The last two World Cup champions—Italy and Spain—crashed out in the group stage four years after lifting the trophy. Don't count on Germany to make the World Cup hangover a tradition.
Joachim Low’s squad, perhaps the tournament’s deepest, features only nine players from the 2014 team. Gone are the stalwarts of years past, like Philipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Miroslav Klose. The veterans of this year’s team—players like Mesut Ozil, Toni Kroos, Thomas Muller and Mats Hummels—are joined by a promising, dynamic younger generation: Leon Goretzka, Timo Werner, Niklas Sule. The fact that players like Leroy Sane and Mario Gotze were left off the squad reflects its immense quality, though Sane's omission following a stellar campaign for Manchester City remains baffling. One issue facing Germany is Manuel Neuer's health. If the star Bayern Munich goalkeeper isn't 100%, we could see Barcelona's Marce-Andre ter Stegen—hardly a bad option.
Germany’s toughest challenge in the group stage will be Mexico, an experienced team that is hopeful of reaching the country’s first quarterfinal since 1986. Juan Carlos Osorio’s side finished on top of Concacaf's qualifying table without losing a match, a real achievement considering the region’s growing quality. Several Mexican players, including Giovani Dos Santos, Oribe Peralta and Hector Herrera, won gold medals at the 2012 Olympics and were an Arjen Robben drawn penalty/dive away from the quarterfinals at the 2014 World Cup. This is a good team with a lot of tournament experience.
Mexico will battle Sweden for Group F's second place in the knockout stage. Contrary to Zlatan Ibrahimovic's belief—not a phrase to be used lightly—a World Cup without Zlatan really is worth watching. And so is Sweden. While we're all a bit disappointed that Ibrahimovic won't be joining Sweden at the World Cup, this team is better without Zlatan. Sweden allowed just nine goals in a group featuring France and the Netherlands and scored more goals than anyone in its group, netting 26 despite Ibrahimovic's absence—a sign that the Lion's presence perhaps inhibited Sweden from reaching its full potential as a team. After beating out the Netherlands in qualifying and then topping Italy 1–0 on aggregate in a playoff, Sweden shouldn't be underestimated.
South Korea is the weakest side in Group F, and earning at least a point against Sweden on June 18 is essential to the team’s chances.
Sunday, June 17 (11 a.m. ET): Germany vs. Mexico
Monday, June 18 (8 a.m. ET): Sweden vs. South Korea
Saturday, June 23 (11 a.m. ET): South Korea vs. Mexico
Saturday, June 23 (2 p.m. ET): Germany vs. Sweden
Wednesday, June 27 (10 a.m. ET): South Korea vs. Germany
Wednesday, June 27 (10 a.m. ET): Mexico vs. Sweden
Most pivotal match
Sweden–Mexico. With Germany a clear favorite to win Group F—despite Mexico’s strength, Germany should win on June 17—Mexico and Sweden will jockey for second place. Mexico is the better side, but Sweden played remarkably well sans Ibrahimovic during qualification. Mexico’s quality and experience in the midfield should make the difference.
Potential sleeper team
For a team that finished second in a strong UEFA qualifying group, Sweden is incredibly underrated entering this tournament. During qualification, Janne Andersson’s team had the best goal differential in its group at +17. Sweden managed to beat France 2–1 at home, and in the playoff, Sweden showed incredible defensive mettle to hold Italy goalless. This team won’t be an easy out.
Players to watch
Toni Kroos (Germany): It’s difficult to choose just one standout player from Germany, but Die Mannschaft’s success starts in the midfield—and Kroos is the linchpin. The Real Madrid star is Joachim Low’s best player.
Hirving “Chucky” Lozano (Mexico): Mexico is an incredibly balanced team from top to bottom. While Chicharito—Mexico’s all-time goals leaders—gets the most attention, El Tri’s best attacker is Lozano. The 22-year-old is coming off an exceptional season for PSV Eindhoven, where he scored 19 goals across all competitions in his first year with the club after four years at Pachuca.
Emil Forsberg (Sweden): Sweden’s attack runs through Forsberg, the 26-year-old RB Leipzig attacking midfielder who led Bundesliga in assists last year with 19. In a sign of Forsberg’s growing profile, the Swedish No. 10 has been linked to Arsenal. He’ll look to create chances for Marcus Berg, Sweden’s scoring leader during qualifying with eight goals.
Son Heung-Min (Tottenham): The performance of South Korea’s most high-profile player will determine whether the Taeguk Warriors overcome the odds to reach the knockout stage. Son’s Premier League experience will be invaluable on the world’s biggest stage, but in this competition he won’t have the luxury of partnering with Harry Kane and Dele Alli.
Predictions to go through
Germany will win the group and Mexico will secure second place by beating Sweden in its final group stage match.