Our 2018 World Cup group-by-group preview takes us to Group F, featuring Sweden, Mexico, South Korea and reigning champions Germany.
Jogi Low’s side are looking to become the first nation to defend the trophy since Brazil in 1962, and look in good shape to do so. Sweden are determined to prove that there’s life after Zlatan, Mexico are the group’s mavericks while underdogs South Korea are aiming to upset the odds and claw their way into the last 16.
FIFA Ranking (June 2018): 1st
Best World Cup Finish: Winners (1954, 1974, 1990, 2014)
World Cup 2014 Finish: Winners
One to Watch – Timo Werner: If Germany have had problem position over the last few years, then it is centrre-forward. Miroslav Klose had the position nailed down (especially at World Cups) right up until his retirement in 2014, but in Werner they might have finally found the new striker to lead the line.
The 22-year-old has been prolific at senior international level so far (with eight goals from 14 caps), is quick, a good finisher, not short of confidence, and fits nicely into Jogi Low’s preferred 4-2-3-1 formation. The RB Leipzig striker has been making noises about needing to move up to a higher level for the good of his career; if he can score the goals that lead Germany to World Cup glory, he can expect the offers to come rolling in.
Verdict: A confident squad still riding high on its success in 2014, with the same manager and many of the same star players (not to mention tremendous strength in depth) – Germany are among the favourites to retain the trophy and few would bet against them from doing so.
The issue regarding a centre-forward seems to have been resolved with the serious talent of Werner, but one slight thing to look at might be the leadership void in the squad right now. Still, that shouldn’t cause too many problems for a squad this talented and experienced. Almost certain group winners, probable semi-finalists, possible winners.
FIFA Ranking (June 2018): 24th
Best World Cup Finish: Runners-up (1958)
World Cup 2014 Finish: Did Not Qualify
One to Watch – Emil Forsberg: In a team that is noted for its functionality and organisation, Forsberg is the one player capable providing the creative spark of unpredictability. The versatile RB Leipzig midfielder will, in the absence of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and with the forward options in the aquad relatively uninspiring, be expected to provide the main attacking outlet for this side.
He has, however, just endured a season hampered by injuries and in form nowhere near as high as it was in 2016/17. Fitness issues and high expectations could combine to stifle the 26-year-old in Russia – but if can overcome all of that, he will be a key player in their finals.
Verdict: Having come through a qualification group that contained France and Netherlands, Sweden must have cursed their luck to draw Italy in play-offs. However, a strong show of team organisation led to their victory and that same sense of unity will be their biggest asset in Russia. It’s functional, but don’t expect it to be pretty.
Of course, no sooner had they qualified then attention turned to the ponytailed elephant in the room. Zlatan Ibrahimovic retired from international duty in 2016, but toyed with the idea of a “glorious comeback” for Sweden’s first World Cup since 2006. In the end, that didn’t happen, and while Janne Andersson probably did the right thing by omitting Zlatan, the forward options that they did bring look like they might struggle. Unless they tap into their goal threat, Sweden look set to be going home early.
FIFA Ranking (June 2018): 15th
Best World Cup Finish: Quarter-Finals (1970, 1986)
World Cup 2014 Finish: Round of 16
One to Watch – Hirving Lozano: Lozano is seen as one of the brightest prospects in world football, and rightly has Mexican fans excited that they have a potential superstar on their hands. The 22-year-old winger has been on the radar of European clubs for some time now, and after a stellar first season with PSV (17 goals and eight assists), that sense of hype will skyrocket if he performs well in Russia.
With the ability to operate on both flanks, Lozano’s versatility makes him stand out as a huge (and unpredictable) asset for manager Juan Carlos Osorio. Quick, a bit of a maverick and with a keen eye for goal – watch him tear it up this summer and then be linked with Man United every single day throughout July and August.
Verdict: An exciting forward line and disciplined in midfield, there’s a lot to admire about this Mexico side. They are equally as impressive on the ball as they are off of it, and will fancy their chances of extending their run of reaching the knockout stages.
Javier Hernandez, Lozano, Carlos Vela and Giovani Dos Santos are all strong attacking threats, Hector Herrera and Andres Guardado are solid options in the midfield (with veteran Rafa Marquez to pass on his years of experience) and if the defence, which is more competent than composed, can hold up, they look best placed to finish behind Germany.
FIFA Ranking (June 2018): 57th
Best World Cup Finish: Fourth Place (2002)
World Cup 2014 Finish: Group Stage
One to Watch – Hwang Hee-Chan: The 22-year-old forward has already been making waves with Red Bull Salzburg in Austra (particularly in last season’s European campaign), and now looks set to take his talents to the world stage.
Hwang is capable of playing across the forward line (though seems more at home in the centre), and his agility could cause problems for the opposition if his teammates can get the ball to him. Hwang has been linked with Tottenham and Liverpool in recent months, and expect those links to intensify if he performs well this month.
Verdict: On paper, there seems to be a lack of balance in the squad – insofar as the attack does well to compensate for a leaky defence. They could get away with that in some groups, but not in this one.
Hwang and Son Heung-Min will provide the attacking threat (though manager Shin Tae-Yong is missing a couple of big players), but they can’t carry this team. The likes of Ki Sung-Yeung and Park Joo-Ho provide a bit of balance in midfield but Germany and Mexico, in particular, will greatly worry the backline. It would be folly to dismiss them completely, but it’s hard to see South Korea emerging from this group.
Prediction: Germany should have too much for the other nations and will be expected to emerge from the pool unbeaten and possible with three wins from three. South Korea, meanwhile, looks very shaky in defence and Son can’t counteract that alone.
For the runners-up spot, it could come down to Mexico’s attack versus Sweden’s defence as to which nation comes out on top. It will be tight, but Mexico could just have that bit more about them to book their place in the last 16.
4 South Korea