When Spain and Germany were the first two names to be drawn into Group E, the general feeling was that they would be the two sides to qualify for the FIFA World Cup last 16, with Japan and Costa Rica making up the numbers.
While the two European powerhouses will be favourites to get out of their group, a talented and hard-working Japan could cause them more than a few problems and Costa Rica also have players to give everyone a few nervous moments.
Coached by Luis Enrique, Spain want to overcome the frustrations of 2018 when their World Cup campaign was ruined by the sacking of Julen Lopetegui as coach just days before they were due to start the tournament, reports Xinhua.
Spain qualified for Qatar from a group that contained sides such as Sweden, Greece and Kosovo. It was the typical group where you could drop points, and Spain did, being held to a 1-1 draw at home to Greece and slipping to a 2-1 defeat to Sweden.
Both of those games highlighted Spain’s main weakness. Enrique’s side like to control the ball while sometimes failing to turn their control into clear-cut chances.
Alvaro Morata is almost certain to start and his record of 27 goals from 57 appearances in the national team is impressive, but despite his goals and high work rate, nobody would say Morata was a penalty area ‘killer’. With Gerard Moreno struggling for fitness, Spain’s options in attack are limited, especially with Mikel Oyarzabal missing out due to injury.
Dani Olmo, Pablo Sarabia, and perhaps Ferran Torres and Marco Asensio can all chip in with goals and a fully fit Ansu Fati could make the difference. But if Spain have a weakness, it is finishing opponents off.
Unai Simon is a guarantee in goal and a defensive line of Jordi Alba or Jose Gaya, Inigo Martinez, Pau Torres and Dani Carvajal looks relatively solid, while youngsters Gavi and Pedri will provide support in midfield for Sergio Busquets’ aging legs and Rodri is also a guarantee in the middle.
Germany will travel remembering a 6-0 thrashing to Spain just two years ago, after impressing in qualifying with nine wins from 10 games and just four goals conceded, although it has to be said that their group, which contained North Macedonia, Romania, Armenia, Iceland and Liechtenstein wasn’t the most demanding.
Former Bayern Munich coach Hansi Flick has adapted well after replacing Joachim Low, and the return of Thomas Muller to the fold has given the Germans a lot of experience.
Flick can count on pace and movement in attack with players such as Muller, Serge Gnabry, and Leroy Sane, although Timo Werner’s ankle injury means his absence.
Jamal Musiala can offer excellent support and Kai Havertz offers adaptability in the front line ahead of the experienced Ilkay Gundogan and Joshua Kimmich.
Antonio Rudiger hasn’t had a great start at Real Madrid, but is a guarantee for his country in central defense alongside Niklas Sule, while Jonas Hofmann looks solid on the right and David Raum is the favorite to get the nod on the left.
Behind them, Manuel Neuer and Marc-Andre ter Stegen are both guarantees in goal.
Japan look as if they could be a surprise package – if surprise is the right word for a side that has qualified for the last seven World Cups and reached the knockout stages in 2002, 2010 and 2018.
Coach Hajime Moriyasu showed he knows his players well, when he became the first coach to name his squad for Qatar, and that squad contains a mixture of players in Japan and Europe.
Real Sociedad’s Takefusa Kubo has been having an excellent season in Spain and his ability to drift between midfield and defense makes him hard to pick out, while other players, such as Daizen Maeda who plays for Celtic, Brighton’s Kaoru Mitoma, Eintracht Frankfurt’s Daichi Kamada and Sporting’s Hidemasa Morita are all playing at the top level.
At the back, Takehiro Tomiyasu plays for Premier League leaders Arsenal, while with Ko Itakura in Borussia Monchengladbach and Maya Yoshida in Schalke 04, their experience will be vital against Spain and Germany.
Japan have tough and talented players, many of whom are playing at the top level, and as such they have to be taken very seriously indeed.
Costa Rica stunned the world when they advanced to the quarterfinals in Brazil in 2014 and qualified for Russia in 2018. Their standout figure is Paris Saint-Germain keeper Keylor Navas and the 35-year-old will almost certainly be between the posts again in Qatar.
The Costa Ricans are likely to rely on the experience of Celso Borges (154 caps) and Bryan Ruiz (145) in a squad made up mainly of footballers in their domestic league.
It will be vital for players such as Colombian-based Juan Pablo Vargas and Bryan Oviedo, now at Real Salt Lake, to help their less experienced teammates, including Nottingham Forest teenager Brandon Aguilera and 18-year-old Jewison Bennette playing with English second-tier side Sunderland.
Expect Costa Rica to be physical and adapt well to the climate in Qatar, but this time a surprise looks to be beyond them.