Champions Germany firm on title defense
Defending champions Germany have appeared in 18 World Cups and won the title four times, including the 2014 tournament in Brazil. They are the only nation to have placed third or better in every decade of the World Cup since its creation in the 1930s.
Considered the ultimate tournament team, they have reached the semi-finals or final in every tournament since 2002 and are the most consistent side over the past four decades.
Coach: Joachim Loew
Toni Kroos: The brain and engine behind Germany’s game. Almost every move goes through Kroos who regularly has the most ball contacts and passing accuracy that can reach 100 percent.
The midfielder, who has enjoyed remarkable success in the last five years, having won the World Cup as well as three Champions League titles with Bayern Munich and Real Madrid, also enjoys going forward and has a powerful shot.
Marco Reus: When fit the speedy but injury-plagued winger can have a devastating impact on the game. After yet another long absence he single-handedly kept Borussia Dortmund in the top three of the Bundesliga with his goals and assists this year and on track for a Champions League spot.
Reus’s pace and the simplicity of his game are crucial for Loew’s attacking plan.
Timo Werner: The young RB Leipzig forward is expected to be the first-choice striker for Loew, ahead of the more experienced Sandro Wagner and Mario Gomez.
A great finisher with 11 goals in the Bundesliga this season, the 22-year-old needed no time to find his footing in the national team, having an even better scoring rate than in the league with seven goals in 12 internationals.
Germany completed a perfect qualification, winning all 10 matches and conceding only four goals in the campaign.
They were unbeaten for 22 matches since their Euro 2016 semi-final loss to France before the run ended with a 1-0 friendly defeat by Brazil in March.
Germany have set their sights firmly on a title defence with Loew saying they will be the hunted ones. They are expected to get through their group, which includes South Korea, Sweden and Mexico, without major problems.
Mexico expect tough path
Mexico have fallen at the last-16 stage in each of the last six World Cups — a record of extraordinary consistency but also a source of deep frustration for a soccer-mad country. Their latest painful exit was a 2-1 defeat by the Netherlands in 2014, after the award of a controversial late penalty.
Coach: Juan Carlos Osorio
Guillermo Ochoa: The goalkeeper was Mexico’s standout player at the last World Cup, with two man-of-the-match awards. He shut out hosts Brazil in a draw that put Mexico through to the knockout stage, then repeatedly frustrated the Netherlands before being beaten twice in the closing minutes. His experience and agility will be key assets in a Mexican team that is brimming with attacking talent but could be stretched in defence.
Hirving Lozano: The pacy winger has been a revelation at PSV Eindhoven this season, with 17 goals from 29 appearances in the Dutch top flight. A skilful dribbler and set-piece specialist, he scored twice in an entertaining 3-3 draw away to Belgium last November.
Javier Hernandez: ‘Chicharito’ is Mexico’s record international scorer, with 49 goals, but only three of those came in his two previous appearances at the World Cup finals.
The former Manchester United, Real Madrid and Bayer Leverkusen striker has endured a difficult season on returning to the English Premier League with West Ham United, but at 29 the hugely popular Hernandez is still one of Mexico’s most influential players.
Mexico have three wins, two losses and a draw from their last six games — defeats against Honduras and Croatia, wins over Poland, Bosnia and Iceland, and a draw against Belgium.
Mexico are drawn in Group F with Sweden, South Korea and defending champions Germany, whom they play in their opening game in Moscow on June 17. With the Germans expected to top the group, Mexico are likely to face a tough path even if they advance to the knockout stage, where they risk coming up against Brazil in the last 16.
South Korea need fast start
South Korea will be playing at their 10th World Cup finals and the tournament in Russia will mark their ninth consecutive appearance. Their best performance was in 2002 when they co-hosted with Japan, reaching the semi-finals where they lost to Germany. They have not been past the last 16 since.
Coach: Shin Tae-yong
Son Heung-min: The dynamic forward has enjoyed a fine season in the Premier League with Tottenham Hotspur, carving out a place for himself in one of England’s top sides. South Korea’s only true world-class player, Son can expect to be tightly marked in Russia and national team coach Shin must find a way to take some of the scoring burden off the 25-year-old.
Ki Sung-yueng: The experienced defensive midfielder has finally returned to full fitness after a knee injury sustained on international duty last June, which sidelined him for several months. The 29-year-old plays a crucial role for both club Swansea City and country, sitting in front of the defence to break up opposition attacks and dictating the tempo with the ball at his feet.
Kim Seung-gyu: Kim was thrust into the limelight at the 2014 World Cup where he took the gloves from the underperforming Jung Sung-ryong for the Koreans’ final group game against Belgium. A 1-0 defeat did nothing to tarnish his growing reputation and the 27-year-old has gone on to make the number one spot his own.
South Korea lost back-to-back friendlies against Northern Ireland and Poland in March, conceding five goals as their porous backline was exposed time and time again. Shin has been experimenting with formations and players since the start of the year but has yet to find the right formula. They beat Moldova and Latvia and drew with Jamaica in friendlies earlier this year.
South Korea will have to play out of their skins if they are to escape a group that also includes Germany, Mexico and Sweden. Facing the world champions last in Group F, they will need to make a fast start against Sweden in their opener. Korea have not been beaten in their first game at a World Cup since France 1998 so they will be expecting at least a point against the Swedes. Realistically, second spot is the best they can hope for, which would likely bring a second-round match against Brazil.
Swedes confident of passing group stage
The Swedes have taken part in 11 World Cup finals, with their best result coming when they hosted the tournament in 1958 and lost the final to Brazil. They also came third in the United States in 1994.
Coach: Janne Andersson
Emil Forsberg: The RB Leipzig winger has inherited both the number 10 shirt worn previously by Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the responsibility for being the team’s creative spark.
Forsberg is the outlet for many of Sweden’s counter-attacks, and his excellent close control, dribbling and shooting create plenty of opportunities for his team mates.
Robin Olsen: Tall and commanding, the FC Copenhagen goalkeeper is an excellent shot-stopper and a good performance in Russia will probably see him courted by top clubs in Europe.
Superb in the air and confident with his feet, Olsen is the last line of defence as well as the launch-pad for many of Sweden’s attacks.
Andreas Granqvist: Captain and centre-back, Granqvist is the beating heart of the Sweden team and their leader on the pitch.
Not one to pull out of a tackle or shy away from a duel, he is capable of scoring from set-pieces or from distance with his thunderous right foot.
The high of World Cup qualification has been tempered somewhat by flat friendly performances in recent months, but the Swedes have proved in qualifying that they are capable of turning it on in competitive games.
Meticulous in his preparations, Andersson has a habit of getting the results he needs, despite the limited resources at his disposal, and at the very least he and his team will be aiming to get out of the group.
Should they finish as runners-up to Germany, they will most likely face Brazil in the last 16.