All previews:A|B|C|D|E|F|G|H

Australia

socceroos beer

What’s their deal? The Socceroos’ decision to bolt the Oceanian conference for the more competitive Asian Football Confederation culminated in an Asian championship in 2015, but the outlook has been less sunny since then. Australia had a distressingly difficult time in qualifying, clinching a berth by the skin of their teeth, and the leadership has made a desperate coaching change just before the World Cup, hoping the wily old Dutchman Bert van Marwijk can get this team back in form.

But who can play? Aaron Mooy is a tremendous player who can be slotted into a few different positions in midfield depending on whether van Marwijk wants to capitalize on his tackling capabilities or passing prowess. Matthew Leckie, playing alongside him, could be due for a breakout performance. Longtime captain Miles Jedinak can always be picked out of a lineup by his lumberjack beard. Tim Cahill, at age 39, is unlikely to start, but is probably still the team’s best striker.

What’s their soccer look like? Well, it’s a bit of a work in progress. Van Marwijk has been trying to reorient his squad towards defense and counterattacking, but has been cycling through several different formations in the attempt. Each one, however, has been heavy on midfield positions, and once in possession the strategy will be to get the ball upfield quickly through Mooy.

So, how far can they go? Right before a tournament against the world’s best competition is not exactly an optimal time for a team to be in flux. As long as they’re called the Socceroos they’ll remain lovable underdogs, but a last-place finish in the group seems all but certain.

Denmark

eriksen

What’s their deal? Consistently decent but never great, a new-look Denmark might finally have a shot at making some noise on the world stage. After playing possession-heavy soccer for decades, the Danes have suddenly transformed themselves into a dynamic, offense-first squad. That’s all thanks to the wonderful talent of Christan Eriksen, who brought tears to Irish eyes by netting a hat trick in the final playoff match and putting Denmark through at Ireland’s expense.

But who can play? Eriksen is a dominant force and creative talisman as a central attacking midfielder, and the team’s fortunes will live or die on the strength of his play. There aren’t really any other star players here, but nor are there many slouches. Netminder Kasper Schmeichel will be shouting out the instructions at a back line that gave up just eight goals in qualifying.

What’s their soccer look like? This is an attacking side that could provide some of the more exciting soccer in the group stages. Even the defense is kind of exciting, with a high line seeking to steal the ball and get it moving in the other direction. The passing is short but almost always forward, the better to funnel the ball through Eriksen, who provides both the goals and the assists.

So, how far can they go? The Danish Dynamite have a great puncher’s chance at making the round of 16, and at the very least should give us some thrilling matches in their fight for second place in the group. They might not be able to hang with the real heavyweights though, and that includes France.

France

pogba dab

What’s their deal? Ah, la France: so absurdly talented on paper, so enigmatic on the field, and so dramatic off it. Capable of both dominant performances and bafflingly mediocre ones, oddsmakers are simply lying if they tell you they know what to expect from this team in this tournament. If things go according to plan, les Bleus are among the favorites to win. But the plan itself might yet be subject to change: manager Didier Deschamps must find the winning formula after some merely okay recent friendly matches have the French press crying, “SacrésBleus!” Well, that and routine extracurriculars like a star striker being left off the team for becoming embroiled in a sex tape scandal.

But who can play? The French roster is so loaded, you could field a damn good team with just the players left at home. Probably the best of the bunch in Russia is Paul Pogba, who hasn’t had the best time at Manchester United but is still a transformative player, always frighteningly capable of scoring from deep. Blaise Matuidi or Olivier Giroud will be complementing him in the midfield. Speed is the hallmark of the attacking front, with either one  or both of Antoine Griezmann or youngling Kylian Mbappé due for a breakout performance. The strength of the defense depends somewhat on the health of Djibril Sidibé, but  Hugo Lloris is a rock in goal.

What’s their soccer look like? From match to match we could be seeing a 4-4-2 or 4-3-3; there are certainly enough interchangeable parts to make either work. In any case, France should feature fantastic skill and swift attacking play—but will they?

So, how far can they go? If everything clicks, France could win themselves a second World Cup. But the enormously talented squad might be just a bit too young for that to really be a realistic goal this time around. There’s too much quality here for them not to move on from the group stage, (tempting though it is to predict a French face plant like in 2010), but the likely result is something like a quarterfinal exit. In France, of course, anything less than a semifinal will be considered an apocalyptic failure.

Peru

guerrero farfan

What’s their deal? It’s been quite a while since Peru have made it to a World Cup, but an appearance in Russia comes as no surprise to this squad, who over the past few years have been steadily restoring the nation to its former competitive ways. Qualifying out of South America is no mean feat, and that came on the heels of a quarterfinal finish in the Copa America. The team received quite a jolt when captain Paolo Guerrero was banned for cocaine, but his reinstatement gives la Bicolor a fighting chance in the group. A cohesive unit with the eye of el Tigre, (as coach Ricardo Gareca is known), los Incas are one of the more appealing underdog sides in the whole tournament.

But who can play? Assuming Guerrero won’t have much rust to shake off after that ban, he’s a fantastic striker even at age 34. Flying wingman will be Jefferson Farfán, who can play either in midfield or up front.

What’s their soccer look like? Like Peruvian teams of yore or Spanish teams of present, la Blanquirroja play possession ball, with short, quick passes designed to keep the ball away from the opponent while probing for an opening. For that reason, a 4-2-3-1 is likely, but if things are too stagnant, look for Farfán to move up into a forward position.

So, how far can they go? Peru are very capable of finishing second in the group and moving on to the knockout stage, which would undoubtedly send the home fans into a state of utter euphoria, with or without the help of any coca leaf. It will all come down to the match against Denmark, which shapes up to be one of the most exciting in the tournament.