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World Cup qualifying is in full swing, and five countries have already booked their places alongside hosts Russia at next summer’s tournament.
Five-time winners Brazil are there, as are Roberto Martinez’s Belgium, the impenetrable Iran, plus Mexico and Japan.
So how did they get there? Who will be their star performers? And who are the coaches who masterminded their qualification?
BBC Sport finds out.
Prospects: Stanislav Cherchesov’s side failed to make it out of their group at the Confederations Cup, losing to both Mexico and Portugal after an opening win over New Zealand, and their performance on home turf will be heavily scrutinised. South Africa are the only World Cup hosts to have failed to make it past the first stage.
Pedigree: Cherchesov’s side will be the fourth Russia team to play at a World Cup – they first appeared at USA ’94 – though the Soviet Union had finished fourth in 1966.
|Spotlight on the hosts|
|All of Russia’s 2017 Confederations Cup squad played their club football in their homeland|
Key player: Veteran goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev has won more than 100 caps and his experience could be vital. The 31-year-old, who has spent his entire career at CSKA Moscow, is likely to captain the hosts.
Premier League players: None.
Who’s the boss? Cherchesov rallied behind his side after the Confederations Cup, saying his players would “mature” because of the experience. A former Soviet Union and Russia goalkeeper, he has been given the target of reaching the semi-finals next summer.
Prospects: Belgium became the first European side to join hosts Russia in the finals as they navigated a potentially tricky qualifying group containing Bosnia-Herzegovina and Greece with two games to spare.
Premier League fans will be familiar with a Belgium squad including players such as Moussa Dembele, Marouane Fellaini, Christian Benteke, Romelu Lukaku, Kevin de Bruyne and Eden Hazard.
Packed with individual talent but yet to really realise their potential on the international stage, 2018 could be the year a Belgium side boasting world-class performers in almost every position finally comes of age.
Pedigree: Having failed to qualify for the previous two tournaments, Belgium reached the quarter-finals at Brazil 2014, losing to eventual runners-up Argentina. The Red Devils’ best finish was fourth in 1986.
Key player: Eden Hazard. The twinkle-toed Chelsea forward unlocks defences with his rapid change of pace, close control and eye for a pass. He also wears the captain’s armband for Roberto Martinez’s side.
Premier League players: Michy Batshuayi, Thibaut Courtois, Eden Hazard (all Chelsea), Simon Mignolet (Liverpool), Toby Alderweireld, Moussa Dembele, Jan Vertonghen, (all Tottenham), Kevin de Bruyne, Vincent Kompany (both Manchester City), Marouane Fellaini, Romelu Lukaku (both Manchester United), Steven Defour (Burnley), Nacer Chadli (West Brom), Kevin Mirallas (Everton), Christian Benteke (Crystal Palace), Divock Origi (Wolfsburg, on loan from Liverpool), Christian Kabasele (Watford).
Who’s the boss? Roberto Martinez’s greatest achievement in English football was guiding Wigan to FA Cup success in 2013, though they were relegated three days later.
The former Swansea and Everton manager’s attacking prowess has never been in question, but there were concerns over his defensive aptitude at club level. That shouldn’t be a problem with this Belgium outfit, who have the likes of Tottenham defenders Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld, and Manchester City captain Vincent Kompany in their ranks.
Prospects: Brazil became the first side to qualify, booking their place in Russia back in March. Always ranked among the favourites, the five-time winners look back to their world-beating best under new coach Tite.
With the world’s most expensive player in their ranks, Brazil have rediscovered the attacking verve and flair that is synonymous with the yellow shirt, and top the South American qualifying section by 11 points.
Pedigree: Winners in 1958, 1962, 1970, 1994 and 2002, Brazil were beaten 7-1 at the semi-final stage by Germany last time out.
Key player: Neymar. The £200m forward is averaging a goal and an assist a game since his world record move to Paris St-Germain. Brazil legend Pele says the 25-year-old is the country’s best player and has backed him to win the Ballon d’Or.
Premier League players: Ederson, Fernandinho, Gabriel Jesus (all Manchester City), Philippe Coutinho, Roberto Firmino (both Liverpool), Willian (Chelsea).
Who’s the boss? Brazil were sixth with a third of the qualifying campaign gone when journeyman coach Tite replaced former Brazil midfielder Dunga. The former Corinthians boss, 56, has since guided his country 11 points clear of Colombia with three games to go.
“What a difference a coach makes. Out went the snarling Dunga and in came Tite – charismatic and intelligent – and he made an immediate impact,” South American football expert Tim Vickery told BBC Radio 5 live.
NORTH, CENTRAL AMERICA and CARIBBEAN
Prospects: Mexico secured their spot in Russia with a 1-0 win over Panama and remain unbeaten in qualifying, though coming through the North, Central and Caribbean section is the absolute minimum for El Tri.
Juan Carlos Osorio’s side are top-loaded with attacking players but have relied on a number of narrow wins in qualifying. Defence could be a concern, with uncertainty over captain Rafael Marquez’s availability following US accusations – which he denies – that he has links with a drugs cartel.
Pedigree: Mexico have reached the knockout stage in each of the past six World Cups, and made the quarter-finals as hosts in 1986.
Key player: Hirving Lozano has scored three goals in three games since leaving Pachuca for PSV Eindhoven this summer, and the 22-year-old is also becoming the star of the national team, netting Mexico’s winner against Panama.
‘Chucky’ even impressed Argentina legend Diego Maradona on his Eredivisie debut, and the Philips Stadion crowd gave the winger a standing ovation following his first goal for PSV.
Premier League players: Javier Hernandez (West Ham).
Who’s the boss? Former Manchester City assistant manager Juan Carlos Osorio is the man in charge, but missed his side’s Gold Cup campaign this summer after being given a six-match ban by Fifa for “using insulting words and displaying an aggressive attitude towards officials” during the Confederations Cup.
The Colombian, who graduated from Liverpool John Moores University with a diploma in science and football, has been backed by a number of experienced players in his squad following criticism from fans.
Prospects: They may head to Russia as relative minnows, but Iran could cause a few upsets in the group stage. Carlos Queiroz’s side have kept 12 successive clean sheets in qualifying – that’s more than 18 hours without conceding a goal in a run that began with a 6-0 win over Guam during Asia’s second qualifying round in November 2015.
Well-organised and evidently extremely difficult to break down, Iran have reached a second successive World Cup under the guidance of former Manchester United assistant manager Queiroz.
Pedigree: This is the fifth time Iran have qualified for a World Cup, but their only victory in the tournament remains a 2-1 win over the United States at France ’98.
Key player: Part of that formidable Iran defence, right-back Ramin Rezaeian also has the pace and crossing ability to be a threat going forward. The 27-year-old plays his club football for Belgian top-flight side Oostende.
Premier League players: None
Who’s the boss? Carlos Queiroz has a CV to rival any manager in international football. Via Sporting Lisbon, South Africa, Real Madrid, Sir Alex Ferguson’s assistant at Manchester United and two stints in charge of Portugal, it is with Iran that Queiroz has spent the past six years.
“They fight for their lives, they fight for history, they fight for their reputations,” said the Portuguese, having seen Iran become the highest-placed Asian side in Fifa’s rankings at 24th.
Prospects: Having qualified for every World Cup since 1998, Japan were once unrivalled as Asia’s top team. But the Samurai Blue flopped in Brazil in 2014 and then lost their Asian Cup crown after a quarter-final defeat in 2015.
With the likes of former AC Milan playmaker Keisuke Honda and Borussia Dortmund’s Shinji Kagawa, Japan’s style of play is easy on the eye. But coach Vahid Halilhodzic has had to be given a vote of confidence, and a 2-0 victory over Australia to secure qualification was rumoured to have saved the Bosnian’s job.
Pedigree: Mainstays in the competition since 1998, Japan have twice reached the second round, including in 2002 when they jointly hosted the tournament with South Korea.
Key player: Honda, Kagawa and Leicester forward Shinji Okazaki will of course be key, but a young forward on the books at Arsenal could be leading the line come next summer.
Takuma Asano has already netted three times for his country and helped Stuttgart win promotion to the Bundesliga last season while on loan from the Gunners. Arsene Wenger has called the 22-year-old “a talented young striker and very much one for the future”.
Premier League players: Maya Yoshida (Southampton), Shinji Okazaki (Leicester City), Takuma Asano (Stuttgart, on loan from Arsenal).
Who’s the boss? Vahid Halilhodzic, although that could chance come the finals if reports of unrest in the camp are true. The Bosnian, however, has already proved his worth on the World Cup stage by leading Algeria to the knockout stages for the first time in the country’s history.
The former Yugoslavia forward has also coached teams such as Paris St-Germain, Dinamo Zagreb and the Ivory Coast.
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