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We’ve all read Das Reboot, yes? So we know the tale of how Germany stopped its slide into mediocrity and became the most powerful soccer country the world has known — a mission that found its apex with a shocking 7-1 semifinal destruction of host Brazil en route to Der Mannschaft’s fourth World Cup title and the first without “West” in front of its name.
Germany is back and maybe better for 2018, and if there are others in the field who look capable to claiming the trophy — a rejuvenated Brazil, deep-and-talented France, a strong-if-transitional Spain — it would surprise if anyone other than the Germans were celebrating come July 15.
They’re not invincible, as the Brazilians proved in a March friendly, but they appear a shoo-in to dominate this group and delegate either Mexico or Sweden — their faceoff is one of the must-see games of the first round — to a Round-of-16 appointment with Brazil.
WATCH: Is Germany in a great spot to repeat?
Germany has more talent, better depth and a greater belief in what it can accomplish than everyone else in the field, but that’s not why they’re a good bet to equal Brazil’s record of five World Cup titles. It’s how well manager Joachim Löw has married the traditional strengths — organization, intelligence and a ruthless efficiency — to a flowing, elegant possession game that has neutrals, finally, cheering the Germans on.
Löw, Jürgen Klinsmann’s tactician when the host Germans overachieved to finish third in 2006, has been in charge for nearly a dozen years, and they’ve grown so dominant that their European Championship record in that time — one title-game appearance and two more semifinal trips — reads as a disappointment. They were unstoppable in the qualifiers, winning all 10 encounters and outscoring opponents, 43-4, and breezed to the title at last year’s FIFA Confederations Cup with a young squad missing most of the first-choice players. How much stock to put into draws with England and France in November and with Spain a few days before the Berlin loss to Brazil depends on how greatly one values friendlies.
Real Madrid’s Toni Kroos commands the German attack as a mobile playmaker with exquisite vision, ethos and intelligence. Defensive-minded Sami Khadera, from Juventus, or Schalke 04’s rising Leon Goretzka provide cover, with Arsenal’s Mesut Özil and Bayern Munich’s Thomas Müller running riot off the attacking midfield line in a 4-2-3-1 formation. Leipzig’s Timo Werner has seen most time up front, and Stuttgart’s 32-year-old Mario Gomez offers another option. Bayern right back Joshua Kimmich led Europe with nine qualifying assists.
There are several injury concerns. Bayern’s Manuel Neuer, one of the world’s elite goalkeepers, just returned to training after seven months off with a foot injury. Center back Jerome Boateng, whose partnership with Bayern teammate Mats Hummel has been so productive, is trying to come back from a thigh injury suffered in April. Özil has back issues, and Borussia Dortmund’s Marco Reus, a midfield starter if healthy, is coming back from a knee ailment. There are other options at every spot, but Germany might need to be at its best, and with its best, to prevail this summer.
This is one of the most talented sides Mexico has taken to a World Cup, but that might mean nothing in El Tri’s quest to reach the fifth game — the quarterfinals — after six successive Round-of-16 exits. They’ve been to the quarters twice, as host in 1970 and 1986, but have closed the gap to the top European and South American sides as more players gain experience in Europe’s top leagues.
This team is mostly in its prime, and it arrives after a dominant CONCACAF’s qualifying campaign, which did much to ease concerns following that 7-0 loss to Chile at the Copa America Centenario two years ago. Manager Juan Carlos Osorio, who played college soccer and started his coaching career in the U.S. (and was head coach of two MLS teams), loves to tinker, perhaps too much so. He’s used a different lineup in every one of his 44 games in charge, and if that tactical flexibility can be an advantage, it also can be a hindrance.
Mexico possesses a deep and capable attack featuring PSV’s Hirving Lozano, just 22, and Los Angeles FC’s Carlos Vela on the flanks with Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez up top, unless Benfica’s Raul Jimenez can wrest some minutes away from him. Real Betis’ Andres Guardado anchors midfield, and Real Sociedad’s Hector Moreno will be needed to marshal a leaky backline. Rafa Marquez, 39, is looking to become the fourth player at five World Cups. Germany, the first foe, romped 4-1 in last year’s Confederations Cup semifinals, and El Tri’s June 27 battle with Sweden likely will decide who Brazil beats in the Round of 16.
Sweden wasn’t supposed to be here but eked out a 1-0 aggregate victory over Italy in the UEFA playoffs, depriving the four-time champion Azzurri of a World Cup berth for the first time in 60 years. Holland, too, was eliminated (on goal difference) by the Swedes, so they already have accomplished plenty this cycle. Whether they can do more depends on what they can get from their unity/utility approach. The Round of 16 is within reach, if they can hold off a more talented Mexico side.
Janne Andersson’s group is nearly starless after Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s international retirement two years ago — the federation in late April finally killed the buzz that he might return — but it’s a better team without him; a collective of resolute workers whose robust play and fine chemistry add up to more than the sum of parts. The big name is Leipzig playmaker Emil Forsberg, an improviser who can score as well as create, but he labored this season in the Bundesliga after such a strong campaign the year before.
Captain Andreas Granqvist is the leader at the back, and his partnership with Victor Lindelof, who had a poor time this season with Manchester United, will be critical. Granqvist and rising winger Viktor Claesson play for Krasnodar, so they know the Russian landscape, but too many on the roster are coming off seasons spent mostly on the bench.
South Korea has become a fixture at the World Cup. This is the Taegeuk Warriors’ ninth straight appearance, and aside from that semifinal run at home in 2002 — aided by some suspect officiating — and the Round-of-16 appearance eight years ago, they’ve not done much. This team is among the weakest they’ve fielded, and that doesn’t bode well in a group with so much quality.
Shin Tae-Yong, who guided South Korea out of group play at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics and last year’s U-20 World Cup, took over from German Uli Stielike with the Koreans in trouble and just two qualifiers to go, maneuvered them through two scoreless draws, and received some help from Iran, and here they are. He’s more motivator than tactician, but he likes to keep opponents on edge, so his 4-4-2 could morph into a three-back alignment, adding another man in midfield, which might be a good thing.How star Tottenham striker Son Heung-Min fares will determine if South Korea has a chance for points, or more. There is immense pace in the attack — and good talent in midfield with Swansea City’s Ki Sung-Yeung, Crystal Palace’s Lee Chung-Yong, Augsberg’s Koo Ja-Cheol, home-based Lee Jae-Sung, and Dijon’s Kwon Chang-Hoon, at 23 a rising figure. Entertaining soccer is expected, but the Taegeuk Warriors are defensively suspect, and that’s going to kill them.