World Cup 2018 groups: all the first stage games
Group A – Russia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Uruguay
When the Russians launched their bid to host the World Cup for the first time, they were on a high after reaching the semi-finals at the 2008 European Championship. Times have changed.
Russia go into the draw as the lowest-ranked of the 32 teams, having failed to advance past the group stage of any tournament since 2008. Ambitious talk of reaching the quarter-finals or even semi-finals has faded.
There are off-field problems too, with reports of disputes between players and the coach. Hooligan rampages at Euro 2016 tarnished Russia’s image, with the country threatened with expulsion from the tournament in France.
- Key player: Igor Akinfeev (CSKA Moscow) – A talented goalkeeper who captains the team, Akinfeev has tended to make mistakes in big games.
- Coach: Stanislav Cherchesov – After experiments with expensive foreign recruits like Fabio Capello and Guus Hiddink, Russia go into the World Cup with a dour, defence-first former goalkeeper.
Edgardo Bauza was dismissed nine days before the draw after only five friendlies in charge. The team lost to Portugal and Bulgaria last month.
Bauza had been appointed in September to replace Bert van Marwijk, who was fired despite leading the team to their first World Cup since 2006.
Juan Antonio Pizzi, who was only named on Tuesday as the new coach, will be tasked with improving on Saudi Arabia’s best-ever performance at World Cup – the second-round exit to Sweden at the 1994 tournament in the United States.
- Star player: Mohammad Al-Sahlawi (Al-Nassr) – The 30-year-old striker was instrumental in helping the Saudis reach the tournament with 16 goals in qualifying.
- Coach: Juan Antonio Pizzi.
Egypt waited a long time to be back at the World Cup. The record seven-time African champions had to watch on the sidelines since last qualifying in 1990.
The team hit new lows recently, failing to even qualify for the African Cup of Nations – a tournament they once dominated – from 2012-15. They are back now, reaching the final of this year’s tournament and following that up with a long-awaited World Cup return.
- Key player: Mohamed Salah (Liverpool) – Delivered when it counted with five goals in six games in the final round of qualifiers, including the late penalty that took Egypt to the World Cup.
- Coach: Hector Cuper – There have been murmurs of discontent over the conservative style favored by the Argentine. His team focuses on defence first and counter attacks when it can. There can be no denying Cuper’s tactics have been successful, though.
Defender Diego Godin (31) and strikers Edinson Cavani (30) and Luis Suarez (30) still trouble opponents. But now youngsters like midfielders Federico Valverde (19) and Nahitan Nandez (21) have become frequent starters. Coach Oscar Tabarez, who leads Uruguay’s recovery since 2006, believes a paced renovation will bear fruit in 2022.
- Key player: Edinson Cavani (Paris Saint-Germain) – Top goalscorer of the South American qualifiers with 10 goals in 18 matches, Cavani has been more deadly for Uruguay than Barcelona’s Luis Suarez.
- Coach: Oscar Tabarez – Will coach Uruguay for his fourth World Cup, the third in a row. The 70-year-old Tabarez has used a wheelchair since he was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre syndrome in 2016.
Our group prediction: Uruguay and Egypt to go through
Group B – Portugal, Spain, Morocco, Iran
Cristiano Ronaldo’s hopes of winning the World Cup with Portugal are running out.
Portugal have proven they have the mettle needed to win major international tournaments after they ground though the 2016 European Championship and stunned hosts France in the final despite an early injury to Ronaldo.
- Key player: Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid) – At 32, Ronaldo is no longer the goal machine he once was. Key to success in Russia could be how he is managed by Madrid, and can be rested in less significant games.
- Coach: Fernando Santos – Since taking over the team in 2014, Santos has forged a solid defensive block that gives just enough help to Ronaldo.
The managerial change from Vicente del Bosque to Julen Lopetegui has reinvigorated a side that was in clear decline after failing to defend their world title in 2014 and European crown in 2016. Though following news that Lopetegui will be taking over at Real Madrid, announced 48 hours before the start of the World Cup, it will be interesting to see whether Spain’s build-up is disrupted.
- Key player: Andres Iniesta (Barcelona) – Scored the sole goal of the 2010 World Cup final but will be 34 at next year’s tournament.
- Coach: It was Julen Lopetegui, the 51-year-old former goalkeeper who steered Spain through an undefeated qualifying campaign. But he was sacked 48 hours before Spain’s first World Cup game.
Renard has brought discipline and flair to a team developing an exciting brand of football based on solid defending and fast attacking tempo.
- Key player: Nabil Dirar (Fenerbahce) – The versatile midfielder was a key element of the Monaco side that won the French league title last season.
- Coach: Herve Renard – The French coach has had success with other African teams, winning the African Cup of Nations with Zambia in 2012 and the Ivory Coast three years later.
The first team to qualify from Asia, Iran sealed their spot with a 2-0 win over Uzbekistan in June.
The Iranians went unbeaten in 18 qualifying games across two rounds. In the last round, Iran didn’t concede a goal in nine games but finished with a 2-2 draw against Syria.
Iran will be playing their fifth World Cup, qualifying back-to-back for the first time. They went winless at the 2014 World Cup, but this time coach Carlos Queiroz is targeting the knockout stages and has vowed Iran will “not go to Russia as tourists.”
- Key player: Sardar Azmoun (Rubin Kazan) – The 22-year-old forward emerged as a scoring threat at the 2015 Asian Cup and has already bagged 22 international goals.
- Coach: Carlos Queiroz – The veteran Portuguese manager retained his job after the 2014 World Cup and has rebuilt the squad, bring in young players such as Azmoun.
Our group prediction: Portugal and Spain to go through
Group C – France, Australia, Peru, Denmark
A young and vibrant side packed with flair promises to be eye-catching. Recently, France twice took the lead away to World Cup winner Germany and caused the home defence all sorts of problems with the movement and speed of their devastating counter-attacks.
But France are also prone to lapses in concentration, and this needs to be ironed out if they wish to win the trophy for the second time.
Les Bleus lost the 2006 World Cup final to Italy in a penalty shootout; lost to Germany in the quarter-finals of the 2014 World Cup, and could not handle the pressure of being favourites in the Euro 2016 final at home to Portugal.It’s time for France to add silverware to the growing hype.
- Key player: Raphael Varane (Real Madrid) – The three-time Champions League-winning centre-back has the difficult task of marshalling a vulnerable defence.
- Coach: Didier Deschamps – Turned France into a highly competitive team but has yet to deliver a trophy. Reaching the World Cup semi-finals is the minimum target for the 49-year-old Deschamps, a former midfielder who captained France to victory at the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000.
The Australians played 22 games in qualifying, including an Asian playoff against Syria and culminating with a play-off win over Honduras. That made them the next-to-last team to clinch a spot at the 2108 edition.
The nucleus of the young squad that went to Brazil four years ago has remained, helping the country win a first Asian Cup title in 2015 and develop an attacking style it touts as the Australian way.
Ange Postecoglou quit as coach a week after Australia secured their place in Russia, and is yet to be replaced.
- Key player: Mile Jedinak (Aston Villa) – With much of the attention on 37-year-old Tim Cahill, Jedinak has returned from injury to stabilise the midfield and score a hat-trick against Honduras.
- Coach: To be appointed.
Chile, Ecuador and even Paraguay were considered favorites for South America’s fifth spot in the World Cup. In the end, it went to a Peruvian side that conceded only seven goals in eight matches in 2017.
Much of the team’s base players are now in Mexican clubs; goalkeeper Pedro Gallese, defender Luis Advincula, midfielder Pedro Aquino and strikers Raul Ruidiaz and Andy Polo.
- Key player: Paolo Guerrero (Flamengo) – The 33-year-old captain scored six goals in qualifying and features after appealing against a Fifa doping ban.
- Coach: Ricardo Gareca – The 59-year-old Argentine scored a goal in 1985 that eliminated Peru in the South American qualifiers. Since 2015 he has led a much better organised and well-paced Peruvian team to their first World Cup participation since 1982.
Denmark haven’t played a major tournament since the 2012 European Championships but they are unbeaten in 11 games since back-to-back losses in qualifying against Poland and Montenegro in October 2016.
Two results stand out: A 4-0 win at home to top-seeded Poland in September and the 5-1 victory at Ireland in the play-offs second leg.
In both games, playmaker Christian Eriksen was a standout creating and scoring goals. His form can decide Denmark’s fortunes in Russia.
- Key player: Christian Eriksen (Tottenham) – Just 18 on his World Cup debut in 2010, Eriksen is in prime form this time round, scoring 11 goals in eight different games during Denmark’s unbeaten streak.
- Coach: Age Hareide – The 64-year-old Norwegian has spent his entire career in Scandinavia, including a five-year spell leading his home country.
Our prediction: France and Denmark to go through
Group D – Argentina, Iceland, Croatia, Nigeria
A team featuring Lionel Messi can never be ignored, even though the 2014 runners-up barely made it to this World Cup.
But other key talent like Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain have been far from top form for Argentina. That is why little-known Boca Juniors striker Daria Benedetto has been deployed up front.
- Key player: Lionel Messi (Barcelona) – Doubted by fans, yet the five-time world player of the year delivered. Argentina would not be going to Russia without his goals and leadership. Turns 31 during a tournament that could yet crown his career.
- Coach: Jorge Sampaoli – The 57-year-old Argentine is his country’s third coach in less than a year. His team has not impressed so far, with only one win in four official matches. His team is the biggest question mark of this World Cup.
The city of Moscow alone outnumbers Iceland’s entire population 40 times over, but this is a team of giant-killers.
Last year’s run to the Euro 2016 quarter-finals, knocking out England on a memorable night in Nice, showed the talent and determination in Iceland’s team. Qualifying for the World Cup ahead of Croatia and Ukraine proved last year wasn’t a one-off.
Expecting more success in Russia might be optimistic, but with Iceland’s passionate fans and their “thunderclap” chant, nothing can be ruled out.
- Key player: Aron Gunnarsson (Cardiff City) – Gylfi Sigurdsson may be the main attacking threat, but bearded captain Gunnarsson inspires a gritty team.
- Coach: Heimir Hallgrimsson – Not many teams are coached by a dentist, but Iceland aren’t most teams. Took sole charge after co-coach Lars Lagerback left last year.
Croatia had to squeeze through the play-offs for the second straight World Cup despite having at their disposal a generation of players capable of making the difference. Led by playmaker Luka Modric alongside Mario Mandzukic, Ivan Rakitic and Ivan Perisic, Croatia are on paper a tough team to beat.
They need the players to replicate their club form on the international stage at a major tournament.
- Key player: Luka Modric (Real Madrid) – Croatia look at Modric, their undisputable leader in hopes to emulate the third-place finish at the 1998 World Cup.
- Coach: Zlatko Dalic – Took charge of a critical situation with one game remaining in the qualifying. Presided over a victory over Ukraine 2-0, then Croatia overcame Greece in the play-offs.
A 4-0 victory over Cameroon emphasised that when they get it right the Super Eagles can be a handful for any side. Argentina found that out in November when Nigeria came back from 2-0 down to win their friendly 4-2 in Russia. Nigeria have qualified for five of the last six World Cups.
- Key player: John Obi Mikel (Tianjin Teda, China) – While Nigeria have attacking talent aplenty with Alex Iwobi, Kelechi Iheanacho and Victor Moses, captain Mikel has provided crucial stability in central midfield.
- Coach: Gernot Rohr – Like Mikel, Rohr has been a calming influence for Nigeria, which has changed coaches eight times since the last World Cup in Brazil.
Our prediction: Argentina and Nigeria to go through
Group E – Brazil, Switzerland, Costa Rica, Serbia
The gloom that engulfed Brazil after the 7-1 debacle against Germany in the 2014 World Cup has lifted.
Brazil were the first team to clinch qualification for Russia and had memorable wins on the way, including a 3-0 success over Argentina in the same Mineirao stadium of the 2014 semi-final humiliation.
It took the appointment of Tite in September 2016 to revive Brazil. Under his helm, there have been 13 wins, three draws and only one loss – in a friendly against Argentina.
- Key player: Neymar (Paris St-Germain) – Should be at the peak of his game aged 26 in Russia, the forward will have his best chance to overthrow Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo if Brazil win.
- Coach: Adenor Bacchi – Universally known as Tite, he turned Brazil from flops to favourites. Forget Dunga’s muscular 2014 World Cup team that depended heavily on Neymar, Brazil are now about organisation and flair.
Now is the time for Switzerland to be more than the sum of its talented parts. The quarter-finals are a realistic goal.
Don’t call it a golden generation, but the Swiss have a core of players from the 2009 Under-17 world champion team and a depth of tournament experience.
However, those World Cup and European Championship adventures ended, at best, in the round of 16. Switzerland last won a World Cup knockout game in 1954, and that was just in a group play-off as host nation.
Critics can pick holes in how the Swiss qualified: Nine straight wins in a weak group, and a play-off against Northern Ireland decided by a dubious penalty call.
A well-balanced team has seemed to need a high-class central defender and reliable scorer. In Basel’s Manuel Akanji, it might have found that defender.
- Key player: Valon Behrami (Udinese) – Going to his fourth straight World Cup in the elder statesman role for a young squad, speaking all of Switzerland’s three main languages. His absence weighed heavily in the group-deciding loss at Portugal.
- Coach: Vladimir Petkovic – The unheralded Bosnian coach now seems to have grown into the role three years after succeeding two-time Champions League winner Ottmar Hitzfeld.
The tiny Central American country reached the quarter-finals of the World Cup four years ago, losing to the Netherlands on a penalty shootout.
This will be Costa Rica’s fifth World Cup appearance, impressive for a country with a population just under 5 million. Bryan Ruiz is the main attacking threat, while Celso Borges of is a midfield linchpin.
Still, November friendlies were hardly encouraging, with a 5-0 thrashing by Spain and a 1-0 loss to Hungary.
- Key player: Keylor Navas (Real Madrid) – Probably the best-known player in the squad, the goalkeeper’s strong showing in Brazil secured a move to Madrid in 2014.
- Coach: Oscar Ramirez – Former midfielder took over after Paulo Wanchope resigned after a post-match fight.
Serbia cruised through their qualifying group to return to the World Cup finals after eight years, the second time since becoming an independent nation in 2006.
The skillful squad scored the most goals – 20 – in the group, with Aleksandar Mitrovic the leading scorer with six goals, leaving behind Ireland, Wales and Austria.
Slavoljub Muslin was removed as coach despite the successful qualifying campaign, with Mladen Krstajic placed in temporary command.
- Key player: Branislav Ivanovic (Zenit St Petersburg) – Defensive experience from a stellar career for Chelsea used to anchor the defence. Played all ten World Cup qualifiers
- Coach: To be appointed.
Our prediction: Brazil and Switzerland to go through
Group F – Germany, Mexico, Sweden, South Korea
The World Cup holders are in good shape to defend their title after going unbeaten in all games in 2017.
They have already collected a trophy in Russia in the build-up to the World Cup, winning the Confederations Cup in July and using the warm-up tournament to test new options like late developer Lars Stindl.
World Cup qualifying was completed with 10 wins from 10 and a European-record 43 goals.
- Key player: Toni Kroos (Real Madrid) – Germany’s new leader, Kroos keeps the side ticking from midfield, where his intelligence, precision and composition on the ball inspires team-mates going forward.
- Coach: Joachim Low – Jurgen Klinsmann’s assistant during the 2006 World Cup, Low took over after that tournament and has overseen steady progress culminating in the 2014 title.
Mexico have been regulars at the World Cup, but always come up just short. They have played in the last six World Cups, and were knocked out each time in the round of 16.
Reaching the quarter-finals this time would be seen as a success. The Mexicans have only done that twice – 1970 and 1986 when they were hosts.
Mexico impressed four years ago in Brazil, and they were impressive in qualifying this time, doing so with three games to spare ahead of Costa Rica and Panama. Arch rivals United States missed out this time. Few tears were shed in Mexico over this.
- Key player: Javier Hernandez (West Ham) – Likely to line up in the front with Jesus Corona and Hirving Lozano.
- Coach: Juan Carlos Osorio – Known for his detailed planning and quick attacking style, but struggles with self-control and was suspended for this summer’s Gold Cup after being sent off at the Confederations Cup.
Sweden had just stunned Italy in the play-offs to qualify for their first World Cup finals since 2006 when a tweet was posted by the country’s best player: “We are Zweden.”
The shadow of Zlatan Ibrahimovic hangs over the national team.
The Manchester United striker retired from international soccer after last year’s European Championship, but the obvious question is now being asked: Will Ibrahimovic be tempted to come out of retirement for one last World Cup? And will the Swedes accept him back?
Without Ibrahimovic, Sweden seem more united and well-structured, but he can do things no other Swedish player can. Watch this space.
- Key player: Emil Forsberg (Leipzig) – Has replaced Ibrahimovic as Sweden’s inspiration in attack.
- Coach: Janne Andersson – Took charge following Euro 2016 and has successfully rebuilt the team to be greater than the sum of its parts without Ibrahimovic.
Every World Cup since 1986 has featured South Korea. This time looks likelier to be a repeat of 2014’s meek group-stage exit than 2002’s swashbuckling run to the semi-finals.
Qualifying was tricky, with a place only secured thanks to a tense 0-0 draw against fellow qualifying contenders Uzbekistan on the final day of the Asian group stages, combined with Syria’s failure to beat Iran.
Much will depend on a due of English Premier League players – Tottenham’s Son Heung-min and Swansea’s Ki Sung-yeung who bring valuable experience of top-level football.
- Key player: Son Heung-min (Tottenham) – The top-scoring Asian player in Premier League history.
- Coach: Shin Tae-yong – When defeats to Qatar and China threw South Korea’s qualifying campaign into turmoil, the former Under-23 coach was promoted to steady the ship. Has only ever coached in South Korea and Australia.
Our prediction: Germany and Mexico to go through
Group G – Belgium, Panama, Tunisia, England
It’s time to deliver for a team featuring such exceptional talent. But Belgium is a country that is yet to break into the semi-finals of a tournament.
It is widely acknowledged they have been held back by mediocre management. Now it is up to Roberto Martinez, a Spanish coach, to get the best out of this plethora of stars.
If you have Romelu Lukaku up front, Eden Hazard as a creative genius and goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois for a final lock on goal, the ingredients for success are there.
- Key player: Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City) – Overshadowed Eden Hazard at the 2014 World Cup, he has only grown in stature, especially since his move to City and his more withdrawn position on the pitch.
- Coach: Roberto Martinez was a surprise pick for Belgium when they ditched Marc Wilmots after a disappointing Euro 2016. The Spaniard easily adapted to life in international management.
A first-ever qualification for the World Cup earned Panama a national holiday.
The Central Americans made it to Russia in style, defeating Costa Rica 2-1 in the final qualifier.
Panama has only four million people, but finished ahead of the United States, which has about 320 million.
- Key player: Luis Tejada (Universitario) – The striker has scored 43 goals for Panama.
- Coach: Hernan Dario Gomez – The Colombian has worked his magic again. He got Colombia into the 1998 World Cup, and then did the same for Ecuador in 2002. Now it is Panama’s turn.
Unbeaten during their qualifying campaign, Tunisia are making a return to the World Cup for the first time in 12 years.
The Eagles of Carthage qualified for Russia ahead of Democratic Republic of Congo, Libya and Guinea and will take part in their fifth World Cup. They have never got beyond the group stage.
With a new generation of players including Wahbi Khazri and former Monaco defender Aymen Abdennour, their main goal will be to win a game in Russia.
- Key player: Youssef Msakni (Al Duhail) – The 27-year-old forward played a crucial role in qualifying, scoring a hat-trick in an away win to Guinea.
- Coach: Nabil Maaloul – A former assistant under Roger Lemerre when Tunisia won the African Cup of Nations in 2002, Maaloul took over from Henri Kasperczak two matches into Tunisia’s World Cup qualifying campaign.
Expectations in England have plummeted because of the team’s embarrassing performances in recent major tournaments – exiting the 2014 World Cup at the group stage and losing to Iceland in the round of 16 at Euro 2016.
Having the world’s richest and most popular domestic league has had an adverse effect on the England team, whose managers have an increasingly shallow pool of top players to choose from.
- Key player: Harry Kane (Tottenham) – Emerged as one of the tops strikers in the world this year, scoring freely for his club in the Premier League and Champions League. Has 12 goals in 23 games for England.
- Coach: Gareth Southgate – Skeptics are starting to come round to Southgate, who took charge in September 2016 despite having little top-level coaching experience but has shown he isn’t afraid to make bold decisions.
Our prediction – Belgium and England to go through
Group H – Poland, Senegal, Colombia, Japan
It’s the first World Cup since 2006 for Poland, whose fans are likely to travel to Russia in large numbers. It could be the last chance to play on the biggest stage for strikers Robert Lewandowski and Jakub Blaszczykowski, who will be 29 and 32 respectively by the finals.
Poland are largely unchanged from the team that reached Euro 2016 quarter-finals where they lost on penalties to eventual champions Portugal. One concern in qualifying was a 4-0 thrashing by Denmark in September that raised concerns about the defence.
- Key player: Robert Lewandowski (Bayern Munich) – Already Poland’s record goalscorer, he scored a European-high 16 goals in qualifying.
- Coach: Adam Nawalka – Turned Poland from a counter-attacking team into one which seeks to dominate possession.
Senegal are back at the World Cup for the first time since their stunning debut in 2002, when they beat defending champions France on the way to the quarter-finals, then only the second African team to make the last eight.
This qualification has been contentious, with Senegal benefiting from an unprecedented decision by Fifa to order a replay of their 2-1 loss in South Africa because of match-fixing by the referee. Senegal took advantage to win the replay, changing the dynamic of the group.
- Key player: Sadio Mane (Liverpool) – With his blistering pace, Mane has been every bit as effective for Senegal as he has for Liverpool.
- Coach: Aliou Cisse – Senegal will take a reminder of their dream World Cup debut in 2002 to Russia next year. Cisse was captain of the 2002 team and returns to the World Cup as coach of his country.
This will be Colombia’s second straight appearance after sitting out for 16 years. Qualifying was a struggle this time. Colombia waited until the last match to make it to Russia.
- Key player: James Rodriguez (Bayern Munich) – A breakthrough talent at the 2014 World Cup, exemplified by a stunning volley against Uruguay, Rodriguez quickly secured a move from Monaco to Real Madrid. After struggling to make an impact in Spain, Rodriguez is at Bayern Munich on loan trying to revive his form ahead of the World Cup.
- Coach: Jose Pekerman – Gets much of the credit for getting Colombia back into the World Cup. Also led his native Argentina to the quarter-finals in the 2006 World Cup in Germany.
While the squad lacks the star power of many other World Cup teams, Japan can count on a group of reliable players with plenty of European experience. Shinji Kagawa of Borussia Dortmund and Shinji Okazaki of Leicester should play key roles.
Japan finished first in Group B in Asian qualifying, ahead of Saudi Arabia and Australia.
- Key player: Shinji Kagawa (Borussia Dortmund) – With 89 caps, the midfield star is part of an experienced core of players also including Okazaki, defender Yuto Nagamoto and midfielder Keisuke Honda.
- Coach: Vahid Halilhodzic – Japan hope the 65-year-old Bosnian can replicate his success with Algeria at the 2014 World Cup, when he took the North African nation into the last-16 for the first time.
Our prediction: Poland and Colombia to go through