Breaking down each 2018 World Cup squad

Sean Armstrong | Staff Writer

June 14, 2018

As host country Russia prepares to face Saudi Arabia June 14 at 11 a.m. EDT in the 2018 World Cup’s inaugural match, prepare for the tournament’s commencement by familiarizing yourself with each of the 32 squads summarized below.


Group A:

Russia:

  • How They Got Here: Russia is hosting the tournament; host countries automatically qualify.
  • Predicted Result: Russia does not make it out of Group A. Russia has not qualified since the 2002 World Cup, and won only one game during the Confederations Cup one year ago.
  • Key Player: Igor Akinfeev. The captain of the Russian national team, Akinfeev is the player with the most experience on the squad, and his performance will dictate how far this team will make it. If he can come up big in net and inspire his teammates to perform at a high level, then Russia may advance, but only with a great deal of luck, out of the group stage.
  • Player to Watch: Aleksandr Golovin. Due to the injury crisis the Russians face with Aleksandr Kokorin, its starting striker and key offensive player,  out, as well as injuries sustained by Viktor Vasin and Georgi Dzhikiya, the way has been paved for the 21-year-old Golovin to show the world what he is made of following his appearances in both the Under-17 and Under-19 World Cups in previous years.
  • Likely Formation: 3-5-2
  • Manager: Stanislav Cherchesov

Uruguay:

  • How They Got Here: Finished No. 2 in CONMEBOL.
  • Predicted Result: Uruguay will either make it to the quarterfinals or the semifinals before being eliminated. As a team, Uruguay has a great offense with both Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani at its disposal, but it also lost five games during qualification, which suggests that it may not have the required ability to go all the way to the final.
  • Key Player: Luis Suarez. As the spear in the former trio of Messi, Suarez and Neymar (MSN), it is hard to overlook the attacking capabilities Suarez possesses. The driving force in Liverpool’s title run during the 2013-2014 season, Suarez was thrown out of the 2014 World Cup for biting another player, so if he can resist the urge to bite others, then Uruguay can make a strong run in the tournament.
  • Player To Watch: Jose Gimenez. The youngest player to ever debut at a World Cup in the history of Uruguayan soccer back in 2014, Gimenez also tallied the goal that sealed Uruguay’s group stage advance during a 2016 Copa America match against Paraguay.
  • Likely Formation: 4-4-2
  • Manager: Óscar Tabárez

Egypt:

  • How They Got Here: Won Africa Group E to qualify.
  • Predicted Result: Barring any major upsets, Egypt should advance past the group stage, but then be eliminated during the round of 16. This is a good team, but not a great team, and it was lucky to be put in a grouping with Russia and Saudi Arabia, who both were fortunate to qualify.
  • Key Player: Mohamed Salah. As the first-ever Egyptian player to win the Golden Boot Award (most goals scored in a season) for the Barclays Premier League, Salah is also the first Egyptian to ever to be named the Premier League Player of the Season. Salah is poised to make a splash at the World Cup this summer, too.
  • Player To Watch: Essam El-Hadary. If the 45-year-old team captain can remain injury-free for the competition’s duration, Egypt stands a much better chance at advancing to at least the round of 16. If he gets injured, however, that could be the end for an Egyptian team whose only notable player in the world of soccer is Mohamed Salah.
  • Likely Formation: 4-2-3-1
  • Manager: Héctor Cúper

Saudi Arabia:

  • How They Got Here: No. 2 in Asia Group B.
  • Predicted Result: Saudi Arabia won’t even make it past the Group Stage. With the likes of Uruguay and Egypt in Group A, Saudi Arabia would have to be at the top of its game and hope that Egypt isn’t at its best if it hopes to qualify for the Round of 16.
  • Key Player: Nawaf Al Abed. As the main attacking threat for Saudi Arabia, Al-Abed is clearly an offensive threat, but will there be enough defensive support to allow him to thrive up front?
  • Player To Watch: Fahad Al-Muwallad. As a former Barcelona youth target at the age of six, Al-Muwallad rejected Barcelona’s advances in order to forge his own path. If Al-Muwallad can put in some good performances at the World Cup, then he can make a resounding statement about the quality of the Saudi Arabian football league.
  • Likely Formation: 4-3-3
  • Manager: Juan Antonio Pizzi

Group B:

Portugal:

  • How They Got Here: Won Europe Group B.
  • Predicted Position: round of 16 or quarterfinals before Portugal is eliminated. Portugal is a team with a lot of talent, as its run to the European Championship finals showed in 2016. It can work together to become a viable threat, but it should be noted that many of these players are young and inexperienced within the World Cup, which could mean they crumble under the immense pressure of this competition.
  • Key Player: Cristiano Ronaldo. As the FIFA Ballon d’Or winner in 2017, it is safe to say that Ronaldo has cemented himself, at least for the time being, as the best soccer player in the world.
  • Player To Watch: Gelson Martins. Martins has had a very similar soccer upbringing to teammate Ronaldo in that they both started out at Sporting Lisbon as wingers. Lisbon has sported Portuguese talents Nani, Quaresma and Ronaldo over the years, and with the support of the head coach, he is getting more playing time than some of his Portuguese winger counterparts at other clubs. Whether this added playtime and room to develop will translate into performances is yet to be seen, but Martins could be the shock performer for Portugal, should he be given the chance to strut his stuff.
  • Likely Formation: 4-4-2
  • Manager: Fernando Santos

Spain:

  • How They Got Here: Won Europe Group G.
  • Predicted Result: They will at least make it to the semifinals, if not the final. All of this depends on the performance of a few select players listed below.
  • Key Player: David De Gea. As the starting goalkeeper for Manchester United, he has not only claimed the MVP award every year since given his starting role, but he has saved Manchester United on multiple occasions in the past few years from losing continental qualification by stopping seemingly unstoppable goals. If De Gea can turn on the magic he has for United recently, then Spain will be a very difficult force both offensively and defensively.
  • Player To Watch: Isco. In the past two years, Isco has gone from a fringe player at Real Madrid to challenging for a starting position — not just challenging anyone, but challenging Gareth Bale, a Real Madrid mainstay. Isco is the wild card that could turn into a trump card if given the opportunity to do so.
  • Likely Formation: 4-5-1
  • Manager: Julen Lopetegui

Iran:

  • How They Got Here: Won Asia Group A.
  • Predicted Position: Iran has a better chance than Morocco does to advance to the round of 16, but the odds are stacked against it with Portugal and Spain to compete against.
  • Key Player: Sardar Azmoun. At 23 years old, Azmoun is starting at a major Russian club, Rubin Kazan. As such, not only has he been the leader of Iran’s attack during qualifying, but he will have somewhat of a home-field advantage since he plays at the club level in Russia. Russian fans are more likely to root for him than some other random players, and since Russia is not in this group, there will be no conflicting interests in group play.
  • Player To Watch: Saman Ghoddos. Ghoddos is of Swedish-Iranian heritage and originally played for Sweden before declaring his one-time nationality switch to FIFA in order to play for Iran. In doing so, Ghoddos now has a lot to prove to himself and to those that may have scrutinized the change.
  • Likely Formation: 4-2-3-1
  • Manager: Carlos Queiroz

Morocco:

  • How They Got Here: Won Africa Group C.
  • Predicted Result: Morocco will not make it out of the group stage without some kind of miracle that cripples both of Spain and Portugal.
  • Key Player: Hakim Ziyech. Ziyech has only made 14 appearances since his first international appearance in 2015, but has had a fantastic return of eight goals in those appearances. If he can keep up his rather impressive scoring streak for the tournament, then Morocco may be able to snag a few upset wins.
  • Player To Watch: Sofiane Boufal. Boufal has bounced around from club to club and league to league over the past couple of years, but he has also managed to mark those times with bouts of brilliance. He was given the French Player of the Month award in April 2016 and was awarded the Premier League Goal of the Month last October. If he can replicate these moments of individual brilliance during the competition, then Morocco stands a chance of qualifying for the next round.
  • Likely Formation: 4-5-1
  • Manager: Hervé Renard

Group C:

France:

  • How They Got Here: Won Europe Group A.
  • Predicted Position: At the very least, France should make it to the quarterfinals, but if it can each bring its individual brilliance to create a cohesive unit, then they could go as far as the finals.
  • Key Player: Paul Pogba. There are plenty of talented young players on this squad, including Antoine Griezmann, Raphael Varane and N’Golo Kante, but for France to really have a chance, it needs Pogba to get his engine going. When he plays well, Pogba is unstoppable with his ball skills, needed to create dangerous offensive opportunities for his teammates. If Pogba can be effective despite a lukewarm season with Manchester United, then France could reach the finals.
  • Player To Watch: Kylian Mbappe. In my opinion, this one is almost a no-brainer for anyone that has watched soccer over the past few seasons. Mbappe is likely the most well-known youngster in the soccer world. He exploded onto the scene with AS Monaco back in the 2016-17 season, one which saw them beat longtime French Ligue One champions Paris Saint-Germain, as well as make an unexpected run to the UEFA Champions League semifinal. Since then, Mbappe has become part of the newly-formed trio of Neymar, Cavani and Mbappe, which has devastated European teams in the fall of last year prior to Neymar’s injury.
  • Likely Formation: 4-3-3
  • Manager: Didier Deschamps

Peru:

  • How They Got Here: Won the playoff between the European, North American, South American and Oceania countries.
  • Predicted Position: Heavy underdogs, Peru likely won’t make it out of the group stage.
  • Key Player: Jefferson Farfán. As Peru’s fourth-highest goal scorer ever, Farfan is perhaps the player that stands out the most in this surprising qualification for the World Cup for Peru, after 31 years of previously failing to do so.
  • Player To Watch: Christian Cueva. As a regular starter for the Sao Paulo team that was awarded the Campeonato Paulista Team of the Year in 2017, Cueva clearly has something to offer a Peru team that is struggling to find any bona fide stars.
  • Likely Formation: 4-2-3-1
  • Manager: Ricardo Gareca

Denmark:

  • How They Got Here: No. 2 in Europe Group E.
  • Predicted Position: At best, it will escape the group stage but be eliminated in the round of 16.
  • Key Player: Christian Eriksen. Eriksen has been brilliant for Tottenham Hotspur for the last several years, and even though Tottenham has struggled this season, I can’t see a Denmark team that enjoys success without a contributing Eriksen.
  • Player To Watch: Kasper Schmeichel. Schmeichel was part of the Leicester City team that memorably won the Barclays Premier League in 2016. To put this into perspective for Americans potentially unaware of the paramount nature of Leicester’s victory, I’d equate it to the Miracle on Ice for English soccer. If Schmeichel can repeat such magic, then Denmark could very well have their own miracle on grass — or, at least, miracle to the round of 16.
  • Likely Formation: 4-3-3
  • Manager: Age Hareide

Australia:

  • How They Got Here: Got its playoff wins against Syria and Honduras.
  • Predicted Position: It is unlikely Australia will make it out of the group stage, but doing so is not impossible, depending on how Denmark does.
  • Key Player: Aaron Mooy. He has been the star of Huddersfield Town, who against all odds, was promoted from the Sky Bet Championship League to the Barclays Premier League for the 2017-18 season, where it has remained. Mooy is familiar with being the star of a subpar team, and thus has learned to thrive in that situation. If Australia is going to have any shining moments in this tournament, then Mooy will likely be involved with that in some capacity.
  • Player To Watch: Mathew Leckie. Leckie had a great 2014 World Cup performance, and if Australia hopes to beat Denmark for second place in the group stage, then Leckie is going to have to perform like he did last time.
  • Likely Formation: 3-4-1-2
  • Manager: Bert van Marwijk

Group D:

Argentina:

  • How They Got Here: Scrapped by, finishing no. 3 in the South American qualifiers (behind Brazil and Uruguay).
  • Predicted Position: Don’t expect Argentina to make it past the quarterfinals, but anything is possible with Lionel Messi on your squad.
  • Key Player: Lionel Messi, which goes without saying. Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are agreeably the top-two players in the world, at the moment.
  • Player To Watch: Gonzalo Higuain. Higuain has been the bane of Argentina during the qualifiers, and if he doesn’t change something — whether that be his approach to the game or his state of mind — then Argentina won’t succeed. Higuain is a fantastic striker for Juventus, but has not performed as impressively for Argentina. If Higuain succeeds, Argentina succeeds, but if he fails, then so too does Argentina. The fate of this national teams rests on his shoulders.
  • Likely Formation: 3-4-3
  • Manager: Jorge Sampaoli

Croatia:

  • How They Got Here: No. 2 in Europe Group I.
  • Predicted Position: Croatia has a decent chance of making it out of the group stage, but at best, they make it to the quarterfinals before they are eliminated.
  • Key Player: Luka Modric. Modric has been the engine of Real Madrid this season and Madrid has made it all the way to the UEFA Champions League final despite an underwhelming La Liga campaign. Modric is going to be the heartbeat of this team, and in order to beat Croatia, Modric is the player that must to be subdued.
  • Player To Watch: Mario Mandžukić. Two UEFA Champions League finals ago for Juventus, he scored a fantastic over-the-head goal that was unstoppable for most goalkeepers, if any goalkeeper. That is the type of awe-inspiring performance Croatia needs to be a relatively tough group when compared to the other sections.
  • Likely Formation: 4-2-3-1
  • Manager: Zlatko Dalic

Iceland:

  • How They Got Here: Winners of Group I, where it beat Croatia.
  • Predicted Position: If Iceland can replicate its European Championship and World Cup Qualifying Performances from the past two years, then it will advance to the round of 16, and then promptly be eliminated. I can’t see it coping with the pressure once they get there.
  • Key Player: Gylfi Sigurdsson. Sigurdson is an iconic player from Iceland if there ever was such a thing. This isn’t a team that boasts individual brilliance, but rather collective cohesion, and if the smallest nation to ever qualify for the World Cup is to have any level of success, then the promotion of cooperativeness will be a necessity.
  • Player To Watch: This is a bit of a cop-out, but the entire team. This is not a team that has a group of players that have anything special about them — in fact, this is not an absurdly talented team in any way, shape or form, and even its best player is average by comparison to other nations.
  • Likely Formation: 4-4-2
  • Manager: Heimir Hallgrimsson

Nigeria:

  • How They Got Here: Won Africa Group B.
  • Predicted Position: Nigeria could make it out of the group stage, but not much further.
  • Key Player: Victor Moses. Moses has reinvented himself as a player since the last World Cup, and has flourished because of it. Before 2014, he was a winger for Liverpool and enjoyed a successful campaign, where it almost had its hands on the league trophy, but failed at the last second. Now, Moses has enjoyed two rather good campaigns for Chelsea as a wing-back, one of which did allow him to finally touch that oh-so-close trophy. Moses is a player that understands the game very well, and hopefully, he can pass some of that knowledge on to his teammates.
  • Player To Watch: Kelechi Iheanacho. This is a youngster that has plenty to prove as he fights for every last minute with Leicester City. He currently plays for a team that has a surplus of offensive talent, which is why Iheanacho has more to prove here than simply his country’s ability to play soccer — he has to deliver on his own potential.
  • Likely Formation: 4-3-3
  • Manager: Gernot Rohr

Group E:

Brazil:

  • How They Got Here: Won the South American Qualifying Group with only one loss.
  • Predicted Position: At worst, Brazil will go to the semifinal, and barring any major injuries like the one to Neymar in 2014, it could very well win it all this time.
  • Key Player: Neymar. Paris Saint-Germain paid the world record transfer fee for a soccer player at $263 million for the acquisition of the goal scorer last year, and that alone is a testament to how great Neymar can be when he is healthy.
  • Player To Watch: Gabriel Jesus. He arrived at Manchester City in January of 2017 and he made a quiet start before racing to the forefront this past season. Gabriel Jesus has, at times, been the first-choice striker for Pep Guardiola, despite having a plethora of other options on his record-shattering team. Will Jesus perform in his first World Cup or will he choke?
  • Likely Formation: 4-1-4-1
  • Manager: Tite

Switzerland:

  • How They Got Here: Second in Europe Group is after Portugal.
  • Predicted Position: Given the rather subpar competition that it will face, it should make it to the round of 16, but it won’t go more than one more round after that.
  • Key Player: Granit Xhaka. Xhaka is going to be a key part of ensuring this team functions as it should, as he will control the defense through the midfield. Switzerland is not a team that can rely on its offense to make up any defensive errors, so it will be crucial to the defense and midfield to make as few errors as possible if it wishes to progress.
  • Player To Watch: Breel Embolo. Embolo is a young player with plenty of potential, and Switzerland should make use of that unknown talent because it could get it one or two needed goals to squeeze by in tight games.
  • Likely Formation: 4-5-1
  • Manager: Vladimir Petkovic

Costa Rica:

  • How They Got Here: Second in CONCACAF.
  • Predicted Position: It is unlikely that they will get to the round of 16, but as evidenced by its 2014 World Cup run, it’s by no means impossible.
  • Key Player: Keylor Navas. As Real Madrid’s starting goalkeeper, I can’t think of a single goalkeeper that is going to be relied on more by a team than Navas will be. Sure, other goalkeeping performances will matter, but Costa Rica doesn’t have as much talent to bank on should goals be haphazardly scored.
  • Player To Watch: Marco Ureña. If Costa Rica wants to progress, then it needs this man to perform. He has been essential in every tournament since 2014 for them. He scored in its opening match in the last World Cup, and in the winner of the opening Confederations Cup match for Costa Rica. He will be essential in jump-starting the attacking mentality for Costa Rica.
  • Likely Formation: 5-4-1
  • Manager: Óscar Ramírez

Serbia:

  • How They Got Here: Winners of Europe Group D.
  • Predicted Position: It needs to beat Switzerland if it is going to make it to the round of 16, and they have about a 50-50 shot at that.
  • Key Player: Nemanja Matic. He has had a great season at Manchester United, and if he can translate that energy into the World Cup, then at the very least Serbia will be defensively solid.
  • Player To Watch: Marko Grujic. Grujic has been a fringe player for Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool, and considering Klopp’s recent success with many of his new recruits such as Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Georginio Wijnaldum, there is a good chance that what Klopp saw in Grujic is yet to come. This could be a great chance for Grujic to blossom.
  • Likely Formation: 3-4-3
  • Manager: Mladen Krstajic

Group F:

Germany:

  • How They Got Here: Won Europe Group C.
  • Predicted Position: Germany won the World Cup in 2014 and the Confederations Cup in 2017, so it has a great chance at winning it all once again.
  • Key Player: Thomas Muller. Muller has long been a mainstay for this national team. Muller will likely deliver a fantastic performance in this tournament as well.
  • Player To Watch: Marc-Andre Ter Stegen. Following in the footsteps of Manuel Neuer is not going to be easy for him, but he has developed into a fantastic goalkeeper capable of world-class goaltending. It should be interesting to see if he can fill the massive shoes vacated by the best goalkeeper in the world.
  • Likely Formation: 4-2-3-1
  • Manager: Joachim Loew

Mexico:

  • How They Got Here: Won CONCACAF Round Five.
  • Predicted Position: Mexico should qualify for the round of 16 and they could advance to the quarterfinals, but they don’t have enough talent to compete with many of the sides that make it that far. Mexico will likely be eliminated in the quarterfinals.
  • Key Player: Javier (Chicharito) Hernández. As the all-time leading goalscorer for Mexico, Chicharito will be essential to any success this team accomplishes during this tournament.
  • Player To Watch: Hirving Lozano. Lozano is one of the few younger Mexican players with so much promise. He is also one of the few La Liga MX products to be snatched up by a European club, especially a club like PSV, who is known for developing talented youth. Lozano is certainly one for the future of Mexico and it will be interesting to see how he performs before he has fully developed as a player.
  • Likely Formation: 4-3-3
  • Manager: Juan Carlos Osorio

Sweden:

  • How They Got Here: Second in Europe Group A.
  • Predicted Position: It’s unlikely they’ll make it past the group stage.
  • Key Player: Emil Forsberg. Forsberg has been a key member of RB Leipzig, who in the past few years has emerged as a major force in Bundesliga. Forsberg is one of a select few players that are performing well at a club that is also performing very well. For that, I think Forsberg must be considered as one of the leaders on this squad.
  • Player To Watch: Victor Lindelof. Lindelof hasn’t had the best season with his new club, Manchester United, but he is a capable defender that can play anywhere defensively. If Sweden is hoping to progress, or even win a few games, then utilizing Lindelof in its defense will be important, whether that be as a starter, or as a super sub, of sorts.
  • Likely Formation: 4-4-2
  • Manager: Janne Andersson

South Korea:

  • How They Got Here: Second in Asia Group A.
  • Predicted Position: Korea doesn’t have a ton of talent to work with, and given that it is up against Brazil, it is difficult to see South Korea advancing past the group stage.
  • Key Player: Son Heung-Min. Son is the star of South Korea and the first South Korean in years to make a splash in the Barclays Premier League. Son’s offensive capability and constant aggressive will to score will be essential to keeping South Korea from being drowned out in what will be a stacked group for them.
  • Player To Watch: Lee Chung-Yong. Lee has had a spell on the sideline following an injury at the beginning of the qualification campaign, but prior to that, he was a constant in the South Korean team. It will be interesting to see how he responds to returning to the team after so long.
  • Likely Formation: 4-4-2
  • Manager: Shin Tae-Yong

Group G:

Belgium:

  • How They Got Here: Winners of Group H.
  • Predicted Position: Belgium should make it all the way to the quarter, and with enough luck, it could even go to the semifinals, but the finals are doubtful.
  • Key Player: Eden Hazard. Pundits and fans alike have deemed Hazard as the successor to Messi and Ronaldo, so that when they retire, he will be considered by many to be among the best in the world.
  • Player To Watch: Kevin De Bruyne. Since 2014, De Bruyne has switched from lowly Bundesliga side Wolfsburg to record-breaking champion Manchester City, and some have even deemed him the new “magician” as an ode to David Silva and as a compliment to De Bruyne’s ability. It will be interesting to see how much more he can add to an already great team that is considered to be in a “golden generation” by many spectators.
  • Likely Formation: 3-4-2-1
  • Manager: Roberto Martinez

England:

  • How They Got Here: Winners of Europe Group F.
  • Predicted Position: They’re almost guaranteed to go to the round of 16, but beyond that is questionable at best.
  • Key Player: Harry Kane. Kane has been the Golden Boot award winner for the Barclays Premier League in 2016 and 2017, and if England is hoping to be successful, then Kane finding the net is essential.
  • Player To Watch: Raheem Sterling, who had an amazing run with Manchester City this season, scoring a personal record 18 goals in 33 starts. Sterling has generally not been a star performer on the national level, but with such a great season, perhaps some of that hard work will translate into this tournament.
  • Likely Formation: 3-4-2-1
  • Manager: Gareth Southgate

Tunisia:

  • How They Got Here: Won Africa Group A.
  • Predicted Position: It is unlikely, given the competition in this group, that Tunisia will advance beyond the group stage.
  • Key Player: Youssef Msakni. Given that he has participated in five Africa Cup of Nations, he is very clearly an experienced player that can help this team navigate the ups and downs of tournaments, which can be just as important as physical ability.
  • Player To Watch: Naim Sliti. Given a team of very unremarkable players, Sliti has at least come up big when it counted upon. In his international debut two years ago, he scored, and maybe he can come up big again for Tunisia in this tournament.
  • Likely Formation: 4-2-3-1
  • Manager: Nabil Maaloul

Panama:

  • How They Got Here: No. 3 in CONCACAF Round Five.
  • Predicted Position: Given the competition, Panama won’t make it past the group stage, but it very well could beat Tunisia to claim a third place finish.
  • Key Player: Gabriel Enrique Gómez. Gómez, a mainstay with over 100 appearances with this team, can help to rally core team members in key moments of matches.
  • Player To Watch: Roman Torres. He has been playing well for the Seattle Sounders, and Americans seeing a Major League Soccer player do well on the international level will help the league further develop soccer in America.
  • Likely Formation: 4-4-2
  • Manager: Hernán Darío Gómez

Group H:

Poland:

  • How They Got Here: Winners of Europe Group E.
  • Predicted Position: This is the toughest group to predict, as its components all relatively equate in terms of ability, but in my opinion, don’t think Poland is going to make it to the round of 16 because Lewandowski is the only truly great player surrounded by many OK players.
  • Key Player: Robert Lewandowski. As the starting striker for Bayern Munich — who wins the Bundesliga almost every year — and as a regular Golden Boot award winner in Bundesliga, Lewandowski scoring is what got Poland this far and it is what will get Poland further in the competition if that is even possible given the skill of the other teams in this group.
  • Player To Watch: Wojciech Szczęsny. Lewandowski is clearly the no. 1 man going forward, but it’s also important to recognize the goalkeeper, as Lewandowski can only score so many goals in a match.
  • Likely Formation: 4-2-3-1
  • Manager: Adam Nawalka

Columbia:

  • How They Got Here: No. 4 in South American Section.
  • Predicted Position: Round of 16 and then be eliminated, although if the threat of James Rodríguez can be quelled, then Columbia won’t make it through the group stage.
  • Key Player: James Rodríguez. As the Golden Boot award winner for the 2014 World Cup and the no. 1 reason Columbia made any sort of noise during the last World Cup, it is essential that any opponent of Columbia eliminates the threat that Rodríguez poses.
  • Player To Watch: Radamel Falcao. Falcao endured a terrible spell while playing at Manchester United, but since returning to AS Monaco, Falcao has been back to regularly scoring goals. If Columbia wants to advance, then it needs the Falcao from Monaco, not the Manchester one.
  • Likely Formation: 4-2-3-1
  • Manager: José Pékerman

Senegal:

  • How They Got Here: Won Africa Group D.
  • Predicted Position: I don’t think Senegal will make it out of the group stage, but once again, that all depends on how the other teams compose themselves.
  • Key Player: Sadio Mane. In the past two years, Mane has blossomed under the guidance of Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool and has made a name for himself throughout Europe. If Senegal is trying to progress into the latter stages of the tournament, then Mane has to be able to exploit every offensive situation available to him.
  • Player To Watch: M’baye Niang. After declaring his one-time nationality switch from France to Senegal and also after moving from club to club on loan for the past few years, Niang has so much to prove. The sheer pressure put on Niang to prove himself in a time where his home club of A.C. Milan won’t keep him and his originally chosen national team won’t give him a senior opportunity, Niang has to fight to be recognized. This personal battle could prove beneficial to everyone on the Senegal national team, as it will give him an added incentive.
  • Likely Formation: 4-3-3
  • Manager: Aliou Cissé

Japan:

  • How They Got Here: Won Asia Group B.
  • Predicted Position: If Japan can remain disciplined and energetic, it could reach the round of 16, but no further.
  • Key Player: Shinji Okazaki. As the current top active national team goalscorer on a team that scores very few goals, Okazaki is going to be essential to Japan progressing to the round of 16.
  • Player To Watch: Keisuke Honda. After struggling for time at A.C. Milan and with his contract expiring, Honda chose to move to Pachuca in Mexico in a bid for more playing time. Honda has long been a key creative force for Japan, and over the last four years, the team has suffered due to his lack of club playing time, but will this added time in Mexico benefit his performance on the international team?
  • Likely Formation: 4-3-3
  • Manager: Vahid Halilhodžić

Courtesy of Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images | As the 2018 World Cup begins to commence in Russia, the world will be watching to see how each nation competes.