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Complete team-by-team guide to the Russia 2018 World Cup


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
Stanislav Cherchesov became the new head coach after the disappointing performances at Euro 2016 and the former goalkeeper has changed a lot in a year and a half.

The main changes have come in defence where the CSKA trio Sergei Ignashevich, Vasily Berezutsky and Igor Akinfeev have been mainstays. The goalkeeper has retained his place but CSKA’s Vasin, Rubin Kazan’s Kudryashov and Spartak Moscow’s Dzhikiya have now been playing in defence with Cherchesov using three central defenders instead of two.

The biggest talking point has been the fact that Igor Denisov has not been picked. He is arguably the best defensive midfielder in the country, but he fell out with Cherchesov when they were both at Dynamo Moscow and it seems that that incident has not been forgotten.

Russia’s attack is clearly stronger than the defence. Cherchesov has a wide choice of players up front. The experienced Alan Dzagoev is still going strong with strikers Fyodor Smolov and Aleksandr Kokorin both scoring a lot of goals in 2017. But special attention should be paid to the twin brothers Aleksei and Anton Miranchuk from Lokomotiv and Aleksandr Golovin from CSKA. They are young technical midfielders who have the potential to have their breakthroughs at the World Cup.

The atmosphere around the team has improved under Cherchesov and the team made a good impression at the Confederations Cup despite not getting through the group. They recently drew 3-3 with Spain and hopes are currently high in Russia that the hosts will have a good tournament.

Preferred system 3-5-2
Star player Igor Akinfeev (CSKA Moscow)
One to watch Aleksandr Golovin (CSKA Moscow)
Coach Stanislav Cherchesov
Odds 40-1
Philipp Papenkov, Sport-Express

After Germany lost to France in the Euro 2016 semi-final there were plenty who predicted that the Joachim Löw era was slowly coming to an end. However, the team has bounced back impressively from that and qualified for the World Cup with a perfect 10-wins-out-of-10 and scoring a European-record of 43 goals. Overall Die Mannschaft have not lost since that 2-0 defeat against France.

Germany’s midfielder Julian Brandt, Germany’s midfielder Emre Can, Germany’s midfielder Leroy Sane and GermanyÕs midfielder Leon Goretzka celebrate after the fifth goal for Germany during the FIFA World Cup 2018 qualification football match between Germany and Azerbaijan in Mainz, western Germany, on October 8, 2017. Christof STACHE / AFP

The fact that Germany also won the Confederations Cup last summer with the reserve team must be worrying for opponents. Players such as Jerome Boateng, Hummels, Manuel Neuer, Toni Kroos, Mesut Özil, Thomas Müller, Mario Götze, Ilkay Gündogan, Marco Reus, Sami Khedira and Leroy Sané all missed the tournament, but it did not matter.

New players (such as Timo Werner, Lars Stindl and – above all – Leon Goretzka) have staked their claim meaning competition for places in the World Cup squad will be immense. Goretzka’s impressive displays for Schalke means that Löw will have a headache in midfield when deciding on the best partner for Kroos in centre midfield. Juventus’ Khedira has always been the frontrunner but he is under pressure from Goretzka now.

How they qualified: Winners of European Group C ahead of Northern Ireland.

Preferred system 4-2-3-1
Star player Toni Kroos (Real Madrid)
One to watch Leon Goretzka (Schalke)
Coach Joachim Löw
Odds 5-1
Michael Reis, Sport-Bild

Tite has not even been in charge for 20 games but the rebirth of a rudderless, traumatised and under-pressure team has been so astonishing that Brazil are among the favourites to win the title.

Tite has done a lot in a short time, implementing a 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, Gabriel Jesus in the centre of attack and has got 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.

Brazil’s midfielder Marcelo (L) celebrates with teammates after scoring against Paraguay during their 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifier football match in Sao Paulo, Brazil on March 28, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / NELSON ALMEIDA

The process has risks attached to it, too. Apart from the regulars in the starting XI there is not that much depth to the squad – Willian and Roberto Firmino, aside, 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 in Russia.

How they qualified: Winners of the South American section ahead of Uruguay.

Preferred system 4-1-4-1
Star player Neymar (Paris St-Germain)
One to watch Paulinho (Barcelona)
Coach Tite
Odds 5-1
Carlos Eduardo Mansur, O Globo

“Brazil, Argentina, Spain, Germany and France are the favourites 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 a prudent character despite winning Euro 2016, 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 having added creativity to the defensive organisation that underpinned the 2016 title.

Bernardo Silva and André Silva have been important factors in this post-Euro 2016 attacking upgrade and in general, the team has more depth than was the case in France two summers ago. 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).

How they qualified: Winners of European Group B ahead of Switzerland

Preferred system 4-4-2
Star player Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid)
One to watch Bernardo Silva (Manchester City)
Coach Fernando Santos
Odds 20-1
Nuno Travassos, Maisfutebol

Argentina made it to Russia in the end and it will ultimately be a farewell party for a lot of their senior players. Sergio Romero, Ángel Di María, Sergio Agüero, Gonzalo Higuaín, Lucas Biglia and Éver Banega, among others, are almost certainly about to play in their final major tournament. For their captain – and the main reason they reached the tournament – Lionel Messi, it is also pretty much a case of now or never.

With that in mind, head coach Jorge Sampaoli is likely to go on the attack in his attempt to secure Argentina’s first World Cup since 1986. The team were unreliable in qualifying and it is up to Sampaoli to also make the team stronger in defence.

Argentina’s Lionel Messi (C) celebrates after defeating Ecuador and qualifying to the 2018 World Cup football tournament, in Quito, on October 10, 2017. Juan Ruiz / AFP

Gabriel Mercado, Javier Mascherano and Nicolás Otamendi are likely to occupy the three spots in Argentina’s back three, with Lucas Biglia and Enzo Pérez likely to occupy their central midfield spots.

How they qualified: Third in South American section behind Brazil and Uruguay.

Preferred system 3-4-3
Star player Lionel Messi (Barcelona)
One to watch Paulo Dybala (Juventus)
Coach Jorge Sampaoli
Odds 8-1
Cristian Grosso, La Nación

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 goalscorer. 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.

How they qualified: Winners of European Group H ahead of Greece

Preferred system 3-4-2-1
Star player Eden Hazard (Chelsea)
One to watch Thomas Meunier (Paris St-Germain)
Coach Roberto Martínez
Odds 12-1
Kristof Terreur, Het Laatste Nieuws

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.

How they qualified: Winners of European Group E ahead of Denmark

Preferred system 4-2-3-1
Star player Robert Lewandowski (Bayern Munich)
One to watch Piotr Zielinski (Napoli)
Coach Adam Nawalka
Odds 40-1
Tomasz Włodarczyk, Przeglad Sportowy

“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.

(BACK L-R) France’s defender Samuel Umtiti, midfielder Blaise Matuidi, defender Raphael Varane, defender Djibril Sidibé and goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, (FRONTL-R) France’s forward Antoine Griezmann, forward Alexandre Lacazette, midfielder N’Golo Kante, midfielder Corentin Tolisso, defender Lucas Digne and forward Kylian Mbappe pose for a team photograph ahead of the FIFA World Cup 2018 qualifying football match between Bulgaria and France at The Vasil Levski Stadium in Sofia on October 7, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / FRANCK FIFE

The weakest link? The left-back position if Manchester City’s Benjamin Mendy does not recover on time from his knee injury.

How they qualified: Winners of European Group A ahead of Sweden

Preferred system 4-4-2 or 4-3-3
Star player Antoine Griezmann (Atlético Madrid)
One to watch Kylian Mbappé (Paris St-Germain)
Coach Didier Deschamps
Odds 11-2
Patrick Urbini, France Football

Pot 2
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.

How they qualified: Winners of European Group G ahead of Italy

Preferred system 4-5-1
Star player David Silva (Manchester City)
One to watch Isco (Real Madrid)
Coach Julen Lopetegui
Odds 15-2
José Sámano, El País

Peru are back at the World Cup and return to the biggest scene of them all after 36 years having gone back to their roots. When Ricardo Gareca took over, he set about bringing new, younger players into 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 unlock a defence they look to the talented Christian Cueva.

How they qualified Fifth in South American section, then play-off win over New Zealand

Preferred system 4-2-3-1
Star player Jefferson Farfán (Lokomotiv Moscow)
One to watch Christian Cueva (São Paulo FC)
Coach Ricardo Gareca
Odds 150-1
Pedro Canelo, El Comercio

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 a 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 aganist 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 kocked 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.

Northern Ireland’s defender Aaron Hughes (L) and teammates midfielder Chris Brunt (C) react after their team failed to qualifiy at the end of the FIFA 2018 World Cup play-off second leg football match between Switzerland and Northern Ireland at St. at St. Jakob-Park Stadium on November 12, 2017.<br />Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

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.

How they qualified: Second in European Group B behind Switzerland, then play-off win against Northern Ireland

Preferred system 4-5-1
Star player Granit Xhaka (Arsenal)
One to watch Denis Zakaria (Borussia Mönchengladbach)
Coach Vladimir Petkovic
Odds 66-1
Kevin Lutz, Blick

The most amazing statistic about England’s team is that they have not actually lost a qualifying match for 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 actually 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.

How they qualified: Winners of European Group F ahead of Slovakia

Preferred system 3-4-2-1
Star player Harry Kane (Tottenham Hotspur)
One to watch Marcus Rashford (Manchester United)
Coach Gareth Southgate
Odds 16-1
Daniel Taylor, the Guardian

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.”

Colombia’s Radamel Falcao (L) celebrates with teammate James Rodriguez after scoring against Brazil during their 2018 World Cup football qualifier match, in Barranquilla, Colombia, on September 5, 2017.<br />Luis ACOSTA / AFP

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 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.

How they qualified: Fourth in the South American section behind Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina

Preferred system 4-2-3-1
Star player James Rodríguez (Bayern Munich, on loan from Real Madrid)
One to watch Dávinson Sáchez (Tottenham Hotpsur)
Coach José Pékerman
Odds 50-1
Gabriel Meluk, El Tiempo

The team had no problem reaching the World Cup from the Concacaf section but the coach, Juan Carlos Osorio, is still questioned by the local media because in the more demanding fixtures, such as the game against Chile (1-7) in the Copa América Centenario, and the match against Germany (1-4) in the Confederations Cup, El Tri looked lost and did not show anything to suggest they can compete with the best teams in the world.

However, counting against that, is the fact that some of the plaeyrs at his disposal are in their prime, both on a personal and professional level. Guillermo Ochoa, Andrés Guardado, Héctor Moreno, Héctor Herrera and Javier “Chicharito” Hernández are five of those players with at least five years of experience in Europe now.

This could be the difference for El Tri to finally make it through the fifth game at the World Cup, something Mexican fans have been waiting for for a long time. Osorio’s system has been changing of late. When The Colombian took over he always used a 4-3-3 formation, but in the two friendlies in Europe last month he changed it and played with two midfield enforcers, something he may repeat (along with a five-man defence) in Russia so Mexico will be able to compete against the best in the World Cup.

How they qualified: Winners of Concacaf round five ahead of Costa Rica and Panama

Preferred system 4-3-3
Star player Javier “Chicharito” Hernández (West Ham United)
One to watch Hirving “Chucky” Lozano (PSV Eindhoven)
Coach Juan Carlos Osorio
Odds 66-1
Mauricio Ymay, Televisa Deportes

Óscar Tabárez’s team went through qualifying with unusual serenity. After four consecutive World Cup play-offs (they qualified in 2002, 2010 and 2014 and were eliminated in 2006) this time they finished second behind Brazil to qualify in style. Now, though, as we approach the World Cup, Tabárez has a big decision to make: will he continue to rely on the attacking approach that has served him so well so far or make changes.

The key to this question seems to be in the changing of the guards in midfield. Federico Valverde (Real Madrid, on loan at Deportivo La Coruña), Mathías Vecino, (Internazionale), Nahitan Nández (Boca Juniors) and Rodrigo Bentancur (Juventus) are all young and attack-minded players who have earned a place in the team, forcing Tabárez to turn towards an attacking style, which also gives more prominence to the superstars Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani. However, having said that, the November friendly matches, using that new approach ended with a 0-0 draw against Poland and 1-2 defeat against Austria so expect some tinkering before the World Cup begins.

How they qualified: Second in the South American section behind Brazil

Preferred system 4-4-2
Star player Luis Suárez (Barcelona)
One to watch Federico Valverde (Deportivo La Coruña, on loan from Real Madrid)
Coach Óscar Tabárez
Odds 40-1
Ignacio Chans, El Observador

As usual, Croatia’s results had gotten progressively worse during the qualifiers before, as usual, the manager was fired. The new man in charge, Zlatko Dalic, was appointed two days before the final – and decisive – group game, but it was enough for a triumph of improvisation in Kiev, and then Croatia disposed of Greece with authority in the play-offs.

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.

How they qualified Second in European Group I behind Iceland, then play-off win against Greece

Preferred system 4-2-3-1
Star player Luka Modric (Real Madrid)
One to watch Nikola Vlasic (Everton)
Coach Zlatko Dalic
Odds 25-1
Aleksandar Holiga, Telesport

Pot 3
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 autum. 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. Christian Eriksen turned the Danish side into a one-man show by reaching a “Michael Laudrup-level” of play scoring 11 goals in 12 qualification matches including his hattrick in the decisive playoff-game in Dublin.

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.

How they qualified: Second in European Group E behind Poland, then play-off win against Republic of Ireland

Preferred system 4-3-3
Star player Christian Eriksen (Tottenham Hotspur)
One to watch Thomas Delaney (Werder Bremen)
Coach Age Hareide
Odds 80-1
Søren Lissner, Jyllands-Posten

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% 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 on Friday before they book. Trips to Moscow and Saint Petersburg are simple but Ekaterinburg and Volgograd are more complicated.

Iceland’s players including Iceland’s forward Johann Berg Gudmundsson (L) and Iceland’s forward Alfred Finnbogason celebrate after the FIFA World Cup 2018 qualification football match between Iceland and Kosovo in Reykjavik, Iceland on October 9, 2017. Iceland qualified for the FIFA World Cup 2018 as smallest country ever after beating Kosovo 2-0 at home in Reykjavik.<br />Haraldur Gudjonsson / AFP

Iceland had to overcome a serious 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 that 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.

How they qualified: Winners of European Group I ahead of Croatia

Preferred system 4-4-2
Star player Gylfi Sigurdsson
One to watch Hordur Björgvin Magnusson
Coach Heimir Hallgrimsson
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.

How they qualified: Second in Concacaf round five behind Mexico

Preferred system 5-4-1
Star player Keylor Navas (Real Madrid)
One to watch Marco Ureña (San Jose Earthquakes)
Coach Óscar Ramírez
Odds 400-1
Esteban Valverde, La Nación

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).

Sweden’s players celebrate with their teammate forward Ola Toivonen after his goal during the FIFA World Cup 2018 qualification football match between Sweden and France in Solna, Sweden, on June 9, 2017. Sweden won the match 2-1. Jonathan NACKSTRAND / AFP

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?

How they qualified: Second in European Group A behind France, then play-off win against Italy

Preferred system 4-4-2
Star player Emil Forsberg (RB Leipzig)
One to watch Viktor Claesson (Krasnodar)
Coach Jan “Janne” Andersson
Odds 80-1
Max Richnau,

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 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 Khedira, the brother of Juventus player Sami Khedhira to play for Tunisia rather than Germany.

How they qualified: Winners of African Group A (round three)

Preferred system 4-2-3-1
Star player Youssef Msakni (Al-Duhail)
One to watch Naïm Sliti (Dijon, on loan from Lille)
Coach Nabil Maaloul
Odds 400-1
Majed Achek,

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 the coach, Hector Cúper. Despite taking Egypt to the AFCON final, during a tournament in which they only conceded twice, and a 63%-win rate, Cúper has been criticised in Egypt for his dull and defensive style.

(L-R) Egypt’s Mohamed Abdel-Shafy, Tarek Hamed, Essam El-Hadary, Mohamed Salah, Saleh Gomaa, Ahmed Fathy, Mohamed Elneny, Hassan Ahmed, Ramadan Sobhi, Ahmed Hegazi, Mohamed Abdel-Shafy pose for a team picture during their World Cup 2018 Africa qualifying match between Egypt and Congo at the Borg el-Arab stadium in Alexandria on October 8, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Mohamed El-Shahed

Egypt’s squad is a mixture of youth and experience, with the veteran goalkeeper Essam El-Hadary set to become the oldest player to feature at a World Cup as he turns 45 in January. In front of him Egypt have the solid defensive partnership of Rami Rabia and West Brom’s Ahmed Hegazi, who has impressed in the Premier League. The midfield is built around Mohamed Elneny and Al-Ahly’s Abdallah Said, who at 32 years old will still bring a creative spark to the Egypt side.

Up front, Egypt hope Mohamed Salah’s fine form for Liverpool continues into the summer. The winger was the main reason Egypt reached a first World Cup since 1990 after being involved in seven out of the team’s eight World Cup Qualifying goals. On the other wing the Pharaohs have a number of players to choose from; Ramadan Sobhi, Kahraba and Mahmoud Hassan “Trézéguet”, who is one to watch for with his direct runs into the box.

Regardless of who starts opposite Salah they will need to contribute goals, with Egypt struggling to find a quality striker.

How they qualified: Winners of African Group E (round three) ahead of Uganda

Preferred system 4-2-3-1
Star player Mohamed Salah (Liverpool)
One to watch Mahmoud Hassan “Trézéguet” (Kasımpaşa, on loan from Anderlecht)
Coach Héctor Cúper
Odds 250-1
Ahmad Yousef,

Senegal will be taking part in their second participation in a World Cup finals having reached the quarter-finals on their only previous appearance in 2002. Coach Alio Cissé, who was captain of that side under the late Bruno Metsu, guided his team through a difficult qualification group containing Burkina Faso, South Africa and Cape Verde, and has moulded a team that is strong in all areas.

The addition of M’Baye Niang to a forward line that already boasts Keita Balde of Monaco and Liverpool’s Sadio Mané has allowed Cissé to play 4-3-3, although in the crucial victory over South Africa saw West Ham’s Diafra Sakho start in a 4-4-2. Much will be expected of Mané, who has been the star of this team for several years and has been compared to El Hadji Diouf – who was the talisman for the 2002 side. His injury problems at Liverpool have slowed down a brilliant start to life at Anfield but the 25-year-old will need to be at his best in Russia.

How they qualified Winners of African Group D (round three) ahead of Burkina Faso

Preferred system 4-3-3
Star player Sadio Mané (Liverpool)
One to watch M’Baye Niang (Torino, on loan from Milan)
Coach Aliou Cissé
Odds 150-1
Woury Diallo, Le Quotidien

Team Melli are playing in their second successive World Cup for the first time ever and experienced arguably their smoothest journey to a final 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 squence 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 has 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 censor’s 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.

How they qualified: Winners of Asian Group A (round three) ahead of South Korea

Preferred system 4-2-3-1
Star player Sardar Azmoun (Rubin Kazan)
One to watch Saman Ghoddos (Ostersund)
Coach Carlos Queiroz
Behnam Jafarzadeh,

Pot 4
Serbia qualified for their first major tournament for seven years in a comprehensive fashion. With only one defeat in 10 matches, the Serbian national team pipped the Euro 2016 semi-finalists Wales and a resilient Ireland side to first place in World Cup Qualifying Group D, but that, in the end, was not enough for Slavoljub Muslin to keep his job. The experienced 64-year-old’s conflict with the president of the Serbian FA, Slavisa Kokeza, over the style of play and squad selection – with Lazio star midfielder Sergej Milinkovic-Savic standing in the epicentre – resulted in Muslin getting his marching orders.

Mladen Krstajic took over from Muslin as caretaker coach and immediately introduced Milinkovic-Savic to the national team for the November friendlies. The Lazio man repaid the faith with two superb performances and an assist, thus sending Slavoljub Muslin a clear message that he could be trusted to lead the star-studded – but ageing – Serbian side forward.

How they qualified: Winners of Euopean Group D ahead of Republic of Ireland

Preferred System 3-4-3
Star Player Nemanja Matic (Manchester United)
One to Watch Sergej Milinkovic-Savic (Lazio)
Coach Mladen Krstajic (Caretaker)
Milos Markovic,

Placed in a group with Algeria, Cameroon and 2012 African champions Zambia, the Super Eagles remarkably qualified for the World Cup with a game to spare, breeding huge positivity among the fans.

The comeback victory over Argentina in a recent friendly in Russia further fed into the optimism of what the Super Eagles can achieve at the World Cup with Gernot Rohr at the helm. The German coach has radically improved the side, infusing the freshness of youth into the team that failed to qualify for two consecutive Africa Cup of Nations tournaments prior to his appointment. Since he took over the Super Eagles in 2016, the former Bordeaux coach has lost just one game and has knitted together a ruthless counter-attacking unit that features the brilliant Alex Iwobi and Chelsea wingback Victor Moses playing as a dynamic, talismanic winger.

Nigeria’s (top L-R) Leon Balogun, William Ekong, Anthony Nwakaeme, Ikechukwu Ezenwa, Onyinye Ndidi, John Ogu, (bottom L-R) Abdullahi Shehu, Alexander Iwobi, Ola Aina, Oghenekaro Etebo, and Kelechi Iheanacho pose prior to the 2018 FIFA World Cup Group B qualifying football match between Algeria and Nigeria at the Chahid Hamlaou Stadium in Constantine on November 10, 2017. RYAD KRAMDI / AFP

The unit based on a sturdy defence line, energetic ball-winners at the base of the midfield and the calming presence of John Mikel Obi to funnel balls into the attack. The Nigerian Football Federation (NFF) have taken steps to avoid a repeat of the 2014 case where the players refused to train before the game against France in the second round owing to unpaid bonuses by negotiating and signing agreements on the payment of the bonuses. The NFF also handed Rohr a two-year contract extension to erase any uncertainties about his future.

How they qualified: Winners of African Group B (round three) ahead of Zambia

Preferred system 4-3-3
Star player: Victor Moses (Chelsea)
One to watch: Alexander Iwobi (Arsenal)
Coach Gernot Rohr
Odds 150-1
Solomon Fowowe, The Guardian Nigeria Newspaper

The 31st team to qualify for Russia worked harder than anyone else with around 250,000 kilometres travelled and trips to far-flung destinations such as Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh, Tajikistan, Iran, Japan, Malaysia and Honduras. It was not a completely convincing performance as the Socceroos finished third in their group behind Japan and Saudi Arabia and had to go through the play-offs. Problem was, just days after doing the business against Honduras in October, coach Ange Postecoglou resigned. Nobody is quite sure why but the forward-thinking, risk-taking boss will be missed.

Postecoglou had been trying to introduce a more progressive and flexible style to the team he led to the 2015 Asian Cup title. Results were mixed but he would have been one of the more interesting coaches in Russia. Compared to past World Cups, this batch lacks star power and experience at the highest levels of European football. That 37-year-old Tim Cahill saved Socceroo skin with both goals in the home win over Syria in September suggests there is a lack of real quality. 3-4-1-2 was the controversial choice in the latter stages of qualification but the new man, whoever he is, may have other ideas.

Much depends on the form and fitness of Aaron Mooy of Huddersfield Town, Tom Rogic at Celtic and Aston Villa’s Mile Jedinak.

How they qualified: Third in Asian Group B (round three) behind Japan and Saudi Arabia, then play-off wins against Syria and Honduras

Preferred system 3-4-1-2 (but that may change when the new manager is appointed)

Star player Tom Rogic (Celtic)
One to watch Matt Jurman (Suwon Bluewings)
Coach none
Odds 300-1
John Duerden, The Guardian

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.

How they qualified: Winners of Asian Group B (round three) ahead of Saudi Arabia

Preferred system 4-3-3
Star player Maya Yoshida (Southampton)
One to watch Yosuke Ideguchi (Gamba Osaka)
Coach Vahid Halilhodžić
Odds 250-1
Akihiko Kawabata,

Morocco’s Atlas Lions are roaring again. Twenty years after a heartbreaking elimination from the group stage at France 98, the first African team to reach the last 16 is back at the World Cup. This is the fifth time they are playing in the most prestigious tournament on the planet. “We made a dream come true. We are all going to Russia… and it won’t be to be tourists,” the captain and Juventus defender, Mehdi Benatia said after the win over Ivory Coast that sealed World Cup qualification.

Morocco’s team players celebrate at the Felix Houphouet-Boigny stadium in Abidjan on November 11, 2017, at the end of the FIFA World Cup 2018 Africa Group C qualifying football match between Ivory Coast and Morocco. ISSOUF SANOGO / AFP

The only team in Africa to qualify for Russia without conceding a single goal in the qualifiers, Morocco’s team is, naturally, built on a solid defence and hard work. The experience of Karim El Ahmadi, M’barek Boussoufa and Mehdi Benatia fits well together with the intelligence of Hakim Ziyech and the strength of Nordin Amrabat. Hervé Renard is obviously the man in charge, but the advice coming from one of his assistants, Patrice Beaumelle, is vital.

The former Coventry City midfielder Mustapha Hadji is also a key person in the set-up, sharing his experiences and acting as a perfect role model for this whole generation. The team’s main weakness used to be on the left side, but Achraf Hakimi (Real Madrid) has filled the gap admirably since September.

How they qualified: Winners African Group C (round three) ahead of Ivory Coast

Preferred system 4-5-1
Star player Hakim Ziyech (Ajax)
One to watch Sofiane Boufal (Southampton)
Coach Hervé Renard
Odds 250-1
Amine El Amri, Le Matin

“We’ll go to the World Cup to learn and compete. It’s an experience to enjoy,” said Hernán Darío Gómez, and he should know: the Colombian has led four teams at World Cup finals. His experience has been crucial in turning a mature squad who had performed well at age-group levels to the country’s first qualification. T

hat feat owed much to the defensive colossus of Román Torres and in midfield Gabriel Gómez, the brains of the operation. It is a team built on defensive solidity, discipline and hitting teams on the break. Alberto Quintero’s creativity is the key source of chances for Gabriel Torres and Blas Pérez, the most used forward pairing. Fidel Escobar, 22, Michael Murillo, 21, (both of New York Red Bulls) and Deportivo La Coruña’s Ismael Díaz, 20, add youthful endeavour.

How they qualified: Third in Concacaf round five behind Mexico and Costa Rica

Preferred system 4-4-2
Star player Gabriel Gómez (Atlético Bucaramanga)
One to watch Román Torres (Seattle Sounders)
Coach Hernán Darío Gómez
Odds 1,000-1
Álvaro Martínez, El Siglo de Panamá

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 systems to it is not yet sure how South Korea will play at the World Cup.

How they qualified: Second in Asian Group A behind Iran (round three)

Preferred system 4-4-2
Star player Heung-min Son (Tottenham Hotspur)
One to watch Chang-hoon Kwon (Dijon)
Coach Tae-yong Shin
Odds 500-1
Hyung-wook Seo, Footballist

Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia may be the lowest ranked team of those that made it through qualification but there really is never a dull moment when the Green Falcons are around. Few coaches last more than a year in the hottest of hot seats but Dutchman Bert Van Marwijk was in charge for two and led the team to a first World Cup since 2006. It wasn’t always pretty but the Saudis qualified as second in Group B behind Japan

from the weakest teams in the group and then did enough against Japan and Australia to squeeze in between the two favourites for the second automatic spot.

Days later Van Marwijk was heading home. The Saudi FA wanted to make changes to his staff and the manager to spend more time in the country in the build-up to Russia. He refused, and he was off and immediately replaced by Edgardo Bauza, fired by Argentina in April. Bauza lasted two months and five friendlies before getting the boot.
Just three days before the draw in Moscow, Juan Antonio Pizzi was appointed.

The man who led Chile to the 2016 Copa América but could not take them to Russia is going anyway (though you can’t be sure in Saudi Arabia). He has a squad of some talent but one that totally lacks international experience. There has been talk of arranging La Liga loans for the Saudi players over the next few months in order to rectify this. It sounds strange and impractical but who knows?

How they qualified: Winners of Asian Group A (round three) ahead of South Korea

Preferred system 4-3-3 (in qualification though new coach may change).
Star Player Nawaf Al Abed (Al-Abed)
One to watch Fahad Al-Muwallad (Al-Ittihad)
Coach Juan Antonio Pizzi
Odds 1,000-1
John Duerden, the Guardian

This special report is in partnership with Guardian UK.

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