MOSCOW (AP) — The Latest on Saturday at the World Cup (all times local):
Julian Draxler says it’s “not true” that his Germany teammates Mesut Ozil and Ilkay Gundogan are feeling isolated in the squad following controversy over their photo with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Arsenal’s Ozil and Manchester City’s Gundogan, who are both of Turkish descent, posed with Erdogan during the Turkish president’s visit to Britain last month.
Gundogan, who gave Erdogan a shirt with a message “to my revered president,” was jeered by fans during last week’s friendly win over Saudi Arabia.
Draxler says reports “that Mesut Ozil was not up to his best or that Ilkay Gundogan was a bit subdued, that’s not true.” He’s praised Ozil as “probably our most creative player on the pitch and so I’m sure that Mesut oezil will be there when we need him.”
Germany starts its title defense against Mexico in Moscow on Sunday.
France coach Didier Deschamps has opted for a three-pronged attack of Kylian Mbappe, Antoine Griezmann and Ousmane Dembele to face Australia in the World Cup Group C opener.
Paul Pogba, N’Golo Kante and Corentin Tolisso have been selected in a three-man midfield, with Benjamin Pavard, Samuel Umtiti, Raphael Varane and Lucas Hernández making up the back four.
Australia captain Mile Jedinak has been confirmed as a starter in place of Massimo Luongo, who started as screening midfielder in recent friendlies. Striker Andrew Nabbout will assume the scoring duties for the Socceroos.
France: Hugo Lloris, Benjamin Pavard, Raphael Varane, Samuel Umtiti, Lucas Hernandez, Corentin Tolisso, N’Golo Kante, Paul Pogba, Antoine Griezmann, Ousmane Dembele, Kylian Mbappe.
Australia: Mat Ryan, Josh Risdon, Trent Sainsbury, Mark Milligan, Aziz Behich, Mile Jedinak, Aaron Mooy, Mathew Leckie, Tom Rogic, Robbie Kruse, Andrew Nabbout.
Though teams of the recent past may have had more high-profile names, Southgate has potentially more options at his disposal. The squad, one of the youngest in Russia, is versatile, meaning that Southgate can adjust the way his team plays.
As things stand, it appears that against Tunisia, he will play with three at the back — John Stones, Kyle Walker and Harry Maguire — and another line of three, including two wing-backs, in front.
It’s the four furthest forward that has excited fans.
Kane, who has yet to score in tournament football, will spearhead the attack, that’s clear. What’s more interesting is the combination Southgate opts for around the striker — three from Jesse Lingard, Dele Alli, Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford. Opting for Rashford, who returned to training on Friday following a minor knee complaint, will give more pace and thrust; opting for Alli will yield dinky runs. Whatever Southgate decides, that trident will be primed to sow confusion among the Tunisian ranks especially as the game gets stretched in the latter stages.
Quite an attacking brew then and that’s why England is widely expected to beat The Carthage Eagles. Just as England did almost 20 years to the day when the two sides, again, played their first group match in the World Cup in France.
In these more realistic times, another 2-0 victory would no doubt be greeted positively, paving the way for the team to quickly make it out of Group G if it then beats Panama. The expectation is that England’s final group match against Belgium will be the main event and determine which side comes out on top.
TUNISIA’S LONG WAIT
Tunisia, back in the World Cup after a 12-year absence, has a lot to prove too.
The team, after all, blazed a trail in 1978 by becoming the first African team from the continent to win a match at the World Cup. In its three tournaments since from 1998 to 2006, it has yet to notch a second.
Though England is favorite, Tunisia is likely to present a challenge, especially if conditions remain hot and muggy. Tunisia, under Nabil Maaloul, is well-organized, particularly in defense. Spain can bear witness to that, requiring a late winner in their final friendly game before the World Cup.
The team may have lost arguably its best creative player, Youssef Msakni, to injury, but it has others who can trouble England, not least the now fit-again forward Wahbi Khazri, who has turned in strong performances for French side Rennes while there on loan. Also, Ali Maaloul is a marauding left-back who could take advantage of any leaden-footed defending.
Still, Panama, in their final group match, is the more likely proposition for Tunisia to record a second World Cup victory.
Laurent Ciman has left Belgium’s World Cup squad, the team says on its official Twitter account, although it has not said if the defender’s departure means that center back Vincent Kompany is fit again after injuring his groin in a warmup match two weeks ago.
Coach Roberto Martinez took Los Angeles FC defender Ciman to Russia as a stand-by player in case Kompany was not fit for Belgium’s opening Group G match against Panama on Sunday.
The team says that despite returning to Belgium, Ciman will remain on stand-by until Sunday evening.
Kompany and Barcelona defender Thomas Vermaelen have not been training with the Belgium team in recent days.
In the Saturday morning tweet, Martinez thanks Ciman “for his professionalism and contribution to the team” during its World Cup preparations.
French president Emmanuel Macron will travel to the World Cup only if Les Bleus make it to the semifinals.
But the French players will have the support of a former French president during their opening match against Australia in Group C.
FIFA says Nicolas Sarkozy, an avid football fan who served as president from 2007-12, is among the guests at Kazan Arena.
Some soccer fans will follow their team anywhere to see it play in the World Cup. For five friends from Croatia that meant cycling 1,500 kilometers (930 miles) all the way from Zagreb to Kaliningrad in Russia.
The epic trek took them 15 days, cycling for 10 hours a day as they pedaled through Slovenia, Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Poland.
On the way they encountered a number of challenges including a broken bridge. As they reached their final destination, the group collapsed into a bar and celebrated with a well-earned drink.
They’re now looking forward to Saturday’s game between Croatia and Nigeria.
Frane Lukovic, a 46-year-old lawyer from Zagreb, insisted it was nothing out of the ordinary for long-distance cyclists such as himself.
For Lukovic, the trip represented a personal comeback, having been diagnosed with skin cancer six years ago.
While fans from around the world are singing and celebrating the World Cup on Moscow’s streets, they can’t go to the most famous place in the Russian capital — Red Square.
Barriers staffed by police officers have blocked off the square for several days, with authorities citing the need to build and dismantle stages for a national holiday and a World Cup-themed opera performance last Tuesday and Wednesday.
Mexico supporter Cesar Reyes, peering past the barriers, says “it’s a real shame it’s closed because it’s one of the best places to visit when you’re in Moscow. It’s a real shame that people will miss it because it’s closed for special event and there’s no opportunity to appreciate this building.”
Russian police have closed off a number of roads and other areas for security reasons over recent days. It’s unclear when the square will be reopened.