER Fedor Smolov is probably the biggest Russian star at the moment. The 28-year-old striker took a while to transform from a talent to becoming the country’s main striker. Giving up on the posh life and breaking up with a former model (Viktoriya Lopyreva, who’s now one of the official World Cup ambassadors) coincided with his rise. He became the top Russian Premier League scorer in two successive seasons (20 goals in 2015-16, 18 goals in 2016-17) with FC Krasnodar, and he’s currently on par with Spartak’s Quincy Promes (14 goals scored each) in the hunt for a third straight golden boot in Russia. The skillful striker, who’s equally good at finishing and passing, has a dream to play for one of Europe’s big clubs and may use the World Cup to convince them to take a gamble on him.

PREDICTION Russia were extremely lucky with

the draw. So even arguably the poorest team in the country’s history could still qualify for the knockout stages, which will be a first for Russia. Assuming the hosts beat Saudi Arabia in the tournament opener, much will depend on the next match against Egypt (and if Mo Salah’s can play) and the motivation (or lack of it, if they’ve already qualified by that time) that Uruguay will have in the last group match. If Russia do manage to reach last 16, playing Spain, Portugal or even Iran (Russia were lucky to avoid defeat from them in last October’s home friendly) would likely be their last game of the tournament.


SAUDI ARABIA CAPTAIN: OSAM A H AWSAWI M AN AGER: JUAN ANTONIO PIZZI NICKN AME: THE GREEN FALCONS FIFA RANK: 70 HOW THEY QUALIFIED: SECOND IN ASI AN GROUP B (ROUND THREE) BEHIND JAPAN PREFERRED SYSTEM: 4-3-3 (IN QUALIFICATION THOUGH NEW COACH M AY CH ANGE) STAR PL AYER: N AWAF AL ABED (AL-HIL AL) ONE TO WATCH: FAH AD AL-MUWALL AD (ALIT TIH AD)

Saudi Arabia may be the lowestranked 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. His squad has some talent but lack international experience.

ROAD TO RUSSI A Saudi Arabia secured their place at the World Cup finals for the first

time since 2006 with a second-place finish in their AFC qualifying group behind Japan. A 1-0 win over the already qualified Japanese in their final group match, courtesy of Fahad Al Muwallad’s second-half goal, saw Saudi Arabia finish ahead of Australia on goal difference.

STRENGTH While Saudi Arabia are on their third coach in less than a year, the squad is built on a solid core of players. Drawn mainly from Saudi Premier League champions Al Hilal and runners-up Al Ahli, the key players know each other well, and that cohesion is unlikely to be disrupted despite the decision to send a group that included Yahya Al Shehri, Salem Al Dawsari and Fahad Al Muwallad, on loan to clubs in Spain in January. The move hasn’t worked with Al Muwallad and Al Dawsari the only ones who got minutes, with a lone substitute appearance each but the spirit in the squad should see the players overcome some of these issues.


WEAKNESS A lack of experience at the highest level is one of several problems facing Saudi Arabia as they embark on their first trip to the World Cup finals in 12 years. None of the most likely contenders for Juan Antonio Pizzi’s side have played in a World Cup, and the country has a poor record in continental tournament play in recent years, failing to advance far at the Asian Cup in 2011 and 2015. Other issues include Pizzi’s lack of preparation time with the squad; the Argentina-born coach was appointed only in November, leaving both tactician and players a little more than six months to work together ahead of Russia.

STAR PL AYER Yahya Al Shehri has established himself as the star playmaker for a Saudi Arabia side that has a relatively settled feel and that played at a level beyond the sum of its parts to qualify for Russia. Al Shehri is often given a licence

to roam from his position behind striker Mohammed Al Sahlawi, and it is from deep that he can cause the most problems as he slips into positions where he can turn and face the opposition. The 27-year-old has spent much of his professional career with Riyadh-based Al Nassr, although he was sent on loan to Leganes in Spain in January, where his lack of playing time in La Liga could have a huge impact on his fitness going into the World Cup.

PREDICTION It has been a long time since Saudi Arabia made fans sit up and take notice at a World Cup, and it is unlikely Pizzi’s team will earn many plaudits when they take to the field in Russia. While the group they have been handed is far from difficult, Saudi Arabia’s lack of quality and experience in top-class tournament play makes it unlikely they will progress beyond the group. They will at least have the honour of becoming the first Asian nation ever to play in the opening game when

they take on Russia in Moscow on June 14, and their meeting with the hosts arguably represents their best hope to take something from the competition.


EGYPT CAPTAIN: ESSAM EL H ADARY M AN AGER: HECTOR CUPER NICKN AME: THE PH ARAOHS FIFA RANK: 46 HOW THEY QUALIFIED: WINNERS OF AFRICAN GROUP E (ROUND THREE) AHEAD OF UGANDA PREFERRED SYSTEM: 4-2-3-1 STAR PL AYER: MOH AMED SAL AH (LIVERPOOL) ONE TO WATCH: M AHMOUD H ASSAN “TRÉZÉGUE T” (KASIMPAŞA, ON LOAN FROM ANDERLECHT)

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. 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. 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 he can be fully fit 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.

ROAD TO RUSSI A Egypt capitalised as Ghana lost

their way, first under Avram Grant and then under Kwesi Appiah, to establish a five-point lead over the Black Stars after their first two matches. They weren’t made to pay for a shock defeat away in Kampala against Uganda in August, as Ghana failed to beat Congo-Brazzaville at home, and then took a major step toward the finals when Mohamed Salah settled the return clash in Alexandria. The Liverpool superstar was again the hero in their penultimate group game against Congo, when he stepped up to convert a 94thminute penalty after Arnold Bouka Moutou had cancelled out his 63rdminute opener. It was a nerveless finish by the “Egyptian Messi” that took Egypt to their first World Cup since 1990 and prompted scenes of jubilation across the North African nation.


STRENGTH There aren’t too many players in world football today who are in better form than Salah, as the forward’s stock has been transformed since returning to the Premier League with Liverpool this season. If he is fully fit after a shoulder injury, with the solid defence anything is possible. Egypt’s group stage opponents are likely to struggle to silence Salah, while his momentum could help the Pharaohs topple a heavyweight or two as the tournament progresses.

WEAKNESS Beyond Salah, Egypt are limited and you can expect accusations of the Pharaohs being a one-man team to persist throughout the summer. If the Liverpool man is neutralised by opponents, they can lack a Plan B while, too often, Cuper’s conservative approach means that the team can struggle to shift gears. If things don’t go their way early in matches, or if they fall behind, the Pharaohs are

in danger of running out of ideas. Mohamed Elneny’s injury concerns also threaten to deny them a forceful personality and a valuable midfield presence.

STAR PL AYER All eyes will be on Salah this summer, and unsurprisingly so. There haven’t been many African players in history who could match his output and contribution in the Premier League this term, and a strong tournament may see him end Africa’s wait for a second Ballon d’Or winner. Of course, Egypt don’t attack teams in the same way as Liverpool, but the responsibility of playing for his nation can bring the best out of Salah, too -- as he demonstrated by topping Africa’s scoring charts during qualification. However, an injury to Salah in the Champions league final cast major doubt over Egypts World Cup campaign, early signs are he will only miss the opener but its a less than ideal situation for Salah and the Pharaohs.

PREDICTION Egypt will be delighted with their group stage draw, and even if they begin their campaign with a tough assignment against Uruguay, it shouldn’t be too long before they get their first World Cup win. Russia and Saudi Arabia are the two lowest-ranked teams in the tournament, and while the former will be keen to leverage their home advantage, it’s hard to see how either will have an answer to Salah. If the forward can summon up the inspiration that has accompanied him through his campaign with Liverpool, then Egypt could trouble either Portugal or Spain in the round of 16, but progress beyond that would represent a remarkable achievement. It all remains to be seen as the fitness doubt over the injury of Salah is assessed.


URUGUAY CAPTAIN: DIEGO GODIN M AN AGER: OSCAR TABAREZ NICKN AME: L A CELESTE FIFA RANK: 17 HOW THEY QUALIFIED: SECOND IN THE SOUTH AMERICAN SECTION BEHIND BRAZIL PREFERRED SYSTEM: 4-4-2 STAR PL AYER: LUIS SUÁREZ (BARCELON A) ONE TO WATCH: FEDERICO VALVERDE (DEPORTIVO L A CORUÑ A, ON LOAN FROM REAL M ADRID)

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, recent friendlies ended with a 0-0 draw against Poland and a 2-1 defeat against Austria, so expect some tinkering before the World Cup.

ROAD TO RUSSI A Uruguay finished second in the CONMEBOL qualifiers and had a great tournament despite Luis

Suarez’ absence from their first four matches and Edinson Cavani’s absence in the first two.

STRENGTH Uruguay’s defensive intensity and ability to capitalize on the moments in which they manage to dominate their opponents have been their main virtues. They can rely on the strength of their backs, Diego Godin and Jose Maria Gimenez, who play together at Atletico Madrid. Uruguay’s squad has also been revamped up the middle with young and intense players and have a devastating attack featuring one of the world’s best duos in Suarez and Edinson Cavani.

WEAKNESS The overhaul in the middle has changed their play and the friendlies available to put this into practice have been limited. The intensity of the team is another point of concern. If Uruguay don’t play to the maximum, they become vulnerable.


STAR PL AYER Suarez, Godin and Cavani are the stars of the team. The defender holds the last line together while the forwards make up a fearsome offensive pair. One of them shines at Barcelona, the other one at PSG, and they complement each other wonderfully. Suarez has scored 50 goals in 97 matches and Cavani has scored 42 in 100. They both lead the national team in scoring.

PREDICTION Uruguay will get to Russia with an interesting mixture of experience and youth. Godin, Caceres, Suarez and Cavani are in excellent shape and they can count on sufficient depth in midfield. Winning the group will be key in order to start dreaming about the semifinals.

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GROUP B BETTING

GROUP WINNER

QUALIFY FROM GROUP

TO WIN THE WORLD CUP

SPAIN

1.50

SPAIN

1.05

SPAIN

7.00

PORTUGAL

3.00

PORTUGAL

1.20

PORTUGAL

26.00

MOROCCO

17.00

MOROCCO

4.20

MOROCCO

251.00

IRAN

34.00

IRAN

7.00

IRAN

500.00

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SPAIN CAPTAIN: SERGIO RAMOS M AN AGER: JULEN LOPE TEGUI NICKN AME: L A ROJA FIFA RANK: 8 HOW THEY QUALIFIED: WINNERS OF EUROPEAN GROUP G AHEAD OF ITALY PREFERRED SYSTEM: 4-51 STAR PL AYER: DAVID SILVA (M ANCHESTER CIT Y) ONE TO WATCH: ISCO (REAL M ADRID)

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. 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. 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.

ROAD TO RUSSI A Spain sailed through qualifying in Europe’s Group G, winning nine and drawing one of their 10 games while

scoring 36 goals and conceding just three. Lopetegui also used the matches to blend new players, including Real Madrid’s Marco Asensio and Atletico Madrid’s Saul Niguez, with the experienced core he inherited two years ago from predecessor Vicente Del Bosque. The standout performance was in the clash with Italy in September at the Bernabeu, where Madrid’s Isco scored twice in a comprehensive 3-0 victory.

STRENGTH Spain’s biggest strength throughout their 2008-12 glory years was a possession-based style that saw them able to dominate games and international tournaments in a way never seen before. Lopetegui has adopted that style to current conditions, renewing their vigour at pressing to regain the ball immediately when they lose it, but his team’s chances of success in Russia will still be determined by whether they can again use


possession to wear down opponents. Veteran midfielders Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta and David Silva will be key to this approach once more, and their experiences (both positive and negative) in previous tournaments should also be very useful in Russia.

WEAKNESS Spain’s biggest problem through more recent disappointments has been a inability to turn all that dominance of territory and possession into goals. Lopetegui’s side are almost sure to have the majority of the ball in all their games in Russia but must make that advantage count. The ongoing lack of a confirmed first-choice centre-forward remains their biggest issue ahead of the tournament. Diego Costa, Alvaro Morata, Rodrigo Moreno and Iago Aspas have all played as the team’s reference point in attack but all have questions over their suitability for the role. Marco Asensio was also

tried as a “false nine,” something that could be repeated in the summer.

STAR PL AYER Now 34, Andres Iniesta remains the leader in the Spain midfield, with Lopetegui trusting him as the successor to former teammate Xavi Hernandez as the team’s main string-puller. The scorer of the winning goal at the 2010 tournament, Iniesta’s ability to control the pace and shape of a game was seen again during a star showing as his club Barcelona won the 2018 Copa del Rey final in April. This is also sure to be a final international tournament for “Don Andres,” who will likely not play every single minute, but whose influence on and off the pitch will still be huge.

PREDICTION The 3-0 victory over Italy in qualifying convinced fans and pundits that Spain were “back” and had a real chance of going all the

way this year. Lopetegui’s squad has at least as much talent and experience as any other country at the tournament, and if they do click, then they can potentially play at a level above all their potential opponents, including Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal in the group and possibly Argentina in the quarterfinals and defending champions Germany in the semis. It has been a roller coaster for La Roja over the past decade, but they seem ready to peak again and send Iniesta, Ramos, Pique & Co. into international retirement with another winners’ medal.


PORTUGAL CAPTAIN: CRISTI ANO RON ALDO M AN AGER: FERN ANDO SANTOS NICKN AME: SELECAO FIFA RANK: 4 HOW THEY QUALIFIED: WINNERS OF EUROPEAN GROUP B AHEAD OF SWITZERL AND PREFERRED SYSTEM: 4-4-2 STAR PL AYER: CRISTI ANO RON ALDO (REAL M ADRID) ONE TO WATCH: BERN ARDO SILVA (M ANCHESTER CIT Y)

“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 supplied the team 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).

ROAD TO RUSSI A After losing the opening game of

UEFA World Cup Qualification Group B against Switzerland in Basel, Portugal won all their remaining matches to top the group and qualify automatically for Russia. After that initial setback, which Ronaldo missed through injury, Portugal scored 32 goals and conceded only two in the next nine games. Ronaldo and Andre Silva struck up a superb partnership, scoring 24 goals between them.

STRENGTH Santos has instilled an iron will to win and an enormous unity of purpose since taking over in September 2014, with the team winning 20 and losing only one of 24 competitive matches under the veteran coach. The Selecao regularly made deep runs into major tournaments in recent history, five semifinals or better in nine tournaments this century but were always seen as mentally brittle at crunch time. Not anymore. Portugal’s players have fully bought into the mantra of first


and foremost making themselves difficult to beat, with the Euro 2016 triumph strengthening their belief in this approach and fortifying the newfound winning mentality. The fierce competition for places among a talented generation has not dented an impressive togetherness within the squad.

WEAKNESS A reliance on veteran players could prove their undoing. Portugal have lost only two competitive matches since the 2014 World Cup, and both times Ronaldo was missing through injury. If the opposition manage to nullify him, the Selecao will struggle for goals. At the heart of defence, 35-yearold Pepe is arguably at least as important for Portugal’s chances of going far, the form and fitness of the centre-back crucial, especially as he will likely be partnered by either Bruno Alves (36) or Jose Fonte (34), both of whose better days are behind them. As mentioned

above, Portugal’s traditional freewheeling and flamboyant style of play has been replaced by a more defense-minded approach, meaning creativity is in short supply. Ricardo Quaresma (34), despite being mainly used off the bench by Santos, has supplied more than double the number of assists by any other Portugal player in the past four years, and is likely to be key to unlocking the opposition.

STAR PL AYER Look no further than Portugal’s greatest ever player, Cristiano Ronaldo. After a poor start to 201718, critics were lining up to write the obituaries on his extraordinary career. But since the turn of the year, the Real Madrid superstar has been unstoppable. He has obliterated the records for Portugal’s national team (148 caps, 81 goals and counting) but remains as hungry as ever to further burnish his legacy. If the Selecao are to follow up their debut tournament victory in France two years ago with something special

at this World Cup, Ronaldo will be at the heart of it. The great man just knows how to win, with countless La Liga, Champions League and Euro Trophies in hi possesion over the past few years.

PREDICTION The two times Portugal qualified for a World Cup in Europe, they reached the semifinal (England 1966 and Germany 2006), but matching that achievement appears a long shot. An over-reliance on Ronaldo and Pepe, along with the fact that too many key players have had disastrous seasons Andre Silva, Raphael Guerreiro, Adrien Silva, Joao Mario, has seen Portugal regress since winning the European Championship two years ago. They should get out of the group, and once there, a favourable matchup in the round of 16 makes a quarterfinal appearance doable, though the run will end there against France or Argentina.


MOROCCO CAPTAIN: MEDHI BEN ATI A M AN AGER: HERVE REN ARD NICKN AME: THE ATL AS LIONS FIFA RANK: 42 HOW THEY QUALIFIED: WINNERS AFRICAN GROUP C (ROUND THREE) AHEAD OF IVORY COAST PREFERRED SYSTEM: 4-5-1 STAR PL AYER: H AKIM ZIYECH (AJAX) ONE TO WATCH: SOFI ANE BOUFAL (SOUTH AMPTON)

The Atlas Lions are roaring again. 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. 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.

ROAD TO RUSSI A Despite being grouped with 2015

African champions Ivory Coast, Morocco went unbeaten during the CAF qualifying campaign and did not concede a goal across their six matches. But they started slowly, drawing three of their first four matches 0-0. The highlight of qualifying was a Hakim Ziyechinspired 6-0 demolition of Mali in September, and they secured their spot in Russia by beating Gabon 3-0 in their penultimate game.

STRENGTH Renard has demonstrated throughout his managerial career that he knows how to construct watertight defensive units, at least at the international level. The personnel at his disposal with the Atlas Lions has allowed him to build a side that concedes few goals. With Medhi Benatia in the centre of the defence, and Karim El Ahmadi protecting the back line, it will be fascinating to see how their Group B opponents try to break them down.

WEAKNESS


Earlier in Renard’s tenure, there were concerns about who could step up as the team’s goal getter, but Khalid Boutaib came good with four during qualification, including a hat trick against Gabon, and will be a handful leading the line. Twelve goals in 29 appearances in the Turkish Super Lig this season is a decent return, too. Still, at 31, Boutaib is one of several key players along with Mbark Boussoufa, Karim El Ahmadi, Nordin Amrabat, Aziz Bouhaddouz, Nabil Dirar, Manuel da Costa and Medhi Benatia on the wrong side of 30, and it will be intriguing to see how well they can chase a game against Portugal or Spain if they fall behind. The biggest concern for Morocco is a particularly tricky draw which leaves them needing to pull off at least one big upset to progress.

STAR PL AYER Hakim Ziyech appears primed for a big move this summer after another excellent season in the Eredivisie. He’s been linked with a move to the

Premier League in recent transfer windows with Everton the latest to show interest, a strong tournament should see interest in his services increase. The Ajax midfielder has made 23 decisive contributions in the Dutch top flight so far this season (nine goals, 14 assists), and his showing in Morocco’s 6-0 rout of Mali was arguably the best individual performance of any African player during the qualifying campaign.

PREDICTION Had Morocco been drawn into Group A or H, where Egypt and Senegal landed, their fans would be expecting a spot in the knockout stages, due to their superb organisation and wealth of options further forward. Had the Atlas Lions reached the final 16, then Renard’s tactical acumen and track record in knockout football could have seen them take a further scalp or two. However, after being pitted against Portugal and Spain in Group B, it’s hard to see them escaping the opening round. An opening-day win

against Iran in St. Petersburg on June 15 is surely imperative, and after that they’ll need to mastermind a victory over one of the two European heavyweights. It’s a tall order, not impossible and they will need some fortune.


IRAN CAPTAIN: ASHKAN DEJAGAH M AN AGER: CARLOS QUEIROZ NICKN AME: TEAM MELLI FIFA RANK: 36 HOW THEY QUALIFIED: WINNERS OF ASI AN GROUP A (ROUND THREE) AHEAD OF SOUTH KOREA PREFERRED SYSTEM: 4-23-1 STAR PL AYER: ALIREZ A JAH ANBAKHSH ONE TO WATCH: SAM AN GHODDOS (OSTERSUND)

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.

ROAD TO RUSSI A The road to Russia could not have been smoother and straighter for Iran, who became the second team (after Brazil) to secure a spot. All

the team had to do was finish in the top two in the third round of qualification, and it was never in doubt. Not only did they finish first and unbeaten, but Iran, now preparing for a fifth World Cup, didn’t concede a single goal until the 10th and final game after qualification had already been achieved.

STRENGTH Iran’s defence took the headlines in qualification, but what makes the difference between the team that finished bottom of their 2014 World Cup group and this version is the attacking options open to the coach Queiroz. Winger Alireza Jahanbakhsh and striker Sardar Azmoun would dribble and shoot their way into any Asian team, but there is more. Saman Ghoddos has enjoyed an excellent season in Sweden and is set for a move to a bigger league this summer, though he can’t yet be sure of a starting place. Mehdi Taremi is one of the top strikers in Asia but could be on the bench, and the same can be said for


Karim Ansarifard, the joint top scorer in the Greek league this season with a game remaining. There are others, and while Iran do like to keep things tight, their forays forward should be better possessing more quality and quantity than four years ago.

WEAKNESS Iran have been the highest-ranked Asian team for four years. That theoretical superiority has been reflected by reality for at least the past two years. The team has strength in depth, match-winners and match-savers and an excellent coach, but what it lacks is games against top-class international opposition. While qualification was impressive, Iran were not stretched enough by their continental counterparts. Preparations may be a little better than in the past, but the quality of opposition faced (Latvia, Uzbekistan and Sierra Leone) pales alongside the Belgium, Germany and Italy schedule regional rivals Saudi Arabia have lined up. The defence has been imperious in Asia but has not been tested as much as the coach

may like. On paper the results look impressive, but they haven’t beaten or even matched up against the top tier of the likes of Spain and Portugal as they will in their group stage.

STAR PL AYER Alireza Jahanbakhsh. With one game of the Dutch Eredivisie season remaining, the winger -- that’s right, the winger -- is the top scorer in the league. With 18 goals and a whole host of assists, the 24-year-old has been one of the top performers in Europe this season. In 2014, Team Melli defended with diligence and discipline at the 2014 World Cup but just managed a single goal in 270 minutes of football. There are more offensive weapons at Queiroz’s disposal now with the AZ Alkmaar attacker in excellent form (though pastures new are surely just around the corner). He’s fast and direct, and with confidence sky-high, he’s ready to shoot powerfully from anywhere. The most exciting thought is that there are other dangers such as Azmoun for defenders to worry about, which gives Jahanbakhsh

the freedom to do what he does best: cause havoc.

PREDICTION After an almost perfect qualification campaign and a feeling that things were really coming together to make a first knockout-stage appearance a real possibility, the draw was cruel. But if any Asian team can get out of it, it is Iran. Morocco will be far from easy, but three points from the opening game puts Team Melli within touching distance. There is no doubt Iran are capable of getting a result against Spain and/or Portugal, and it is fair to say Queiroz, former coach of Real Madrid and Portugal, is going to know more about the opposition than vice-versa. Given the draw, as well as Iran’s past history in the tournament, there are no demands to finish in the top two. Being in the mix for the final game would be acceptable, and their statistic of just one win in 12 previous World Cup matches really needs to be improved. Yet if Iran can make it out of the group, there is no reason why they could not go a little further.


GROUP C BETTING

GROUP WINNER

QUALIFY FROM GROUP

TO WIN THE WORLD CUP

FRANCE

1.25

FRANCE

1.03

FRANCE

7.00

DENM ARK

5.50

DENM ARK

1.50

DENM ARK

81.00

PERU

11.00

PERU

3.25

PERU

151.00

AUSTRALI A

19.00

AUSTRALI A

4.50

AUSTRALI A

250.00

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FRANCE CAPTAIN: HUGO LLORIS M AN AGER: DIDIER DESCH AMPS NICKN AME: LES BLEUS FIFA RANK: 7 HOW THEY QUALIFIED: WINNERS OF EUROPEAN GROUP B AHEAD OF SWEDEN PREFERRED SYSTEM: 4-4-2 OR 4-3-3 STAR PL AYER: ANTOINE GRIEZM ANN (ATLÉ TICO M ADRID) ONE TO WATCH: KYLI AN MBAPPÉ (PARIS STGERM AIN)

Manger Didier Deschamps quotes “We are not at the same level as Germany, Spain and Brazil just yet”. “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. 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 with the injury to Manchester City’s Benjamin Mendy.

ROAD TO RUSSI A The French team topped Europe’s Group B, which featured Netherlands and Sweden, but

qualification was closer than expected. Deschamps’ men finished four points ahead of both the Dutch and the Swedes, losing to Janne Andersson’s side away and also dropping points against Belarus and Luxembourg. A maximum points haul was not expected, but it was feasible, so the loss in Sweden and the home draw with Luxembourg was disappointing.

STRENGTH France boast an abundance of young talent and strength (not to mention quality) in depth that almost every other nation can only dream of. With the exception of a few select positions, notably left-back and right-back, Deschamps has an enviable array of proven star quality or exceptional promise to choose from. The 1998 World Cup and 2000 European Championship-winning captain is going to have a stronger headache than most in deciding who to leave behind this summer.


WEAKNESS Les Bleus have started to believe their own hype, and as history will attest, that is not a good thing. Back in 2013, France rode the crest of a wave of national unity as the nation fell back in love with their footballers after a lengthy period of turmoil to reach the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. That “feel-good” factor carried over into Euro 2016 on home soil but has since worn off. Deschamps, who has had his contract renewed until 2020, has come in for criticism for not getting better out of this squad, while big stars like Manchester United’s Paul Pogba have been accused of not doing enough for the team. This summer in Russia will be critical for the current French generation.

STAR PL AYER Despite boasting the likes of Pogba and Paris Saint-Germain’s Kylian Mbappe, Atletico Madrid’s Antoine Griezmann remains France’s talisman. However, Griezmann is

not immune to the issues currently ailing Deschamps’ squad, and his return of four goals from 10 qualification appearances reflected the nation’s bumpy road to Russia. Griezmann had a solid year for Athletico leading them to victory in the Europa Final.

PREDICTION France should top Group C ahead of Australia, Denmark and Peru but find things harder in the latter stages. Argentina, Croatia, Iceland and Nigeria are all possibilities in the round of 16, while Portugal, Spain, Russia, Uruguay and Egypt could all follow in the quarterfinals. Les Bleus will probably reach the last eight, but going further than that will require a significant change in attitude. Perhaps the the tournament will bring exactly that, making the semifinals a distinct possibility. I have them meeting and beating Portugal if they live up to their reputation then going onto the semi finals against Brazil, where there defensive unit will be exposed.

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DENMARK CAPTAIN: SIMON KJAER M AN AGER: AGE H AREIDE NICKN AME: DE ROD-HVIDE (THE RED AND WHITE) FIFA RANK: 12 HOW THEY QUALIFIED: SECOND IN EUROPEAN GROUP E BEHIND POL AND, THEN PL AYOFF WIN AGAINST REPUBLIC OF IREL AND PREFERRED SYSTEM: 4-3-3 STAR PL AYER: CHRISTI AN ERIKSEN (TOT TENH AM HOTSPUR) ONE TO WATCH: THOM AS DEL ANEY (WERDER BREMEN)

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 boxto-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.

ROAD TO RUSSI A Hareide’s side finished five points behind Group E winners Poland, meaning victory in a playoff with the Republic of Ireland was required to send them to Russia. They had mixed cause for optimism: A home defeat to Montenegro had boded ill early in the qualifying campaign, but it was followed last September by a resounding 4-0 win over the Poles. In the playoff, Denmark took the latter course against Ireland. A goalless draw in Copenhagen left all to play for in the second leg, where they proceeded to stun a fervent Dublin crowd by winning 5-1. Few could have seen that coming after Shane Duffy scored early on for the hosts, but Denmark’s recovery, led by a thrilling Christian Eriksen hat trick, was remarkable and sent them to the World Cup on an unexpected high.

STRENGTH Denmark are powerful, organised and relatively direct, using the height of the 6-foot-3 Nicolai


Jorgensen up front to good advantage and sometimes fielding Andreas Cornelius, who stands at 6-foot-4, wide on the right. There is plenty of size and strength elsewhere in the team, with 6-footers Thomas Delaney and William Kvist an industrious pair in central midfield, while captain Simon Kjaer, of Sevilla, is a hugely experienced centre-back. In 12 qualifying games, including the playoffs, they conceded only nine goals. Yet they are hardly a team of long ball merchants and perhaps their greatest quality is the way in which they can mix things up: They have fine technical players such as Eriksen and winger Pione Sisto and are just as capable of prising teams open on the ground.

WEAKNESS There are obvious issues at full-back, where Hareide is struggling to settle on a convincing pairing. The leftback spot is a particular concern: Jens Stryger Larsen of Udinese operated there during the playoffs

in the absence of Riza Durmisi, who was injured, but Nicolai Boilesen is also an option, and Ipswich’s Jonas Knudsen was given the shirt in March’s goalless draw with Chile. There is no stand-out contender for the role, and there is a dilemma at right-back, too. Andreas Christensen filled in during the second leg against Ireland to good effect but is a central defender by trade, and there is a risk Hareide may try too hard to shoehorn him in. Stryger Larsen could move to his favoured position, while Peter Ankersen and Henrik Dalsgaard are also tried-and-tested options, but the solution is not yet clear. Another common gripe is that Kvist and Delaney are not a combination given to moving the ball smoothly enough between defence and attack.

STAR PL AYER Christian Eriksen is the man who lifts Denmark above the mean. He is one of the best playmakers in world football and the man who will be relied on heavily if they are to advance far this summer. He

operates in the No. 10 position for Hareide and was near-unstoppable in the qualifiers, scoring eight times even before that unforgettable occasion in Dublin. Hareide called him “an inspiration to those around him, a world-class player” after his hat trick, and it is true that when Eriksen is on song, Denmark invariably are, too. While the emergence of Sisto the 23-year-old Celta Vigo player is a fine talent and scored the winner against Panama in March is welcome, there is nobody else who can don Eriksen’s mantle right now.

PREDICTION Group C might be more open than it looks with France vulnerable, but Denmark are likely to battle it out with Peru for second place. Their experience and Eriksen should be enough to see them through, but it is hard to see them going beyond the last 16. I keep coming back to Eriksen and Tottenham, who haven’t had the quality to win a trophy with Kane, Alli and the mentioned.


AUSTRALIA CAPTAIN: MILE JEDIN AK M AN AGER: BERT VAN M ARWIJK NICKN AME: SOCCEROOS FIFA RANK: 40 HOW THEY QUALIFIED: THIRD IN ASI AN GROUP B (ROUND THREE) BEHIND JAPAN AND SAUDI ARABI A, THEN PL AY-OFF WINS AGAINST SYRI A AND HONDURAS PREFERRED SYSTEM: 3-4-12 (M AY CH ANGE UNDER NEW M AN AGER) STAR PL AYER: AARON MOOY (HUDDERSFIELD TOWN) ONE TO WATCH: M ATHEW LECKIE (HERTH A BERLIN)

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 is now 38 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 teammates will depend on how they connect is such a short period of time under new management.

ROAD TO RUSSI A The Socceroos qualified the hard way after finishing third behind Japan and Saudi Arabia in Group B of Asia’s third qualification round. Two-legged playoffs against Syria and Honduras followed, and success in these crunch games secured Australia a berth in a fourth consecutive World Cup. Immediately after booking their place, though, coach Ange Postecoglou announced his resignation.

STRENGTH Attacking at all costs saw the Socceroos enjoy unprecedented success under the guidance of Postecoglou, and that attitude is almost certain to prevail for the foreseeable future, including when the team takes to the pitch in Russia. That will be mildly tempered by short-term boss Bert van Marwijk, who will insist his midfield and defence clamp down on the opposition.


So, all going to plan for the Socceroos, the balance of the side should be its greatest strength. This strategy also plays to the strengths of the personnel at Van Marwijk disposal, with key midfielders Aaron Mooy, Massimo Luongo and Tom Rogic all capable of becoming the fulcrum of the team at any moment.

WEAKNESS Losing an influential coach is always difficult, but when a side is only months out from the biggest competition of all, that loss is felt even deeper. The Socceroos players will not come out publicly to acknowledge the hole that is Postecoglou’s absence, but they will know he should be there with them. That sense of something missing will likely linger in the dressing room, particularly at the start of the tournament. That said, a strong early showing against France in their opener in Kazan could erase many of those feelings, giving the players greater faith in Van Marwijk despite his confirmed short tenure.

STAR PL AYER Aaron Mooy has all the skills needed to make a big name for himself at the World Cup. Already performing solidly in the Premier League for Huddersfield Town, Mooy is strong in the tackle and capable of playing a killer ball in an instant. Indeed, his ability to turn defence into attack swiftly could hold the key to Australia surprising their more fancied Group C opponents. He will need to be at his absolute best to give the Socceroos a fighting chance of sneaking into the round of 16 and, if he is, it would not surprise to see the 27-year-old land a transfer to a bigger club next season.

PREDICTION Expectations are relatively low given the managerial change and tricky group opponents in France, Denmark and Peru. In fact, very few people will give Australia a chance of progressing beyond the group stage. However, with more familiarity of Van Marwijk’s game plan in

upcoming friendlies, this team will certainly fight until the bitter end. If they can become difficult enough to break down in defence, they may just eke out one or two positive results. There is no doubt that it’ll be difficult for Australia to finish in the top two of Group C, but in one of the most evenly balanced World Cup draws in recent memory, it’s not entirely implausible. Never count out an Aussie.


PERU CAPTAIN: ALBERTO RODRIGUEZ (IN PAOLO GUERRERO’S ABSENCE) M AN AGER: RICARDO GARECA NICKN AME: L A BICOLOR OR L A BL ANQUIRROJA FIFA RANK: 11 HOW THEY QUALIFIED: FIF TH IN SOUTH AMERICAN SECTION, THEN PL AY-OFF WIN OVER NEW ZEAL AND PREFERRED SYSTEM: 4-2-3-1 STAR PL AYER: JEFFERSON FARFÁN (LOKOMOTIV MOSCOW) ONE TO WATCH: CHRISTI AN CUEVA (SÃO PAULO)

Peru are back at the World Cup after 36 years, having gone back to their roots. 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. They are a young side who have responded to tougher discipline with increased commitment. 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.

ROAD TO RUSSI A Peru went from an awful start to an awesome finish in CONMEBOL qualifying as a late run of form allowed them to return to the World

Cup after a 36-year absence. After seven games they had managed only four points, and with only five games left they were stuck in eighth place out of 10 teams. The arrival of Gareca took some time to produce results, but officials were wise enough to support the coach, who was eager to give chances to several local, promising players. Gareca finally found a nice blend between youth and experience and the team started producing results. In fact, Peru hasn’t lost a match in over a year-and-a-half. Their last defeat was a 2-0 loss against Brazil in November 2016. Since then they have gone undefeated in 12 matches. The Court of Arbitration for Sport’s ruling against Bolivia for fielding an ineligible player against Chile and Peru gave both teams points they had not won on the field and encouraged La Blanquirroja to keep fighting for a World Cup berth. In the process, they achieved historic results, such as first-time away wins in Paraguay and in Quito against Ecuador. A final-round draw


against Colombia saw them clinch the fifth spot and a ticket to play an intercontinental playoff, in which they were much better than New Zealand and sealed their World Cup return.

STRENGTH Peru became a dangerous team by means of their defensive consistency. As a result of strong confidence in their back line, the team started breaking free and venturing forward, becoming very efficient and effective in front of goal. Their third virtue is of a more emotional nature: they are a close-knit group that resembles a family.

WEAKNESS Without a doubt, this group’s weak point is its lack of World Cup experience. Not even their manager has attended the competition, though he came close as a player to being a member of the Argentina national team that won the World Cup in Mexico 1986. Gareca was part of the squad that played the

qualification matches; weirdly, he scored a decisive goal in the last round as Argentina made it to the World Cup with a 2-2 tie against ... Peru. As far as the game goes, Peru has always suffered from set play, although they look a lot stronger in this area this time around.

STAR PL AYER Undoubtedly, their star is Guerrero, the Flamengo forward. But the problem is that his suspension has been upheld and he will miss the trip to Russia. Guerrero was suspended for six months by the CAS due to a positive doping test and couldn’t take part in his nation’s playoff matches. His absence will really be felt since Guerrero is the player with the most goals in national team history. If he can’t play, the responsibility to lead the team would fall to one of his best friends and the player behind him in that historic chart: Jefferson Farfan.

PREDICTION Peru should take this World Cup step by step, and their objective should be to get to the round of 16: From that moment on, anything can happen. If Peru get wins against Denmark and Australia, they should end the group stage in second place behind France. After that, logic says Argentina would follow, a very difficult rival and a hard-fought match.


GROUP D BETTING

GROUP WINNER

QUALIFY FROM GROUP

TO WIN THE WORLD CUP

ARGENTIN A

1.60

ARGENTIN A

1.14

ARGENTIN A

10.00

CROATI A

3.25

CROATI A

1.50

CROATI A

34.00

NIGERI A

11.00

NIGERI A

3.25

NIGERI A

151.00

ICEL AND

13.00

ICEL AND

3.50

ICEL AND

151.00

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ARGENTINA CAPTAIN: LIONEL MESSI M AN AGER: JORGE SAMPAOLI NICKN AME: L A ALBICELESTE FIFA RANK: 5 HOW THEY QUALIFIED: THIRD IN SOUTH AMERICAN SECTION BEHIND BRAZIL AND URUGUAY PREFERRED SYSTEM: 3-4-3 STAR PL AYER: LIONEL MESSI (BARCELON A) ONE TO WATCH: PAULO DYBAL A (JUVENTUS)

Argentina made it in the end and 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. The team were unreliable in qualifying and 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.

ROAD TO RUSSI A Though Argentina finished third in CONMEBOL qualifying, the road to get there was full of bumps. Namely, unexpected defeats at home

against Ecuador and Paraguay, a draw against Venezuela, a hard 3-0 loss when visiting Brazil and three different managers (Gerardo "Tata" Martino, Edgardo Bauza and Jorge Sampaoli). To make matters worse, Lionel Messi's absence from several matches confirmed once more that the team relies unconditionally on his participation. In fact, it wasn't until the captain's hat trick in the final qualifier against Ecuador in Quito that Argentina finally found a sense of calm and secured qualification.

STRENGTH Besides having the best player in the whole world, Argentina boast a plethora of other offensive players who are able to disrupt opponents with ease. Even though they are part of the group that has been harshly criticized after their losses in the finals, the credentials of players such as Angel Di Maria, Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain, just to name some forwards who excel in Europe, are undeniable. If they are on and if


they finally understand how to play around Messi, the Albiceleste should feel enthusiastic. The mental aspect and their will to end their drought are also very important factors in the face of the last chance several members of the squad will have to finally win a major tournament.

WEAKNESS A few days prior to Russia 2018, nobody knows who will play in the key positions. This, in part, is because Sampaoli has tried different names and systems but is also due to injuries suffered by several key members of the team. The constant swaps by the manager, with very different styles and formations, had a negative impact on the team. Lucas Biglia and Aguero, undisputed starters for Sampaoli, will arrive in Russia with little playing time. Ramiro Funes Mori and Marcos Rojo, formerly irremovable in defense, have both been sidelined for extended periods. In midfield, there are more doubts than certainties. Until the World Cup starts, the real

state of this team remains unknown. By the way, Argentina were badly beaten by Spain (6-1) a recent friendly match.

STAR PL AYER What can we say about Lionel Messi that hasn't already been said? In addition to his great season with Barcelona, leading Barca to the Copa Del Rey and La Liga titles, he has been resting in order to face his main challenge: the World Cup. When he announced his exit from the national team after the loss in the Copa America Centenario 2016, a general cry for his return was massively heard. Luckily, he ended up changing his mind and has become, once more, the face of the Argentine team. Heading into Russia 2018, Argentina's hopes rest heavily on the shoulders of their No. 10, captain and superstar.

PREDICTION The draw left Argentina in Group D, with surprising Iceland, dangerous Croatia and a very familiar face

in Nigeria. It won't be easy but Argentina are the favorite to win the group. If things happen as expected, the team should advance to the round of 16 and then, to the quarterfinals. But unlike in Brazil 2014, where the path to the finals was relatively easy, in Russia the Albiceleste could end up facing Spain, Brazil and Germany once more. Messi and co already know this: this time around, they have to become the champions. It's do or die, and you can be rest assured that Argentina will leave it all on the pitch. With this group fit, talented and experienced they can reach another final and perhaps lift the trophy!


CROATIA CAPTAIN: LUKA MODRIC M AN AGER: ZL ATKO DALIC NICKN AME: VATRENI (THE BL AZERS) FIFA RANK: 18 HOW THEY QUALIFIED: SECOND IN EUROPEAN GROUP I BEHIND ICEL AND, THEN PL AYOFF WIN AGAINST GREECE PREFERRED SYSTEM: 4-2-3-1 STAR PL AYER: LUKA MODRIC (REAL M ADRID) ONE TO WATCH: NIKOL A VL ASIC (EVERTON)

As usual, 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. But the perennial dark horses 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.

ROAD TO RUSSI A Croatia had significant problems in UEFA Group I, and managed to

secure second place behind Iceland on the last matchday thanks to the 2-0 win in Ukraine. The federation decided to fire the coach, Ante Cacic, just a few days previously, following the sensational 1-1 draw at home with Finland, and named the littleknown Dalic as his replacement. Dalic eventually managed to lead the team to a 4-1 aggregate win over Greece in the playoffs, but the general feeling was that Croatia should have made the qualification process much easier. Losses in Iceland and in Turkey left a sour taste, and the Croats managed to score only 15 goals in 10 group fixtures.

STRENGTH To put it simply, Croatia possess some of the best midfield options in the world. In Real Madrid’s Modric and Mateo Kovacic, Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic and Inter Milan’s Ivan Perisic and Marcelo Brozovic, they can rely on true world-class performers in this area and this is the core of their team. Add


quality up front in Juventus’ Mario Mandzukic, Milan’s Nikola Kalinic and Hoffenheim’s Andrej Kramaric, and you get a magnificent lineup that is capable of beating any team on their day. Indeed, Croatia deservedly won against Spain at Euro 2016, and they will never feel inferior against any rivals. Most of the players are experienced at the big stage as well because they play for top teams in the best leagues. They won’t be overwhelmed at the World Cup.

WEAKNESS Attitude is the biggest problem Croatia are expected to face, and we are not talking about the players. Anonymous coaches appointed in recent years (first Cacic and now Dalic) are seen as puppets who don’t make decisions themselves, and it is unclear whether the stars can respect them. Dalic is very inexperienced and has already proved to be nervous under pressure. The media atmosphere surrounding the team is usually

quite problematic, and it could hurt the nation’s chances. On the pitch, defence is the weakest link, as Dejan Lovren, Domagoj Vida and Sime Vrsaljko are all error-prone, whereas 32-year-old Vedran Corluka has only recently recovered from a serious knee injury.

STAR PL AYER Luka Modric is one of the very top midfielders of his generation and this could be the last World Cup for the 32-year-old superstar. Visionary and technically sublime, the captain is the ultimate playmaker for Croatia, and the game tends to go through him, especially when he is on song.

PREDICTION A positive atmosphere within the squad and a coach who is respected are crucial to success. Croatia lack those specific ingredients and they are in a very tough group with Argentina, Iceland and Nigeria. In fact, Iceland managed to finish ahead of them in their UEFA

qualifying group and it is likely to happen again on the big stage. The potential is remarkable, but things haven’t exactly fallen into place in the lead up. I see them beating Iceland this time around however, especially with their injuries. They should finish second in the group, politics aside.


NIGERIA CAPTAIN: JOHN OBI MIKEL M AN AGER: GERNOT ROHR NICKN AME: THE SUPER EAGLES FIFA RANK: 47 HOW THEY QUALIFIED: WINNERS OF AFRICAN GROUP B (ROUND THREE) AHEAD OF Z AMBI A PREFERRED SYSTEM: 4-3-3 STAR PL AYER: JOHN OBI MIKEL (TI ANJIN) ONE TO WATCH: ALEX IWOBI (ARSEN AL)

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, 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 ballwinners at the base of midfield and the calming presence of Mikel John Obi to funnel balls to the attack.

ROAD TO RUSSI A Nigeria made light work of their

opponents and qualified with 14 points. It would have been more had their final match not been awarded to the Algerians after the Super Eagles fielded an ineligible player, although that administrative misdemeanour couldn’t overshadow memories of convincing victories over the Indomitable Lions and the Fennecs. Beyond securing the Eagles’ spot in Russia, the qualifying campaign also served to restore the nation’s belief in the team and herald in Gernot Rohr’s new era.

STRENGTH There’s on-field strength across the park, with every area apart from goalkeeper and arguably centreforward stocked with options. However, perhaps the Super Eagles’ key asset is the unity, morale and belief of this group of players. Rohr has overlooked many of the underachievers of previous regimes and placed his faith in youngsters, many of whom have stepped up


seamlessly to the international arena. The likes of Alex Iwobi, Kelechi Iheanacho and Wilfred Ndidi marry youthful exuberance with the mentality required to succeed in the Premier League, and Nigeria have enjoyed a largely serene buildup to the World Cup.

WEAKNESS Goalkeeper remains a concern for Rohr following Vincent Enyeama’s departure from the international scene and Carl Ikeme’s leukemia diagnosis. The coach appears to have lost faith in his initial go-to stopper, Ikechukwu Ezenwa, and plumped for 19-year-old Francis Uzoho to start between the sticks in Nigeria’s recent friendlies. The youngster overcame a nervy start to keep Robert Lewandowski at bay as Poland were beaten, but with only 180 minutes of La Liga football under his belt with Deportivo La Coruna, the inexperienced Uzoho is in danger of being exposed in Russia.

STAR PL AYER John Obi Mikel remains the Super Eagles’ talisman, even if Iwobi and Victor Moses may make more eyecatching contributions. The central midfielder offers terrific experience, having won the Champions League, the Europa League, the African Cup of Nations and two Premier League titles, and is considered something of a father figure by the squad’s new blood. If the Super Eagles are under pressure, he plays a key role in controlling the tempo, retaining possession and ensuring the side maintain their structure. And as he has demonstrated in the Chinese Super League so far this term, he remains capable of making a decisive impact in the final third as well.

PREDICTION There was optimism in Nigeria after the World Cup draw was revealed, with Super Eagles fans boosted by a recent friendly victory

over Argentina after being paired once again with the Albicelestes. However, the West Africans must play well to escape the first round, with Croatia and Iceland completing a tricky group that will take some negotiating. A recent friendly defeat by Serbia should help the Eagles come back down to earth, but while that loss may refocus attention on the squad’s deficiencies, the goalkeeping issue continues to cast a long shadow and may yet destabilise the team in Russia. The likes of Argentina and Croatia can score in bunches, which I see posing a bug problem for the Super Eagles.


ICELAND CAPTAIN: ARON GUNN ARSSON M AN AGER: HEIMIR H ALLGRIMSSON NICKN AME: “STRAKARNIR OKKAR” (“OUR BOYS”) FIFA RANK: 22 HOW THEY QUALIFIED: WINNERS OF EUROPEAN GROUP I AHEAD OF CROATI A PREFERRED SYSTEM: 4-4-2 STAR PL AYER: GYLFI SIGURDSSON (EVERTON) ONE TO WATCH: HORDUR BJORGVIN M AGNUSSON (BRISTOL CIT Y)

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? Almost 10% of the nation travelled to Euro 2016 and there could be similar levels this 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.

ROAD TO RUSSI A Iceland finished top of a keenly

contested Group I in UEFA qualifying, therefore progressing to Russia automatically. A playoff place looked their most realistic hope until the penultimate matchday, when they secured a stunning 3-0 win in Turkey and left the pitch to find Finland had improbably equalised against Croatia. It left a previously tight group wide open for them to qualify with a 2-0 win over Kosovo three days later.

STRENGTH An experienced, remarkably tightknit squad blends a formidable work ethic with seemingly boundless self-belief. Iceland would never claim to have the world’s best players, but many of Hallgrimsson’s side have developed together and have complete faith in eachother. At international level, it is a rare quality; essentially, they have the togetherness of a club side, and it means that even when situations seem to be working against them, nobody loses their head. They have plenty more going for them:


While they became known for their physical, direct style at Euro 2016, they have more technical qualities than they are given credit for and Hallgrimsson has introduced a new level of tactical flexibility, too.

WEAKNESS If World Cups were won purely on spirit, then Iceland would be front-runners, but they are unlikely to have the depth of quality for a run far beyond the group stage. They need everyone fit to have a chance, and there have been a number of worries leading up to the tournament, inconveniently regarding their most important attackers. Gylfi Sigurdsson will only just be back from a knee injury and possibly not match-fit, while their Euro 2016 centre-forward Kolbeinn Sigthorsson will probably miss out having barely kicked a ball since sustaining a medial meniscus injury in September 2016. Alfred Finnbogason, another key forward, has also struggled for fitness. Iceland need at least two of them available

and also hope their captain, Aron Gunnarsson, recovers from a knee injury in good time but fitness is not the only issue. A lack of pace across the side, particularly in defence, is particular drawback that will be hard to address before the World Cup.

STAR PL AYER There is no doubt about it: Gylfi Sigurdsson has star quality, and even if this has been an underwhelming campaign after his big-money move to Everton, he’s the man Iceland know can add inspiration to buckets of sweat. He proved it in the decisive Kosovo game, seizing upon an error to put them ahead shortly before half-time, when nerves were clearly telling elsewhere. He also scored two vital qualifying goals against Ukraine. In total, he has found the net 18 times for his country, but his wider contribution is worth even more. If he is healthy in Russia, Iceland have a player who can turn games from nowhere; without him, their job

would look considerably harder.

PREDICTION Iceland will put up an almighty scrap yet again, but fitness issues surrounding key players are a big concern, and they will fall just short of progressing from the World Cup’s tightest group.


GROUP E BETTING

GROUP WINNER

QUALIFY FROM GROUP

TO WIN THE WORLD CUP

BRAZIL

1.28

BRAZIL

1.05

BRAZIL

6.00

SWITZERL AND

7.00

SWITZERL AND

1.95

SWITZERL AND

100.00

SERBI A

9.00

SERBI A

2.15

SERBI A

151.00

COSTA RICA

19.00

COSTA RICA

4.25

COSTA RICA

251.00

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BRAZIL CAPTAIN: NEYM AR M AN AGER: TITE NICKN AME: CAN ARINHO FIFA RANK: 2 HOW THEY QUALIFIED: WINNERS OF THE SOUTH AMERICAN SECTION AHEAD OF URUGUAY PREFERRED SYSTEM:4-1-4-1 STAR PL AYER: NEYM AR (PARIS STGERM AIN) ONE TO WATCH: FIRMINO (LIVERPOOL)

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 (pre injury) 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. With the likes of Roberto Firmino coming off the bench, they possess a wealth of talent.

ROAD TO RUSSI A Qualification began when Dunga was coach, and Brazil were not playing good soccer. When the coach was sacked, the team was in sixth place and at risk of not making it to Russia.

The arrival of Tite completely changed the scenario. Players recovered their form, rivals started to fear them again and the good results poured in. Brazil became the first national team (after the hosts) to secure its place in the World Cup, finishing top of the South American qualifiers.

STRENGTH Brazil’s greatest quality is the fact the team doesn’t rely on Neymar as heavily as in the 2014 World Cup, when its game depended on the player’s individual moves. Sure, Neymar is important he is afterall the key player, but today the group surpasses the individual. This change became clear from the moment Tite took over the national team. With a new coach and a new game, Neymar was given more freedom to play and the team became an actual team. The mixture has resulted in something interesting. There are familiar faces (Dani Alves and Marcelo), new


assets (Casemiro and Gabriel Alves) and athletes who have emerged across the European soccer scene (Philippe Coutinho and Willian). This is a team that knows how to pass the ball, how to attack and also how to defend. Neymar is just the cherry on top.

Third is Neymar. His foot injury has left him out of the game since Feb. 26. How will he be after all this time off the pitch? Again, Brazil don’t rely only on him, but the thought of playing without their star is, to say the least, worrying.

WEAKNESS

All the spotlights will be fixed on Neymar. In 2010, the then-wannabe star was out of the call-up. The early elimination against the Netherlands left a question: would it have been different with him on the field? A star in 2014, he saw his World Cup end in an injury against Colombia and witnessed from afar the 7-1 Brazilian defeat against Germany. The question remains: would it have been different with Neymar in the pitch? We will never know.

It is hard to talk about weaknesses when you have a balanced team. They do exist, though. There are three points to focus on here, and the first one is tactical. Dani Alves and Marcelo are wingers with attacking abilities who like to play forward and are essential in making things happen. Therefore, extra caution is required for these spaces not to be explored by the opposition. Second is experience, not in terms of each player but the team itself up against elite rivals. Brazilian players under Tite’s command had few tests against the top teams on the planet. Will this matter at the World Cup? Maybe.

STAR PL AYER

Two years later, Neymar was the star of the gold-medal team in the Olympic Games of Rio de Janeiro, an achievement yet to be conquered then in the trophy-riddled room of the Brazilian national team. Now it

is going to be the showdown. There are still doubts; after all, Neymar hasn’t played since February and there is no knowing how he will come back. Regardless, he is the top player of the top national team in the planet. Everyone wants to see Neymar play.

PREDICTION Can Brazil be the champion? Yes. Do they have the team for that? Yes. It doesn’t even occur to many Brazilian fans that the World Cup can end before the final. And while losing the title would not be a disaster as long as the team shows the will to win, winning the competition would mean redemption. Neymar must be at his best, Jesus must step up on the international stage and both of them must be healthy. Which has been problematic in the past. I would like to see Liverpool’s Roberto Firmino feature more, his form in the Champions League was right up there with the World’s best.


SWITZERLAND CAPTAIN: STEPH AN LICHTSTEINER M AN AGER: VL ADIMIR PE TKOVIC NICKN AME: “SCHWEIZER N ATI”/”L A N ATI” (“THE N ATION AL TEAM”) FIFA RANK: 6 HOW THEY QUALIFIED: SECOND IN EUROPEAN GROUP B BEHIND PORTUGAL, THEN PL AY-OFF WIN AGAINST NORTHERN IREL AND PREFERRED SYSTEM: 4-5-1 STAR PL AYER: XHERDAN SH AQIRI (STOKE CIT Y) ONE TO WATCH: DENIS Z AKARI A (BORUSSI A MÖNCHENGL ADBACH)

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 Seferovic.

offs with a 1-0 aggregate win thanks to Ricardo Rodriguez’s first-leg penalty. The award of that spot-kick was furiously contested, too: it was given for handball by the home side’s Corry Evans when the ball had in fact struck his shoulder. In fairness, Switzerland had ranked highest of the nine second-placed sides in the group stage and were almost unstoppable in the group stage. They entered their final Group B match, in Portugal, with a 100 percent record and had caught the European champions cold with a 2-0 home win early on. But Portugal won all their subsequent games in an otherwise weak group, meaning Switzerland would have to settle for the playoffs if they lost in Lisbon. The Euro 2016 champions avenged that earlier two-goal defeat and progressed, fortunately Switzerland followed them even if it took a slice of luck.

ROAD TO RUSSI A

The flanks are Switzerland’s most obvious strong point. Serie A pair Stephan Lichtsteiner (the captain) and Rodriguez are both outstanding

It ended up being the tightest of squeezes for Switzerland, who edged past Northern Ireland in the play-

STRENGTH


players and support attacks unstintingly even though the former is now 34. Rodriguez, of AC Milan, has an exceptional left foot that poses a considerable threat both from set pieces and open play. There is good depth too, should anything happen to Lichtsteiner then Basel right-back, Michael Lang who scored winners against both Manchester United and Manchester City in this season’s Champions League is no mean deputy. The full-backs combine well with some exciting options further forward, Xherdan Shaqiri will probably start on the right while Hoffenheim’s Steven Zuber is a danger on the opposite flank. An exciting alternative is Basel loanee Dimitri Oberlin, just 20, who received his first national team call-up in March and is blessed with frightening pace.

WEAKNESS Where will the goals come from? Switzerland’s centre-forward options have largely fallen short in major tournaments but they look likely to start with Haris Seferovic, who hasn’t

pulled any trees up with Benfica this season, leading the line again. Seferovic did score a winner against Ecuador at the 2014 World Cup but drew a blank at Euro 2016 and falls short of the quality needed to provide a reliable cutting edge. Josip Drmic, of Borussia Monchengladbach, is a more natural finisher but has played little football this season while Breel Embolo is still a huge prospect at 21 years old and has had a difficult season with Schalke and is yet to hit consistent form. Mario Gavranovic, who plays in Croatia for Dinamo Zagreb, is the only striker scoring consistently but there is no real indication that he can make the difference at a World Cup.

STAR PL AYER Attacking midfielders are arguably the most valuable players in football these days and Switzerland’s fortunes in Russia may depend directly on how well Xherdan Shaqiri fares. It has been a difficult season domestically for the Stoke schemer, due to their relegation from the Premier League rather than any

particularly poor personal form, and he ill need to clear his head quickly. It is startling to remember that Shaqiri, who had won 68 caps before the pre-tournament friendlies, is still just 26 and he has been his country’s most important creative force this decade and has delivered at major competitions before, memorably scoring a stunning bicycle kick from 18 yards in the Euro 2016 draw with Poland. More of the same will be needed in a side that, while capable of playing attractive football and possessing a range of attacking options, lacks genuine top-drawer talent elsewhere. Shaqiri, who would do his hopes of joining a bigger club next season no harm with a strong World Cup display, could hold the key to a successful tournament.

PREDICTION Switzerland’s second game, against Serbia, already has a “showdown” sort of feel to it. The battle will probably go to the wire but Petkovic’s team will fall just short of the runners-up spot and that likely clash with the Germans.


COSTA RICA CAPTAIN: BRYAN RUIZ M AN AGER: OSCAR RAMIREZ NICKN AME: L A SELE FIFA RANK: 25 HOW THEY QUALIFIED: SECOND IN CONCACAF ROUND FIVE BEHIND MEXICO PREFERRED SYSTEM: 5-41 STAR PL AYER: KEYLOR N AVAS (REAL M ADRID) ONE TO WATCH: M ARCO UREÑ A (SAN JOSE EARTHQUAKES)

Costa Rica were a sensation four years ago, reaching the World Cup quarter-finals, and face the challenge of emulating that. 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. Costa Rica may struggle to repeat a place in the last eight but they have the quality to reach the knockout phase.

ROAD TO RUSSI A Costa Rica won their group with 16 points to advance to CONCACAF’s Hexagonal phase. In their first game of the round they defeated Trinidad & Tobago, and days later scored a resounding 4-0 win over the United States. La Sele’s first loss came in their next game against Mexico, and they earned just two points in

ensuing draws against Honduras and Panama. But in their final five games of the Hexagonal, Costa Rica again defeated Trinidad & Tobago and the U.S., virtually punching their ticket to Russia. The Ticos finished in second place with 16 points despite not winning any of their last three games in the final round.

STRENGTH Defense, first and foremost. Costa Rica had the second-best unit of the Hexagonal, allowing just eight goals. Centre-backs Kendall Waston, Giancarlo Gonzalez and Johnny Acosta showed a good level of play throughout the qualifying round. And the case could be made that the true strength of Oscar Ramirez’s back half lies in his “wall,” as Keylor Navas is considered one of the world’s best goalkeepers.

WEAKNESS There is a consensus that, despite the 14 qualifying goals, Costa Rica need a natural centre-forward. Betis’ Joel Campbell just returned to action in Spain after rehabbing after injury, and Marco Urena of Major


League Soccer’s LAFC underwent surgery to repair broken bones in his face sustained in an April collision. Both strikers risk arriving in Russia with some rust to knock off.

STAR PL AYER Keylor Navas, without question. Real Madrid’s keeper is also the leader of the Costa Rican side, and any shot at advancing out of the group stage will be tied to his performances. After a good showing in the Champions League final with Real he brings momentum and a winning culture to the team.

PREDICTION Costa Rica sit in Group E with Brazil, Serbia and Switzerland. On paper, Brazil are virtually assured a berth in the round of 16. The Ticos will be contenders for the second spot, but if they wish to advance it’s imperative they win their matchups against Switzerland and Serbia. In case Costa Rica reach the knockout stage, they could face defending champion Germany or CONCACAF rival Mexico. I don’t see them getting past either of those teams.

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SERBIA CAPTAIN: ALEKSANDAR KOL AROV M AN AGER: ML ADEN KRSTAJIC NICKN AME: ORLOVI FIFA RANK: 35 HOW THEY QUALIFIED: WINNERS OF EUROPEAN GROUP D AHEAD OF REPUBLIC OF IREL AND PREFERRED SYSTEM: 3-4-3 STAR PL AYER: ALEKSANDAR MITROVIC (ON LOAN-FULH AM) ONE TO WATCH: SERGEJ MILINKOVIC-SAVIC (L AZIO)

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 star midfielder Sergej Milinkovic-Savic at the epicentre it ultimately resulted in Muslin being fired. Mladen Krstajic took over as caretaker and immediately brought MilinkovicSavic 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 starstudded but ageing Serbia side.

ROAD TO RUSSI A Topping Group D in the UEFA qualifiers was no mean achievement for Serbia, but it caused surprisingly little fanfare at home. Their place at

Russia 2018 was confirmed with a 1-0 home win over Georgia, but the celebrations were relatively muted, perhaps because disappointment still lingered at a late 3-2 defeat in Austria three days earlier. Qualifying in such serene fashion had seemed a tall order at the outset, though, with Wales and the Republic of Ireland joining the Austrians in the group. Serbia were consistent throughout, and an ultimately decisive moment came in September 2017, when Kolarov’s goal gave them a 1-0 win in Dublin. There were only two games left to play after that, Serbia finished the job, although that was not enough to save their manager, Slavoljub Muslin, from being sacked.

STRENGTH If Serbia can fine-tune it in time, they have a midfield that can match up to almost any in Russia. The steel and composure of Nemanja Matic need little introduction, and Luka Milivojevic has had a fine season with Crystal Palace, if Sergej


Milinkovic-Savic, the prodigious Lazio playmaker, can be bedded in alongside them it comes close to the complete package. A failure to accommodate Milinkovic-Savic in the qualifiers was largely what accounted for Muslin’s dismissal, he was swiftly called up to face South Korea and China in November but missed the March friendlies through injury. Even if he does not start Serbia’s opening game against Costa Rica, there is plenty of hope elsewhere. This is a technically gifted side that can be lethal on the counter and should not lack creativity.

Kolarov and Antonio Rukavina, their full-backs, are aging, too. Ivanovic’s place may yet be in doubt, with Krstajic relieving him of the captaincy in March and noting that “no one can take a spot in the 23man spot for granted.” The manager prefers a four-man back line to the 3-4-3 system deployed by Muslin and the system may not be perfected by mid-June. More broadly, Serbia can find it hard to sustain a high tempo for 90 minutes, they have a habit of switching off at key moments and will need to address that if they are to make it through the group stage.

WEAKNESS

STAR PL AYER

Serbia has punched spectacularly above its weight in terms of player production for many years and the sense has long persisted that the national team is less than the sum of its parts. They looked far more cohesive and motivated in qualifying, but there are still areas of doubt.Pace is lacking in a defence that has long been marshalled by Branislav Ivanovic, 34, while

Aleksandar Mitrovic enters this tournament in devastating form. There was never any doubt about the centre-forward’s importance to the national team after he scored six goals in qualifying, but his Premier League opportunities at Newcastle United were limited and a loan move to Championship winner’s Fulham looked an unwelcome step back. But Mitrovic was electric at club

level during the second half of the campaign, breaking off to score twice in Serbia’s 2-0 win over Nigeria, and he showed that with creative players behind him, he is still one of Europe’s most interesting young striking prospects. He is still just 23 and has plenty of scope to improve, he currently seems to be in the best shape of his career and the natural choice to lead the line for a Serbia side whose attacking play has improved considerably in the past two years. Mitrovic would be hard to replace in the event of injury, although Milinkovic-Savic stands to be similarly influential if he is successfully accommodated in the starting lineup.

PREDICTION The smart money is on a jostle for second place with a Switzerland side that has more tournament experience. Serbia may just pip them to the round of 16 though, with Germany their likely opponents at that stage, further progress looks to be a long shot.


GROUP F BETTING

GROUP WINNER

QUALIFY FROM GROUP

TO WIN THE WORLD CUP

GERM ANY

1.33

GERM ANY

1.03

GERM ANY

5.50

MEXICO

6.00

MEXICO

1.65

MEXICO

81.00

SWEDEN

7.50

SWEDEN

2.00

SWEDEN

81.00

SOUTH KOREA

17.00

SOUTH KOREA

5.00

SOUTH KOREA

251.00

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GERMANY CAPTAIN: M ANUEL NEUER M AN AGER: JOACHIM LOW NICKN AME: DIE M ANNSCH AF T FIFA RANK: 1 HOW THEY QUALIFIED: WINNERS OF EUROPEAN GROUP C AHEAD OF NORTHERN IREL AND PREFERRED SYSTEM: 4-2-3-1 STAR PL AYER: TONI KROOS (REAL M ADRID) ONE TO WATCH: LEON GORE TZKA (SCH ALKE)

After Germany lost 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 all of these missing players: 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.

ROAD TO RUSSI A World Cup holders Germany were never in danger of not qualifying for Russia. Low’s men finished Group C with a 100 percent record, beating Northern Ireland, Czech Republic, Norway, Azerbaijan and San Marino at home and away. They conceded only four goals and scored 43: the highest total in all European groups alongside Belgium. Yes, impressive.

STRENGTH One again going to the World Cup without a star player, Germany’s biggest strength has always been the team spirit, the idea that a strong group of players will always be superior to individual talents. With most players available for the training camp after the Bundesliga’s plight in Europe, Low will be able to work on ideas for the big games in the knockout stages. Backed by one of the most advanced data systems in world football, they will not only develop strategies for both attack and defence but also continue


to improve their set-piece tactics. At the 2014 World Cup, Germany scored five goals from set pieces more than any other nation.

WEAKNESS Although they’re not overly reliant on individuals, the possible loss of goalkeeper Neuer could turn into a problem. Redefining goalkeeping at the 2014 World Cup, especially in the round-of-16 match against Algeria, the Bayern and Germany captain has not played a minute of football since September. He hopes to be fit in time for the opening match, but doubts over his fitness and his confidence in his body will remain. Barcelona’s Marc-Andre Ter Stegen, the backup solution, is a very good option, but Neuer still ranks above him. The goalkeeper spot could become Low’s biggest hurdle.

STAR PL AYER Toni Kroos has been the unsung hero of the Germany team for many years now. The Real Madrid player

has played in seven consecutive Champions League semifinals for Bayern Munich and the Spanish giants, whom he joined in 2014. He dominates midfield, and his calm distribution dictates the pace of Germany’s game. His ability to get himself into dangerous positions near the box make him one of the most complete midfielders in world football.

PREDICTION The Germany team has been flying high ever since the reboot of German football in the early 2000s. They have reached the last four at the 2006, 2010 and 2014 World Cups, and the 2008, 2012 and 2016 European Championships. Coming out of a difficult season for Bundesliga football, where Bayern again walked away with the title but were stopped in Europe once again, some players might be running low on confidence. On top of that, in recent tournaments defending champions Italy and Spain both failed to make it to the knockout

stages. In spite of that, Low’s XI will beat the curse of the titleholders and should reach a seventh consecutive semi final given there forgiving draw.


MEXICO CAPTAIN: ANDRES GUARDADO M AN AGER: JUAN CARLOS OSORIO NICKN AME: EL TRI FIFA RANK: 15 HOW THEY QUALIFIED: WINNERS OF CONCACAF ROUND FIVE AHEAD OF COSTA RICA AND PAN AM A PREFERRED SYSTEM: 4-3-3 STAR PL AYER: HIRVING “CHUCKY” LOZ ANO (PSV EINDHOVEN) ONE TO WATCH: CARLOS VEL A (L AFC)

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.

ROAD TO RUSSI A Mexico advanced to CONCACAF’s Hexagonal round with 16 points, good enough for first place in their group. El Tri kicked off the final phase with a historic 2-1 win over the United States in Columbus,

Ohio. Next came a scoreless draw in Panama, but Mexico won in its next three games. In its last five games in the round, Mexico secured two wins, two draws and a loss, and Juan Carlos Osorio’s side wrapped up the qualifying phase in first place with 21 points.

STRENGTH Mexico draws strength from its defense, displayed in all its glory during a Hexagonal round in which it allowed just seven goals. On offense, Hirving Lozano and Carlos Vela are having solid seasons with their respective clubs. Both could be key to El Tri’s longstanding hopes of reaching the quarterfinal round.

WEAKNESS A major hole comes from Mexico’s struggles to regain possession at midfield, which would help at both ends. El Tri also need a natural full-back who could pair with Miguel Layun. Several players have filled in, but few have thrived. Moreover, many fans believe Mexico’s weakest link lies on its bench. Osorio has yet to establish a style of play, and his questionable rotations have been the


target of much criticism.

STAR PL AYER Hirving Lozano has emerged as Mexico’s main figure for the World Cup. In just his first season in Europe, the young striker established himself as an important player for PSV. As a result, Mexico has pinned its hopes of reaching the quarterfinals on him. A good performance in Russia could prompt more elite European clubs to pay attention to “Chucky.”

PREDICTION Mexico is in Group F with Germany, Sweden and South Korea, and will battle for the group’s second berth because the defending champion Germans will almost assuredly earn the first-place slot. El Tri starts against Germany, and a good effort in that game could be key in the ensuing matchups and in their quest for the round of 16. If they pull through, Mexico could face Brazil and thus a tall order to reach the quarterfinals. As a result worse teams will have a far better chance of making it to the final 16 then Mexico.

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SWEDEN CAPTAIN: ANDREAS GRANQVIST M AN AGER: JANNE ANDERSSON NICKN AME: THE BLUEYELLOW FIFA RANK: 23 HOW THEY QUALIFIED: SECOND IN EUROPEAN GROUP A BEHIND FRANCE,PL AY-OFF WIN AGAINST ITALY PREFERRED SYSTEM: 4-4-2 STAR PL AYER: EMIL FORSBERG (RB LEIPZIG) ONE TO WATCH: VIKTOR CL AESSON (KRASNODAR)

Euro 2016 saw the end of the Zlatan Ibrahimovic era as well as that of the manager Erik Hamren. The new Sweden team, under Janne 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). The play-off win against Italy was deserved and the big talking point now is whether without Ibrahimovic if there is enough star quality to make a genuine impact.

ROAD TO RUSSI A Drawn into a tough UEFA Group A with France, Netherlands and Bulgaria, Sweden weren’t given a lot of respect by the onlookers following

the international retirement of numerous veterans, including Zlatan Ibrahimovic. However, they surprised by finishing second ahead of Netherlands and then stunned the world by beating Italy in the playoffs by keeping a clean sheet over 180 minutes. That was a major triumph after failing to qualify for the previous two World Cup tournaments.

STRENGTH It might sound a bit weird, but Sweden are much more competitive without Ibrahimovic. Granted, they are less glamorous and probably even less feared, but the dressing room is much more united these days. The team spirit is Sweden’s biggest strength going into the tournament. Everyone feels part of the squad and everyone is capable of making significant contributions. With modest but ambitious coach Janne Andresson, who masterminded Norrkoping’s amazing title triumph in 2015, on the touchline, they are also extremely


well organised. Their motivation knows no bounds, the self-confidence is sky-high and they are very physically strong. In addition, key players Andreas Granqvist and Viktor Claesson ply their trade in Russia for Krasnodar. They will feel at home during the tournament.

WEAKNESS Unity is important, but Sweden definitely lack top quality and their squad is not deep enough to go far in the tournament. Apart from Emil Forsberg, no player can be considered a real star and some of the players have been in rough form lately. Victor Lindelof, the most promising centre-back, had a nightmare debut season at Manchester United. John Guidetti didn’t find his feet at Alaves, Ola Toivonen is hardly playing for Toulouse, Marcus Berg chose to move to Al-Ain in Abu Dhabi and first-choice goalkeeper Robin Olsen suffered a very untimely injury.

STAR PL AYER Emil Forsberg should be the leader and the major source of improvisation for Sweden. A bit shy and reserved, he offers a totally different impression as opposed to Ibrahimovic. The RB Leipzig playmaker provided 22 assists in the Bundesliga 2016/17 and attracted attention of numerous top clubs. Blessed with vision and sublime technical skills, the midfielder, nicknamed “Mini-Foppa,” is a joy to watch when on song. He is a sound dead-ball specialist as well and has a keen eye for goal, scoring four times for Sweden in the qualifiers. The problem is that the current Bundesliga season has been much less successful for the schemer, who only had two goals and two assists for Leipzig.

PREDICTION With the most important players in the squad seemingly off form and Mexico always making it into the

second round, it’s only logical to predict that the Swedes would go out at the group stage. A lot will depend on the first game against South Korea, though, as a convincing win could turn things around. They have a great defensive unit and which is very sound and structured, which should keep most of their games close. A little luck they are an outside chance.


SOUTH KOREA CAPTAIN: KI SUNG-YUENG M AN AGER: SHIN TAE-YONG NICKN AME: THE TAEGUK WARRIORS FIFA RANK: 61 HOW THEY QUALIFIED: SECOND IN ASI AN GROUP A BEHIND IRAN (ROUND THREE) PREFERRED SYSTEM: 4-4-2 STAR PL AYER: SON HEUNG-MIN (TOT TENH AM HOTSPUR) ONE TO WATCH: KWON CH ANG-HOON (DIJON)

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. With a team lacking world-class talent, the manager has to depend on two standout players: Son Heung-min from Tottenham Hotspur and Ki Sung-yueng from Swansea City. 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.

ROAD TO RUSSI A South Korea limped through the final round of Asian qualification and were helped over the line more by the failings of others than their own performances. Just four wins

from 10 games, all of which came at home, equalled a far-from-convincing performance. It was so unimpressive that coach Uli Stielike was fired with two games remaining, and there was some criticism at home of players celebrating qualification when it finally came, saying that they had not done enough to deserve to do so.

STRENGTH Despite their stumbles along the road to Russia, Korea have improved since under new coach Shin TaeYong. The Taeguk Warriors can attack at real speed, Colombia struggled to cope with the oncoming waves in a November friendly that marked the best performance in some time from the 2002 World Cup semi finalists. There is attacking talent, too. Son Heung-Min has starred for Tottenham Hotspur in the Premier League and UEFA Champions League this season and is desperate to impress in the World Cup. The team also boasts classy midfielders


in the shape of Ki Sung-Yeung, Lee Jae-Sung and Kwon Chang-Hoon. If these stars can click and get a little space to play, then Korea can really hurt teams.

WEAKNESS There is little doubt that defensively, the team has serious issues and has done for some time, almost since the days of Guus Hiddink and summer 2002. Fans have become accustomed to lapses of concentration at the back that suddenly result in a simple ball over the top sending the entire back line into panic. Add that to a tendency by the back four and it usually is a four, though a three is not impossible with a coach that likes to keep opponents guessing to commit individual mistakes, and there are problems. The goalkeepers can also be added to that. Kim Seung-Gyu is a fine No. 1 but is not world class and is guilty of making errors. Set pieces are a real problem, too, and Sweden, Mexico and Germany

will be eager to attack.

STAR PL AYER Son Heung-Min is the clear star of the team, and Korea’s chances of progressing depend to a large extent on whether the 25-year-old can produce his best. So important has the forward become that Shin is ready to build the team around “Sonaldo” and has even discussed how best to use Son with Tottenham boss Mauricio Pochettino. The main question is whether it is best to play Son on the left side of attack, as a lone striker, with a second striker or with a genuine partner. The most promising experiment came at the end of 2017 in Korea’s much-improved performances against Colombia and Serbia, when Son, and the whole attack, looked dangerous in a 4-4-2 formation.

PREDICTION For South Korea, the target at the World Cup is always the same:

Get out of the group stage. It has happened only twice in the previous nine appearances, but both of those have come in the past four. Few fans in Seoul expect or demand a place in the round of 16. The team’s form has been too poor, the overall quality is questionable, and the group is tough: Korea’s FIFA ranking of 61 is considerably higher than the total number of Germany, Sweden and Mexico combined. But all is not lost. The low expectations mean there is not much pressure, and there is a feeling that Mexico are beatable. After all, Korea have a decent record against the CONCACAF stars. If so, then a point against Sweden in the opener might be enough, and playing defending champions Germany in the final game could be fortunate timing if the world’s No. 1 team is already through. But the second round is all about hope rather than expectation. What is expected is an improvement on a dismal 2014 campaign and to compete until the last second.


GROUP G BETTING

GROUP WINNER

QUALIFY FROM GROUP

TO WIN THE WORLD CUP

BELGIUM

1.80

BELGIUM

1.10

BELGIUM

11.00

ENGL AND

2.25

ENGL AND

1.10

ENGL AND

15.00

TUNISI A

15.00

TUNISI A

5.00

TUNISI A

501.00

PAN AM A

41.00

PAN AM A

10.00

PAN AM A

1001.00

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ENGLAND CAPTAIN: H ARRY KANE M AN AGER: GARE TH SOUTHGATE NICKN AME: THE THREE LIONS FIFA RANK: 13 HOW THEY QUALIFIED: WINNERS OF EUROPEAN GROUP F AHEAD OF SLOVAKI A PREFERRED SYSTEM: 3-4-2-1 STAR PL AYER: H ARRY KANE (TOT TENH AM HOTSPUR) ONE TO WATCH: M ARCUS RASHFORD (M ANCHESTER UNITED)

If you can believe this the most amazing statistic about England is that they 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. Yet there are lingering questions about whether they have improved since the ordeal of being eliminated by Iceland at Euro 2016. England fans even staged a walkout at the qualifying match in Malta.

ROAD TO RUSSI A England made light work of a favourable draw in the UEFA qualifying section, emerging

unbeaten at the top of a Group F that included Slovakia, Scotland, Slovenia, Lithuania and Malta by a convincing eight-point margin. Scoring 18 goals and conceding three, the only points dropped by Southgate’s men came in draws away from home against Slovakia and Scotland. Harry Kane netted five times to lead the team in front of goal, but the gulf in class between the group winners and the chasing pack was underlined by the fact that 11 other players also scored during the campaign.

STRENGTH No longer weighed down by the need to configure their attack around a faded Wayne Rooney, England have all the tools to be one of the fastest and most athletic teams at the World Cup. This is a young, dynamic squad with searing pace on the flanks and plenty of lung power in midfield, even with the sad and untimely loss of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to injury.


If they make it to the knockout stage and face teams who look to dominate possession, Raheem Sterling, Jamie Vardy and Marcus Rashford could be devastating in transition, while Danny Rose, Ryan Bertrand, Kyle Walker and Kieran Trippier can provide further thrust from defence.

WEAKNESS It’s hard to single out one of many. England’s modern history of tournament failure becomes a psychological millstone when pressure hits, while penalty shootouts against just about anyone remain a dreaded prospect. There are plenty of flaws in this squad, too. Few of the likely centre-back starters are playing regularly for their clubs at present, while none of England’s central midfielders have the technical quality or tactical intelligence to control matches at the highest level. More ominous than anything else, though, is the sense that England still don’t know what kind of team they want to be, and time is running out for Southgate to

establish a coherent identity ahead of the World Cup.

STAR PL AYER Harry Kane has a compelling claim to be considered the world’s best striker and the deadliest finisher England have taken to a major tournament since Michael Owen in 2002. He is more than that though, an all-round front-man with the intelligence to provide a reference point for an entire attack and make his teammates better. There are shades of both Alan Shearer and Teddy Sheringham in Kane’s game and if he hits form, the Tottenham star can make England a threat to anyone. The recent appointment of Kane as Captain is a major plus, England will go as far as Kane’s goals can take them.

PREDICTION Belgium are the strongest team on paper in Group G, but England should secure the runners-up slot with victories over Tunisia and

Panama. That would set up a roundof-16 clash with the winner of Group H, most likely to be Colombia. Jose Pekerman’s team are talented but beatable, and while any contest would be tight, Southgate can be optimistic of advancing as long as penalties are avoided. The benchmark of success should be reaching the quarterfinals, where familiar foes Germany will be a tough matchup but not impossible.


BELGIUM CAPTAIN: EDEN H AZ ARD M AN AGER: ROBERTO M ARTINEZ NICKN AME: THE RED DEVILS FIFA RANK: 3 HOW THEY QUALIFIED: WINNERS OF EUROPEAN GROUP H AHEAD OF GREECE PREFERRED SYSTEM: 3-42-1 STAR PL AYER: KEVIN DE BRUYNE (M ANCHESTER CIT Y) ONE TO WATCH: THOM AS MEUNIER (PARIS ST-GERM AIN)

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, recently 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.

ROAD TO RUSSI A Belgium had a very easy campaign

in UEFA’s qualifying Group H, which seemed relatively straightforward in the first place with Greece, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Estonia, Cyprus and Gibraltar. Apart from a rather unlucky home draw against the Greeks (they outshot them 17-2), the Red Devils didn’t lose points and made sure of qualification long before the final fixture. Romelu Lukaku lead the way with 11 and Hazard adding six goals and five assists. To put it simply, there was no contest whatsoever.

STRENGTH This is the golden generation of Belgian football and even the big stars of the 1980s, including Jan Ceulemans, agree that the current squad is the best ever. There is remarkable quality in every department, starting with Thibaut Courtois in goal. Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld and Vincent Kompany are all leading defenders plying their trade in England. Mousa Dembele and Radja Nainggolan are


supreme in central midfield. Kevin De Bruyne is one the best playmakers in the world, the brightest star at all-conquering Manchester City. Hazard and Dries Mertens are outstanding wingers, with the latter starring as a centreforward at Napoli in the last two seasons. Lukaku is one of the most powerful and prolific strikers in the Premier League. Martinez can pick a truly magnificent and experienced world-class lineup in every department, meaning they must be considered legitimate contenders to win the whole thing.

WEAKNESS The one hang-up is that the same players went to the 2014 World Cup and Euro 2016 and didn’t deliver the expected results, mostly because they lacked a winning mentality and had tactical problems that resulted in poor balance between the stars. Martinez is a much more able tactician that his predecessor, Marc Wilmots, but some of the same problems remain.

It is still unclear whether De Bruyne and Hazard can fulfil their potential together. The mistreatment of Nainggolan is stunning, preferring the likes of Axel Witsel and Marouane Fellaini in midfield is controversial to put it mildly. There is no decent natural left-back either, which is one of the reasons behind the switch to the 3-4-2-1 system. The general feeling is that this team still lacks the killer instinct and doesn’t really believe in their ability to turn dreams into reality.

STAR PL AYER Kevin De Bruyne has enjoyed the best season of his career at Manchester City, scoring eight goals, providing 15 assists and delivering countless other defense-splitting passes that led to goals and scoring opportunities but are not considered assists. Very few players in the world possess the Belgian’s vision, and he is definitely one of the most pleasant players to watch. The 26-year-old flourished in a somewhat withdrawn role, and

that idea was initially proposed by Martinez with the national team. Pep Guardiola used De Bruyne in that position and improved his game, and now he is ready to shine at the biggest stage, knowing that a brilliant World Cup would make him a legitimate contender for Ballon d’Or as well. The biggest question is whether is capable of becoming a true leader for Belgium.

PREDICTION Belgium should make it into the last 16 without problems, beating Panama and Tunisia. If they finish ahead of England and top Group G, Brazil could await them in the quarterfinals. If they finish second behind the Three Lions, they are likely to face Germany in the quarterfinals. That hurdle will be high and it is logical to predict that the Belgians would go out at that point, just like in 2014 and 2016. If they manage to overcome that hurdle, though, they just might win the whole thing. They currently represent the best value from a betting perspective.


PANAMA CAPTAIN: ROM AN TORRES M AN AGER: HERN AN DARIO GOMEZ NICKN AME: LOS CAN ALEROS, THE RED WAVE FIFA RANK: 56 HOW THEY QUALIFIED: THIRD IN CONCACAF ROUND FIVE BEHIND MEXICO AND COSTA RICA PREFERRED SYSTEM: 4-4-2 STAR PL AYER: JAIME PENEDO (DIN AMO BUCURESTI) ONE TO WATCH: ROM ÁN TORRES (SEAT TLE SOUNDERS)

“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 agegroup 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.

ROAD TO RUSSI A The road to Russia in a word was a fortunate one. Panama finished third in CONCACAF’s Hexagonal round after a 2-1 win over Costa Rica that

featured a controversial “phantom goal.”

STRENGTH Panama feature perhaps their best generation of players, a mix of outgoing veterans such as goalkeeper Jaime Penedo (36 years old), defender Felipe Baloy (37), Blas Perez (37) in attack and captain Roman Torres (32), along with a youth movement charged with maintaining the success that led to this first World Cup berth. Miguel Camargo (24), Michael Murillo (22) and Ricardo Avila (21) will look to make a good first impression.

WEAKNESS A complete lack of World Cup experience, which will be a significant disadvantage. Even with Panama’s roster of seasoned players, competition at this highest of levels will take a toll. As if that weren’t enough, Panama’s Group G features European powerhouses Belgium and England, while Tunisia also figure to be a difficult opponent. It won’t be an easy debut for the Red Wave.


STAR PL AYER Veteran keeper Jaime Penedo is the face of the team with 128 caps, the second-most ever for Panama. He plays for Dinamo Bucuresti, where he won a league cup with the Romanian first-division side in 2017. He was the best goalkeeper in the 2005 and 2013 editions of the Gold Cup, in both instances, Panama finished as runner-up to the United States who as we all know failed to qualify for the World Cup.

PREDICTION Panama’s goal is to capitalize on the high of their first World Cup appearance. Any points earned in the group stage can be considered a plus, since it will be virtually impossible to advance against the likes of Belgium, England and Tunisia. In fact, anything but a last-place finish can be considered something to build on. Panama have an experienced manager in Hernan “Bolillo” Gomez, and that can help in putting forth a dignified effort. They will try and play tactically defensive boring football and force some draws.

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TUNISIA CAPTAIN: AYMEN M ATHLOUTHI M AN AGER: N ABIL M AALOUL NICKN AME: THE EAGLES OF CARTH AGE FIFA RANK: 14 HOW THEY QUALIFIED: WINNERS OF AFRICAN GROUP A (ROUND THREE) PREFERRED SYSTEM: 4-23-1 STAR PL AYER: WAHBI KH AZRI (RENNES, ON LOAN FROM SUNDERL AND) ONE TO WATCH: N AÏM SLITI (DIJON, ON LOAN FROM LILLE)

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 2017 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 midfielder Ghailene Chaalali instead of Khazri or Sliti.

ROAD TO RUSSI A Tunisia were drawn into arguably

the most favourable of the five African qualifying groups, with the Democratic Republic of Congo representing their sternest rivals. They took 10 points from their four matches against Libya and Guinea, memorably thumping the latter 4-1 in Conakry, but the group was ultimately settled during their double-header against the Leopards. Tunisia were outplayed for large spells in the first match in Rades, but snatched a 2-1 backs-againstthe-walls triumph, and then hit the Congolese with two goals in two second-half minutes in Kinshasa to steal a 2-2 draw. The two matches were evidence of their resolve and ability to bounce back -- two qualities that should serve them well in Russia.

STRENGTH Tunisia are ostensibly a team without stars, but they boast several excellent midfielders who should be well placed to hold their own against Belgium and England in their opening two fixtures. The trio of


Ferjani Sassi, Mohamed Amine Ben Amor and Ghaylen Chaaleli offer balance, discipline and energy in the heart of the park, and will ensure that Tunisia remain competitive. They are a workmanlike bunch, but as they demonstrated in their recent qualifying victories, they will be disciplined and tenacious in protecting the backline. Wahbi Khazri and Naim Sliti offer a touch of class, a goal threat in the final third and decent set-piece delivery.

WEAKNESS Tunisia netted 11 goals in qualifying, but they were twice frustrated by a limited Libya side, only scoring once, a Khazri penalty over 180 minutes. The loss of Youssef Msakni, the top scorer in the current set-up, is both a bitter personal blow for the player and denies Tunisia arguably their chief goal threat. The erratic forward netted a memorable hat trick in a scintillating evisceration of Guinea during the qualifiers, and it’s hard to imagine Fakhreddine Ben Youssef or Taha Yassine Khenissi enjoying

similar inspiration. Injury problems for Chaalali, Ben Amor and the influential Ali Maaloul are also concerns for Tunisia’s coaching staff as the World Cup approaches.

STAR PL AYER Wahbi Khazri may have flopped in England with Sunderland, but back on loan in France with Rennes, he has continued where he left off in Ligue 1. The talented playmaker has nine goals so far, demonstrating the kind of form that saw him linked to the Premier League originally, and relishes representing his country. He was shortlisted for this year’s MarcVivien Foe Award and the threat he offers cutting in from the left, or from set pieces, will be a key weapon for Tunisia if they’re to cause an upset in Russia.

PREDICTION Tunisia aren’t a bad side, boasting a strong midfield and several exciting attacking talents. However, as soon as the draw was made, their chances of reaching the knockout

rounds appeared slim. There aren’t too many tougher opening fixtures for any side at the World Cup than England and Belgium, and Tunisia could already be out by the time they meet Panama in Saransk in their final fixture. The prognosis already looked bleak before a litany of injuries hit the squad and Msakni was ruled out, and it remains to be seen whether the likes of Maaloul, Chaalali, Rami Bedoui and Ben Amor could be replaced if they fail to make it back it time.


GROUP H BETTING

GROUP WINNER

QUALIFY FROM GROUP

TO WIN THE WORLD CUP

COLOMBI A

2.35

COLOMBI A

1.33

COLOMBI A

34.00

POL AND

2.75

POL AND

1.55

POL AND

41.00

SENEGAL

5.50

SENEGAL

2.15

SENEGAL

126.00

JAPAN

8.50

JAPAN

3.00

JAPAN

151.00

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POLAND CAPTAIN: ROBERT LEWANDOWSKI M AN AGER: ADAM N AWALKA NICKN AME: THE EAGLES FIFA RANK: 10 HOW THEY QUALIFIED: WINNERS OF EUROPEAN GROUP E AHEAD OF DENM ARK PREFERRED SYSTEM: 4-23-1 STAR PL AYER: ROBERT LEWANDOWSKI (BAYERN MUNICH) ONE TO WATCH: PIOTR ZIELINSKI (N APOLI)

Adam Nawalka’s side always looked certain of qualifying and won eight of their 10 games. The captain, Robert Lewandowski, hit a recordbreaking 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 had six months to fine-tune his plans, which include working on a formation with three central defenders. Poland have a strong backbone of Wojciech SzczesnyKamil Glik-Grzegorz KrychowiakRobert Lewandowski with Hull City’s Kamil Grosicki another key player with his pace on the left flank.

ROAD TO RUSSI A Poland easily finished top of the

relatively comfortable UEFA Group E, winning fixtures against Denmark, Montenegro, Romania, Armenia and Kazakhstan, even though their 4-0 defeat in Copenhagen was painful. They scored 28 goals, 16 of them coming from star striker Robert Lewandowski. The captain netted hat tricks in key home wins against Romania and Denmark, and their qualification was never really in doubt.

STRENGTH Lewandowski finished as European qualifying’s top scorer, and Bayern Munich’s superstar would definitely be the main weapon in Russia. The Poles are much more than just one striker, though. Coach Adam Nawalka is a popular specialist who is building on a major success at Euro 2016, where Poles reached the quarterfinals and exited only on penalties. They have a solid backbone of experienced leaders, including centre-back Kamil Glik, defender Lukasz Piszczek and


midfielder Grzegorz Krychowiak, who are ably complemented by rising young stars like Piotr Zielinski and Karol Linetty. It is a very promising blend that could possibly develop into worthy successors to the majestic Poland teams of the 1970s and ‘80s that were considered some of the best in the world.

WEAKNESS Some of the key players didn’t have a good club season, which is especially true of Krychowiak who wasn’t even a certain starter at West Brom. Arkadiusz Milik barely featured at Napoli after yet another significant injury setback, Kuba Blaszczykowski was injured for most of the season at Wolfsburg, Kamil Grosicki went astray at Hull City, while Wojciech Szczesny spent the season as a bench-warmer behind Gianluigi Buffon at Juventus. Even Lewandowski came under pressure at Bayern Munich for failing to prove his worth in the Champions League. Nawalka needs all of his stars in top form in a difficult group, and

Poland might be in trouble if many of them underperform. Finding the right balance in midfield between Krychowiak and Zielinski is another major issue.

STAR PL AYER Robert Lewandowski probably could be considered the greatestever Polish footballer already, but he needs a major achievement with the national team to cement his place in history. He is Poland’s most prolific player of all time, overtaking Wlodzimierz Lubanski with 52 goals in 93 matches. His form for Bayern was magnificent, with 39 goals in all competitions, but his leadership qualities will come under the spotlight in Russia. Lewandowski had a relatively quiet tournament at Euro 2016, scoring just once, and must be much more efficient at the World Cup if Poland are to go far and become the dark horses.

PREDICTION If everything clicks, Poland can be a dark horse and go very far, because

they have the right ingredients and a good balance. On the other hand, their rivals in Group H especially Senegal and Colombia are extremely dangerous, and the adventure could easily end after just three fixtures. It really could go either way. They are a team with potential with a tricky but not impossible draw, it wouldn’t be a surprise if they make the quarter finals.


SENEGAL CAPTAIN: CHEIKHOU KOUYATE M AN AGER: ALIOU CISSE NICKN AME: THE LIONS OF TERANGA FIFA RANK: 28 HOW THEY QUALIFIED: WINNERS OF AFRICAN GROUP D (ROUND THREE) AHEAD OF BURKIN A FASO PREFERRED SYSTEM: 4-3-3 STAR PL AYER: SADIO M ANÉ (LIVERPOOL) ONE TO WATCH: M’BAYE NI ANG (TORINO, ON LOAN FROM MIL AN)

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. He had an outstanding Champions league campaign for Liverpool and is entering the World Cup fully fit.

ROAD TO RUSSI A Senegal qualified unbeaten from CAF’s Group D after taking 14 points from their six matches, winning four and scoring 10 goals.

Their campaign wasn’t completely plain sailing, however, and they were made to wait for qualification after letting a 2-1 lead away at Burkina Faso slip in the 88th minute. They were helped by Cape Verde’s slow start and the Stallions’ inconsistency, and wrapped up qualification with victory over South Africa in Polokwane.

STRENGTH Cisse has options across the park, with a wealth of talented forward options, a clutch of rugged and powerful midfielders and the kind of central defensive options that mean the squad can absorb the likely absence of Kara Mbodji because of injury. The key area of strength, however, is in midfield, where Idrissa Gueye performs a key duty, snuffing out opposition attacks and protecting his defence. He has not enjoyed his best campaign at Everton this term, but


his defensive numbers have rivalled those of N’Golo Kante in recent seasons, and he’s the centrepiece of a strong unit that should contain the likes of Kouyate, Alfred N’Diaye and Cheikh N’Doye.

WEAKNESS Despite succeeding in ending Senegal’s wait for a return to the World Cup, doubts persist about Cisse’s aptitude as a coach, particularly when it comes to tactical decisions. Even with the significant attacking options at his disposal, he has yet to truly meld Senegal into a fearsome offensive team, and Cisse has yet to get the best out of his team as an attacking force. Keita Balde, M’Baye Niang and Ismaila Sarr are potentially magnificent supporting actors for Sadio Mane, but they’ve rarely shown anything close to their best for the national side.

STAR PL AYER Sadio Mane may not have received the same acclaim as he did during

his first season at Liverpool, when he was named his team’s Player of the Year despite a stop-start campaign, but he remains one of the Premier League’s outstanding talents. To date, he has weighed in with 17 contributions in the top flight, 10 goals and seven assists while he also played a key role in firing Liverpool into another Champions League final. Only the imperious Mohamed Salah has been more influential in Liverpool’s campaign, Mane has nine goals in ten outings but could the forward step out of his rival’s shadow in Russia?

PREDICTION Senegal have the raw material and the talent to emulate the class of 2002 and reach the quarterfinals. However, it remains to be seen whether Cisse is the man to pull the various elements of this team together to forge a side that can get the best out of its key assets. The evidence of the recent

international break suggests that the coach, a veteran of the 2002 squad, is no closer to stumbling upon the truly effective formula that would see them past Colombia, Poland and Japan. However, Senegal have already stunned the watching world once on the grandest stage of all, and if this collective can click, they’re capable of doing so once again. It’s tough for them but you can’t completely count them out.


COLOMBIA CAPTAIN: RADAMEL FALCAO M AN AGER: JOSE PEKERM AN NICKN AME: LOS CAFE TEROS FIFA RANK: 16 HOW THEY QUALIFIED: FOURTH IN THE SOUTH AMERICAN BEHIND BRAZIL, URUGUAY AND ARGENTIN A PREFERRED SYSTEM:4-2-3-1 STAR PL AYER: JAMES RODRÍGUEZ (BAYERN MUNICH, ON LOAN FROM REAL M ADRID) ONE TO WATCH: DAVINSON SÁNCHEZ (TOT TENH AM HOTSPUR)

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. That is an indication of the fact 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. Colombia had their best results when they were more defensive and compact between the lines, hitting on the counter with speed and very few passes.

ROAD TO RUSSI A Colombia’s qualifying campaign wasn’t long-suffering but it wasn’t a walk in the park either. They lost points against the stronger teams, but they always capitalized on the weaker ones. They lost both of their games against Argentina and couldn’t manage any wins against Brazil, Uruguay or Chile. Their best moments were a clear win over then unbeaten Ecuador and a tie in Lima on the final matchday against Peru, which earned them automatic qualification.

STRENGTH It’s clear that Colombia has the players to compete against the very best. They have players used to playing in the top European leagues at every position, led by James Rodriguez and Radamel Falcao. The Bayern Munich No.10 finished top scorer at the 2014 World Cup and arrives in Russia in top shape, he’s already one of the tournament’s favorites to score the most goals.


Falcao also has high personal expectations for this tournament after missing the last World Cup through injury. Colombia’s 2014 World Cup squad adds two new center-backs who will mark an era: Davinson Sanchez and Yerry Mina. They make up a solid backline with Santiago Arias and Frank Fabra while other quality players like Juan Cuadrado and Luis Muriel boost the team.

WEAKNESS Even though the Colombia national team has participated in the bigger international tournaments over the past few cycles, they have come up short against the best teams in the top competitions. They need to believe they have the individual and collective assets required to defeat anyone. Another issue that’s come up after Brazil 2014 is the lack of strength in the midfield. They are too often overplayed in that area, which negates their quality at both ends. Jose Pekerman should go for a dynamic and creative midfield in

order to boost his forwards.

STAR PL AYER

James Rodriguez was already Colombia’s best player before the 2014 World Cup but nobody expected he would become one of the best in the world. At 22, he ended up being the tournament’s top scorer and the leader of the best team Colombia has ever deployed at a World Cup. He added personality and attitude to lead his team in each and every game he played. Nowadays, as a more mature player with experience at two of the top clubs in Europe and coming off a good season at Bayern Munich, Colombian fans will be expecting a lot of him.

PREDICTION If they aim to match their performance in Brazil, they will have to defeat England or Belgium in the round of 16, either of which would be a spectacular challenge for a group of players eager to show their worth. To reach the quarterfinals would be a resounding success while the least expected accomplishment for

an acceptable performance would be a victory in the Round of 16. In qualifying they struggles against the top teams, which indicates they might not progress as high as their quarter final appearance 4 years ago.


JAPAN CAPTAIN: M AKOTO H ASEBE M AN AGER: AKIRA NISHINO NICKN AME: SAMURAI BLUE FIFA RANK: 60 HOW THEY QUALIFIED: WINNERS OF ASI AN GROUP B (ROUND THREE) AHEAD OF SAUDI ARABI A PREFERRED SYSTEM: 4-3-3 STAR PL AYER: KEISUKE HONDA (PACHUCA) ONE TO WATCH: YOSUKE IDEGUCHI (GAMBA OSAKA)

Japan have traditionally preferred a possession-based style though that was under Vahid Halilhodzic as he demanded 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, in other words preferred Japan’s traditional approach. This ultimately led to his firing making it very difficult to know what to expect from new manager Akira Nishino. If the likes of Shinji Okazaki of Leicester City can be better utilized and a different method of coaching they can be a force going forward. Although is there enough time to implement a change? Chaos appears a real issue.

ROAD TO RUSSI A Despite a turbulent campaign, Japan won their group in Asian qualifying to secure their place at the finals, finishing ahead of Saudi Arabia by a solitary point to advance to a sixth consecutive World Cup. A 2-0 win

over Australia in their penultimate game saw them book their place and secure first position in the group, claiming one of two automatic berths at the finals as a result.

STRENGTH An experienced group of players at their core, several of whom will be appearing at their third World Cup, means Japan will go into the finals in Russia knowing what lies ahead when they take on Poland, Senegal and Colombia. Eiji Kawashima, Keisuke Honda, Yuto Nagatomo, Shinji Okazaki and captain Makoto Hasebe all played in 2010 and 2014 and it will be up to them to give the team the much-needed lift behind the scenes after a difficult lead-in to the finals. Japan’s comfort in possession remains a positive.

WEAKNESS After a disjointed qualifying campaign and a difficult set of friendlies in the buildup to the finals, the sacking of Vahid Halilhodzic has caused significant turbulence within


a squad that has been left with just two months to repair the damage under new coach Akira Nishino. The former Gamba Osaka boss, who won the Asian Champions League title in 2008, has never coached at a World Cup, although he led Japan at the Olympic Games in 1996, where they pulled off a surprise win over Brazil.

STAR PL AYER Keisuke Honda remains the biggest star in Japanese football, even though his influence on the pitch has been on the wane in recent times as a lack of playing time in a top level league has blunted his edge. In a team arguably lacking the personality and quality of previous editions, the bleached-blond attacker will generate the headlines at home while his influence in the dressing room, especially among the younger players, remains important. It is likely new coach Nishino will lean on Honda to lift the spirits in the buildup to the finals, and the 31-year-old has managed to reclaim some form after joining Pachuca in

Mexico after a disappointing threeand-a-half season spell with AC Milan.

PREDICTION Japan have twice reached the knockout phase of the World Cup, in 2002 and 2010, so anything less than a run to the round of 16 will be seen as unacceptable even under the circumstances the Japan Football Association created by firing Halilhodzic. But Japan have been in a steady decline for much of the past decade, with some attractive football failing to mask the shortcomings of the Samurai Blue. Nishino was appointed in mid-April and will have less than a handful of matches to put over his message to a squad that is low on morale and also lacking the quality of previous incarnations. It’s hard to see anything other than a first round exit for Japan, should they go into the final round of group games with a chance of advancing, that could be deemed to be something of a success.

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E T A M I T L U : E D I U G L E V TRA A I S S U R The world's largest country offers it all, from historic cities and idyllic countryside to artistic riches, epic train rides and vodka-fuelled nightlife. Russia will offer international visitors the most dynamic possible experience as years of planning and excitement come together as they host the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Spectators, athletes and officials will enjoy a rich and varied experience amid the unique geography and

diverse cultures of the host cities. The Russians undoubted passion and fascination with sports is sure to provide a spectacle to remember. The country has succeeded in a wide variety of sports, consistently performing among the best nations at international competitions. Football, however, is the most popular sport in modern Russia. Football is universally loved and enthusiastically played year-round by the Russian people.

The quality of Russian football is on the rise, as is the performance of the Russian national and club teams. Clubs such as CSKA Moscow and Zenit St Petersburg (2005 and 2008 UEFA Cup winners respectively), Lokomotiv Moscow, Spartak Moscow and Rubin Kazan all with their remarkable achievements in the UEFA Champions League rose to prominence through their success at continental level, while Russia’s national team reached the semifinals at UEFA EURO 2008.


GET TO KNOW THE THE HOST CITIES

MOSCOW

HOST OPENING M ATCH, SEMI-FIN AL & FIN AL Founded in the 12th century, Moscow is the capital of the Russian Federation and one of the most renowned and fascinating cities in the world. It is a dynamic 21st century metropolis showcasing some of the world’s best shopping, nightlife, restaurants and culture. Moscow welcomes over four million tourists each year. Home to over 130 nationalities and 12.3 million residents, Moscow is served by three international airports and the world’s second busiest underground system. If one hasn’t visited Moscow lately, one hasn’t visited Moscow. The city is blessed with beautiful architecture and such renowned cultural landmarks as the Bolshoi Theatre, the Kremlin, the Pushkin Fine Arts Museum and the Tretyakov Gallery, to name just a few. Moscow is also home to three UNESCO World Heritage sites, including the Kremlin and Red

Square. The colourful St Basil’s Cathedral on Red Square is the symbol of both Moscow and Russia. Luzhniki Stadium is located at the centre of Moscow’s 145-hectare Olympic complex, one of the largest sports complexes in the world. Luzhniki Stadium will be the main venue and the heart of the 2018 FIFA World Cup tournament, used for the Opening Match, a semi-final and the Final. The Luzhniki sports complex stretches along the Moscow River and lies opposite the beautiful Vorob’evy Hills Natural Park. The majestic Moscow State University observation area overlooks the stadium. Moscow is surrounded by satellite towns and neighbourhoods that comprise Moscow Region. Visitors can travel by bus or train to the small Russian cities as old as Moscow, and bursting with history and charm.

SAINT PE TERSBURG

HOST ROUND OF 16 GAME, SEMIFIN AL AND M ATCH FOR THIRD PL ACE Founded by Peter I the Great in

1703 as Russia’s new imperial capital, Saint Petersburg is the ultimate embodiment of artistic talent. Europe’s best architects and Russia’s foremost creative talents, including Alexander Pushkin, Nikolay Gogol, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Dmitry Shostakovich and Joseph Brodsky, left their indelible imprints on this remarkable city. From architecture and city planning to the performing talents of the Mariinsky Opera and Ballet to the masterpieces of the magnificent Hermitage Museum, everything in this delightful city is focused on beauty and elegance. The city’s legendary drawbridges over the grand Neva River and the famous “White Nights” in June draw tens of thousands of tourists every year. Saint Petersburg city centre is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Tourism is one of the key sectors of the city’s economy. Saint Petersburg welcomes up to five million tourists each year, more than any other city in Russia. In the same artistic tradition, a new state-of-the-art 69,000-seat stadium is being constructed on


Krestovsky Island facing the Baltic Sea. Resembling a spaceship, it was designed by the famous architect Kisho Kurokawa. The stadium will have a retractable pitch, ensuring that the quality of the turf remains high regardless of the weather.

NIZHNY NOVGOROD

HOST FOUR GROUP M ATCHES, ROUND OF 16 GAME AND A QUARTER-FIN AL Due to its advantageous location on the Volga River, Nizhny Novgorod developed into Russia’s key commerce centre in the 19th century. It is one of Russia’s most traditional and beautiful cities. Famous annual trade fairs attracted the country’s merchants and wealth to the city. Nizhny Novgorod, along with its Kremlin, is beautifully situated on the hills overlooking the Volga River. The Kremlin, dating back to the

16th century, has a 2-kilometre brick fortress wall and 13 watchtowers. It stands on an elevation offering a breathtaking view of the city and its waterfront. Nizhny Novgorod is one of a hundred world cities included on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Today, Nizhny Novgorod has a population of 1.2 million and continues to grow as a key business and cultural centre in Russia. Nizhny Novgorod Stadium's design is inspired by aspects of nature in the Volga region, water and wind. At the same time, given its location near the city's most historic districts, the building must have a silhouette that is restrained and severe. The stadium seats 45,000.

KALININGRAD

HOST M ATCHES IN GROUPS B, D, E, AND G Founded in the 13th century by

knights of the Teutonic Order and formerly known as Königsberg, the capital of East Prussia, Kaliningrad is home to over 450,000 people and an important Russian Baltic seaport and gateway to Europe. Throughout its dramatic history, this ancient European city was home to a myriad of thinkers and artists including the philosopher Immanuel Kant, a life-long resident who taught at the local university; the iconic composer Richard Wagner and the romantic writer E.T.A. Hoffmann. Kaliningrad’s pride is the reconstructed Königsberg Cathedral of the 14th century. With its two chapels, Orthodox and Protestant, the cathedral is a symbol of peace and reconciliation. The region has been known from classical antiquity as a main source of amber in Europe. Around 90 per


cent of the world’s amber deposits are located here. The amber industry is still a key business in the city and attracts thousands of visitors every year. The Kaliningrad region is blessed with pristine beaches and pine sand dunes. It features the beautiful nature reserve of Kurshskaya Spit, which was included in the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2000. Kaliningrad Stadium was specifically built for Russia 2018 on Oktyabrsky Island, right in the heart of Kaliningrad. The selection of Kaliningrad as a host city has prompted the local authorities to develop the island, which for many centuries has been a wilderness, left largely untouched. After the 2018 World Cup, a new residential development will be built around the stadium, with parks, quays and embankments alongside the Pregola river.

VOLGOGRAD

HOST M ATCHES IN GROUPS A, D, G, AND H Formerly known as Stalingrad, Volgograd extends alongside the Volga River and has 1 million residents. Modern Volgograd is an important manufacturing centre, with industries that include shipbuilding, oil refining and steel and aluminium production. Volgograd and the surrounding area saw some of the heaviest battles during World War II. The Battle of Stalingrad was a turning point in the war. The 85-metre “Motherland calling” statue is Volgograd’s landmark and can be seen from any point of the city. Volgograd is a centre for ecotourism in Russia. The city is close to the unique Volga-Akhtubin floodplains, the last pristine stretch of the Volga river valleys. Lakes make up 30 per

cent of the park’s territory and count over 200 species of birds. Volgograd is a true sporting city. Yelena Isynbayeva, a multiple world pole-vaulting champion and ambassador for Russia’s bid to host the 2018 FIFA World Cup, began her sporting career in Volgograd. Volgograd Arena was built on the site of the Central stadium, at the foot of the Mamayev Kurgan war memorial. The location of the previous stadium is a Mecca for local football supporters, with the more seasoned among them able to remember European victory over Manchester United and domestic battles with Spartak Moscow. Seats 45,000.

ROSTOV-ON-DON

HOST FOUR GROUP M ATCHES AND A ROUND OF 16 CL ASH AT ROSTOV AREN A Known from the time of Herodotus as a land of warlike Scythians, the endless steppes of the Don river basin eventually became home to the freedom-loving Cossacks. The flamboyant Cossack culture is still prevalent in Rostov-onDon, a modern city of one million inhabitants overlooking the beautiful Don river. The village of “Starocherkasskaya”, located 27 kilometres from Rostov-on-Don, is the former capital of the Don Cossacks. Today it is a museum city and one of the area’s main tourist attractions. Despite its profound history, Rostovon-Don resembles a young and fresh city. The streets are romantically named Harmonious, Creative and Lucky streets. Here one can find the most unusual monuments: to a water pipe or to a newspaper reader. River Don provides the city with the serene and picturesque sand beaches and unique cuisine, featuring fish and crayfish dishes.

Rostov-on-Don is situated about 1,000 kilometres southeast of Moscow and is a key transport and cultural hub of southern Russia. Rostov arena is particular unique the varying heights of the stands allow spectators to savour not only what is happening on the pitch, but also to enjoy views of Rostov-on-Don. From the left bank of the Don, the city looks incredible and the view is worth the admission alone.

SOCHI

HOST FOUR GROUP GAMES, A ROUND OF 16 M ATCH AND A QUARTER-FIN AL The Black Sea resort of Sochi has risen to global prominence after having been awarded the 2014 Olympic Winter Games. Situated along 140 km of the coast (the longest city in Europe) and against the backdrop of the Caucasus Mountains, this resort, now commonly referred to as the “Russian Riviera”, has long been one of Russia’s most popular tourist destinations and a truly great sports city. The city offers countless opportunities for sports from mountain climbing, hang-gliding, diving, sailing, aqua bikes, skiing and much more. The famous mountain resort, Krasnaya Polyana, is located 40 km from the seacoast. In Sochi one can go skiing in the morning and sailing or swimming in the afternoon on the same day. The undisturbed forests surrounding the city are a UNESCO World Heritage site. During the preparations for the 2014 Olympic Winter Games, Sochi’s tourism infrastructure underwent significant and extensive expansion and renovation. The resulting new accommodation and transport infrastructure provides a modern and tested state-of-the-art tourism


environment for visitors attending 2018 FIFA World Cup matches in the city. Fisht Stadium was built for the Winter Olympics in February 2014, and hosted the opening and closing ceremonies.The stadium has been reconstructed for the 2018 FIFA World Cup and was reopened in 2017, where the venue hosted FIFA Confederations Cup matches.

EKATERINBURG

HOST M ATCHES IN GROUPS A, C, F AND H Uniquely located on the geographical borderline of Europe and Asia, and at the foot of the Ural Mountains, Ekaterinburg has a population of 1.4 million. The city was founded by a decree of Peter I the Great. Ekaterinburg is the fourth largest city in Russia in terms of population, and is one of twelve Russian cities with a population of over a million. During the 18th century, the city became known as Russia’s iron making centre, and it is now a modern city with world-class infrastructure that includes an efficient metro system and an excellent airport. The city is also one of Russia’s most well-known centres for the arts and one of Russia’s leading sports centres. Ekaterinburg has the third largest number of diplomatic missions in the country (after Moscow and St Petersburg). Home to one of the country's oldest football clubs, FC Ural, the stadium was built in 1953. Since then, it has been refurbished on a number of occasions. The last of these refits has been made for the 2018 FIFA World Cup. On each occasion, however, the stadium's historical façade remained untouched, as an architectural legacy.

KAZ AN

HOST FOUR GROUP GAMES, A

ROUND OF 16 M ATCH AND A QUARTER-FIN AL Kazan, one of the oldest Russian cities, celebrated its millennium in 2005. The ancient walls of Kazan recall many dramatic events, including the historic siege by Ivan the Terrible in the 16th century. Modern Kazan is the capital of the Republic of Tatarstan and is home to 1.2 million residents. This timeless city is also a city of youth, home to 30 of Russia’s largest universities and more than 180,000 students. This “culture of youth” provides Kazan with a modern and progressive vibrancy, an energy that only young people can instil.

It is also a highly diverse city with more than 100 nationalities. This diversity, coupled with a young population, has created a unique sense of tolerance, understanding and youthful optimism. Visitors will also discover the ancient and fascinating Tatar culture in Kazan. A great centre of Muslim culture and a vivid example of how different ethnicities and religions can live peacefully together for many centuries. The 16th century Kazan Kremlin is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Kazan is at the forefront of Russian sport, home to some of the best football, basketball and hockey teams in the country. Kazan Arena was designed by the


SAM ARA

HOST FOUR GROUP GAMES, ROUND OF 16 M ATCH AND A QUARTERFIN AL Samara is the capital of the Samara Region and is home to 1.1 million people. Samara is one of the most prominent Volga region cities and it is famous as Russia’s aerospace centre. During World War II, Samara became a “second capital” of Russia as all government departments and diplomatic corps were evacuated there from Moscow. Places of interest for visitors include the massive 37-metre deep Stalin’s bunker and the beautiful nature preserve, Zhigulevskie Hills, on the Volga River. Samara is an ideal city to enjoy the magnificent Volga River, the largest in Europe. The river is almost 2 kilometres wide here and has been a source of inspiration for poets and artists for centuries. An iconic landmark of Samara is a 68-metre, 20-ton monument of the Soyuz carrier rocket, built to commemorate Gagarin’s space flight.

same firm of architects as Wembley Stadium and Emirates Stadium in London. It has a unique design, which blends seamlessly into Kazan's urban landscape. Seats 45,000.

SARANSK

HOST GAMES IN GROUPS B, C, G AND H Located in central Russia, Saransk is the capital of the Republic of Mordovia and the area where all Finno-Ugric nations began. It is one of the most pleasant cities in Russia, regularly scoring high in the All-Russia city competition in recent years. This relatively small city is actively promoting sports and has commenced construction of a new, state-of-the-art 40,000-seat

football stadium. Mordovia’s athletes take part in more than 100 world, European and national competitions each year. Modern Mordovia carefully protects the unique languages and cultures of the Moksha and Erzya ethnic groups, who inhabited the area for centuries. They belong to the Finno-Ugrian group, along with the Hungarians, Finns, Estonians and others. Saransk is a frequent venue for ethnographic and folklore festivals aimed at preserving national identity, culture and customs. The arena is located in the centre of the city, on the bank of the Insar river. Seats 44,000.

Samara is a major transport hub thanks to its international airport, major railway station and busy river port. Samara Arena's design concept is dominated by the theme of space, as a tribute to the traditions of the region, and its renowned aerospace sector. Seats 45,000.

BEST DINING & NIGHTLIFE IN MOSCOW

You’ll have no problem finding a meal in Moscow. It doesn’t matter who you are, from a true food connoisseur, an unpretentious gourmand, a budget eater or a big spender you’ll always find a place to your liking. Since you’re in Russia, don’t miss the chance to try some


national dishes. It is often said that Russian cuisine no longer exists, but here are some examples for you to try. Schi, solyanka, yha and rassolnik are traditional hot soups and okroshka is cold soup usually made with kvas. Prices start from around RUB 70 and go up to about RUB 200. Come and explore the tastes of these strange names and fabulous restaurants

DR. ZHIVAGO

WWW.DRZHIVAGO.RU This place is a great example of Soviet time chic. Dr. Zhivago is a grand cafe which proves that Russian cuisine becomes modern and the purely Russian concept appears to be surprisingly fashionable and stylish. Moreover, it is a great place to have affordable luxury dinner with the Kremlin view in an historical site of the National Hotel. Why you should Book a Table Here, you will be sitting on the ground floor of the legendary Hotel Nacional with the Kremlin view. The white hall of the restaurant welcomes guests with the paintings of the most famous Soviet artists

such as Malevich and Petrov-Vodkin, and the legendary Ruby Star crowns the gold ceiling. Prices in a menu are quite affordable here.

THE BURGER BROTHERS

WWW.FACEBOOK.COM/ THEBURGERBROTHERS/ Hands down the best Burger in Russia! After taking part in a range of local food festivals, the team behind this project finally managed to open up a takeaway joint in the Red October art cluster. Some say they serve the best burgers in town. The interiors and design concept are also pretty impressive. Why you should visit This mini burger restaurant opened in November 2013 right by Mayakovskaya metro station. Although it’s tiny (just 30 square metres), it’s really homely. Besides burgers, they serve French fries, scrambled eggs and soup, plus coffee, tea, homemade lemonade and some alcoholic beverages.

BAR-HOP WITH A LOCAL WWW.LIKEALOCALGUIDE/NIKO Meet Niko! To experience the

ultimate nightlife scene in Moscow hit up Niko for an unforgettable bar-hopping experience and visit the very best Moscow bars! All local, hidden, and delicious. Enjoy fantastic drinks and food, and have a great time with friends and locals. Always best to do this at the start of the trip so you have a great idea of the lay of the land.The essence of Moscow nightlife is revealed in the city’s best cocktail bars. This experience is all about bars with great concepts: hidden, nice views, handcrafted drinks, delicious food, and non-touristic prices. Niko has the secret passwords that afford you entry to the best spots in town. You’ll meet local and foreign friends, see how the city looks at night, and have the chance to practise your Russian, English, or Spanish. If you like, you can even jump over the bar and mix cocktails for your friends together with a pro bartender. He’ll teach you about the history, recipes, and much more.


THERE IS JUST SOME THING ABOUT WAKING UP IN A NEW SE T TING, SEEING VIEWS YOU’VE ONLY READ ABOUT OR VIEWED ON INSTAGRAM, FINDING YOURSELF IN A CROWD TH AT SPEAKS A FOREIGN L ANGUAGE TH AT HELPS YOU UNDERSTAND HOW AM AZING THIS WORLD IS. IT REALLY DOESN'T H AVE TO BE AS DIFFICULT AND H ARD FOUGHT PRESSED TO TRAVEL AS SOME PAINT THE PICTURE. HERE'S OUR TOP TIPS TO TRAVEL IN COMFORT AND ACQUIRE TH AT WINK YOU DESERVE.

TRAVEL SMARTER, NOT HARDER DRESS SHARP BY DEFAULT

DRESS COMFORTABLY

Opportunity awaits the traveling man who dresses in style! Seriously, they don’t offer that unexpected opening in first class to a man who looks like a bum, or even someone who looks ordinary. They want someone who is dressed to impress and will signal to others a positive feeling through their presentation and demeanor.

You want some room in your trousers, a shirt that stays tucked or is worn un-tucked, and nothing that pinches or rubs. I love my Mavi modern series jeans as they have a tiny bit of stretch in them, which is nice when you’re about to embark on a 24 hour flight to Rio. I want to look good, but not sweat like i’m at a nightclub.

CALL YOUR CREDIT CARD COMPANIES BEFORE LEAVING Have them put a travel alert on your cards so that you don’t get a unexpected denial of service. With the recent breaches of security many card companies are being more aggressive on unusual behavior in spending. Honestly, we all agree it’s the most awkward feeling in the world.


O T W O H T I F Y A T S E H T N O P I R T


Everybody travels. Whether it’s for business, pleasure, vacation, world domination, or epic questing, at some point in our lives we all depart from the comfort of our personal “Shire” to visit another location. It might be a quick trip to the next town over for a business conference or a massive adventure halfway around the world for months at a time. No matter what kind of trip it is, one thing is certain: Our normal routines get completely thrown out the window when traveling: If you work out in a gym, suddenly you might not have access to any equipment. If you run around your neighborhood, suddenly you no longer have a familiar path to follow. If you usually prepare your own meals, suddenly you don’t have a kitchen or fridge. If you’re used to a good night’s sleep, suddenly you’re sleeping at odd hours in different time zones. We are creatures of habit, while working a normal day job we can stick to a routine pretty easily (wake up at the same time, eat all meals at the same time, work out at the same time, go to sleep at the same time). However, when we start traveling, absolutely nothing is familiar and the slightest speed bump can be enough to screw things up. Luckily, there is hope!

1. STAY ACTIVE WHILE YOU COMMUTE

For someone who is always on the go, incorporating light physical activity into your commute will help offset the detrimental effects of sitting for long periods of time, as well as provide structure to your fitness routine. For example, those

expecting a layover on a flight can plan ahead by packing their walking shoes and walking laps around the terminal. Another simple solution is to take the stairs over the elevator whenever you get the chance. If you're expecting a long layover, see if there is a gym near the airport and try to get in a quick workout or group class, or go for a quick jog around a local park. Once you've reached your destination, small changes in your daily activity can make a big difference. If you're traveling to a city and are fortunate enough to find a place to stay downtown or in an active neighborhood, take advantage! Walk to meetings when you can. Get out and explore the city.

2. USE WH AT YOU H AVE

Don't overcomplicate things. Business travel usually requires traveling light, which means carting around exercise equipment probably won't be a sustainable option. So be flexible. Incorporate bodyweight exercises you can do in your hotel room, such as crunches, pushups, or yoga, into your routine. If there are trails or a park near your lodging, go for a walk or a jog. If your hotel has a swimming pool, swim some laps. Or rent a bicycle (many cities now have some form of user-friendly bike rental system).

3. PRIORITIZE YOUR WORKOUT

Make time for your workout routine, whatever that may entail. Ideally, you should work out around the same time every day, even while traveling. Working out in the morning is typically recommended, as it allows you to clear your mind before you start the day, but you will

be most likely to succeed if you tailor your workout to your schedule. Also, technology is your friend. There are plenty of excellent apps that can help keep your fitness routine on track. These range from simple pedometers that encourage you to meet your daily step goals to apps that provide personalized daily routines and push reminders.

4. START RIGHT AWAY

Once you've settled in after a long flight or train ride, it can be difficult to find the motivation to do anything other than relaxing. Make things easy on yourself by packing your exercise clothes in luggage that's easy to access, such as a carry-on, or wearing them during your commute if you can. This way, you are dressed and ready to exercise as soon as you reach your destination.

5. TAKE CARE OF YOUR BODY

When we're outside of our normal environment, it can be easy to forget that the same rules apply as they do back home. Staying active requires maintaining a diet that makes you ready to work out. Eat right, drink plenty of water, and go to sleep at a reasonable hour, even while traveling. To make it easier on yourself, buy groceries when you can to decrease the temptation to eat out for every meal. Go easy on the after-work drinks. If you simply can't avoid going out or you just want to blow off some steam, order wisely. Although these strategies may feel like sacrifices at first, they will be worth it in the long run. Your body will thank you, and you will be fresh for your meeting the next day.


FATHER’S DAY GIFT GUIDE

Whether your looking to score with Dad this Father's Day or perhaps give out a few hints to the kids, we have you covered with our World Cup inspired gift guide! FANCHEST - THE ULTIM ATE GIF T FOR SPORTS FANS FROM $59 The perfect curated gift box of officially licensed sports gear. Everything from memorabilia and apparel to exclusive merchandise. Shop the range at www.fanchest.com

the forging bond that sports - namely national teams like soccer - can develop in the crucible of life. It is also a story of hope. The 2018 World Cup kicks off in Russia on June 14 and the backdrop for this book is the 1978 World Cup in Argentina.

M ARSH ALL AMPLIFIER FRIDGE $449.99 Beer and Sport have always gone together nicely, but this signature Marshall amp fridge takes the relationship to a whole new level. With control knobs that go all the way up to REN ALDO: A TALE OF WORLD CUP SOCCER, TERRORISM AND 11, this incredible fridge will LOVE BY JAMES S MCCREATH hold up to 4.4 cubic feet of your favorite brew and you’ll never $19.95 miss a score. McCreath’s Renaldo is a powerful story of love, political and cultural tensions and of

THE KEG STOOL KIT - TURN A KEG SHELL INTO A BAR STOOL $84.95 Give your man cave an authentic alcoholic touch with the beer keg stools. After consuming an entire beer keg, this stool kit will easily allow you to transform that empty keg into a fully functional bar stool with all the necessary hardware included. Now that's recycling! M AGNE TIC BOT TLE HOLDERS $39.99 Free up some space and make your refrigerator cooler with the magnetic bottle holders. The holders are placed on the fridge’s ceiling and come equipped with small magnets designed to suspend your beer bottle by its metallic top. This ensures you can pack your fridge as tight as can be, while never running out of brews.


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