By Manish Pandey.
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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’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 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 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.
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 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 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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 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 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.