WORLD CUP DRAW: Guide to Pot 4 featuring newcomer Panama
MOSCOW (AP) — A guide to the teams in Pot 4 in Friday’s draw for the 2018 World Cup in Russia:
Qualified for a fourth consecutive World Cup, but had to take the long route to Russia after failing to secure direct entry in Asia because of a slightly inferior goal difference to Saudi Arabia.
The Australians played 22 games in qualifying, including an Asian playoff against Syria and culminating with a playoff win over Honduras. That made them the next-to-last team to clinch a spot at the 2108 edition.
The nucleus of the young squad that went to Brazil four years ago has remained, helping the country win its first Asian Cup title in 2015 and develop an attacking style it touts as the Australian way.
Ange Postecoglou quit as coach a week after Australia secured its place in Russia, and is yet to be replaced.
Key player: Mile Jedinak (Aston Villa) — With much of the attention on 37-year-old Tim Cahill, Jedinak’s returned from injury to stabilize the midfield and score a hat-trick against Honduras.
Coach: To be appointed.
While the squad lacks the star power of many other World Cup teams, Japan can count on a group of reliable players with plenty of European experience. Shinji Kagawa of Borussia Dortmund and Shinji Okazaki of Leicester should play key roles.
Japan finished first in Group B in Asian qualifying, ahead of Saudi Arabia and Australia.
Key Player: Shinji Kagawa (Borussia Dortmund) — With 89 caps, the midfield star is part of an experienced core of players also including Okazaki, defender Yuto Nagamoto and midfielder Keisuke Honda.
Coach: Vahid Halilhodzic — Japan hopes the 65-year-old Bosnian can replicate his success with Algeria at the 2014 World Cup, when he took the North African nation into the last 16 for the first time.
It’s taken 20 years to get back to the World Cup.
The North African team features several promising young talents including Ajax midfielder Hakim Ziyech and Younes Belhanda. Ziyech returned to the squad after making peace with coach Herve Renard.
Renard has brought discipline and flair to a team developing an exciting brand of football based on solid defending and fast attacking tempo.
Key player: Nabil Dirar (Fenerbahce) — The versatile midfielder was a key element of the Monaco side that won the French league title last season.
Coach: Herve Renard — The French coach has had success with other African teams, winning the African Cup of Nations with Zambia in 2012 and the Ivory Coast three years later.
The first team from Africa to qualify, and convincingly.
Won a group that contained current African champion Cameroon, former champion Zambia, and Algeria. A 4-0 victory over Cameroon 4-0 emphasized when they get it right the Super Eagles can be a handful for any side. Argentina found that out in November when Nigeria came back from 2-0 down to win their friendly game in Russia 4-2.
Nigeria has qualified for five of the last six World Cups.
Key player: John Obi Mikel (Tianjin Teda, China) — While Nigeria has attacking talent aplenty with Alex Iwobi, Kelechi Iheanacho and Victor Moses, captain Mikel has provided crucial stability in central midfield.
Coach: Gernot Rohr — Like Mikel, Rohr has been a calming influence for Nigeria, which has changed coaches eight times since the last World Cup in Brazil.
A first-ever qualification for the World Cup earned Panama a national holiday.
The Central Americans made it to Russia in style, defeating Costa Rica 2-1 in the final qualifier.
Panama has only 4 million people, but finished ahead of the United States, which has about 320 million.
Just an aside: Panama’s national game is still baseball, but soccer is moving in.
Key player: Luis Tejada (Universitario) — The striker has scored 43 goals for Panama.
Coach: Colombia-born Hernan Dario Gomez has worked his magic again. He got Colombia into the 1998 World Cup, and then did the same for Ecuador in 2002. Now it’s Panama’s turn.
Preparations for Russia have been far from ideal since qualifying for a fifth World Cup with two coaches fired.
Edgardo Bauza was dismissed nine days before the draw after only five friendlies in charge. The team lost to Portugal and Bulgaria this month.
Bauza had been appointed in September to replace Bert van Marwijk, who was fired despite leading the team to its first World Cup since 2006.
Juan Antonio Pizzi, who was named Tuesday as the new coach, will be tasked with improving on Saudi Arabia’s best-ever performance at World Cup — the second-round exit to Sweden at the 1994 tournament in the United States.
Star player: Mohammad Al-Sahlawi (Al-Nassr) — The 30-year-old striker was instrumental in helping the Saudis reach the tournament with 16 goals in qualifying.
Coach: Juan Antonio Pizzi.
Serbia cruised through its qualifying group to return to the World Cup final tournament after eight years, the second time since becoming an independent nation in 2006.
The skillful squad scored the most goals — 20 — in the group with Aleksandar Mitrovic the best scorer with six goals, leaving behind Ireland, Wales and Austria.
Just their fans traveling to Russia to support their team should behave, after FIFA fined the Serbian soccer federation 160,000 Swiss francs ($160,000) for incidents involving fans at World Cup qualifying games.
Slavoljub Muslin was removed as coach despite the successful qualifying campaign, with Mladen Krstajic placed in temporary command.
Key player: Captain Branislav Ivanovic (Zenit St. Petersburg) — Defensive experience from a stellar career for Chelsea used to anchor the defense. Played all ten World Cup qualifiers
Coach: To be appointed.
Every World Cup since 1986 has featured South Korea. This time looks likelier to be a repeat of 2014′s meek group-stage exit than 2002′s swashbuckling run to the semifinals.
Qualifying was tricky, with a place only secured thanks to a tense 0-0 draw against fellow qualifying contender Uzbekistan on the final day of the Asian group stages, combined with Syria’s failure to beat Iran.
Much will depend on a trio of English Premier League players — Tottenham’s Son Heung-min, Swansea’s Ki Sung-yeung and Crystal Palace’s Lee Chung-yong — who bring valuable experience of top-level football.
Key player: Son Heung-min (Tottenham) — The top-scoring Asian player in Premier League history.
Coach: Shin Tae-yong — When defeats to Qatar and China threw South Korea’s qualifying campaign into turmoil, the former under-23s team coach was promoted to steady the ship. Has only ever coached in South Korea and Australia.
The draw at the State Kremlin Palace in Moscow, starting at 1500 GMT Friday. The 32 finalists will be split into eight groups featuring a team from each of the four pots. Only Europe can have two teams in the same group.
FIFA changed how it allocated teams in the draw and now uses rankings alone for all four pots. At previous World Cups, only Pot 1 was for seeded teams, and the other three pots were decided by a geographical spread.
Russia will play the tournament opener on June 14, 2018 The World Cup final will be held on July 15. Both showpiece games are at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow.
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