CLASH OF THE TITANS
The holders, the runners-up, the favourites, the underdogs, the legends, the mortals — all knit their brows in determination to arrive at the ultimate battle this summer. Here is a look at the biggest giants of the thrilling fray which lies merely hours away from us
Russia go into the draw as the lowest-ranked of the 32 teams after failing to advance past the group stage of any tournament since 2008. Ambitious talk of reaching the quarterfinals or even semifinals 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.
Only Brazil had a more solid performance in South American qualifying than Uruguay.
Though some of the team's players started fading, new ones have emerged for the World Cup. Defender Diego Godin and strikers Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez still trouble opponents. But youngsters like midfielders Federico Valverde and Nahitan Nandez have become frequent starters.
Egypt waited a long time to be back at the World Cup. The record seven-time African champions last qualified in 1990. The team hit new lows recently, failing to even qualify for the African Cup of Nations from 2012-15. They are back now, reaching the final of this year's African Cup and following that up with a long-awaited World Cup return.
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 this month. Bauza had been appointed in September to replace Bert van Marwijk, who was fired despite leading the team to its first World Cup since 2006. Juan Antonio Pizzi, who was named Tuesday as the new coach, will be tasked with improving on Saudi Arabia's best-ever performance at World Cup - the second-round exit at the 1994 tournament in the United States.
France are a young and vibrant team packed with flair and eye-catching talent. The French twice recently took the lead while playing against World Cup champions 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 that needs to be addressed if they want to win the trophy for the second time.
Chile, Ecuador and even Paraguay were considered favourites for South America's fifth spot in the World Cup. In the end, it went to a Peruvian team that conceded only seven goals in eight matches in 2017. Many of the team's players are now in Mexican clubs; goalkeeper Pedro Gallese, defender Luis Advincula, midfielder Pedro Aquino and strikers Raul Ruidiaz and Andy Polo.
One of the fastest-improving teams in Europe, Denmark are a team most will want to avoid. Denmark haven't played a major tournament since the 2012 European Championship but 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 against top-seeded Poland in September and the 5-1 victory at Ireland in the second leg of the playoffs.
Qualified for their fourth consecutive World Cup, but had to take the long route through the playoffs after failing to secure direct entry on goal difference. The nucleus of the young squad that went to Brazil four years ago has remained, helping the country win its 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 has yet to be replaced.
A team featuring Lionel Messi can never be ignored, even though the 2014 runner-up barely made it to this World Cup. But other key talents like Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Iguain have been far from being in top form for Argentina. That is why little-known Boca Juniors striker Daria Benedetto has been deployed up front.
With just 330,000 people, Iceland is the smallest country ever at the World Cup, but theirs is a team of giant-killers. Last year's run to the Euro 2016 quarterfinals, 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.
Croatia had to squeeze through the playoffs 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.
The first team from Africa to qualify, and convincingly. A 4-0 victory over Cameroon emphasized when that 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 game in Russia 4-2. Nigeria have qualified for five of the last six World Cups.
It's time to deliver for a team that has featured exceptional talent over the past half dozen years but has yet to reach the semifinals of a major 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.
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 4 million people, but finished ahead of the United States.
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 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 Aymen Abdennour, their main goal will be to win a game in Russia.
The country that invented football no longer sits at the sport's top table. Expectations in England have plummeted because of the national team's embarrassing performances in recent major tournaments — 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 a shallow pool of top players.
The World Cup holders are in good shape to defend their title after being 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.
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 quarterfinals 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, as well as in qualifying this time, doing it with three games to spare ahead of Costa Rica and Panama.
Sweden had just stunned Italy in the playoffs to qualify for their first World Cup finals since 2006 when a tweet was posted by the country's best player: "We are Zweden." However, without Ibrahimovic, Sweden seem more united and well-structured, but he can do things no other Swedish player can.
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 semifinals. Qualification itself was tricky, with a place only secured thanks to a tense 0-0 draw against fellow contenders Uzbekistan on the final day of the Asian group stages, combined with Syria's failure to beat Iran.
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