PREVIEW OF THE 32 TEAMS AT THE FIFA WORLD CUP

Group A – Russia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Uruguay

RUSSIA

The hosts of the tournament will have a lot to prove as they aim to showcase their credentials as a strong football country.

Russia’s has previously participated at the World Cup thrice 1994, 2002 and 2014, finishing third in the group phase on all occasions. They will therefore be hoping to use home advantage to make it to knockout phase of the tournament for the first time since the breakup of the former Soviet Union in 1991.

Danger Man: Igor Akinfeev: At 32 years of age with 106 International caps, Akinfeev is not only one of the experienced players in the Russian team but also among top goalkeepers in Europe. His solidness between the sticks has won praise down the years and will be crucial if the hosts are to make a statement in the tournament.

SAUDI ARABIA

The Saudis will be making their fifth appearance at the World having previously made it to the 1994, 1998, 2002 and 2016 editions. They have never made it past the group phase of the tournament due to always been
lowly seeded and paired among big sides but having changed managers twice within the qualifiers with former Chile boss Juan Antonio Pizzi now in charge and with only Uruguay the biggest threat, the Saudis could fancy their chances of progressing to the last 16 for the first time.

Danger man:* *Mohammad Al-Sahlawi (Al-Nassr):* The 30-year old striker was instrumental in helping the Saudis reach the tournament with 16 goals in qualifying.

*EGYPT*

The Pharaohs are making it to only their second ever World Cup and first since 1990. They took command of their qualifying group with defeat away to Uganda the only blemish. Having seen a revival of fortunes since reaching the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations final after years of underachievement, the North Africans have a lot to show on the grand stage.

*Danger Man:* *Mohamed Salah:* The 26-year old had a blistering season with Liverpool where he scored 44 goals in all competitions. He however suffered a shoulder injury in the Champions League final against Real Madrid after a challenge with Sergio Ramos. He has been racing to be fit for the World Cup ever since as any hopes of the Pharaohs impressing lies on the former Chelsea player.

*URUGUAY*

La Celeste are not new to the World Cup having hosted the maiden edition in 1930 and winning it as well as the next one in 1934. They are one of the powerhouses of South American football boasting of some of the finest players in the world. This alone makes them favourites of Group A.

*Danger Man:* *Edinson Cavani:* Though there’s Luis Suarez, Cavani has been more lethal for the national team, scoring 10 goals in the qualifiers that were crucial in ensuring they made it to Russia in fine fashion.

*Group B – Portugal, Spain, Morocco, Iran*

*PORTUGAL*

The Selecao enter the World Cup as one of the favourites thanks to their plathora of stars. They however fall sort of expectations and have never won the global tournament with their best performance finishing third in 1966 and fourth in 2006. However on the back of winning the Euro 2016 championships, they will have a go at this one.

*Danger Man:* *Cristiano Ronaldo:* The winner of five Ballon d’Or and Champions League titles is one of the star players heading into the tournament. At 33, the former Manchester United man is still in top form, scoring 15 goals during the qualifiers and 44 goals for Real Madrid despite having a bad start to the season.

The World Cup will be the biggest trophy in CR7’s career and this would supposedly be his last shot at aiming to win the title.

*SPAIN*

After winning the World Cup in 2010, La Roja had a tournament to forget in 2014 in Brazil where they crashed out in the group phase. That ended the reign of Vincent del Bosque with Julen Lopetegui taking over and have been reinvigorated. With a host of stars that triumphed in the past like Sergio Ramos, Andre’s Iniesta, Sergio Busquets among others, still remaining, Spain are definitely one of the tournament favourites.

*Danger Man:* *Diego Costa:* The Brazilian-born Spaniard had a frustrating time at Chelsea under Antonio Conte but a return to his former club Atletico Madrid has revived his career. Costa has been criticised for picking Spain over his native Brazil but this will be his chance to show that he made the right choice.

*MOROCCO*

The Atlas Lions are back at the World Cup after an absence for 20 years. They have re-emerged as an African giant after years of underachievement thanks to the tactical brilliance of French coach Herve Renard. Morocco are bidding the host the 2026 World Cup and showcasing their prowess here will make a lot of difference.

*Danger Man:* *Mehdi Benatia:* The towering centre-back is the biggest name in the Moroccan squad having plied his trade for some of Europe’s sides first with Roma, Bayern Munich and now Juventus. The 31-year has built experience down the years and Morocco’s hopes of impressing will hinge on his solidness at the back.

*IRAN*

The Iranians were the first team to qualify for the 2018 World Cup and did it in superb fashion going unbeaten in the Asian qualifying section. This will be their fifth participation at the global tournament but they are considered minnows of the group, thus have it all to do.

*Danger Man:* *Sardar Azmoun:* The Rubin Kazan forward was a scoring threat at the 2015 Asian Cup and has 22 international goals to his name.

*Group C – France, Australia, Peru, Denmark*

*FRANCE*

Le Bleu will be heading to Russia with a young, vibrant and exciting squad. They are one of the tournament favourites having lifted it on home soil in 1998 and reached the final in 2006. Didier Deschamps men are also the favourites to win the group.

*Danger Man:* *Kylian Mbappe:* Arguably the best young talent in the world. Bursting into the scene with AS Monaco at the age of 17, playing and scoring like he had many years of experience before making a big money move to Paris Saint-Germain where he continued his fine form. Still only 19 years old, the whole world will be watching the talented youngster.

*AUSTRALIA*

The Soccerooes didn’t have the smoothest qualifiers but still had enough within them to make it to their fourth consecutive World Cup. Its a young squad at Bert van Marwijk’s disposal which won the 2015 Asian Cup. There’s definitely a lot of promise in this squad which they’ll hope to show to the world.

*Danger Man:* *Tim Cahill:* The veteran midfielder has participated in all of Australia’s World Cup campaigns. At 38 years of age, he is the third oldest player in this summers tournament after Essam El-Hadary and Rafael Marquez. With 106 International caps to his name, Cahill definitely brings a lot of experience.

*PERU*

Los Incas were considered outsiders at qualifying for the World Cup but did so at the expense of the likes of Chile, Ecuador and Paraguay. They’ve been unbeaten since November 2016 and have a reputation for effectively keeping clean sheets. They’ll be looking to bring that solid form here.

*Danger Man:* *Paolo Guerrero:* The all-time Peruvian top scorer was banned for doping offences but recently had it overruled. He will be the main source of firepower for the South Americans.

*DENMARK*

The Danes have not played at any major tournament since the Euro 2012 Championships but have been pretty impressive in their recent fixtures. Since suffering back-to-back defeats against Poland and Montenegro in October 2016, Denmark have gone 11 games unbeaten which included a 4-0 bashing of Poland and 5-1 demolition of Ireland in the playoffs.

Age Hareide has a youthful side at his disposal that will be keen to impress.

*Danger Man:* *Christian Eriksen:* Without doubt the most technically gifted player in the Danish squad. A key player for Tottenham Hotspur whose vision and technical abilities can terrorise any defence. Group C teams need to be on the lookout for him.

*Group D – Argentina, Iceland, Croatia, Nigeria*

*ARGENTINA*

The Albiceleste have not tasted World Cup success since 1986 and came close to lifting it in 2014 in Brazil but fell shot by a Mario Gotze extra time goal.

The South American giants almost didn’t qualify for this 2018 edition but the heroics of Lionel Messi – who initially retired after the agony of losing the Copa America Centenario in 2016, was enough to see them pull through.

*Danger Man:* *Lionel Messi:* The Barcelona maestro craves lifting a senior international trophy, something he’s not managed to do after multiple near misses and might be his last chance for it.

*ICELAND*

Iceland will be heading to Russia for the first time ever as the smallest nation to participate at the World Cup with a population of 330,000 people.

They’ve become something of an emerging force after qualifying for Euro 2016 and reaching the quarterfinals, beating England along the way. They also topped World Cup qualifying which means they’ll be a force to reckon with and shouldn’t be taken likely.

*Danger Man:* *Gylfi Sigurdsson:* The 28-year old is a known name in the Premier League thanks to his technical strengths and set piece prowess that make him a headache to opposition. He will be playing a key part in his country’s plans as they aim to make a maiden impression.

*CROATIA*

It was exactly 20 years ago that Croatia made their World Cup debut and finished an impressive third in France. They now boast of one of the strongest squads with the calibre of players they have making them a threat to any opposition.

They might have needed the playoffs to make it to Russia and also were less impressive during their warm-up friendlies but that doesn’t still discredit how strong they can be.

*Danger Man:* *Luka Modric:*

One of the best midfielders in the game, his experience down the years can’t be bought and its one of the reasons why Croatia’s hopes of going far at the World Cup will hinge on the former Tottenham Hotspur man.

*NIGERIA*

After a period of underachievement, managerial instability and administrative turmoil, things improved for the Super Eagles under Gernot Rohr so much that they went through a qualifying group that had heavyweights Algeria, Cameron and Zambia, tagged ‘group of death’ unbeaten. It brought about renewed believe in the faltering team and even though results in some of the warm-up friendlies were less than ideal there were positives to take from the performances giving hope of a good outing in Russia.

*Danger Man:* *Alex Iwobi:*

The 22-year old played a key part during the Super Eagles invincible run in the qualifiers, scoring against Algeria and the deciding goal against Zambia which sent the country through. It might be his first World Cup outing but the nephew of the legendary Jay-Jay Okocha has built a reputation within a short space that can makes him good to face any opponent.

To be continued…..