World champions Germany are expected to top Group F, and Kevin Hatchard believes they can once again lift that famous gold trophy...
"As a unit Germany have valuable experience of high-pressure knockout matches, and Joachim Loew has plenty of options in almost every position."
World champions in excellent shape
Germany coach Joachim Loew has never failed to reach the final four of a major tournament with Die Mannschaft, and although he is known as a genial motivator who can get his players moving in the same direction, there is an iron fist in that velvet glove. Mario Goetze, who scored Germany's World Cup-winning goal in 2014, has been ruthlessly left out of the country's title defence. It was a tight call, but probably the right one, and Loew has a knack of getting those personnel decisions right.
Another correct call was allowing skipper Manuel Neuer the latitude to prove his fitness. The Bayern Munich keeper has been sidelined for most of the campaign by a serious foot injury, but barring any last-minute hitches, he looks set to start the opener against Mexico. Barcelona stopper Marc-Andre ter Stegen is an excellent back-up, but Neuer has an aura that lifts those around him and puts doubt in the minds of opposition forwards.
Germany have strength-in-depth throughout the squad. Niklas Sule has flourished at Bayern this term, and I see him as a genuine challenger to Jerome Boateng as Mats Hummels' partner at centre-back. Midfield maestro Toni Kroos has just won his fourth Champions League title, while Joshua Kimmich has emerged as arguably the best right-back in the world. In attack, Thomas Mueller recaptured his best form at Bayern after the return of Jupp Henyckes to the dugout, and it's worth remembering he scored ten goals across the 2010 and 2014 World Cup finals.
Mueller is likely to be given licence to roam, which he much prefers to being stuck at centre-forward. That licence exists because Leipzig speedster Timo Werner will probably lead the attack for the world champions. Werner racked up 21 goals in all competitions at club level this term, and he has scored seven goals in his last nine appearances in international level.
I'm more than happy to back Germany to win the tournament at [5.8]. They should win their group, and that in turn should lead to favourable draws in the last 16 and quarter-finals. As a unit they have valuable experience of high-pressure knockout matches, and Loew has plenty of options in almost every position.
Mexico to maintain impressive record
Mexico have qualified for the knockout phase at the last six World Cups, and that record isn't to be sniffed at. Coach Juan Carlos Osorio (once a fitness coach at Manchester City) has generally impressed, with only a handful of defeats since taking the reins in October 2015. There have been one or two alarming results - El Tri suffered a 4-1 thrashing against Germany at last year's Confederations Cup, and the year before they were humiliated by Chile in a 7-0 demolition at the Copa America.
Despite those hiccups, there is a feeling that Osorio has put a strong tactical framework in place, and when the team clicks they play some attractive stuff. In attack there are some excellent individuals. Young winger Hirving Lozano has lit up the Eredivisie with PSV, Carlos Vela is dangerous when he's in the mood, and although his club form has nosedived in recent seasons, Javier Hernandez can be a threat if he gets the right service.
A knee injury has ruled out superb defender Nestor Araujo, but Carlos Salcedo has just had an excellent season at Eintracht Frankfurt. Overall, Mexico should have enough attacking sparkle to get them through against Sweden and South Korea, and I'd back them to qualify for the last 16.
Sweden may miss Zlatan's unpredictability
Sweden always knew they'd have to adjust to life after Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and their highly-impressive playoff win over Italy showed that they can dig out results without the talismanic forward. However, I fear they may lack the necessary sparkle to progress to the last 16.
Much depends on the form of playmaker Emil Forsberg, who has had a very disappointing season at RB Leipzig. Two campaigns ago he set up 19 Bundesliga goals, but in the recent season he created just two. He remains a technically-gifted player, but it's asking a lot for him to return to top form with a click of the fingers.
Coach Janne Andersson takes few risks, but has built a solid unit with great team spirit. Sweden will rely on being hard to break down, and will hope their aptitude at set pieces will help them sneak through to the last 16.
South Korea to go down swinging
Since they reached the semi-finals of their home tournament in 2002, South Korea haven't really been able to make a splash at the World Cup. They have only reached the knockout phase once in the last three tournaments, and few are expecting a deep run this time around.
Coach Shin Tae-yong can certainly call upon some exciting players. Spurs star Son Heung-min is thriving in the Premier League, Ki Sung-yeung had a tough season at Swansea but is a talented playmaker, and attacking midfielder Lee Jae-Sung has emerged as arguably the best player in the domestic K-League.
Shin was handed the reins after his predecessor Uli Stielike oversaw a disastrous run of away form in the qualifiers, a sequence that included defeats to Qatar, Iran and China. The team still has weaknesses - they lack concentration in defence, and it's taken a while for Shin to settle on a preferred formation.
A lot hinges on their opening game against Sweden. If Son can sparkle against a limited Swedish side, South Korea can cause an early upset.
Back Germany to win the World Cup at [5.8]
Back Germany/Mexico Dual Forecast at 6/5 on the Sportsbook
Back South Korea +0.5 on the Asian Handicap v Sweden at [1.86]