These previews will be as free from well-trodden ‘narratives’ as is possible. There are a plethora of other ones out there – some well-informed, some… not so much. I have opted for brevity over bells and whistles, but I still think they provide a fresh take on the most highly anticipated tournament.
Head Coach: Adam Nawałka
Odds to Win: 66-1
Tactics & Players to Watch: Nawałka has experimented with a 3-4-2-1 in the build-up friendlies. Without the rock-solid Kamil Glik for at least the first two matches, they’re more likely to retain the change of shape to cover more ground centrally. Again, the wing-backs are tasked with supporting the attacking options and will lay on lots of whipped crosses for potent captain Robert Lewandowski to get on the end of. The Bayern Munich superstar will be assisted by Arkadiusz Milik once more, who will play off him to the left. On the right, Piotr Zieliński will try to play both of them in behind the backline and has been in fine form for Napoli. Karol Linetty will dictate the tempo in the middle third, shuttling between the back three to collect the ball and playing one-twos with Gregorz Krychowiak to bypass their opponents.
Prediction: They should be able to shrug off the disappointment of Euro 2016 in an intriguing group at this tournament. Glik is a big miss and the front three will need to up their game to cover for his absence, such is the Monaco centre back’s utility at both ends of the pitch. The last 16 might be as far as they go, but it’s not exactly out of the question that they could go a little further, should enough players in the XI be on song.
Head Coach: Aliou Cissé
Odds to Win: 150-1
Tactics & Players to Watch: The two holding midfielders will not participate in attacks from open play but captain Cheikhou Kouyaté has proven many times in the Premier League that he can pose a big threat from long range and set pieces. He and Idrissa Gana Gueye will play the ball back to the defence for them to hit long for the pacey front four to run onto. Cissé has plenty of options to choose from for three of the four spots; Sadio Mané is obviously a shoe-in and often plays behind the main striker but can just as easily be found on either flank; Keita Baldé is another exciting, quick winger in a roster full of them and even more remarkable is that he’s adept with both feet.
Prediction: If they can keep the ball in the final third for long spells, it stands them in good stead to get out of the group. The holding midfielders lack any kind of creativity and Kalidou Koulibaly aside, the defence is far from special. If the backline are pressed, it will severely impinge on their gameplan. If they strike early on against Poland in their opening game, it blows the group wide open, even more than it already appears before a ball is kicked. Equally, they might finish bottom – neither outcome would be a surprise, despite their array of attacking talent.
Head Coach: José Pekerman
Odds to Win: 40-1
Tactics & Players to Watch: Pekerman sets Colombia up in a conventional 4-2-3-1, where he instructs his side to press assertively in wide areas. Davinson Sánchez, off the back of a superb season for Tottenham Hotspur, will be the standout player in defence. His playing style is well suited to the variety of opposition he will come up against in the group stage. Carlos Sánchez will collect the ball from him and look for James Rodríguez whenever possible. The latter will come deeper when he needs to and then look for the darting runs of the wingers. Mateus Uribe will cross from the byline frequently for Falcao, who is deadly in the six-yard area. Juan Cuadrado will do much the same and he always poses a threat in a bright yellow shirt.
Prediction: I think they’re being somewhat overrated in the betting and other predictions I’ve read and these are partly based on their performance at the last finals and a cursory glance at the more famous names on the teamsheet. David Ospina always has an error in him, the defence and midfield (James aside) are nothing particularly special. Up top, Falcao is only ever involved or useful in one phase of play, making him one-dimensional and the side will be even more reliant on the Bayern Munich playmaker than in 2014 to carry La Tricolor out of the group. They won’t live up to their billing.
Head Coach: Akira Nishino
Odds to Win: 250-1
Tactics & Players to Watch: Captain Makoto Hasebe anchors a very forward thinking midfield and can also fill in at centre back if required. Samurai Blue will press and counter through quick interchanges between the flanks and Shinji Kagawa. The two-time Borussia Dortmund schemer has lost a yard of pace but maintains a silky touch and an eye for goal. On the left, Takashi Inui netted two in the most recent friendly against Paraguay and might get the nod, although there are plenty of choices for Nishino on both wings. Keisuke Honda, having redeemed himself at Pachuca in Liga MX and now restored to the national team, will drift inside from the right and make late runs into the area. The full backs will both bomb up the field to cross from deep. Shinji Okazaki’s work rate is key to unsettling opposition defences and Yoshinori Muto will either press the backline or step back to allow balls and space in behind.
Prediction: Expectations are very low back home, especially given that Nishino has had a mere handful months to assemble his squad and try out his ideas. The impressive victory over Paraguay has lifted things a bit, with Inui and Kagawa both looking to be back to their best. They will still need their defence to be on top form to progress, but second spot is not beyond them, especially if they’re underestimated.
I hope you have enjoyed these previews. I have no national team affiliation or inherent bias, other than hoping (but not expecting) some surprises in the tournament, and not just in the group stages!