World Cup 2018: All you need to know about the teams heading to Russia

World Cup 2018: All you need to know about the teams heading to Russia
All 32 teams taking part at the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia have now been confirmed, after Peru claimed the last qualifying spot by beating New Zealand in their intercontinental play-off,

Ahead of the World Cup draw in the Kremlin on December 1, we bring you all you need to know about the teams that have qualified from each region.

Europe

Russia qualified by virtue of being tournament hosts. As such, they have been deprived of competitive games in the run-up to the event, with their last meaningful action coming at the 2017 Confederations Cup, where they bowed out at the group stage. Coach Stanislav Cherchesov, 54, took over the team in the wake of the disastrous early exit from Euro 2016. No one is expecting great things from a team light on quality, although CSKA Moscow youngster Alexander Golovin, 21, is highly-rated, and striker Fyodor Smolov is a danger man.   

Defending champions Germany are the world’s number one ranked team and cruised through qualifying with 10 wins from 10, scoring a stunning 43 goals in the process. Ominously, coach Joachim Low’s supposed second string squad won the 2017 Confed Cup in Russia. With talent such as Real Madrid midfielder Toni Kroos and PSG’s Julian Draxler in the ranks, they will be many people’s favorites to retain their title in Russia.

France topped a tough qualifying group that saw Sweden finish second and the Netherlands bow out in third. Didier Deschamps’ men put in some mixed performances along the way, defeating the Netherlands home and away but losing to Sweden and suffering a shock home draw against Luxembourg. The 1998 World Cup winners last came close to success by reaching the Euro 2016 final, and have world-class talent in the form of Manchester United midfielder Paul Pogba and Atletico Madrid’s Antoine Griezmann. 

European Champions Portugal pipped Switzerland to top spot in their group, courtesy of a 2-0 final game victory against the Swiss in Lisbon. Apart from an opening group game defeat against Switzerland in Basel, their record was unblemished. The Euro 2016 victory took many by surprise, and Fernando Santos’ team will not be fancied to repeat that feat in Russia. However, they can of course call on the services of current Ballon d’Or holder Cristiano Ronaldo. Russia 2018 will be their seventh appearance at a finals, and they reached the semi-finals in 2006.     

Serbia claimed top spot in their group and suffered just one qualifying defeat – 3-2 away to Austria – in a solid if unspectacular campaign. Surprisingly, Serbia parted ways with head coach Slavoljub Muslin shortly after qualifying, with his assistant Mladen Krstajic taking over until a successor is found. Russia 2018 will be their 12th appearance at a finals (including as part of Yugoslavia).

Poland qualified with relative ease, and apart from an opening game draw against Kazakhstan and 4-0 away defeat in Denmark they won all their group games. Bayern Munich striker Robert Lewandowski topped the goal-scoring charts in qualifying on 16 – one ahead of Cristiano Ronaldo – and is one of the deadliest marksmen in the game. The Poles are ranked eigth in the world and have appeared at seven previous finals.    

England topped their qualifying group and finished unbeaten on eight wins and two draws. After early disruption when manager Sam Allardyce was forced to step aside following an embarrassing newspaper sting, replacement Gareth Southgate guided the team to its sixth successive tournament. England had the meanest defense of all the European qualifiers, conceding just three goals, and boast some exciting young players, including Tottenham’s Dele Alli and Harry Kane and Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford. The 1966 winners will be at their 15th World Cup, but the perennial underachievers will not be widely tipped to progress too far in Russia.

World Cup winners in South Africa in 2010, Spain were relatively untroubled in reaching Russia, dropping their only qualifying points in an away draw against Italy. La Roja are rebuilding under head coach Julen Lopetegui after a disappointing World Cup in 2014, when they went out at the group stage, and a round-of-16 defeat at Euro 2016. They can still call on the services of veteran playmaker Andres Iniesta, but also have exciting young talent in Real Madrid pairing Isco and Marco Asensio. Russia 2018 will be their 15th World Cup. 

Belgium were the first European team to secure qualification and eased home with plenty to spare in their group, with the only blip a 1-1 home draw against Greece. The ‘Golden Generation,’ managed by Spaniard Roberto Martinez, will hope to come good at Russia 2018 after a disappointing Euro 2016 in which they went out to Wales in the quarter-finals. The team ranked number five in the world has an embarrassment of riches in the ranks, notably midfielders Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard, and striker Romelu Lukaku. The nation has appeared at 12 World Cup Finals previously.      

Underdogs Iceland won the hearts of fans around the world with their Euro 2016 exploits, upsetting England before going down to a quarter-final defeat against hosts France. They continued to defy their status as minnows in qualifying for Russia 2018, with the nation of just 330,000 becoming the smallest ever to reach the World Cup Finals. The Icelanders topped a group including Croatia, Ukraine and Turkey, and will be many people’s second team next summer.

The Swedes claimed second spot in Group A behind France, pipping the Netherlands to a play-off spot by virtue of a superior goal difference.  They proceeded to claim a famous victory over Italy, defeating the Azzurri 1-0 on aggregate after a home victory was followed by a 0-0 draw in the San Siro, condemning Italy to miss their first World Cup in 60 years. While coach Jan Andersson’s team will not be expected to do great things in Russia – especially since the retirement of Zlatan Ibrahimovic – they will be a stubborn team to break down. They were beaten finalists as hosts in 1958 and finished third in 1950 and 1994; Russia 2018 will be their 12th World Cup.  

Switzerland came close to automatic qualification but had to settle for a route to Russia via a narrow 1-0 aggregate play-off win against Northern Ireland. Currently ranked 11th in the world, Vladimir Petkovic’s team have quality in the exceptional Stoke City midfielder Xherdan Shaqiri, who is capable of special things. Russia 2018 will be an 11th World Cup for the Swiss.  

Croatia qualified via the play-offs, having finished behind Iceland in their group. Luka Modric and co. duly dispatched Greece, winning 4-1 at home before securing a 0-0 draw in Piraeus. They are currently ranked 18th in the world, and will be making their fifth World Cup appearance since becoming eligible to qualify.   

Denmark also came through the play-offs after finishing second in their qualifying group, behind Poland, setting up a clash against Republic of Ireland. Christian Eriksen was Denmark’s hero as his hat-trick in the second leg in Dublin helped his team to a 5-1 aggregate win. Tottenham playmaker Eriksen is the team’s key man, and managed 11 goals in the qualifying campaign. Denmark are ranked 19th in the world, and will be making their fifth appearance at a World Cup finals, after missing out on Brazil in 2014.    

South America

Five-time winners Brazil cruised home in the South American qualifying group, finishing 10 points ahead of second-placed Uruguay and suffering just one defeat in their 18 qualifying games (a 2-0 defeat away in Chile). Head coach Tito is building an exciting team that is regaining the nation’s trust after the humiliation of the 7-1 semi-final defeat to the Germans as hosts in 2014. Neymar is the leading light, but is ably supported by Philippe Coutinho and rising star Gabriel Jesus in an exciting attacking line-up. Ranked number two in the world, the question is whether they will flatter to deceive as four years ago, or prove the real deal in Russia.   

Uruguay qualified in second spot, suffering five defeats along the way but ultimately claiming points in key games toward the end of the campaign. The two-time winners, currently ranked 17th in the world, will be making their 13th appearance at football’s showpiece occasion. 'La Celeste' are managed by the experienced Oscar Washington Tabarez. They rely on the talents of Barcelona man Luis Suarez and PSG’s Edinson Cavani up front, while they have the ever-reliable Diego Godin as a defensive lynchpin.        

Lionel Messi was his team’s savior as the Barcelona star scored a hat-trick in Argentina’s final group game against Ecuador to send them through, ending an uninspiring campaign that looked at one stage as if they would not make it to Russia. Beyond Messi they have undoubted strength, including in Manchester City striker Sergio Aguero and Barca defender Javier Mascherano. Winners at their home tournament in 1978 and in Mexico in 1986, they will be appearing at their 17th finals and will be out to go one better than their extra-time defeat against Germany in the final in Brazil.

Colombia clinched fourth and the last automatic qualifying spot in South America, albeit in controversial circumstances amid claims of collusion with Peru in the pair’s final game draw, which ensured the Peruvians a play-off spot. Real Madrid’s James Rodriguez, currently on loan at Bayern Munich, illuminated the tournament with some fantastic displays in Brazil four years ago and remains his team’s main man, despite failing to kick-on since 2014. Captain Radamel Falcao has also rediscovered his goal-scoring form, and is important to the team. Jose Pekerman will lead the nation to its sixth World Cup, with the team ranked 13th by FIFA.   

Peru finished fifth in the group and sealed an intercontinental play-off against New Zealand. After a 0-0 draw in the first leg in Wellington, the Peruvians ran out 2-0 winners at home to become the last team to book their place in Russia. It will be their first appearance at a finals for 36 years and fifth in total. They are ranked 10th in the world, and Argentinian Ricardo Gareca will be at the helm in Russia. They have a mix of veterans such as 33-year-old Jefferson Farfan of Lokomotiv Moscow and youngsters such as Pedro Requena.

Africa

The African qualifying section offered five berths to Russia 2018, and Tunisia ensure they topped their group with an undefeated campaign. They are returning to the finals after a 12-year absence, and will be making their fifth appearance at the World Cup. However, they have never made it beyond the group stage. Nabil Maaloul – in his second spell as coach – will lead the team in Russia, while 28-year-old center-back Aymen Abdennour, currently on loan at Marseilles from Valencia, is a key player.

There were joyous scenes when Egypt topped their group and booked a place at their first World Cup in 28 years. Russia 2018 will be their third appearance in total, and they will be led at the tournament by Argentinian Hector Cuper, who took the reins in 2015. Liverpool striker Mohamed Salah is undoubtedly the team’s star, with 32 goals in 56 internationals, but Arsenal’s Mohamed Elneny is a key man in midfield.    

Nigeria booked their sixth appearance at a World Cup finals by winning their group. Managed by German coach Gernot Rohr, the Super Eagles have some exciting young talent in the team, including 21-year-old Arsenal striker Alex Iwobi. They can also reply on the experience of 30-year-old captain John Obi Mikel. They reached the last 16 in Brazil in 2014, where they lost 2-0 to France.   

Morocco edged out favorites Ivory Coast in their group, defeating them 2-0 away in their crunch final group game to claim top spot. They did not concede a single goal in qualifying, with 30-year-old captain Medhi Benatia of Italian giants Juventus playing a large part in their defensive prowess. They’ll be making their first appearance at a finals in 20 years and fifth in total, and are managed by peripatetic Frenchman Herve Renard, who has also been head coach of Zambia and Ivory Coast.  

Senegal came through their group in controversial circumstances, after FIFA ruled that a game last year against South Africa, which the Senegalese lost 2-1, should be replayed due to a corrupt referee. They reversed that scoreline in the rescheduled game earlier in November, and finished top of the group ahead of Burkina Faso to reach their second World Cup finals and first since 2002, when they reached the quarter-finals. They boast Liverpool’s Sadio Mane in their ranks, and are coach by former international Aliou Cisse. Their FIFA ranking is 32. 

Asia

Five teams in total have qualified from the Asian qualifying region. Iran topped their group in style, with Portuguese manager Carlos Queiroz’s team finishing unbeaten in 10 games, comfortably winning the group with plenty to spare. They boast the ‘Iranian Messi’, Sadar Azmoun, in their ranks. The 22-year-old plays his football in Russia for Rubin Kazan. The Iranians will be making their fifth appearance at a World Cup Finals. 

South Korea clinched second spot behind Iran and an automatic place in Russia. The ‘Taegeuk Warriors’ will be appearing at an impressive ninth World Cup in a row and Russia will be their 10th edition in total. They have pulled off some impressive shocks in the past, notably as co-hosts in 2002 when they went all the way to semi-finals under Guus Hiddink, beating Poland, Portugal, Italy and Spain along the way. Now managed by Shin Taeyong, 46, the team’s star man is undoubtedly Tottenham Hotspur striker Son Heung-min.

In Asia Group B, Japan game out on top after a tight battle with Saudi Arabia and Australia. The Blue Samurai have made five previous appearances at finals, most impressively reaching the last 16 as co-hosts in 2002. Currently managed by Bosnian-born Vahid Halilhodzic, their key players are Keisuke Honda of AC Milan and Borussia Dortmund’s Shinji Kagawa.  

Saudi Arabia pipped Australia to second spot in their group on goal difference, booking a place at their fifth finals. Ranked 63rd in the world, they recently replaced Dutch coach Bert van Marwijk with  Argentinian Edgardo Bauza. Veteran striker Nasser Al Shamrani, 33, is still a key man for them.  

After finishing third in their group, Australia came through a continental play-off against a brave Syrian team before overcoming Honduras 3-1 on aggregate in their intercontinental play-off. The Socceroos will be making their fifth appearance at a World Cup. Coach Ange Postecoglou has set about rebuilding the team’s personnel and style since he took over in 2013. While veterans such as Tim Cahill remain, younger players such as Mathew Leckie, Mat Ryan and Trent Sainsbury are now fixtures in the team. Huddersfield Town’s Aaron Mooy is also a creative force in midfield.    

North, Central America and Caribbean

Mexico ensured qualification with relative ease, suffering just one defeat on their way to topping the group by five point, with their sole loss coming in the final game against Honduras when qualification was already secure. The Mexicans are a consistent World Cup participants, and Russia will be their 16th appearance at the finals. Colombian coach Juan Carlos Osorio is not popular with all El Tri fans, with his policy of rotating the team, but will lead the way in Russia. Striker Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernandez, his country’s all-time top scorer, remains the danger man upfront, but there are is also young talent coming through such as 22-year-old Hirving Lozano of Dutch team PSV Eindhoven.

Costa Rica clinched second spot, notably securing home and away wins against USA along the way. It will be the team’s fifth appearance at a finals, and last time out in Brazil they shocked many by emerging from a group containing England, Italy and Uruguay, reaching the quarter-finals before losing to the Netherlands on penalties. Los Ticos’ have Real Madrid’s Keylor Navas in goal,  while captain Bryan Ruiz is at Sporting Lisbon and  midfielder Celso Borges plays at Spanish club Deportivo La Coruna. Former intenational Oscar Ramirez is at the helm.     

Newcomers to the World Cup stage will be Panama, who stunned many by clinching the third automatic spot in the region. A dramatic 2-1 final group game victory against Costa Rica secured their spot and sparked jubilant celebrations and the announcement of a national holiday. Record goalscorer Luis Tejada, 35, has struck 42 times for his country and will be the main threat in Russia. Colombian coach Hernan Dario Gomez, who led his homeland to the 1998 finals and Ecuador to the 2002 edition, will be at the helm next summer.