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SPORT: Team-by-team guide to the Russia 2018 World Cup - Part 1

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With the Russia 2018 draws billed to hold in Moscow today, The Guardian, in collaboration with The Guardian (U.K), looks at the teams and the players to watch out for at the competition next year.

Pot 1
Brazil
Tite has not even been in charge for 20 games but the rebirth of a rudderless, traumatised and under-pressure team from the 2014 World Cup has been so astonishing that Brazil are back among the favourites to win the title. Tite has done a lot in a short time: he has implemented the 4-1-4-1 formation, his favourite system, and carefully navigated the lack of playing time for some of his players at club level.

He has accommodated Neymar on the left, Casemiro in front of the backline, Jesus in the centre of attack and has the best from the full-backs Dani Alves and Marcelo. Renato Augusto is another player performing at the highest level, and Paulinho, one of Tite’s favourite players, has managed the transformation from China to Barcelona remarkably well.

The process, however, has risks attached to it too. Apart from the regulars in the starting XI, there is not that much depth to the squad. Apart from Willian and Roberto Firmino, Tite does not seem to have faith in many other players. Huge progress has been made but more options from the bench may be needed for Brazil to go all the way.
Preferred system 4-1-4-1
Star player Neymar (Paris St-Germain). One to watch Paulinho (Barcelona).
Coach Tite
Odds 5-1
Words By: Carlos Eduardo Mansur, O Globo

Portugal
“Brazil, Argentina, Spain, Germany and France are the favorites to win the World Cup,” says the Portugal coach, Fernando Santos, before adding: “Then we have other candidates, who want to get as far as possible, and win the tournament, if possible and Portugal are in this second group.”

Santos is still a prudent character, despite winning Euro 2016 with Portugal, but he is looking forward to the World Cup with optimism. And he does so with good reason: Portugal seem stronger now than they were a year and a half ago: they are more appealing, having added creativity to the organisation that underpinned the 2016 title.
Bernardo (Man City) and André (Milan), the two young Silvas, have been important factors in this post-Euro 2016 upgrade, in an attacking sense, and in general terms the team seem to have more depth than at the Euros. The one area, which has perhaps been weakened is the defence, where it has been hard to find alternatives for Pepe (35 years next summer), José Fonte (34) and Bruno Alves (36).
Preferred system 4-4-2
Star player Cristiano Ronaldo
One to watch Bernardo Silva
Coach Fernando Silva
Odds 20-1
Words By: Nuno Travassos, Maisfutebol

Argentina
Argentina made it to Russia in the end and it will be a farewell party for a lot of the senior players. It will be the last major tournament for Sergio Romero, Ángel Di María, Sergio Agüero, Gonzalo Higuaín, Lucas Biglia, and Éver Banega, among others, while the captain and the main reason they reached the tournament, Lionel Messi, could still play in Qatar. For Messi, in a sense, though, it is now or never. With that in mind, the coach, Jorge Sampaoli, is likely to go on the attack in Russia in an attempt for the country to recover past glories. Argentina was unreliable in qualifying and it is up to Sampaoli to find the consistency to be able to go far in the World Cup. The defence is undeniably the weakest point for Argentina with Mercado, Mascherano and Otamendi likely to occupy the three spots in central defence. The central midfielders are likely to be Lucas Biglia and Enzo Pérez.
Preferred system 3-4-3
Star player: Lionel Messi
One to watch: Paulo Dybala
Coach: Jorge Sampaoli
Odds: —-
Words By: Cristian Grosso, La Nación.

Belgium
Belgium had an easy ride in the qualification campaign and broke all sorts of records along the way to Russia:  They were unbeaten, they got 28 points from 10 games, they scored 43 goals and Romelu Lukaku became Belgium’s best all-time goal scorer. However, the last two friendlies, and especially the 3-3 draw against Mexico has made fans, pundits and players worried.
Belgium were without Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld and Vincent Kompany against Mexico and the replacements could not fill the void. Kevin De Bruyne, for one, did not hold back. “Mexico were just better tactically,” said the Manchester City player. “Their system made our five defenders sit deep and we were up against it in midfield – it was five against seven. As long as we don’t have a good tactical system, we will have difficulties against countries like Mexico. It’s a pity that we have not yet found a solution. Of course we play with a system that is in principle very defensive, but it is filled with many attacking players who want the ball.”

Most of the other players did not approve of the way he had gone about it but some agreed with what he was saying. He rang the alarm bell and pointed out that, after two years of working with Martínez, there is no real defensive organisation.
Preferred system: 3-4-2-1
Star player: Eden Hazard
One to watch: Thomas Meunier
Coach: Roberto Martínez
Odds: 12-1
Words By: Kristof Terreur, Het Laatste Nieuws.

Poland
Adam Nawalka’s men always looked certain of qualifying for Russia and won eight of their 10 games. The captain, Robert Lewandowski, hit a record-breaking 16 goals and was the best striker in the qualifiers. Lewandowski’s consistency and leadership were crucial as Poland returned to the biggest stage after a 12-year absence but the other players followed suit to ensure Poland ended up in pot 1 for the draw.

Nawalka has built a solid but entertaining team and his main area of concern is the defence (Poland conceded 14 goals – most of all groups winners) but he knows how to do it with Poland having the second best defence at Euro 2016 until the quarter-finals. Nawalka now has six months to fine-tune his plans, which includes working on a new formation with three central defenders.
Poland have a strong backbone of Wojciech Szczesny-Kamil Glik-Grzegorz Krychowiak and Robert Lewandowski and a good mix of young  (Piotr Zieliński) and old (Jakub Błaszczykowski). Another key player is Kamil Grosicki, whose pace on the left flank was vital and he contributed with three goals and three assists.
Preferred system: 4-2-3-1
Star player:  Robert Lewandowski
One to watch: Piotr Zieliński
Coach: Adam Nawałka
Odds: 40-1
Words By: Tomasz Włodarczyk, Przeglad Sportowy.

France
“We are not at the same level as Germany, Spain and Brazil – yet,” says Didier Deschamps. “We may not control all our games with the same authority but still, we have a strong and competitive team with a great potential.” France have a thrilling and explosive attacking unit with Antoine Griezmann, the 18-year old Kylian Mbappé and 20-year-old Ousmane Dembélé (if fit). There is a strong midfield built around Paul Pogba and NGolo Kanté and lots of technical ability all around as well with the likes of Thomas Lemar and a sound defensive axis, too. Still, France appear more effective when playing on the break and using its speed. The weakest link? The left-back position if Manchester City’s Benjamin Mendy does not recover on time from his knee injury.
Preferred system: 4-4-2 or 4-3-3
Star player: Antoine Griezmann
One to watch: Kylian Mbappé
Coach: Didier Deschamps
Odds: 11-2
Words By: Patrick Urbini, France Football
Pot 2

Spain
La Roja is still La Roja. Crashing out in Brazil 2014 and the disappointment of France 2016 were not at all cathartic in the end. At the age of 51, and without much experience as a coach at elite level, Julen Lopetegui has managed to conserve the essence of what made Spain so successful in the past. In fact, the backbone of the team that qualified brilliantly for Russia 2018 is the very same that failed in France a year and a half ago. Eight of the team that lost against Italy in Paris would start in Russia were the World Cup to start tomorrow: David De Gea, Gerard Piqué, Sergio Ramos, Jordi Alba, Sergio Busquets, Andrés Iniesta, David Silva and Álvaro Morata. In addition to the senior players, the wonderful Isco has found his feet with the senior squad, as have several of the Under-21s who won the Euros with Spain and Lopetegui in 2013.
Preferred system: 4-5-1
Star player: David Silva
One to watch: Isco
Coach Julen: Lopetegui Odds 15-2
Words By: José Sámano, El País

Peru
Peru are back at the World Cup and return to the biggest scene of them all after a 36-year absence having gone back to their roots. When Ricardo Gareca took over he set about bringing new, younger players in to the set-up and re-introduced a playing style that had been lost for some time. Short passes and possession are part of the football DNA of the Peruvian team again – with excellent results. A young team with an average age of 24 years old and a coach who has imposed disciplinary rules has meant increased commitment from the players. Peru looked themselves in the mirror and found a way back to what made them good in the past.

The team’s spine is composed by a very confident goalkeeper in Pedro Gallese, in defence there is the skilful leader Alberto Rodriguez, the midfield is run by the physical and intelligent Yoshimarr Yotun with Jefferson Farfán and Paolo Guerrero up front. The wingers, Aldo Corzo and Miguel Trauco, are tactically very astute and important to Peru’s game. Finally, if the team are in need of a bit improvisation to unluck a defence they look to the talented Christian Cueva.
Preferred system: 4-2-3-1
Star player: Jefferson Farfán
One to watch: Christian Cueva
Coach: Ricardo Gareca
Odds: 150-1
Words By: Pedro Canelo, El Comercio

Switzerland
Astonishingly there was not much of euphoria when Switzerland qualified for the World Cup after the two play-off games against Northern Ireland. People in Switzerland seem to have gotten used to having their team play at a big tournament and expectations have risen. Accordingly, the Swiss expect their team to reach the knockout phase in Russia – and maybe even go further. “My team has got an excellent team spirit, they are very positive and have a tremendous will to succeed,” says the coach, Vladimir Petkovic. “The team always wants to reach the highest possible goals.” It will be interesting to see how the Swiss do against the better teams as they are very good at adjusting their play depending on the opponent, just as they did at the 2014 World when they almost knocked out Argentinia in the last-16.

Granit Xhaka is at the heart of the team and is the one who dictates the pace of the game. With creative and quick players such as Xherdan Shaqiri and Steven Zuber, Switzerland are always capable of creating something on the flanks, especially as the wingers have really strong full-backs behind them: Juventus’ Stephan Lichtsteiner on the right and the Milan defender Ricardo Rodriguez on the left. With Fabian Schär and young Manuel Akanji there is now also a solid central defence to lean on. The weakest part of the team is the centre forward position, which is almost always occupied by Haris Seferovic. If the Benfica man does not get the service he is often completely out of the game.
Preferred system: 4-5-1
Star player: Granit Xhaka (Arsenal)
One to watch: Denis Zakaria (Borussia Mönchengladbach)
Coach: Vladimir Petkovic
Odds: 66-1
Words By: Kevin Lutz, Blick

England
The most amazing statistic about England’s team is that they have not actually lost a qualifying match in any major competition since October 2009. It’s an incredible run, covering 39 matches, with three different managers in place since the team, then led by Fabio Capello, went down 1-0 to Ukraine. The latest is Gareth Southgate and he has certainly had an eventful year since being promoted from his previous role as manager of England’s under-21s. Southgate has moved out Wayne Rooney and overseen a period of change that now sees England operating with a more young, experimental team in a 3-4-2-1 formation. Yet there are still lingering questions about whether England have improved since the ordeal of being eliminated by Iceland in Euro 2016 and the supporters even staged a mass walkout of one of their qualifying fixtures, in Malta, for the World Cup.
Preferred system: 3-4-2-1
Star player: Harry Kane
One to watch: Marcus Rashford
Coach: Gareth Southgate
Odds: 16-1
Words By: Daniel Taylor, The Guardian (U.K)

Colombia
Colombia will aim to repeat their performance from the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, when they reached the quarter-finals, but it will be more difficult this time as they are not among the top seeds. That is an indication of the fact that qualifying was not straight-forward. “The qualifying campaign was really hard,” says the coach, José Pékerman. “We’ve never experienced a situation where so few points separated so many teams.” Three factors are key in explaining the difficulties of the current Colombia side: the need to inject some youth in defence, the lack of continuity for the team’s star players (James Rodriguez at Bayern Munich, Radamel Falcao at Monaco, and David Ospina at Arsenal) and the lack of options going forward.
Pékerman often plays 4-2-3-1 but tried a 4-3-2-1 formation away from home at times. Colombia had their best results when they were a bit more defensive, and compact between the lines, hitting teams on the counter with speed and very few passes.
Preferred system: 4-2-3-1
Star player: James Rodríguez
One to watch: Dávinson Sáchez
Coach: José Pékerman (Argentinean)
Odds: 50-1
Words By: Gabriel Meluk, El Tiempo
Mexico
Uruguay

Croatia
Luka Modric is 32 years old and most of the other likely starters will be 29 or older come the World Cup – and the tournament may well be the last realistic shot at something big for this extraordinary generation, the best Croatia has had since the 1998 bronze-winning team. But the perennial dark horses of international football have been caught in a web of internal divides involving key national federation men, the fans, the media and politics, decimating their support at home and making it difficult for them to focus solely on their on-pitch exploits.
Preferred system: 4-2-3-1
Star player: Luka Modric (Real Madrid)
One to watch: Nikola Vlasic (Everton)
Coach: Zlatko Dalic
Odds: 25-1
Words By: Aleksandar Holiga, Telegram
Pot 3

Denmark
Not only did a Danish World Cup qualifying campaign end successfully for the first time since 2009 but the public fell back in love with a team that smashed Poland 4-0 and the Republic of Ireland 5-1 in the space of two months in the autumn. The main reason for the team’s success was Christian Eriksen, who reached a “Michael Laudrup-level” of play, scoring 11 goals in 12 matches including his hat-trick in the decisive playoff-game in Dublin. “The World Cup deserves a star like Christian Eriksen. We will be a danger to all teams because of him,” says the coach, Åge Hareide.

Denmark will continue with the direct style of play that Hareide turned to in the autumn. It was a style that suited the box-to-box midfielder Thomas Delaney, who was the second highest scorer for Denmark in qualifying. Hareide is likely to continue his search for his preferred striker with Nicolai Jorgensen, Andreas Cornelius and Nicklas Bendtner all in the running. In defence, Brentford’s Andreas Bjelland is first choice together with the captain Simon Kjær as they have more experience than Chelsea’s Andreas Christensen and Jens Stryger Larsen from Udinese is likely be a right-footed left-back.
Preferred system: 4-3-3
Star player: Christian Eriksen
One to watch: Thomas Delaney
Coach: Age Hareide
Odds: 80-1
Words By: Søren Lissner, Jyllands-Posten

Iceland
Will supporters from the smallest nation ever to qualify for the World Cup be able to make their presence known in Russia in the same way as they did in France with their epic Viking Clap? Almost 10 per cent of the nation travelled to France in the summer of 2016 and there could be similar levels next summer but fans will anxiously wait for the draw today before they book. Trips to Moscow and Saint Petersburg are simple, but Ekaterinburg and Volgograd are more complicated.

Iceland had to overcome a series of problems to reach their first World Cup: The loss of their main striker Kolbeinn Sigthórsson to injury, Lars Lagerback’s departure and a draw that saw them paired with three teams that reached Euro 2016. However, they not only reached Russia, they won their group. Heimir Hallgrímsson is in sole charge of the team this time and he has showed more flexibility in tactics than Lagerback. Iceland still mainly play 4-4-2 but Hallgrímsson changes this to a 4-5-1 in certain games, with great results. Apart from Sigthórsson, everybody from the expected starting line-up in France is expected to be in Russia.
Preferred system: 4-4-2
Star player: Gylfi Sigurdsson
One to watch: Hordur Björgvin Magnusson
Coach: Heimir Hallgrimsson
Words By: Vidir Sigurdsson, Morgunbladid

Costa Rica
Costa Rica were a sensation four years ago, reaching the World Cup quarter-finals, and they now face the challenge of emulating that feat. The coach, Jorge Luis Pinto, has been replaced with Óscar Ramírez and “La Sele” showed in qualifying that they are now the Concacaf team to beat, securing qualification for Russia with two games to spare.

Ramírez has continued to deploy the 4-5-1 formation that served Pinto so well. It is a tactic that asks a lot of Bryan Ruiz and Celso Borges; Ruiz is the main reference in attack and Borges is there to give the team balance in midfield. Keylor Navas is the star of the team with Marco Ureña, who plays for San Jose Earthquakes in the MLS, adding pace to the attack.
Costa Rica may struggle to repeat a place in the last eight but they have the quality to reach the knockout phase.
Preferred system: 5-4-1
Star player: Keylor Navas
One to watch: Marco Ureña
Coach: Óscar Ramírez
Words By: Esteban Valverde, La Nación

Sweden
Euro 2016 saw the end of the Zlatan Ibrahimovic era as well as that of the coach, Erik Hamrén. The new Sweden team, under the coach Janne Andersson, is an extremely hardworking and disciplined unit, with the players playing for each other. The 4-4-2-formation and tactics are reminiscent of the successful period from Lars Lagerbäck’s days in the early 2000s – but today with players from more anonymous clubs. The stars of the Lagerbäck-era played for teams such as Arsenal, Juventus and Barcelona – today they represent clubs in the Denmark, Greece, Russia, Scotland and the United Arab Emirates (apart from Emil Forsberg at RB Leipzig and Victor Nilsson Lindelof at Manchester United). The play-off win against Italy was deserved and the big talking point now is whether Zlatan Ibrahimovic will come out of international retirement for the World Cup? And, if so, will he fit in the collective that Andersson has created?
Preferred system: 4-4-2
Star player: Emil Forsberg
One to watch: Viktor Claesson
Coach: Jan “Janne” Andersson
Odds: 80-1
Words By: Max Richnau, fotbollskanalen.se

Tunisia
After a 12 years absence, Tunisia are back at a World Cup but their path to Russia was not entirely straight-forward. Having won the Africa Cup of Nations in 2017, they sacked the coach Henrik Kasperczak soon afterwards. Nabil Maaloul, who was the assistant manager when Tunisia won the ACN in 2004, was appointed in April and steered the country to the World Cup, mainly using a 4-2-3-1 formation. The full-backs are allowed to attack, and are indeed encouraged to do so. On the left side, Ali Maaloul of Al Ahly, is absolutely key because of how much he contributes going forward. Hamdi Nagguez is likely to start on the right hand side while Yassine Meriah and Syam Ben Youssef are set to start in central defence, a key area for the team.

The midfield is dominated by the two hard-working ball winners Ferjani Sassi and Mohamed Amine Ben Amor with the MKN trio Youssef Msakni, Wahbi Khazri and Naïm Sliti adding more flair. Msakni, despite the fact that he is playing in Qatar, is a tremendous talent and often carries the team on his shoulder.  The French-based Khazri and Sliti offer skill and unpredictability while up front Taha Yassine Khenissi is set to start but it is fair to say that up front is the area concerning the coach the most.

Maaloul sometimes switches to a 4-3-2-1 formation, especially against attacking teams and then incorporates the defensive midfielder Ghailane Chaalali instead of Khazri or Sliti. For the moment, the goalkeeper will be the most capped active player Aymen Mathlouthi even though Maaloul is in contact with the former keeper of Nice, Mouez Hassen, to see whether he will play in Russia. He is also trying to convince Rani Khedhira, the brother of Juventus player, Sami Khedhira to play for Tunisia rather than Germany.
Preferred system: 4-2-3-1
Star player: Youssef Msakni
One to watch: Naïm Sliti
Coach: Nabil Maaloul

Egypt
Happy to sit back and defend, Egypt are a difficult side to break down. On only one occasion (out of 30 games) have the Pharaohs conceded more than one goal under coach Hector Cúper.

Despite taking Egypt to the AFCON final, in which they only conceded twice, and a 63 per cent-win rate Cúper has been criticised in Egypt for his dull and defensive style. Egypt’s attacking threat stems from the Liverpool winger, Mohamed Salah, who was involved in seven out of the eight World Cup qualifying goals. Egypt’s squad is a mixture of youth and experience but one area in which Egypt will need to work on is squad depth, with the Pharaohs desperate for a strike partner for Salah.
Preferred system: 4-2-3-1
Star player: Mohamed Salah
One to watch: Mahmoud Hassan “Trézéguet”
Coach: Héctor Cúper
Odds: 250-1
Words By: Ahmad Yousef, Kingfut.com

Iran
Team Melli are playing in their second successive World Cup for the first time ever and experienced arguably their smoothest journey to a finals ever. Carlos Queiroz’s men were the first Asian side that secured qualification for the 2018 World Cup and they did so with a remarkable sequence of 12 consecutive clean sheets. The main aspect of Iran style of play under Queiroz is a so-called reactive football with a deep-lying defence and quick counter-attacks. However, in recent friendlies against Russia, Panama and Venezuela, Iran played with a different tactic. In those matches, Queiroz’s men pressed the opponents higher on the pitch and had a more aggressive approach.

Queiroz, despite a temper and petulance that has caused many seemingly pointless controversies in recent years, is very popular in Iran because of the team’s results and performances. Many believe that he has given a real character to the Iranian national team.

Iran have many European based players this season and it is Queiroz’s tendency to select players who play outside of Iran. In fact, players such as Ehsan Haj Safi, Kaveh Rezaei and Ramin Rezaeian left Iran to increase their chance of playing for the national team. Overall, it is fair to say that Iran have more reliable players in the squad this time than in previous World Cups. Off the pitch, one of the major concerns for Iranian football fans is what the draw co-host Nadia Komandnaya will wear during the event on Friday. Iran national TV is very strict with women’s Hijab and censors women who are without the accepted Islamic Hijab. So, Iranian fans have sent a lot of messages to Komandnaya to ask her to choose a covered dress with long sleeves and a high neck.
Preferred system: 4-2-3-1
Star player: Sardar Azmoun
One to watch: Saman Ghoddos
Coach: Carlos Queiroz
Words By: Behnam Jafarzadeh, varzesh3.com

Pot 4
Japan
Japan have traditionally preferred a possession-based style of football but the manager currently in charge of the national team, Vahid Halilhodžić, demands that his side look to play on the counter. His drastic reforms have seen Japan’s two biggest stars, Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa, dropped from the squad as they failed to fit into this philosophy – or, in other words, preferred Japan’s traditional approach. There is also no room right now for Shinji Okazaki of Leicester City, as Halilhodžić opts for a lone forward capable of holding up the play. These choices, and the manager’s overall style, have been the subject of fierce ongoing debate here in Japan.
Preferred system: 4-3-3
Star player: Maya Yoshida
One to watch: Yosuke Ideguchi
Coach: Vahid Halilhodžić
Odds: 250-1
Words By: Akihiko Kawabata, Footballista.jp

South Korea
The team struggled throughout the qualifiers. They were aneanemic in attack and defence and only narrowly qualified after a poor run which resulted in the firing of the coach, Uli Stielike. The current coach, Taeyong Shin, who was the manager of the Under-23s and the Under-20s is not a master tactician but he is a good motivator. Only a few people here in Korea have high expectations before the tournament in Russia. Surprisingly, most Korean fans are still waiting for the return of the former coach Guus Hiddink. With a team lacking world-class talent, the coach has to depend on two standout players Son Heung-Min from Tottenham Hotspur and Ki Sung-Yueng from Swansea City. The current coach often plays a 4-4-2 formation but currently seems obsessed with a fluid back three system. It is not yet sure how South Korea will play at the World Cup.
Preferred system:  4-4-2
Star player: Heung-min Son (Tottenham Hotspur)
One to watch: Chang-hoon Kwon (Dijon)
Coach: Tae-yong Shin
Words By: Hyung-wook Seo, Footballist




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