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World Cup 2018: Team by team preview

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By Manish Pandey.

Group A:

Russia:

Russia became the first team to qualify for the World Cup as the host nation.

Russia have some good players. Alan Dzagoev and Aleksandr Golovin from CSKA offer good quality on and off the ball. They also have a tactically shrewd manager in Stanislav Cherchesov. Russia will likely line up in a 3-5-1-1 formation with the onus on Fyodor Smolov to hold up the ball and allow the midfielders to break forward. Playing the lone striker role is never easy, so Smolov will have to be ready from the first whistle.

This is generally a very young team, with a few exceptions such as Sergei Ignashevich, Yuri Zhirkov and captain Igor Akinfeev.

They will be looking to take advantage of being the home team and not being in the toughest of groups. There is no genuine powerhouse team. Uruguay will represent the toughest challenge, but, facing the lowly ranked Saudi Arabia and an Egypt team without Mo Salah, Russia will feel confident that they can progress from the group stages.

Egypt:

Egypt have had a wonderful last few years. They reached the final of the 2017 African Cup of Nations and dominated a tough CAF qualifying group to make their third-ever World Cup. All the focus, however, is on the fitness of Mo Salah. For good reason as Egypt’s entire game plan revolves around Salah.

They are a team who defend deep and defend in numbers, looking to spring on the counter-attack using Salah who will almost always remain high. They have quality in other areas, with Trezeguet on the opposite side to Salah, and a good midfield in Mohamed Elneny, Tarek Hamed and Abdallah Said.

The key issue remains Salah’s fitness. Even if only half fit, it is likely he will play. It will be a tough ask for Egypt to progress without Salah, but if he can play and provide a few individual moments of brilliance, Egypt might just have a chance of making it out the group.

Saudi Arabia:

This is the lowest ranked team in the tournament. A 1-0 win over Japan in their last game ensured they finished ahead of Australia on goal difference. Bert van Marwijk, the coach who oversaw qualification has left the job. They are now led by Juan Antonio Pizzi, a more attacking coach than van Marwijk. He wants a more open style, but the unfortunate truth is that they do not have the players to carry out such a style.

Defensively, there is nothing to give confidence. Going forward they do not have a reliable goalscorer. It would be a surprise to see them win even one game. As it is, they will likely finish bottom of this group.

Uruguay:

Uruguay are the favourites in this group. Oscar Tabarez is the very experienced and wily coach who is in his final tournament.

With Luis Suarez, Edinson Cavani and Diego Godin, Uruguay boast strong players in both boxes. Tabarez has led a shift from a more aggressive midfield style to a technical midfield. Matias Vecino has had a good season with Inter Milan, Federico Valverde can control the tempo of a game and Nahitan Nandez offers good quality from the right side.

Suarez is usually the banker for Uruguay in World Cups. Cavani will have a very important role to play, as his work rate will provide Uruguay with the tactical balance needed to ensure they do not become outnumbered in midfield. Likely to play a 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 system, Cavani is tactically the most important player.

This group is filled with unreliable defenders. Cavani and Suarez will be licking their lips at the prospect of facing Russia, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Group B:

Spain:

Spain are one of, if not the favourites, to win this World Cup. They have world-class talent from top to bottom. Defensively, they have arguably the best goalkeeper in David De Gea. They also have Cesar Azpilicueta, Sergio Ramos, Gerard Pique and Jordi Alba. Sergio Busquets, whilst slightly older and slower, still has all the qualities needed in midfield. David Silva and Andreas Iniesta are two of the finest midfielders around. Along with this experience, they have younger talent in striker Alvaro Morata, midfielders Marco Asensio, Isco and Koke.

Many in this team have the experience and know-how. They have been there and won it all. There is so much skill and talent in this Spain squad that they are rightly hotly tipped to qualify as group winners and win the entire tournament. It will be a modified version of tiki-taka in full flow, with this Spain team willing to take more risks than the team from 4 years ago.

It will be a tough first game against Portugal, but this group should not trouble Spain too much.

Portugal:

They are the reigning European champions. With a mixture of good fortune and tactical discipline, Portugal pulled off a successful Euro 2016. This time, they look worse on paper than they were two years ago.

The club form of many players has dropped. The team is still so reliant on Cristiano Ronaldo. His 15 goals in the qualification campaign ensured Portugal’s qualification.

Tactically, Fernando Santos will likely play a narrow 4-4-2 diamond midfield with Ronaldo playing upfront alongside Andre Silva. He may alter for the opening game against Spain, playing Ronaldo as a lone striker and playing another midfielder. Santos would love a draw in the opening game and back his team to win the remaining two. The centre-backs are older and less mobile which means the full-backs will not be able to bomb forward as frequently. This means less width going forward.

If Ronaldo turns up and has a storming tournament, Portugal will have the firepower to go far. If, however, Ronaldo has a quiet time, Portugal will struggle to leave the group.

Morocco:

Morocco are an exciting and rising football nation. They have an excellent coach in Herve Renard, who has won the Africa Cup of Nations twice. They have exciting midfielders and solid defenders.

Morocco’s outstanding defensive record puts them in a good position. Mehdi Benatia is one of the best centre-backs in the tournament, and right-back Nabil Dirar provides excellent runs forward. Nordin Amrabat is a tricky customer out wide and Hakim Ziyech on the left has shown glimpses of brilliance for Ajax.

Although they may not have an outstanding striker to guarantee goals, the excellent defence should offset that. If they can keep it tight at the back and find a few goals going forward, Morocco could be the surprise package at this World Cup.

Iran:

Coached by the tactical master Carlos Queiroz, Iran are firmly the underdogs in Group B. They are very well organised and defensively solid, keeping 12 consecutive clean sheets through their qualification campaign.

Queiroz will set Iran up in a 4-5-1 formation, with a low block and many men behind the ball, looking to frustrate his opponents. The problem with this is that there are not many attackers with the skill to counter-attack effectively. Sardar Azmoun has a good international goalscoring record, but the greatest threat is probably winger Alireza Jahanbakhsh who is probably the most adept at counter-attack.

It will not be fun to watch Iran, and they will likely not qualify from this group, but nor will they be humiliated.

Group C:

France:

France probably have the best squad of all at this tournament. Strength in depth across all areas with so many top players still being left at home.

Tactically, France manager Didier Deschamps has a dilemma. With many quality players to choose from, he has struggled to decide on his best XI and the system he should play. Antoine Griezmann would prefer a 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-1-1 where he could play as the No 10 behind a presence like Olivier Giroud. Paul Pogba, however, would prefer a 4-3-3 where he would have a free role. This dilemma is likely to see Deschamps rotate his system more often than not.

With the likes of Ousmane Dembele and Kylian Mbappe further forward and N’Golo Kante in midfield, France have a lot of energy and pace in the team. In defence, there is more speed, with Samuel Umtiti and Raphael Varane coming off good club seasons.

France should qualify from this group, but Deschamps will have to make sure that he settles on a tactically astute system for the latter stages of the competition.

Denmark:

Although Denmark needed the playoffs to qualify for the World Cup, they are the second favourites to qualify from this group.

The team is set up around the talents of Christian Eriksen. In a 4-2-3-1 formation, coach Age Hareide sets up with 2 holding midfielders, allowing Eriksen to roam and control the tempo of the game whilst also being able to bomb forward. Pione Sisto and Yussuf Poulsen give natural width and speed which gives Eriksen space in the middle to create chances.

Defensively, Denmark are well-organised, though prone to the occasional mistake. With the genius of Eriksen, Denmark should be able to get through and give the bigger teams something to think about.

Peru:

Coached by Ricardo Gareca, Peru play an open and fast tempo brand of football. They have been handed a big boost as Paolo Guerrero, their all-time top goalscorer, has been allowed to play following multiple appeals after a failed drugs ban.

Andre Carillo and Edison Flores give natural width to this team, allowing Peru to stretch the play and dominate possession. The attacking style of Peru comes at a cost, however, with the other teams in this group being able to exploit the spaces they will leave. France and Denmark in particular have the players who can make the most of the open spaces that Peru will leave defensively.

Peru’s style of play makes them unpredictable which means they could cause an upset and find a way through.

Australia:

Australia are the outsiders in this group. Coached by Bert van Marwijk, their style of play can be predicted by looking at van Marwijk’s style with the Netherlands in the 2010 World Cup. It will not be pretty or easy on the eye.

Australia’s strength is their midfield. Mile Jedinak works well with Aaron Mooy, with Robbie Kruse and Matthew Leckie providing experience from the last World Cup.

The lack of prowess both defensively and in attack hampers Australia and makes it obvious why van Marwijk will play in a negative way. Tim Cahill will provide a threat from the bench but there is no obvious goalscorer in the XI. Defensively, the Australians had a poor record in qualification and facing attackers from France, Denmark and Peru will not be an easy task.

Group D:

Argentina:

With the greatest of respect to the likes of Sergio Aguero, Angel Di Maria and Gonzalo Higuain, Argentina’s chances rest on the shoulders of Lionel Messi.

Jorge Sampaoli is a creative and exciting manager, though for this World Cup, he will have to be more conventional. Usually favouring an energetic style of play, Sampaoli does not have the players to play in such a way. Defenders such as Federico Fazio and Nicolas Tagliafico do not have the pace to play a high line. Nicolas Otamendi, whilst having a good season for Manchester City, has been exposed in 1v1 situations which can often happen in a high line.

The team is built around Messi. He will have the freedom to drift from the No 10 position, which requires the midfielders around him to be very tactically disciplined. Losing Manuel Lanzini is a blow because he is one of the smarter midfielders in the Argentina squad. Many of Argentina’s big names, such as Aguero, Di Maria, Higuain and Javier Mascherano have failed to bring their club form to the national team, which puts even more pressure on Messi.

A 6-1 loss to Spain in March showed the limitations of this team. Messi’s presence means Argentina can never be counted out. The lack of supporting quality, however, might mean success for Argentina this year could be a step too far, even with Messi.

Iceland:

Iceland’s performance at Euro 2016 was one of the stories of the tournament. They are happy to play direct and defensive football, not caring about how it may look on television.

Gylfi Sigurdsson is the most important player in this team, as he has the genuine quality to create chances through open play and through set pieces. Iceland will be well-organised defensively, with the defenders and midfielders working well to ensure protection. Coach Heimir Hallgrimson will likely use a 4-4-2 system, with 2 banks of 4 allowing defensive organisation. Going forward, Iceland will rely heavily on long balls and the famous long throws of Aron Gunnarsson.

The difficulty of the group means Iceland may not be able to emerge from this group. However, Iceland’s opponents will not find it easy to break through.

Croatia:

Croatia are one of the dark horses of this World Cup. They have one of the best midfields in the competition, with Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic. The likes of Marcelo Brozovic and Mateo Kovacic will provide good support in midfield to the outstanding Modric and Rakitic duo.

With Mario Mandzukic, a genuine world-class player, Croatia offer a threat in attack. Defensively, however, Croatia are quite weak. They have a goalkeeper in Danijel Subasic who often makes mistakes. The speed of the defence is on the slow side too. Off the pitch, there are also problems.

Zlatko Dalic was appointed as manager just before the playoffs so the chemistry between coach and players may not be strong. There is also a disconnect between fans and players due to ongoing corruption cases involving players.

Croatia often flatter to deceive. With some quality players, they tend to be much fancied to achieve great things, with the reality all so often being very different. If they can get their act together, they could cause a surprise in this World Cup.

Nigeria:

Nigeria are a genuine counter-attacking team. Being in a tough group, it is not a bad thing for them to be set up to counter-attack.

Alex Iwobi, Victor Moses and Kelechi Iheanacho are three genuine Premier League players who offer speed and creativity going forward. This is complimented by a strong midfield consisting of Jon Obi Mikel and Wilfried Ndidi, both proven in the Premier League.

Defensively, Nigeria are not spectacular but satisfactory. They do not yet know who will be in goal with both Ikechukwu Ezenwa and Francis Uzoho not showing enough reliability.

Much like Iceland, Nigeria are not fancied to go through, but have enough quality to cause opposition teams a problem.

Group E:

Brazil:

This is not the Brazil of decades gone by. It is not samba football with the all thrilling flair of Ronaldinho, Kaka, Rivaldo and Ronaldo. It is more functional. The impact of the coach Tite should not be underestimated.

After the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics, Brazil as a sporting nation has been in a tough spot with corruption charges and underperformance. Tite has brought back the connect between the team and the fans.

The forward line of Brazil is the strength, with Neymar, Gabriel Jesus and Coutinho. There are adequate backups in Douglas Costa, Willian and Roberto Firmino. They also have a strong midfield, with Paulinho playing the role of the box-to-box midfielder, Fernandinho playing slightly more forward than at Manchester City and Casemiro playing the holding role. WIth Fred also an option, Brazil have talented options in both midfield and attack.

Defensively, however, is where Brazil have a problem. Dani Alves is out injured meaning he will likely be replaced by Danilo, who is not convincing defensively. Marcelo is an outstanding threat going forward but is often a liability defensively. The partnership of Thiago SIlva and Marquinhos is solid, with Alisson a good goalkeeper. As a unit, though, questions remain about this defence.

There is once again a lot of pressure and expectation on Neymar. He has recently recovered from an injury creating questions over his fitness. With the talent in this team, exiting the group should not be a problem. The reliance on individuals, however, means they may not be a team to bank on in the latter stages of the competition.

Switzerland:

Switzerland will once again be an organised team. They are a good team defensively with excellent full backs in Stephan Lichtsteiner and Ricardo Rodriguez. Rodriguez also provides a threat with his set pieces.

In midfield, Switzerland are strong with limited creativity. In Valon Behrami, Granit Xhaka and Blerim Dzemaili, they have a solid midfield. The onus will once again be on Xherdan Shaqiri to provide the spark and moments of individual brilliance, much like he did in the 2014 World Cup.

Breel Embolo will provide speed going forward but a lack of a genuine goalscorer will hurt Switzerland. They will be aiming to get out of the group and anything beyond that will be seen as a bonus.

Costa Rica:

Costa Rica were one of the surprise packages at the last World Cup, winning a tough group including England, Italy and Uruguay. To write them off because they are the weakest team in the group would be a mistake.

It is very much a similar team to the last World Cup, with the 3-4-3 system remaining. Bryan Oviedo and Christian Gamboa are excellent wing-backs and Johnny Acosta, Oscar Duarte and Giancarlo Gonzalez have a good understanding of the back 3 system.

Costa Rica have two main attacking threats in Bryan Ruiz and Joel Campbell. Both tend to combine well in the counter-attack and work well with the two wing-backs.

With a strong defensive record and an ability to face down tough odds, Costa Rica will be difficult opponents to face and could make the knockout stages.

Serbia:

Serbia have a talented squad across all areas of the pitch. Their main challenge is finding consistency and cohesion within the group.

Defensively, Serbia have good defenders, a trait of the last 10 years in Serbian football. Proven quality in Branislav Ivanovic and Aleksandar Kolarov with the promising Matija Nastasic.

In midfield, Nemanja Matic and Luka Milivojevic are strong midfielders and could dominate most of the group games. Further forward, Dusan Tadic and the much talked about Sergej Milinkovic-Savic will have the responsibility of creating chances. Aleksandar Mitrovic is the big man up front and will rely on balls in the box to get goals.

There is a lot of expectation on this team. Yet, the likes of Sergej Milinkovic-Savic are still raw and should not be burdened with too much pressure. The change of captain from Ivanovic to Kolarov cannot have helped.

The variety in this group makes it an intriguing watch.

Group F:

Germany:

Germany are the reigning world champions and Germany are a better team than 4 years ago, on paper at least.

Believe it or not, Germany did have flaws in their team last time. An issue in defence, midfield and attack. This time around, they are better placed. A defensive unit consisting of Jonas Kimmich, Jerome Boateng, Mats Hummels, Jonas Hector and Manuel Neuer appears very strong.

A midfield of Toni Kroos, Sami Khedira, Mesut Ozil, Thomas Muller and Marco Reus has everything. In attack, Timo Werner gives speed and there are very good alternatives in Julian Draxler, Julian Brandt and Mario Gomez. The omission of Leroy Sane has raised questions, particularly after an outstanding club season, but his form for Germany has rarely been good and he has not yet found a way to fit into Joachim Low’s system.

The biggest advantage Germany have over their rivals is that they are a team that can play in a variety of ways. They are as adept in a possession style as they are to a counter-attacking style. They can press well or they can sit back.

The main concern for Germany will be fitness. Boateng and Neuer have only recently recovered from injury so will be lacking match sharpness. Mesut Ozil has missed games in the closing weeks of the season. Other than that, Germany are very well placed to retain their title.

Mexico:

Mexico will provide a familiar style of team at this World Cup. They will be a team with speed, creativity and intensity. Coached by Juan Carlos Osorio, they have tactical variety being able to shift between a 4-3-3 and 3-4-3.

Midfield is the strength for this team. Hector Herrera was excellent at the last World Cup and has had a stellar club season. Andres Guardado is the driving force from the midfield and is capable of brilliance.

Going forward, Javier Hernandez will be the key man once again. He is a proven goalscorer and his speed and instincts will be crucial for Mexico. They also have players who can produce moments of magic, such as Hirving Lozano, Giovani dos Santos, Raul Jimenez and Carlos Vela.

The tactical flexibility and style of Mexico will make them an interesting watch. They may not reach the latter stages of the competition, but they will certainly entertain.

Sweden:

A Sweden team without Zlatan Ibrahimovic. They do not really have any spectacular individual players who can light up a game. What they do have, though, is a great team spirit and a coach in Janne Andersson who has trained his players to execute the basics at a very high level.

Sweden are well-organised, playing a direct 4-4-2. They often go long to Marcus Berg, utilising the second ball and knock downs. They have individuals who have good skills. Seb Larsson is a set piece specialist who can deliver from free-kicks and corners. Emil Forsberg is a good winger who can beat a man and deliver quality crosses.

It might seem simple. 4-4-2 is often seen as outdated. For teams without extraordinary talents, though, simplicity is often the best way for them to cause problems to the opposition.

South Korea:

Much like Sweden, South Korea are a team lacking quality across the pitch, with the notable exception of Son Heung-min of Tottenham Hotspur. They will also play 4-4-2, though having a greater emphasis on the technical side.

Ki Sung-yeung is a midfielder who provides calm and can help create chances for the likes of Son to take advantage of. There are high hopes in South Korea for Lee Jae-sung, but he is still young and unproven.

Defensively, South Korea are poor and had a poor end to the qualification campaign. Much will depend on Son and whether South Korea can get enough players to support him so he can cause damage in the opposition third. It is unlikely they will progress from this group.

Group G:

Belgium:

Belgium are once again one of the fancied teams for this World Cup. They have genuine world class talent through the team. Their main challenge will be finding a structure to get the best out of these players.

Roberto Martinez has attempted to solve Belgium’s problem of having plenty of centre backs by playing a 3 man defence. Vincent Kompany, Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld occupy those positions but all three have  fitness issues. The downside to this system is not having proper wing-backs, with Thomas Meunier and Yannick Carrasco playing in those positions.

It is in attack where Belgium are strong. Axel Witsel and Kevin de Bruyne will play in midfield. Whilst this may leave them open defensively, it provides them with plenty of creativity to supply the attackers. In Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku, Belgium have two outstanding attackers who can play both pushed forward and on the counter-attack.

They should qualify from this group quite easily, but their defensive shortcomings could be exposed against the better teams later in the competition.

England:

There is optimism around England at this World Cup. Not because people think they can win the competition, but because this is a young team that has an identity.

Gareth Southgate has made it clear he wants England to play with the ball, play out from the back and dominate possession. He also favours a back 3 system. The system is innovative, but questions remain whether the players are good enough to play the positions.

The possible defenders who could in the back 3 are John Stones, who did not play much for Manchester City at the end of the season, Gary Cahill, who is not good enough on the ball, Harry Maguire, who had a good season at Leicester City, Kyle Walker, who is not a natural centre-back and Phil Jones, who makes errors.

At wing-back, England have options with Kyle Walker, Kieran Trippier, Danny Rose and Ashley Young all good enough to perform that role.

It is in midfield that England have a big weakness. There is no natural playmaker, with Jordan Henderson and Eric Dier both workhorses and Fabian Delph not used to playing in midfield after a season at full back. England will struggle to control the tempo in games, particularly when facing teams who will defend such as Panama and Tunisia.

Going forward, England may only have one world-class striker in Harry Kane, but they do have several young players with talent in abundance. 3 of Kane, Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard, Raheem Sterling and Dele Alli will start in Russia, giving England excellent starting options and bench strength.

England should qualify from this group and will likely falter when tested against the bigger stages in the later stages of the tournament, but, cautious optimism is the order of the day.

Panama:

It is a debut World Cup for Panama. They are not expected to qualify from the group and simply reaching this stage is a great achievement for them.

There is a lot of footballing experience in this Panama squad. Coach Hernan Dario Gomez will likely opt for a very defensive system, playing 5 at the back and keeping the midfield and attack quite deep. They do have experienced quality up front in Blas Perez and Luis Tejeda, who despite being over 35, have got a knack for scoring goals for Panama.

It will be tough for Panama. They will likely spend lots of time without the ball and behind the ball, with little obvious attacking plan. The wingers and midfielders are gutsy but lacking skill.

To gain even a point in their debut World Cup will be an achievement and will likely determine the way they play.

Tunisia:

Like Panama, Tunisia will likely be defensive and aim to play for draws. They are a team lacking individual brilliance and should not cause too much of an issue for the bigger teams in the group.

In defence, Tunisia will be organised and well-drilled. The full backs will keep the line ensuring they stay compact and the two holding midfielders will sit deep attempting to cut out any danger.

In attack, Tunisia will be relying on Naim Sliti, who offers speed and could pose a threat on either flank. Wahbi Khazri is the most creative player in Tunisia’s team and he also provides a danger through set piece opportunities, which will be Tunisia’s best chance to threaten the opposition’s goal.

Like Panama, it is unlikely Tunisia will cause much of a problem for both England and Belgium.

Group H:

Poland:

Poland are a team with a few big names, notably Robert Lewandowski, which means they are firmly in contention to make it out of this difficult group.

Lewandowski is perhaps the best out and out striker in the world, and whilst his international form has not always replicated his club form, he is the kind of player who could take Poland through on his own.

Under coach Adam Nawalka, Poland will play in a similar way to previous tournaments. They will line up with 2 holding midfielders and 2 wingers who will be energetic enough to bomb back and forth. Grzegorz Krychowiak will be one of those midfielders, and whilst having a tough season with West Brom, he has the characteristics to play the holding role effectively.

Supporting Lewandowski in trying to create goals will be Kamil Grosicki, who has the pace to counter-attack effectively. Defensively, Poland have been poor. It is the lack of an organised defence which could prove costly to Poland’s chances to qualify from this group.

A difficult group means results could go in Poland’s favour, but they need to address the weaknesses or else find themselves going home very early.

Senegal:

Senegal are a physical side who can counter-attack very effectively, which could just work in their favour. In a tough group, this style could see them going through.

Coached by Aliou Cisse, Senegal are a disciplined and organised 4-3-3 side who use possession well. Cisse is a smart tactician and understands the World Cup, having captained his country to the quarter-finals in 2002.

Midfield is the strong suit for this team, with Premier League duo Idrissa Gueye and Cheickhou Kouyate providing plenty of energy to win the ball and press forward quickly. They link well with the forwards, with Sadio Mane being the key player for Senegal. There is a big expectation for Mane to replicate his club form for Senegal. With the midfield of Gueye and Kouyate and forward line of Mane, Mame Biram Diouf, Senegal have an effective counter-attack.

Defensively, Senegal will rely heavily on Kalidou Koulibaly, who plays for Napoli. Other than him, there is little to give confidence in Senegal’s defensive abilities, with Abdoulaye Diallo being a rocky figure in goal.

Colombia:

Colombia are the favourites to qualify from this group and have a team which could cause problems for some of the bigger teams in the later stages of the competition.

Coached by Jose Pekerman, Colombia will play an exciting style of football. They will have a high line with the speedy duo of Yerry Mina and Davinson Sanchez in defence. They will play with two holding midfielders to allow James Rodriguez the freedom to roam and create from the No 10 position. He is the key man in this system, as he was the outstanding player in the 2014 World Cup and often provides the energetic and creative link from midfield to attack. This will be a 4-2-3-1 formation, though Pekerman has often used a 4-3-2-1 in tougher away games.

Up front, the emphasis will once again be on Radamel Falcao. He is a proven goalscorer for Colombia and is in good form leading into the World Cup.  Juan Cuadrado offers a threat from the flank and will be hoping to display some of the form he showed before and after his move to Chelsea.

Defensively, Colombia are well-structured, though David Ospina has been making mistakes in goal, which Colombia can ill-afford at this tournament. They will be a tough team to beat and should make it to the knockout stages.

Japan:

Japan will be an excellent technical side to watch, though their preparation has been far from ideal. Akira Nishino became coach only 2 months ago, which leaves a bit of a mystery around tactics and system.

Japan have some wonderful individual players. Shinji Kagawa will likely play in the No 10 role as a playmaker, and he has the ability to run with the ball, which will be key for Japan’s counter-attack. Keisuke Honda is a World Cup hero for Japan having scored at the last two, and he will once again provide a threat from the right side. Shinji Okazaki is a hardworker and though he may not get the goals, he provides Japan with the energy they need in the final third of the pitch.

Makoto Hasebe is a key figure in this team. He provides calmness in midfield and has an excellent range of passing. He also has a tactical flexibility which helps Japan play different systems. Hasebe has often dropped deep into defence allowing a 3 man defence to be played. This adds to the unpredictability of trying to set up against Japan.

Defensively, Japan are a mixed bag. They have solidity in the central zone with Maya Yoshida of Southampton and Tomoaki Makino providing a strong core. In the full back position, however, Yuto Nagatomo is no longer at his best and his lack of speed could hurt Japan in a group with devastating counter-attackers.

Japan could make it through this group, but they will likely rely on other results to secure their place in the knockouts.

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Euro 2016: Tournament Preview

Euro 2016 is upon us… all rights are reserved for this image ©

By Manish Pandey.

A 24 team tournament. Bigger. Maybe better. Certainly more complicated. To accommodate the expansion, there has been a change in the format of the tournament. 2 extra groups in the group stage and an extra knockout round.

The six groups (A-F) would contain 4 teams each, with the top 2 from each group going through to the knockout stage. In the new format, the 4 best third-ranked sides would also progress, leaving 16 teams going into the new round of 16 knockout stage, ahead of the usual quarter-finals, semi-finals and final, and only 8 teams going out at the group stage.

Beyond the structure, it is the football in the tournament and the teams in the tournament which will catch the eyes of every ardent football fan and many part-time fans alike.

Group A contains France, Romania, Albania and Switzerland.

France are the hosts and will be spurred on by the home support. They will expect to qualify with ease in this easy group and will believe they can go all the way. They have, on paper, the most balanced team of all the teams. Defensively they have solidity and experience in the likes of Bacary Sagna, Laurent Koscielny, Patrice Evra and Hugo Lloris. In midfield, they have the power and skill of N’Golo Kante, Paul Pogba, Yohan Cabaye and Blaise Matuidi.

France have a unique blend of pace, power and athleticism, which can be adapted to suit different styles of playing. They’ll be adept at keeping possession against lesser teams, but also playing a higher tempo against better teams. Attackingly, they have variety. The speed and skill of Kingsley Coman, Anthony Martial and Antoine Griezmann. The creativity of Dimitri Payet – who can also provide goals from set piece chances. The power of the in form Olivier Giroud. Giroud will be very useful against defensive teams who prove hard to break down.

Romania  have coach Anghel Iordanescu, who took Romania to the quarter-finals of USA 1994, back in the job, for his third spell. Vlad Chiriches and Costel Pantilimon are the most prominent members of the Romania squad. Romania qualified unbeaten, and no team in Europe conceded fewer than the two goals they allowed in. However, Romania also struggled to score goals, scoring only 11 in the 10 games. Romania have been effective sitting back and playing on the counter-attack, and will likely continue this approach against France and Switzerland in particular.

Albania have made it to their first ever tournament. The backbone of this team is the defence, as they only conceded 5 goals in qualifying. Taulant Xhaka (brother of Granit who is playing for Switzerland) will be an important player as he can be very versatile across defence and midfield with his intelligent dribbling and skill of winning the ball back. Amir Abrashi will also be key, as alongside Xhaka, the pair can can make quick and long passes to help start counter attacks. Like Romania, a big weakness is in the attacking areas. They have only scored 7 goals in 8 qualifying matches, and each of the 7 goals were scored by different players.

Switzerland will fancy themselves to qualify from this group in 2nd place due to the relative weaknesses of Romania and Albania. They will rely heavily on the known ‘names’ in the squad, including  Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri, with support from Valon Behrami and Gelson Fernandes. In defence, the new captain, Stephan Lichtsteiner of Juventus will be important due to his class and experience. Having won the Scudetto 5 times in a row, he will understand the standards that need to be set in this tournament.

Group B contains England, Wales, Russia and Slovakia.

England have made excellent progress since the debacle of the 2014 World Cup. They have bright young talents who do not carry the mental scars of previous tournaments. Defensively, England have genuine concerns. They have only 3 natural centre backs with Eric Dier providing back up. Chris Smalling is the only one who has had a consistently good season. In midfield, Dier will provide protection to the defence.

There are several tactical dilemmas for Roy Hodgson. Does he start Jack Wilshere alongside Dier with Dele Alli in front, leaving out Wayne Rooney? Does Rooney play in midfield in a diamond formation? Do both Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy start? England have plenty of talent, but the biggest challenge will be relying on Hodgson to get the best out of his players tactically. England have looked jaded in the warm up games, suggesting the traditional tournament fatigue has already kicked in after a long and intense season. England will be relying on the forwards to score them to victory in individual matches and the tournament. Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy whilst proving themselves in the Premier League, have yet to do it at the highest level. It will not be an easy group for England. It could be a group they struggle to escape from.

Wales are the team England will fear the most, and should they qualify, most teams will want to avoid Wales. The big focus is rightfully around Gareth Bale. One of the few genuine world-class players in the world, who can change the game in an instant. This is a big tournament for him, to prove that he belongs in the upper echelons of world football today. Wales need him to fire. Yet he is not the only threat Wales possess. Proven defensive quality in Ashley Williams. Reliable midfield talents in Aaron Ramsey, Andy King and Joe Allen. Manager Chris Coleman has shown tactical nous in using a 5 man defence in a 5-3-2 formation. They play on the counter attack using quick transitional passes developed playing in the high-speed Premier League. The main problem for them will be breaking down teams who sit deeper and do not allow a counter-attacking game.

Russia are not a particularly exciting team, with a lack of youth and quality, yet they have good organisation which could make them a tough prospect to beat. They have some solid experience in Sergei Ignashevich, Yuri Zhirkov and captain Roman Shirokov. Having only conceded one goal in the qualification process since new manager Slutsky took charge replacing Fabio Capello, Russia’s defence could be a deciding factor as to how long they stay in France. Experience can go a long way and if they manage to get draws from the games against England and Wales, Russia could set up the prospect of reaching the round of 16.

Slovakia had an impressive qualifying campaign and will believe they can get through this group. In Martin Skrtel, Marek Hamsik and Juraj Kucka, they have players who play regularly for top European clubs. Kucka is the toughness and hard work to Hamsik’s flair and finesse, and should prove to be an effective shield for Slovakia’s star man. They have a compact style and defensively have discipline. With an average age of 28, they also have enough individual experience. However, this is the first European Championships they are competing in since becoming independent, and they are very reliant on Hamsik. If they can get a win against Russia, they will fancy themselves to getting through to the round of 16.

Group C contains Germany, Ukraine, Poland and Northern Ireland.

Germany are the reigning world champions and despite a few retirements, they are the fancied choice for many. They are the most cohesive team in the tournament, filled with world-class talents. Mesut Ozil and Thomas Muller are now in peak form, with Muller in particular being lethal in the big tournaments. The class of Toni Kroos in midfield ensures control, whilst Bastian Schweinsteiger on his day (as shown in his man of the match performance in the 2014 World Cup final) can win any game for his team.

In goal, Germany have arguably the best in the world in Manuel Neuer, who is another match winner for them. Germany have the ability to switch from being a possession orientated side to being a counter attacking side, meaning they are able to adapt for both the big and small teams. If there is a weakness, it is that they do not have a proven natural striker, as the recall of Mario Gomez shows. Mario Goetze is likely to start as a false ‘9’. Defensively, with the exception of Mats Hummels, there is no other stand out.

Ukraine will look to improve on the disaster of 2012. This is the first ever European championships for them where they have earned a place through qualifying. The wingers Yevhen Konoplyanka and Andriy Yarmolenko will hold the key for Ukraine to have any chance in this group, with the ability to score goals. The experienced squad, with many players having Champions League experience will hold them in good stead, as they will know the levels they need to reach. The ageing squad however, also means they are susceptible to energetic teams. Ukraine will be tough to beat, but should not be making the knockouts in this group of death.

Poland like Wales, will be relying heavily on a single individual: Robert Lewandowski. Lewandowski finished as the top scorer in qualifying with 13 goals to his name, a European qualifying record. The ability to score goals at will makes Poland an extremely tricky team to encounter. They will believe that goals can fire them to the knockout stages. Defensively, Poland have been poor and inconsistent, keeping only four clean sheets in qualifying. Poland will need Jakub Blaszczykowski and Kamil Grosicki to fire to provide service to Lewandowski. If the rest of the team can keep it tight, and Lewandowski can fire, there is no reason why Poland cannot make the round of last 16.

Northern Ireland are the fierce underdogs in this group. Michael O’Neill has Northern Ireland playing attractive football, with qualification for this tournament the most important thing. They have an unbreakable team spirit and a willingness to work for each-other. They are determined and will never give up. They have proven Premier League defensive quality in Jonny Evans, Gareth McCauley and Craig Cathcart. Steven Davis and Kyle Lafferty provide hard work and goals further up the field. Northern Ireland will be relying on Lafferty’s goals if they are to have any chance. However, the lack of quality in the squad suggests they will not progress from the group. The hard work and discipline means they will provide a challenge to the other teams, but they do not have enough quality to trouble other teams.

Group D consists of Spain, Czech Republic, Turkey and Croatia.

Spain will be looking to bounce back after the humiliation of the 2014 World Cup. Despite the doom and gloom surrounding Spain, they still have a hugely impressive array of players, many of whom have won it all. Gerard Pique, Sergio Ramos, Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta and David Silva would be cause for delight in most countries. Spain are not currently playing the Spanish way of the past 10 years.

The passing has lacked the pace and precision that once characterised them and chances were few and far between. Spain lacked spark, freshness, an apparent sense of purpose, edge, creativity and speed. The manager, Vincent del Bosque talked about the importance of releasing longer balls more quickly, of being able to play on the counter-attack, of a willingness to mix the game up. This though is coming at the cost of their identity and is not seemingly effective. They do however, have a natural striker in Alvaro Morata and still have individual brilliance. If the individuals can turn up, there is no reason why Spain cannot go all the way and retain the crown that currently belongs to them.

Czech Republic were one of the more impressive teams in qualifying. They topped Group A scoring 19 goals and only losing 2 of their matches. They have a determined style which can compensate for the poor defence that they have- they failed to keep a single clean sheet. They have a world-class goalkeeper in Petr Cech who can make the difference in crucial pressure situations. Even if they fail to keep a clean sheet, Cech can pull off vital saves which ensures the game can still be won. The team does not have many world-class players, but its team spirit and unity can cause problems for opponents. They have a good chance at making the round of 16 in this relatively evenly matched group.

Turkey have momentum on their side after an excellent qualifying campaign and they will be driven on by one of the most popular and eccentric managers in the game, Fatih Terim. Turkey have immense quality in the attacking areas which could make the difference in this group. Arda Turan has immense quality and drive. Alongside him, Mehmet Topal and Burak Yilmaz provide experience and technical class. Turkey also have a promising crop of youngsters, with Hakan Calhanoglu a free-kick specialist, Gokhan Tore providing explosive talent and Oghuzan Ozyukap being able to run with the ball and control the tempo of the game. Having only conceded 6 goals in qualifying, and only 3 after the first game, Turkey have a solid defence. They will believe they can cause an upset and qualify to the knockout stages. Turkey are the dark horses of the competition.

Croatia have experience and quality and will believe they can beat anybody in the group. Ante Cacic has remained undefeated in competitive matches since taking over as manager. In Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Darijo Srna and Mario Mandzukic they have experience and quality at the highest level. Ivan Perisic and Marcelo Brozovic are both energetic midfielders with the pace to burst forward. With creativity and attacking prowess, Croatia will be a handful and threat. They do however, have a big defensive weakness. The Croatian defence often are unable to cope with sustained pressure put on them by opponents. The manager has yet to find a tactical solution, experimenting with a 3-5-2. If the defence can tighten up and become reliable, Croatia have a real chance at getting to the quarter finals and beyond.

Group E consists of Belgium, Italy, Republic of Ireland and Sweden.

Belgium have experienced a meteoric rise in recent years in world football, officially being the best team in Europe. They have an incredibly talented squad even without Vincent Kompany, but football is not won on talent alone and the questions about the mental strength of Belgium will remain unless they do something significant. Coach Marc Wilmots has to find the correct balance. Defensively, they have the best centre back pairing in the Premier League in Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld, yet Wilmots will choose to play them at full back. Thibaut Courtois will look to prove his doubters wrong after a difficult season in the Chelsea goal.

In midfield, Belgium have a plethora of options of both creative skill and combative nature. Axel Witsel, Radja Nainggolan, Moussa Dembele, and Marouane Fellaini provide the power and tackling, with Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard, Dries Mertens and Yannick Carrasco providing the flair and spark. In attack, Romelu Lukaku will be the key man as a focal point and goalscorer in the 4-2-3-1 favoured by Wilmots. Belgium have the class, and they will provide a threat to every team they face.

Italy are always threats in major tournaments, but this is undoubtedly one of its weaker squads of recent times. Injuries to key players such as Marco Verratti and Claudio Marchisio have not helped Italy. As expected, the defence of this Italy team is its strongest suit. The Juventus back 3 of Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci will be more crucial than ever as Antonio Conte will look to deploy a back 3. Gianluigi Buffon’s world-class abilities as goalkeeper and leader will have to make a difference. The forward line is a big weakness, with Graziano Pelle and Lorenzo Insigne being the only reliable forwards. Antonio Candreva and Daniele De Rossi have proven quality in midfield, but Italy are very thin in those areas to make much of a difference. It is always hard to rule out Italy in big tournaments, but this tournament seems too competitive for Italy to make much of a mark.

Republic of Ireland led by Martin O’Neil and Roy Keane along with the vociferous fans they will bring along make for an interesting proposition. They face a tough group and lack the all round quality to make much of a difference. They have a big team spirit, are well organised and are all consistently at a similar level, meaning they can use the depth of the squad without a drop off in quality. ROI have Premier League quality players in Seamus Coleman and James McCarthy, Robbie Brady, Wes Hoolahan and John O’Shea. Shane Long will be a menace up front and Robbie Keane can always find the goal. In order to progress, they will have to consistently produce team performances with every individual contributing, as they do not have an individual match winner.

Sweden have historically struggled to exit the group stage. In this tough group, they will be relying heavily on the individual brilliance of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who delivered in the playoff against Denmark to drag Sweden to the Euros. Sweden have a balanced squad with decent footballers, none of whom compare to the skills of Ibrahimovic. Kim Källström and Pontus Wernbloom will be important in the midfield battle. Sweden are defensively susceptible to long balls over the top due to a lack of pace in the defence, so will need to play deeper against teams with pace. Ultimately, if they are to have any chance, they will need their talisman to fire.

Group F contains Portugal, Iceland, Austria and Hungary.

Portugal have Cristiano Ronaldo which means Portugal can beat any team. The strength of Portugal will be their defence. Whilst that seems strange, Portugal do not have any other attackers on the same level as Ronaldo, but they do have a solid defensive unit, proven through England’s difficulty in breaking them down even when they were reduced to 10 men. The central defence is particularly strong with Pepe and Bruno Alves,  assisted by Southampton’s Jose Fonte and veteran Ricardo Carvahlo who is the best form of his career. In the attacking areas alongside Ronaldo is Luis Nani and Ricardo Quaresma, who are experienced but have struggled to set the stage alight. Whilst they should easily make it through the group, they will struggle against tougher opposition. If Ronaldo fires though, anything could happen.

Iceland are a very small nation of only 330,000. Yet the achievement of them qualifying is no fluke. Iceland have a very talented generation of players who have been playing together since youth football. Iceland are a team very capable of producing attractive football. They had balance in attack and defence in qualifying, scoring 17 and conceding only 6. They defeated the Netherlands twice, with Gylfi Sigurdsson being the star man. He will be crucial to their efforts in this tournament, being a threat on the dead ball, creating chances and scoring goals. Kolbeinn Sigthorsson will be another attacker to keep an eye on. Iceland have a terrific team unity and work ethic, yet they lack genuine world-class quality. They also do not have a very deep squad and lack the experience of tournament situations. They will believe that they could make it through to the next round in 2nd place because of the similarity of skill levels with fellow group competitors Austria and Hungary.

Austria are another one of the dark horses of the competition. They qualified unbeaten and are ranked in the top 10 of the FIFA rankings. Austria have several big name players including Premier League winner Christian Fuchs as captain, Tottenham defender Kevin Wimmer, Bayern Munich defender David Alaba and Stoke City forward Marko Arnautovic. The squad is extremely well-balanced with a nice blend of youth and experience. Austria under manager Marcel Koller are able to adapt at playing attacking football and counter attack, depending on the strengths of the opposition, with high tempo transitions. Austria have a real chance to progress and will need stars such as Arnautovic and Alaba to perform consistently. Much like Iceland, they will also believe they can qualify because of the similarities of skill level.

Hungary are possibly the weakest team in the group, with few standout players. Yet they have a new-found resilience and team spirit which saw them overcome Norway in the playoffs. Former Premier League stars Gabor Kiraly and Zoltan Gera, despite being past their very best, remain key men in the squad and will provide important experience. Skipper Balázs Dzsudzak is their biggest threat going forward. He has the pace and skill to beat a man in a 1v1 situation and is crucial to the counter-attack that Hungary employ. Whilst not being the toughest group they could have been given, Hungary do lack individual quality, the kind of quality that Austria and Iceland contain. If Hungary can muster the resilience and team spirit of the playoffs, they will feel they can get something against those 2 teams, giving themselves a chance at qualifying.

This tournament will be a close tournament, with several teams containing the quality which could cause a few upsets.

The increase in the number of teams will potentially make the group stages a more defensive affair. The underdog teams will look to limit the defensive damage and will seek to counter attack, much in the vein of Leicester City, because they know they cannot compete in the attacking third with the bigger nations. There are many sit back and counter-attacking teams in the group stages: Albania, Romania, Wales, Russia, Northern Ireland, Ukraine and Austria. Perhaps the unfortunate success of a defensive approach is reflected in the stat that there is an 87% of qualification from the group if a team obtains 3 scores of 0-0 (credit to Michael Cox).

This tournament will have its high and low points. Whilst there will undoubtedly be some bore-fest draws, there will also be lots of attacking and exciting football. Groups D, E and F look the most entertaining and competitive. There is plenty of individual quality on offer for us to enjoy. As is the way in football however, anything can happen.

Let us hope Euro 2016 in France provides us with rich summer entertainment.