Here’s a look at the World Cup’s Group C, which includes group favorite France and a tough remaining field in Australia, Denmark and Peru.
Tim Cahill wants to join an elite list of World Cup scorers to sit alongside Pele, Uwe Seeler and Miroslav Klose.
If he makes the cut for Australia’s 23-man squad, the 38-year-old Cahill has a good chance of becoming just the fourth player to score in four consecutive World Cups.
But age, a lack of playing time since he returned to English side Millwall, and the fact Australia’s newly hired coach Bert van Marwijk wants to select a squad based on recent form rather than reputation, mean his spot in Russia is far from guaranteed.
It’s just part of the uncertainty over preparations for a group stage that will see No. 40-ranked Australia play a trio of sides in the top 12: France (7), Peru (11) and Denmark (12).
Here’s a closer look at the Australia team:
COACH: Van Marwijk took on the job saying his mission was to help Australia survive the group stage. He guided Netherlands to the 2010 World Cup final, and coached Saudi Arabia to an automatic berth in Russia from a group that included Australia. He said that gave him a good idea of Australia’s strengths and weaknesses. He will be the third Dutch coach to guide Australia at the World Cup, following Guus Hiddink in 2006 and Pim Verbeek in 2010.
GOALKEEPERS: Mat Ryan of English Premier League club Brighton has been Australia’s first-choice since 2012 and was voted goalkeeper of the tournament when the Socceroos won the 2015 Asian Cup on home soil. The 36-year-old Brad Jones looms as a late contender to challenge Ryan after keeping a clean sheet in the first half of the friendly against Colombia, his first action for Australia since March 2014.
DEFENDERS: The most question marks over Australia’s formation will be at the back, with Van Marwijk dispensing with the 3-4-3 formation that exposed some defensive holes in the qualifying campaign and plenty of criticism for Postecoglou. Trent Sainsbury and Matt Jurman missed the recent friendlies but are expected to play central roles in Russia. Milos Degenek and Aziz Behich will be pushing for starting spots.
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MIDFIELDERS: Internal competition is most intense in the midfield. Skipper Mile Jedinak and Aaron Mooy have been steady regulars and Tom Rogic has been a reliable playmaker and attacking threat. Queens Park Rangers midfielder Massimo Luongo has added another dimension recently with his timing and fast footwork.
FORWARDS: The Australians will likely struggle to score in open play against quality defenses. Tomi Juric scored six in qualifying to top the Australian scoring list. Cahill and Matthew Leckie have established credentials and Jamie Maclaren’s recent form at Hibernian has increased his chances of a callup.
There are two reasons why Denmark should not be completely written off at the World Cup.
Firstly, remember 1992? The Danes won the European Championship, having been told they were playing in the tournament only a week before it started after Yugoslavia was excluded while in a state of civil war. It remains one of the most unlikely title triumphs in international football.
Secondly, Christian Eriksen. With its midfield maestro healthy and in form, Denmark believes anything is possible. Eriksen is one of the standout performers in the English Premier League with Tottenham and scored 11 goals in World Cup qualifying.
The Danes, making their fifth appearance at a World Cup, are No. 12 in the FIFA rankings, making them the eighth-best team in Europe at present.
Here’s a closer look at the Denmark team:
COACH: Age Hareide has spent his entire 33-year coaching career in Scandinavia, including a five-year spell leading his home country. The 64-year-old Norwegian succeeded Denmark’s longest-serving coach, Morten Olsen, after the team’s failure to qualify for the 2016 European Championship and was initially received with skepticism.
GOALKEEPERS: In the early part of Kaspar Schmeichel’s career, he was mostly referred to as the son of Denmark and Manchester United goalkeeping great Peter Schmeichel. He has now etched his own place in football history as part of the Leicester team that won the Premier League in 2016 at preseason odds of 5,000-1 in one of sport’s most sensational underdog stories. Schmeichel is a brilliant shot-stopper — he spreads himself just like his father used to — and a good organizer of the defense in front of him.
DEFENDERS: Simon Kjaer is the captain and classy stalwart at center back, where he excels in the air and through his reading of the game. His natural heir might be Andreas Christensen, who broke through at Premier League team Chelsea this season and took the place of Brazil international David Luiz. Concerns remain about Christensen’s fragility, but he is comfortable on the ball and confident in bringing it out from the back.
MIDFIELDERS: Eriksen is the fulcrum of the midfield, the player Hareide wants to get in space either out wide or centrally. He is at the peak of his career and so much is expected of him in Russia. Set-pieces, long-range shots, work rate, vision, Eriksen has the lot. Eriksen has talented players around him in midfield, particularly tricky winger Pione Sisto and central midfielder Lasse Schone. William Kvist, 33, is the wily anchorman at the base of the midfield, with more than a decade of international experience.
FORWARDS: In front of Eriksen, Denmark does not have a prolific striker at the highest level. Nicolai Jorgensen started the season in red-hot form for Feyenoord but has cooled off since the turn of the year. Kasper Dolberg is highly rated and starred for Ajax last season, but has missed much of this season through injury and might not be sharp for the World Cup.
France has options, too many perhaps. Especially up front where the dilemma is who to leave out. And that’s without Real Madrid forward Karim Benzema, who continues to be overlooked by coach Didier Deschamps.
How other national coaches must envy Deschamps, who has a forward department bursting with skill and speed and goals.
France has outstanding players elsewhere, including Hugo Lloris in goal, Raphael Varane in defense and Paul Pogba in midfield. However, France still concedes soft goals and coping with the pressure of expectation remains a problem.
Here’s a closer look at the France team:
COACH: After the disappointment of losing the European Championship final at home to Portugal two years ago, Deschamps has a settled squad with experience and excitement like forward Kylian Mbappe. Given the talent at his disposal, French fans expect at least a semifinal place in Russia. With a contract until 2020, Deschamps has the chance to emulate his achievements as France’s captain when Les Bleus won the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000.
GOALKEEPERS: Hugo Lloris is the undisputed first choice. He remains as agile as ever on his line and unflappable on crosses. However, Lloris has made a couple of errors for Tottenham and France in recent games. Backup Steve Mandanda has made 26 appearances for France and is a fine shot-stopper, but is also prone to big lapses in concentration.
DEFENDERS: A headache for Deschamps will be choosing between Raphael Varane, Laurent Koscielny and Samuel Umtiti for his center half pairing. Selecting Varane on the right and Umtiti on the left of the pairing keeps both in their preferred club positions. But so does selecting Koscielny alongside Umtiti. Deschamps is unlikely to drop Varane, given his Champions League-winning credentials with Real Madrid.
MIDFIELDERS: As usual, all eyes will be on Paul Pogba. This is his chance to end the debate as to whether he is truly world class by leading France to victory. He’s had a difficult season for Manchester United, however, with coach Jose Mourinho losing patience. But Deschamps remains fiercely loyal and protective of Pogba. N’Golo Kante is a sure starter in the holding role. Blaise Matuidi’s consistent season with Juventus may be enough to earn him a place alongside Pogba and Kante.
FORWARDS: Deschamps will go with his trusted partnership of Antoine Griezmann and Olivier Giroud. It just depends what formation he chooses. In a 4-4-2, he can use both as his center forwards and complement them with the scorching pace of 19-year-old Kylian Mbappe down the right flank. A 4-3-3 also suits the same trio, albeit with Giroud in the lone central striker’s role and the other two switching and rotating around him. Barcelona’s Ousmane Dembele, the third most expensive player in the world behind Mbappe and Neymar, gives Deschamps another exquisite option. Deschamps will likely choose only one from Arsenal’s Alexandre Lacazette, Bayern Munich’s Kingsley Coman, and Manchester United’s Anthony Martial.
The Peruvian players heading to Russia weren’t alive when the team last appeared at the World Cup. The 36-year wait is over.
Argentine coach Ricardo Gareca has restored the elegant ball possession and short passing style that carried Peru to the quarterfinals of the 1970 edition.
While lacking stars, Peru will be hoping its ability to adapt to different conditions serves it well across Russia. The players have already shown through qualifying that they can handle everything from the altitude of the Andean mountains to the heat of the Amazon.
Here’s a closer look at the Peru team, which secured its place at the World Cup through the playoffs against New Zealand:
COACH: Gareca was responsible for denying Peru a place at the 1986 World Cup, scoring the goal that ended its qualification hopes while playing for Argentina. He went on to gain two decades of coaching experience in the South American club game, including spells at Brazil’s Palmeiras, Argentina’s Velez Sarsfield, and Colombia’s America de Cali, and has led Peru since 2015.
GOALKEEPERS: Pedro Gallese, of Mexico’s Veracruz, expects to have Peru’s No. 1 jersey by recovering from the right knee injury he sustained in February.
DEFENDERS: Peru will be relying on two players who rarely feature for their clubs: Central defender Alberto Rodriguez and left back Miguel Trauco. At age 34, Rodriguez returned to training at Colombia’s Junior Barranquilla only in the middle of April after an injury to his right leg. Trauco played only three matches this year for Flamengo in Brazil.
MIDFIELDERS: Tapia of Feyenoord and Carrillo of Watford were integral during qualifying along with Yoshimar Yotun of Orlando City. Christian Cueva of Sao Paulo and Edison Flores of Denmark’s Aalborg are also likely to be called.
FORWARDS: Gareca will be hoping top-scorer Paolo Guerrero is eligible as he fights a case at the Court for Arbitration of Sport over a positive doping test. If Guerrero is indeed suspended, Lokomotiv’s Jefferson Farfan will have to lead. Raul Ruidiaz, who is doing well at Mexico’s Monarcas, is the other goalscorer.
GROUP C SCHEDULE (all times PT)
Saturday: France vs. Australia, 3 a.m.; Peru vs. Denmark, 9 a.m.
JUNE 21: Denmark vs. Australia, 5 a.m.; France vs. Peru, 8 a.m.
JUNE 26: Australia vs. Peru, 7 a.m.; Denmark vs. France, 7 a.m.