Still pained by that heavy 7-1 defeat to Germany in the semi-finals of the 2014 World Cup, Brazil are determined to put things right this time. Looking back, what was clearly evident in that loss was the absence of suspended central defender Thiago Silva.
The organiser and leader of the defence, Silva will again be crucial if Brazil are to emerge victorious at Russia 2018. Importantly, based on the South American side’s performances in the build-up to the tournament, there is definitely a more solid, disciplined look about their defence.
Now coached by Tite, the Selecao boast a deadly attack, comprising Neymar, Philippe Coutinho, Gabriel Jesus and Roberto Firmino, and they are certainly among the leading candidates to lift the trophy on July 15.
The Swiss are a side that have to be respected - they have enough quality to hurt if the opposition is complacent. They aren’t expected to qualify for the next round - but, with England-based stars like Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka, they have the ability to surprise.
Vladimir Petkovic is the coach in charge and he has put together a useful if limited squad. All in all, though, Switzerland will rely heavily on midfield boss-man Xhaka, and hope that Shaqiri can produce something magical in front of goal.
Now here’s a team that has shown some good improvement in recent years. They’ll be competitive, they’ll frustrate, and they certainly won’t be easy to beat.
In Óscar Ramírez, they have a shrewd coach, capable of bringing the best out of his players; in goal, there’s the brilliant Keylor Navas, who comes off a successful season with Real Madrid, while captain Bryan Ruiz is an intelligent game-breaker.
They have gone about their business under the radar, but Serbia are a team that could prove to be one of the surprise packages of Russia 2018. As far as players go, they have a lot of quality, including Aleksandar Kolarov, Branislav Ivanovic, Nemanja Matic and Aleksandar Mitrovic.
More than that, if there’s a rising star to keep an eye on, it’s Sergej Milinkovic-Savic - classy, elegant and definitely headed to the top. From the bench, they are led by Mladen Krstajic: he may not have that much experience as a coach, but he has a balanced squad who know how to negotiate their way in international football.
Who will go through to the next round? Brazil and Serbia
The fact that excellent Manchester City winger Leroy Sane was left out of Germany’s World Cup squad says it all: there is just so much talent available for coach Joachim Loew to choose from.
So, in the end, his selection was based on the strategy he has in mind for Russia 2018. With so many top-class players coming through, Loew is spoilt for choice - and this tournament is likely to see the emergence of the next generation of German stars, like Timo Werner, Julian Brandt, Leon Goretzka, Sebastian Rudy, Niklas Suele and Joshua Kimmich.
But the main man, still, will be Real Madrid’s technically gifted Toni Kroos - he’s the man who makes them tick, who holds everything together. One thing’s certain: the Germans know how to win.
The Mexicans are always good value at a World Cup tournament and always seem to find a way to qualify for the knockout stages. This time, again, they have a really good chance of making it through.
They’re an experienced, consistent team, coached by astute Colombian Juan Carlos Osorio, and, in Javier Hernandez, they have a goal-poacher capable of producing something from nothing. Germany will top this group, but it’s anybody’s race for second - rest assured, Mexico will be up for the challenge.
Difficult to predict how the Swedes will go: this squad is nowhere near what the Scandinavian side has put out in previous World Cups. But they will definitely be tough and competitive, organised and cohesive, and they will give their opposition a run for their money.
On the plus side, Sweden qualified for Russia by knocking Italy out in a play-off, so it’s clear that, under coach Janne Andersson, they have a team that demands respect. Squad wise, they are strong at the back with Victor Lindelof and Martin Olsson, while, in midfield, the name to monitor is Emil Forsberg, who has been on the shopping list of quite a few big clubs.
The only name to mention is Heung-min Son, the confident, speedy attacker who comes off a great season with Tottenham Hotspur. He will be the focal point of everything for the Koreans, but in truth they are simply making up the numbers here. It’s doubtful they’ll manage to win a game.
Who will go through to the next round? Germany and Mexico@Reinerss11