FIFA ranking: 1
Best WC show: Winner 1954, 1974, 1990, 2014
Group F: Germany, Mexico, Sweden, Korea Republic
Germany saw a pool of talent rise through the ranks ever since their title triumph four years ago in Brazil. Some really good youngsters have joined the senior team after performing well at the club level, thus lending a fine balance to the side comprising a handful of experienced blokes. Players like Joshua Kimmich and Timo Werner have become regulars in the starting line-up and much will be expected of them. The return of Manuel Neuer under the bars after a long injury lay-off adds strength to an already formidable outfit.
Key players: Thomas Muller (forward), Toni Kroos (midfielder), Joshua Kimmich (defender)
FIFA ranking: 2
Best WC show: Winner 1958, 1962, 1970, 1994, 2002
Group E: Brazil, Switzerland, Costa Rica, Serbia
While it has been four years since Brazil’s humiliating ouster at their home WC following the 1-7 thrashing by Germany in the semifinal, the five-time champions have displayed ominous form in the run up to Russia to once again start the WC as favourites. The arrival of Tite as coach in June 2016 saw A Seleçao rediscover their form of old. Moreover, Neymar’s successful return from injury will add strength to an already potent attacking line-up comprising Philippe Coutinho, Gabriel Jesus and Roberto Firmino. The clash against Switzerland is likely to decide which team will top the group.
Key players: Neymar Jr (forward), Fernandinho (midfielder), Marcelo Vieira (defender)
FIFA ranking: 3
Best WC show: Fourth 1986
Group G: Belgium, England,
Ranked No. 3 in the world, the Red Devils have strong players in every department to emerge as the dark horse in Russia. The midfield, led by Man City stalwart Kevin de Bruyne, and the attack, spearheaded by Chelsea superstar Eden Hazard, looks good enough to take apart any opposition on its day. The presence of Thibaut Courtois, one of the best contemporary goalkeepers, adds strength to Belgium’s defensive plans. But while the team is a mix of players representing some of the top clubs in the world, it would be interesting to see how they gel as an international unit.
Key players: Eden Hazard (forward), Kevin de Bruyne (midfielder), Thibaut Courtois (goalkeeper)
FIFA ranking: 5
Best WC show: Winner 1978, 1986
Group D: Argentina, Croatia, Iceland, Nigeria
With an in-form Lionel Messi leading the side, Argentina is bound to start the tournament as one of the favourites. Despite coming close to not qualifying for the event in Russia and sneaking in on the last day of the qualifiers, the Albiceleste would fancy their chances to top the group given their balanced squad with the right blend of youth and experience. Messi & Co. would be eager to improve their record of failing in the final hurdle after finishing runner-up at Brazil 2014 and the two subsequent editions of Copa America.
Key players: Lionel Messi (forward), Paulo Dybala (forward), Angel Di Maria (midfielder)
FIFA ranking: 4
Best WC show: Third 1966
Group B: Portugal, Spain, Morocco, Iran
The reigning European champions, Portugal finished atop Group B in the European qualifying rounds and shouldn’t face much difficulty in advancing from their group along with Spain. Also, the side will be familiar with the conditions in Russia, where Portugal finished third in the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup, defeating Mexico in the play-off encounter. Star forward Cristiano Ronaldo has won all major prizes available in modern football, except one: The World Cup. Playing in his fourth WC at 33, Ronaldo will give his all to lay his hands on the trophy.
Key players: Cristiano Ronaldo (forward), Ricardo Quaresma (forward), Bernardo Silva (midfielder)
FIFA ranking: 20
Best WC show: Third 1998
Group D: Croatia, Argentina, Iceland, Nigeria
It would be wrong to write off a squad comprising players from Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, Juventus, Inter Milan and AC Milan. Croatia rose to the occasion back in 1998 in France, when they competed at their first World Cup, finishing third. The present bunch of players would be eager to recreate that magic, despite finding themselves in a tough group consisting of Argentina, Nigeria and Iceland. But the presence of Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic in the midfield and Mario Mandzukic and Ivan Perisic upfront can give nightmares to the defenders of any opposition.
Key players: Ivan Perisic (forward), Luka Modric (midfielder), Ivan Rakitic (midfielder)
FIFA ranking: 16
Best WC show: Quarterfinal 2014
Group H: Colombia, Poland, Senegal, Japan
Earning the last automatic qualification spot from South America, Colombia will be keen to better their performance at Brazil 2014 when they reached the quarterfinal before going down to the hosts by a solitary goal. The clash between Poland and Colombia could prove pivotal, in terms of who will advance to the knockout stage. With players from top European clubs featuring in the side, Colombia have all it takes to spring surprises in Russia. Radamel Falcao and James Rodriguez will be key players for the Los Cafeteros.
Key players: James Rodriguez (midfielder), Radamel Falcao (forward), Davinson Sanchez (defender)
FIFA ranking: 7
Best WC show: Winner 1998
Group C: France, Australia, Peru, Denmark
Arguably the best side at this year’s WC on paper, the Les Bleus aren’t likely to face much difficulty in advancing from the group as table toppers. Though they lost the Euro 2016 final against Portugal on home soil, France still have enough potential match-winners, both in the midfield and the attacking zone, to destroy any opposition on their day. The only issue that coach Didier Deschamps might face is the difficulty to pick the playing XI, as there are too many good players to choose from. It’s a healthy problem, nonetheless.
Key players: Antoine Griezmann (forward), Kylian Mbappe (forward), N’Golo Kante (midfielder)
FIFA ranking: 8
Best WC show: Winner 2010
Group B: Spain, Portugal, Morocco, Iran
After the poor show in their last two major outings, exiting in the group stage at WC 2014 and in the last 16 at Euro 2016, the La Furia Roja once again looked like returning to their dominating best heading into Russia 2018. Unbeaten in their last 18 matches, which includes a 6-1 thrashing of Argentina in March, Spain will go out all guns blazing and try to prove a point in what will be the last WC for one of the most decorated midfielders of the present era — Andres Iniesta.
Key players: Isco (forward), Andres Iniesta (midfielder), David Silva (midfielder)
FIFA ranking: 12
Best WC show: Winner 1966
Group G: England, Belgium, Panama, Tunisia
While according to sports data company Gracenote, England have less chance (4 per cent) of winning the World Cup than Peru, it would wrong to underestimate the Three Lions’ chances of springing a few surprises. England head to Russia with a relatively young squad, featuring players who were at top form for their respective clubs in the run up to the WC. Led by prolific striker Harry Kane, England look like a cohesive unit which shouldn’t face any problem in sailing into the knockout stage along with Belgium, a team against whom they have lost just once in 21 meetings.
Key players: Harry Kane (forward), Dele Alli (midfielder), Ashley Young (defender)