Germany take their bow at World Cup 2018 in Group F, and the reigning champions will have their minds set on becoming the first country to retain the World Cup since that great Brazil side of 1958-62.
Their first mission is to get through a group that is arguably trickier than it first appears. Mexico have some supremely talented players at their disposal, while Sweden are capable of causing a shock even without Zlatan Ibrahimovic. South Korea are no pushovers either, so the Germans will need to earn their path to the knockout stage of the competition.
But will they make it?
Germany – Group Winner Odds: 4/9
Head Coach: Joachim Low
Key Man: Thomas Muller
This is a Germany team that appears ready to enjoy further success. Manuel Neuer, their brilliant goalkeeper, is back and should be fit to start in Russia after missing the majority of the 2017/18 season.
Jerome Boateng is peaking at the age of 29, while Joshua Kimmich is developing into one of the finest players on the planet at either right back or in the middle of the park.
Toni Kroos, a Champions League winner with Real Madrid, will spray passes around to Thomas Muller to the right, Leroy Sane to the left and Mesut Ozil and Timo Werner in front, and that is an attacking unit that can win any game of football.
In Joachim Low they have a coach who is well experienced in winning major international trophies, and the Germans really are the experts when it comes to winning major tournaments.
Played out on European soil, they are a tempting 5/1 to win the whole tournament; so Germany’s price of 4/9 to win the group simply cannot be ignored.
Mexico – Group Winner Odds: 6/1
Head Coach: Juan Carlos Osorio
Key Man: Hirving Lozano
Mexico have reached the last 16 in each of their last seven World Cup appearances, and they will be hoping to extend that record in Russia.
They are the best team in Central America by some distance, which makes qualification a doddle, and in Javier Hernandez, Carlos Vela and Hirving Lozano, the outstanding PSV prospect, they have a front three which can really make a difference.
Otherwise, they are a well drilled and organised bunch, as we expect the American sides to be, that doesn’t mind a tackle.
In 2017, they reached the semi-finals of both the Confederations Cup and the Gold Cup, and they made the last eight of Copa America in 2016. Many of their players ply their club trade in Europe, and so playing in Russia will not be an alien environment for them.
This is one of the toughest groups to call, but there is plenty of value to be enjoyed in the 6/5 available on Mexico to qualify for the knockout phase of the competition.
Sweden – Group Winner Odds: 8/1
Head Coach: Janne Andersson
Key Man: Emil Forsberg
Eight goals….that was the margin that Sweden finished ahead of the Netherlands in qualifying to secure a play-off place.
Sweden’s result against Luxembourg: 8-0.
There was an element of good fortune to the Swedes making the play-offs then, but they took full advantage when they got there by beating Italy 1-0 on aggregate.
A look at their squad doesn’t exactly inspire confidence, however. Their key defender is Victor Lindelof, who endured a tough first season at Manchester United, while the responsibility of putting the ball in the net will fall to 31-year-old Marcus Berg, who plays his club football in the Middle East.
Sweden haven’t qualified for a World Cup since 2006 and haven’t gone beyond the group phase of a European Championship since 2004; this current crop of players appears to be simply out of their depth at elite level.
South Korea – Group Winner Odds: 20/1
Head Coach: Sin Tae-yong
Key Man: Son Heung-min
The greatest moment in South Korean football history came in the World Cup of 2002, where they defied the odds to reach the semi-finals.
There hasn’t been much to shout about since, and the concern for them will be that they have seemingly stopped exporting players to play their club football abroad. Indeed, only five of their preliminary 26-man squad are based outside of Korea, Japan and China.
Qualifying was less than a breeze, too. They finished second behind Iran and just two points ahead of Syria and Uzbekistan, winning 4/10 and ending up on a goal difference of +1. It’s hardly the most comprehensive of qualification campaigns, put it that way.
Much will depend on the form of Son Heung-min if they are to cause a huge upset in Russia, but no man is an island and even the Spurs ace surely cannot propel Korea to the last 16.