Germany set to defend title as Belgium turn on style

MOSCOW (AFP) – Reigning champions Germany arrived in Russia yesterday to join the World Cup party as Belgium served notice of their threat with a dazzling display in their final warm-up match.

Gareth Southgate’s youthful England team also touched down as anticipation mounts ahead of tomorrow’s (11pm Brunei time) opening fixture in Moscow between host nation Russia and Saudi Arabia.

But before the action on the pitch gets under way, FIFA members have the weighty matter of choosing whether to award the 2026 World Cup to North America or Morocco.

Germany, who beat Argentina in the final in Brazil four years ago, are aiming to join Brazil as five-times winners of the trophy but there are questions over their form coming into the tournament.

Joachim Loew’s side went five games without a win before labouring to a 2-1 victory over Saudi Arabia in their final warm-up in Leverkusen on Friday and first-choice goalkeeper Manuel Neuer has hardly played since September.

From left: Germany’s midfielder Toni Kroos, forward Marco Reus, goalkeeper Kevin Trapp and forward Timo Werner arrive to board their plane for Moscow to take part in the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia yesterday at Frankfurt international airport. – AFP

But the Germans have made at least the semi-finals in each of the past four World Cups and have a habit of finding form when they need it most.

The defending champions open their World Cup against Mexico on June 17 in Moscow. They also play Sweden and South Korea in Group F.

Germany are not flying to Russia to see the sights, “but to win the tournament,” said team director Oliver Bierhoff.

England are not among the favourites in Russia but the third-youngest Three Lions squad to head to a World Cup boasts Premier League stars such as Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Raheem Sterling.

“We have a young, hungry team that wants to achieve greatness, we want to bring the country together and achieve something great,” said Alli.

England’s Group G opponents Belgium showcased their talents in a 4-1 victory against Costa Rica in Brussels on Monday, featuring a powerful brace from Manchester United forward Romelu Lukaku and a glittering performance from Chelsea’s Eden Hazard.

Hazard limped off with 20 minutes to go but his team-mates dispelled fears of lasting damage.

“I’m not too worried about Eden, he’s a tough guy. He gets kicked all the time, but soon gets over it,” said Lukaku.

FIFA members will decide today whether to vote for a joint US-Canadian-Mexican bid or whether the World Cup – which will feature 48 teams for the first time – will return to Africa for only the second time in 2026.