Confederations Cup 2017 Preview: Group A

The 2017 Confederations Cup kicks-off with hosts Russia facing underdogs New Zealand in the tournament’s opening fixture on Saturday 17th June. The two sides are joined by the champions of Europe and North America, Portugal and Mexico, respectively. But who are the group favourites, key men, and leaders of these four nations, as they bid for international glory just 12 months before the 2018 World Cup gets underway?

Russia – The Hosts

FIFA World Ranking: 63

As hosts of the World Cup, Russia have also qualified automatically for the 2017 Confederations Cup, an honour which they will also benefit from in 12 months’ time.

And, having exited the 2016 European Championships at the group stage, accumulating just one point and playing some of the poorest football of all sides at the competition, such qualification was certainly something of a luxury for the 63rd best team on the planet.

Russia will be missing key men as they host the 2017 Confederations Cup, such as Alan Dzagoev - who also missed the Euros last summer – and Roman Zobnin to injury, while manager Stanislav Cherchesov has opted against selecting 26-year-old striker Aleksandr Kokorin, even after the Zenit man netted his nation’s only goal in a 2-1 friendly defeat to the Czech Republic this month.

Key Man: Fyodor Smolov

The Krasnodar striker has netted 18 times in just 22 appearances this season, and will be relied on for more goals, should his side have any hope of progressing to the knockout stages.

Striker Fyodor Smolov will lead the line for Russia at the 2017 Confederations Cup.

Coach: Stanislav Cherchesov

The former USSR goalkeeper was appointed in August 2016 with the objective of reaching the semi-finals of his country’s own World Cup Finals less than two years later.

New Zealand – Champions of Oceania

FIFA World Ranking: 95

Regular participants in Confederations Cup competitions, New Zealand have again qualified as champions of the Oceania region.

The All Whites have traditionally struggled in major international competitions, and, with regular captain and star man Winston Reid injured, it is their defence that could struggle against some of the best attacking players in world football.

However, one thing that New Zealand do boast is a talented front line, with the likes of Kosta Barbarouses and Marco Rojas regular service suppliers to key man Chris Wood, who finished an exceptional season in club football as the top scorer in the English Championship.

Key Man: Chris Wood

After a string of disappointing seasons in Championship football with Leicester City and Ipswich Town, Wood has taking the division by storm since signing for Leeds United on 1 July 2015, netting 43 times in the past two seasons, 30 of which came from 47 appearances this campaign.

Coach: Anthony Hudson

New Zealand’s English Head Coach, Anthony Hudson, has transformed this traditionally rugby-playing nation into one which takes the sport of football incredibly seriously. The son of former England international Alan Hudson, Anthony refuses to downplay his side’s potential.

Portugal – Champions of Europe

FIFA World Ranking: 8

Winners of Euro 2016 thanks to a wonderful extra-time winner from striker Eder, Portugal are one of the surprise qualifiers for the 2017 Confederations Cup, and will be making their competition debut as they line-up against Mexico on 18 June.

The Portuguese are also three points away from pace-setters Switzerland in FIFA World Cup Qualifying, and, with only one team securing an automatic place from each European qualification group, the European Champions are some way from guaranteeing their spot at the finals.

Portugal failed to win a match in normal time in France this time last year, and they are unlikely to play the type of football required to light up the Confederations Cup this time around, relying on solid defensive displays under the guidance of former Greece boss Fernando Santos.

Key Man: Cristiano Ronaldo

A Selecção’s star man needs no introduction, and the want-away Real Madrid striker finished the season in breath-taking form, scoring yet another hat-trick for his club as they lifted a record 12th Champions League title to partner La Liga glory.

Cristiano Ronaldo may be eyeing a move back to Manchester United this summer, but first he will attempt to guide Portugal to the 2017 Confederations Cup title.

Coach: Fernando Santos

Manager Fernando Santos achieved a feat no one before him was capable of by winning a major international tournament with Portugal 12 months ago. Do not expect too much to change from Santos’ side this time out.

Mexico – Champions of North America

FIFA World Ranking: 17

Consistently the number one nation in North America, Mexico have qualified for a second successive Confederations Cup and a seventh in the competition's 25-year history.

El Tri will be hoping to improve on the three points they accumulated four years ago, which led to a disappointing elimination at the first hurdle.

Currently sitting in pole position to qualify for the 2018 World Cup Finals, Mexico are one of only two nations in this group who can be confident of a return to Russia in 12 months time.

Should the 1999 winners get the result they are hoping for against group favourites Portugal in their opening fixture, boss Juan Carlos Osorio will be confident of guiding this squad into at least the semi-finals this time around.

Key Man: Javier Hernandez

Better known as ‘Chicharito’ to football fans the world over, Javier Hernandez has recently become his nation’s all-time record goal scorer, having netted number 47 in a friendly against Chile less than a month ago.

Coach: Juan Carlos Osorio

A former Colombian international, Osorio has enjoyed an exceptional couple of years in charge of Mexico, boasting a 75% win record that includes just one competitive defeat, while also uniting a talented squad yet fiery squad since taking over from Miguel Herrera in 2015.

Former New York Red Bulls Head Coach Juan Carlos Osorio has enjoyed great success with Mexico in his two years in charge of the national team.