Germany the greatest team with no greats
Die Mannschaft boast peerless work ethic, but Neuer's fitness is key
GROUP F FIXTURES
- June 17: Germany v Mexico, 11pm
- June 18: Sweden v South Korea, 8pm
- June 23: South Korea v Mexico, 11pm
- June 24: Germany v Sweden, 2am
- June 27: South Korea v Germany, 10pm
- June 27: Mexico v Sweden, 10pm
Toni Kroos defines his understated brilliance for both club and country.
In last month's Champions League final, the Real Madrid midfielder put on a masterful, intelligent performance that almost went unnoticed.
He operated in the shadows, stopping Liverpool's gegenpressing and directing play with minimal fuss.
It's no coincidence that Real Madrid and Germany are frequently caught up in the same, interminable debate.
How can they be considered the greatest team when they don't have the greatest players?
In the case of Germany, it's obvious. The world champions are the greatest team because they are the greatest team.
No coach has retained the World Cup since Italy's Vittorio Pozzo in 1938. No team have won the World Cup after lifting the Confederations Cup (which Germany won last year). Loew is adamant he can make history twice over. Several legends retired in 2014, but he skilfully won the Confederations Cup with second-stringers. He needs to successfully blend that youth with the likes of Kroos and Mueller to have any chance of making history.
Star players: Toni Kroos, Mesut Oezil, Joshua Kimmich
Best World Cup result: Winners (1954, 1974, 1990, 2014)
Performance at last World Cup: Winners
Joachim Loew and Die Mannschaft's peerless coaches have nurtured a collective work ethic without parallel.
Germany have turned the concept of utilitarian football into an art form, the greatest happiness of the greatest number, which is why Thomas Mueller, Sami Khedira and the exasperating Mesut Oezil in particular, usually find a level of consistency that can elude them at club level.
Ever since the Bundesliga's coaching and grassroots reboot at the turn of the century, every aspect of the game, from data analysis to the kitman, is geared towards delivering success at international tournaments.
The success has been nothing short of phenomenal, reaching the semi-finals in the last three World Cups and the last three Euros. Their famous triumph in the Maracana in 2014 didn't feel like a fluke, but a course correction. German order had been restored.
But there's a little disorder at the back.
The recent Champions League final illustrated another aspect of Germany's World Cup preparations beyond Kroos' quiet control - concerns over a German goalkeeper.
Loris Karius isn't getting anywhere near his national squad, of course, but the No.1 position is certainly causing Loew a mild headache at least.
At the previous World Cup, Manuel Neuer epitomised the fashionable practice of the sweeper-keeper, long before Pep Guardiola obsessed over the role at Manchester City.
Within the goalkeepers' union, Neuer arguably boasts the best distribution. But he hasn't kicked a competitive ball since September. Even if he's declared physically fit for Sunday's opener against Mexico, he won't be match fit.
Marc-Andre ter Stegen is an able deputy, but Neuer fits seamlessly into Loew's possession-based template.
Still, Germany's major concern isn't over their keepers, but their competition. Die Mannschaft's team ethic remains admirable, but contenders such as France, Brazil and Spain also have a similar collective emphasis.
They also have the superstars. World Cup rivals have closed the gap on Germany.
Despite his Champions League heroics with his club, Kroos is going to find it much harder to retain the World Cup with his country.
Mexico's 'Chucky' ready to slash
- Coach: Juan Carlos Osorio
- Star players: Hirving Lozano, Carlos Vela, Javier Hernandez
- Best World Cup result: Quarter-finals (1970, 1986)
- Performance at last World Cup: Round of 16
He's got the face of a cherubic doll and the wide, toothy smile of a malevolent hitman. No wonder he's called "Chucky".
But Hirving Lozano is no horror movie; he's a Hollywood fairy tale in the making. The World Cup may offer an uplifting finale to an extraordinary season.
At PSV Eindhoven, the Mexican winger scored 17 times, supplied 11 assists and won the Dutch title. He's just 22. Everton already want him and Luiz Suarez loves him. The Barcelona striker has reportedly earmarked Lozano as his successor at the Nou Camp.
A cult hero in Mexico, Lozano must shine in Group F to give his nation a chance of reaching the knockout stages.
Coach Juan Carlos Osorio can afford to be quietly confident, knowing that Concacaf qualification was reasonably straightforward, thanks to a resolute defence and the reliable wing play of both Lozano and Carlos Vela.
But a lack of squad depth and a rather lightweight midfield may hinder their progress. In the end, Chucky must live up to his nickname and slice through his opponents.
Sweden face tough fight
- Coach: Janne Andersson
- Star players: Emil Forsberg, Victor Lindelof, Marcus Berg
- Best World Cup result: Runners-up (1958)
- Performance at last World Cup: Did not qualify
Zlatan Ibrahimovic's endearing narcissism has long led him to believe that he's bigger than any team lucky enough to have him.
In the case of his country, he might actually have a point. Ibrahimovic was bigger than Sweden. As long as he was involved in the international set-up, he threw a shadow over everyone else.
Despite being retired, he teased a comeback, until coach Janne Andersson wisely omitted the 36-year-old.
The end of Zlatan ensured the start of improved squad harmony. The Swedish dressing room is less fractious and egotistical, but the Swedes are less talented without Ibrahimovic.
Emil Forsberg is the anti-thesis of Ibrahimovic: quiet and uncomfortable in the spotlight.
The Leipzig playmaker is also the only legitimate star left, an intelligent midfielder with plenty of assists for club and country.
Victor Lindelof, John Guidetti, Ola Toivonen and Marcus Berg are all struggling for form and the Swedes face a tussle with Mexico for second spot.
South Korea rely on shining Sun
- Coach: Shin Tae Yong
- Star players: Son Heung Min, Ki Sung Yeung, Kwon Chang Hoon
- Best World Cup result: Fourth place (2002)
- Performance at last World Cup: Group stages
When the national coach gets fired with two qualification games remaining, it's fair to say that all's not well in the camp.
Uli Stielike was sacked, Shin Tae Yong came in and the South Koreans stumbled through World Cup qualification. It wasn't pretty. It was barely functional.
Those heady heights of 2002, with Guus Hiddink's side reaching fourth place on home soil, seem a long time ago.
If 2002 was about the Houdini-esque cult of Hiddink, then 2018 can only be about the rising Son in Russia.
South Korea's defensive deficiencies have endured for more than a decade. They tend to play dead at set-pieces and the squad is generally short on star power.
And yet, paradoxically, the Taeguk Warriors are blessed with Asia's finest footballer and arguably the greatest South Korean export since Samsung.
South Korea's World Cup fortunes rise or fall with one man.
Unless Son shines, it could be a gloomy tournament for the South Koreans.