England going through training yesterday in advance of their first World Cup match.
By TAS MAVRIDIS
There is plenty of star power across the final two groups with England, Belgium and Colombia all expected to make runs into the tournament.
Senegal and Poland promise plenty of excitement, while Panama will make their debut at the tournament.
However, with qualification to the tournament viewed as achieving against the odds, can the CONCACAF side cause more shocks?
The highly fancied Belgium and England outfits go into the tournament as favourites in this group.
Drawn with the task of causing an upset or two are tournament debutants Panama and African nation Tunisia.
Underperformers at recent international tournaments, England will look to put repeated failures behind them under Gareth Southgate.
Southgate was appointed manager in 2016 after the sacking of Sam Allardyce.
Under Southgate, England has made a tactical shift to a back three with an injection of youth potentially signalling a change in fortunes for the Three Lions.
With an entire squad plying their trade in the English Premier League, captain Harry Kane is likely to be England’s star man.
The Spurs striker was recently appointed captain and with 13 goals in 24 appearances for his country as well as an average of 33 goals per season over the last four years for club side Spurs, Kane will head to the World Cup in the prime of his career.
As mentioned, Southgate has settled on a formation of 3-5-2 with the likes of Raheem Sterling likely to join Kane up top.
Recent lead in form for England has been impressive with wins against Costa Rica and Nigeria and draws against Italy and Holland.
However, with England traditionally performing strong in tournament warm up games and then failing on the biggest stage, Southgate will hope that he can finally break this trend.
The Red Devils are in the currently in the middle of a golden generation of players and will hope to capitalise on this and make a run deep into the tournament.
Despite the star-studded squad, recent tournament form has indicated that a lack of clear direction has led to underperformance.
The man appointed to turn things around for Belgium was Roberto Martinez who has been at the helm since 2016.
Belgium coasted through qualifying undefeated, nine points clear of second-placed Greece.
With a squad based in Europe’s top leagues, Martinez has settled on a 3-4-2-1 formation to get the most out the star-studded group of players.
With stars all over the field, one player who can rip the game away from any opponent is Kevin De Bruyne.
The Manchester City midfielder is just hitting the peak of his powers as shown by his 2017/18 club campaign.
With 12 goals and 21 assists in all competitions, De Bruyne can control any midfield battle with his passing range and his quick feet.
Belgium has shown strong form in the tournament lead up with three convincing wins and a draw against European champions Portugal in their lead up games.
Tunisia narrowly qualified out of group A in African qualifying, one point ahead of Congo DR.
Tasked with guiding Tunisia at Russia 2018 is Nabil Maaloul.
Maaloul is in his third spell in charge of The Eagles of Carthage, which this current spell beginning in 2017.
Maaloul has shown tactical versatility in recent friendlies with both variations likely to be adopted throughout the tournament.
A 4-5-1 formation was used against powerhouse Spain indicating that Tunisia will likely look to sit back with 9 men behind the ball against the stronger teams in the group.
The change up to a 4-3-3 against opposition such as Iran and Turkey indicate that Tunisia will have the ability to change things up if needed and set up with slightly more attacking intent when needed.
Key player for the Tunisians will be forward Wahbi Khazri.
The forward scored nine goals in 24 games in Ligue 1 for Rennes and played a key role in qualification with a couple of crucial goals.
With chances likely to be rare especially against the likes of England and Belgium, Khazri will have to be ready to make the most of any half chances.
The Central American side will make their World Cup debut after a remarkable World Cup Qualifying campaign saw them finish above more fancied opposition such as the USA.
Hernan Gomez guided Panama through the campaign and has been the national team boss since 2011.
Due to the lack of notable star players, Gomez has placed emphasis on remaining tight in defence as seen through his adoption of a 4-1-4-1 formation.
This formation which sees basically five midfielders sitting in front of four defenders has been the catalyst for a series of low scoring encounters (except a 6-0 loss against Switzerland in March).
Star player of the team is captain Roman Torres.
The Seattle Sounders centre back became a national hero just by getting his nation into the World Cup, and his leadership in the heart of defence will be pivotal in ensuring that Panama remain competitive in each game.
Belgium and England should qualify comfortably through this group with their match up on matchday three likely to determine which one qualifies in top spot.
FIXTURES Tuesday 19 June: Belgium v Panama @ 1am, Tunisia v England @ 4am Saturday 23 June: Belgium v Tunisia @ 10pm Sunday 24 June: England v Panama @ 10pm Friday 29 June England v Belgium @ 4am, Panama v Tunisia @4am
Columbia’s Radamel Falcao in action earlier this year.
Arguably the most even group in the tournament, group H will see Colombia, Poland, Senegal and Japan fight it out in what is expected to go down to the final matchday.
La Tricolor snuck into the final automatic qualifying spot in South America with four points in their final two qualifiers leaving them one point ahead of fifth and sixth spot.
Jose Pekerman has been the head coach of the Colombian national side since 2012 and has nurtured Colombia’s next golden generation.
After a breakout tournament in 2014, James Rodriguez has regained that 2014 form at Bayern Munich after a challenging couple of seasons at Real Madrid.
The 26-year-old midfielder has proven his ability as a goal-scoring threat but with Radamel Falcao fully fit and firing, James will likely prove just as valuable as a creative weapon.
Pekerman has settled on a 4-2-3-1 formation with James sitting in behind Falcao and the likes of Juan Cuadrado and Luis Muriel providing the width in attack.
After a 3-2 win over France in March, Colombia’s most recent friendlies against Australia and Egypt both ended in 0-0 draws.
Despite the score line, Pekerman will believe that come the World Cup, his side will put away some of the many chances which his side did create.
After missing the past two World Cups, Poland return to the tournament with a top 10 world ranking.
Adam Nawalka has been head coach since 2013, steering the national side to their first ever European Championship quarterfinal in 2016.
Tactically, Nawalka has settled mainly used a 3-4-3 or a 4-4-1-1 formation with their biggest star and captain Robert Lewandowski leading the line in both cases.
The undoubted star of the Poland team is Bayern Munich striker Robert Lewandowski.
Lewandowski is the all-time leading scorer for Poland with 55 goals in 95 games.
With 41 goals in all competitions in 2017/18, Lewandowski will come into the tournament in perfect form with the team perfectly set up to maximise his goal scoring threat.
Pre-tournament form for Poland has been positive with two wins against South Korea and Lithuania and a 2-2 draw against Chile in their past three matches.
Sixteen years after their only ever appearance at the World Cup, the Lions of Teranga come into the 2018 edition of the World Cup with the potential to shock.
Coached by Aliou Cisse, Senegal have a stack of well known and talented players that possess the ability to trouble the best in this group.
Cisse has been coach of Senegal since 2015 leading the side through the qualification campaign.
Cisse has not been afraid to make the most of his attacking weapons with his preferred formation of 4-4-2 giving his attacking stars the best chance of exposing opposition defences.
Star of the Senegal side is Liverpool winger Sadio Mane.
With 20 goals in the campaign just gone for the reds, and 14 goals in 49 games for his country and a willingness to play a direct style of football, Mane possesses a killer array of talent that will leave opposition teams worried.
Pre-tournament form has seen Cisse mix things around with the likes of Keita Balde, Moussa Sow, Diafra Sakho and M’Baye Niang all providing other attacking options alongside Sadio Mane.
The pick of the warm up results was a 2-0 win over South Korea in their final hit out before the tournament ensuring the perfect ending to preparation.
The Samurai blue qualified for the World Cup after finishing first in Australia’s qualifying group.
Akira Nishino became the head coach in 2018 after previous coach Vahid Halilhodzic was sacked only two months out from the start of the tournament.
As a result, time preparation has been limited for Nishino who has maintained the same 4-2-3-1 that Halilhodzic used in his final match back in March.
The star of the Japanese side is Borussia Dortmund’s Shinji Kagawa.
The playmaker who returned to Dortmund in 2014 after two seasons at Manchester United has played a pivotal role in guiding his Bundesliga club to Champions League qualification in the season just gone.
With 30 goals in 92 appearances, Kagawa does have the versatility to play anywhere in the midfield but Nishino has played him as a number 10.
Prior to a 4-2 win over Paraguay in their final lead up match, Japan had been struggling for form with Losses against Ukraine, Ghana, Switzerland and a draw against Mali.
Colombia will repeat their performance from four years ago, while Senegal will cause a shock and pip Poland to second place.
FIXTURES Tuesday 19 June: Colombia v Japan @ 10pm Wednesday 20 June: Poland v Senegal @ 1am Monday 25 June: Japan v Senegal @1am, Poland v Colombia @ 4am Friday 29 June: Senegal v Colombia @ 12am, Japan v Poland @ 12am