World Cup 2018: Key tactical battles from the second round of fixtures

Germany manager Joachim Low
Low's Germany desperately need a win against Sweden.
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Alex Keble picks out four key battles from the second round of World Cup fixtures and predicts difficulties for Germany and Argentina.

"This hands Sweden a big chance to send the champions crashing out at the group stages. The key player for them is 26-year-old Viktor Claeson, a quick right winger who should be able to chase the long balls and counter into the gaps behind Marvin Plattenhardt."

Sweden's counter-attacks could hurt wide-open Germany

Germany v Sweden
Saturday 23 June, 19:00, Live on ITV

Mexico's shock 1-0 victory over Germany will have left the world champions fragile and, more importantly, provided Joachim Low's next opponents with a tactical blueprint: stay compact, deny Mesut Ozil space, then break quickly in the spaces left behind the full-backs.

Germany have a slow centre-back pair, which is why they instinctively dropped deep when Mexico won the ball, creating a huge gap between themselves and the midfield shield (Sami Khedira is too slow on the turn and was not disciplined enough to help sew the two lines together). What's more, Low's full-backs played like wingers, effectively isolating Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng. Germany must find a way to protect the ageing pair, and yet, desperately chasing three points, it is unlikely they will be more conservative.

This hands Sweden a big chance to send the champions crashing out at the group stages. The key player for them is 26-year-old Viktor Claeson, a quick right winger who should be able to chase the long balls and counter into the gaps behind Marvin Plattenhardt. Mexico deliberately left Khedira free while pressing his team-mates in the knowledge the Juventus midfielder's passing is sloppy. If Khedira plays badly again, then Sweden could nick it.

Messi to struggle if Croatia pack the midfield

Argentina v Croatia
Thursday 21 June, 16:00, Live on BBC One

If there was ever any doubt before, there certainly isn't after Argentina's 1-1 draw with Iceland. This is a one-man team, a nation driven so whole-heartedly by the work of Lionel Messi that the Barcelona man had twice as many touches (116) as any other attacking player on the pitch. He was constantly swarmed and harassed by three Iceland players in central areas, thus limiting his creativity and nullifying the South Americans.

It is pretty obvious, then, how Croatia should approach this match. It is vital to pack the centre of the pitch with bodies and go in hard - in twos and threes - on Messi; Argentina look completely lost when their number 10 isn't pulling the strings. Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic are both more ponderous defensively than the Iceland midfielders were, which could mean Milan Badelj is added to the team for extra clout.

The main reason Argentina were flat was the lack of vertical movement or penetrative passes from Lucas Biglia and Javier Mascherano. This perhaps explains why Jorge Sampaoli has reportedly been using the chaotic, Bielsa-inspired 3-3-1-3 formation in training despite some terrible results when trialled with this lethargic, top-heavy Argentina side. It could get pretty wild, then, with Messi potentially freed up by the extra width of the forwards in the 3-3-1-3.

Neymar and Coutinho must work together on the left and attack Acosta

Brazil v Costa Rica
Friday 22 June, 13:00, Live on ITV

This could be one of the most tense and fascinating games of the second round, simply because Brazil need to win three points and Costa Rica will sit very deep in a 5-4-1 shape to frustrate Tite's side. It could be a long and infuriating afternoon for the Brazilians - unless they can cause overloads on the left via Neymar, Philippe Coutinho and Marcelo.

Unsurprisingly, Brazil tend to lean towards Neymar and that left side of the pitch, which means another difficult day for right centre-back Johnny Acosta. The 34-year-old struggled with the pace of Serbia's counter-attacks on the first day, failing to track the runs of Adem Ljajic. If Brazil have done their homework they will target this zone of the pitch.

Neymar was far too selfish against Switzerland, often attempting to run through the team all by himself, slowing down a predictable Brazil attack. He must link faster with Marcelo and Coutinho if his team are to overwhelm such a compact defence. They should just about do it, but it'll be nervy at first.

James Rodriguez will find space against expansive Poland

Poland v Colombia
Sunday 24 June, 19:00, Live on ITV

A huge battle on the final day of round two between Poland and Colombia is almost certain to leave one of these two on the brink of elimination, piling the pressure onto their respective star players Robert Lewandowski and James Rodriguez. Poland's leaky defence - their insistence on open, possession football saw them concede 14 goals in qualifying - should allow James to shine in the number ten role.

His direct opponent on Sunday is Paris Saint-Germain's Grzegorz Krychowiak, who patrols the base of midfield allowing Napoli's Piotr Zielinski to take a more proactive role alongside him. There is a serious danger that Poland's tactical approach, which includes allowing the full-backs to bomb forward, will leave far too much space on the counter in the defensive midfield area.

James returned from injury with a 30-minute cameo in the defeat to Japan but understandably struggled to make an impact with Colombia down to ten men. This weekend the Bayern Munich attacker can, along with Juan Cuadrado, terrorise an overly exposed Poland defence.

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