The defending World Cup champions are back to defend their title, and they have their sights set on becoming the first back-to-back World Cup winners since Brazil in 1958 and 1962.
They steamrolled their way through their qualifying group in UEFA with a perfect record
of 10 wins in 10 matches, and despite the setback of their disappointing 2016 European
Championships performance, they look more than ready to make that dream a reality.
But this is a wildly different international landscape than the one they faced in Brazil almost four years ago. Even with how strong they look lately, Joachim Löw’s team aren’t the all-conquering monsters they were. The teams around them have gotten better while Germany have gotten older. And if they’re
going to reach the final of the World Cup again, they need to make good use of somebof the young talents who helped lead them to Confederations Cup glory last summer, because their aging core can’t do all the heavy lifting on their own any more.
Key player: Thomas Müller
Mexico will head to Russia convinced they can finally make a deep run in the World Cup for the fifth tournament running. But history says they’ll be going out in the round of 16 … again. El Tri hired Juan Carlos Osorio, a
Colombian nerd nicknamed “El Profesor,” with the hope that his meticulous approach can finally get them into the quarterfinals, and there have been signs that he has the team ready to finally turn them into a contender. There have also been times of abject
embarrassment. There’s talent in this El Tri team, from Chicharito and Tecatito up front to Hector
Herrera in the midfield and Hector Moreno on defense. But talent is rarely the issue for Mexico. Is Osorio a genius or an overtinkering dork? We’ll find out in Russia.
Key player: Hector Moreno
Sweden have qualified for their first World Cup since 2006, and for many it’s going to be a pleasure to see them back on the world’s biggest stage. They’re certainly no longer at the level that’s seen them finish as runners- up in one World Cup and in the top eight in five others. But they still have it within thembto be an entertaining and capable team andbone that’s going to make them a team to watch in this tournament. Over the last couple of years, Sweden have started a slow evolution to go from being an aging and slow team that struggled to keep pace with Europe’s elite, to becoming a
younger, faster, hungrier team stocked withbversatile players who can create a lot of headaches for their foes. Emil Forsberg,bVictor Lindelof, Jakob Johansson, and Viktor Claesson lead the way in Sweden’s impressive playoff qualifying win over Italy, and that same quartet and others will be ready to take on all comers in Russia.
Key player: Zlatan Ibrahimovic
To this point in their cycle, South Korea can only say they’ve done the minimum that was expected of them. They qualified directly for the World Cup, finishing second in their group without much drama. But the Koreans failed to beat Iran, and they’ve also failed to win in four of their last five friendly matches. But manager Shin Tae-Yong has been in charge only since June, having been promoted from his job as Under-20 and Under-23 manager following the sacking of Uli Stielike. It’s possible that we could see a much different South Korea after he gets a full
training camp with his squad. But this has been an underachieving team so far in this cycle, and they’ll need to improve significantly to get out of their group.
Key player: Son Heung-Min