After the humiliation of the 7-1 defeat to Germany in 2014 and the two dreadful years under Dunga’s leadership that followed, new manager Tite has Brazil swaggering again.
The talented coach has built a system that emphasizes crisp defensive rotations and pressing, but not at the cost of attacking expression. It’s cohesive, and it was pretty well unstoppable during South American qualifying.
Dani Alvas was a big loss and Neymar’s fitness and fragility are concerns, but there’s no reason why this shouldn’t be Brazil’s best team since 2002.
There is plenty of reason to be pessimistic about Serbia. They fired their coach shortly after securing qualification, largely because he refused to call in star midfielder Sergej Milinković-Savić. He was replaced with a former player, Mladen Krstajić, who has no previous managerial experience.
With all that said, there are plenty of reasons for optimism too. The team has a ton of experience and an excellent midfield, plus a striker in Newcastle’s Aleksandar Mitrović who is in terrific form.
You wouldn’t think of Serbia as a team with an especially high ceiling and low floor, but that’s what this edition seems to be.
3. Costa Rica
The Ticos exceeded expectations at the last World Cup. They reached the quarterfinals after beating Uruguay and Italy and only falling to the Netherlands on penalties.
Much of that 2014 team is back for this tournament, and Costa Rica will play a similar style of soccer in a 5-4-1 that relies on wide playmaking and defensive strength through the middle.
But whereas Costa Rica took everyone by surprise in Brazil, they won’t have that luxury in Russia. A lack of pace and skill in midfield could prove fatal.
Switzerland have been reliable qualifiers and reliably average at major tournaments for the last decade, and more of the same is expected here.
Xherdan Shaqiri, still the star man, is a fairly maddening player – capable of brilliance, but temperamental and selfish – while there is still no forward capable of stretching opposing defenses or scoring goals.
If Serbia flop, Switzerland should be in a position to advance. But if Shaqiri doesn’t score in bunches, this team will struggle regardless.
Game to Watch: Switzerland vs. Serbia — Friday, June 22 at 2pm ET on FOX, Telemundo and fubo
It won’t be all that thrilling, but it’ll be a battle between players who know each other well and will likely – though Costa Rica can’t be counted all the way out – decide the destination of second place in the group.
Player to Watch: Neymar, Brazil
Brazil is nowhere near as reliant on Neymar as they were in 2014, but he’s still the talisman, and he’s coming off of a broken foot. How quickly can he get up to his best after not playing a competitive game for more than three months?
The defending champions have kept whirring away over the last four years, and return to the World Cup with a squad that might just be better than the one that won in Brazil.
Timo Werner promises to add quality up top, while there’s so much depth in midfield that Mario Gotze didn’t make the squad. Joachim Low is international football’s best coach, and his players know his system inside and out.
What could go wrong? The last two defending champions have failed to advance from the group stage. Captain and goalkeeper Manuel Neuer hasn’t played since September. This team also doesn’t have the raw attacking talent of some of their top rivals. That’s what hurt them at the Euros, and could make them pay here.
Mexico enters this World Cup with what, on paper, is easily the second best team in this group. There’s plenty of talent in the attack and midfield, a passable defense, and, apparently, belief in the eccentricities of manager Juan Carlos Osorio.
But will this team hold up mentally? Mexico, remember, has fallen at the Round of 16 stage at each of the last five World Cups, and went to pieces in their first knockout game at major tournaments in 2016 and ’17.
Osorio will use all of his players, rotating and changing systems based on the opposition, but whoever and however they play, Mexico is good enough to advance. They’ll be judged on what happens after that.
The Swedes – minus Zlatan Ibrahimovic – claimed two prestigious scalps en route to the tournament, making the finals at the expense first of the Netherlands, then of Italy.
Manager Janne Andersson smartly turned down Ibrahimovic’s overtures to rejoin the squad for the finals, as the team has improved since the striker retired from international football. They’re committed defensively, play for each other, and have a difference maker in Emil Forsberg.
That said, Sweden have very, very little top-shelf talent in this team. They like to defend but don’t have the pace to counter, and their target forwards don’t score many goals. If they fall behind Germany or Mexico, they’re in serious trouble.
4. South Korea
It’s been a down cycle for Asian teams, and nowhere was this more apparent than in perennial qualifiers South Korea. Outside of Tottenham’s Son Heung-min, this team has very few players who would start for any other team in the tournament.
If Son doesn’t get going – and manager Shin Tae-yong has voiced concerns about his energy level after the European club season – goals will be hard to come by. Either way, they’ll be conceded in bunches.
Game to Watch: Mexico vs. Germany — Sunday, June 17 at 11am ET on FS1, Telemundo and fubo
If Mexico loses this game, their likely Round of 16 opponent will be… Brazil. Not ideal. Germany also thrashed El Tri, with a B team, 4-1 at the Confederations Cup last summer. The pressure will be squarely on Osorio and Co.
Player to Watch: Thomas Muller, Germany
Muller was tremendous at the World Cups of 2010 and 2014, but he’s endured a difficult couple of seasons at Bayern Munich. Germany needs him to be on song if they want to repeat.
The incompetent coaching of Marc Wilmots held Belgium’s greatest ever generation of talent back at the last two major tournaments, but even with Wilmots gone now, replaced by former Everton manager Roberto Martinez, coaching remains the primary concern.
Martinez loves to attack, but because Belgium don’t have any fullbacks – a recurring issue – he has his team playing a very unusual kind of 3-4-2-1 formation. Star man Kevin De Bruyne blasted the tactical setup late last year.
And yet, there’s no doubt that Martinez is more capable than Wilmots, and no doubt that Belgium have the talent to win the trophy. Whether they can all pull together before they reach the knockout stages could decide the fate of the entire tournament.
This England team is nowhere near the favorites, but give manager Gareth Southgate credit: he’s tackled one of football’s most difficult jobs with an admirable clarity of purpose: turning the team over to young players, and installing a clear system of play.
That system is a 5-3-2, with two attacking midfielders in the trio, and the Three Lions are comfortable in it. That’s promising, as is the feeling that this squad has baggage – psychological and otherwise – than England teams of the pass.
There is a lack of passing quality in midfield, and concern over who will occupy the three center back spots, but Southgate’s team, with low expectations, could be a pleasant surprise.
Africa has plenty of exciting representative teams at this tournament, but Tunisia is not one of them. The Eagles of Carthage battle, but they’re desperately short of quality in midfield and up top.
And as if they weren’t in trouble before, star striker Youssef Msakni tore a knee ligament in April. Tunisia could frustrate England or Belgium, but their chances of progressing look extremely slim.
Tunisia does have hope, however, against Panama – a tournament debutant that embodies “happy to be here” cliché: the captain, Roman Torres, is getting a statue outside of the national stadium for scoring the decisive goal in qualifying.
Panama have very few players who have played outside of CONCACAF, and a number of their better talents are on the wrong side of 30.
They’ll play extremely physical soccer and try to bring the likes of Belgium and England down to their level, but they could easily end the tournament with one of its worst goal differentials.
Game to Watch: Belgium vs. England — Thursday, June 28 at 2pm ET on FOX, Telemundo and fubo
It’s a shame that this game comes last for each of these teams as opposed to first or second, but it will still be an excellent test for both sides heading into the knockout rounds.
Player to Watch: Kevin De Bruyne, Belgium
The Manchester City star excoriated Martinez’s tactics last year, which doesn’t bode well – De Bruyne needs to be bought in and at his best if Belgium is to compete for the title.
Colombia exploded back onto the world stage in 2014, led by an effervescent James Rodriguez, and they’ve stuck around since: semifinalists at the Copa America Centenario, and qualifiers, at the very end, for this year’s World Cup.
The quarterfinals are, again, a realistic aim. The defense is younger and more athletic than it was in Brazil, led by Davinson Sanchez and Yerry Mina, while Falcao’s resurgence with Monaco gives the team a top-line forward.
With all that said, James will have to be magnificent again. Colombia plays fast and physical, but they don’t have the firepower of the likes of Brazil and Argentina. To make a run at the trophy, they’ll need to punch above their weight.
Much as they did when they knocked off defending champions France in 2002, Senegal could steal the show this summer. They’ve got pace up top, are muscular through the middle, and have star power on both ends of the field in winger Sadio Mane and center back Kalidou Koulibaly.
But there’s not yet been a clear indication that this team can realize its potential. There are huge doubts over the quality of manager Aliou Cisse, the captain of the 2002 team, who is inexperienced and hasn’t settled on a system or first-choice starting lineup.
Qualification was secured comfortably, but the team still looks better on paper than it does in practice. Whatever happens, it should be an entertaining ride.
Poland have had to wait 12 years to return to the World Cup, but they’re doing so with a team that reached the quarterfinals of Euro 2016 and is built to compete. Robert Lewandowski is the main man, but he has plenty of support going forward.
But good as Poland can be going forward, their aging defense is susceptible – see the 4-0 loss Denmark handed them in Copenhagen in qualifying – and a number of their key players are coming off of difficult seasons.
Poland has the misfortune of playing Colombia and Senegal first, so they’ll need to hit the ground running. If they don”t, despite their status as the top seed in this group, they might go home early.
The Samurai Blue will be at their sixth straight World Cup, but they’re arriving in a troubled state: manager Vahid Halilhodzic, who led Algeria out of the group stage in Brazil, was fired in March and replaced with the veteran Akira Nishino.
Nishino has reinstated waning stars Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda, whom Halilhodzic had cast out of the team, so while that crisis has been solved, the age and physical capability of the side is a major concern.
Japan have long played pretty football, and are capable of scoring goals, but they’re in desperate need of a generational reset and unlikely to keep pace in Russia.
Game to Watch: Colombia vs. Senegal — Thursday, June 28 at 10am ET on FOX, Telemundo and fubo
These should be the two best teams to watch in this group, and chances are that one of the sides is going to be playing for its tournament life when they meet on the final day of group play.
Player to Watch: Sadio Mane, Senegal
Mane took a backseat to Mohamed Salah this year, but he was a huge part of Liverpool’s run to the Champions League final and could light up the tournament.
SEE MORE: World Cup Predictions: Groups A-D