World Cup Qualifying

World Cup Qualifying slideshow

Jack Butland has revealed he texted Joe Hart after missing out on England's World Cup squad commiserating him. ​It has been a tough few seasons for Hart after falling out of favour at Manchester City, an unsuccessful loan spell at Italian side Torino before another lacklustre season at West Ham last season, and despite playing the majority of England World Cup qualifying games in the build up to the tournament, he has been ​left out of the squad for the World Cup finals. Gareth Southgate...
Jack Butland Reveals That He Texted Joe Hart After England World Cup Squad Was Announced
Jack Butland has revealed he texted Joe Hart after missing out on England's World Cup squad commiserating him. ​It has been a tough few seasons for Hart after falling out of favour at Manchester City, an unsuccessful loan spell at Italian side Torino before another lacklustre season at West Ham last season, and despite playing the majority of England World Cup qualifying games in the build up to the tournament, he has been ​left out of the squad for the World Cup finals. Gareth Southgate...
Jack Butland has revealed he texted Joe Hart after missing out on England's World Cup squad commiserating him. ​It has been a tough few seasons for Hart after falling out of favour at Manchester City, an unsuccessful loan spell at Italian side Torino before another lacklustre season at West Ham last season, and despite playing the majority of England World Cup qualifying games in the build up to the tournament, he has been ​left out of the squad for the World Cup finals. Gareth Southgate...
Jack Butland Reveals That He Texted Joe Hart After England World Cup Squad Was Announced
Jack Butland has revealed he texted Joe Hart after missing out on England's World Cup squad commiserating him. ​It has been a tough few seasons for Hart after falling out of favour at Manchester City, an unsuccessful loan spell at Italian side Torino before another lacklustre season at West Ham last season, and despite playing the majority of England World Cup qualifying games in the build up to the tournament, he has been ​left out of the squad for the World Cup finals. Gareth Southgate...
Jack Butland has revealed he texted Joe Hart after missing out on England's World Cup squad commiserating him. ​It has been a tough few seasons for Hart after falling out of favour at Manchester City, an unsuccessful loan spell at Italian side Torino before another lacklustre season at West Ham last season, and despite playing the majority of England World Cup qualifying games in the build up to the tournament, he has been ​left out of the squad for the World Cup finals. Gareth Southgate...
Jack Butland Reveals That He Texted Joe Hart After England World Cup Squad Was Announced
Jack Butland has revealed he texted Joe Hart after missing out on England's World Cup squad commiserating him. ​It has been a tough few seasons for Hart after falling out of favour at Manchester City, an unsuccessful loan spell at Italian side Torino before another lacklustre season at West Ham last season, and despite playing the majority of England World Cup qualifying games in the build up to the tournament, he has been ​left out of the squad for the World Cup finals. Gareth Southgate...
Jack Butland has revealed he texted Joe Hart after missing out on England's World Cup squad commiserating him. ​It has been a tough few seasons for Hart after falling out of favour at Manchester City, an unsuccessful loan spell at Italian side Torino before another lacklustre season at West Ham last season, and despite playing the majority of England World Cup qualifying games in the build up to the tournament, he has been ​left out of the squad for the World Cup finals. Gareth Southgate...
Jack Butland Reveals That He Texted Joe Hart After England World Cup Squad Was Announced
Jack Butland has revealed he texted Joe Hart after missing out on England's World Cup squad commiserating him. ​It has been a tough few seasons for Hart after falling out of favour at Manchester City, an unsuccessful loan spell at Italian side Torino before another lacklustre season at West Ham last season, and despite playing the majority of England World Cup qualifying games in the build up to the tournament, he has been ​left out of the squad for the World Cup finals. Gareth Southgate...
FILE - In this Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2017 filer, Peru's Paolo Guerrero celebrates after scoring against Colombia during a 2018 World Cup qualifying soccer match in Lima, Peru. Peru captain Paolo Guerrero has been banned from playing at the World Cup because of a positive doping test, it was announced on Monday, May 14, 2018. The Court of Arbitration for Sport says it has upheld an appeal by the World Anti-Doping Agency to extend Guerrero's six-month FIFA ban. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd, File)
Rival captains back Guerrero in bid to lift World Cup ban
FILE - In this Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2017 filer, Peru's Paolo Guerrero celebrates after scoring against Colombia during a 2018 World Cup qualifying soccer match in Lima, Peru. Peru captain Paolo Guerrero has been banned from playing at the World Cup because of a positive doping test, it was announced on Monday, May 14, 2018. The Court of Arbitration for Sport says it has upheld an appeal by the World Anti-Doping Agency to extend Guerrero's six-month FIFA ban. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd, File)
FILE - In this Monday, Nov. 13, 2017 filer, Italy's goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon waves as he leaves the pitch after the elimination of his team in the World Cup qualifying play-off second leg soccer match between Italy and Sweden, at the Milan San Siro stadium, Italy. Juventus captain Gianluigi Buffon has announced he is leaving the Italian club but the goalkeeper could continue playing elsewhere. Buffon, who is widely regarded as one of the best goalkeepers of all time, was expected to announce his retirement at a press conference at Allianz Stadium on Thursday, May 17, 2018. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno, File)
Captain Gianluigi Buffon leaving Juventus but not retiring
FILE - In this Monday, Nov. 13, 2017 filer, Italy's goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon waves as he leaves the pitch after the elimination of his team in the World Cup qualifying play-off second leg soccer match between Italy and Sweden, at the Milan San Siro stadium, Italy. Juventus captain Gianluigi Buffon has announced he is leaving the Italian club but the goalkeeper could continue playing elsewhere. Buffon, who is widely regarded as one of the best goalkeepers of all time, was expected to announce his retirement at a press conference at Allianz Stadium on Thursday, May 17, 2018. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno, File)
FILE - In this Monday, Nov. 13, 2017 filer, Italy's goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon waves as he leaves the pitch after the elimination of his team in the World Cup qualifying play-off second leg soccer match between Italy and Sweden, at the Milan San Siro stadium, Italy. Juventus captain Gianluigi Buffon has announced he is leaving the Italian club but the goalkeeper could continue playing elsewhere. Buffon, who is widely regarded as one of the best goalkeepers of all time, was expected to announce his retirement at a press conference at Allianz Stadium on Thursday, May 17, 2018. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno, File)
FILE - In this Monday, Nov. 13, 2017 filer, Italy's goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon waves as he leaves the pitch after the elimination of his team in the World Cup qualifying play-off second leg soccer match between Italy and Sweden, at the Milan San Siro stadium, Italy. Juventus captain Gianluigi Buffon has announced he is leaving the Italian club but the goalkeeper could continue playing elsewhere. Buffon, who is widely regarded as one of the best goalkeepers of all time, was expected to announce his retirement at a press conference at Allianz Stadium on Thursday, May 17, 2018. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno, File)
FILE - In this Monday, Nov. 13, 2017 filer, Italy's goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon waves as he leaves the pitch after the elimination of his team in the World Cup qualifying play-off second leg soccer match between Italy and Sweden, at the Milan San Siro stadium, Italy. Juventus captain Gianluigi Buffon has announced he is leaving the Italian club but the goalkeeper could continue playing elsewhere. Buffon, who is widely regarded as one of the best goalkeepers of all time, was expected to announce his retirement at a press conference at Allianz Stadium on Thursday, May 17, 2018. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno, File)
What is it? England's opening Group G match of the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Gareth Southgate's men will be attempting to break a cycle of heartache and humiliation at major tournaments that has plunged the birthplace of football to its lowest ebb. A loss to Iceland in the last 16 of the 2016 European Championship was perhaps the ultimate embarrassment. Or maybe that came when England endured their shortest World Cup campaign two years earlier - only in contention for eight days. Before that, there were penalty shoot-out losses in 1990, 1996, 1998, 2004, 2006 and 2012. And before that, who could forget Diego Maradona's "Hand of God" goal that denied England in the World Cup semi-finals in 1986? It's no surprise that the nation's expectations are low heading to Russia. England may have won the 1966 World Cup, but have only reached the semi-finals of a tournament twice since then. When is it? Monday, June 18, 2018. Where is it? At the Volgograd Arena, in Volgograd. What time is kick-off? 7pm BST. What TV channel is it on? The BBC. World Cup 2018 | All you need to know Latest team news England Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain misses the tournament with a knee injury sustained playing for Liverpool against Roma but team-mates Joe Gomez and Nathaniel Clyne are making gradual returns to first-team football and may be late contenders for a squad place. Phil Jones has suffered recurrent hamstring injuries this season, but is now fit. Jack Wilshere, who withdrew from the spring squads, remains an outsider as does Ruben Loftus-Cheek who has returned to Palace's side after three months out with an ankle injury and knee pain. Nathaniel Chalobah joined the England squad in March to continue his rehabilitation from a fractured knee-cap but is unlikely to play for Watford before the season's end while Daniel Sturridge was out for two months with a hamstring injury that has turned his loan move to West Brom into an exorbitant farce. Adam Lallana has gone to South Africa for rehab therapy on his injured hamstring and Gareth Southgate is understood to be willing to give him until May 13 to prove he can make it, but that has to be a serious doubt after a couple of injury-wrecked seasons. Tunisia Tunisia have suffered the worst blow of all 32 teams to date, losing their playmaker Youssef Msakni, who suffered a cruciate knee ligament injury on April 7 that will keep him out for at least six months. The attacking midfielder, who has 49 caps, tore an anterior ligament playing for his Qatar Stars League club, Al-Duhail, against Al-Sailiya. When Nabil Maloul, Tunisia's manager, was asked in March what Msakni's absence would mean when the player could not feature in the spring friendlies because of a minor meniscus problem that required 10 days' rest, he said it would be like Argentina going to Russia without Lionel Messi. World Cup 2018 venues What do we know about the Tunisia team? With Youssef Msakni sidelined, Tunisia will be fielding a team at the World Cup that includes several foreign-born players, mainly from France. Indeed, Tunisia's squad is a mix of players mainly from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt, France and domestic leagues. Here's a closer look at the Tunisia team: Coach 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 World Cup qualifying for his second spell as coach after a brief tenure in 2013. Maaloul played for Tunisia for a decade from 1985-95. One of very few African coaches in charge of a national team, he has transformed Tunisia from a fairly dour, defensive outfit to one more willing to attack since he took over after the African Cup of Nations in early 2017. He needs to ensure the decision to bring in new players at the expense of some of the men who got Tunisia to the World Cup doesn't upset the team balance or alienate squad members. Goalkeepers Maaloul's biggest decision may be the first name on the sheet after saying he has yet to decide. Aymen Mathlouthi, who is beginning to show frailties at 33 and after 11 years in the team, can no longer be certain of his starting spot. Maaloul must figure out whether to drop the captain and sacrifice experience for 28-year-old Farouk Ben Mustapha, who has been highly-praised in the Saudi league. World Cup 2018 stadiums Defenders Maaloul said he was leaning toward starting the World Cup with the formation used in friendly wins over Iran and Costa Rica in March. That would see 22-year-old French-born Ellyes Skhiri, who made his debut against Iran after a late call-up, start in central defence. Other contenders are 24-year-old home-based player Yassine Meriah, the experienced Syam Ben Youssef and Mohamed Amine Ben Amor. If it's a four-man back line, expect to see right-back Dylan Bronn, another French-born newcomer. Ali Maaloul has been a regular on the left. Both can also operate as wingers in a five-man midfield if Tunisia goes with a three-man defence of big, strong center-backs. Midfielders The challenge of filling the void left by Msakni will likely fall on France-born attacking midfielder Wahbi Khazri. He played for the Tunisia and France youth teams before committing to Tunisia. Khazri was partnered in the center of midfield by Anice Badri in Tunisia's last match - forming a potent attacking threat. They are all versatile, operating as attacking midfielders or in a more advanced position in the forward line. Saif-Eddine Khaoui is a similar attack-minded midfielder who has forced himself into the team's plans. Ferjani Sassi has the role of shoring up the middle of the field as the holding midfielder. World Cup predictor Forwards Depending on whether Khazri, Badri, Sliti and newcomer Khaoui are deployed, there may be room for one or perhaps no out-and-out strikers. Ahmed Akaichi and Taha Yassine Khenissi have experience of operating alone up front but recent formations could mean Tunisia's forward line will be based on the versatility of the four attacking midfielders. Best-priced accumulators | New customer offers What are they saying? England have every chance of reaching the latter stages of this year's World Cup and, according to FA technical director Dan Ashworth, will not go to Russia "to come back in the group stages": "We want to inspire the nation and in order to do that we have to play well and win some football matches. "We have got some talented players. We don't have a history at this moment in time of succeeding at tournaments. "So we've hopefully got to try and move our talented players into performing better at tournaments and getting through to those latter stages. "Is it impossible for England to win the World Cup? No it isn't." Tunisia coach Nabil Maaloul: "For me the best team are Belgium, they are the group favourites. They have a lot of players who play in England and they are currently playing really well for a lot of clubs in England, so they are favourites and second place is between Tunisia and England. I hope it won't be the same scenario as in 1998." Latest Group G table World Cup 2018 Group G What are the odds? England to win 1/3 Draw 4/1 Tunisia to win 8/1 What's our prediction? England finished bottom of their group at the last World Cup in Brazil and suffered a humiliating defeat by Iceland in the last-16 at Euro 2016. However, without wishing to tempt face, they could not have asked for an easier start to the tournament this time and should expect to win comfortably. Predicted score: England 2 Tunisia 0.
England vs Tunisia, World Cup 2018: What date is the Group G match, what time does it start and what TV channel is it on?
What is it? England's opening Group G match of the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Gareth Southgate's men will be attempting to break a cycle of heartache and humiliation at major tournaments that has plunged the birthplace of football to its lowest ebb. A loss to Iceland in the last 16 of the 2016 European Championship was perhaps the ultimate embarrassment. Or maybe that came when England endured their shortest World Cup campaign two years earlier - only in contention for eight days. Before that, there were penalty shoot-out losses in 1990, 1996, 1998, 2004, 2006 and 2012. And before that, who could forget Diego Maradona's "Hand of God" goal that denied England in the World Cup semi-finals in 1986? It's no surprise that the nation's expectations are low heading to Russia. England may have won the 1966 World Cup, but have only reached the semi-finals of a tournament twice since then. When is it? Monday, June 18, 2018. Where is it? At the Volgograd Arena, in Volgograd. What time is kick-off? 7pm BST. What TV channel is it on? The BBC. World Cup 2018 | All you need to know Latest team news England Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain misses the tournament with a knee injury sustained playing for Liverpool against Roma but team-mates Joe Gomez and Nathaniel Clyne are making gradual returns to first-team football and may be late contenders for a squad place. Phil Jones has suffered recurrent hamstring injuries this season, but is now fit. Jack Wilshere, who withdrew from the spring squads, remains an outsider as does Ruben Loftus-Cheek who has returned to Palace's side after three months out with an ankle injury and knee pain. Nathaniel Chalobah joined the England squad in March to continue his rehabilitation from a fractured knee-cap but is unlikely to play for Watford before the season's end while Daniel Sturridge was out for two months with a hamstring injury that has turned his loan move to West Brom into an exorbitant farce. Adam Lallana has gone to South Africa for rehab therapy on his injured hamstring and Gareth Southgate is understood to be willing to give him until May 13 to prove he can make it, but that has to be a serious doubt after a couple of injury-wrecked seasons. Tunisia Tunisia have suffered the worst blow of all 32 teams to date, losing their playmaker Youssef Msakni, who suffered a cruciate knee ligament injury on April 7 that will keep him out for at least six months. The attacking midfielder, who has 49 caps, tore an anterior ligament playing for his Qatar Stars League club, Al-Duhail, against Al-Sailiya. When Nabil Maloul, Tunisia's manager, was asked in March what Msakni's absence would mean when the player could not feature in the spring friendlies because of a minor meniscus problem that required 10 days' rest, he said it would be like Argentina going to Russia without Lionel Messi. World Cup 2018 venues What do we know about the Tunisia team? With Youssef Msakni sidelined, Tunisia will be fielding a team at the World Cup that includes several foreign-born players, mainly from France. Indeed, Tunisia's squad is a mix of players mainly from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt, France and domestic leagues. Here's a closer look at the Tunisia team: Coach 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 World Cup qualifying for his second spell as coach after a brief tenure in 2013. Maaloul played for Tunisia for a decade from 1985-95. One of very few African coaches in charge of a national team, he has transformed Tunisia from a fairly dour, defensive outfit to one more willing to attack since he took over after the African Cup of Nations in early 2017. He needs to ensure the decision to bring in new players at the expense of some of the men who got Tunisia to the World Cup doesn't upset the team balance or alienate squad members. Goalkeepers Maaloul's biggest decision may be the first name on the sheet after saying he has yet to decide. Aymen Mathlouthi, who is beginning to show frailties at 33 and after 11 years in the team, can no longer be certain of his starting spot. Maaloul must figure out whether to drop the captain and sacrifice experience for 28-year-old Farouk Ben Mustapha, who has been highly-praised in the Saudi league. World Cup 2018 stadiums Defenders Maaloul said he was leaning toward starting the World Cup with the formation used in friendly wins over Iran and Costa Rica in March. That would see 22-year-old French-born Ellyes Skhiri, who made his debut against Iran after a late call-up, start in central defence. Other contenders are 24-year-old home-based player Yassine Meriah, the experienced Syam Ben Youssef and Mohamed Amine Ben Amor. If it's a four-man back line, expect to see right-back Dylan Bronn, another French-born newcomer. Ali Maaloul has been a regular on the left. Both can also operate as wingers in a five-man midfield if Tunisia goes with a three-man defence of big, strong center-backs. Midfielders The challenge of filling the void left by Msakni will likely fall on France-born attacking midfielder Wahbi Khazri. He played for the Tunisia and France youth teams before committing to Tunisia. Khazri was partnered in the center of midfield by Anice Badri in Tunisia's last match - forming a potent attacking threat. They are all versatile, operating as attacking midfielders or in a more advanced position in the forward line. Saif-Eddine Khaoui is a similar attack-minded midfielder who has forced himself into the team's plans. Ferjani Sassi has the role of shoring up the middle of the field as the holding midfielder. World Cup predictor Forwards Depending on whether Khazri, Badri, Sliti and newcomer Khaoui are deployed, there may be room for one or perhaps no out-and-out strikers. Ahmed Akaichi and Taha Yassine Khenissi have experience of operating alone up front but recent formations could mean Tunisia's forward line will be based on the versatility of the four attacking midfielders. Best-priced accumulators | New customer offers What are they saying? England have every chance of reaching the latter stages of this year's World Cup and, according to FA technical director Dan Ashworth, will not go to Russia "to come back in the group stages": "We want to inspire the nation and in order to do that we have to play well and win some football matches. "We have got some talented players. We don't have a history at this moment in time of succeeding at tournaments. "So we've hopefully got to try and move our talented players into performing better at tournaments and getting through to those latter stages. "Is it impossible for England to win the World Cup? No it isn't." Tunisia coach Nabil Maaloul: "For me the best team are Belgium, they are the group favourites. They have a lot of players who play in England and they are currently playing really well for a lot of clubs in England, so they are favourites and second place is between Tunisia and England. I hope it won't be the same scenario as in 1998." Latest Group G table World Cup 2018 Group G What are the odds? England to win 1/3 Draw 4/1 Tunisia to win 8/1 What's our prediction? England finished bottom of their group at the last World Cup in Brazil and suffered a humiliating defeat by Iceland in the last-16 at Euro 2016. However, without wishing to tempt face, they could not have asked for an easier start to the tournament this time and should expect to win comfortably. Predicted score: England 2 Tunisia 0.
Spanish players surround the referee during the match with Belgium which sparked an earlier furore during World Cup qualifying
Spanish players surround the referee during the match with Belgium which sparked an earlier furore during World Cup qualifying
Spanish players surround the referee during the match with Belgium which sparked an earlier furore during World Cup qualifying
Spanish players surround the referee during the match with Belgium which sparked an earlier furore during World Cup qualifying
Spanish players surround the referee during the match with Belgium which sparked an earlier furore during World Cup qualifying
Spanish players surround the referee during the match with Belgium which sparked an earlier furore during World Cup qualifying
Spanish players surround the referee during the match with Belgium which sparked an earlier furore during World Cup qualifying (AFP Photo/LAURIE DIEFFEMBACQ)
Spanish players surround the referee during the match with Belgium which sparked an earlier furore during World Cup qualifying
Spanish players surround the referee during the match with Belgium which sparked an earlier furore during World Cup qualifying (AFP Photo/LAURIE DIEFFEMBACQ)
FILE - In this Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2017 filer, Peru's Paolo Guerrero celebrates after scoring against Colombia during a 2018 World Cup qualifying soccer match in Lima, Peru. Peru captain Paolo Guerrero has been banned from playing at the World Cup because of a positive doping test, it was announced on Monday, May 14, 2018. The Court of Arbitration for Sport says it has upheld an appeal by the World Anti-Doping Agency to extend Guerrero's six-month FIFA ban. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd, File)
FILE - In this Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2017 filer, Peru's Paolo Guerrero celebrates after scoring against Colombia during a 2018 World Cup qualifying soccer match in Lima, Peru. Peru captain Paolo Guerrero has been banned from playing at the World Cup because of a positive doping test, it was announced on Monday, May 14, 2018. The Court of Arbitration for Sport says it has upheld an appeal by the World Anti-Doping Agency to extend Guerrero's six-month FIFA ban. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd, File)
FILE - In this Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2017 filer, Peru's Paolo Guerrero celebrates after scoring against Colombia during a 2018 World Cup qualifying soccer match in Lima, Peru. Peru captain Paolo Guerrero has been banned from playing at the World Cup because of a positive doping test, it was announced on Monday, May 14, 2018. The Court of Arbitration for Sport says it has upheld an appeal by the World Anti-Doping Agency to extend Guerrero's six-month FIFA ban. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd, File)
Soccer Football - Peru v New Zealand - 2018 World Cup Qualifying Playoffs- National Stadium, Lima, Peru - November 15, 2017. Peru's Jefferson Farfan celebrates after scoring. REUTERS/Douglas Juarez/Files
Soccer Football - Peru v New Zealand - 2018 World Cup Qualifying Playoffs
Soccer Football - Peru v New Zealand - 2018 World Cup Qualifying Playoffs- National Stadium, Lima, Peru - November 15, 2017. Peru's Jefferson Farfan celebrates after scoring. REUTERS/Douglas Juarez/Files
An UBER bus ushers Egypt fans to the stadium before the start of a soccer game against Ghana at the "Army Stadium" Borg El Arab, Alexandria, Egypt - 13/11/2016 . REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Files
Football Soccer - 2018 World Cup Qualifying - Egypt v Ghana
An UBER bus ushers Egypt fans to the stadium before the start of a soccer game against Ghana at the "Army Stadium" Borg El Arab, Alexandria, Egypt - 13/11/2016 . REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Files
An UBER bus ushers Egypt fans to the stadium before the start of a soccer game against Ghana at the "Army Stadium" Borg El Arab, Alexandria, Egypt - 13/11/2016 . REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Files
Football Soccer - 2018 World Cup Qualifying - Egypt v Ghana
An UBER bus ushers Egypt fans to the stadium before the start of a soccer game against Ghana at the "Army Stadium" Borg El Arab, Alexandria, Egypt - 13/11/2016 . REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Files
FILE PHOTO: An UBER bus ushers Egypt fans to the stadium before the start of a soccer game against Ghana at the "Army Stadium" Borg El Arab, Alexandria, Egypt - 13/11/2016 . REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh/File Photo
FILE PHOTO: Football Soccer - 2018 World Cup Qualifying - Egypt v Ghana
FILE PHOTO: An UBER bus ushers Egypt fans to the stadium before the start of a soccer game against Ghana at the "Army Stadium" Borg El Arab, Alexandria, Egypt - 13/11/2016 . REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh/File Photo
He's in: Tim Cahill, seen here celebrating his goal against Syria in the World Cup qualifying play-off last year (AFP Photo/WILLIAM WEST)
He's in: Tim Cahill, seen here celebrating his goal against Syria in the World Cup qualifying play-off last year
He's in: Tim Cahill, seen here celebrating his goal against Syria in the World Cup qualifying play-off last year (AFP Photo/WILLIAM WEST)
He's in: Tim Cahill, seen here celebrating his goal against Syria in the World Cup qualifying play-off last year
He's in: Tim Cahill, seen here celebrating his goal against Syria in the World Cup qualifying play-off last year
He's in: Tim Cahill, seen here celebrating his goal against Syria in the World Cup qualifying play-off last year
He's in: Tim Cahill, seen here celebrating his goal against Syria in the World Cup qualifying play-off last year
He's in: Tim Cahill, seen here celebrating his goal against Syria in the World Cup qualifying play-off last year
He's in: Tim Cahill, seen here celebrating his goal against Syria in the World Cup qualifying play-off last year
Brazil are shaking off the embarrassment of losing 7-1 to Germany in their home World Cup. Since Tite took over as coach in 2016, the five-time world champions have become a winning machine again and were the first to qualify for Russia. Neymar, who missed the Germany humiliation through injury, is now racing to recover from a broken foot to make the trip to Russia. But there isn't such a reliance now on the world's most expensive player. In six games without Neymar, Brazil still won four times, including a friendly against Germany in Berlin in March. "He will be missed by any team," defender Thiago Silva said. "But not having him sometimes helps us consolidate the style we want." World Cup 2018 | All you need to know Indeed, the Brazilians head into this World Cup looking more balanced on the pitch and with a range of top players available in every position. They were so dominant in South American qualifying that they would still have secured top spot without the points secured in six games under Dunga before the coach was fired. Brazil should be even more dangerous in Russia if Neymar, who sustained the injury playing for Paris Saint-Germain in February, is fully fit. "Skill wise, he is already the best player in the world," Brazil great Pele said. "This is his time to shine." Here's a closer look at the Brazil team: Coach In less than two years on the job, Adenor Leonardo Bachi - universally known as Tite - has turned Brazil from a flop into a favourite for the title. A former pupil of defence-minded Luiz Felipe Scolari - the 2002 World Cup champion who presided over the Germany humiliation - Tite has grown into a fan of Carlo Ancelotti and his well-balanced teams. The two have exchanged ideas since 2014. Detractors say Tite's teams are low scoring and that he charms players and journalists into sparing him from criticism. But his title streak at Corinthians from 2011 to 2015 underscores his credentials for the national team job. Brazil coach Tite (right) Credit: REUTERS Goalkeepers Alisson Becker wasn't a household name in Brazil when he started wearing the No 1 jersey two years ago. Now a starter for Roma, the 25-year-old Becker's admirers include Italy's Gianluigi Buffon. Alisson's skills with both hands and feet made Tite relegate Manchester City's Ederson to the bench and he is being linked with a move to Real Madrid. The third option is likely to be Tite's most trusted goalkeeper, Cassio of Corinthians. Defenders In 12 South American World Cup qualifying games under Tite, Brazil conceded only three goals. The coach likes to play with a solid back four featuring Paris Saint-Germain duo Dani Alves and Marquinhos, Inter Milan's Miranda and Real Madrid's Marcelo. The two reserves are likely to be PSG central defender Thiago Silva and Juventus left-back Alex Sandro. Man City's Danilo and Corinthians' Fagner will fight to be Alves' reserve. World Cup predictor Midfielders Philippe Coutinho could replace Renato Augusto, who plays at China's Beijing Guoan, as the playmaker. If that happens, Coutinho's position on the left could be filled by Chelsea's Willian. Fred is also in contention to start. A more defensive variation would see Fernandinho, a newly-crowned Premier League champion with Manchester City, take Augusto's place. While Real Madrid's Casemiro offers great protection to the defence, Paulinho of Barcelona is a box-to-box player who also provides goals. Other candidates to be reserves in Brazil's midfield are not as talented, which could become a hindrance in the case of injuries and suspensions. World Cup 2018 stadiums Forwards Even if Neymar is match fit for the World Cup, his form will only be known once the tournament begins in Russia. Tite might have to resort to using Willian in his place. While Gabriel Jesus was Brazil's top scorer in qualifying, the Man City title winner faces greater competition from Liverpool striker Roberto Firmino. Tite lacks an old-fashioned centre forward, so reserves are likely to be other mobile players: Juventus' Douglas Costa and Shahktar Donetsk's Taison. Group games Brazil stuck with their base in Sochi despite playing no games near the Black Sea resort. Group E begins in Rostov-on-Don against Switzerland on June 17. St Petersburg is the next destination for Brazil to play Costa Rica on June 22 and Serbia await in Moscow on June 27.
Brazil
Brazil are shaking off the embarrassment of losing 7-1 to Germany in their home World Cup. Since Tite took over as coach in 2016, the five-time world champions have become a winning machine again and were the first to qualify for Russia. Neymar, who missed the Germany humiliation through injury, is now racing to recover from a broken foot to make the trip to Russia. But there isn't such a reliance now on the world's most expensive player. In six games without Neymar, Brazil still won four times, including a friendly against Germany in Berlin in March. "He will be missed by any team," defender Thiago Silva said. "But not having him sometimes helps us consolidate the style we want." World Cup 2018 | All you need to know Indeed, the Brazilians head into this World Cup looking more balanced on the pitch and with a range of top players available in every position. They were so dominant in South American qualifying that they would still have secured top spot without the points secured in six games under Dunga before the coach was fired. Brazil should be even more dangerous in Russia if Neymar, who sustained the injury playing for Paris Saint-Germain in February, is fully fit. "Skill wise, he is already the best player in the world," Brazil great Pele said. "This is his time to shine." Here's a closer look at the Brazil team: Coach In less than two years on the job, Adenor Leonardo Bachi - universally known as Tite - has turned Brazil from a flop into a favourite for the title. A former pupil of defence-minded Luiz Felipe Scolari - the 2002 World Cup champion who presided over the Germany humiliation - Tite has grown into a fan of Carlo Ancelotti and his well-balanced teams. The two have exchanged ideas since 2014. Detractors say Tite's teams are low scoring and that he charms players and journalists into sparing him from criticism. But his title streak at Corinthians from 2011 to 2015 underscores his credentials for the national team job. Brazil coach Tite (right) Credit: REUTERS Goalkeepers Alisson Becker wasn't a household name in Brazil when he started wearing the No 1 jersey two years ago. Now a starter for Roma, the 25-year-old Becker's admirers include Italy's Gianluigi Buffon. Alisson's skills with both hands and feet made Tite relegate Manchester City's Ederson to the bench and he is being linked with a move to Real Madrid. The third option is likely to be Tite's most trusted goalkeeper, Cassio of Corinthians. Defenders In 12 South American World Cup qualifying games under Tite, Brazil conceded only three goals. The coach likes to play with a solid back four featuring Paris Saint-Germain duo Dani Alves and Marquinhos, Inter Milan's Miranda and Real Madrid's Marcelo. The two reserves are likely to be PSG central defender Thiago Silva and Juventus left-back Alex Sandro. Man City's Danilo and Corinthians' Fagner will fight to be Alves' reserve. World Cup predictor Midfielders Philippe Coutinho could replace Renato Augusto, who plays at China's Beijing Guoan, as the playmaker. If that happens, Coutinho's position on the left could be filled by Chelsea's Willian. Fred is also in contention to start. A more defensive variation would see Fernandinho, a newly-crowned Premier League champion with Manchester City, take Augusto's place. While Real Madrid's Casemiro offers great protection to the defence, Paulinho of Barcelona is a box-to-box player who also provides goals. Other candidates to be reserves in Brazil's midfield are not as talented, which could become a hindrance in the case of injuries and suspensions. World Cup 2018 stadiums Forwards Even if Neymar is match fit for the World Cup, his form will only be known once the tournament begins in Russia. Tite might have to resort to using Willian in his place. While Gabriel Jesus was Brazil's top scorer in qualifying, the Man City title winner faces greater competition from Liverpool striker Roberto Firmino. Tite lacks an old-fashioned centre forward, so reserves are likely to be other mobile players: Juventus' Douglas Costa and Shahktar Donetsk's Taison. Group games Brazil stuck with their base in Sochi despite playing no games near the Black Sea resort. Group E begins in Rostov-on-Don against Switzerland on June 17. St Petersburg is the next destination for Brazil to play Costa Rica on June 22 and Serbia await in Moscow on June 27.
FILE PHOTO: Peru's Jose Paolo Guerrero reacts after losing to Colombia in their 2014 World Cup qualifying soccer match in Lima, Peru June 3, 2012. REUTERS/Mariana Bazo/File Photo
FILE PHOTO: Peru's Jose Paolo Guerrero reacts after losing to Colombia in their 2014 World Cup qualifying soccer match in Lima
FILE PHOTO: Peru's Jose Paolo Guerrero reacts after losing to Colombia in their 2014 World Cup qualifying soccer match in Lima, Peru June 3, 2012. REUTERS/Mariana Bazo/File Photo
The thunderclap is headed to Russia. Any neutrals looking for a team to get behind at the World Cup shouldn't look any further than Iceland, a feel-good story of international football that just keeps on giving. With about 330,000 inhabitants, the Nordic country is comfortably the smallest to ever qualify for the tournament. Two years ago, Iceland reached the European Championship for the first time, too, and got to the quarter-finals - famously eliminating England along the way. The Icelandic fairytale is made more charming by its vociferous and passionate fans, who made the "thunderclap" war chant the soundtrack of that summer in France in 2016. Don't be surprised if it has the same impact in Russia. Adding to the legend is the team's coach, Heimar Hallgrimsson, who combines managing the national team with running a dental surgery clinic in a small town in Iceland. And a hard-working, selfless group of mostly unheralded players who are simply living out their dream in front of the watching world. Giving the Icelanders more global attention is the identity of their first opponent in Group D: Lionel Messi's Argentina. Here's a closer look at the Iceland team: Coach Hallgrimsson was the assistant to head coach Lars Lagerback at Euro 2016, and was promoted ahead of the World Cup qualifying campaign when Lagerback stood down. A modest and well-respected coach in Iceland, Hallgrimsson has managed to keep motivational levels high within the squad after the Euros. He has also stuck to his own unique approach - before every Iceland home game, Hallgrimsson meets up with a supporters' group in a Reykjavik bar and discloses the team's starting line-up and tactics. World Cup 2018 stadiums Goalkeepers Hannes Halldorsson is the undisputed No 1 - and has an interesting back story. He was once a movie director who was behind the music video for his nation's 2012 Eurovision Song Contest entry. The career behind the camera is on hold until his life as a footballer is over. Defenders The defence is held together by the centre-back pairing of Ragnar Sigurdsson and Kari Arnason. They are close on the field and off it, having spent the summer of 2015 travelling around Thailand together. At 35, Arnason is one of the veterans of the Iceland team, spending some of his career in English football's lower league and now finding himself in Scotland with Aberdeen. World Cup 2018 | All you need to know Midfielders Bearded captain Aron Gunnarsson is the heartbeat of the team in central midfield. A tough tackler and fearsome-looking figure, he keeps his passing simple and lets the more creative players in the team - Gylfi Sigurdsson and Johann Berg Gudmundsson, for example - do their thing. Gunnarsson also leads Iceland's fans in the thunderclap. Gudmundsson, a wide midfielder, is growing in stature after an impressive season with Burnley in the Premier League. World Cup predictor Forwards Gylfi Sigurdsson is the star of Iceland's team and has long been used as a midfield playmaker by his country. During qualifying, he was occasionally deployed as a deep-lying forward in a 4-2-3-1, allowing Iceland to bulk up the midfield, and could be used there at the World Cup. That's provided he is fit to play - Sigurdsson has been out with a knee injury since early March and has yet to return, which is a major worry for his country. He has also struggled to make an impact at Everton this season after a big-money move from Swansea last summer. Kolbeinn Sigthorsson was the starting striker at Euro 2016 but has barely played since because of a knee injury. Jon Dadi Bodvarsson should get the nod for the World Cup as a result. Group games Iceland, based in Krasnodar, open against Argentina on June 16. The team will then face Nigeria on June 22 and finish the group stage against Croatia on June 26.
Iceland World Cup 2018 squad: Latest player news and injury information
The thunderclap is headed to Russia. Any neutrals looking for a team to get behind at the World Cup shouldn't look any further than Iceland, a feel-good story of international football that just keeps on giving. With about 330,000 inhabitants, the Nordic country is comfortably the smallest to ever qualify for the tournament. Two years ago, Iceland reached the European Championship for the first time, too, and got to the quarter-finals - famously eliminating England along the way. The Icelandic fairytale is made more charming by its vociferous and passionate fans, who made the "thunderclap" war chant the soundtrack of that summer in France in 2016. Don't be surprised if it has the same impact in Russia. Adding to the legend is the team's coach, Heimar Hallgrimsson, who combines managing the national team with running a dental surgery clinic in a small town in Iceland. And a hard-working, selfless group of mostly unheralded players who are simply living out their dream in front of the watching world. Giving the Icelanders more global attention is the identity of their first opponent in Group D: Lionel Messi's Argentina. Here's a closer look at the Iceland team: Coach Hallgrimsson was the assistant to head coach Lars Lagerback at Euro 2016, and was promoted ahead of the World Cup qualifying campaign when Lagerback stood down. A modest and well-respected coach in Iceland, Hallgrimsson has managed to keep motivational levels high within the squad after the Euros. He has also stuck to his own unique approach - before every Iceland home game, Hallgrimsson meets up with a supporters' group in a Reykjavik bar and discloses the team's starting line-up and tactics. World Cup 2018 stadiums Goalkeepers Hannes Halldorsson is the undisputed No 1 - and has an interesting back story. He was once a movie director who was behind the music video for his nation's 2012 Eurovision Song Contest entry. The career behind the camera is on hold until his life as a footballer is over. Defenders The defence is held together by the centre-back pairing of Ragnar Sigurdsson and Kari Arnason. They are close on the field and off it, having spent the summer of 2015 travelling around Thailand together. At 35, Arnason is one of the veterans of the Iceland team, spending some of his career in English football's lower league and now finding himself in Scotland with Aberdeen. World Cup 2018 | All you need to know Midfielders Bearded captain Aron Gunnarsson is the heartbeat of the team in central midfield. A tough tackler and fearsome-looking figure, he keeps his passing simple and lets the more creative players in the team - Gylfi Sigurdsson and Johann Berg Gudmundsson, for example - do their thing. Gunnarsson also leads Iceland's fans in the thunderclap. Gudmundsson, a wide midfielder, is growing in stature after an impressive season with Burnley in the Premier League. World Cup predictor Forwards Gylfi Sigurdsson is the star of Iceland's team and has long been used as a midfield playmaker by his country. During qualifying, he was occasionally deployed as a deep-lying forward in a 4-2-3-1, allowing Iceland to bulk up the midfield, and could be used there at the World Cup. That's provided he is fit to play - Sigurdsson has been out with a knee injury since early March and has yet to return, which is a major worry for his country. He has also struggled to make an impact at Everton this season after a big-money move from Swansea last summer. Kolbeinn Sigthorsson was the starting striker at Euro 2016 but has barely played since because of a knee injury. Jon Dadi Bodvarsson should get the nod for the World Cup as a result. Group games Iceland, based in Krasnodar, open against Argentina on June 16. The team will then face Nigeria on June 22 and finish the group stage against Croatia on June 26.
Gernot Rohr has restored stability to Nigeria heading into the World Cup. The German brought a sense of calm to a team that went through five coaches in two years following the 2014 tournament in Brazil. Africa's most populous nation flew through qualifying and were the first team to qualify from the region, seeing off continental champions Cameroon. Nigeria then showcased their qualities by winning a friendly last year against Argentina - their final Group D opponent. Nigeria have an array of attacking options that include Premier League talent in Victor Moses, Alex Iwobi, Kelechi Iheanacho and Ahmed Musa. World Cup 2018 | All you need to know The challenge is to ensure the defence is similarly strong and the squad doesn't get sidetracked by off-the-field issues that have undermined previous campaigns at major tournaments. At the 2014 World Cup, it was a disagreement over player payment that almost caused the team to go on strike ahead of the last 16 game against France, which Nigeria lost. Rohr will be hoping there's no repeat. Here's a closer look at the Nigeria team: Coach Rohr hasn't had a high-profile career, coaching Gabon, Niger and Burkina Faso before taking on one of Africa's most demanding football jobs. Rohr has set out to experiment with various formations in an effort to make the team more tactically aware and versatile, and able to compete with the best in the world like Argentina. Nigeria have lost just twice since Rohr took over in August 2016. Nigeria coach Gernot Rohr Credit: AP Goalkeepers This area has been an issue for Nigeria ever since regular No 1 Carl Ikeme revealed last year that he had been diagnosed with leukemia. Rohr made Ikechukwu Ezenwa, one of the few Nigeria-based players in the squad, the new first-choice goalkeeper for the remainder of the World Cup qualifying campaign. But there may be a surprise in goal in Russia, with Rohr recently talking up 19-year-old prospect Francis Uzoho, who last year became the youngest foreign goalkeeper in La Liga when he made his debut for Deportivo La Coruna at 18. The 6ft 5in teenager is definitely a talent. Defenders Leon Balogun, born in Germany, and William Troost-Ekong, born in Netherlands, are the preferred central defensive partnership. Either side of them, places are up for grabs. Elderson Echiejile appears to be the first option at left-back and Shehu Abdullahi at right-back. But there are other contenders for starting places. One of the most intriguing is left-back Brian Idowu, who was born in St Petersburg to Nigerian parents and has lived his whole life and spent his entire career in Russia. World Cup predictor Midfielders Captain John Obi Mikel and Ogenyi Onazi are the rocks of the team in central midfield and their diligence allows Nigeria to play three and sometimes four players in advanced positions. The 21-year-old Wilfred Ndidi of Leicester also has a growing reputation. Forwards Victor Moses' recent resurgence means Rohr expects the Chelsea forward to lead Nigeria's attack, which promises to be a handful for opponents. Alongside Moses, Musa and Alex Iwobi could be the other starting forwards if Rohr continues with a formation that gives him two men playing either side of central striker Musa. But the competition for places in Nigeria's attack is fierce. There's also Iheanacho, Moses Simon and China-based striker Odion Ighalo. Group games Nigeria's opening game is against Croatia on June 16, they then play Iceland on June 22 before the big one to finish their Group D campaign, against Lionel Messi and Argentina in St Petersburg on June 26. World Cup 2018 stadiums
Nigeria World Cup 2018 squad: Latest player news and injury information
Gernot Rohr has restored stability to Nigeria heading into the World Cup. The German brought a sense of calm to a team that went through five coaches in two years following the 2014 tournament in Brazil. Africa's most populous nation flew through qualifying and were the first team to qualify from the region, seeing off continental champions Cameroon. Nigeria then showcased their qualities by winning a friendly last year against Argentina - their final Group D opponent. Nigeria have an array of attacking options that include Premier League talent in Victor Moses, Alex Iwobi, Kelechi Iheanacho and Ahmed Musa. World Cup 2018 | All you need to know The challenge is to ensure the defence is similarly strong and the squad doesn't get sidetracked by off-the-field issues that have undermined previous campaigns at major tournaments. At the 2014 World Cup, it was a disagreement over player payment that almost caused the team to go on strike ahead of the last 16 game against France, which Nigeria lost. Rohr will be hoping there's no repeat. Here's a closer look at the Nigeria team: Coach Rohr hasn't had a high-profile career, coaching Gabon, Niger and Burkina Faso before taking on one of Africa's most demanding football jobs. Rohr has set out to experiment with various formations in an effort to make the team more tactically aware and versatile, and able to compete with the best in the world like Argentina. Nigeria have lost just twice since Rohr took over in August 2016. Nigeria coach Gernot Rohr Credit: AP Goalkeepers This area has been an issue for Nigeria ever since regular No 1 Carl Ikeme revealed last year that he had been diagnosed with leukemia. Rohr made Ikechukwu Ezenwa, one of the few Nigeria-based players in the squad, the new first-choice goalkeeper for the remainder of the World Cup qualifying campaign. But there may be a surprise in goal in Russia, with Rohr recently talking up 19-year-old prospect Francis Uzoho, who last year became the youngest foreign goalkeeper in La Liga when he made his debut for Deportivo La Coruna at 18. The 6ft 5in teenager is definitely a talent. Defenders Leon Balogun, born in Germany, and William Troost-Ekong, born in Netherlands, are the preferred central defensive partnership. Either side of them, places are up for grabs. Elderson Echiejile appears to be the first option at left-back and Shehu Abdullahi at right-back. But there are other contenders for starting places. One of the most intriguing is left-back Brian Idowu, who was born in St Petersburg to Nigerian parents and has lived his whole life and spent his entire career in Russia. World Cup predictor Midfielders Captain John Obi Mikel and Ogenyi Onazi are the rocks of the team in central midfield and their diligence allows Nigeria to play three and sometimes four players in advanced positions. The 21-year-old Wilfred Ndidi of Leicester also has a growing reputation. Forwards Victor Moses' recent resurgence means Rohr expects the Chelsea forward to lead Nigeria's attack, which promises to be a handful for opponents. Alongside Moses, Musa and Alex Iwobi could be the other starting forwards if Rohr continues with a formation that gives him two men playing either side of central striker Musa. But the competition for places in Nigeria's attack is fierce. There's also Iheanacho, Moses Simon and China-based striker Odion Ighalo. Group games Nigeria's opening game is against Croatia on June 16, they then play Iceland on June 22 before the big one to finish their Group D campaign, against Lionel Messi and Argentina in St Petersburg on June 26. World Cup 2018 stadiums
FILE PHOTO - El Salvador's coach Ramon Maradiaga reacts during their 2018 World Cup qualifying soccer match againast Canada in San Salvador, El Salvador, November 17, 2015. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas Picture Supplied by Action Images
FILE PHOTO - El Salvador's coach Ramon Maradiaga reacts during their 2018 World Cup qualifying soccer match againast Canada in San Salvador
FILE PHOTO - El Salvador's coach Ramon Maradiaga reacts during their 2018 World Cup qualifying soccer match againast Canada in San Salvador, El Salvador, November 17, 2015. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas Picture Supplied by Action Images
FILE PHOTO - El Salvador's coach Ramon Maradiaga reacts during their 2018 World Cup qualifying soccer match againast Canada in San Salvador, El Salvador, November 17, 2015. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas Picture Supplied by Action Images
FILE PHOTO - El Salvador's coach Ramon Maradiaga reacts during their 2018 World Cup qualifying soccer match againast Canada in San Salvador
FILE PHOTO - El Salvador's coach Ramon Maradiaga reacts during their 2018 World Cup qualifying soccer match againast Canada in San Salvador, El Salvador, November 17, 2015. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas Picture Supplied by Action Images
FILE PHOTO: El Salvador's coach Ramon Maradiaga reacts during their 2018 World Cup qualifying soccer match againast Canada in San Salvador, El Salvador, November 17, 2015. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas
El Salvador's coach Ramon Maradiaga reacts during their 2018 World Cup qualifying soccer match againast Canada in San Salvador
FILE PHOTO: El Salvador's coach Ramon Maradiaga reacts during their 2018 World Cup qualifying soccer match againast Canada in San Salvador, El Salvador, November 17, 2015. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas
FILE PHOTO: El Salvador's coach Ramon Maradiaga reacts during their 2018 World Cup qualifying soccer match againast Canada in San Salvador, El Salvador, November 17, 2015. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas/Files (Picture Supplied by Action Images)
FILE PHOTO: El Salvador's coach Ramon Maradiaga reacts during their 2018 World Cup qualifying soccer match againast Canada in San Salvador
FILE PHOTO: El Salvador's coach Ramon Maradiaga reacts during their 2018 World Cup qualifying soccer match againast Canada in San Salvador, El Salvador, November 17, 2015. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas/Files (Picture Supplied by Action Images)
When the World Cup trophy tour reached Senegal, President Macky Sall got the taste of being a champion. It's an experience he hopes to feel for real one day. Turning to coach Aliou Cisse, Sall said optimistically, "It won't be long." That's some pressure for a team making only its second World Cup appearance. Back in 2002, a team of relative unknowns led Senegal to the quarter-finals in a run that began with a 1-0 victory over defending champion France. The 2018 team boasts more recognisable players, led by Liverpool forward Sadio Mane. There's also Monaco winger Keita Balde and Napoli defender Kalidou Koulibaly. It's a cosmopolitan crew who play all over Europe, whereas the 2002 squad was almost entirely France-based. For a country with so much talent, Senegal should qualify for the World Cup more often. Certainly, the Senegalese thought that would be the case after a wildly successful debut 16 years ago that came with a freewheeling style of play and memorable celebrations. World Cup 2018 | All you need to know A national holiday was declared after the victory over France. It's still among the best performances by an African team. Cameroon (1990) and Ghana (2010), neither of whom qualified for the tournament in Russia, are the only other African teams to reach the quarter-finals. Senegal's preparations for the World Cup have not been perfect. Two recent friendlies ended in draws with Cisse experimenting with a 3-5-2 formation instead of the 4-4-2 used during the qualifying campaign. Fasting during Ramadan could present training challenges for the Senegalese, many of whom are Muslims, including Mane. The holy month ends several days before their first match at the World Cup. Here's a closer look at the Senegal team: Coach Cisse was the captain of the 2002 team and he has now led Senegal to a second World Cup from the sidelines. On returning to Dakar following a 2-0 win over South Africa to clinch the spot, supporters at the airport picked up Cisse and threw him in the air while singing songs in his honour. So much more awaits Cisse, potentially. Bruno Metsu, the Frenchman who coached Senegal in 2002, is so revered in the country that his image is on a wall of fame in the "Place du Souvenir African" in Dakar. The exhibit highlights achievements of Africans, including Nelson Mandela. Metsu died of cancer in 2013 and is buried in Dakar. Cisse, though, has done his best to downplay the high expectations. Senegal's head coach Aliou Cisse Credit: AP Goalkeepers Khadim Ndiaye was Cisse's top choice by the end of qualifying. He is one of the few squad members who play in Africa - starting for Horoya AC in Guinea - and at 33 is the most experienced of the goalkeepers. Playing regularly might also give him an edge over others who play in Europe, but as back-ups. French-born Abdoulaye Diallo was No 1 at the start of World Cup qualifying but an injury sidelined him and opened the door for Ndiaye. Diallo plays for French club Rennes, but usually as a back-up. Don't count out 24-year-old Alfred Gomis. Raised in Italy, he has seen plenty of action this season for SPAL in Serie A. Defenders At 6ft 5in, centre-back Kalidou Koulibaly is Senegal's defensive titan. He plays for Napoli but has been linked with a move to clubs like Barcelona and Chelsea. As the France-born Koulibaly evolved into one of Europe's top defenders, French fans wondered how they let him slip into the national colors of his parents. After a header for Napoli secured a Serie A win over Juventus in April, even Diego Maradona was buzzing about him and posted a photo holding a Koulibaly jersey. The right side seems set with Lamine Gassama and Youssouf Sabaly. On the left, Senegal would love to have Kara Mbodji, but he injured his knee and hasn't played for his club, Anderlecht, since late last year. In his place, Senegal could turn to Papy Djilobodji. Also on the left side, Armand Traore's ability to play defence or midfield provides flexibility. Another option is Pape Ndiaye Souare of Crystal Palace. World Cup 2018 venues Midfielders There's a Premier League look to the midfield. The captain is Cheikhou Kouyate of West Ham, who has drawn comparisons to Patrick Vieira. Another stalwart is Idrissa Gana Gueye of Everton. Cheikh Ndoye (Birmingham) and Pape Alioune Ndiaye (Stoke) were called up by Cisse in qualifying and should play important roles in Russia. Forwards Mane, who recently became the highest-scoring Senegalese player in Premier League history, is the key to success up front. He's been overshadowed by the spectacular Mohamed Salah this season for Liverpool, but Mane has been no slouch with his goals and assists. The trick will be who else plays up front to get the best out of Mane. Keita Balde, Diafra Sakho and Ismaila Sarr are expected to make the final squad. If Cisse wants experience, he could look to the likes of Moussa Sow or Demba Ba. Both are 32 and play in Turkey. Group games Senegal start in Group H against Poland on June 19 in Moscow, then play Japan on June 24 and Colombia on June 28. World Cup predictor
Senegal World Cup 2018 squad: Latest player news and injury information
When the World Cup trophy tour reached Senegal, President Macky Sall got the taste of being a champion. It's an experience he hopes to feel for real one day. Turning to coach Aliou Cisse, Sall said optimistically, "It won't be long." That's some pressure for a team making only its second World Cup appearance. Back in 2002, a team of relative unknowns led Senegal to the quarter-finals in a run that began with a 1-0 victory over defending champion France. The 2018 team boasts more recognisable players, led by Liverpool forward Sadio Mane. There's also Monaco winger Keita Balde and Napoli defender Kalidou Koulibaly. It's a cosmopolitan crew who play all over Europe, whereas the 2002 squad was almost entirely France-based. For a country with so much talent, Senegal should qualify for the World Cup more often. Certainly, the Senegalese thought that would be the case after a wildly successful debut 16 years ago that came with a freewheeling style of play and memorable celebrations. World Cup 2018 | All you need to know A national holiday was declared after the victory over France. It's still among the best performances by an African team. Cameroon (1990) and Ghana (2010), neither of whom qualified for the tournament in Russia, are the only other African teams to reach the quarter-finals. Senegal's preparations for the World Cup have not been perfect. Two recent friendlies ended in draws with Cisse experimenting with a 3-5-2 formation instead of the 4-4-2 used during the qualifying campaign. Fasting during Ramadan could present training challenges for the Senegalese, many of whom are Muslims, including Mane. The holy month ends several days before their first match at the World Cup. Here's a closer look at the Senegal team: Coach Cisse was the captain of the 2002 team and he has now led Senegal to a second World Cup from the sidelines. On returning to Dakar following a 2-0 win over South Africa to clinch the spot, supporters at the airport picked up Cisse and threw him in the air while singing songs in his honour. So much more awaits Cisse, potentially. Bruno Metsu, the Frenchman who coached Senegal in 2002, is so revered in the country that his image is on a wall of fame in the "Place du Souvenir African" in Dakar. The exhibit highlights achievements of Africans, including Nelson Mandela. Metsu died of cancer in 2013 and is buried in Dakar. Cisse, though, has done his best to downplay the high expectations. Senegal's head coach Aliou Cisse Credit: AP Goalkeepers Khadim Ndiaye was Cisse's top choice by the end of qualifying. He is one of the few squad members who play in Africa - starting for Horoya AC in Guinea - and at 33 is the most experienced of the goalkeepers. Playing regularly might also give him an edge over others who play in Europe, but as back-ups. French-born Abdoulaye Diallo was No 1 at the start of World Cup qualifying but an injury sidelined him and opened the door for Ndiaye. Diallo plays for French club Rennes, but usually as a back-up. Don't count out 24-year-old Alfred Gomis. Raised in Italy, he has seen plenty of action this season for SPAL in Serie A. Defenders At 6ft 5in, centre-back Kalidou Koulibaly is Senegal's defensive titan. He plays for Napoli but has been linked with a move to clubs like Barcelona and Chelsea. As the France-born Koulibaly evolved into one of Europe's top defenders, French fans wondered how they let him slip into the national colors of his parents. After a header for Napoli secured a Serie A win over Juventus in April, even Diego Maradona was buzzing about him and posted a photo holding a Koulibaly jersey. The right side seems set with Lamine Gassama and Youssouf Sabaly. On the left, Senegal would love to have Kara Mbodji, but he injured his knee and hasn't played for his club, Anderlecht, since late last year. In his place, Senegal could turn to Papy Djilobodji. Also on the left side, Armand Traore's ability to play defence or midfield provides flexibility. Another option is Pape Ndiaye Souare of Crystal Palace. World Cup 2018 venues Midfielders There's a Premier League look to the midfield. The captain is Cheikhou Kouyate of West Ham, who has drawn comparisons to Patrick Vieira. Another stalwart is Idrissa Gana Gueye of Everton. Cheikh Ndoye (Birmingham) and Pape Alioune Ndiaye (Stoke) were called up by Cisse in qualifying and should play important roles in Russia. Forwards Mane, who recently became the highest-scoring Senegalese player in Premier League history, is the key to success up front. He's been overshadowed by the spectacular Mohamed Salah this season for Liverpool, but Mane has been no slouch with his goals and assists. The trick will be who else plays up front to get the best out of Mane. Keita Balde, Diafra Sakho and Ismaila Sarr are expected to make the final squad. If Cisse wants experience, he could look to the likes of Moussa Sow or Demba Ba. Both are 32 and play in Turkey. Group games Senegal start in Group H against Poland on June 19 in Moscow, then play Japan on June 24 and Colombia on June 28. World Cup predictor
With creative forward Youssef Msakni sidelined, Tunisia will be fielding a team at the World Cup that includes several foreign-born players. Msakni carried the team to their fifth World Cup, capped by a hat-trick in the penultimate qualifier in Guinea, but he picked up a cruciate knee ligament injury while playing for his Qatari club. Tunisia coach Nabil Maaloul is expected to use a group of foreign-born players, mainly from France - a move that could unsettle a team already in robust shape after being unbeaten in qualifying. Tunisia's squad is a mix of players mainly from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt, France and domestic leagues. Here's a closer look at the Tunisia team: Coach 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 World Cup qualifying for his second spell as coach after a brief tenure in 2013. Maaloul played for Tunisia for a decade from 1985-95. One of very few African coaches in charge of a national team, he has transformed Tunisia from a fairly dour, defensive outfit to one more willing to attack since he took over after the African Cup of Nations in early 2017. He needs to ensure the decision to bring in new players at the expense of some of the men who got Tunisia to the World Cup doesn't upset the team balance or alienate squad members. Tunisia coach Nabil Maaloul Credit: AP Goalkeepers Maaloul's biggest decision may be the first name on the sheet after saying he is yet to decide. Aymen Mathlouthi, who is beginning to show frailties at 33 and after 11 years in the team, can no longer be certain of his starting spot. Maaloul must figure out whether to drop the captain and sacrifice experience for 28-year-old Farouk Ben Mustapha, who has been highly-praised in the Saudi league. Defenders Maaloul said he was leaning toward starting the World Cup with the formation used in friendly wins over Iran and Costa Rica in March. That would see 22-year-old French-born Ellyes Skhiri, who made his debut against Iran after a late call-up, start in central defence. Other contenders are 24-year-old home-based player Yassine Meriah, the experienced Syam Ben Youssef and Mohamed Amine Ben Amor. If it's a four-man back line, expect to see right back Dylan Bronn, another French-born newcomer. Ali Maaloul has been a regular on the left. Both can also operate as wingers in a five-man midfield if Tunisia goes with a three-man defence of big, strong centre-backs. World Cup 2018 | All you need to know Midfielders The challenge of filling the void left by Msakni will likely fall on France-born attacking midfielder Wahbi Khazri. He played for the Tunisia and France youth teams before committing to Tunisia. Khazri was partnered in the centre of midfield by Anice Badri in Tunisia's last match - forming a potent attacking threat. They are all versatile, operating as attacking midfielders or in a more advanced position in the forward line. Saif-Eddine Khaoui is a similar attack-minded midfielder who has forced himself into the team's plans. Ferjani Sassi has the role of shoring up the middle of the field as the holding midfielder. World Cup predictor Forwards Depending on whether Khazri, Badri, Sliti and newcomer Khaoui are deployed, there may be room for one or perhaps no out-and-out strikers. Ahmed Akaichi and Taha Yassine Khenissi have experience of operating alone up front but recent formations could mean Tunisia's forward line will be based on the versatility of the four attacking midfielders. Group games Tunisia play England on June 18 and then face Belgium on June 23 before finishing Group G against Panama on June 28.
Tunisia World Cup 2018 squad: Latest player news and injury information
With creative forward Youssef Msakni sidelined, Tunisia will be fielding a team at the World Cup that includes several foreign-born players. Msakni carried the team to their fifth World Cup, capped by a hat-trick in the penultimate qualifier in Guinea, but he picked up a cruciate knee ligament injury while playing for his Qatari club. Tunisia coach Nabil Maaloul is expected to use a group of foreign-born players, mainly from France - a move that could unsettle a team already in robust shape after being unbeaten in qualifying. Tunisia's squad is a mix of players mainly from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt, France and domestic leagues. Here's a closer look at the Tunisia team: Coach 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 World Cup qualifying for his second spell as coach after a brief tenure in 2013. Maaloul played for Tunisia for a decade from 1985-95. One of very few African coaches in charge of a national team, he has transformed Tunisia from a fairly dour, defensive outfit to one more willing to attack since he took over after the African Cup of Nations in early 2017. He needs to ensure the decision to bring in new players at the expense of some of the men who got Tunisia to the World Cup doesn't upset the team balance or alienate squad members. Tunisia coach Nabil Maaloul Credit: AP Goalkeepers Maaloul's biggest decision may be the first name on the sheet after saying he is yet to decide. Aymen Mathlouthi, who is beginning to show frailties at 33 and after 11 years in the team, can no longer be certain of his starting spot. Maaloul must figure out whether to drop the captain and sacrifice experience for 28-year-old Farouk Ben Mustapha, who has been highly-praised in the Saudi league. Defenders Maaloul said he was leaning toward starting the World Cup with the formation used in friendly wins over Iran and Costa Rica in March. That would see 22-year-old French-born Ellyes Skhiri, who made his debut against Iran after a late call-up, start in central defence. Other contenders are 24-year-old home-based player Yassine Meriah, the experienced Syam Ben Youssef and Mohamed Amine Ben Amor. If it's a four-man back line, expect to see right back Dylan Bronn, another French-born newcomer. Ali Maaloul has been a regular on the left. Both can also operate as wingers in a five-man midfield if Tunisia goes with a three-man defence of big, strong centre-backs. World Cup 2018 | All you need to know Midfielders The challenge of filling the void left by Msakni will likely fall on France-born attacking midfielder Wahbi Khazri. He played for the Tunisia and France youth teams before committing to Tunisia. Khazri was partnered in the centre of midfield by Anice Badri in Tunisia's last match - forming a potent attacking threat. They are all versatile, operating as attacking midfielders or in a more advanced position in the forward line. Saif-Eddine Khaoui is a similar attack-minded midfielder who has forced himself into the team's plans. Ferjani Sassi has the role of shoring up the middle of the field as the holding midfielder. World Cup predictor Forwards Depending on whether Khazri, Badri, Sliti and newcomer Khaoui are deployed, there may be room for one or perhaps no out-and-out strikers. Ahmed Akaichi and Taha Yassine Khenissi have experience of operating alone up front but recent formations could mean Tunisia's forward line will be based on the versatility of the four attacking midfielders. Group games Tunisia play England on June 18 and then face Belgium on June 23 before finishing Group G against Panama on June 28.
With creative forward Youssef Msakni sidelined, Tunisia will be fielding a team at the World Cup that includes several foreign-born players. Msakni carried the team to their fifth World Cup, capped by a hat-trick in the penultimate qualifier in Guinea, but he picked up a cruciate knee ligament injury while playing for his Qatari club. Tunisia coach Nabil Maaloul is expected to use a group of foreign-born players, mainly from France - a move that could unsettle a team already in robust shape after being unbeaten in qualifying. Tunisia's squad is a mix of players mainly from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt, France and domestic leagues. Here's a closer look at the Tunisia team: Coach 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 World Cup qualifying for his second spell as coach after a brief tenure in 2013. Maaloul played for Tunisia for a decade from 1985-95. One of very few African coaches in charge of a national team, he has transformed Tunisia from a fairly dour, defensive outfit to one more willing to attack since he took over after the African Cup of Nations in early 2017. He needs to ensure the decision to bring in new players at the expense of some of the men who got Tunisia to the World Cup doesn't upset the team balance or alienate squad members. Tunisia coach Nabil Maaloul Credit: AP Goalkeepers Maaloul's biggest decision may be the first name on the sheet after saying he is yet to decide. Aymen Mathlouthi, who is beginning to show frailties at 33 and after 11 years in the team, can no longer be certain of his starting spot. Maaloul must figure out whether to drop the captain and sacrifice experience for 28-year-old Farouk Ben Mustapha, who has been highly-praised in the Saudi league. Defenders Maaloul said he was leaning toward starting the World Cup with the formation used in friendly wins over Iran and Costa Rica in March. That would see 22-year-old French-born Ellyes Skhiri, who made his debut against Iran after a late call-up, start in central defence. Other contenders are 24-year-old home-based player Yassine Meriah, the experienced Syam Ben Youssef and Mohamed Amine Ben Amor. If it's a four-man back line, expect to see right back Dylan Bronn, another French-born newcomer. Ali Maaloul has been a regular on the left. Both can also operate as wingers in a five-man midfield if Tunisia goes with a three-man defence of big, strong centre-backs. World Cup 2018 | All you need to know Midfielders The challenge of filling the void left by Msakni will likely fall on France-born attacking midfielder Wahbi Khazri. He played for the Tunisia and France youth teams before committing to Tunisia. Khazri was partnered in the centre of midfield by Anice Badri in Tunisia's last match - forming a potent attacking threat. They are all versatile, operating as attacking midfielders or in a more advanced position in the forward line. Saif-Eddine Khaoui is a similar attack-minded midfielder who has forced himself into the team's plans. Ferjani Sassi has the role of shoring up the middle of the field as the holding midfielder. World Cup predictor Forwards Depending on whether Khazri, Badri, Sliti and newcomer Khaoui are deployed, there may be room for one or perhaps no out-and-out strikers. Ahmed Akaichi and Taha Yassine Khenissi have experience of operating alone up front but recent formations could mean Tunisia's forward line will be based on the versatility of the four attacking midfielders. Group games Tunisia play England on June 18 and then face Belgium on June 23 before finishing Group G against Panama on June 28.
Tunisia World Cup 2018 squad: Latest player news and injury information
With creative forward Youssef Msakni sidelined, Tunisia will be fielding a team at the World Cup that includes several foreign-born players. Msakni carried the team to their fifth World Cup, capped by a hat-trick in the penultimate qualifier in Guinea, but he picked up a cruciate knee ligament injury while playing for his Qatari club. Tunisia coach Nabil Maaloul is expected to use a group of foreign-born players, mainly from France - a move that could unsettle a team already in robust shape after being unbeaten in qualifying. Tunisia's squad is a mix of players mainly from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt, France and domestic leagues. Here's a closer look at the Tunisia team: Coach 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 World Cup qualifying for his second spell as coach after a brief tenure in 2013. Maaloul played for Tunisia for a decade from 1985-95. One of very few African coaches in charge of a national team, he has transformed Tunisia from a fairly dour, defensive outfit to one more willing to attack since he took over after the African Cup of Nations in early 2017. He needs to ensure the decision to bring in new players at the expense of some of the men who got Tunisia to the World Cup doesn't upset the team balance or alienate squad members. Tunisia coach Nabil Maaloul Credit: AP Goalkeepers Maaloul's biggest decision may be the first name on the sheet after saying he is yet to decide. Aymen Mathlouthi, who is beginning to show frailties at 33 and after 11 years in the team, can no longer be certain of his starting spot. Maaloul must figure out whether to drop the captain and sacrifice experience for 28-year-old Farouk Ben Mustapha, who has been highly-praised in the Saudi league. Defenders Maaloul said he was leaning toward starting the World Cup with the formation used in friendly wins over Iran and Costa Rica in March. That would see 22-year-old French-born Ellyes Skhiri, who made his debut against Iran after a late call-up, start in central defence. Other contenders are 24-year-old home-based player Yassine Meriah, the experienced Syam Ben Youssef and Mohamed Amine Ben Amor. If it's a four-man back line, expect to see right back Dylan Bronn, another French-born newcomer. Ali Maaloul has been a regular on the left. Both can also operate as wingers in a five-man midfield if Tunisia goes with a three-man defence of big, strong centre-backs. World Cup 2018 | All you need to know Midfielders The challenge of filling the void left by Msakni will likely fall on France-born attacking midfielder Wahbi Khazri. He played for the Tunisia and France youth teams before committing to Tunisia. Khazri was partnered in the centre of midfield by Anice Badri in Tunisia's last match - forming a potent attacking threat. They are all versatile, operating as attacking midfielders or in a more advanced position in the forward line. Saif-Eddine Khaoui is a similar attack-minded midfielder who has forced himself into the team's plans. Ferjani Sassi has the role of shoring up the middle of the field as the holding midfielder. World Cup predictor Forwards Depending on whether Khazri, Badri, Sliti and newcomer Khaoui are deployed, there may be room for one or perhaps no out-and-out strikers. Ahmed Akaichi and Taha Yassine Khenissi have experience of operating alone up front but recent formations could mean Tunisia's forward line will be based on the versatility of the four attacking midfielders. Group games Tunisia play England on June 18 and then face Belgium on June 23 before finishing Group G against Panama on June 28.
Germany coasted through World Cup qualifying with 10 wins out of 10 and a European record 43 goals. Then the problems began - and a reality check. The World Cup holders haven't won any matches since qualifying for Russia. After drawing friendlies against England, France and Spain, Joachim Low's team lost 1-0 to Brazil to end a 22-game unbeaten run. Becoming the first team since Brazil in 1962 to defend their World Cup title now looks even trickier for the Germans. "We're not as good as we're made out to be, or as some think we are," midfielder Toni Kroos said. "There's huge room for improvement." The recent slump in friendly matches could be a blessing in disguise if they eradicate any complacency going into the World Cup. World Cup 2018 | All you need to know "I'm not worried. In 2014 and 2010 we also lost in March," Low said. "You can be sure that we'll improve." The first task for Low's side will be to top Group F to avoid a likely second-round clash against Brazil. Here's a closer look at the Germany team: Coach Low was assistant coach to Jurgen Klinsmann during Germany's "summer fairytale" hosting of the 2006 World Cup and was promoted to the top job after their third-place finish. Low favors a fast-paced, possession-based game, pressing opponents to recover the ball and switching quickly from defence to attack. He has overseen steady progress since taking over, reaching the final of the 2008 European Championship, claiming third place at the 2010 World Cup and reaching the semi-finals at Euro 2012 before finally winning a title in convincing fashion at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Germany manager Joachim Low Credit: PA A disappointing semi-final exit to France at Euro 2016 followed, but Low laid the groundwork for a successful World Cup title defence by winning the Confederations Cup with a young team of promising talent last year in Russia. Low hasn't been afraid to test young talent, and Germany's strength in depth means one of his hardest tasks is leaving players out of the 23-man squad. Low also has the unfortunate tendency to find himself in the headlines for other reasons. The 58 year-old has previously apologised after being caught on camera picking his nose or in other compromising positions during games. Goalkeepers The biggest concern is captain Manuel Neuer's fitness. The Bayern Munich goalkeeper sustained a repeat of the hairline metatarsal fracture in his left foot while training last September and hasn't played since. Marc-Andre ter Stegen could well establish himself as the No 1 with doubts over Neuer's fitness. The Barcelona goalkeeper has overcome a shaky start to his international career and helped Germany win the Confederations Cup. Bernd Leno of Bayer Leverkusen and Kevin Trapp of Paris Saint-Germain are also options, while Sven Ulreich has been filling in for Neuer at Bayern. World Cup 2018 venues Defenders Bayern defender Jerome Boateng faces a race to be fit with a thigh injury sustained in the Champions League semi-finals against Real Madrid in April. Bayern teammate Niklas Suele would be an able replacement to partner Mats Hummels in the centre. Another Bayern player, Joshua Kimmich, has emerged to soften the blow of Philipp Lahm's retirement at right-back. The modest Jonas Hector will likely keep his place on the left despite Cologne's relegation. Midfielders Toni Kroos will be among the first names on Low's team sheet. The Real Madrid midfielder is the driving force behind the side. He will likely be partnered by Juventus' Sami Khedira, who provides more of a defensive presence, with Mesut Ozil in front, flanked on either side by Thomas Mueller and Marco Reus - if the latter proves his fitness. Reus has been unlucky with injuries and has only recently returned to shine again for Dortmund. But Germany have a wealth of options in midfield, with Ilkay Gundogan, Leon Goretzka, Leroy Sane, Julian Draxler, Julian Weigl and Julian Brandt all providing ample backup options. World Cup predictor Forwards Timo Werner seems sure of his place after another good season for Leipzig, albeit with most of his goals in the first half of the campaign. The 22-year-old Werner has seven goals in 12 international appearances, but it's his runs into space and the problems he causes defenders that benefit the team. Low will likely bring one of Mario Gomez or Sandro Wagner as a more experienced option for Werner, while Mario Gotze is another option to play up front if he gets recalled following a disappointing season for Dortmund. Gotze scored the winning goal for Germany to beat Argentina in the 2014 final. Group games Germany kick off their title defence near their tournament base in Moscow at the Luzhniki Stadium against Mexico on June 17. They then face a long trip south to Sochi for their second game against Sweden on June 23, before wrapping up Group F against South Korea in Kazan four days later.
Germany World Cup 2018 squad: Latest player news and injury information
Germany coasted through World Cup qualifying with 10 wins out of 10 and a European record 43 goals. Then the problems began - and a reality check. The World Cup holders haven't won any matches since qualifying for Russia. After drawing friendlies against England, France and Spain, Joachim Low's team lost 1-0 to Brazil to end a 22-game unbeaten run. Becoming the first team since Brazil in 1962 to defend their World Cup title now looks even trickier for the Germans. "We're not as good as we're made out to be, or as some think we are," midfielder Toni Kroos said. "There's huge room for improvement." The recent slump in friendly matches could be a blessing in disguise if they eradicate any complacency going into the World Cup. World Cup 2018 | All you need to know "I'm not worried. In 2014 and 2010 we also lost in March," Low said. "You can be sure that we'll improve." The first task for Low's side will be to top Group F to avoid a likely second-round clash against Brazil. Here's a closer look at the Germany team: Coach Low was assistant coach to Jurgen Klinsmann during Germany's "summer fairytale" hosting of the 2006 World Cup and was promoted to the top job after their third-place finish. Low favors a fast-paced, possession-based game, pressing opponents to recover the ball and switching quickly from defence to attack. He has overseen steady progress since taking over, reaching the final of the 2008 European Championship, claiming third place at the 2010 World Cup and reaching the semi-finals at Euro 2012 before finally winning a title in convincing fashion at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Germany manager Joachim Low Credit: PA A disappointing semi-final exit to France at Euro 2016 followed, but Low laid the groundwork for a successful World Cup title defence by winning the Confederations Cup with a young team of promising talent last year in Russia. Low hasn't been afraid to test young talent, and Germany's strength in depth means one of his hardest tasks is leaving players out of the 23-man squad. Low also has the unfortunate tendency to find himself in the headlines for other reasons. The 58 year-old has previously apologised after being caught on camera picking his nose or in other compromising positions during games. Goalkeepers The biggest concern is captain Manuel Neuer's fitness. The Bayern Munich goalkeeper sustained a repeat of the hairline metatarsal fracture in his left foot while training last September and hasn't played since. Marc-Andre ter Stegen could well establish himself as the No 1 with doubts over Neuer's fitness. The Barcelona goalkeeper has overcome a shaky start to his international career and helped Germany win the Confederations Cup. Bernd Leno of Bayer Leverkusen and Kevin Trapp of Paris Saint-Germain are also options, while Sven Ulreich has been filling in for Neuer at Bayern. World Cup 2018 venues Defenders Bayern defender Jerome Boateng faces a race to be fit with a thigh injury sustained in the Champions League semi-finals against Real Madrid in April. Bayern teammate Niklas Suele would be an able replacement to partner Mats Hummels in the centre. Another Bayern player, Joshua Kimmich, has emerged to soften the blow of Philipp Lahm's retirement at right-back. The modest Jonas Hector will likely keep his place on the left despite Cologne's relegation. Midfielders Toni Kroos will be among the first names on Low's team sheet. The Real Madrid midfielder is the driving force behind the side. He will likely be partnered by Juventus' Sami Khedira, who provides more of a defensive presence, with Mesut Ozil in front, flanked on either side by Thomas Mueller and Marco Reus - if the latter proves his fitness. Reus has been unlucky with injuries and has only recently returned to shine again for Dortmund. But Germany have a wealth of options in midfield, with Ilkay Gundogan, Leon Goretzka, Leroy Sane, Julian Draxler, Julian Weigl and Julian Brandt all providing ample backup options. World Cup predictor Forwards Timo Werner seems sure of his place after another good season for Leipzig, albeit with most of his goals in the first half of the campaign. The 22-year-old Werner has seven goals in 12 international appearances, but it's his runs into space and the problems he causes defenders that benefit the team. Low will likely bring one of Mario Gomez or Sandro Wagner as a more experienced option for Werner, while Mario Gotze is another option to play up front if he gets recalled following a disappointing season for Dortmund. Gotze scored the winning goal for Germany to beat Argentina in the 2014 final. Group games Germany kick off their title defence near their tournament base in Moscow at the Luzhniki Stadium against Mexico on June 17. They then face a long trip south to Sochi for their second game against Sweden on June 23, before wrapping up Group F against South Korea in Kazan four days later.
Germany coasted through World Cup qualifying with 10 wins out of 10 and a European record 43 goals. Then the problems began - and a reality check. The World Cup holders haven't won any matches since qualifying for Russia. After drawing friendlies against England, France and Spain, Joachim Low's team lost 1-0 to Brazil to end a 22-game unbeaten run. Becoming the first team since Brazil in 1962 to defend their World Cup title now looks even trickier for the Germans. "We're not as good as we're made out to be, or as some think we are," midfielder Toni Kroos said. "There's huge room for improvement." The recent slump in friendly matches could be a blessing in disguise if they eradicate any complacency going into the World Cup. World Cup 2018 | All you need to know "I'm not worried. In 2014 and 2010 we also lost in March," Low said. "You can be sure that we'll improve." The first task for Low's side will be to top Group F to avoid a likely second-round clash against Brazil. Here's a closer look at the Germany team: Coach Low was assistant coach to Jurgen Klinsmann during Germany's "summer fairytale" hosting of the 2006 World Cup and was promoted to the top job after their third-place finish. Low favors a fast-paced, possession-based game, pressing opponents to recover the ball and switching quickly from defence to attack. He has overseen steady progress since taking over, reaching the final of the 2008 European Championship, claiming third place at the 2010 World Cup and reaching the semi-finals at Euro 2012 before finally winning a title in convincing fashion at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Germany manager Joachim Low Credit: PA A disappointing semi-final exit to France at Euro 2016 followed, but Low laid the groundwork for a successful World Cup title defence by winning the Confederations Cup with a young team of promising talent last year in Russia. Low hasn't been afraid to test young talent, and Germany's strength in depth means one of his hardest tasks is leaving players out of the 23-man squad. Low also has the unfortunate tendency to find himself in the headlines for other reasons. The 58 year-old has previously apologised after being caught on camera picking his nose or in other compromising positions during games. Goalkeepers The biggest concern is captain Manuel Neuer's fitness. The Bayern Munich goalkeeper sustained a repeat of the hairline metatarsal fracture in his left foot while training last September and hasn't played since. Marc-Andre ter Stegen could well establish himself as the No 1 with doubts over Neuer's fitness. The Barcelona goalkeeper has overcome a shaky start to his international career and helped Germany win the Confederations Cup. Bernd Leno of Bayer Leverkusen and Kevin Trapp of Paris Saint-Germain are also options, while Sven Ulreich has been filling in for Neuer at Bayern. World Cup 2018 venues Defenders Bayern defender Jerome Boateng faces a race to be fit with a thigh injury sustained in the Champions League semi-finals against Real Madrid in April. Bayern teammate Niklas Suele would be an able replacement to partner Mats Hummels in the centre. Another Bayern player, Joshua Kimmich, has emerged to soften the blow of Philipp Lahm's retirement at right-back. The modest Jonas Hector will likely keep his place on the left despite Cologne's relegation. Midfielders Toni Kroos will be among the first names on Low's team sheet. The Real Madrid midfielder is the driving force behind the side. He will likely be partnered by Juventus' Sami Khedira, who provides more of a defensive presence, with Mesut Ozil in front, flanked on either side by Thomas Mueller and Marco Reus - if the latter proves his fitness. Reus has been unlucky with injuries and has only recently returned to shine again for Dortmund. But Germany have a wealth of options in midfield, with Ilkay Gundogan, Leon Goretzka, Leroy Sane, Julian Draxler, Julian Weigl and Julian Brandt all providing ample backup options. World Cup predictor Forwards Timo Werner seems sure of his place after another good season for Leipzig, albeit with most of his goals in the first half of the campaign. The 22-year-old Werner has seven goals in 12 international appearances, but it's his runs into space and the problems he causes defenders that benefit the team. Low will likely bring one of Mario Gomez or Sandro Wagner as a more experienced option for Werner, while Mario Gotze is another option to play up front if he gets recalled following a disappointing season for Dortmund. Gotze scored the winning goal for Germany to beat Argentina in the 2014 final. Group games Germany kick off their title defence near their tournament base in Moscow at the Luzhniki Stadium against Mexico on June 17. They then face a long trip south to Sochi for their second game against Sweden on June 23, before wrapping up Group F against South Korea in Kazan four days later.
Germany World Cup 2018 squad: Latest player news and injury information
Germany coasted through World Cup qualifying with 10 wins out of 10 and a European record 43 goals. Then the problems began - and a reality check. The World Cup holders haven't won any matches since qualifying for Russia. After drawing friendlies against England, France and Spain, Joachim Low's team lost 1-0 to Brazil to end a 22-game unbeaten run. Becoming the first team since Brazil in 1962 to defend their World Cup title now looks even trickier for the Germans. "We're not as good as we're made out to be, or as some think we are," midfielder Toni Kroos said. "There's huge room for improvement." The recent slump in friendly matches could be a blessing in disguise if they eradicate any complacency going into the World Cup. World Cup 2018 | All you need to know "I'm not worried. In 2014 and 2010 we also lost in March," Low said. "You can be sure that we'll improve." The first task for Low's side will be to top Group F to avoid a likely second-round clash against Brazil. Here's a closer look at the Germany team: Coach Low was assistant coach to Jurgen Klinsmann during Germany's "summer fairytale" hosting of the 2006 World Cup and was promoted to the top job after their third-place finish. Low favors a fast-paced, possession-based game, pressing opponents to recover the ball and switching quickly from defence to attack. He has overseen steady progress since taking over, reaching the final of the 2008 European Championship, claiming third place at the 2010 World Cup and reaching the semi-finals at Euro 2012 before finally winning a title in convincing fashion at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Germany manager Joachim Low Credit: PA A disappointing semi-final exit to France at Euro 2016 followed, but Low laid the groundwork for a successful World Cup title defence by winning the Confederations Cup with a young team of promising talent last year in Russia. Low hasn't been afraid to test young talent, and Germany's strength in depth means one of his hardest tasks is leaving players out of the 23-man squad. Low also has the unfortunate tendency to find himself in the headlines for other reasons. The 58 year-old has previously apologised after being caught on camera picking his nose or in other compromising positions during games. Goalkeepers The biggest concern is captain Manuel Neuer's fitness. The Bayern Munich goalkeeper sustained a repeat of the hairline metatarsal fracture in his left foot while training last September and hasn't played since. Marc-Andre ter Stegen could well establish himself as the No 1 with doubts over Neuer's fitness. The Barcelona goalkeeper has overcome a shaky start to his international career and helped Germany win the Confederations Cup. Bernd Leno of Bayer Leverkusen and Kevin Trapp of Paris Saint-Germain are also options, while Sven Ulreich has been filling in for Neuer at Bayern. World Cup 2018 venues Defenders Bayern defender Jerome Boateng faces a race to be fit with a thigh injury sustained in the Champions League semi-finals against Real Madrid in April. Bayern teammate Niklas Suele would be an able replacement to partner Mats Hummels in the centre. Another Bayern player, Joshua Kimmich, has emerged to soften the blow of Philipp Lahm's retirement at right-back. The modest Jonas Hector will likely keep his place on the left despite Cologne's relegation. Midfielders Toni Kroos will be among the first names on Low's team sheet. The Real Madrid midfielder is the driving force behind the side. He will likely be partnered by Juventus' Sami Khedira, who provides more of a defensive presence, with Mesut Ozil in front, flanked on either side by Thomas Mueller and Marco Reus - if the latter proves his fitness. Reus has been unlucky with injuries and has only recently returned to shine again for Dortmund. But Germany have a wealth of options in midfield, with Ilkay Gundogan, Leon Goretzka, Leroy Sane, Julian Draxler, Julian Weigl and Julian Brandt all providing ample backup options. World Cup predictor Forwards Timo Werner seems sure of his place after another good season for Leipzig, albeit with most of his goals in the first half of the campaign. The 22-year-old Werner has seven goals in 12 international appearances, but it's his runs into space and the problems he causes defenders that benefit the team. Low will likely bring one of Mario Gomez or Sandro Wagner as a more experienced option for Werner, while Mario Gotze is another option to play up front if he gets recalled following a disappointing season for Dortmund. Gotze scored the winning goal for Germany to beat Argentina in the 2014 final. Group games Germany kick off their title defence near their tournament base in Moscow at the Luzhniki Stadium against Mexico on June 17. They then face a long trip south to Sochi for their second game against Sweden on June 23, before wrapping up Group F against South Korea in Kazan four days later.
FILE - In this Tuesday, June 13, 2017 filer, Panama's Roman Torres, top, and Honduras' Rony Martinez vie for the ball during a 2018 Russia World Cup qualifying soccer match at Rommel Fernandez Stadium in Panama City. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco, File)
WORLD CUP: First-timer Panama tweaks defense to limit damage
FILE - In this Tuesday, June 13, 2017 filer, Panama's Roman Torres, top, and Honduras' Rony Martinez vie for the ball during a 2018 Russia World Cup qualifying soccer match at Rommel Fernandez Stadium in Panama City. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco, File)
FILE - In this Tuesday, June 13, 2017 filer, Panama's Roman Torres, top, and Honduras' Rony Martinez vie for the ball during a 2018 Russia World Cup qualifying soccer match at Rommel Fernandez Stadium in Panama City. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco, File)
FILE - In this Tuesday, June 13, 2017 filer, Panama's Roman Torres, top, and Honduras' Rony Martinez vie for the ball during a 2018 Russia World Cup qualifying soccer match at Rommel Fernandez Stadium in Panama City. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco, File)
FILE - In this Tuesday, June 13, 2017 filer, Panama's Roman Torres, top, and Honduras' Rony Martinez vie for the ball during a 2018 Russia World Cup qualifying soccer match at Rommel Fernandez Stadium in Panama City. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco, File)
In this image taken on Monday, Nov. 13, 2017 Sweden's Marcus Berg celebrates at the end of the World Cup qualifying play-off second leg soccer match between Italy and Sweden, at the Milan San Siro stadium, Italy. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)
In this image taken on Monday, Nov. 13, 2017 Sweden's Marcus Berg celebrates at the end of the World Cup qualifying play-off second leg soccer match between Italy and Sweden, at the Milan San Siro stadium, Italy. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)
In this image taken on Monday, Nov. 13, 2017 Sweden's Marcus Berg celebrates at the end of the World Cup qualifying play-off second leg soccer match between Italy and Sweden, at the Milan San Siro stadium, Italy. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)
In this image taken on Monday, Nov. 13, 2017 Sweden's Sebastian Larsson celebrates at the end of the World Cup qualifying play-off second leg soccer match between Italy and Sweden, at the Milan San Siro stadium, Italy. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)
In this image taken on Monday, Nov. 13, 2017 Sweden's Sebastian Larsson celebrates at the end of the World Cup qualifying play-off second leg soccer match between Italy and Sweden, at the Milan San Siro stadium, Italy. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)
In this image taken on Monday, Nov. 13, 2017 Sweden's Sebastian Larsson celebrates at the end of the World Cup qualifying play-off second leg soccer match between Italy and Sweden, at the Milan San Siro stadium, Italy. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)
In this image taken on Monday, Nov. 13, 2017 Sweden's Andreas Granqvist celebrates at the end of the World Cup qualifying play-off second leg soccer match between Italy and Sweden, at the Milan San Siro stadium, Italy, Monday, Nov. 13, 2017. Four-time champion Italy has failed to qualify for World Cup; Sweden advances with 1-0 aggregate win in playoff. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)
In this image taken on Monday, Nov. 13, 2017 Sweden's Andreas Granqvist celebrates at the end of the World Cup qualifying play-off second leg soccer match between Italy and Sweden, at the Milan San Siro stadium, Italy, Monday, Nov. 13, 2017. Four-time champion Italy has failed to qualify for World Cup; Sweden advances with 1-0 aggregate win in playoff. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)
In this image taken on Monday, Nov. 13, 2017 Sweden's Andreas Granqvist celebrates at the end of the World Cup qualifying play-off second leg soccer match between Italy and Sweden, at the Milan San Siro stadium, Italy, Monday, Nov. 13, 2017. Four-time champion Italy has failed to qualify for World Cup; Sweden advances with 1-0 aggregate win in playoff. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)
In this image taken on Monday, Nov. 13, 2017 Sweden's Marcus Berg celebrates at the end of the World Cup qualifying play-off second leg soccer match between Italy and Sweden, at the Milan San Siro stadium, Italy. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)
WORLD CUP: With Zlatan gone, Sweden not defined by 1 player
In this image taken on Monday, Nov. 13, 2017 Sweden's Marcus Berg celebrates at the end of the World Cup qualifying play-off second leg soccer match between Italy and Sweden, at the Milan San Siro stadium, Italy. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)
In this image taken on Monday, Nov. 13, 2017 Sweden's Sebastian Larsson celebrates at the end of the World Cup qualifying play-off second leg soccer match between Italy and Sweden, at the Milan San Siro stadium, Italy. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)
WORLD CUP: With Zlatan gone, Sweden not defined by 1 player
In this image taken on Monday, Nov. 13, 2017 Sweden's Sebastian Larsson celebrates at the end of the World Cup qualifying play-off second leg soccer match between Italy and Sweden, at the Milan San Siro stadium, Italy. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)
In this image taken on Monday, Nov. 13, 2017 Sweden's Andreas Granqvist celebrates at the end of the World Cup qualifying play-off second leg soccer match between Italy and Sweden, at the Milan San Siro stadium, Italy, Monday, Nov. 13, 2017. Four-time champion Italy has failed to qualify for World Cup; Sweden advances with 1-0 aggregate win in playoff. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)
WORLD CUP: With Zlatan gone, Sweden not defined by 1 player
In this image taken on Monday, Nov. 13, 2017 Sweden's Andreas Granqvist celebrates at the end of the World Cup qualifying play-off second leg soccer match between Italy and Sweden, at the Milan San Siro stadium, Italy, Monday, Nov. 13, 2017. Four-time champion Italy has failed to qualify for World Cup; Sweden advances with 1-0 aggregate win in playoff. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)
In this image taken on Monday, Nov. 13, 2017 Sweden's Andreas Granqvist celebrates at the end of the World Cup qualifying play-off second leg soccer match between Italy and Sweden, at the Milan San Siro stadium, Italy, Monday, Nov. 13, 2017. Four-time champion Italy has failed to qualify for World Cup; Sweden advances with 1-0 aggregate win in playoff. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)
In this image taken on Monday, Nov. 13, 2017 Sweden's Andreas Granqvist celebrates at the end of the World Cup qualifying play-off second leg soccer match between Italy and Sweden, at the Milan San Siro stadium, Italy, Monday, Nov. 13, 2017. Four-time champion Italy has failed to qualify for World Cup; Sweden advances with 1-0 aggregate win in playoff. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)
In this image taken on Monday, Nov. 13, 2017 Sweden's Andreas Granqvist celebrates at the end of the World Cup qualifying play-off second leg soccer match between Italy and Sweden, at the Milan San Siro stadium, Italy, Monday, Nov. 13, 2017. Four-time champion Italy has failed to qualify for World Cup; Sweden advances with 1-0 aggregate win in playoff. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)
In this image taken on Monday, Nov. 13, 2017 Sweden's Sebastian Larsson celebrates at the end of the World Cup qualifying play-off second leg soccer match between Italy and Sweden, at the Milan San Siro stadium, Italy. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)
In this image taken on Monday, Nov. 13, 2017 Sweden's Sebastian Larsson celebrates at the end of the World Cup qualifying play-off second leg soccer match between Italy and Sweden, at the Milan San Siro stadium, Italy. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)
In this image taken on Monday, Nov. 13, 2017 Sweden's Sebastian Larsson celebrates at the end of the World Cup qualifying play-off second leg soccer match between Italy and Sweden, at the Milan San Siro stadium, Italy. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)
In this image taken on Monday, Nov. 13, 2017 Sweden's Marcus Berg celebrates at the end of the World Cup qualifying play-off second leg soccer match between Italy and Sweden, at the Milan San Siro stadium, Italy. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)
In this image taken on Monday, Nov. 13, 2017 Sweden's Marcus Berg celebrates at the end of the World Cup qualifying play-off second leg soccer match between Italy and Sweden, at the Milan San Siro stadium, Italy. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)
In this image taken on Monday, Nov. 13, 2017 Sweden's Marcus Berg celebrates at the end of the World Cup qualifying play-off second leg soccer match between Italy and Sweden, at the Milan San Siro stadium, Italy. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)
In this photo taken on Saturday, Oct 7, 2017, Costa Rica goalkeeper Keylor Navas listens to the anthems before a World Cup qualifying soccer game against Honduras at the National Stadium in San Jose, Costa Rica. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)
WORLD CUP: Costa Rica lifted expectations with run to last 8
In this photo taken on Saturday, Oct 7, 2017, Costa Rica goalkeeper Keylor Navas listens to the anthems before a World Cup qualifying soccer game against Honduras at the National Stadium in San Jose, Costa Rica. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)
In this photo taken on Saturday, Oct 7, 2017, Costa Rica goalkeeper Keylor Navas listens to the anthems before a World Cup qualifying soccer game against Honduras at the National Stadium in San Jose, Costa Rica. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)
In this photo taken on Saturday, Oct 7, 2017, Costa Rica goalkeeper Keylor Navas listens to the anthems before a World Cup qualifying soccer game against Honduras at the National Stadium in San Jose, Costa Rica. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)
In this photo taken on Saturday, Oct 7, 2017, Costa Rica goalkeeper Keylor Navas listens to the anthems before a World Cup qualifying soccer game against Honduras at the National Stadium in San Jose, Costa Rica. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)
In this photo taken on Thursday, March 23, 2017, Brazil's Neymar controls the ball during a 2018 World Cup qualifying soccer match against Uruguay in Montevideo, Uruguay. (AP Photo/Matilde Campodonico)
WORLD CUP: Balanced Brazil reduces dependence on Neymar
In this photo taken on Thursday, March 23, 2017, Brazil's Neymar controls the ball during a 2018 World Cup qualifying soccer match against Uruguay in Montevideo, Uruguay. (AP Photo/Matilde Campodonico)
FILE - In this Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2017 filer, Brazil's Neymar, center, fights for the ball with Colombia's Abel Aguilar, left, and James Rodriguez, during a 2018 Russia World Cup qualifying soccer match at the Roberto Melendez stadium in Barranquilla, Colombia. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara, File)
WORLD CUP: Balanced Brazil reduces dependence on Neymar
FILE - In this Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2017 filer, Brazil's Neymar, center, fights for the ball with Colombia's Abel Aguilar, left, and James Rodriguez, during a 2018 Russia World Cup qualifying soccer match at the Roberto Melendez stadium in Barranquilla, Colombia. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara, File)
FILE - In this Aug. 31, 2017 file photo, Brazil's Neymar, right, controls the ball against Ecuador's Pedro Quinones, left, during a 2018 World Cup qualifying soccer match in Porto Alegre, Brazil. (AP Photo/Andre Penner, File)
WORLD CUP: Balanced Brazil reduces dependence on Neymar
FILE - In this Aug. 31, 2017 file photo, Brazil's Neymar, right, controls the ball against Ecuador's Pedro Quinones, left, during a 2018 World Cup qualifying soccer match in Porto Alegre, Brazil. (AP Photo/Andre Penner, File)
In this photo taken on Thursday, March 23, 2017, Brazil's Neymar controls the ball during a 2018 World Cup qualifying soccer match against Uruguay in Montevideo, Uruguay. (AP Photo/Matilde Campodonico)
In this photo taken on Thursday, March 23, 2017, Brazil's Neymar controls the ball during a 2018 World Cup qualifying soccer match against Uruguay in Montevideo, Uruguay. (AP Photo/Matilde Campodonico)
In this photo taken on Thursday, March 23, 2017, Brazil's Neymar controls the ball during a 2018 World Cup qualifying soccer match against Uruguay in Montevideo, Uruguay. (AP Photo/Matilde Campodonico)
FILE - In this Aug. 31, 2017 file photo, Brazil's Neymar, right, controls the ball against Ecuador's Pedro Quinones, left, during a 2018 World Cup qualifying soccer match in Porto Alegre, Brazil. (AP Photo/Andre Penner, File)
FILE - In this Aug. 31, 2017 file photo, Brazil's Neymar, right, controls the ball against Ecuador's Pedro Quinones, left, during a 2018 World Cup qualifying soccer match in Porto Alegre, Brazil. (AP Photo/Andre Penner, File)
FILE - In this Aug. 31, 2017 file photo, Brazil's Neymar, right, controls the ball against Ecuador's Pedro Quinones, left, during a 2018 World Cup qualifying soccer match in Porto Alegre, Brazil. (AP Photo/Andre Penner, File)
FILE - In this Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2017 filer, Brazil's Neymar, center, fights for the ball with Colombia's Abel Aguilar, left, and James Rodriguez, during a 2018 Russia World Cup qualifying soccer match at the Roberto Melendez stadium in Barranquilla, Colombia. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara, File)
FILE - In this Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2017 filer, Brazil's Neymar, center, fights for the ball with Colombia's Abel Aguilar, left, and James Rodriguez, during a 2018 Russia World Cup qualifying soccer match at the Roberto Melendez stadium in Barranquilla, Colombia. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara, File)
FILE - In this Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2017 filer, Brazil's Neymar, center, fights for the ball with Colombia's Abel Aguilar, left, and James Rodriguez, during a 2018 Russia World Cup qualifying soccer match at the Roberto Melendez stadium in Barranquilla, Colombia. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara, File)
The Yanks are 1-17-0 all-time against Brazil in all competitions, while the U.S. hasn't faced Mexico since its 1-1 draw at the Estadio Azteca in June 2017 during CONCACAF World Cup qualifying.
Report: USMNT likely to face Brazil, Mexico in September friendlies
The Yanks are 1-17-0 all-time against Brazil in all competitions, while the U.S. hasn't faced Mexico since its 1-1 draw at the Estadio Azteca in June 2017 during CONCACAF World Cup qualifying.
The Yanks are 1-17-0 all-time against Brazil in all competitions, while the U.S. hasn't faced Mexico since its 1-1 draw at the Estadio Azteca in June 2017 during CONCACAF World Cup qualifying.
Report: USMNT likely to face Brazil, Mexico in September friendlies
The Yanks are 1-17-0 all-time against Brazil in all competitions, while the U.S. hasn't faced Mexico since its 1-1 draw at the Estadio Azteca in June 2017 during CONCACAF World Cup qualifying.
FILE - In this Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017 filer, Denmark coach Age Hareide celebrates after his team won the World Cup qualifying play off second leg soccer match between Ireland and Denmark at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin, Ireland. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison, File)
WORLD CUP: Eriksen key to Denmark emulating 1992 heroics
FILE - In this Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017 filer, Denmark coach Age Hareide celebrates after his team won the World Cup qualifying play off second leg soccer match between Ireland and Denmark at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin, Ireland. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison, File)
FILE - In this Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017 filer, Denmark's Nicklas Bendtner celebrates after scoring his side's fifth goal during the World Cup qualifying play off second leg soccer match between Ireland and Denmark at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin, Ireland. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison, File)
WORLD CUP: Eriksen key to Denmark emulating 1992 heroics
FILE - In this Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017 filer, Denmark's Nicklas Bendtner celebrates after scoring his side's fifth goal during the World Cup qualifying play off second leg soccer match between Ireland and Denmark at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin, Ireland. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison, File)
FILE - In this Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017 filer, Denmark's Christian Eriksen celebrates after scoring his side's third goal during the World Cup qualifying play off second leg soccer match between Ireland and Denmark at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison, File)
WORLD CUP: Eriksen key to Denmark emulating 1992 heroics
FILE - In this Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017 filer, Denmark's Christian Eriksen celebrates after scoring his side's third goal during the World Cup qualifying play off second leg soccer match between Ireland and Denmark at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison, File)
FILE - In this Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017 filer, Denmark coach Age Hareide celebrates after his team won the World Cup qualifying play off second leg soccer match between Ireland and Denmark at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin, Ireland. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison, File)
FILE - In this Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017 filer, Denmark coach Age Hareide celebrates after his team won the World Cup qualifying play off second leg soccer match between Ireland and Denmark at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin, Ireland. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison, File)
FILE - In this Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017 filer, Denmark coach Age Hareide celebrates after his team won the World Cup qualifying play off second leg soccer match between Ireland and Denmark at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin, Ireland. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison, File)
FILE - In this Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017 filer, Denmark's Nicklas Bendtner celebrates after scoring his side's fifth goal during the World Cup qualifying play off second leg soccer match between Ireland and Denmark at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin, Ireland. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison, File)
FILE - In this Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017 filer, Denmark's Nicklas Bendtner celebrates after scoring his side's fifth goal during the World Cup qualifying play off second leg soccer match between Ireland and Denmark at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin, Ireland. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison, File)
FILE - In this Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017 filer, Denmark's Nicklas Bendtner celebrates after scoring his side's fifth goal during the World Cup qualifying play off second leg soccer match between Ireland and Denmark at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin, Ireland. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison, File)
FILE - In this Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017 filer, Denmark's Christian Eriksen celebrates after scoring his side's third goal during the World Cup qualifying play off second leg soccer match between Ireland and Denmark at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison, File)
FILE - In this Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017 filer, Denmark's Christian Eriksen celebrates after scoring his side's third goal during the World Cup qualifying play off second leg soccer match between Ireland and Denmark at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison, File)
FILE - In this Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017 filer, Denmark's Christian Eriksen celebrates after scoring his side's third goal during the World Cup qualifying play off second leg soccer match between Ireland and Denmark at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison, File)
FILE - In this Monday, June 12, 2017 file photo, Iran's Mehdi Taremi celebrates after scoring a goal against Uzbekistan during their World Cup qualifying soccer match at the Azadi Stadium in Tehran, Iran. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi, File)
WORLD CUP: Unbeaten in qualifying, Iran faces tougher test
FILE - In this Monday, June 12, 2017 file photo, Iran's Mehdi Taremi celebrates after scoring a goal against Uzbekistan during their World Cup qualifying soccer match at the Azadi Stadium in Tehran, Iran. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi, File)
FILE - In this Monday, June 12, 2017 file photo, Iran's Mehdi Taremi celebrates after scoring a goal against Uzbekistan during their World Cup qualifying soccer match at the Azadi Stadium in Tehran, Iran. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi, File)
FILE - In this Monday, June 12, 2017 file photo, Iran's Mehdi Taremi celebrates after scoring a goal against Uzbekistan during their World Cup qualifying soccer match at the Azadi Stadium in Tehran, Iran. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi, File)
FILE - In this Monday, June 12, 2017 file photo, Iran's Mehdi Taremi celebrates after scoring a goal against Uzbekistan during their World Cup qualifying soccer match at the Azadi Stadium in Tehran, Iran. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi, File)
FILE - In this Thursday, Aug. 31, 2017 file photo, Uruguay's Luis Suarez, right, fights for the ball with Argentina's Marcos Acuaa during a 2018 World Cup qualifying soccer match in Montevideo, Uruguay. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko, File)
WORLD CUP: Uruguay striker Suarez seeking redemption
FILE - In this Thursday, Aug. 31, 2017 file photo, Uruguay's Luis Suarez, right, fights for the ball with Argentina's Marcos Acuaa during a 2018 World Cup qualifying soccer match in Montevideo, Uruguay. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko, File)
FILE - In this Thursday, Aug. 31, 2017 file photo, Argentina's Lionel Messi and Uruguay's Luis Suarez greet before a 2018 World Cup qualifying soccer match in Montevideo, Uruguay. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko, File)
WORLD CUP: Uruguay striker Suarez seeking redemption
FILE - In this Thursday, Aug. 31, 2017 file photo, Argentina's Lionel Messi and Uruguay's Luis Suarez greet before a 2018 World Cup qualifying soccer match in Montevideo, Uruguay. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko, File)
FILE - In this Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2017 file photo, Uruguay's Edinson Cavani celebrates after scoring against Bolivia during a 2018 World Cup qualifying soccer match in Montevideo, Uruguay. (AP Photo/Matilde Campodonico, File)
WORLD CUP: Uruguay striker Suarez seeking redemption
FILE - In this Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2017 file photo, Uruguay's Edinson Cavani celebrates after scoring against Bolivia during a 2018 World Cup qualifying soccer match in Montevideo, Uruguay. (AP Photo/Matilde Campodonico, File)
FILE - In this Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2017 file photo, Uruguay's Edinson Cavani celebrates after scoring against Bolivia during a 2018 World Cup qualifying soccer match in Montevideo, Uruguay. (AP Photo/Matilde Campodonico, File)
FILE - In this Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2017 file photo, Uruguay's Edinson Cavani celebrates after scoring against Bolivia during a 2018 World Cup qualifying soccer match in Montevideo, Uruguay. (AP Photo/Matilde Campodonico, File)
FILE - In this Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2017 file photo, Uruguay's Edinson Cavani celebrates after scoring against Bolivia during a 2018 World Cup qualifying soccer match in Montevideo, Uruguay. (AP Photo/Matilde Campodonico, File)
FILE - In this Thursday, Aug. 31, 2017 file photo, Uruguay's Luis Suarez, right, fights for the ball with Argentina's Marcos Acuaa during a 2018 World Cup qualifying soccer match in Montevideo, Uruguay. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko, File)
FILE - In this Thursday, Aug. 31, 2017 file photo, Uruguay's Luis Suarez, right, fights for the ball with Argentina's Marcos Acuaa during a 2018 World Cup qualifying soccer match in Montevideo, Uruguay. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko, File)
FILE - In this Thursday, Aug. 31, 2017 file photo, Uruguay's Luis Suarez, right, fights for the ball with Argentina's Marcos Acuaa during a 2018 World Cup qualifying soccer match in Montevideo, Uruguay. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko, File)
FILE - In this Thursday, Aug. 31, 2017 file photo, Argentina's Lionel Messi and Uruguay's Luis Suarez greet before a 2018 World Cup qualifying soccer match in Montevideo, Uruguay. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko, File)
FILE - In this Thursday, Aug. 31, 2017 file photo, Argentina's Lionel Messi and Uruguay's Luis Suarez greet before a 2018 World Cup qualifying soccer match in Montevideo, Uruguay. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko, File)
FILE - In this Thursday, Aug. 31, 2017 file photo, Argentina's Lionel Messi and Uruguay's Luis Suarez greet before a 2018 World Cup qualifying soccer match in Montevideo, Uruguay. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko, File)
Jurgen Klinsmann believes the United States' World Cup qualifying failure is a huge blow.
Klinsmann says World Cup miss set USA back 'several years'
Jurgen Klinsmann believes the United States' World Cup qualifying failure is a huge blow.
Martin Dubravka was hyperactive as a child, a tiny tornado of pent up energy and constant chatter - a small boy who made a lot of noise. Other than his height, not much has changed. You may not have heard much of Dubravka - that he has been a revelation on Tyneside, that he is yet to concede a goal at St James’ Park and has, without any real credit, been Newcastle United’s best signing of the season. Dubravka was January’s mystery man, a 6ft 3in Slovakian signed, initially on loan, without fanfare. He had impressed against both England and Scotland in the World Cup qualifying campaign, but still flew in under the radar. When he signed from Sparta Prague, few understood why Rafa Benitez had made him a priority target. He already had two senior goalkeepers, Rob Elliot and Karl Darlow jostling for places in his first XI, as well as England Under-19 World Cup winner Freddie Woodman waiting behind them. Indeed, it was Benitez’s obsession with signing another goalkeeper that caused friction with those above him in the summer. Men in suits, without a coaching badge between them, still felt they were justified in questioning his judgement filling one of the team’s most important positions. Martin Dubravka put in a match-winning performance in his first game for Newcastle Credit: Getty Images Dubravka knows nothing about that six-month power struggle, but he is the reason Benitez has won the argument. Since making his debut in a win over Manchester United, Newcastle have won four, drawn one and lost only once, away to Liverpool, to move well clear of relegation danger. A jittery defence has been becalmed by his sizeable presence, to the extent that tomorrow's meeting with Arsenal is now blissfully stress-free. “When I signed in January, I didn’t think for one second that I was joining a club that would be relegated,” said Dubravka, who, along with his partner Lucia, has already fallen in love with the city and is desperate to make his loan move permanent. “I was joining a club with a huge history and crazy fans, as soon as I got here I knew we would not go down. When you beat Manchester United in your first game, I knew we would do everything we needed to stay up. Martin Dubravka says he wants to take Newcastle into Europe Credit: Reuters “This a club that deserves to be higher, to be in Europe again, but we have to take small steps. We need the manager to stay, he is the boss, he is the most important person. The manager and the owner, they have to work together and get Newcastle back to the level they should be at. “I’m desperate to stay here, I know that already. The fans, they have been amazing, everywhere we go, they stop and talk. This is a proper football city, I love that, you feel it as soon as you get here.” At the age of 29, Dubravka is entering his prime as a goalkeeper, but he retains many of the same traits that led to his grandmother, driven to breaking point in a small apartment in Zilina, pushed him into football after a freak accident brought a swift end to his interest in ice hockey. “I come from a family of goalkeepers,” Dubravka, who once had a poster of his opposite number this weekend, Petr Cech, on his bedroom wall, explained. “My father was a goalkeeper, my grandfather was a goalkeeper also, but I wanted to play in a different position at first. I liked to play football with my feet, but I don’t know, things happen, it was probably my destiny. Martin Dubravka thanks his grandmother for introducing him to fooball Credit: Getty Images “I was really small when I was young, probably the smallest in my class and my mum said: “why do you want to be a goalkeeper?” but things happen for a reason. “The first person to bring me to football was my grandmother. We were really close, but I was hyper active as a child. I don’t think I stopped talking. I drove her mad one day, bouncing around her apartment, leaping from sofa to sofa. I don’t think she could take anymore. “I was too active, I had too much energy, it had to be burned off. She said “you need to go and do something outside. It was a small city, she knew some of the coaches and even though I was too young to play with that age group, she insisted. “I didn’t always listen when I was younger. I might have gone into ice hockey, but when I was five years old, I hurt myself really badly. It was a family BBQ and I was chopping some wood with a machete. My parents were saying, stop that, stop that, you are going to hurt yourself, but…. I put it in my leg. My parents had told me 100 times. It was a bad injury and I still have a big scar. “If it was a few millimetres higher the doctors said I would have had trouble walking and there would have been no chance of me becoming a goalkeeper. I was unlucky, but lucky at the same time. You know, maybe this was meant to be. Mike Ashley to renew efforts to sell Newcastle “I probably would never had played football. The thing is, I could not skate for a while, so I played football instead.” It has not just been Dubravka’s ability as a goalkeeper that has made a difference, it is, according to Benitez “the way he communicates with the defenders” that is so important. Even on his debut against Manchester United, Dubravka was confident and outspoken enough to cajole and guide those in front of him, something he learned from his idol, Cech. Dubravka speaks English fluently, language skills picked up while playing for Esbjerg in Denmark and the chatter that once drove his grandmother to distraction is now put to better use. “I don’t think you have to be crazy to be a goalkeeper, I don’t do anything that is not natural for me,” he added. “I’m not aggressive, but I have a lot of energy. I talk a lot, I always try to speak to my defenders, I think that is the way it should be. “I don’t think they get annoyed… they are glad I say things to them. If I don’t speak to them, they look at me like something is wrong. I guess that is what they expect from me. As I said, I was hyperactive as a child….” Newcastle will, if Benitez has his way, be extremely active in the transfer market again this summer, but the Spaniard will not be looking for another goalkeeper. That position has already been filled.
Exclusive Martin Dubravka interview: From hyperactive ice-hockey goalkeeper to Newcastle cult hero - via a freak machete injury
Martin Dubravka was hyperactive as a child, a tiny tornado of pent up energy and constant chatter - a small boy who made a lot of noise. Other than his height, not much has changed. You may not have heard much of Dubravka - that he has been a revelation on Tyneside, that he is yet to concede a goal at St James’ Park and has, without any real credit, been Newcastle United’s best signing of the season. Dubravka was January’s mystery man, a 6ft 3in Slovakian signed, initially on loan, without fanfare. He had impressed against both England and Scotland in the World Cup qualifying campaign, but still flew in under the radar. When he signed from Sparta Prague, few understood why Rafa Benitez had made him a priority target. He already had two senior goalkeepers, Rob Elliot and Karl Darlow jostling for places in his first XI, as well as England Under-19 World Cup winner Freddie Woodman waiting behind them. Indeed, it was Benitez’s obsession with signing another goalkeeper that caused friction with those above him in the summer. Men in suits, without a coaching badge between them, still felt they were justified in questioning his judgement filling one of the team’s most important positions. Martin Dubravka put in a match-winning performance in his first game for Newcastle Credit: Getty Images Dubravka knows nothing about that six-month power struggle, but he is the reason Benitez has won the argument. Since making his debut in a win over Manchester United, Newcastle have won four, drawn one and lost only once, away to Liverpool, to move well clear of relegation danger. A jittery defence has been becalmed by his sizeable presence, to the extent that tomorrow's meeting with Arsenal is now blissfully stress-free. “When I signed in January, I didn’t think for one second that I was joining a club that would be relegated,” said Dubravka, who, along with his partner Lucia, has already fallen in love with the city and is desperate to make his loan move permanent. “I was joining a club with a huge history and crazy fans, as soon as I got here I knew we would not go down. When you beat Manchester United in your first game, I knew we would do everything we needed to stay up. Martin Dubravka says he wants to take Newcastle into Europe Credit: Reuters “This a club that deserves to be higher, to be in Europe again, but we have to take small steps. We need the manager to stay, he is the boss, he is the most important person. The manager and the owner, they have to work together and get Newcastle back to the level they should be at. “I’m desperate to stay here, I know that already. The fans, they have been amazing, everywhere we go, they stop and talk. This is a proper football city, I love that, you feel it as soon as you get here.” At the age of 29, Dubravka is entering his prime as a goalkeeper, but he retains many of the same traits that led to his grandmother, driven to breaking point in a small apartment in Zilina, pushed him into football after a freak accident brought a swift end to his interest in ice hockey. “I come from a family of goalkeepers,” Dubravka, who once had a poster of his opposite number this weekend, Petr Cech, on his bedroom wall, explained. “My father was a goalkeeper, my grandfather was a goalkeeper also, but I wanted to play in a different position at first. I liked to play football with my feet, but I don’t know, things happen, it was probably my destiny. Martin Dubravka thanks his grandmother for introducing him to fooball Credit: Getty Images “I was really small when I was young, probably the smallest in my class and my mum said: “why do you want to be a goalkeeper?” but things happen for a reason. “The first person to bring me to football was my grandmother. We were really close, but I was hyper active as a child. I don’t think I stopped talking. I drove her mad one day, bouncing around her apartment, leaping from sofa to sofa. I don’t think she could take anymore. “I was too active, I had too much energy, it had to be burned off. She said “you need to go and do something outside. It was a small city, she knew some of the coaches and even though I was too young to play with that age group, she insisted. “I didn’t always listen when I was younger. I might have gone into ice hockey, but when I was five years old, I hurt myself really badly. It was a family BBQ and I was chopping some wood with a machete. My parents were saying, stop that, stop that, you are going to hurt yourself, but…. I put it in my leg. My parents had told me 100 times. It was a bad injury and I still have a big scar. “If it was a few millimetres higher the doctors said I would have had trouble walking and there would have been no chance of me becoming a goalkeeper. I was unlucky, but lucky at the same time. You know, maybe this was meant to be. Mike Ashley to renew efforts to sell Newcastle “I probably would never had played football. The thing is, I could not skate for a while, so I played football instead.” It has not just been Dubravka’s ability as a goalkeeper that has made a difference, it is, according to Benitez “the way he communicates with the defenders” that is so important. Even on his debut against Manchester United, Dubravka was confident and outspoken enough to cajole and guide those in front of him, something he learned from his idol, Cech. Dubravka speaks English fluently, language skills picked up while playing for Esbjerg in Denmark and the chatter that once drove his grandmother to distraction is now put to better use. “I don’t think you have to be crazy to be a goalkeeper, I don’t do anything that is not natural for me,” he added. “I’m not aggressive, but I have a lot of energy. I talk a lot, I always try to speak to my defenders, I think that is the way it should be. “I don’t think they get annoyed… they are glad I say things to them. If I don’t speak to them, they look at me like something is wrong. I guess that is what they expect from me. As I said, I was hyperactive as a child….” Newcastle will, if Benitez has his way, be extremely active in the transfer market again this summer, but the Spaniard will not be looking for another goalkeeper. That position has already been filled.
Martin Dubravka was hyperactive as a child, a tiny tornado of pent up energy and constant chatter - a small boy who made a lot of noise. Other than his height, not much has changed. You may not have heard much of Dubravka - that he has been a revelation on Tyneside, that he is yet to concede a goal at St James’ Park and has, without any real credit, been Newcastle United’s best signing of the season. Dubravka was January’s mystery man, a 6ft 3in Slovakian signed, initially on loan, without fanfare. He had impressed against both England and Scotland in the World Cup qualifying campaign, but still flew in under the radar. When he signed from Sparta Prague, few understood why Rafa Benitez had made him a priority target. He already had two senior goalkeepers, Rob Elliot and Karl Darlow jostling for places in his first XI, as well as England Under-19 World Cup winner Freddie Woodman waiting behind them. Indeed, it was Benitez’s obsession with signing another goalkeeper that caused friction with those above him in the summer. Men in suits, without a coaching badge between them, still felt they were justified in questioning his judgement filling one of the team’s most important positions. Martin Dubravka put in a match-winning performance in his first game for Newcastle Credit: Getty Images Dubravka knows nothing about that six-month power struggle, but he is the reason Benitez has won the argument. Since making his debut in a win over Manchester United, Newcastle have won four, drawn one and lost only once, away to Liverpool, to move well clear of relegation danger. A jittery defence has been becalmed by his sizeable presence, to the extent that tomorrow's meeting with Arsenal is now blissfully stress-free. “When I signed in January, I didn’t think for one second that I was joining a club that would be relegated,” said Dubravka, who, along with his partner Lucia, has already fallen in love with the city and is desperate to make his loan move permanent. “I was joining a club with a huge history and crazy fans, as soon as I got here I knew we would not go down. When you beat Manchester United in your first game, I knew we would do everything we needed to stay up. Martin Dubravka says he wants to take Newcastle into Europe Credit: Reuters “This a club that deserves to be higher, to be in Europe again, but we have to take small steps. We need the manager to stay, he is the boss, he is the most important person. The manager and the owner, they have to work together and get Newcastle back to the level they should be at. “I’m desperate to stay here, I know that already. The fans, they have been amazing, everywhere we go, they stop and talk. This is a proper football city, I love that, you feel it as soon as you get here.” At the age of 29, Dubravka is entering his prime as a goalkeeper, but he retains many of the same traits that led to his grandmother, driven to breaking point in a small apartment in Zilina, pushed him into football after a freak accident brought a swift end to his interest in ice hockey. “I come from a family of goalkeepers,” Dubravka, who once had a poster of his opposite number this weekend, Petr Cech, on his bedroom wall, explained. “My father was a goalkeeper, my grandfather was a goalkeeper also, but I wanted to play in a different position at first. I liked to play football with my feet, but I don’t know, things happen, it was probably my destiny. Martin Dubravka thanks his grandmother for introducing him to fooball Credit: Getty Images “I was really small when I was young, probably the smallest in my class and my mum said: “why do you want to be a goalkeeper?” but things happen for a reason. “The first person to bring me to football was my grandmother. We were really close, but I was hyper active as a child. I don’t think I stopped talking. I drove her mad one day, bouncing around her apartment, leaping from sofa to sofa. I don’t think she could take anymore. “I was too active, I had too much energy, it had to be burned off. She said “you need to go and do something outside. It was a small city, she knew some of the coaches and even though I was too young to play with that age group, she insisted. “I didn’t always listen when I was younger. I might have gone into ice hockey, but when I was five years old, I hurt myself really badly. It was a family BBQ and I was chopping some wood with a machete. My parents were saying, stop that, stop that, you are going to hurt yourself, but…. I put it in my leg. My parents had told me 100 times. It was a bad injury and I still have a big scar. “If it was a few millimetres higher the doctors said I would have had trouble walking and there would have been no chance of me becoming a goalkeeper. I was unlucky, but lucky at the same time. You know, maybe this was meant to be. Mike Ashley to renew efforts to sell Newcastle “I probably would never had played football. The thing is, I could not skate for a while, so I played football instead.” It has not just been Dubravka’s ability as a goalkeeper that has made a difference, it is, according to Benitez “the way he communicates with the defenders” that is so important. Even on his debut against Manchester United, Dubravka was confident and outspoken enough to cajole and guide those in front of him, something he learned from his idol, Cech. Dubravka speaks English fluently, language skills picked up while playing for Esbjerg in Denmark and the chatter that once drove his grandmother to distraction is now put to better use. “I don’t think you have to be crazy to be a goalkeeper, I don’t do anything that is not natural for me,” he added. “I’m not aggressive, but I have a lot of energy. I talk a lot, I always try to speak to my defenders, I think that is the way it should be. “I don’t think they get annoyed… they are glad I say things to them. If I don’t speak to them, they look at me like something is wrong. I guess that is what they expect from me. As I said, I was hyperactive as a child….” Newcastle will, if Benitez has his way, be extremely active in the transfer market again this summer, but the Spaniard will not be looking for another goalkeeper. That position has already been filled.
Exclusive Martin Dubravka interview: From hyperactive ice-hockey goalkeeper to Newcastle cult hero - via a freak machete injury
Martin Dubravka was hyperactive as a child, a tiny tornado of pent up energy and constant chatter - a small boy who made a lot of noise. Other than his height, not much has changed. You may not have heard much of Dubravka - that he has been a revelation on Tyneside, that he is yet to concede a goal at St James’ Park and has, without any real credit, been Newcastle United’s best signing of the season. Dubravka was January’s mystery man, a 6ft 3in Slovakian signed, initially on loan, without fanfare. He had impressed against both England and Scotland in the World Cup qualifying campaign, but still flew in under the radar. When he signed from Sparta Prague, few understood why Rafa Benitez had made him a priority target. He already had two senior goalkeepers, Rob Elliot and Karl Darlow jostling for places in his first XI, as well as England Under-19 World Cup winner Freddie Woodman waiting behind them. Indeed, it was Benitez’s obsession with signing another goalkeeper that caused friction with those above him in the summer. Men in suits, without a coaching badge between them, still felt they were justified in questioning his judgement filling one of the team’s most important positions. Martin Dubravka put in a match-winning performance in his first game for Newcastle Credit: Getty Images Dubravka knows nothing about that six-month power struggle, but he is the reason Benitez has won the argument. Since making his debut in a win over Manchester United, Newcastle have won four, drawn one and lost only once, away to Liverpool, to move well clear of relegation danger. A jittery defence has been becalmed by his sizeable presence, to the extent that tomorrow's meeting with Arsenal is now blissfully stress-free. “When I signed in January, I didn’t think for one second that I was joining a club that would be relegated,” said Dubravka, who, along with his partner Lucia, has already fallen in love with the city and is desperate to make his loan move permanent. “I was joining a club with a huge history and crazy fans, as soon as I got here I knew we would not go down. When you beat Manchester United in your first game, I knew we would do everything we needed to stay up. Martin Dubravka says he wants to take Newcastle into Europe Credit: Reuters “This a club that deserves to be higher, to be in Europe again, but we have to take small steps. We need the manager to stay, he is the boss, he is the most important person. The manager and the owner, they have to work together and get Newcastle back to the level they should be at. “I’m desperate to stay here, I know that already. The fans, they have been amazing, everywhere we go, they stop and talk. This is a proper football city, I love that, you feel it as soon as you get here.” At the age of 29, Dubravka is entering his prime as a goalkeeper, but he retains many of the same traits that led to his grandmother, driven to breaking point in a small apartment in Zilina, pushed him into football after a freak accident brought a swift end to his interest in ice hockey. “I come from a family of goalkeepers,” Dubravka, who once had a poster of his opposite number this weekend, Petr Cech, on his bedroom wall, explained. “My father was a goalkeeper, my grandfather was a goalkeeper also, but I wanted to play in a different position at first. I liked to play football with my feet, but I don’t know, things happen, it was probably my destiny. Martin Dubravka thanks his grandmother for introducing him to fooball Credit: Getty Images “I was really small when I was young, probably the smallest in my class and my mum said: “why do you want to be a goalkeeper?” but things happen for a reason. “The first person to bring me to football was my grandmother. We were really close, but I was hyper active as a child. I don’t think I stopped talking. I drove her mad one day, bouncing around her apartment, leaping from sofa to sofa. I don’t think she could take anymore. “I was too active, I had too much energy, it had to be burned off. She said “you need to go and do something outside. It was a small city, she knew some of the coaches and even though I was too young to play with that age group, she insisted. “I didn’t always listen when I was younger. I might have gone into ice hockey, but when I was five years old, I hurt myself really badly. It was a family BBQ and I was chopping some wood with a machete. My parents were saying, stop that, stop that, you are going to hurt yourself, but…. I put it in my leg. My parents had told me 100 times. It was a bad injury and I still have a big scar. “If it was a few millimetres higher the doctors said I would have had trouble walking and there would have been no chance of me becoming a goalkeeper. I was unlucky, but lucky at the same time. You know, maybe this was meant to be. Mike Ashley to renew efforts to sell Newcastle “I probably would never had played football. The thing is, I could not skate for a while, so I played football instead.” It has not just been Dubravka’s ability as a goalkeeper that has made a difference, it is, according to Benitez “the way he communicates with the defenders” that is so important. Even on his debut against Manchester United, Dubravka was confident and outspoken enough to cajole and guide those in front of him, something he learned from his idol, Cech. Dubravka speaks English fluently, language skills picked up while playing for Esbjerg in Denmark and the chatter that once drove his grandmother to distraction is now put to better use. “I don’t think you have to be crazy to be a goalkeeper, I don’t do anything that is not natural for me,” he added. “I’m not aggressive, but I have a lot of energy. I talk a lot, I always try to speak to my defenders, I think that is the way it should be. “I don’t think they get annoyed… they are glad I say things to them. If I don’t speak to them, they look at me like something is wrong. I guess that is what they expect from me. As I said, I was hyperactive as a child….” Newcastle will, if Benitez has his way, be extremely active in the transfer market again this summer, but the Spaniard will not be looking for another goalkeeper. That position has already been filled.
Martin Dubravka was hyperactive as a child, a tiny tornado of pent up energy and constant chatter - a small boy who made a lot of noise. Other than his height, not much has changed. You may not have heard much of Dubravka - that he has been a revelation on Tyneside, that he is yet to concede a goal at St James’ Park and has, without any real credit, been Newcastle United’s best signing of the season. Dubravka was January’s mystery man, a 6ft 3in Slovakian signed, initially on loan, without fanfare. He had impressed against both England and Scotland in the World Cup qualifying campaign, but still flew in under the radar. When he signed from Sparta Prague, few understood why Rafa Benitez had made him a priority target. He already had two senior goalkeepers, Rob Elliot and Karl Darlow jostling for places in his first XI, as well as England Under-19 World Cup winner Freddie Woodman waiting behind them. Indeed, it was Benitez’s obsession with signing another goalkeeper that caused friction with those above him in the summer. Men in suits, without a coaching badge between them, still felt they were justified in questioning his judgement filling one of the team’s most important positions. Martin Dubravka put in a match-winning performance in his first game for Newcastle Credit: Getty Images Dubravka knows nothing about that six-month power struggle, but he is the reason Benitez has won the argument. Since making his debut in a win over Manchester United, Newcastle have won four, drawn one and lost only once, away to Liverpool, to move well clear of relegation danger. A jittery defence has been becalmed by his sizeable presence, to the extent that tomorrow's meeting with Arsenal is now blissfully stress-free. “When I signed in January, I didn’t think for one second that I was joining a club that would be relegated,” said Dubravka, who, along with his partner Lucia, has already fallen in love with the city and is desperate to make his loan move permanent. “I was joining a club with a huge history and crazy fans, as soon as I got here I knew we would not go down. When you beat Manchester United in your first game, I knew we would do everything we needed to stay up. Martin Dubravka says he wants to take Newcastle into Europe Credit: Reuters “This a club that deserves to be higher, to be in Europe again, but we have to take small steps. We need the manager to stay, he is the boss, he is the most important person. The manager and the owner, they have to work together and get Newcastle back to the level they should be at. “I’m desperate to stay here, I know that already. The fans, they have been amazing, everywhere we go, they stop and talk. This is a proper football city, I love that, you feel it as soon as you get here.” At the age of 29, Dubravka is entering his prime as a goalkeeper, but he retains many of the same traits that led to his grandmother, driven to breaking point in a small apartment in Zilina, pushed him into football after a freak accident brought a swift end to his interest in ice hockey. “I come from a family of goalkeepers,” Dubravka, who once had a poster of his opposite number this weekend, Petr Cech, on his bedroom wall, explained. “My father was a goalkeeper, my grandfather was a goalkeeper also, but I wanted to play in a different position at first. I liked to play football with my feet, but I don’t know, things happen, it was probably my destiny. Martin Dubravka thanks his grandmother for introducing him to fooball Credit: Getty Images “I was really small when I was young, probably the smallest in my class and my mum said: “why do you want to be a goalkeeper?” but things happen for a reason. “The first person to bring me to football was my grandmother. We were really close, but I was hyper active as a child. I don’t think I stopped talking. I drove her mad one day, bouncing around her apartment, leaping from sofa to sofa. I don’t think she could take anymore. “I was too active, I had too much energy, it had to be burned off. She said “you need to go and do something outside. It was a small city, she knew some of the coaches and even though I was too young to play with that age group, she insisted. “I didn’t always listen when I was younger. I might have gone into ice hockey, but when I was five years old, I hurt myself really badly. It was a family BBQ and I was chopping some wood with a machete. My parents were saying, stop that, stop that, you are going to hurt yourself, but…. I put it in my leg. My parents had told me 100 times. It was a bad injury and I still have a big scar. “If it was a few millimetres higher the doctors said I would have had trouble walking and there would have been no chance of me becoming a goalkeeper. I was unlucky, but lucky at the same time. You know, maybe this was meant to be. Mike Ashley to renew efforts to sell Newcastle “I probably would never had played football. The thing is, I could not skate for a while, so I played football instead.” It has not just been Dubravka’s ability as a goalkeeper that has made a difference, it is, according to Benitez “the way he communicates with the defenders” that is so important. Even on his debut against Manchester United, Dubravka was confident and outspoken enough to cajole and guide those in front of him, something he learned from his idol, Cech. Dubravka speaks English fluently, language skills picked up while playing for Esbjerg in Denmark and the chatter that once drove his grandmother to distraction is now put to better use. “I don’t think you have to be crazy to be a goalkeeper, I don’t do anything that is not natural for me,” he added. “I’m not aggressive, but I have a lot of energy. I talk a lot, I always try to speak to my defenders, I think that is the way it should be. “I don’t think they get annoyed… they are glad I say things to them. If I don’t speak to them, they look at me like something is wrong. I guess that is what they expect from me. As I said, I was hyperactive as a child….” Newcastle will, if Benitez has his way, be extremely active in the transfer market again this summer, but the Spaniard will not be looking for another goalkeeper. That position has already been filled.
Exclusive Martin Dubravka interview: From hyperactive ice-hockey goalkeeper to Newcastle cult hero - via a freak machete injury
Martin Dubravka was hyperactive as a child, a tiny tornado of pent up energy and constant chatter - a small boy who made a lot of noise. Other than his height, not much has changed. You may not have heard much of Dubravka - that he has been a revelation on Tyneside, that he is yet to concede a goal at St James’ Park and has, without any real credit, been Newcastle United’s best signing of the season. Dubravka was January’s mystery man, a 6ft 3in Slovakian signed, initially on loan, without fanfare. He had impressed against both England and Scotland in the World Cup qualifying campaign, but still flew in under the radar. When he signed from Sparta Prague, few understood why Rafa Benitez had made him a priority target. He already had two senior goalkeepers, Rob Elliot and Karl Darlow jostling for places in his first XI, as well as England Under-19 World Cup winner Freddie Woodman waiting behind them. Indeed, it was Benitez’s obsession with signing another goalkeeper that caused friction with those above him in the summer. Men in suits, without a coaching badge between them, still felt they were justified in questioning his judgement filling one of the team’s most important positions. Martin Dubravka put in a match-winning performance in his first game for Newcastle Credit: Getty Images Dubravka knows nothing about that six-month power struggle, but he is the reason Benitez has won the argument. Since making his debut in a win over Manchester United, Newcastle have won four, drawn one and lost only once, away to Liverpool, to move well clear of relegation danger. A jittery defence has been becalmed by his sizeable presence, to the extent that tomorrow's meeting with Arsenal is now blissfully stress-free. “When I signed in January, I didn’t think for one second that I was joining a club that would be relegated,” said Dubravka, who, along with his partner Lucia, has already fallen in love with the city and is desperate to make his loan move permanent. “I was joining a club with a huge history and crazy fans, as soon as I got here I knew we would not go down. When you beat Manchester United in your first game, I knew we would do everything we needed to stay up. Martin Dubravka says he wants to take Newcastle into Europe Credit: Reuters “This a club that deserves to be higher, to be in Europe again, but we have to take small steps. We need the manager to stay, he is the boss, he is the most important person. The manager and the owner, they have to work together and get Newcastle back to the level they should be at. “I’m desperate to stay here, I know that already. The fans, they have been amazing, everywhere we go, they stop and talk. This is a proper football city, I love that, you feel it as soon as you get here.” At the age of 29, Dubravka is entering his prime as a goalkeeper, but he retains many of the same traits that led to his grandmother, driven to breaking point in a small apartment in Zilina, pushed him into football after a freak accident brought a swift end to his interest in ice hockey. “I come from a family of goalkeepers,” Dubravka, who once had a poster of his opposite number this weekend, Petr Cech, on his bedroom wall, explained. “My father was a goalkeeper, my grandfather was a goalkeeper also, but I wanted to play in a different position at first. I liked to play football with my feet, but I don’t know, things happen, it was probably my destiny. Martin Dubravka thanks his grandmother for introducing him to fooball Credit: Getty Images “I was really small when I was young, probably the smallest in my class and my mum said: “why do you want to be a goalkeeper?” but things happen for a reason. “The first person to bring me to football was my grandmother. We were really close, but I was hyper active as a child. I don’t think I stopped talking. I drove her mad one day, bouncing around her apartment, leaping from sofa to sofa. I don’t think she could take anymore. “I was too active, I had too much energy, it had to be burned off. She said “you need to go and do something outside. It was a small city, she knew some of the coaches and even though I was too young to play with that age group, she insisted. “I didn’t always listen when I was younger. I might have gone into ice hockey, but when I was five years old, I hurt myself really badly. It was a family BBQ and I was chopping some wood with a machete. My parents were saying, stop that, stop that, you are going to hurt yourself, but…. I put it in my leg. My parents had told me 100 times. It was a bad injury and I still have a big scar. “If it was a few millimetres higher the doctors said I would have had trouble walking and there would have been no chance of me becoming a goalkeeper. I was unlucky, but lucky at the same time. You know, maybe this was meant to be. Mike Ashley to renew efforts to sell Newcastle “I probably would never had played football. The thing is, I could not skate for a while, so I played football instead.” It has not just been Dubravka’s ability as a goalkeeper that has made a difference, it is, according to Benitez “the way he communicates with the defenders” that is so important. Even on his debut against Manchester United, Dubravka was confident and outspoken enough to cajole and guide those in front of him, something he learned from his idol, Cech. Dubravka speaks English fluently, language skills picked up while playing for Esbjerg in Denmark and the chatter that once drove his grandmother to distraction is now put to better use. “I don’t think you have to be crazy to be a goalkeeper, I don’t do anything that is not natural for me,” he added. “I’m not aggressive, but I have a lot of energy. I talk a lot, I always try to speak to my defenders, I think that is the way it should be. “I don’t think they get annoyed… they are glad I say things to them. If I don’t speak to them, they look at me like something is wrong. I guess that is what they expect from me. As I said, I was hyperactive as a child….” Newcastle will, if Benitez has his way, be extremely active in the transfer market again this summer, but the Spaniard will not be looking for another goalkeeper. That position has already been filled.
Martin Dubravka was hyperactive as a child, a tiny tornado of pent up energy and constant chatter - a small boy who made a lot of noise. Other than his height, not much has changed. You may not have heard much of Dubravka - that he has been a revelation on Tyneside, that he is yet to concede a goal at St James’ Park and has, without any real credit, been Newcastle United’s best signing of the season. Dubravka was January’s mystery man, a 6ft 3in Slovakian signed, initially on loan, without fanfare. He had impressed against both England and Scotland in the World Cup qualifying campaign, but still flew in under the radar. When he signed from Sparta Prague, few understood why Rafa Benitez had made him a priority target. He already had two senior goalkeepers, Rob Elliot and Karl Darlow jostling for places in his first XI, as well as England Under-19 World Cup winner Freddie Woodman waiting behind them. Indeed, it was Benitez’s obsession with signing another goalkeeper that caused friction with those above him in the summer. Men in suits, without a coaching badge between them, still felt they were justified in questioning his judgement filling one of the team’s most important positions. Martin Dubravka put in a match-winning performance in his first game for Newcastle Credit: Getty Images Dubravka knows nothing about that six-month power struggle, but he is the reason Benitez has won the argument. Since making his debut in a win over Manchester United, Newcastle have won four, drawn one and lost only once, away to Liverpool, to move well clear of relegation danger. A jittery defence has been becalmed by his sizeable presence, to the extent that tomorrow's meeting with Arsenal is now blissfully stress-free. “When I signed in January, I didn’t think for one second that I was joining a club that would be relegated,” said Dubravka, who, along with his partner Lucia, has already fallen in love with the city and is desperate to make his loan move permanent. “I was joining a club with a huge history and crazy fans, as soon as I got here I knew we would not go down. When you beat Manchester United in your first game, I knew we would do everything we needed to stay up. Martin Dubravka says he wants to take Newcastle into Europe Credit: Reuters “This a club that deserves to be higher, to be in Europe again, but we have to take small steps. We need the manager to stay, he is the boss, he is the most important person. The manager and the owner, they have to work together and get Newcastle back to the level they should be at. “I’m desperate to stay here, I know that already. The fans, they have been amazing, everywhere we go, they stop and talk. This is a proper football city, I love that, you feel it as soon as you get here.” At the age of 29, Dubravka is entering his prime as a goalkeeper, but he retains many of the same traits that led to his grandmother, driven to breaking point in a small apartment in Zilina, pushed him into football after a freak accident brought a swift end to his interest in ice hockey. “I come from a family of goalkeepers,” Dubravka, who once had a poster of his opposite number this weekend, Petr Cech, on his bedroom wall, explained. “My father was a goalkeeper, my grandfather was a goalkeeper also, but I wanted to play in a different position at first. I liked to play football with my feet, but I don’t know, things happen, it was probably my destiny. Martin Dubravka thanks his grandmother for introducing him to fooball Credit: Getty Images “I was really small when I was young, probably the smallest in my class and my mum said: “why do you want to be a goalkeeper?” but things happen for a reason. “The first person to bring me to football was my grandmother. We were really close, but I was hyper active as a child. I don’t think I stopped talking. I drove her mad one day, bouncing around her apartment, leaping from sofa to sofa. I don’t think she could take anymore. “I was too active, I had too much energy, it had to be burned off. She said “you need to go and do something outside. It was a small city, she knew some of the coaches and even though I was too young to play with that age group, she insisted. “I didn’t always listen when I was younger. I might have gone into ice hockey, but when I was five years old, I hurt myself really badly. It was a family BBQ and I was chopping some wood with a machete. My parents were saying, stop that, stop that, you are going to hurt yourself, but…. I put it in my leg. My parents had told me 100 times. It was a bad injury and I still have a big scar. “If it was a few millimetres higher the doctors said I would have had trouble walking and there would have been no chance of me becoming a goalkeeper. I was unlucky, but lucky at the same time. You know, maybe this was meant to be. Mike Ashley to renew efforts to sell Newcastle “I probably would never had played football. The thing is, I could not skate for a while, so I played football instead.” It has not just been Dubravka’s ability as a goalkeeper that has made a difference, it is, according to Benitez “the way he communicates with the defenders” that is so important. Even on his debut against Manchester United, Dubravka was confident and outspoken enough to cajole and guide those in front of him, something he learned from his idol, Cech. Dubravka speaks English fluently, language skills picked up while playing for Esbjerg in Denmark and the chatter that once drove his grandmother to distraction is now put to better use. “I don’t think you have to be crazy to be a goalkeeper, I don’t do anything that is not natural for me,” he added. “I’m not aggressive, but I have a lot of energy. I talk a lot, I always try to speak to my defenders, I think that is the way it should be. “I don’t think they get annoyed… they are glad I say things to them. If I don’t speak to them, they look at me like something is wrong. I guess that is what they expect from me. As I said, I was hyperactive as a child….” Newcastle will, if Benitez has his way, be extremely active in the transfer market again this summer, but the Spaniard will not be looking for another goalkeeper. That position has already been filled.
Exclusive Martin Dubravka interview: From hyperactive ice-hockey goalkeeper to Newcastle cult hero - via a freak machete injury
Martin Dubravka was hyperactive as a child, a tiny tornado of pent up energy and constant chatter - a small boy who made a lot of noise. Other than his height, not much has changed. You may not have heard much of Dubravka - that he has been a revelation on Tyneside, that he is yet to concede a goal at St James’ Park and has, without any real credit, been Newcastle United’s best signing of the season. Dubravka was January’s mystery man, a 6ft 3in Slovakian signed, initially on loan, without fanfare. He had impressed against both England and Scotland in the World Cup qualifying campaign, but still flew in under the radar. When he signed from Sparta Prague, few understood why Rafa Benitez had made him a priority target. He already had two senior goalkeepers, Rob Elliot and Karl Darlow jostling for places in his first XI, as well as England Under-19 World Cup winner Freddie Woodman waiting behind them. Indeed, it was Benitez’s obsession with signing another goalkeeper that caused friction with those above him in the summer. Men in suits, without a coaching badge between them, still felt they were justified in questioning his judgement filling one of the team’s most important positions. Martin Dubravka put in a match-winning performance in his first game for Newcastle Credit: Getty Images Dubravka knows nothing about that six-month power struggle, but he is the reason Benitez has won the argument. Since making his debut in a win over Manchester United, Newcastle have won four, drawn one and lost only once, away to Liverpool, to move well clear of relegation danger. A jittery defence has been becalmed by his sizeable presence, to the extent that tomorrow's meeting with Arsenal is now blissfully stress-free. “When I signed in January, I didn’t think for one second that I was joining a club that would be relegated,” said Dubravka, who, along with his partner Lucia, has already fallen in love with the city and is desperate to make his loan move permanent. “I was joining a club with a huge history and crazy fans, as soon as I got here I knew we would not go down. When you beat Manchester United in your first game, I knew we would do everything we needed to stay up. Martin Dubravka says he wants to take Newcastle into Europe Credit: Reuters “This a club that deserves to be higher, to be in Europe again, but we have to take small steps. We need the manager to stay, he is the boss, he is the most important person. The manager and the owner, they have to work together and get Newcastle back to the level they should be at. “I’m desperate to stay here, I know that already. The fans, they have been amazing, everywhere we go, they stop and talk. This is a proper football city, I love that, you feel it as soon as you get here.” At the age of 29, Dubravka is entering his prime as a goalkeeper, but he retains many of the same traits that led to his grandmother, driven to breaking point in a small apartment in Zilina, pushed him into football after a freak accident brought a swift end to his interest in ice hockey. “I come from a family of goalkeepers,” Dubravka, who once had a poster of his opposite number this weekend, Petr Cech, on his bedroom wall, explained. “My father was a goalkeeper, my grandfather was a goalkeeper also, but I wanted to play in a different position at first. I liked to play football with my feet, but I don’t know, things happen, it was probably my destiny. Martin Dubravka thanks his grandmother for introducing him to fooball Credit: Getty Images “I was really small when I was young, probably the smallest in my class and my mum said: “why do you want to be a goalkeeper?” but things happen for a reason. “The first person to bring me to football was my grandmother. We were really close, but I was hyper active as a child. I don’t think I stopped talking. I drove her mad one day, bouncing around her apartment, leaping from sofa to sofa. I don’t think she could take anymore. “I was too active, I had too much energy, it had to be burned off. She said “you need to go and do something outside. It was a small city, she knew some of the coaches and even though I was too young to play with that age group, she insisted. “I didn’t always listen when I was younger. I might have gone into ice hockey, but when I was five years old, I hurt myself really badly. It was a family BBQ and I was chopping some wood with a machete. My parents were saying, stop that, stop that, you are going to hurt yourself, but…. I put it in my leg. My parents had told me 100 times. It was a bad injury and I still have a big scar. “If it was a few millimetres higher the doctors said I would have had trouble walking and there would have been no chance of me becoming a goalkeeper. I was unlucky, but lucky at the same time. You know, maybe this was meant to be. Mike Ashley to renew efforts to sell Newcastle “I probably would never had played football. The thing is, I could not skate for a while, so I played football instead.” It has not just been Dubravka’s ability as a goalkeeper that has made a difference, it is, according to Benitez “the way he communicates with the defenders” that is so important. Even on his debut against Manchester United, Dubravka was confident and outspoken enough to cajole and guide those in front of him, something he learned from his idol, Cech. Dubravka speaks English fluently, language skills picked up while playing for Esbjerg in Denmark and the chatter that once drove his grandmother to distraction is now put to better use. “I don’t think you have to be crazy to be a goalkeeper, I don’t do anything that is not natural for me,” he added. “I’m not aggressive, but I have a lot of energy. I talk a lot, I always try to speak to my defenders, I think that is the way it should be. “I don’t think they get annoyed… they are glad I say things to them. If I don’t speak to them, they look at me like something is wrong. I guess that is what they expect from me. As I said, I was hyperactive as a child….” Newcastle will, if Benitez has his way, be extremely active in the transfer market again this summer, but the Spaniard will not be looking for another goalkeeper. That position has already been filled.
<p>Lorenzo Brown and Kaza Keane going through stretching exercises. 905’s point guards have had a busy season, with Brown playing 14 games for the parent club while Keane travelled to Nassau, Bahamas in February to suit up for Team Canada at the FIBA World Cup qualifying. (Photo courtesy: Trung Ho) </p>
Raps905

Lorenzo Brown and Kaza Keane going through stretching exercises. 905’s point guards have had a busy season, with Brown playing 14 games for the parent club while Keane travelled to Nassau, Bahamas in February to suit up for Team Canada at the FIBA World Cup qualifying. (Photo courtesy: Trung Ho)

Football - Serbia v Scotland - 2014 World Cup Qualifying European Zone - Group A - Karadorde Stadium, Novi Sad, Serbia - 26/3/13. Matija Nastasic - Serbia Mandatory Credit: Action Images / Peter Cziborra
Serbia v Scotland - 2014 World Cup Qualifying European Zone - Group A
Football - Serbia v Scotland - 2014 World Cup Qualifying European Zone - Group A - Karadorde Stadium, Novi Sad, Serbia - 26/3/13. Matija Nastasic - Serbia Mandatory Credit: Action Images / Peter Cziborra
England Women move top of World Cup qualifying group after beating Bosnia and Herzegovina
England Women move top of World Cup qualifying group after beating Bosnia and Herzegovina
England Women move top of World Cup qualifying group after beating Bosnia and Herzegovina
England Women move top of World Cup qualifying group after beating Bosnia and Herzegovina
England Women move top of World Cup qualifying group after beating Bosnia and Herzegovina
England Women move top of World Cup qualifying group after beating Bosnia and Herzegovina
England Women move top of World Cup qualifying group after beating Bosnia and Herzegovina
England Women move top of World Cup qualifying group after beating Bosnia and Herzegovina
England Women move top of World Cup qualifying group after beating Bosnia and Herzegovina
The World Cup draw is done and dusted with England drawn against Belgium, Panama and Tunisia. Here is your guide to the eight groups for the 2018 World Cup: Group A RUSSIA 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&#39;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. SAUDI ARABIA Preparations for Russia have been far from ideal since qualifying for a fifth World Cup, with two coaches fired. 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&#39;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 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&#39;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&#39;s tactics have been successful, though. URUGUAY Only Brazil had a more solid performance in South American qualifying than Uruguay. Though some of the team&#39;s stars started fading, new players have emerged for the World Cup. 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&#39;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&#39;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. Group B PORTUGAL Cristiano Ronaldo&#39;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. Portugal will take the large part of that experienced squad to Russia. Pepe is a physical enforcer in defense, Joao Moutinho adds passing skills to its midfield, and newcomer Andre Silva can help Ronaldo in attack. 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. Can Cristiano Ronaldo guide Portugal to World Cup glory? Credit: AP SPAIN 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. With a surplus of talented midfielders and forwards, David De Gea in goal, and Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique anchoring the defence, the one possible doubt may be who spears the Spaniards&#39; attack. Alvaro Morata is in line to be Spain&#39;s striker after impressing at Chelsea. His only potential challenger is the man he replaced in London, Diego Costa, who will finally be back to playing after several months of inactivity when Atletico Madrid&#39;s transfer ban finishes at the start of January. Key player: Andres Iniesta (Barcelona) - Scored the sole goal of the 2010 World Cup final but will be 34 at next year&#39;s tournament. Coach: Julen Lopetegui - The 51-year-old former goalkeeper steered Spain through an undefeated qualifying campaign of nine wins and just one draw, including a 3-0 victory over Italy. Andres Iniesta will be 34 by the time of the 2018 World Cup Credit: AP MOROCCO It has taken 20 years to get back to the World Cup. The North African team features several promising young talents including Ajax midfielder Hakim Ziyech and Younes Belhanda. Ziyech returned to the squad after making peace with coach Herve Renard. 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. IRAN 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&#39;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 &quot;not go to Russia as tourists.&quot; 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. Group C FRANCE 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&#39;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. Didier Deschamps has some talented players at his disposal Credit: AP AUSTRALIA Qualified for a fourth consecutive World Cup, but had to take the long route to Russia after failing to secure direct entry in Asia because of a slightly inferior goal difference to Saudi Arabia. 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. PERU Chile, Ecuador and even Paraguay were considered favorites for South America&#39;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&#39;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, but is now a doubt for Russia while 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 One of the fastest-improving teams in Europe, and a country most will want to avoid coming out of the third-seeded pot. Denmark haven&#39;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&#39;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&#39;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. Christian Eriksen has the ability to scare most opponents Credit: Getty Images Group D ARGENTINA 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&#39;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. Lionel Messi could cap a brilliant career at the World Cup Credit: AP ICELAND With just 330,000 people, Iceland are the smallest country ever at the World Cup. The city of Moscow alone outnumbers Iceland&#39;s entire population 40 times over, but this is a team of giant-killers. Last year&#39;s run to the Euro 2016 quarter-finals, knocking out England on a memorable night in Nice, showed the talent and determination in Iceland&#39;s team. Qualifying for the World Cup ahead of Croatia and Ukraine proved last year wasn&#39;t a one-off. Expecting more success in Russia might be optimistic, but with Iceland&#39;s passionate fans and their &quot;thunderclap&quot; 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&#39;t most teams. Took sole charge after co-coach Lars Lagerback left last year. CROATIA 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. NIGERIA The first team from Africa to qualify, and convincingly. They won a group that contained current African champion Cameroon, former champion Zambia, and Algeria. 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. John Obi Mikel is a stabilising force for Nigeria Credit: Getty Images Group E BRAZIL 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 Saint-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&#39;s muscular 2014 World Cup team that depended heavily on Neymar, Brazil are now about organisation and flair. SWITZERLAND Now is the time for Switzerland to be more than the sum of its talented parts. The quarter-finals are a realistic goal. Don&#39;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&#39;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&#39;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. COSTA RICA 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&#39;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&#39;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 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. Group F GERMANY 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&#39;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&#39;s assistant during the 2006 World Cup, Low took over after that tournament and has overseen steady progress culminating in the 2014 title. MEXICO 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&#39;s Gold Cup after being sent off at the Confederations Cup. SWEDEN 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&#39;s best player: &quot;We are Zweden.&quot; The shadow of Zlatan Ibrahimovic hangs over the national team. The Manchester United striker retired from international soccer after last year&#39;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&#39;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. SOUTH KOREA Every World Cup since 1986 has featured South Korea. This time looks likelier to be a repeat of 2014&#39;s meek group-stage exit than 2002&#39;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&#39;s failure to beat Iran. Much will depend on a trio of English Premier League players - Tottenham&#39;s Son Heung-min, Swansea&#39;s Ki Sung-yeung and Crystal Palace&#39;s Lee Chung-yong - 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&#39;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. Group G BELGIUM It&#39;s time to deliver for a team featuring such exceptional talent. But this 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. There are issues in defence. Central defender Vincent Kompany is as brittle as he can be brilliant and there are very few credible back-ups available for the likes of Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen. 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. PANAMA 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&#39;s turn. TUNISIA 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&#39;s World Cup qualifying campaign. ENGLAND Expectations in England have plummeted because of the team&#39;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&#39;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. A young squad will be taken to Russia, so getting out of the group is as much as can realistically be hoped for. 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&#39;t afraid to make bold decisions. Harry Kane is the man tasked with spearheading England&#39;s attack Credit: Getty Images Group H POLAND It&#39;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&#39;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 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. Sadio Mane is Senegal&#39;s talisman Credit: REUTERS COLOMBIA Reached the quarter-finals four years ago in Brazil and they have the talent to do it again. This will be Colombia&#39;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. JAPAN 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.
World Cup 2018 groups: Your complete guide to the teams
The World Cup draw is done and dusted with England drawn against Belgium, Panama and Tunisia. Here is your guide to the eight groups for the 2018 World Cup: Group A RUSSIA 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. SAUDI ARABIA Preparations for Russia have been far from ideal since qualifying for a fifth World Cup, with two coaches fired. 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 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. URUGUAY Only Brazil had a more solid performance in South American qualifying than Uruguay. Though some of the team's stars started fading, new players have emerged for the World Cup. 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. Group B PORTUGAL 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. Portugal will take the large part of that experienced squad to Russia. Pepe is a physical enforcer in defense, Joao Moutinho adds passing skills to its midfield, and newcomer Andre Silva can help Ronaldo in attack. 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. Can Cristiano Ronaldo guide Portugal to World Cup glory? Credit: AP SPAIN 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. With a surplus of talented midfielders and forwards, David De Gea in goal, and Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique anchoring the defence, the one possible doubt may be who spears the Spaniards' attack. Alvaro Morata is in line to be Spain's striker after impressing at Chelsea. His only potential challenger is the man he replaced in London, Diego Costa, who will finally be back to playing after several months of inactivity when Atletico Madrid's transfer ban finishes at the start of January. 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: Julen Lopetegui - The 51-year-old former goalkeeper steered Spain through an undefeated qualifying campaign of nine wins and just one draw, including a 3-0 victory over Italy. Andres Iniesta will be 34 by the time of the 2018 World Cup Credit: AP MOROCCO It has taken 20 years to get back to the World Cup. The North African team features several promising young talents including Ajax midfielder Hakim Ziyech and Younes Belhanda. Ziyech returned to the squad after making peace with coach Herve Renard. 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. IRAN 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. Group C FRANCE 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. Didier Deschamps has some talented players at his disposal Credit: AP AUSTRALIA Qualified for a fourth consecutive World Cup, but had to take the long route to Russia after failing to secure direct entry in Asia because of a slightly inferior goal difference to Saudi Arabia. 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. PERU 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, but is now a doubt for Russia while 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 One of the fastest-improving teams in Europe, and a country most will want to avoid coming out of the third-seeded pot. 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. Christian Eriksen has the ability to scare most opponents Credit: Getty Images Group D ARGENTINA 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. Lionel Messi could cap a brilliant career at the World Cup Credit: AP ICELAND With just 330,000 people, Iceland are the smallest country ever at the 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 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. NIGERIA The first team from Africa to qualify, and convincingly. They won a group that contained current African champion Cameroon, former champion Zambia, and Algeria. 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. John Obi Mikel is a stabilising force for Nigeria Credit: Getty Images Group E BRAZIL 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 Saint-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. SWITZERLAND 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. COSTA RICA 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 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. Group F GERMANY 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 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 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. SOUTH KOREA 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 trio of English Premier League players - Tottenham's Son Heung-min, Swansea's Ki Sung-yeung and Crystal Palace's Lee Chung-yong - 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. Group G BELGIUM It's time to deliver for a team featuring such exceptional talent. But this 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. There are issues in defence. Central defender Vincent Kompany is as brittle as he can be brilliant and there are very few credible back-ups available for the likes of Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen. 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. PANAMA 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. TUNISIA 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. ENGLAND 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. A young squad will be taken to Russia, so getting out of the group is as much as can realistically be hoped for. 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. Harry Kane is the man tasked with spearheading England's attack Credit: Getty Images Group H POLAND 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 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. Sadio Mane is Senegal's talisman Credit: REUTERS COLOMBIA Reached the quarter-finals four years ago in Brazil and they have the talent to do it again. 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. JAPAN 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.
The World Cup draw is done and dusted with England drawn against Belgium, Panama and Tunisia. Here is your guide to the eight groups for the 2018 World Cup: Group A RUSSIA 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&#39;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. SAUDI ARABIA Preparations for Russia have been far from ideal since qualifying for a fifth World Cup, with two coaches fired. 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&#39;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 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&#39;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&#39;s tactics have been successful, though. URUGUAY Only Brazil had a more solid performance in South American qualifying than Uruguay. Though some of the team&#39;s stars started fading, new players have emerged for the World Cup. 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&#39;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&#39;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. Group B PORTUGAL Cristiano Ronaldo&#39;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. Portugal will take the large part of that experienced squad to Russia. Pepe is a physical enforcer in defense, Joao Moutinho adds passing skills to its midfield, and newcomer Andre Silva can help Ronaldo in attack. 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. Can Cristiano Ronaldo guide Portugal to World Cup glory? Credit: AP SPAIN 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. With a surplus of talented midfielders and forwards, David De Gea in goal, and Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique anchoring the defence, the one possible doubt may be who spears the Spaniards&#39; attack. Alvaro Morata is in line to be Spain&#39;s striker after impressing at Chelsea. His only potential challenger is the man he replaced in London, Diego Costa, who will finally be back to playing after several months of inactivity when Atletico Madrid&#39;s transfer ban finishes at the start of January. Key player: Andres Iniesta (Barcelona) - Scored the sole goal of the 2010 World Cup final but will be 34 at next year&#39;s tournament. Coach: Julen Lopetegui - The 51-year-old former goalkeeper steered Spain through an undefeated qualifying campaign of nine wins and just one draw, including a 3-0 victory over Italy. Andres Iniesta will be 34 by the time of the 2018 World Cup Credit: AP MOROCCO It has taken 20 years to get back to the World Cup. The North African team features several promising young talents including Ajax midfielder Hakim Ziyech and Younes Belhanda. Ziyech returned to the squad after making peace with coach Herve Renard. 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. IRAN 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&#39;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 &quot;not go to Russia as tourists.&quot; 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. Group C FRANCE 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&#39;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. Didier Deschamps has some talented players at his disposal Credit: AP AUSTRALIA Qualified for a fourth consecutive World Cup, but had to take the long route to Russia after failing to secure direct entry in Asia because of a slightly inferior goal difference to Saudi Arabia. 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. PERU Chile, Ecuador and even Paraguay were considered favorites for South America&#39;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&#39;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, but is now a doubt for Russia while 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 One of the fastest-improving teams in Europe, and a country most will want to avoid coming out of the third-seeded pot. Denmark haven&#39;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&#39;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&#39;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. Christian Eriksen has the ability to scare most opponents Credit: Getty Images Group D ARGENTINA 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&#39;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. Lionel Messi could cap a brilliant career at the World Cup Credit: AP ICELAND With just 330,000 people, Iceland are the smallest country ever at the World Cup. The city of Moscow alone outnumbers Iceland&#39;s entire population 40 times over, but this is a team of giant-killers. Last year&#39;s run to the Euro 2016 quarter-finals, knocking out England on a memorable night in Nice, showed the talent and determination in Iceland&#39;s team. Qualifying for the World Cup ahead of Croatia and Ukraine proved last year wasn&#39;t a one-off. Expecting more success in Russia might be optimistic, but with Iceland&#39;s passionate fans and their &quot;thunderclap&quot; 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&#39;t most teams. Took sole charge after co-coach Lars Lagerback left last year. CROATIA 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. NIGERIA The first team from Africa to qualify, and convincingly. They won a group that contained current African champion Cameroon, former champion Zambia, and Algeria. 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. John Obi Mikel is a stabilising force for Nigeria Credit: Getty Images Group E BRAZIL 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 Saint-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&#39;s muscular 2014 World Cup team that depended heavily on Neymar, Brazil are now about organisation and flair. SWITZERLAND Now is the time for Switzerland to be more than the sum of its talented parts. The quarter-finals are a realistic goal. Don&#39;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&#39;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&#39;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. COSTA RICA 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&#39;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&#39;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 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. Group F GERMANY 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&#39;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&#39;s assistant during the 2006 World Cup, Low took over after that tournament and has overseen steady progress culminating in the 2014 title. MEXICO 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&#39;s Gold Cup after being sent off at the Confederations Cup. SWEDEN 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&#39;s best player: &quot;We are Zweden.&quot; The shadow of Zlatan Ibrahimovic hangs over the national team. The Manchester United striker retired from international soccer after last year&#39;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&#39;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. SOUTH KOREA Every World Cup since 1986 has featured South Korea. This time looks likelier to be a repeat of 2014&#39;s meek group-stage exit than 2002&#39;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&#39;s failure to beat Iran. Much will depend on a trio of English Premier League players - Tottenham&#39;s Son Heung-min, Swansea&#39;s Ki Sung-yeung and Crystal Palace&#39;s Lee Chung-yong - 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&#39;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. Group G BELGIUM It&#39;s time to deliver for a team featuring such exceptional talent. But this 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. There are issues in defence. Central defender Vincent Kompany is as brittle as he can be brilliant and there are very few credible back-ups available for the likes of Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen. 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. PANAMA 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&#39;s turn. TUNISIA 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&#39;s World Cup qualifying campaign. ENGLAND Expectations in England have plummeted because of the team&#39;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&#39;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. A young squad will be taken to Russia, so getting out of the group is as much as can realistically be hoped for. 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&#39;t afraid to make bold decisions. Harry Kane is the man tasked with spearheading England&#39;s attack Credit: Getty Images Group H POLAND It&#39;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&#39;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 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. Sadio Mane is Senegal&#39;s talisman Credit: REUTERS COLOMBIA Reached the quarter-finals four years ago in Brazil and they have the talent to do it again. This will be Colombia&#39;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. JAPAN 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.
World Cup 2018 groups: Your complete guide to the teams
The World Cup draw is done and dusted with England drawn against Belgium, Panama and Tunisia. Here is your guide to the eight groups for the 2018 World Cup: Group A RUSSIA 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. SAUDI ARABIA Preparations for Russia have been far from ideal since qualifying for a fifth World Cup, with two coaches fired. 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 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. URUGUAY Only Brazil had a more solid performance in South American qualifying than Uruguay. Though some of the team's stars started fading, new players have emerged for the World Cup. 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. Group B PORTUGAL 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. Portugal will take the large part of that experienced squad to Russia. Pepe is a physical enforcer in defense, Joao Moutinho adds passing skills to its midfield, and newcomer Andre Silva can help Ronaldo in attack. 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. Can Cristiano Ronaldo guide Portugal to World Cup glory? Credit: AP SPAIN 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. With a surplus of talented midfielders and forwards, David De Gea in goal, and Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique anchoring the defence, the one possible doubt may be who spears the Spaniards' attack. Alvaro Morata is in line to be Spain's striker after impressing at Chelsea. His only potential challenger is the man he replaced in London, Diego Costa, who will finally be back to playing after several months of inactivity when Atletico Madrid's transfer ban finishes at the start of January. 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: Julen Lopetegui - The 51-year-old former goalkeeper steered Spain through an undefeated qualifying campaign of nine wins and just one draw, including a 3-0 victory over Italy. Andres Iniesta will be 34 by the time of the 2018 World Cup Credit: AP MOROCCO It has taken 20 years to get back to the World Cup. The North African team features several promising young talents including Ajax midfielder Hakim Ziyech and Younes Belhanda. Ziyech returned to the squad after making peace with coach Herve Renard. 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. IRAN 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. Group C FRANCE 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. Didier Deschamps has some talented players at his disposal Credit: AP AUSTRALIA Qualified for a fourth consecutive World Cup, but had to take the long route to Russia after failing to secure direct entry in Asia because of a slightly inferior goal difference to Saudi Arabia. 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. PERU 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, but is now a doubt for Russia while 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 One of the fastest-improving teams in Europe, and a country most will want to avoid coming out of the third-seeded pot. 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. Christian Eriksen has the ability to scare most opponents Credit: Getty Images Group D ARGENTINA 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. Lionel Messi could cap a brilliant career at the World Cup Credit: AP ICELAND With just 330,000 people, Iceland are the smallest country ever at the 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 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. NIGERIA The first team from Africa to qualify, and convincingly. They won a group that contained current African champion Cameroon, former champion Zambia, and Algeria. 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. John Obi Mikel is a stabilising force for Nigeria Credit: Getty Images Group E BRAZIL 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 Saint-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. SWITZERLAND 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. COSTA RICA 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 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. Group F GERMANY 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 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 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. SOUTH KOREA 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 trio of English Premier League players - Tottenham's Son Heung-min, Swansea's Ki Sung-yeung and Crystal Palace's Lee Chung-yong - 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. Group G BELGIUM It's time to deliver for a team featuring such exceptional talent. But this 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. There are issues in defence. Central defender Vincent Kompany is as brittle as he can be brilliant and there are very few credible back-ups available for the likes of Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen. 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. PANAMA 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. TUNISIA 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. ENGLAND 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. A young squad will be taken to Russia, so getting out of the group is as much as can realistically be hoped for. 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. Harry Kane is the man tasked with spearheading England's attack Credit: Getty Images Group H POLAND 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 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. Sadio Mane is Senegal's talisman Credit: REUTERS COLOMBIA Reached the quarter-finals four years ago in Brazil and they have the talent to do it again. 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. JAPAN 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.
The World Cup draw is done and dusted with England drawn against Belgium, Panama and Tunisia. Here is your guide to the eight groups for the 2018 World Cup: Group A RUSSIA 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&#39;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. SAUDI ARABIA Preparations for Russia have been far from ideal since qualifying for a fifth World Cup, with two coaches fired. 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&#39;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 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&#39;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&#39;s tactics have been successful, though. URUGUAY Only Brazil had a more solid performance in South American qualifying than Uruguay. Though some of the team&#39;s stars started fading, new players have emerged for the World Cup. 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&#39;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&#39;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. Group B PORTUGAL Cristiano Ronaldo&#39;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. Portugal will take the large part of that experienced squad to Russia. Pepe is a physical enforcer in defense, Joao Moutinho adds passing skills to its midfield, and newcomer Andre Silva can help Ronaldo in attack. 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. Can Cristiano Ronaldo guide Portugal to World Cup glory? Credit: AP SPAIN 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. With a surplus of talented midfielders and forwards, David De Gea in goal, and Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique anchoring the defence, the one possible doubt may be who spears the Spaniards&#39; attack. Alvaro Morata is in line to be Spain&#39;s striker after impressing at Chelsea. His only potential challenger is the man he replaced in London, Diego Costa, who will finally be back to playing after several months of inactivity when Atletico Madrid&#39;s transfer ban finishes at the start of January. Key player: Andres Iniesta (Barcelona) - Scored the sole goal of the 2010 World Cup final but will be 34 at next year&#39;s tournament. Coach: Julen Lopetegui - The 51-year-old former goalkeeper steered Spain through an undefeated qualifying campaign of nine wins and just one draw, including a 3-0 victory over Italy. Andres Iniesta will be 34 by the time of the 2018 World Cup Credit: AP MOROCCO It has taken 20 years to get back to the World Cup. The North African team features several promising young talents including Ajax midfielder Hakim Ziyech and Younes Belhanda. Ziyech returned to the squad after making peace with coach Herve Renard. 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. IRAN 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&#39;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 &quot;not go to Russia as tourists.&quot; 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. Group C FRANCE 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&#39;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. Didier Deschamps has some talented players at his disposal Credit: AP AUSTRALIA Qualified for a fourth consecutive World Cup, but had to take the long route to Russia after failing to secure direct entry in Asia because of a slightly inferior goal difference to Saudi Arabia. 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. PERU Chile, Ecuador and even Paraguay were considered favorites for South America&#39;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&#39;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, but is now a doubt for Russia while 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 One of the fastest-improving teams in Europe, and a country most will want to avoid coming out of the third-seeded pot. Denmark haven&#39;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&#39;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&#39;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. Christian Eriksen has the ability to scare most opponents Credit: Getty Images Group D ARGENTINA 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&#39;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. Lionel Messi could cap a brilliant career at the World Cup Credit: AP ICELAND With just 330,000 people, Iceland are the smallest country ever at the World Cup. The city of Moscow alone outnumbers Iceland&#39;s entire population 40 times over, but this is a team of giant-killers. Last year&#39;s run to the Euro 2016 quarter-finals, knocking out England on a memorable night in Nice, showed the talent and determination in Iceland&#39;s team. Qualifying for the World Cup ahead of Croatia and Ukraine proved last year wasn&#39;t a one-off. Expecting more success in Russia might be optimistic, but with Iceland&#39;s passionate fans and their &quot;thunderclap&quot; 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&#39;t most teams. Took sole charge after co-coach Lars Lagerback left last year. CROATIA 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. NIGERIA The first team from Africa to qualify, and convincingly. They won a group that contained current African champion Cameroon, former champion Zambia, and Algeria. 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. John Obi Mikel is a stabilising force for Nigeria Credit: Getty Images Group E BRAZIL 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 Saint-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&#39;s muscular 2014 World Cup team that depended heavily on Neymar, Brazil are now about organisation and flair. SWITZERLAND Now is the time for Switzerland to be more than the sum of its talented parts. The quarter-finals are a realistic goal. Don&#39;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&#39;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&#39;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. COSTA RICA 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&#39;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&#39;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 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. Group F GERMANY 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&#39;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&#39;s assistant during the 2006 World Cup, Low took over after that tournament and has overseen steady progress culminating in the 2014 title. MEXICO 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&#39;s Gold Cup after being sent off at the Confederations Cup. SWEDEN 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&#39;s best player: &quot;We are Zweden.&quot; The shadow of Zlatan Ibrahimovic hangs over the national team. The Manchester United striker retired from international soccer after last year&#39;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&#39;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. SOUTH KOREA Every World Cup since 1986 has featured South Korea. This time looks likelier to be a repeat of 2014&#39;s meek group-stage exit than 2002&#39;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&#39;s failure to beat Iran. Much will depend on a trio of English Premier League players - Tottenham&#39;s Son Heung-min, Swansea&#39;s Ki Sung-yeung and Crystal Palace&#39;s Lee Chung-yong - 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&#39;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. Group G BELGIUM It&#39;s time to deliver for a team featuring such exceptional talent. But this 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. There are issues in defence. Central defender Vincent Kompany is as brittle as he can be brilliant and there are very few credible back-ups available for the likes of Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen. 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. PANAMA 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&#39;s turn. TUNISIA 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&#39;s World Cup qualifying campaign. ENGLAND Expectations in England have plummeted because of the team&#39;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&#39;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. A young squad will be taken to Russia, so getting out of the group is as much as can realistically be hoped for. 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&#39;t afraid to make bold decisions. Harry Kane is the man tasked with spearheading England&#39;s attack Credit: Getty Images Group H POLAND It&#39;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&#39;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 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. Sadio Mane is Senegal&#39;s talisman Credit: REUTERS COLOMBIA Reached the quarter-finals four years ago in Brazil and they have the talent to do it again. This will be Colombia&#39;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. JAPAN 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.
World Cup 2018 groups: Your complete guide to the teams
The World Cup draw is done and dusted with England drawn against Belgium, Panama and Tunisia. Here is your guide to the eight groups for the 2018 World Cup: Group A RUSSIA 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. SAUDI ARABIA Preparations for Russia have been far from ideal since qualifying for a fifth World Cup, with two coaches fired. 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 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. URUGUAY Only Brazil had a more solid performance in South American qualifying than Uruguay. Though some of the team's stars started fading, new players have emerged for the World Cup. 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. Group B PORTUGAL 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. Portugal will take the large part of that experienced squad to Russia. Pepe is a physical enforcer in defense, Joao Moutinho adds passing skills to its midfield, and newcomer Andre Silva can help Ronaldo in attack. 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. Can Cristiano Ronaldo guide Portugal to World Cup glory? Credit: AP SPAIN 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. With a surplus of talented midfielders and forwards, David De Gea in goal, and Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique anchoring the defence, the one possible doubt may be who spears the Spaniards' attack. Alvaro Morata is in line to be Spain's striker after impressing at Chelsea. His only potential challenger is the man he replaced in London, Diego Costa, who will finally be back to playing after several months of inactivity when Atletico Madrid's transfer ban finishes at the start of January. 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: Julen Lopetegui - The 51-year-old former goalkeeper steered Spain through an undefeated qualifying campaign of nine wins and just one draw, including a 3-0 victory over Italy. Andres Iniesta will be 34 by the time of the 2018 World Cup Credit: AP MOROCCO It has taken 20 years to get back to the World Cup. The North African team features several promising young talents including Ajax midfielder Hakim Ziyech and Younes Belhanda. Ziyech returned to the squad after making peace with coach Herve Renard. 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. IRAN 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. Group C FRANCE 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. Didier Deschamps has some talented players at his disposal Credit: AP AUSTRALIA Qualified for a fourth consecutive World Cup, but had to take the long route to Russia after failing to secure direct entry in Asia because of a slightly inferior goal difference to Saudi Arabia. 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. PERU 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, but is now a doubt for Russia while 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 One of the fastest-improving teams in Europe, and a country most will want to avoid coming out of the third-seeded pot. 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. Christian Eriksen has the ability to scare most opponents Credit: Getty Images Group D ARGENTINA 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. Lionel Messi could cap a brilliant career at the World Cup Credit: AP ICELAND With just 330,000 people, Iceland are the smallest country ever at the 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 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. NIGERIA The first team from Africa to qualify, and convincingly. They won a group that contained current African champion Cameroon, former champion Zambia, and Algeria. 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. John Obi Mikel is a stabilising force for Nigeria Credit: Getty Images Group E BRAZIL 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 Saint-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. SWITZERLAND 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. COSTA RICA 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 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. Group F GERMANY 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 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 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. SOUTH KOREA 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 trio of English Premier League players - Tottenham's Son Heung-min, Swansea's Ki Sung-yeung and Crystal Palace's Lee Chung-yong - 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. Group G BELGIUM It's time to deliver for a team featuring such exceptional talent. But this 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. There are issues in defence. Central defender Vincent Kompany is as brittle as he can be brilliant and there are very few credible back-ups available for the likes of Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen. 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. PANAMA 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. TUNISIA 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. ENGLAND 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. A young squad will be taken to Russia, so getting out of the group is as much as can realistically be hoped for. 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. Harry Kane is the man tasked with spearheading England's attack Credit: Getty Images Group H POLAND 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 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. Sadio Mane is Senegal's talisman Credit: REUTERS COLOMBIA Reached the quarter-finals four years ago in Brazil and they have the talent to do it again. 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. JAPAN 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.
The World Cup draw is done and dusted with England drawn against Belgium, Panama and Tunisia. Here is your guide to the eight groups for the 2018 World Cup: Group A RUSSIA 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&#39;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. SAUDI ARABIA Preparations for Russia have been far from ideal since qualifying for a fifth World Cup, with two coaches fired. 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&#39;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 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&#39;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&#39;s tactics have been successful, though. URUGUAY Only Brazil had a more solid performance in South American qualifying than Uruguay. Though some of the team&#39;s stars started fading, new players have emerged for the World Cup. 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&#39;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&#39;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. Group B PORTUGAL Cristiano Ronaldo&#39;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. Portugal will take the large part of that experienced squad to Russia. Pepe is a physical enforcer in defense, Joao Moutinho adds passing skills to its midfield, and newcomer Andre Silva can help Ronaldo in attack. 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. Can Cristiano Ronaldo guide Portugal to World Cup glory? Credit: AP SPAIN 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. With a surplus of talented midfielders and forwards, David De Gea in goal, and Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique anchoring the defence, the one possible doubt may be who spears the Spaniards&#39; attack. Alvaro Morata is in line to be Spain&#39;s striker after impressing at Chelsea. His only potential challenger is the man he replaced in London, Diego Costa, who will finally be back to playing after several months of inactivity when Atletico Madrid&#39;s transfer ban finishes at the start of January. Key player: Andres Iniesta (Barcelona) - Scored the sole goal of the 2010 World Cup final but will be 34 at next year&#39;s tournament. Coach: Julen Lopetegui - The 51-year-old former goalkeeper steered Spain through an undefeated qualifying campaign of nine wins and just one draw, including a 3-0 victory over Italy. Andres Iniesta will be 34 by the time of the 2018 World Cup Credit: AP MOROCCO It has taken 20 years to get back to the World Cup. The North African team features several promising young talents including Ajax midfielder Hakim Ziyech and Younes Belhanda. Ziyech returned to the squad after making peace with coach Herve Renard. 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. IRAN 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&#39;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 &quot;not go to Russia as tourists.&quot; 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. Group C FRANCE 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&#39;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. Didier Deschamps has some talented players at his disposal Credit: AP AUSTRALIA Qualified for a fourth consecutive World Cup, but had to take the long route to Russia after failing to secure direct entry in Asia because of a slightly inferior goal difference to Saudi Arabia. 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. PERU Chile, Ecuador and even Paraguay were considered favorites for South America&#39;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&#39;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, but is now a doubt for Russia while 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 One of the fastest-improving teams in Europe, and a country most will want to avoid coming out of the third-seeded pot. Denmark haven&#39;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&#39;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&#39;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. Christian Eriksen has the ability to scare most opponents Credit: Getty Images Group D ARGENTINA 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&#39;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. Lionel Messi could cap a brilliant career at the World Cup Credit: AP ICELAND With just 330,000 people, Iceland are the smallest country ever at the World Cup. The city of Moscow alone outnumbers Iceland&#39;s entire population 40 times over, but this is a team of giant-killers. Last year&#39;s run to the Euro 2016 quarter-finals, knocking out England on a memorable night in Nice, showed the talent and determination in Iceland&#39;s team. Qualifying for the World Cup ahead of Croatia and Ukraine proved last year wasn&#39;t a one-off. Expecting more success in Russia might be optimistic, but with Iceland&#39;s passionate fans and their &quot;thunderclap&quot; 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&#39;t most teams. Took sole charge after co-coach Lars Lagerback left last year. CROATIA 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. NIGERIA The first team from Africa to qualify, and convincingly. They won a group that contained current African champion Cameroon, former champion Zambia, and Algeria. 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. John Obi Mikel is a stabilising force for Nigeria Credit: Getty Images Group E BRAZIL 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 Saint-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&#39;s muscular 2014 World Cup team that depended heavily on Neymar, Brazil are now about organisation and flair. SWITZERLAND Now is the time for Switzerland to be more than the sum of its talented parts. The quarter-finals are a realistic goal. Don&#39;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&#39;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&#39;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. COSTA RICA 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&#39;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&#39;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 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. Group F GERMANY 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&#39;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&#39;s assistant during the 2006 World Cup, Low took over after that tournament and has overseen steady progress culminating in the 2014 title. MEXICO 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&#39;s Gold Cup after being sent off at the Confederations Cup. SWEDEN 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&#39;s best player: &quot;We are Zweden.&quot; The shadow of Zlatan Ibrahimovic hangs over the national team. The Manchester United striker retired from international soccer after last year&#39;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&#39;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. SOUTH KOREA Every World Cup since 1986 has featured South Korea. This time looks likelier to be a repeat of 2014&#39;s meek group-stage exit than 2002&#39;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&#39;s failure to beat Iran. Much will depend on a trio of English Premier League players - Tottenham&#39;s Son Heung-min, Swansea&#39;s Ki Sung-yeung and Crystal Palace&#39;s Lee Chung-yong - 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&#39;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. Group G BELGIUM It&#39;s time to deliver for a team featuring such exceptional talent. But this 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. There are issues in defence. Central defender Vincent Kompany is as brittle as he can be brilliant and there are very few credible back-ups available for the likes of Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen. 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. PANAMA 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&#39;s turn. TUNISIA 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&#39;s World Cup qualifying campaign. ENGLAND Expectations in England have plummeted because of the team&#39;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&#39;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. A young squad will be taken to Russia, so getting out of the group is as much as can realistically be hoped for. 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&#39;t afraid to make bold decisions. Harry Kane is the man tasked with spearheading England&#39;s attack Credit: Getty Images Group H POLAND It&#39;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&#39;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 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. Sadio Mane is Senegal&#39;s talisman Credit: REUTERS COLOMBIA Reached the quarter-finals four years ago in Brazil and they have the talent to do it again. This will be Colombia&#39;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. JAPAN 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.
World Cup 2018 groups: Your complete guide to the teams
The World Cup draw is done and dusted with England drawn against Belgium, Panama and Tunisia. Here is your guide to the eight groups for the 2018 World Cup: Group A RUSSIA 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. SAUDI ARABIA Preparations for Russia have been far from ideal since qualifying for a fifth World Cup, with two coaches fired. 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 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. URUGUAY Only Brazil had a more solid performance in South American qualifying than Uruguay. Though some of the team's stars started fading, new players have emerged for the World Cup. 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. Group B PORTUGAL 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. Portugal will take the large part of that experienced squad to Russia. Pepe is a physical enforcer in defense, Joao Moutinho adds passing skills to its midfield, and newcomer Andre Silva can help Ronaldo in attack. 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. Can Cristiano Ronaldo guide Portugal to World Cup glory? Credit: AP SPAIN 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. With a surplus of talented midfielders and forwards, David De Gea in goal, and Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique anchoring the defence, the one possible doubt may be who spears the Spaniards' attack. Alvaro Morata is in line to be Spain's striker after impressing at Chelsea. His only potential challenger is the man he replaced in London, Diego Costa, who will finally be back to playing after several months of inactivity when Atletico Madrid's transfer ban finishes at the start of January. 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: Julen Lopetegui - The 51-year-old former goalkeeper steered Spain through an undefeated qualifying campaign of nine wins and just one draw, including a 3-0 victory over Italy. Andres Iniesta will be 34 by the time of the 2018 World Cup Credit: AP MOROCCO It has taken 20 years to get back to the World Cup. The North African team features several promising young talents including Ajax midfielder Hakim Ziyech and Younes Belhanda. Ziyech returned to the squad after making peace with coach Herve Renard. 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. IRAN 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. Group C FRANCE 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. Didier Deschamps has some talented players at his disposal Credit: AP AUSTRALIA Qualified for a fourth consecutive World Cup, but had to take the long route to Russia after failing to secure direct entry in Asia because of a slightly inferior goal difference to Saudi Arabia. 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. PERU 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, but is now a doubt for Russia while 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 One of the fastest-improving teams in Europe, and a country most will want to avoid coming out of the third-seeded pot. 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. Christian Eriksen has the ability to scare most opponents Credit: Getty Images Group D ARGENTINA 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. Lionel Messi could cap a brilliant career at the World Cup Credit: AP ICELAND With just 330,000 people, Iceland are the smallest country ever at the 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 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. NIGERIA The first team from Africa to qualify, and convincingly. They won a group that contained current African champion Cameroon, former champion Zambia, and Algeria. 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. John Obi Mikel is a stabilising force for Nigeria Credit: Getty Images Group E BRAZIL 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 Saint-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. SWITZERLAND 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. COSTA RICA 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 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. Group F GERMANY 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 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 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. SOUTH KOREA 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 trio of English Premier League players - Tottenham's Son Heung-min, Swansea's Ki Sung-yeung and Crystal Palace's Lee Chung-yong - 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. Group G BELGIUM It's time to deliver for a team featuring such exceptional talent. But this 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. There are issues in defence. Central defender Vincent Kompany is as brittle as he can be brilliant and there are very few credible back-ups available for the likes of Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen. 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. PANAMA 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. TUNISIA 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. ENGLAND 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. A young squad will be taken to Russia, so getting out of the group is as much as can realistically be hoped for. 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. Harry Kane is the man tasked with spearheading England's attack Credit: Getty Images Group H POLAND 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 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. Sadio Mane is Senegal's talisman Credit: REUTERS COLOMBIA Reached the quarter-finals four years ago in Brazil and they have the talent to do it again. 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. JAPAN 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.
The World Cup draw is done and dusted with England drawn against Belgium, Panama and Tunisia. Here is your guide to the eight groups for the 2018 World Cup: Group A RUSSIA 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&#39;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. SAUDI ARABIA Preparations for Russia have been far from ideal since qualifying for a fifth World Cup, with two coaches fired. 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&#39;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 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&#39;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&#39;s tactics have been successful, though. URUGUAY Only Brazil had a more solid performance in South American qualifying than Uruguay. Though some of the team&#39;s stars started fading, new players have emerged for the World Cup. 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&#39;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&#39;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. Group B PORTUGAL Cristiano Ronaldo&#39;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. Portugal will take the large part of that experienced squad to Russia. Pepe is a physical enforcer in defense, Joao Moutinho adds passing skills to its midfield, and newcomer Andre Silva can help Ronaldo in attack. 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. Can Cristiano Ronaldo guide Portugal to World Cup glory? Credit: AP SPAIN 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. With a surplus of talented midfielders and forwards, David De Gea in goal, and Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique anchoring the defence, the one possible doubt may be who spears the Spaniards&#39; attack. Alvaro Morata is in line to be Spain&#39;s striker after impressing at Chelsea. His only potential challenger is the man he replaced in London, Diego Costa, who will finally be back to playing after several months of inactivity when Atletico Madrid&#39;s transfer ban finishes at the start of January. Key player: Andres Iniesta (Barcelona) - Scored the sole goal of the 2010 World Cup final but will be 34 at next year&#39;s tournament. Coach: Julen Lopetegui - The 51-year-old former goalkeeper steered Spain through an undefeated qualifying campaign of nine wins and just one draw, including a 3-0 victory over Italy. Andres Iniesta will be 34 by the time of the 2018 World Cup Credit: AP MOROCCO It has taken 20 years to get back to the World Cup. The North African team features several promising young talents including Ajax midfielder Hakim Ziyech and Younes Belhanda. Ziyech returned to the squad after making peace with coach Herve Renard. 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. IRAN 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&#39;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 &quot;not go to Russia as tourists.&quot; 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. Group C FRANCE 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&#39;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. Didier Deschamps has some talented players at his disposal Credit: AP AUSTRALIA Qualified for a fourth consecutive World Cup, but had to take the long route to Russia after failing to secure direct entry in Asia because of a slightly inferior goal difference to Saudi Arabia. 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. PERU Chile, Ecuador and even Paraguay were considered favorites for South America&#39;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&#39;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, but is now a doubt for Russia while 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 One of the fastest-improving teams in Europe, and a country most will want to avoid coming out of the third-seeded pot. Denmark haven&#39;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&#39;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&#39;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. Christian Eriksen has the ability to scare most opponents Credit: Getty Images Group D ARGENTINA 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&#39;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. Lionel Messi could cap a brilliant career at the World Cup Credit: AP ICELAND With just 330,000 people, Iceland are the smallest country ever at the World Cup. The city of Moscow alone outnumbers Iceland&#39;s entire population 40 times over, but this is a team of giant-killers. Last year&#39;s run to the Euro 2016 quarter-finals, knocking out England on a memorable night in Nice, showed the talent and determination in Iceland&#39;s team. Qualifying for the World Cup ahead of Croatia and Ukraine proved last year wasn&#39;t a one-off. Expecting more success in Russia might be optimistic, but with Iceland&#39;s passionate fans and their &quot;thunderclap&quot; 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&#39;t most teams. Took sole charge after co-coach Lars Lagerback left last year. CROATIA 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. NIGERIA The first team from Africa to qualify, and convincingly. They won a group that contained current African champion Cameroon, former champion Zambia, and Algeria. 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. John Obi Mikel is a stabilising force for Nigeria Credit: Getty Images Group E BRAZIL 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 Saint-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&#39;s muscular 2014 World Cup team that depended heavily on Neymar, Brazil are now about organisation and flair. SWITZERLAND Now is the time for Switzerland to be more than the sum of its talented parts. The quarter-finals are a realistic goal. Don&#39;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&#39;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&#39;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. COSTA RICA 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&#39;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&#39;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 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. Group F GERMANY 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&#39;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&#39;s assistant during the 2006 World Cup, Low took over after that tournament and has overseen steady progress culminating in the 2014 title. MEXICO 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&#39;s Gold Cup after being sent off at the Confederations Cup. SWEDEN 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&#39;s best player: &quot;We are Zweden.&quot; The shadow of Zlatan Ibrahimovic hangs over the national team. The Manchester United striker retired from international soccer after last year&#39;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&#39;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. SOUTH KOREA Every World Cup since 1986 has featured South Korea. This time looks likelier to be a repeat of 2014&#39;s meek group-stage exit than 2002&#39;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&#39;s failure to beat Iran. Much will depend on a trio of English Premier League players - Tottenham&#39;s Son Heung-min, Swansea&#39;s Ki Sung-yeung and Crystal Palace&#39;s Lee Chung-yong - 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&#39;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. Group G BELGIUM It&#39;s time to deliver for a team featuring such exceptional talent. But this 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. There are issues in defence. Central defender Vincent Kompany is as brittle as he can be brilliant and there are very few credible back-ups available for the likes of Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen. 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. PANAMA 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&#39;s turn. TUNISIA 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&#39;s World Cup qualifying campaign. ENGLAND Expectations in England have plummeted because of the team&#39;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&#39;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. A young squad will be taken to Russia, so getting out of the group is as much as can realistically be hoped for. 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&#39;t afraid to make bold decisions. Harry Kane is the man tasked with spearheading England&#39;s attack Credit: Getty Images Group H POLAND It&#39;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&#39;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 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. Sadio Mane is Senegal&#39;s talisman Credit: REUTERS COLOMBIA Reached the quarter-finals four years ago in Brazil and they have the talent to do it again. This will be Colombia&#39;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. JAPAN 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.
World Cup 2018 groups: Your complete guide to the teams
The World Cup draw is done and dusted with England drawn against Belgium, Panama and Tunisia. Here is your guide to the eight groups for the 2018 World Cup: Group A RUSSIA 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. SAUDI ARABIA Preparations for Russia have been far from ideal since qualifying for a fifth World Cup, with two coaches fired. 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 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. URUGUAY Only Brazil had a more solid performance in South American qualifying than Uruguay. Though some of the team's stars started fading, new players have emerged for the World Cup. 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. Group B PORTUGAL 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. Portugal will take the large part of that experienced squad to Russia. Pepe is a physical enforcer in defense, Joao Moutinho adds passing skills to its midfield, and newcomer Andre Silva can help Ronaldo in attack. 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. Can Cristiano Ronaldo guide Portugal to World Cup glory? Credit: AP SPAIN 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. With a surplus of talented midfielders and forwards, David De Gea in goal, and Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique anchoring the defence, the one possible doubt may be who spears the Spaniards' attack. Alvaro Morata is in line to be Spain's striker after impressing at Chelsea. His only potential challenger is the man he replaced in London, Diego Costa, who will finally be back to playing after several months of inactivity when Atletico Madrid's transfer ban finishes at the start of January. 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: Julen Lopetegui - The 51-year-old former goalkeeper steered Spain through an undefeated qualifying campaign of nine wins and just one draw, including a 3-0 victory over Italy. Andres Iniesta will be 34 by the time of the 2018 World Cup Credit: AP MOROCCO It has taken 20 years to get back to the World Cup. The North African team features several promising young talents including Ajax midfielder Hakim Ziyech and Younes Belhanda. Ziyech returned to the squad after making peace with coach Herve Renard. 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. IRAN 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. Group C FRANCE 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. Didier Deschamps has some talented players at his disposal Credit: AP AUSTRALIA Qualified for a fourth consecutive World Cup, but had to take the long route to Russia after failing to secure direct entry in Asia because of a slightly inferior goal difference to Saudi Arabia. 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. PERU 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, but is now a doubt for Russia while 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 One of the fastest-improving teams in Europe, and a country most will want to avoid coming out of the third-seeded pot. 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. Christian Eriksen has the ability to scare most opponents Credit: Getty Images Group D ARGENTINA 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. Lionel Messi could cap a brilliant career at the World Cup Credit: AP ICELAND With just 330,000 people, Iceland are the smallest country ever at the 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 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. NIGERIA The first team from Africa to qualify, and convincingly. They won a group that contained current African champion Cameroon, former champion Zambia, and Algeria. 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. John Obi Mikel is a stabilising force for Nigeria Credit: Getty Images Group E BRAZIL 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 Saint-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. SWITZERLAND 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. COSTA RICA 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 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. Group F GERMANY 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 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 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. SOUTH KOREA 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 trio of English Premier League players - Tottenham's Son Heung-min, Swansea's Ki Sung-yeung and Crystal Palace's Lee Chung-yong - 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. Group G BELGIUM It's time to deliver for a team featuring such exceptional talent. But this 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. There are issues in defence. Central defender Vincent Kompany is as brittle as he can be brilliant and there are very few credible back-ups available for the likes of Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen. 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. PANAMA 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. TUNISIA 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. ENGLAND 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. A young squad will be taken to Russia, so getting out of the group is as much as can realistically be hoped for. 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. Harry Kane is the man tasked with spearheading England's attack Credit: Getty Images Group H POLAND 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 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. Sadio Mane is Senegal's talisman Credit: REUTERS COLOMBIA Reached the quarter-finals four years ago in Brazil and they have the talent to do it again. 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. JAPAN 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.
The World Cup draw is done and dusted with England drawn against Belgium, Panama and Tunisia. Here is your guide to the eight groups for the 2018 World Cup: Group A RUSSIA 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&#39;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. SAUDI ARABIA Preparations for Russia have been far from ideal since qualifying for a fifth World Cup, with two coaches fired. 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&#39;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 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&#39;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&#39;s tactics have been successful, though. URUGUAY Only Brazil had a more solid performance in South American qualifying than Uruguay. Though some of the team&#39;s stars started fading, new players have emerged for the World Cup. 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&#39;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&#39;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. Group B PORTUGAL Cristiano Ronaldo&#39;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. Portugal will take the large part of that experienced squad to Russia. Pepe is a physical enforcer in defense, Joao Moutinho adds passing skills to its midfield, and newcomer Andre Silva can help Ronaldo in attack. 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. Can Cristiano Ronaldo guide Portugal to World Cup glory? Credit: AP SPAIN 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. With a surplus of talented midfielders and forwards, David De Gea in goal, and Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique anchoring the defence, the one possible doubt may be who spears the Spaniards&#39; attack. Alvaro Morata is in line to be Spain&#39;s striker after impressing at Chelsea. His only potential challenger is the man he replaced in London, Diego Costa, who will finally be back to playing after several months of inactivity when Atletico Madrid&#39;s transfer ban finishes at the start of January. Key player: Andres Iniesta (Barcelona) - Scored the sole goal of the 2010 World Cup final but will be 34 at next year&#39;s tournament. Coach: Julen Lopetegui - The 51-year-old former goalkeeper steered Spain through an undefeated qualifying campaign of nine wins and just one draw, including a 3-0 victory over Italy. Andres Iniesta will be 34 by the time of the 2018 World Cup Credit: AP MOROCCO It has taken 20 years to get back to the World Cup. The North African team features several promising young talents including Ajax midfielder Hakim Ziyech and Younes Belhanda. Ziyech returned to the squad after making peace with coach Herve Renard. 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. IRAN 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&#39;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 &quot;not go to Russia as tourists.&quot; 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. Group C FRANCE 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&#39;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. Didier Deschamps has some talented players at his disposal Credit: AP AUSTRALIA Qualified for a fourth consecutive World Cup, but had to take the long route to Russia after failing to secure direct entry in Asia because of a slightly inferior goal difference to Saudi Arabia. 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. PERU Chile, Ecuador and even Paraguay were considered favorites for South America&#39;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&#39;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, but is now a doubt for Russia while 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 One of the fastest-improving teams in Europe, and a country most will want to avoid coming out of the third-seeded pot. Denmark haven&#39;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&#39;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&#39;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. Christian Eriksen has the ability to scare most opponents Credit: Getty Images Group D ARGENTINA 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&#39;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. Lionel Messi could cap a brilliant career at the World Cup Credit: AP ICELAND With just 330,000 people, Iceland are the smallest country ever at the World Cup. The city of Moscow alone outnumbers Iceland&#39;s entire population 40 times over, but this is a team of giant-killers. Last year&#39;s run to the Euro 2016 quarter-finals, knocking out England on a memorable night in Nice, showed the talent and determination in Iceland&#39;s team. Qualifying for the World Cup ahead of Croatia and Ukraine proved last year wasn&#39;t a one-off. Expecting more success in Russia might be optimistic, but with Iceland&#39;s passionate fans and their &quot;thunderclap&quot; 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&#39;t most teams. Took sole charge after co-coach Lars Lagerback left last year. CROATIA 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. NIGERIA The first team from Africa to qualify, and convincingly. They won a group that contained current African champion Cameroon, former champion Zambia, and Algeria. 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. John Obi Mikel is a stabilising force for Nigeria Credit: Getty Images Group E BRAZIL 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 Saint-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&#39;s muscular 2014 World Cup team that depended heavily on Neymar, Brazil are now about organisation and flair. SWITZERLAND Now is the time for Switzerland to be more than the sum of its talented parts. The quarter-finals are a realistic goal. Don&#39;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&#39;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&#39;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. COSTA RICA 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&#39;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&#39;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 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. Group F GERMANY 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&#39;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&#39;s assistant during the 2006 World Cup, Low took over after that tournament and has overseen steady progress culminating in the 2014 title. MEXICO 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&#39;s Gold Cup after being sent off at the Confederations Cup. SWEDEN 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&#39;s best player: &quot;We are Zweden.&quot; The shadow of Zlatan Ibrahimovic hangs over the national team. The Manchester United striker retired from international soccer after last year&#39;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&#39;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. SOUTH KOREA Every World Cup since 1986 has featured South Korea. This time looks likelier to be a repeat of 2014&#39;s meek group-stage exit than 2002&#39;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&#39;s failure to beat Iran. Much will depend on a trio of English Premier League players - Tottenham&#39;s Son Heung-min, Swansea&#39;s Ki Sung-yeung and Crystal Palace&#39;s Lee Chung-yong - 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&#39;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. Group G BELGIUM It&#39;s time to deliver for a team featuring such exceptional talent. But this 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. There are issues in defence. Central defender Vincent Kompany is as brittle as he can be brilliant and there are very few credible back-ups available for the likes of Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen. 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. PANAMA 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&#39;s turn. TUNISIA 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&#39;s World Cup qualifying campaign. ENGLAND Expectations in England have plummeted because of the team&#39;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&#39;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. A young squad will be taken to Russia, so getting out of the group is as much as can realistically be hoped for. 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&#39;t afraid to make bold decisions. Harry Kane is the man tasked with spearheading England&#39;s attack Credit: Getty Images Group H POLAND It&#39;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&#39;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 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. Sadio Mane is Senegal&#39;s talisman Credit: REUTERS COLOMBIA Reached the quarter-finals four years ago in Brazil and they have the talent to do it again. This will be Colombia&#39;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. JAPAN 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.
World Cup 2018 groups: Your complete guide to the teams
The World Cup draw is done and dusted with England drawn against Belgium, Panama and Tunisia. Here is your guide to the eight groups for the 2018 World Cup: Group A RUSSIA 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. SAUDI ARABIA Preparations for Russia have been far from ideal since qualifying for a fifth World Cup, with two coaches fired. 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 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. URUGUAY Only Brazil had a more solid performance in South American qualifying than Uruguay. Though some of the team's stars started fading, new players have emerged for the World Cup. 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. Group B PORTUGAL 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. Portugal will take the large part of that experienced squad to Russia. Pepe is a physical enforcer in defense, Joao Moutinho adds passing skills to its midfield, and newcomer Andre Silva can help Ronaldo in attack. 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. Can Cristiano Ronaldo guide Portugal to World Cup glory? Credit: AP SPAIN 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. With a surplus of talented midfielders and forwards, David De Gea in goal, and Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique anchoring the defence, the one possible doubt may be who spears the Spaniards' attack. Alvaro Morata is in line to be Spain's striker after impressing at Chelsea. His only potential challenger is the man he replaced in London, Diego Costa, who will finally be back to playing after several months of inactivity when Atletico Madrid's transfer ban finishes at the start of January. 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: Julen Lopetegui - The 51-year-old former goalkeeper steered Spain through an undefeated qualifying campaign of nine wins and just one draw, including a 3-0 victory over Italy. Andres Iniesta will be 34 by the time of the 2018 World Cup Credit: AP MOROCCO It has taken 20 years to get back to the World Cup. The North African team features several promising young talents including Ajax midfielder Hakim Ziyech and Younes Belhanda. Ziyech returned to the squad after making peace with coach Herve Renard. 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. IRAN 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. Group C FRANCE 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. Didier Deschamps has some talented players at his disposal Credit: AP AUSTRALIA Qualified for a fourth consecutive World Cup, but had to take the long route to Russia after failing to secure direct entry in Asia because of a slightly inferior goal difference to Saudi Arabia. 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. PERU 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, but is now a doubt for Russia while 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 One of the fastest-improving teams in Europe, and a country most will want to avoid coming out of the third-seeded pot. 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. Christian Eriksen has the ability to scare most opponents Credit: Getty Images Group D ARGENTINA 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. Lionel Messi could cap a brilliant career at the World Cup Credit: AP ICELAND With just 330,000 people, Iceland are the smallest country ever at the 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 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. NIGERIA The first team from Africa to qualify, and convincingly. They won a group that contained current African champion Cameroon, former champion Zambia, and Algeria. 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. John Obi Mikel is a stabilising force for Nigeria Credit: Getty Images Group E BRAZIL 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 Saint-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. SWITZERLAND 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. COSTA RICA 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 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. Group F GERMANY 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 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 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. SOUTH KOREA 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 trio of English Premier League players - Tottenham's Son Heung-min, Swansea's Ki Sung-yeung and Crystal Palace's Lee Chung-yong - 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. Group G BELGIUM It's time to deliver for a team featuring such exceptional talent. But this 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. There are issues in defence. Central defender Vincent Kompany is as brittle as he can be brilliant and there are very few credible back-ups available for the likes of Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen. 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. PANAMA 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. TUNISIA 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. ENGLAND 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. A young squad will be taken to Russia, so getting out of the group is as much as can realistically be hoped for. 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. Harry Kane is the man tasked with spearheading England's attack Credit: Getty Images Group H POLAND 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 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. Sadio Mane is Senegal's talisman Credit: REUTERS COLOMBIA Reached the quarter-finals four years ago in Brazil and they have the talent to do it again. 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. JAPAN 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.
The World Cup draw is done and dusted with England drawn against Belgium, Panama and Tunisia. Here is your guide to the eight groups for the 2018 World Cup: Group A RUSSIA 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&#39;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. SAUDI ARABIA Preparations for Russia have been far from ideal since qualifying for a fifth World Cup, with two coaches fired. 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&#39;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 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&#39;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&#39;s tactics have been successful, though. URUGUAY Only Brazil had a more solid performance in South American qualifying than Uruguay. Though some of the team&#39;s stars started fading, new players have emerged for the World Cup. 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&#39;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&#39;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. Group B PORTUGAL Cristiano Ronaldo&#39;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. Portugal will take the large part of that experienced squad to Russia. Pepe is a physical enforcer in defense, Joao Moutinho adds passing skills to its midfield, and newcomer Andre Silva can help Ronaldo in attack. 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. Can Cristiano Ronaldo guide Portugal to World Cup glory? Credit: AP SPAIN 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. With a surplus of talented midfielders and forwards, David De Gea in goal, and Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique anchoring the defence, the one possible doubt may be who spears the Spaniards&#39; attack. Alvaro Morata is in line to be Spain&#39;s striker after impressing at Chelsea. His only potential challenger is the man he replaced in London, Diego Costa, who will finally be back to playing after several months of inactivity when Atletico Madrid&#39;s transfer ban finishes at the start of January. Key player: Andres Iniesta (Barcelona) - Scored the sole goal of the 2010 World Cup final but will be 34 at next year&#39;s tournament. Coach: Julen Lopetegui - The 51-year-old former goalkeeper steered Spain through an undefeated qualifying campaign of nine wins and just one draw, including a 3-0 victory over Italy. Andres Iniesta will be 34 by the time of the 2018 World Cup Credit: AP MOROCCO It has taken 20 years to get back to the World Cup. The North African team features several promising young talents including Ajax midfielder Hakim Ziyech and Younes Belhanda. Ziyech returned to the squad after making peace with coach Herve Renard. 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. IRAN 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&#39;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 &quot;not go to Russia as tourists.&quot; 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. Group C FRANCE 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&#39;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. Didier Deschamps has some talented players at his disposal Credit: AP AUSTRALIA Qualified for a fourth consecutive World Cup, but had to take the long route to Russia after failing to secure direct entry in Asia because of a slightly inferior goal difference to Saudi Arabia. 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. PERU Chile, Ecuador and even Paraguay were considered favorites for South America&#39;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&#39;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, but is now a doubt for Russia while 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 One of the fastest-improving teams in Europe, and a country most will want to avoid coming out of the third-seeded pot. Denmark haven&#39;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&#39;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&#39;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. Christian Eriksen has the ability to scare most opponents Credit: Getty Images Group D ARGENTINA 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&#39;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. Lionel Messi could cap a brilliant career at the World Cup Credit: AP ICELAND With just 330,000 people, Iceland are the smallest country ever at the World Cup. The city of Moscow alone outnumbers Iceland&#39;s entire population 40 times over, but this is a team of giant-killers. Last year&#39;s run to the Euro 2016 quarter-finals, knocking out England on a memorable night in Nice, showed the talent and determination in Iceland&#39;s team. Qualifying for the World Cup ahead of Croatia and Ukraine proved last year wasn&#39;t a one-off. Expecting more success in Russia might be optimistic, but with Iceland&#39;s passionate fans and their &quot;thunderclap&quot; 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&#39;t most teams. Took sole charge after co-coach Lars Lagerback left last year. CROATIA 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. NIGERIA The first team from Africa to qualify, and convincingly. They won a group that contained current African champion Cameroon, former champion Zambia, and Algeria. 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. John Obi Mikel is a stabilising force for Nigeria Credit: Getty Images Group E BRAZIL 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 Saint-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&#39;s muscular 2014 World Cup team that depended heavily on Neymar, Brazil are now about organisation and flair. SWITZERLAND Now is the time for Switzerland to be more than the sum of its talented parts. The quarter-finals are a realistic goal. Don&#39;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&#39;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&#39;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. COSTA RICA 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&#39;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&#39;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 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. Group F GERMANY 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&#39;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&#39;s assistant during the 2006 World Cup, Low took over after that tournament and has overseen steady progress culminating in the 2014 title. MEXICO 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&#39;s Gold Cup after being sent off at the Confederations Cup. SWEDEN 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&#39;s best player: &quot;We are Zweden.&quot; The shadow of Zlatan Ibrahimovic hangs over the national team. The Manchester United striker retired from international soccer after last year&#39;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&#39;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. SOUTH KOREA Every World Cup since 1986 has featured South Korea. This time looks likelier to be a repeat of 2014&#39;s meek group-stage exit than 2002&#39;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&#39;s failure to beat Iran. Much will depend on a trio of English Premier League players - Tottenham&#39;s Son Heung-min, Swansea&#39;s Ki Sung-yeung and Crystal Palace&#39;s Lee Chung-yong - 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&#39;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. Group G BELGIUM It&#39;s time to deliver for a team featuring such exceptional talent. But this 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. There are issues in defence. Central defender Vincent Kompany is as brittle as he can be brilliant and there are very few credible back-ups available for the likes of Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen. 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. PANAMA 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&#39;s turn. TUNISIA 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&#39;s World Cup qualifying campaign. ENGLAND Expectations in England have plummeted because of the team&#39;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&#39;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. A young squad will be taken to Russia, so getting out of the group is as much as can realistically be hoped for. 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&#39;t afraid to make bold decisions. Harry Kane is the man tasked with spearheading England&#39;s attack Credit: Getty Images Group H POLAND It&#39;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&#39;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 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. Sadio Mane is Senegal&#39;s talisman Credit: REUTERS COLOMBIA Reached the quarter-finals four years ago in Brazil and they have the talent to do it again. This will be Colombia&#39;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. JAPAN 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.
World Cup 2018 groups: Your complete guide to the teams
The World Cup draw is done and dusted with England drawn against Belgium, Panama and Tunisia. Here is your guide to the eight groups for the 2018 World Cup: Group A RUSSIA 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. SAUDI ARABIA Preparations for Russia have been far from ideal since qualifying for a fifth World Cup, with two coaches fired. 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 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. URUGUAY Only Brazil had a more solid performance in South American qualifying than Uruguay. Though some of the team's stars started fading, new players have emerged for the World Cup. 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. Group B PORTUGAL 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. Portugal will take the large part of that experienced squad to Russia. Pepe is a physical enforcer in defense, Joao Moutinho adds passing skills to its midfield, and newcomer Andre Silva can help Ronaldo in attack. 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. Can Cristiano Ronaldo guide Portugal to World Cup glory? Credit: AP SPAIN 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. With a surplus of talented midfielders and forwards, David De Gea in goal, and Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique anchoring the defence, the one possible doubt may be who spears the Spaniards' attack. Alvaro Morata is in line to be Spain's striker after impressing at Chelsea. His only potential challenger is the man he replaced in London, Diego Costa, who will finally be back to playing after several months of inactivity when Atletico Madrid's transfer ban finishes at the start of January. 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: Julen Lopetegui - The 51-year-old former goalkeeper steered Spain through an undefeated qualifying campaign of nine wins and just one draw, including a 3-0 victory over Italy. Andres Iniesta will be 34 by the time of the 2018 World Cup Credit: AP MOROCCO It has taken 20 years to get back to the World Cup. The North African team features several promising young talents including Ajax midfielder Hakim Ziyech and Younes Belhanda. Ziyech returned to the squad after making peace with coach Herve Renard. 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. IRAN 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. Group C FRANCE 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. Didier Deschamps has some talented players at his disposal Credit: AP AUSTRALIA Qualified for a fourth consecutive World Cup, but had to take the long route to Russia after failing to secure direct entry in Asia because of a slightly inferior goal difference to Saudi Arabia. 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. PERU 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, but is now a doubt for Russia while 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 One of the fastest-improving teams in Europe, and a country most will want to avoid coming out of the third-seeded pot. 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. Christian Eriksen has the ability to scare most opponents Credit: Getty Images Group D ARGENTINA 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. Lionel Messi could cap a brilliant career at the World Cup Credit: AP ICELAND With just 330,000 people, Iceland are the smallest country ever at the 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 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. NIGERIA The first team from Africa to qualify, and convincingly. They won a group that contained current African champion Cameroon, former champion Zambia, and Algeria. 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. John Obi Mikel is a stabilising force for Nigeria Credit: Getty Images Group E BRAZIL 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 Saint-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. SWITZERLAND 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. COSTA RICA 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 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. Group F GERMANY 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 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 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. SOUTH KOREA 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 trio of English Premier League players - Tottenham's Son Heung-min, Swansea's Ki Sung-yeung and Crystal Palace's Lee Chung-yong - 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. Group G BELGIUM It's time to deliver for a team featuring such exceptional talent. But this 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. There are issues in defence. Central defender Vincent Kompany is as brittle as he can be brilliant and there are very few credible back-ups available for the likes of Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen. 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. PANAMA 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. TUNISIA 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. ENGLAND 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. A young squad will be taken to Russia, so getting out of the group is as much as can realistically be hoped for. 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. Harry Kane is the man tasked with spearheading England's attack Credit: Getty Images Group H POLAND 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 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. Sadio Mane is Senegal's talisman Credit: REUTERS COLOMBIA Reached the quarter-finals four years ago in Brazil and they have the talent to do it again. 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. JAPAN 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.
The World Cup draw is done and dusted with England drawn against Belgium, Panama and Tunisia. Here is your guide to the eight groups for the 2018 World Cup: Group A RUSSIA 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&#39;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. SAUDI ARABIA Preparations for Russia have been far from ideal since qualifying for a fifth World Cup, with two coaches fired. 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&#39;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 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&#39;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&#39;s tactics have been successful, though. URUGUAY Only Brazil had a more solid performance in South American qualifying than Uruguay. Though some of the team&#39;s stars started fading, new players have emerged for the World Cup. 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&#39;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&#39;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. Group B PORTUGAL Cristiano Ronaldo&#39;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. Portugal will take the large part of that experienced squad to Russia. Pepe is a physical enforcer in defense, Joao Moutinho adds passing skills to its midfield, and newcomer Andre Silva can help Ronaldo in attack. 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. Can Cristiano Ronaldo guide Portugal to World Cup glory? Credit: AP SPAIN 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. With a surplus of talented midfielders and forwards, David De Gea in goal, and Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique anchoring the defence, the one possible doubt may be who spears the Spaniards&#39; attack. Alvaro Morata is in line to be Spain&#39;s striker after impressing at Chelsea. His only potential challenger is the man he replaced in London, Diego Costa, who will finally be back to playing after several months of inactivity when Atletico Madrid&#39;s transfer ban finishes at the start of January. Key player: Andres Iniesta (Barcelona) - Scored the sole goal of the 2010 World Cup final but will be 34 at next year&#39;s tournament. Coach: Julen Lopetegui - The 51-year-old former goalkeeper steered Spain through an undefeated qualifying campaign of nine wins and just one draw, including a 3-0 victory over Italy. Andres Iniesta will be 34 by the time of the 2018 World Cup Credit: AP MOROCCO It has taken 20 years to get back to the World Cup. The North African team features several promising young talents including Ajax midfielder Hakim Ziyech and Younes Belhanda. Ziyech returned to the squad after making peace with coach Herve Renard. 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. IRAN 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&#39;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 &quot;not go to Russia as tourists.&quot; 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. Group C FRANCE 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&#39;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. Didier Deschamps has some talented players at his disposal Credit: AP AUSTRALIA Qualified for a fourth consecutive World Cup, but had to take the long route to Russia after failing to secure direct entry in Asia because of a slightly inferior goal difference to Saudi Arabia. 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. PERU Chile, Ecuador and even Paraguay were considered favorites for South America&#39;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&#39;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, but is now a doubt for Russia while 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 One of the fastest-improving teams in Europe, and a country most will want to avoid coming out of the third-seeded pot. Denmark haven&#39;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&#39;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&#39;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. Christian Eriksen has the ability to scare most opponents Credit: Getty Images Group D ARGENTINA 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&#39;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. Lionel Messi could cap a brilliant career at the World Cup Credit: AP ICELAND With just 330,000 people, Iceland are the smallest country ever at the World Cup. The city of Moscow alone outnumbers Iceland&#39;s entire population 40 times over, but this is a team of giant-killers. Last year&#39;s run to the Euro 2016 quarter-finals, knocking out England on a memorable night in Nice, showed the talent and determination in Iceland&#39;s team. Qualifying for the World Cup ahead of Croatia and Ukraine proved last year wasn&#39;t a one-off. Expecting more success in Russia might be optimistic, but with Iceland&#39;s passionate fans and their &quot;thunderclap&quot; 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&#39;t most teams. Took sole charge after co-coach Lars Lagerback left last year. CROATIA 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. NIGERIA The first team from Africa to qualify, and convincingly. They won a group that contained current African champion Cameroon, former champion Zambia, and Algeria. 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. John Obi Mikel is a stabilising force for Nigeria Credit: Getty Images Group E BRAZIL 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 Saint-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&#39;s muscular 2014 World Cup team that depended heavily on Neymar, Brazil are now about organisation and flair. SWITZERLAND Now is the time for Switzerland to be more than the sum of its talented parts. The quarter-finals are a realistic goal. Don&#39;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&#39;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&#39;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. COSTA RICA 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&#39;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&#39;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 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. Group F GERMANY 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&#39;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&#39;s assistant during the 2006 World Cup, Low took over after that tournament and has overseen steady progress culminating in the 2014 title. MEXICO 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&#39;s Gold Cup after being sent off at the Confederations Cup. SWEDEN 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&#39;s best player: &quot;We are Zweden.&quot; The shadow of Zlatan Ibrahimovic hangs over the national team. The Manchester United striker retired from international soccer after last year&#39;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&#39;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. SOUTH KOREA Every World Cup since 1986 has featured South Korea. This time looks likelier to be a repeat of 2014&#39;s meek group-stage exit than 2002&#39;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&#39;s failure to beat Iran. Much will depend on a trio of English Premier League players - Tottenham&#39;s Son Heung-min, Swansea&#39;s Ki Sung-yeung and Crystal Palace&#39;s Lee Chung-yong - 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&#39;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. Group G BELGIUM It&#39;s time to deliver for a team featuring such exceptional talent. But this 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. There are issues in defence. Central defender Vincent Kompany is as brittle as he can be brilliant and there are very few credible back-ups available for the likes of Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen. 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. PANAMA 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&#39;s turn. TUNISIA 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&#39;s World Cup qualifying campaign. ENGLAND Expectations in England have plummeted because of the team&#39;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&#39;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. A young squad will be taken to Russia, so getting out of the group is as much as can realistically be hoped for. 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&#39;t afraid to make bold decisions. Harry Kane is the man tasked with spearheading England&#39;s attack Credit: Getty Images Group H POLAND It&#39;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&#39;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 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. Sadio Mane is Senegal&#39;s talisman Credit: REUTERS COLOMBIA Reached the quarter-finals four years ago in Brazil and they have the talent to do it again. This will be Colombia&#39;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. JAPAN 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.
World Cup 2018 groups: Your complete guide to the teams
The World Cup draw is done and dusted with England drawn against Belgium, Panama and Tunisia. Here is your guide to the eight groups for the 2018 World Cup: Group A RUSSIA 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. SAUDI ARABIA Preparations for Russia have been far from ideal since qualifying for a fifth World Cup, with two coaches fired. 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 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. URUGUAY Only Brazil had a more solid performance in South American qualifying than Uruguay. Though some of the team's stars started fading, new players have emerged for the World Cup. 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. Group B PORTUGAL 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. Portugal will take the large part of that experienced squad to Russia. Pepe is a physical enforcer in defense, Joao Moutinho adds passing skills to its midfield, and newcomer Andre Silva can help Ronaldo in attack. 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. Can Cristiano Ronaldo guide Portugal to World Cup glory? Credit: AP SPAIN 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. With a surplus of talented midfielders and forwards, David De Gea in goal, and Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique anchoring the defence, the one possible doubt may be who spears the Spaniards' attack. Alvaro Morata is in line to be Spain's striker after impressing at Chelsea. His only potential challenger is the man he replaced in London, Diego Costa, who will finally be back to playing after several months of inactivity when Atletico Madrid's transfer ban finishes at the start of January. 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: Julen Lopetegui - The 51-year-old former goalkeeper steered Spain through an undefeated qualifying campaign of nine wins and just one draw, including a 3-0 victory over Italy. Andres Iniesta will be 34 by the time of the 2018 World Cup Credit: AP MOROCCO It has taken 20 years to get back to the World Cup. The North African team features several promising young talents including Ajax midfielder Hakim Ziyech and Younes Belhanda. Ziyech returned to the squad after making peace with coach Herve Renard. 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. IRAN 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. Group C FRANCE 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. Didier Deschamps has some talented players at his disposal Credit: AP AUSTRALIA Qualified for a fourth consecutive World Cup, but had to take the long route to Russia after failing to secure direct entry in Asia because of a slightly inferior goal difference to Saudi Arabia. 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. PERU 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, but is now a doubt for Russia while 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 One of the fastest-improving teams in Europe, and a country most will want to avoid coming out of the third-seeded pot. 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. Christian Eriksen has the ability to scare most opponents Credit: Getty Images Group D ARGENTINA 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. Lionel Messi could cap a brilliant career at the World Cup Credit: AP ICELAND With just 330,000 people, Iceland are the smallest country ever at the 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 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. NIGERIA The first team from Africa to qualify, and convincingly. They won a group that contained current African champion Cameroon, former champion Zambia, and Algeria. 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. John Obi Mikel is a stabilising force for Nigeria Credit: Getty Images Group E BRAZIL 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 Saint-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. SWITZERLAND 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. COSTA RICA 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 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. Group F GERMANY 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 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 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. Co