MOSCOW (AP) – A guide to the teams in Pot 1 in Friday’s draw for the 2018 World Cup in Russia:
FILE – In this Saturday, July 2, 2016 filer, Germany’s Toni Kroos, right, falls after he was fouled by Italy’s Stefano Sturaro during the Euro 2016 quarterfinal soccer match between Germany and Italy, at the Nouveau Stade in Bordeaux, France. (AP Photo/Michael Probst, File)
The World Cup holders are in good shape to defend their title after being unbeaten in all games in 2017.
They have already collected a trophy in Russia in the build-up to the World Cup, winning the Confederations Cup in July and using the warm-up tournament to test new options like late developer Lars Stindl.
World Cup qualifying was completed with 10 wins from 10 and a European-record 43 goals.
Key player: Toni Kroos (Real Madrid) – Germany’s new leader, Kroos keeps the side ticking from midfield, where his intelligence, precision and composition on the ball inspires teammates going forward.
Coach: Joachim Loew – Juergen Klinsmann’s assistant during the 2006 World Cup, Loew took over after that tournament and has overseen steady progress culminating in the 2014 title.
When the Russians launched their bid to host the World Cup for the first time, they were on a high after reaching the semifinals at the 2008 European Championship.
Times have changed.
Russia goes into the draw as the lowest-ranked of the 32 teams, having failed to advance past the group stage of any tournament since 2008. Ambitious talk of reaching the quarterfinals or even semifinals has faded.
There are off-field problems too, with reports of disputes between players and the coach. Hooligan rampages at Euro 2016 tarnished Russia’s image, with the country threatened with expulsion from the tournament in France.
Key player: Igor Akinfeev (CSKA Moscow) – A talented goalkeeper who captains the team, Akinfeev has tended to make mistakes in big games.
Coach: Stanislav Cherchesov – After experiments with expensive foreign recruits like Fabio Capello and Guus Hiddink, Russia goes into the World Cup with a dour, defense-first former goalkeeper.
A team featuring Lionel Messi can never be ignored, even though the 2014 runner-up barely made it to this World Cup.
But other key talent like Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Iguain have been far from being in top form for Argentina. That is why little-known Boca Juniors striker Daria Benedetto has been deployed up front.
Key player: Messi (Barcelona) – Doubted by fans, yet the five-time world player of the year delivered. Argentina would not be going to Russia without his goals and leadership. Turns 31 during a tournament that could yet crown his career.
Coach: Jorge Sampaoli – The 57-year-old Argentine is his country’s third coach in less than a year. His team has not impressed so far, with only one win in four official matches. His team is the biggest question mark in the World Cup.
It’s time to deliver for a team that has featured exceptional talent over the past half dozen years but has yet to reach the semifinals of a major tournament.
It is widely acknowledged they have been held back by mediocre management. Now it is up to Roberto Martinez, a Spanish coach, to get the best out of this plethora of stars.
If you have Romelu Lukaku up front, Eden Hazard as a creative genius and goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois for a final lock on goal, the ingredients for success are there.
There are issues in defense. Central defender Vincent Kompany is as brittle as he can be brilliant and there are very few credible backups available for the likes of Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen.
Key player: Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City) – Overshadowed Eden Hazard at the 2014 World Cup, he has only grown in stature, especially since his move to City and his more withdrawn position on the field.
Coach: Roberto Martinez was a surprise pick for Belgium when it ditched Marc Wilmots after a disappointing Euro 2016. The Spaniard easily adapted to life in international management.
The gloom that engulfed Brazil after the 7-1 debacle against Germany in the 2014 World Cup has lifted.
Brazil was the first team to clinch qualification for Russia and had memorable wins on the way, including a 3-0 success over Argentina in the same Mineirao stadium of the 2014 semifinal humiliation.
It took the appointment of Tite in September 2016 to revive Brazil. Under his helm, there have been 13 wins, three draws and only one loss – in a friendly against Argentina.
Key player: Neymar (Paris Saint-Germain) – Should be at the peak of his game aged 26 in Russia, the forward will have his best chance to overthrow Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in best player awards if Brazil wins.
Coach: Adenor Bacchi – Universally known as Tite, he turned Brazil from flop to favorites. Forget Dunga’s muscular 2014 World Cup team that depended heavily on Neymar. Brazil is now about organization and flair.
A young and vibrant side packed with flair promises to be eye-catching. Recently, France twice took the lead away to World Cup winner Germany and caused the home defense all sorts of problems with the movement and speed of its devastating counter-attacks.
But France is also prone to lapses in concentration, and this needs to be ironed out if France wishes to win the trophy for the second time.
Les Bleus lost the 2006 World Cup final to Italy in a penalty shootout; lost to Germany in the quarterfinals of the 2014 World Cup, and could not handle the pressure of being the favorite in the Euro 2016 final at home to Portugal.
It’s time for France to add silverware to the growing hype.
Key player: Raphael Varane (Real Madrid) – The three-time Champions League-winning center back has the difficult task of marshalling a vulnerable defense.
Coach: Didier Deschamps – Turned France into a highly competitive team but has yet to deliver a trophy. Reaching the World Cup semifinals is the minimum target for the 49-year-old Deschamps, a former midfielder who captained France to victory at the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000.
It’s the first World Cup since 2006 for Poland, whose fans are likely to travel to Russia in large numbers. It could be the last chance to play on the biggest stage for strikers Robert Lewandowski and Jakub Blaszczykowski, who will be 29 and 32 respectively by the finals.
Poland is largely unchanged from the team which reached Euro 2016 quarterfinals where it lost on penalties to eventual champion Portugal. One concern in qualifying was a 4-0 thrashing by Denmark in September that raised concerns about the defense.
Key player: Lewandowski (Bayern Munich) – Already Poland’s record goal scorer, he scored a European-high 16 goals in qualifying.
Coach: Adam Nawalka – Turned Poland from a counter-attacking team into one which seeks to dominate possession.
Cristiano Ronaldo’s hopes of winning the World Cup with Portugal are running out.
Portugal has proven it also has the mettle needed to win major international tournaments after it ground though the 2016 European Championship and stunned host France in the final despite an early injury to Ronaldo.
Portugal will take the large part of that experienced squad to Russia. Pepe is a physical enforcer in defense, Joao Moutinho adds passing skills to its midfield, and newcomer Andre Silva can help Ronaldo in attack.
Key player: Ronaldo (Real Madrid) – At 32, Ronaldo is no longer the goal machine he once was. Key to success in Russia could be how he is managed by Madrid, and can be rested in less significant games.
Coach: Fernando Santos – Since taking over the team in 2014, Santos has forged a solid defensive block that gives just enough help to Ronaldo.
The draw at the State Kremlin Palace in Moscow, starting at 1500 GMT Friday. The 32 finalists will be split into eight groups featuring a team from each of the four pots. Only Europe can have two teams in the same group.
FIFA changed how it allocated teams in the draw and now uses rankings alone for all four pots. At previous World Cups, only Pot 1 was for seeded teams, and the other three pots were decided by a geographical spread.
Russia will play the tournament opener on June 14, 2018 The World Cup final will be held on July 15. Both showpiece games are at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow.
AP World Cup coverage: www.apnews.com/tag/WorldCup
FILE – In this Sunday July 2, 2017 filer, Germany coach Joachim Loew gives indications during the Confederations Cup final soccer match between Chile and Germany, at the St.Petersburg Stadium, Russia. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev, File)
FILE – In this Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2016 filer, Germany’s Toni Kroos applauds fans at the end of the World Cup Group C qualifying soccer match between Germany and Northern Ireland in Hannover, Germany. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner, File)
In this photo taken on Tuesday, March 29, 2016, Russia goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev dives for the ball in an attempt to stop a goal by France’s Dimitri Payet during the international friendly soccer match between France and Russia in Saint Denis, north of Paris, France. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)
From left, Igor Akinfeev, Russian national soccer team goalkeeper, Fatma Samoura, FIFA Secretary General, Valentina Yashina, widow of famous Soviet goalkeeper Lev Yashin and Vitaly Mutko, Russian Federation Deputy Prime Minister & Local Organising Committee Chairman attend the unveiling of the 2018 World Cup official poster in Moscow, Russia, on Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2017. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)
FILE – In this Wednesday, June 21, 2017 file photo, Russia coach Stanislav Cherchesov gives indications during the Confederations Cup, Group A soccer match between Russia and Portugal, at the Spartak Stadium in Moscow. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev, File)
FILE – In this Friday, Nov. 10, 2017 filer, Brazil’s Neymar controls the ball during the international friendly soccer match between Brazil and Japan at the Pierre Mauroy stadium in Lille, northern France. (AP Photo/Michel Spingler, File)
FILE – In this Monday, March 20, 2017 filer, Brazil’s coach Tite smiles during a training session of the national soccer team in Sao Paulo, Brazil. (AP Photo/Andre Penner, File)
FILE – In this Wednesday, June 28, 2017 filer, Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo keeps his eyes on the ball during the Confederations Cup, semifinal soccer match between Portugal and Chile, at the Kazan Arena, Russia. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin, File)
FILE – In this Tuesday Nov. 14, 2017 file photo, Portugal’s coach Fernando Santos gestures during an international friendly soccer match between Portugal and U.S. at the Dr. Magalhaes Pessoa stadium in Leiria, Portugal. (AP Photo/Pedro Rocha, File)
FILE – In this Saturday, Nov. 11, 2017 filer Argentina’s Lionel Messi controls the ball during the international friendly soccer match between Russia and Argentina at the Luzhniki stadium in Moscow. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin, File)
FILE – In this Saturday, Nov. 11, 2017 filer, Argentina’s coach Jorge Sampaoli reacts during the international friendly soccer match between Russia and Argentina at Luzhniki stadium in Moscow, Russia. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev, File)
FILE – In this Sunday, Sept. 3, 2017 filer, Belgium’s Kevin De Bruyne, right, vies for the ball with Greece’s Kostas Stafylidis during the World Cup Group H qualifying soccer match between Greece and Belgium at Georgios Karaiskakis Stadium in Piraeus port, near Athens. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis, File)
FILE – In this Tuesday, March 28, 2017 filer, Belgium coach Roberto Martinez watches the international friendly soccer match between Russia and Belgium at Fisht stadium in Sochi, Russia. (AP Photo/Denis Tyrin, File)
FILE – In this Monday, Sept. 4, 2017 filer, Poland’s Robert Lewandowski,left, celebrates scoring their third goal from the penalty spot with Kamil Grosicki during the World Cup Group E qualifying soccer match between Poland and Kazakhstan at National stadium in Warsaw. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski, File)
FILE – In this Thursday, June 30, 2016 filer, Poland coach Adam Nawalka directs his players during the Euro 2016 quarterfinal soccer match between Poland and Portugal, at the Velodrome stadium in Marseille, France. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner, File)
FILE – In this Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2015 filer, England’s Raheem Sterling fights for the ball against France’s Raphael Varane during the international friendly soccer match between England and France at Wembley Stadium in London. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth, File)
FILE – In this Tuesday, Oct.10, 2017 filer, France coach Didier Deschamps smiles prior to the World Cup Group A qualifying soccer match between France and Belarus, at the Stade de France stadium in Saint-Denis, outside Paris. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena, File)
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