France - Four years ago in Brazil France were beaten 1-0 by eventual champions Germany in the quarter finals. It was a disappointing display for a team many predicted had a squad strong enough to go all the way. Two years ago in their home European Championships they were pre tournament favourites and despite impressive displays en route to the final they were beaten by Portugal, despite having twice the attempts at goal to Portugal who eventually won it in extra time. If disappointment was the initial feeling after that it quickly became clear that the France squad being built was the strongest they have had since they were champions of the world in 1998.
Group A in qualification for the World Cup was the toughest on paper, with Sweden, Netherlands and Bulgaria all strong teams along with France. But, despite an embarrassing home draw with Luxembourg, France won it comfortably from Sweden and will arrive in Russia as one of the big four favourites. They have a young squad that will be captained by 31 year old Hugo Lloris in goals, who has had a disappointing season with Tottenham. He seems to have lost a little bit of confidence this season and hasn't been sweeping up behind his defense as well as he has in the past, which was a huge part of his game. It has affected his decision making and now he will hoping to put it behind him when he lines up for France.
An issue that Deschamps might have had was Koscielny carrying a heel problem that was clearly affecting his form all season, now with his serious achilles injury ending his season, unfortunately for him he will miss the World Cup. France do have great depth in every area and with the potential partnership of El Classico rivals Raphael Varane and Samuel Umtiti looking like an excellent prospect, at 25 and 24 respectively, they could be playing together for the next 4 major tournaments at least.
In terms of attacking talent the team is absolutely loaded with match winners and pace. Anthony Martial, Kylian Mbappe and Ousmane Dembele are all exciting youngsters with huge futures and already worth hundreds of millions between them. Manager Didier Deschamps has some decisions to make regarding his starting 11. Choosing between those 3 youngsters, Griezmann, Giroud, Payet, Kingsley Coman and perhaps the surprise of the season in Ligue 1 this year, former Newcastle man Florian Thauvin. He has scored 20 league goals this year and could certainly have his name on the plane to Russia.
With N'Golo Kante in midfield it gives the license for the front 5 to attack, and that is a frightening prospect for other defenses. France are absolutely in contention to win the tournament this year, and even if they don't they are set up to be the best team in the world for the next 5 or 6 years and the experience from this year will help in their development.
Star Man - Despite only showing flashes of brilliance for Manchester United, Paul Pogba in my opinion is as good a midfielder as any in the world. He is quick and strong, but more than that he has great feet and is so comfortable dribbling past players and taking the ball in tight situations. Against teams that will sit in he could be key to unlock defenses with his passing his clever movement around the box. He is something different to all the other stars France have, and he could be set to have a big tournament without Mourinho forcing him to defend and screen the back 4.
Australia - The Socceroos decision, whether it is fair or not, to move to the Asian WC qualifiers in 2005 has proved to be successful as they qualified for their 4th successive World Cup. Despite losing out to Saudi Arabia and Japan in the initial qualifiers they managed to squeeze through against Syria in a playoff, before comfortably beating CONCACAF team Honduras in a two legged playoff 3-1 on aggregate. Experienced manager Bert van Marwijk will be hoping to repeat the record of countryman Guus Hiddink, who took Australia to the last 16 in 2006, the only time they have ever advanced through the group stages. A recent 4-1 friendly defeat by a poor Norway seems to suggest he has a really tough job on his hands. Tim Cahill at 38 years old was instrumental for them beating Syria in the Asian playoff, and 33 year old Mile Jedinak scored a hattrick as they beat Honduras. The squad is based all over the world with only 2 or 3 players playing in the A-League, the majority playing all across Europe. Matt Ryan in goals as never impressed me as a top keeper, but he has held his place in the Brighton team this season and has improved as the season has gone on. He will be a busy keeper and will have to be on top form for Australia to progress. In attacking areas Mathew Leckie, who has been a regular at Hertha BSC this season will be a crucial player from wide areas. Australia only have 2 players that have scored more than 10 international goals in their squad, Cahill and Jedinak. It is clear they lack a threat up front, and Robbie Kruse who has regularly been a starter only has 5 goals in 62 caps. Aaron Mooy of Huddersfield has had an excellent season, and his set pieces will be a crucial part of the Aussie attack.
Tom Rogic is a class act every time I watch him for Celtic. He is tall and awkward looking at times, but his futsal background means he has great touch and ability in tight areas. Not only that, he scores important goals and is a huge threat running with the ball. His left foot is deadly from range and I like watching him. He will be very important for Australia if they are to get through to the last 16 for the second time in their history.
Peru - Perhaps the biggest surprise from South American qualifying was Peru reaching the playoffs ahead of Chile. It wasn't without controversy however, as both teams were awarded 3-0 victories over Bolivia who fielded an ineligible player against them both. Chile had drawn, but Peru had lost 2-0, and in the final standings they managed to beat Chile on goal difference with the points against Bolivia proving absolutely pivotal to their qualification. They went on to beat New Zealand in an inter confederation playoff to qualify for their first World Cup since 1982. For record goalscorer Paolo Guerrero it was his last chance to get to the World Cup, and along with the familiar name of Jefferson Farfan, he will be enjoying potentially his last major tournament and hoping to inspire what is generally a young squad. Peru are very much a team that gets goals from all over the pitch as evidenced by 9 different scorers in qualifying. They were the third top scorers behind Brazil and Uruguay, and they possess a lot of pace in their team that can cause problems, especially on the counter attack. They are not a big side and instead rely on the technical ability of their attacking players including Andre Carillo, Christian Cueva and Jefferson Farfan. Paolo Guerrero will be used as the main striker, and at 34 he is more of an 18 yard box striker now, so it will be up to the quicker and youngers players behind him to try and create chances that will take Peru through into the knockout stages.
Edison Flores. Flores currently plays his football in Denmark for AaB so he will be well known to his group opponents, but he has shown great goal scoring instincts for his country arriving late in the box and also some deadly finishing with his left foot. He looks like a real talented player and with a good World Cup could earn himself a nice move somewhere else in Europe.
Denmark - In what looks like an close race for second place in the group Denmark might just be second favourites. They lost out to Poland in the race for automatic qualification, but hammered Ireland in the playoffs 5-1 in Dublin to book their place in Russia thanks mainly to a hattrick from Christian Eriksen. In goals for his first major tournament will be Kasper Schmeichel, hoping to emulate father Peter, who was part of the Denmark team that went to the Quarter Finals in France 98, Denmarks best ever World Cup. Captain and central defender, Simon Kjær hasn't been playing regularly for Sevilla this year, which is an issue as his partnership with Chelsea central defender Andreas Christensen is an important part of the team. Another option at that position could be Borussia Monchengladbach regular, Jannik Vestergaard, which also gives Denmark an option of playing the in fashion back 3. Denmark don't score many goals through their strikers which could be a major problem in the tournament. Cornelius and Jørgensen managing 2 each in qualifying, and Dolberg and Poulsen getting 1 each it is clear there is no definite number 9 in the squad. Nicklas Bendtner had been for many years, and despite being top scorer in the Norwegian leagues last season, and having 30 goals for his country, he hasn't been trusted by the manager recently, and is unlikely to be starting the first game in Russia. One to watch out for might be Kasper Dolberg who now at 20 years old, scored 23 goals for Ajax last season. He hasn't been as prolific this season, but he has the potential to be Denmarks main striker for years to come.
Christian Eriksen. His passing range and quality in the final third is absolutely outstanding. He always puts Harry Kane and Dele Alli in great positions and picks out their movement. For Denmark he plays a slightly different role in that he has to carry the team. He was the third top scorer in European qualifying with 11 goals, behind only Ronaldo(15) and Lewandowski(16). His set piece delivery will be a crucial part of this team, and the form he is in he will have a country expecting him to take his team through this group.
Predictions - France are firm favourites to progress from Group C, and I'm sure they will convincingly progress with at least 7 points. Between the other three teams I think Australia are the weakest. They play France in game 1, so the other game could be the most important one. The winner of Denmark and Peru will most likely go on to qualify. If Denmark can win that, they then go on to play Australia and the group could be done before the last games. I think however, that given the pressure that will be a draw, and it will come down to goal difference. Denmark having Eriksen will help, and they will sneak through.
What to Bet on - Denmark are 4/5 to beat Australia in the second game on the 21st June. Australia look poor on paper, and Denmark should beat them comfortably.
World Klutz - Time to go back to 2002, a group C match between eventual champions Brazil, and Turkey. Time winding down on a 2-1 victory for Brazil, they have a corner...
The most embarrassing moments in Rivaldo's career, and still to this day makes me laugh. How can the linesman not see what has happened here? Turkey got the chance for revenge in the semi final, but Brazil beat them 1-0 through a Ronaldo goal and went on to beat Germany in the final.