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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 December 2018

World Cup Group F guide: Germany's strength in depth makes them firm favourites to defend title

Richard Jolly provides everying you need to know about the four nations that make up Group F of the June 14-July 15 tournament

GERMANY

How they qualified Immaculately. Germany had a 100 per cent record: 10 wins out of 10, scoring 43 goals and conceding just four. As it was Germany, there was no surprise. Yet it was a sign of their strength in depth that 10 players scored at least two goals in qualifying. They even included both full-backs, Jonas Hector and Joshua Kimmich.

Manager Joachim Low. In charge since 2006, one of the longest-serving managers in the international game has an extraordinary record, with over 100 wins. The 58 year old is aiming to join Italy’s Vittorio Pozzo as the only managers to win two successive World Cups. He also won last year’s Confederations Cup.

Player to watch Manuel Neuer. Outstanding in 2014, earning a podium position in the Ballon d’Or voting, but he has not played a club game since September because of a foot injury. Neuer is fit again now, but while Marc-Andre ter Stegen is a fine alternative, Germany will want their captain at his best.

Talking point Who will Low omit now? The Germany manager is blessed with the luxury of choice. Some excellent players, including the 2014 final goalscorer Mario Gotze and Leroy Sane, did not even make the squad. A group of reserves won the Confederations Cup. It gives Low decisions to make: does he promote the precocious ahead of the tried and trusted? Leon Goretzka, Leroy Sane and Timo Werner are three who may begin on the bench but who have the potential to be first choices who could make a major impact. But Low’s loyalty to his long-serving favourites has often been rewarded.

Prediction Low has been involved in six major tournaments, one as Jurgen Klinsmann’s assistant and five in charge. Germany have reached at least the semi-finals in all. It looks very probable they will extend that record – top the pool and their quarter-final opponents could be the Group H winners – and then it is a question if they can peak at pivotal points, as they did in 2014. That may depend on whether Jerome Boateng, another who has been injured, is available to show why he is the planet’s best centre-back, and if Thomas Muller maintains his wonderful World Cup scoring record.

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Mexico's Javier Hernandez, left, and Carlos Salcedo train at the High Performance Center in Mexico City, Mexico. Jose Mendez / EPA
Mexico's Javier Hernandez, left, and Carlos Salcedo train at the High Performance Center in Mexico City, Mexico. Jose Mendez / EPA

MEXICO

How they qualified Quickly. Only three teams qualified sooner and Mexico’s lone defeat in qualifying, 3-2 to Honduras, came after they had booked their place in Russia. They topped the Concacaf fifth round group, unlike four years earlier, when they required a play-off to reach the 2014 World Cup.

Manager Juan Carlos Osorio. A Colombian with an eclectic CV, he led Mexico to fourth place in the Confederations Cup last year and the quarter-finals of the 2016 Copa America, where they lost 7-0 to Chile. He was victorious in two-thirds of his first 45 games in charge to give him a healthy win rate.

Player to watch Javier Hernandez. Already Mexico’s record goalscorer, he only needs one more to become their joint highest in World Cups. But the striker, who was timed as the quickest player in the 2010 tournament, is coming off a disappointing season with West Ham United. Now he faces a challenge for his place from Raul Jimenez.

Talking point Can Osorio find the right formula? Remarkably, he named a different side for each of his first 44 games in charge. He also has a habit of changing formations and Guillermo Ochoa has been among those who have called for him to alight on a settled side, though he could be dropped against Sweden if Osorio wants a taller goalkeeper to deal with crosses. With only Hector Moreno guaranteed a place at the back, Osorio has found it toughest to find his best defence. A midfield containing captain Andres Guardado looks a strength, along with wingers Carlos Vela and the precocious, prolific Hirving Lozano.

Prediction Mexico are the most consistent team in the World Cup, reaching, and going out in, the last 16 in each of the last six tournaments – the 39-year-old Rafa Marquez has played in the last four – but they have not reached the last eight since 1986, and the only two times they have progressed that far have been on home soil. With Brazil potential last-16 opponents, however, it is hard to plot a path to the quarter-finals. A team that lost 4-1 to Germany in the Confederations Cup will do well to clinch second spot in the group, even if that suggests history will probably repeat itself.

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Sweden's forward Marcus Berg takes part in a training session, in preparation for the 2018 Football World Cup in Russia on May 24, 2018 in Stockholm. Jonathan Nackstrand / AFP
Sweden's forward Marcus Berg takes part in a training session, in preparation for the 2018 Football World Cup in Russia on May 24, 2018 in Stockholm. Jonathan Nackstrand / AFP

SWEDEN

How they qualified Via the long route. Sweden finished second in Group E and were pitted against Italy in the play-offs. The underdogs ensured the Azzurri will miss a World Cup for the first time since 1958 with a 1-0 aggregate win, holding their nerve and defending stoutly in a San Siro stalemate.

Manager Janne Andersson. Replaced the long-serving Erik Hamren in 2016, the year after he steered IFK Norkopping to a first Swedish title since 1989. He has forged a hard-working side, generally playing 4-4-2. Like him, they are a comparatively low-profile outfit, but they have been spirited, solid and defensively sound.

Player to watch Marcus Berg. For all France’s many superstars, Berg was the eight-goal top scorer in their qualifying group, including a spectacular long-range strike against Didier Deschamps’ team. He has become more prolific for Sweden in the last two years, as well as averaging over a goal a game for his UAE club Al Ain.

Talking point Will Sweden miss Zlatan Ibrahimovic? Their record scorer hinted he would come out of international retirement before a return was ruled out. Sweden had felt a star vehicle, built around a talisman and a younger team have been empowered in his absence. Berg has become more prolific while Emil Forsberg has flourished as the playmaker and Ola Toivonen has excelled as a false nine. Yet while a workmanlike Sweden may miss Ibrahimovic’s ability when they face more talented teams, they endured a wretched Euro 2016 with him in the side and only six of his 62 international goals came in major tournaments.

Prediction Sweden have missed the two previous World Cups so even being in Russia should rank as a success. It is 12 years since they reached the knockout stages of any tournament and that was a more gifted squad, containing a younger Ibrahimovic, Freddie Ljungberg and Henrik Larsson, who found themselves in a weaker pool. They may take heart from the way they came from 4-0 down to draw against Germany in 2012 but the probability is that their crucial group game is the last, against Mexico; Sweden may need to demonstrate the cutting edge to win it if their tournament does not end there.

South Korea's Son Heung-Min celebrates scoring in a recent friendly against Honduras. Kim Hong-Ji / Reuters
South Korea's Son Heung-Min celebrates scoring in a recent friendly against Honduras. Kim Hong-Ji / Reuters

SOUTH KOREA

How they qualified Not particularly convincingly. South Korea came second in Group A of the third round of the Asian section, behind Iran, but failed to score in four of their five away games and won none. They advanced because they only dropped two points at home.

Manager Shin Tae-yong. Took over from the sacked Uli Stielike last June and drew the two remaining qualifiers 0-0. He has changed the formation to 4-4-2. He is a former South Korea Under 23 and U20 manager and won the Asian Champions League in 2010 with Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma, leading to him to dub himself the “Asian Special One”.

Player to watch Son Heung-min. An obvious choice but the likeliest match-winner. He scored in the 2014 World Cup as a 21 year old and, after 39 goals in his last two seasons for Tottenham Hotspur, has reached another level since then, even if there are concerns that he performs better for his club than his country.

Talking point Can they do better than in 2014? The last World Cup was South Korea’s worst since 1998. They only took one point from a pool where they had looked possible qualifiers: going 3-0 down in the first half against Algeria was both surprising and costly, but they also lost to a weakened, 10-man Belgium side. Their undistinguished form in qualifying does not look auspicious. Nor do friendly defeats to Northern Ireland and Poland, though wins over Colombia and Japan in the past year offer more encouragement. Much depends on how quickly Shin can leave his imprint on the team.

Prediction A lowly world ranking (61 in May) suggests South Korea are the outsiders. Few would tip them to emulate the semi-finalists of 2002 and reaching the last 16 would represent a welcome achievement. With Germany their final group-game opponents, they may need to get the points required in the first two matches or to hope that the reigning champions have already qualified. But then Germany were able to omit their premier players and still won last season’s Confederations Cup. South Korea need a strong start against Sweden and Mexico, but their defence presents a worry, particularly at set-pieces.

Group F overview

An uncontroversial prediction: Germany will win it, potentially with nine points. If that is the case, it becomes a three-team mini-league between Sweden, South Korea and Mexico. In turn, that could come down to the question of who has the most match-winners, which may be Mexico though, in Son Heung-min, South Korea may possess the deadliest player in any of the contenders. If Sweden can defend as well as they did against Italy, their solidity and spirit could be the key. But Mexico probably merit the billing of slight favourites to join Germany in progressing.