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World Cup 2018 Group F preview: Everything depends on Mexico

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Welcome to Yahoo Sports’ coverage of the 2018 World Cup. With the tournament approaching, and with 32 team previews available for consumption, it’s time to broaden our gaze and dissect the eight groups.

Call them group previews if you like. But they are more so discussions. There will be stage setting and narrative building. There will be questions to answer and pose. There will be analysis and opinions, plus predictions and more. Next up is Group F.

Group F team previews: Germany | Mexico | Sweden | South Korea

Group F tiers

Every World Cup group has its own structure; its own unique feel. But a simple numerical alignment, separating the four teams into anywhere between one and four tiers, goes a long way toward framing the discussion. And the shape of Group F is as lucid as any.

Each of the four teams occupies its own mini-tier. Germany is on top. South Korea is in the basement. Sweden and its solidity are a step or two above the Koreans. Mexico is a step or two above that. And any changes to the hierarchy between now and the knockout round will depend on El Tri.

Mercurial Mexico

A quick glance at Mexico’s recent results would implant thoughts of predictability. Aside from a Gold Cup semifinal loss to Jamaica and post-qualification loss in Honduras, Juan Carlos Osorio’s side has performed almost exactly in line with match-by-match expectations. It and its predecessors have also been knocked out at exactly the same stage of the past six World Cups.

A quick glance at Mexico’s results, of course, would also be deceiving. Because it would drape a large tricolor flag over the most chameleonic team in Russia.

Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez and Hirving “Chucky” Lozano will lead Mexico’s attack in Group F. (Getty)
Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez and Hirving “Chucky” Lozano will lead Mexico’s attack in Group F. (Getty)

Chameleonic may or may not even be a word, but it’s necessary to describe an ever-changing Mexico that never takes the same form from one game to the next. It’s not that Mexico carries question marks into the World Cup. It’s that nobody knows what questions to ask, nor how to answer any that are posed. Because Osorio tailors his approach to every opponent. Just when you think his plan is intelligible, he tries a new 3-3-1-3 formation, or plays fullback/winger Miguel Layun as a central midfielder. He did the former in March, and the latter just this past Saturday despite Layun’s natural position being one of weakness.

He is not capricious. He’s just pragmatic. And he loooooves to tinker. Many Mexican fans hate him for it. They see his tinkering as getting too cute – as unnecessary elaboration. But most of them are irrational. There are two sides to the story.

One man’s overcomplication is another’s versatility

There were chants of “fuera Osorio” – “Osorio out!” – in the nosebleeds at Estadio Azeca on Saturday. Think about that for a second. Twelve days before the World Cup, fans wanted a managerial change. That’s how ridiculously unpopular Osorio is.

But in reality, Mexico was quite good against Scotland, as it often is. Osorio’s constant systemic alterations get blamed for any and all shortcomings, but never pinpointed for praise. And there’s plenty of praise to go around. Mexico has had one of its more successful four-year World Cup cycles this century. Its adaptability is one of many reasons why.

That adaptability, which some see as moodiness or uncertainty, is actually a reason results have been so consistent. No opponent is a “bad matchup” for Osorio’s squad, because that squad contains several players who can play two or three different positions, and because Osorio makes use of the versatility. And contrary to popular opinion, Mexico does have a defined style – Osorio just tweaks specific tactics and alignments to optimize the style for a given game.

Now the question is: Can he craft something to turn a showdown with the reigning world champs into a good matchup?

The importance of the opener

Mexico v. Germany on June 17 in Moscow is Group F’s most pivotal swing game. So much rests on it. Because in all likelihood, Brazil awaits the runner-up in the Round of 16. A Mexico victory, therefore, could set up a World Cup final three rounds too early. A multi-goal Germany win, on the other hand, would heap loads of pressure onto the Mexicans, who would know that anything less than six points against South Korea and Sweden could leave them in a perilous position.

Both nations would probably prefer the clash came later in June – especially because neither is in top gear at the moment, and both are dragging along a few considerable injury concerns.

Mexico’s defensive concerns

Andres Guardado, Hector Moreno and Diego Reyes – two sure-fire starters, one probable starter if fit – are all currently sidelined. They’re all expected to recover in time for Russia. But all three could very well enter the Germany match having not played in over a month.

This, however, is where Osorio’s flexibility comes in handy. Even having also lost center back Nestor Araujo to injury, he can still put together a very coherent 11 capable of troubling the Germans. He could slot Edson Alvarez into Reyes’ presumed holding midfield roll, or drop Hector Herrera into it. He could play Alvarez at fullback. He could keep Layun at fullback, or use his energy and endeavor in midfield. He can bring in Jesus Gallardo on the left.

He could also do something completely different, something nobody expects. He probably will. But he’s astute enough, and his players versatile enough, to make it work. The only real worry is if neither Moreno nor Reyes is fit to start.

Germany is teasing us again

The Germans are teasing us with glimpses of vulnerability. They lost to Austria on Saturday in their latest tune-up. Then again, they also conceded five goals to Switzerland in the buildup to Euro 2012; they drew Poland and Cameroon in friendlies before their 2014 triumph in Brazil; they lost 3-1 to Slovakia while preparing for Euro 2016.

It’s a helpful reminder on two fronts: First, that warmup friendlies don’t matter, especially when several first-teamers are absent. But second, that Germany isn’t invincible, nor was it four years ago. It happened to lift a shiny trophy, but it wasn’t head and shoulders above the rest of the field. It drew Ghana in the group stage. It could have been beaten by somebody else.

How does 2018 Germany compare to 2014?

It’s uncontroversial, and probably correct, to say that this Germany team is slightly weaker than the 2014 edition. It’s ever so slightly less talented. Perhaps more importantly, its key players aren’t experienced, dominant personalities like Philipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Per Mertesacker. It would be a bit aggressive to put this squad on par with that one.

But what gets lost in the narrative of Germany’s 2014 success is that the buildup wasn’t all full of sunshine and roses. There were lineup questions. There was the occasional controversy, a bit of consternation within the camp. There were poor performances, both before the World Cup and once it got underway. And there were injury worries – just like there are now. The lesson here is obvious: Die Mannschaft isn’t the finish product right now, but that doesn’t it won’t be come early July.

The Manuel Neuer conundrum

That aforementioned injury worry? Oh, it’s only the best goalkeeper in the world, no big deal. Or at least he was the best goalkeeper in the world four years ago, and at this time last year. But he played his first game since September this past weekend after missing almost nine months with a foot injury. So how could we know?

Marc-Andre Ter Stegen’s awesome season at Barcelona has turned the worry into more of a conundrum. But it’s no less vexing. Jogi Low has two world-class options. He seems to have sided with Neuer, having said that the 32-year-old would be his No. 1 if fit enough to make the squad. But that’s a legitimate risk. And I’d make the case it’s an ill-advised one. Ter Stegen would be a top-three keeper at the World Cup. Neuer could be anywhere between the best and the 20th best. With so much talent elsewhere, why is it necessary to introduce an extra variable into the equation?

Sweden is interesting because it’s no longer interesting

In our Group E preview, we called Switzerland the most boring team at the World Cup. Time for a confession: We forgot about Sweden.

But Sweden’s insipidness is actually what makes it fascinating. Because the reason it is so dull is the absence of Zlatan Ibrahimovic. And it sure doesn’t seem like a coincidence that the Swedes are finally back at the World Cup after their first qualifying campaign without Zlatan in some time. So are they actually better without the larger-than-life striker?

They won’t be more interesting. But they might just be more effective. Their rigid, route-one style could frustrate Mexico. And it’s the lone concern for Group F’s top two teams.

Group F TV schedule

All kickoff times ET

Sunday, June 17
Germany vs. Mexico, 11 a.m. (Fox Sports 1, Telemundo)

Monday, June 18
Sweden vs. South Korea, 8 a.m. (Fox Sports 1, Telemundo)

Saturday, June 23
South Korea vs. Mexico, 11 a.m. (Fox, Telemundo)
Germany vs. Sweden, 2 p.m. (Fox, Telemundo)

Wednesday, June 27
Mexico vs. Sweden, 10 a.m. (Fox/FS1, Telemundo/Universo)
South Korea vs. Germany, 10 a.m. (Fox/FS1, Telemundo/Universo)

Group F predictions

Ryan Bailey: Germany (1), Mexico (2)
Henry Bushnell: Mexico (1), Germany (2)
Joey Gulino: Germany (1), Mexico (2)
Doug McIntyre: Germany (1), Mexico (2)
Leander Schaerlaeckens: Germany (1), Mexico (2)

More 2018 World Cup group previews

Group A | Group B | Group C | Group D | Group E | Group F | Group G | Group H

Yahoo Sports’ team-by-team previews

Group A: Russia | Saudi Arabia | Egypt | Uruguay
Group B: Portugal | Spain | Morocco | Iran
Group C: France | Australia | Peru | Denmark
Group D: Argentina | Iceland | Croatia | Nigeria
Group E: Brazil | Switzerland | Costa Rica | Serbia
Group F: Germany | Mexico | Sweden | South Korea
Group G: Belgium | Panama | Tunisia | England
Group H: Poland | Senegal | Colombia | Japan

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Henry Bushnell covers global soccer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell, and on Facebook.

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