Group F comprises of world champions Germany (currently ranked 1 by FIFA), Mexico (ranked 15), Sweden (ranked 24) and South Korea (ranked 57). Germany are clear favourites to win this group, with Mexico and Sweden likely to fight for second place. No one seems to think South Korea have any chance here. But football is football, and world cups always throw up a few surprises, so who knows?
This will be the 9th straight world cup appearance for South Korea. One thing one can be sure about any Korean football team is that they will never stop trying. This time they are in a really tough group, and perhaps qualification is well nigh impossible, but the Koreans are certain to give it a go. Coached by their former international midfielder Shin Tae-yong, they have a squad that shows a fine balance of youth and experience.
They are likely to have Kim Seung-gyu in goal, to add to his single appearance in 2014. The defence is, as usual, well drilled, with the experienced full backs Lee Yong and Park Joo-ho and centre back Kim Yong-gwon complemented by the younger Jang Hyun-soo and Hong Chul. Go Yo-han can also play a part. The midfield general is likely to be captain Ki Sung-yeung (in his 3rd cup), assisted in all probability by Koo Ja-cheol, Lee Jae-sung and Jung Woo-young. Young Italy based winger Lee Seung-woo can also make a mark if given an opportunity.
The main striker for the Koreans are likely to be Son Heung-min and very tall Kim Shin-wook. Young Hwang Hee-chan can also lend support from the flanks if selected.
Sweden’s coach Janne Andersson has left out their iconic striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic and shown faith to the squad that helped Sweden qualify, including a famous victory over Italy in the play-off. Even without Ibra, they have a pretty experienced squad, with plenty of skilful players. To qualify, they will have to finish ahead of Mexico, at least, but after their heroics against Italy, who can bet against them?
They lack a really experienced goalkeeper, though probable first choice Robin Olsen is slowly making a reputation for himself. In defence captain Andreas Granqvist has plenty of international experience, and he is likely to be partnered by the talented Victor Lindelof in the centre. Pontus Jansson is another capable centre back. The Swedes are well served in the wing back section, with the experienced Mikael Lustig and Martin Olsson most likely to play. Youngsters Emil Krafth and Ludwig Augustinsson are also talented full backs.
The midfield rotates around the veteran Sebastian Larsson, with Albin Ekdal a highly skilful counterpart. Jimmy Durmaz and the brilliant Emil Forsberg will provide width from the wings. Oscar Hiljemark, Victor Claesson and Marcus Rohden are all competent enough to fill in when required. The attack is spearheaded by the veteran Marcus Berg, with likely support from the experienced Ola Toivonen and the younger John Guidetti. Isaac Kiese Thelin may be their surprise package.
Mexico come into this world cup in decent form, with a host of very experienced players, along with a few emerging talents. Colombian coach Juan Carlos Osorio has a squad that can compete at this level with elan. Their iconic midfielder turned defender Rafael Marquez is set to become only the 4th player in history to appear in 5 world cups, and the squad would like to put up a performance to honour this achievement.
The splendid Guillermo Ochoa is likely to play in goal for Mexico. The centre of the defence, apart from Marquez, has other experienced players in Hector Moreno, Diego Reyes and Hugo Ayala, along with young Carlos Salcedo, not to be confused with another defender Carlos Salcido who played in the last three cups for Mexico but is missing out this time. Young Edson Alvarez is a versatile defender who can play as a full back, though the Mexicans are likely to use wing backs.
Miguel Layun, Jesus Gallardo and Jesus Corona can fill in as wing backs, while the midfield general is undoubtedly captain Andres Guardado. The skilful Giovanni dos Santos is now vastly experienced and likely to leave a mark on this world cup. His half-brother Jonathan dos Santos is emerging as another potent midfielder. But the real livewire in Mexico’s midfield this time could well be the immensely talented Hirving Lozano, who can run in from wide areas to bemuse defenders with his speed and skill and create chances at will. Mexico have several competent strikers to pounce on such chances, with the experienced quartet of Javier Hernandez, Oribe Peralta, Carlos Vela and Raul Jimenez.
Germany are favourites to retain their title, and thus become the first team since Brazil in 1962 to do so. However, Joachim Low’s side will have to be at their best to overcome the challenges that are bound to crop up on the way. Nine of the world cup winning squad are there this time to continue their reign as world champions for another 4 years.
Squad captain Manuel Nauer is back from injury in the nick of time to take his place in goal for the Germans. If he is somehow found unfit to play, his splendid understudy Marc-Andre ter Stegen is ready to take up the job. The centre of the defence seems to be rock solid, with the likes of Mats Hummels, Jerome Boateng and Antonio Rudiger to pick from. Matthias Ginter and Niklas Sule are also there to challenge for places. Side backs Joshua Kimmich and Jonas Hector are among the best in the world.
In midfield, the tried and tested Mesut Ozil, Sami Khedira, Toni Kroos and Ilkay Gundogan form an admirable spine, along with relative newcomers Sebastian Rudy and Leon Goretzka. Julian Draxler can wreck havoc from the wings, as can the young talent Julian Brandt. And the there is Thomas Muller, who has this happy knack of drifting in from the flanks and score goals after goals, especially in world cups. Germany’s strike force will probably be spearheaded by another hugely talented youngster, Timo Werner. The veteran Mario Gomez is also there, back after missing the previous cup, as also is Marcus Reus, who can create panic from slightly deeper positions.
(From the desk of Rajat Subhra Banerjee)