World Cup Preview: Group F
After slipping under the radar to success in 2014, the pressure is now on world champions Germany to replicate a similar performance in Russia this summer.
Their group contains many potential banana skins, with Sweden, South Korea and Mexico all a tight call for 2nd spot. But is 1st spot out of reach? Gregor Kerr previews.
The core of the Jurgen Klinsmann’s squad looks a fair bit different since their triumph at the Maracana in 2014. Since then, captain Phillip Lahm has retired and midfield warrior Bastian Schweinsteiger plays his football in Chicago. World Cup record goalscorer Miroslav Klose hung up his boots two years ago, as has Per Mertesacker. Lukas Podolski now plays his football in Japan.
There are some standouts from that squad that still remain. Thomas Muller may be breathing down his former teammate Klose’s record by the end of this summer, with ten World Cup goals to his name in two tournaments. If he keeps up his record he could match Klose’s 16 goals before 2022 should he and Germany make it there.
Manuel Neuer picked up the Golden Glove at the previous tournament, and he manages to find a spot in the squad again despite an injury-ravaged season for Bayern Munich. A foot injury picked up in April 2017 tormented the enormous goalkeeper and restricted him to just four appearances last term. Since 2016 Neuer was named the captain of Germany and perhaps that, along with his reputation, is why he has been allowed a spot in the squad even through a lack of game time. It will be interesting to see how sharp Neuer appears when tested in these group meetings.
Die Mannschaft were not the heaviest favoured team in Brazil to ultimately win, and as such they have far higher expectations this year. While they sneaked under the radar in 2014 they have not been able to escape criticism for recent showings in the run up to Russia. Failure to record a win in their last six games has caused understandable concern for their fans.
What they do have is a perfect blend of experience and youth. Toni Krros and Sami Khedira were the heartbeat of 2014’s victory, and coupled with players like Julian Draxler and Leon Goretzka could add ideal depth.
Marco Reus finally makes his first World Cup appearance, after late injury heartbreak ruled him out of Brazil. The concern in attack however is right at the focal point, and the lack of a number nine to lead the line. 32 year old Mario Gomez looks the most likely to start, despite just 9 goals in the Bundesliga last season, while young Timo Werner is another option.
The glaring omission is Manchester City’s Leroy Sane, who Joachim Lowe said was in a straight shoot-out for the final spot against Julian Brandt, the latter won. Sane’s pace and crossing ability would have been a valuable asset for Germany, making his absence ever stranger. It could be down to the system in mind, or even an attitude problem.
The group stage has never been a big issue for the Mexicans, progressing at the same stage every year since 1994, six World Cups. When it comes to the round of 16, is when the curse begins to kick in. In 2014 it was a late, late dive from Arjen Robben that broke their hearts in Brazil. Two defeats to Argentina came before, with a loss to rivals United States in 2002. They hold the record for the most second-round eliminations.
It could be looked at as a consistent achievement amongst neutrals. But for the locals, it has become a source of frustration. A nation underachieving and appearing to hit a glass ceiling on every occasion. At times it has been narrow margins, sometimes a gulf in class, but there seems to be some form of mental block when the round of 16 rolls around.
Choosing a probably starting XI is an impossible task. Incredibly, in his 46 games in charge Juan Carlos Osorio has never stuck with the same line-up for consecutive games. Most people would question this tactic, but considering that Mexico qualified at the top-ranked CONCACAF side in 20 years would suggest that there is method behind the madness.
The current Mexico squad however looks just as talented as any in recent memory, with players from all over Europe and North America making up the squad. Goalkeeper Guilermo Ochoa was one of many memorable goalkeepers from the previous World Cup, although his starting spot is not definite.
Defence is where Mexico look their most vulnerable. Hector Moreno of Real Sociedad is the most experienced of what is usually a three-man defence. Nestor Araujo will miss the tournament via a knee injury, while Carlso Salcedo is also a doubt.
Midfield is the exciting part of this side. Hirving Lozano dominated the Eredivisie with PSV Eindhoven last year from the left-wing area, scoring 16 goals. Carlos Vela, once of Sociedasd and now at Los Angeles FC looks likely to play on the other side of midfield with Porto’s Jesus Corona likely to appear on the bench.
Andres Guardado, Hector Herrera and particularly Rafa Marquez are all experienced midfield options. Marquez will feature in his fifth World Cup aged 39, only the fourth player in history to do so.
Javier Hernandez remains the main striker after a solid first season at West Ham, but Raul Jimenez will be waiting to capitalise on any poor form after a strong year with Benfica. Mexico tend to play with a “fake striker”, so you can expect this to either be Giovani Dos Santos or Marco Fabian.
When Zlatan Ibrahimović retired from international football after Euro 2016 you could excuse the Swedes for having some concern. It was a topic that was debated to the point of exhaustion. Would it be detrimental to lose such a huge figure and player, or would it allow players to escape from their shell? The answer was in the result.
They are more of a team without Zlatan. More united and more resolute. This could have not been clearer in their play-off battle against Italy, when they kept a clean sheet both home and away in the tie. They also defeated France in qualifying and remained unbeaten at home.
There was discussion in the lead up to this tournament about the possibility of Ibrahimovic returning to the squad for the finals, but it was this current crop of Swedish players who accomplished this achievement and it is rightly up to them to get their opportunity on the biggest stage.
Defender and captain Andreas Granqvist broke Ibrahimovic’s decade long run of Swedish Player of the Year in 2017, whilst playing his football in Russia for Kransodar, while Manchester United’s Victor Lindelof appears his likely partner.
Emil Forsberg, formerly of Malmo, is the star name in midfield. Starting out at Malmo, RB Leipzig is where he made his name on the European scene, recording more assists than any other Bundesliga in the 2016/17 season.
The forwards are not quite household names, although Marcus Berg did score eight goals in qualifying, despite playing for UAE side Al Ain, for whom he has scored over 30 goals this season. His rival in this position looks to be Ola Toivanon, a forgettable name at West Brom, yet he holds much experience for Sweden.
Competing every year in this competition since 1986, South Korea are a team who will likely always be remembered for their run to the semi-final on home soil in 2002. Last time around they had a flat group stage exit, which looks the far more likely scenario this year.
Qualification was tenser than head coach Shin Tae-Yong would have preferred. A edgy 0-0 draw against Uzbekistan in the final game, coupled with Syria’s failure to defeat Iran helped edge them into a runner’s up spot. Tae-Yong wasn’t in charge for the full campaign, being drafted in to replace Uli Stielike, who came under fire due to South Korea’s poor away record of two points in five games.
Many of the squad are based in South Korea, while Ki Sung-yeung and Heung-min Son are the standout names in the squad. Ki, the country’s captain, has been a Premier League ever-present since his move from Celtic to Swansea in 2012. This run came to an end in May however, as the Swans were relegated to the Championship.
Son however has experienced far better fortunes recently. This season he became the record goalscoring Asian player in Premier League history, scoring 18 times as Tottenham secured another year in the Champions League. He has become a key component in Spurs’s system, offering pace, versatility and a serious goal-threat. Perhaps more than Ki, he is South Korea’s talisman and his performances will go a long way to determining their future.
Germany – 7 points
Mexico – 5 points
South Korea – 3 points
Sweden – 1 point