Ranking every World Cup team heading into the group stage draw as Egypt land at 24th

Chris Bailey 30/11/2017
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Egypt return to the World Cup for the first time since 1990

The World Cup draw takes place in Moscow on Friday with each of the 32 teams set to find out their group stage fate.

From the four pots eight groups will be drawn from A-H with the opening clash featuring hosts Russia to be played on June 14.

The allocation of the pots is done by using the FIFA rankings system and of course, have been dissected and debated.

But the rankings don’t necessarily reflect the true position of the 32 sides so we’ve gone ahead and analysed is 1-32 with their actual ranking in brackets.

Next up is teams 17-24…

17. Iran (32)

The next Ali Daei? Step up Sardar Azmoun. The Iran forward is 22 years old and has scored 22 times for his country already drawing comparisons to the international goals legend Daei.

But Azmoun has the potential to be even better than the Iran legend and the 2018 World Cup will be his stage to prove that.

Iran went winless at the 2014 World Cup but will arrive in Russia armed with a lethal striker and the confidence of having gone unbeaten in 18 qualifying games across two rounds.

Carlos Queiroz has rebuilt this squad and in Rubin Kazan’s Azmoun they have their talisman. The target is the knockout stages with Queiroz insistent they won’t go to Russia as “tourists”.

But there will be ample scouts in the stands making an excursion to see Azmoun.

Iran striker Sardar Azmoun

Iran striker Sardar Azmoun

18. Morocco (40)

Marooned in Pot Four, Morocco represent a potential banana skin for any one of the top sides.

A 2-0 victory over bitter rivals Ivory Coast ended a two-decade wait for a World Cup appearance and the North African’s are an exciting proposition.

Medhi Benatia mashalled a defence which didn’t concede a goal in six qualifiers and in Hakim Ziyech they possess a real livewire.

The Ajax forward is back in the national-team fold after making peace with boss Herve Renard and the 24-year-old has added goals to his electric talent this season.

Flair and discipline hallmark a decent outfit which warrants a spot inside the top-20.

Morocco defender Mehdi Benatia

Morocco defender Mehdi Benatia

19. Sweden (18)

No Zlatan, no problem but without Ibrahimovic Sweden are shorn of a bonafide world-class star.

They make up for that with a balance approached and they’ve already toppled two of the world’s elite sides after beating France in the group stage before knocking Italy out in a play-off.

Leipzig forward Emil Forsberg has embraced taking up the goalscoring responsibility in Ibrahimovic’s absence and boss Janne Andersson has successfully completed the squad’s transition after Euro 2016.

There’s talk Ibrahimovic could return for the World Cup but the team has more than moved on and will be a solid, if unspectacular, side come 2018.

Sweden's Emil Forsberg

Sweden’s Emil Forsberg

20. Iceland (22)

Hotly debated whether they should be ranked higher than England following their spectacular knockout stage at last year’s Euros.

Every neutral’s favourite underdog they built on their success by qualifying through a tough group with an away win over Turkey and a home victory against Kosovo.

Oh, and in the process they became the smallest country by population (350,000) to reach a World Cup.

Small in number but not in noise, the Icelandic clap will reverberate around stadiums in Russia and around the world.

The gritty determination of Aron Gunnarsson is offset by the creative magic of Gylfi Sigurdsson and if they can continue to build from an impressive qualification, they will be putting opposition on ice.

Iceland's Aron Gunnarsson

Iceland’s Aron Gunnarsson

21. Nigeria (50)

There is argument to be that made that the world will see Nigeria at their best in 2022 as their squad, though the most gifted for quite some time, is still on the raw side.

No World Cup team fielded a side with a younger average age than Nigeria during the qualifiers (24.9) as a squad that needed a good clearout after 2014 – gone are the likes of Joseph Yobo and Peter Odemwingie – have been replaced by genuine talent.

Wilfred Ndidi, Kelechi Iheanacho and Ahmed Musa are all stationed in the Premier League with Leicester and Arsenal’s Alex Iwobi chose Nigeria over England to further strengthen a promising nucleus.

Under German coach Gernot Rohr, the youngsters have developed a fearless streak, first in navigating a ‘group of death’ comprising African champions Cameroon, Algeria and Zambia before coming back from behind to stun Argentina in last month’s glamour friendly.

How they will handle the heat in a World Cup cauldron is a different matter but few of the better-seeded teams will be happy if they see Nigeria’s name come out of Pot Four.

Nigeria forward Alex Iwobi (l)

Nigeria forward Alex Iwobi (l)

22. Japan (55)

Curiously Japan waylaid two of their best-known players, Shinji Kagawa and Shinji Okazaki, ahead of their crucial World Cup qualifier against Australia – and it worked.

Vahid Halilhodzic’s side is underpinned by a strong work ethic, and just as the Bosnian has said, ‘the names are not relevant when it comes to playing for Japan’.

They overcame a strong qualifying group including Saudi Arabia, Australia and the UAE to qualify automatically and were particularly stingy at the back, conceding just seven goals in 10 games.

Kagawa, Ozakaki and former hero Keisuke Honda were not drafted in for the recent friendlies with Brazil and Belgium but there is one man who may provide a little X-Factor next year.

Gamba Osaka midfielder Yosuke Ideguchi, according to the local press, is one of Japan’s best-kept secrets and must provide the much-needed guile for the Asian underdogs, in Pot Four, to go very far.

Japan's Yosuke Ideguchi

Japan’s Yosuke Ideguchi

23. Denmark (12)

With all due respect to the Republic of Ireland, it would have been a terrible shame if Christian Eriksen had not taken to the stage in Russia next year.

Tottenham’s magician pulled off his greatest trick yet in Dublin, conjuring up a hat-trick to take his qualification goal tally into double digits.

Kasper Schmeichel in goal and the pairing of Simon Kjaer and Andreas Christensen in central defence forms a decent spine but simply put, if Eriksen enters the World Cup jaded from his exertions with Spurs, very little inspiration will be arriving from elsewhere.

No other player apart from the much-maligned Nicklas Bentdner from the team that flew to Ireland has scored more than eight goals for their country.

Indeed, it’s difficult to name a team who is more reliant on one player than Denmark – but even if he’s not quite at the level of Michael Laudrup yet, there are worse figures to lean upon.

Denmark midfielder Christian Eriksen

Denmark midfielder Christian Eriksen

24. Egypt (31)

Talking of inspirational figures, how’s Mo Salah for one? Whatever the winger touches turns to goals at the moment, whether in the red of Liverpool or Egypt.

Salah scored all three goals in two crucial wins over Uganda and Congo to send the Pharaohs to the World Cup for the first time since 1990, the last a penalty in the fifth minute of injury time.

While they have one truly proven commodity, much of the rest are unknown to global eyes, with Egyptian heavyweights Al Ahly and Zamalek forming the bulk of the defence.

To date Arsenal’s Mohamed Elneny and Stoke’s Ramadan Sobhi have been hit and miss in the Premier League, while after a storming start with West Bromwich Albion, defender Ahmed Hegazi has tailed off somewhat.

Salah may not be able to galvanise the team in the same way that a playmaker in the vein of Eriksen can, but considering the spirit they showed during qualifying, their heart will count for something next year.

Egypt's Mohamed Salah (l)

Egypt’s Mohamed Salah (l)

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Young heroics shame under-performing Man United stars

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Young at heart: Manchester United's Ashley Young (Getty).

The look of sheer disbelief on Jose Mourinho’s face said it all.

Eyes widened and face contorted in shock, the Manchester United manager could scarcely believe the inch-perfect free-kick Ashley Young had just delivered into the top corner during Tuesday’s 4-2 triumph at Watford.

This incredulity at the staggering events of Vicarage Road was undoubtedly multiplied by the fact the 32-year-old had only moments before lashed a thundering skimmer past the helpless Heurelho Gomes for the opener, while his deflected effort at the weekend provided the only goal of a stodgy 1-0 win against promoted Brighton.

Beyond providing fresh viral content for the insatiable vultures callously manning Twitter’s plethora of ‘football banter’ accounts, the reaction of the ‘Special One’ spoke volumes.  For all that is to be lauded about Young’s latest renaissance, true title pretenders should not be leaning so heavily on him.

Do not forget, we are talking about a veteran right winger who has been shunted into left-back/ left wing-back.

A learned diligence in defence, boundless energy and punishing accuracy on crosses have been behind the player’s re-emergence.

But in a squad assembled at lavish cost, something has gone wrong for Young to be a leading figure.

His displays directly shame the likes of specialists Luke Shaw and Daley Blind. The former has steadily become persona non grata since being signed for £30 million (Dh183.9m) in June 2014.

They also embarrass mothballed playmaker Henrikh Mkhitaryan and even Romelu Lukaku, a striker who Mourinho jokes desperately requires a new boot deal to replicate his electric start in red.

These are the players who should be deciding United’s matches. Not Young, for whom United supporters have grown wearily to like after years stained by diving and underperformance following a 2011 arrival from Aston Villa.

Full-back is a position of growing importance as the trend continues for midfields dominating the centre ground. Premier League leaders Manchester City lavished £131.5m (Dh647.1m) this summer on positions Pep Guardiola has always valued.

Young’s simultaneous rise in importance is just another mark of disparity between the two rivals.

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Ranking every World Cup team heading into the group stage draw as Russia land at 28th

Alex Rea 29/11/2017
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Russian roulette: Fyodor Smolov

The World Cup draw takes place in Moscow on Friday with each of the 32 teams set to find out their group stage fate.

From the four pots eight groups will be drawn from A-H with the opening clash featuring hosts Russia to be played on June 14.

The allocation of the pots is done by using the FIFA rankings system and of course, have been dissected and debated.

But the rankings don’t necessarily reflect the true position of the 32 sides so we’ve gone ahead and analysed is 1-32 with their actual ranking in brackets.

First up is teams 25-32…

25. Costa Rica (26)

Spain’s 5-0 thrashing of the Costa Ricans in a friendly last month hardly bodes well but when stakes are riding high, the underdogs can bite.

They set the United States on the way to a surprise qualifying exit after coming away with a 2-0 victory from New Jersey and held runaway group leaders Mexico to a draw at home.

And if you need reminding of what they did three years ago, only penalties prevented Costa Rica from advancing to the World Cup semi-finals at the expense of the Netherlands.

Their strength is in their experience as the average age of players among their qualifying squad, marshalled by former Fulham midfielder Bryan Ruiz.

Oscar Ramirez has carried on the good work of 2014 coach Jorge Luis Pinto but with little fresh talent to emerge since then, it is reasonable to wonder if lightning can strike twice.

Costa Rica captain Bryan Ruiz

Costa Rica captain Bryan Ruiz

26. South Korea (59)

South Korea became the only side outside of Europe and South Korea to have featured in every tournament since 1986, despite a rocky qualification.

They needed Syria’s failure to beat Iran to get through the Asian qualifiers after a 0-0 draw with Uzbekistan and they don’t look strong enough to fair any better than their weak surrender in the group stage four years ago.

The Premier League trio of Tottenham’s Son Heung-min, Swansea’s Ki Sung-yeung and Crystal Palace’s Lee Chung-yong, give them crucial experience from Europe.

Son in particular will be their dynamic star man and is the top-scoring player in Premier League history.

Son Heung-Min of South Korea

Son Heung-Min of South Korea

27. Tunisia (27)

A fifth World Cup beckons for Tunisia and it will be their first in 12 years but for the Eagles of Carthage to take flight they will need to avoid significant resistance in the form of a tough group.

Wahbi Khazri has rebounded from his nightmare spell at Sunderland with Ligue 1 club Rennes and he heads up a new generation of Tunisian stars while former Monaco man Aymen Abdennour carries their main goal threat.

Only two players called up for the last round of African qualifying games had more than 50 caps so inexperience is their main issue.

But having beaten the likes Democratic Republic of Congo, Libya and Guinea to make it to Russia they’ll be entering the tournament with little fear.

Tunisia's midfielder Wahbi Khazri

Tunisia’s midfielder Wahbi Khazri

28. Russia (65)

As a host nation, expectation will be high but it really shouldn’t be.

National pride will be at stake and with the luxury of being in Pot 1 they will hope to make an impression in the group stages at the very least.

The complexion of this side has changed drastically since reaching the semi-finals of Euro 2008 and they are actually the lowest-ranked of the 32 teams.

As captain, Igor Akinfeev bears the burden of pressure but his shoulders have collapsed when it comes to the big games with mistakes tarnishing an otherwise talented stopper.

There are problems off the pitch, too with reports of disputes between senior players and coach Stanislav Cherchesov refusing to go away.

They lack any creative guile and will pin a lot of their hopes on the resurgent Krasnodar forward Fyodor Smolov.

Russia goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev

Russia goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev

29. Peru (11)

Peru possess one of the meanest defences in South American football with Ricardo Gareca’s men only conceding seven goals in eight games in 2017.

However, there are huge concerns even before they step foot in Russia next year.

Paolo Guerrero is likely to be banned for a FIFA doping offence and although he’s appealing it’s unlikely the 33-year-old captain will be successful.

Their aging winger Jefferson Farfan is beginning to see his powers wane now aged 33 and despite Gareca bringing a sense of organisation they lack any real attacking thrust.

The Peruvian’s are somewhat destined to fall flat in Russia.

Peru's Jefferson Farfan

Peru’s Jefferson Farfan

30. Saudi Arabia (63)

Saudi Arabia are onto their third coach in three months with Bert van Marwijk’s replacement Edgardo Bauza sacked after a series of poor post-qualifying friendly results.

Former Chile boss Juan Antonio Pizzi has now taken charge but a tall order awaits despite Saudi Arabia topping their qualification group to edge out Japan and Australia.

Mohammed Al-Sahlawi is the talisman. He scored 16 goals in qualification – joint highest throughout all the confederations – but the squad lacks European experience and the managerial chaos has hardly helped matters.

Saudi's Mohammed Al-Sahlawi

Saudi’s Mohammed Al-Sahlawi

31. Australia (39)

The foot of the post denied Syria progression to the final play-off at Australia’s expense with the rising star Omar Al Somah cruelly thwarted.

However, the Soceroos made no mistake against Honduras winning 3-1 over the two legs.

They’ve since had manager Ange Postecoglou step down and their softening attack still relies on a 37-year-old Tim Cahill.

Australia's record scorer Tim Cahill

Australia’s record scorer Tim Cahill

32. Panama (56)

Panama celebrated their qualification to a first-ever World Cup by declaring a national holiday.

They won’t catch any breaks in Russia, though.

Luis Tejada is their key man with 43 goals for his country but they are a veteran side who have been known to crumble with their 4-0 thrashing by the USA a testament to that.

Panama forward Luis Tejada (L)

Panama forward Luis Tejada (L)

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