A World Cup preview, with predictions for Group F, which features Germany, Mexico, South Korea and Sweden and opens play on Sunday with Sweden vs. South Korea and Germany vs. Mexico.
Predicted order of finish: Germany, Mexico, Sweden, South Korea
We all know how this works: Germany cruises through group play with a slight wobble along the way, then passes each knockout test until landing in the semifinals.
In the 13 tournaments since 1966, Die Mannschaft (The Team) has raised the trophy three times, collected four runner-up medals and finished third in three other attempts. The 2014 title ended a 24-year championship drought, and four summers later, back-to-back crowns are within grasp.
After losing in the semifinals of the 2016 European Championship, Germany went 22 matches without a defeat, a streak interrupted when a lighter squad lost to Brazil in March. An undermanned unit won the FIFA Confederations Cup last summer. World Cup qualifying featured 10 victories in 10 outings and a 43-4 scoring margin.
Joachim Loew, who has spent 14 years as an assistant and head coach implementing a velvety and merciless system, assembled a deep and experienced squad for the next adventure. There wasn't even room for Mario Goetze, who scored the winning goal against Argentina in the 2014 final, or Leroy Sane (Manchester City), the Premier League's young player of the year this past season.
The foundation features Bayern Munich's Mats Hummels, Jerome Boateng and Thomas Mueller; Real Madrid's Toni Kroos; Arsenal's Mesut Ozil; Borussia Dortmund's Marco Reus; and Paris Saint-Germain's Julian Draxler.
With about a dozen players competing in European leagues, Mexico is more sophisticated these days. Had the draw worked in its favor, El Tri might have ended its string of six consecutive defeats in the round of 16. Alas, a second-place finish would almost certainly lead to Brazil. Top talent includes Hirving Lozano, a 22-year-old forward with PSV Eindhoven; West Ham's Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez; and Porto's Hector Herrera.
Sweden's return from a 12-year absence, made possible by upsetting Italy in a qualifying playoff, raised the tantalizing possibility of superstar Zlatan Ibrahimovic rejoining the squad. But the Swedes have functioned better without him, though they could use his scoring punch this summer.
South Korea has been a model of consistency, qualifying for nine consecutive tournaments. Only Brazil, Argentina, Germany and Spain have longer streaks. Tottenham Hotspur forward Son Heung-Min is the key man.