LONDON (Reuters) - Analysis of the eight World Cup groups:
Russia, a lowly 65th in FIFA’s rankings, will be reasonably confident of making progress to the last 16 after being drawn against Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Uruguay.
The hosts will face the Saudis, ranked 63rd, in the tournament’s opening match where a win will be essential. Uruguay will be favorites to top the section with Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani forming a fearsome attack although Egypt, back at the finals for the first time since 1990, boast Liverpool’s prolific forward Mohamed Salah.
European champions Portugal and Spain meet in Sochi to kick off the group and while that is not the start either side would have wanted, they both should still make progress with Morocco, qualifiers for the first time since 1998, and Iran, managed by Carlos Queiroz, the other sides involved.
Spain will be keen to make up for their flop in Brazil four years ago when they failed to survive the group stage while for Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo it could be his last chance to make a real impression at a World Cup.
Perhaps not a ‘group of death’ but 1998 champions France will have to be on their toes if they are to avoid an early flight home with 10th-ranked Peru, a dangerous Denmark and Australia keeping them company.
With players such as Antoine Griezmann and Olivier Giroud in attack and Paul Pogba powering up the midfield Les Bleus should win the group with the other three scrapping for runners-up spot. Peru have qualified for the first time for 36 years.
Argentina made a meal of qualifying for the World Cup but were saved by a superb Lionel Messi hat-trick in their final game against Ecuador. Messi will be the key man as they navigate a group containing Croatia, Iceland and Nigeria.
Iceland, sensations at Euro 2016 where they knocked out England to reach the quarter-finals, are the smallest nation by population ever to qualify but cannot be taken lightly while Croatia boast creative talents such as Real Madrid’s Luka Modric and Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic.
Five-times champions Brazil will be heavy favorites to win the group, leaving Switzerland, Costa Rica and Serbia in a battle to join them in the knockouts.
Costa Rica showed they can cause an upset at the 2014 tournament when they won a group that included England, Italy and Uruguay, while Serbia eased through a testing qualifying campaign.
Defending champions Germany are unlikely to fear a group that also features Mexico, Sweden and South Korea.
Sweden will be buoyed up after knocking out Italy in the playoffs, showing the sort of defensive mettle that can bring success in tournament football. Mexico are World Cup stalwarts who have reached the last 16 in the previous six editions.
Belgium are the highest ranked team in the group that also features England, Tunisia and Panama. Roberto Martinez’s side, however, have not beaten England in their last 11 meetings and only once in their history.
England, who failed to get out of their group in 2014 and were knocked out by Iceland at the last European Championship, will have fond memories of beating Tunisia in the 1998 tournament, when manager Gareth Southgate played center back.
Poland, spearheaded by Bayern Munich striker Robert Lewandowski and ranked seventh in the world, cruised through qualifying and will fancy their chances of topping a group that includes Senegal, Colombia and Japan.
Senegal, with Liverpool’s Sadio Mane in attack, will believe they have the firepower to reach the knockouts, while Colombia boast 2014 Golden Boot winner James Rodriguez.
Reporting by Martyn Herman and Toby Davis; Editing by Clare Fallon