Some world football heavyweights are sadly missing from the FIFA World Cup this year, notably Italy, the Netherlands and Chile, while other absentees have returned to the fold.  The mix of nations just adds to the unpredictability and to the charm of the tournament. Here’s an update on facts you should know about the current World Cup: from favourites, dark horses to new entrants. We also look at the popular formations and select players to look out for.

The favourites

These are the big teams that are expected to perform well every tournament.

Germany

The reigning world champions easily qualified for this year’s cup with a 100 per cent record in the qualifiers, albeit from a weak group. Die Mannschaft are among the best bet when it comes to winning the cup, but the squad has been overhauled from the one we saw four years ago. The veterans who saw the rise of Germany, namely Philipp Lahm, Miroslav Klose and Bastian Schweinsteiger, have gracefully retired, while younger players like Leroy Sane, Timo Werner and Julian Brandt are ready to prove themselves in the biggest stage in world football. The recently fit Manuel Neuer could be a concern, though, as manager Joachim Low still seems to prefer the star keeper even though he hasn’t played a competitive match since September.

Players to watch: Muller, Gomez, Kroos, Sane, Hummels.

Brazil

It’s really difficult to talk about the contenders and leave Brazil out of the conversation. Although the team’s form was a worry during the start of the qualifiers, the new manager, Tite, has not only steadied the ship but has it cruising at full speed. What’s more exciting this time around is that the eleven players on the field are actually playing as a team and not just as a ragtag group of star athletes. There’s still the fear over the fitness of Neymar, but with the starting line up of Coutinho, Willian and Gabriel Jesus is good enough to carry the load even if their star player underperforms.

Players to watch: Neymar, Coutinho, Marcelo.

Spain

Unlike most of the top-seeded teams, the Spanish squad is the one that looks the most familiar. The core of the team is still the same as the one in World Cup 2014, with just a few changes. However, what has changed is the team’s willingness to raise the tempo of the game when required, instead of persisting with their occasional ponderous, possession play to a fault. All of the string pullers in the squad—David Silva, Isco and Iniesta—are in top form and should be able to reduce the hole left by the lack of a prolific spearhead up top. But the questions still remain: Spain can outplay their opposition, but can they outscore them?

Players to watch: Iniesta, David Silva, Sergio Ramos.

France

The Les Bleus have an embarrassment of talents, something other teams can only dream of possessing. Star men Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezmann’s discovery of form at the end of their club campaigns also bodes well for the country’s chances at the World Cup. But over the years, the team has built a reputation of being the nearly men. As much as the squad has been praised for their individual abilities, the press and the fans have also criticized their inability to build a ruthless winning mentality. If we see a determined team working as a unit, the Les Bleus could easily reach the final, or we could yet again witness an unsatisfactory campaign.

Star players: Antoine Griezmann, Paul Pogba, Kylian Mbappe.

Argentina

Argentina boasts a frightening group of attacking players led by Lionel Messi. If the tournament could be won on the back of the attacking talent alone, they would have been crowned runaway champions. But apart from the front line, the squad can be found lacking in all other areas. Also, there’s just immense pressure on the squad to deliver after losing three consecutive international finals, with the 2014 World Cup final remaining especially vivid in the minds of the supporters. But, as seen from the hard-fought qualifications, Messi alone can drag the team forward, and if the team can make a concentrated push alongside him, this could still be a memorable campaign. 

Players to watch: Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain, Paulo Dybala.

 

Dark horses

These are quality teams that are likely to have a big impact on the tournament, or even have an outside chance of winning the coveted cup.

Colombia

Colombia made itself known to the world with an unexpected quarterfinal run in World Cup 2014. Their star player James Rodriguez also came into his own during the tournament and scored the highest number of goals. Although, there were early concerns about Rodriguez’s playing time at Real Madrid, the midfielder joins the team after a memorable loan spell at Bayern Munich. Similarly, just in time, striker Radamel Falcao and winger Caudrado have found their feet at Monaco and Juventus respectively. The Colombians are also drawn in an open group with Japan, Senegal and Poland and would favor their odds of topping the group. The only concern will be the consistency of the young center back pairing of Davidson Sanchez and Yerry Mina.

Players to watch: James Rodriguez, Radamel Falcao.

Belgium

Belgium’s golden generation is in the peak of their abilities, and this is the time to take the final step from exciting prospects to genuine contenders. The red devils are the complete package as a squad. If the team’s metronome Kevin De Bruyne continues his exceptional club form, the attacking trio of Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku and Dries Mertens could wreak havoc on other teams on the back of their sturdy midfield and defence. But the question is whether the squad can overcome their lack of a winning mentality. With most of the rock solid defence of Kompany, Vertonghen and Alderweireld probably playing their last World Cup, it’s certainly a good time to finish strong.

Players to watch: Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku.

England

There’s no denying that England has been consistently disappointing in the world stage—always named among the big teams but rarely doing enough to justify the claim. However, this time the current Three Lions manager, Gareth Southgate, has taken a different approach. As the old guard has stepped down, sometimes willingly, other times not so much—case in point, Wayne Rooney. The former Under-21s manager has focused on forming a cohesive team of dynamic youngsters. This will be the first World Cup for the majority of the team, with only five players in the squad having played in Brazil in 2014. The introduction of new talents in the form of Harry Kane, Marcus Rashford, Dele Alli and Raheem Sterling seems to have injected new vigour and purpose to the squad as well. The team genuinely looks strong across the field and have been tied in a favourable group, but the lack of experienced veterans can come to haunt them if they reach the later stages of the competition.

Players to watch: Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling, Dele Alli.

Egypt

The Pharaohs are back after a long absence since World Cup 1990, and this is their third overall appearance, by topping the African zone. The unlikely result in the qualifiers was partly due to the misfortune of the favourites, Ghana, but largely due to the rise of the “Egyptian Messi” Mohamed Salah. Salah was the top scorer in the zone during the qualifiers for his country and comes off a blistering run of form for Liverpool. The forward will be a handful for any defence, and a favourable group draw with Russia, Uruguay and Saudi Arabia could mean progress to the round of 16. However, an extended run in the knockouts might be unlikely though, especially since the manager prefers his team to sit back and defend instead of attacking and risk conceding.

Players to watch: Mohamed Salah, Mohamed Elneny.

 

Dream XI / Veteran XI

A dream line up of the best players participating in the World Cup in their prime

Goalkeeper:

David de Gea (Spain/Manchester United): Joins Spain after winning the golden glove in England with Manchester United.

Defence:

Sergio Ramos (Spain/Real Madrid): The Madrid captain has the perfect mix of calmness and aggression for a center back.

Mats Hummels (Germany/Bayern Munich): The German is a rock-solid presence in any defensive line.

Pique (Spain/Barcelona): A towering presence to calm the defence.

Marcelo (Brazil/Real Madrid): A fullback who is known more for his attacking abilities than defending.

Midfield:

Kevin de Bruyne (Belgium/Manchester City): Consistently the best playmaker in the world, coming off a blazing campaign for Manchester City.

Messi (Argentina/Barcelona): The best in the world.

Modric (Croatia/Real Madrid): Mostly works unnoticed but keeps a team ticking from the midfield.

Attack:

Ronaldo (Portugal/Real Madrid): The best in the world.

Neymar (Brazil/PSG): Quick, skilful and clinical, the Brazilian is the most expensive player in the world for a reason.

Antoine Griezmann (France/Atletico Madrid): Clinical and can play across the attacking third. 

 

Young guns XI

The usual big names always get picked during dream team selections, but that means some exciting young talents are overlooked in favour of experience and popularity. Here, we select players 24 years old or younger, who have the potential to one day become world class footballers, if they aren’t already.

Goalkeeper:

Ederson (Brazil/Manchester City): Great at sweeper keeper duties and has pinpoint long kicks to jumpstart an attack.

Defence:

Davidson Sanchez (Colombia/Tottenham): An athletic, ball-playing centerback who is already a well-established centerback at his club at the age of 21.

Andreas Christensen (Denmark/Chelsea): Already a regular at Chelsea at 22, is versatile enough to play center back as well as right back.

Varane (France/Real Madrid): Has been consistently playing highest-level football for years.

Midfield:

Dele Alli (England/Tottenham): A perfect blend of skill, creativity and irreverence.

Sergej Milinkovic-Savic (Serbia/Lazio): A towering figure at 6ft 3in, yet a nimble dribbler with incisive passing.

Mateo Kova?i? (Croatia/Real Madrid): Has an eye for the killer pass from central midfield or can glide past players to open up space for others.

Dybala (Argentina/Juventus): Can dribble past players and finish, or take unstoppable long shots.

Forwards:

Kylian Mbappe (France/Monaco): Already one of the best forwards in France before reaching 20.

Harry Kane (England/Tottenham): Already one of the most consistently prolific strikers in the world that it’s hard to believe that he is just 24 years old.

Leroy Sane (Germany/Manchester City): One of the fastest players in the world and is only just 22.

 

Formations

As much as football is about the quality of the players, the tactical setup of a team dictates the style of play and thus makes a group of athletes into a team playing with a purpose. Find the right fit for the right set of players and the performance you get is greater than the sum of its parts. Here are some of the popular formations to look out for in the tournament:

3-4-3 (Variation: 3-4-1-2)

The back three has made a big comeback in the last few years. Managers the likes of Antonio Conte and Pep Guardiola have revived the formation to meet modern needs. With three central defenders, this formation crowds the defence and lets an extra man, especially a ball-playing center back, launch attacks. However, what separates the modern take of the system are the bombing wingbacks, who act as much as attackers as defenders to provide width to the team. In the midfield there’s a pivot of two holding midfielders who quickly transition from defence to attack while if needed an attacking midfielder can line up in front of them to add numbers and creativity. The flexibility in the formation comes from the front three attackers who mostly work as a fluid, interchanging line to confuse the opposition defence. If needed, an attacker drops into the midfield, while the two forwards look to catch oppositions on counterattacks. With dynamic and versatile players, this formation can overwhelm teams. However, as seen in most cases during club football, it can be nullified with a similar back-three formation.

Preferred by Russia, Argentina, Serbia, Belgium and England.

4-4-2 

Once one of the most popular formations in football, the 4-4-2 has seen a dip in admirers over the past two decades. But that doesn’t mean it’s a relic. There are still many teams who utilize the vertical passing to build quick and clinical counterattacks. Two dedicated strikers, traditionally a duo consisting of a big target man to hold up play; speedy forward to run off the ball, allow the midfield or the defence to launch quick balls forward without having to worry about providing instant support and leaving the back unprotected. Most recently, in 2015-16, Leicester City won the English league by consistently using this style of play. However, this formation did go out of favour for a reason, and one of its drawbacks is that it lacks numbers in the midfield. The two-man pivot can be easily outnumbered and outplayed by deploying three or more midfielders in the center of the park.

Preferred by Uruguay, Portugal, France, Iceland, Sweden, South Korea and Panama.

4-3-3

This formation makes use of high pressing and quick, intricate passing to win the ball back quickly and to apply constant pressure on the opposition. The three midfielders ahead of the defence form triangles to move the ball up field while the wide forwards either attack from the wings or cut inside with a striker in the center. The central striker can also function as a false nine where he drops deep to pull opposition players to him while opening spaces for others to run into. The false nine was best implemented by Pep Guardiola with Messi during his time at Barcelona. When used well, this formation bombards opponents with wave upon wave of attacks until they tire out and yield. While effective in the attack, the formation does leave defensive gaps when all the attackers and the fullbacks surge forward.

Preferred by France, Nigeria, Mexico, Senegal, Japan, Saudi Arabia and Denmark.

4-2-3-1

This is the quintessential modern formation that is sturdy yet dynamic. The formation calls for a robust backline shielded by two midfielders: a tackling destroyer to break up opposition play and a creative passer to start their own. The flexibility is provided by the three interchanging attacking midfielders who stretch and pull the opposition out of shape by going wide, dropping deep or making runs to join the lone striker ahead of them. The sole striker usually holds up play and brings the third-man attacking band to play or makes decisive runs over the shoulder of defenders. By forming multiple triangles of players across the field, this formation encourages intricate plays instead of just relying on straight-line passes. The style of play, however, can be physically exerting and after a tiring club campaign could be strenuous to squads.

Preferred by Colombia, Egypt, Iran, Peru, Croatia, Germany, Tunisia and Poland.

4-5-1

A clearly defensive formation, the 4-5-1 packs the midfield and defence to restrict opposition movement in one’s own half. Every outfield player except the striker is behind the ball during opposition attack making it difficult for the opposition to break through the lines. The extra midfield players can push forward when they find a chance to attack, particularly from the wings. But the preference on solidity oftentimes sacrifices attacking play, especially since the forward is mostly left isolated up front. It’s up to the forward to hold up play long enough for his teammates to arrive and give support.

Most teams use this formation to avoid conceding against more attacking teams rather than try and outscore the competition. The formation is built to keep a clean sheet, so if the team does concede first, the formation will likely be altered.

Preferred by Morocco, Iceland and Switzerland.

 

New entrants

Although a few big teams are missing from the tournament, the inclusion of a host of new nations adds a healthy dose of unpredictability to the fixtures. Here are the debutants or teams returning to the World Cup after a while.

Iceland

Iceland makes its debut in the World Cup as the country with the smallest population to ever qualify for the tournament. They return to the international stage after leaving a lasting impression in Euro 2016. The team has resolve to spare but with major injury concerns, especially regarding their main-man, Gylfi Sigurdsson, it might not be enough to stop an early exit.

Senegal

Senegal makes only their second appearance in the World Cup after their inspiring quarter-final run in 2002. The squad can call upon a host of players plying their trade in the biggest leagues in the world, with Sadio Mane of Liverpool being on top of the list. If the team clicks, then a performance similar to the one in 2002 wouldn’t be out of the question. 

Egypt

This year, the Pharaohs make just their third appearance in the World Cup—the last being in 1990. The team topped the African zone and now look to aim to make a good showing with their talisman Mohammed Salah.

Panama

Another debutant, Panama made it to the tournament because of their workman-like ethic. The Central Americans are without any recognizable stars, but the qualification itself is a sign of progress for an emerging nation in the sport. A good showing would mean extra inspiration for future talents.

Peru

Peru is a team with the longest absence from the World Cup—their last appearance was 36 years ago, in 1982. The Peruvians boast a strong defence and a FIFA Ranking of 14 in the world. They also have winnable group games against Denmark and Australia.

 

Gotta watch ‘em all? Plan your approach

Praise the gods! The World Cup matches are being played during waking hours in Nepal. Football fans are familiar with the struggle of staying up till wee hours to watch matches and then waking up early just to make it to office on time. The 2014 World Cup compelled fans to wait well over midnight for kickoffs,but this year most matches start at 8:45 pm or 11:45 pm local time. That means no need to turn into a nocturnal.

The best way to not tire yourself out over the month is to plan your viewing schedule ahead of time. Prioritize matches and plan your sleep around them so as to fulfil your daily minimum sleep requirement. For instance, if you’re watching the 11:45 kickoff, take naps before the match. If it’s at 8, then well and good—you can to bed by 12 and be rested for the next day’s session.

Happy viewings!