FEATURING two of European football’s biggest heavyweights, Group E in Qatar is not one that is short of star power. Germany and Spain are World Cup royalty and will understandably be the two favourites to progress to the knockout phases but their advancement should not be taken for granted.

In many ways, the two European titans find themselves approaching the tournament in a similar fashion. After a few sobering years coming off the back of success in international football, both nations appear to be on the rise once more – but they also suffer from a few of the same deficiencies, too.

For the Germans, expectation is relatively low. Only a fool would write off their chances altogether but there is an understanding that Die Mannschaft remain a team in transition. Hansi Flick, the former Bayern Munich manager, replaced the long-serving national team boss Joachim Low after a disappointing Euro 2020 and although there has been an improvement, this tournament probably comes too soon for this particular group of players. Flick will understandably have one eye on the European Championships in two years’ time, which will be held in Germany.

The 2014 World Cup winners’ starting line-up will be comprised of the usual mix of players from Bayern and Borussia Dortmund, although there are questions about the team’s focal point in attack. Timo Werner, the Chelsea striker, will miss the tournament through injury and Germany do not have a reliable No.9 to perform in a similar manner.

It is perhaps a problem that Luis Enrique can sympathise with. The Spain manager knows that Alvaro Morata will lead the line for his team in Qatar but a quick glance at the rest of the squad shows that the 30-year-old will be heavily relied upon. The Juventus player is the only natural centre-forward called up for the tournament, although there are a number of players capable of spearheading the attack by playing as a false nine.

Midfield, unsurprisingly, is Spain’s strongest area and we can expect the Barcelona-based trio of Sergio Busquets, Pedri and Gavi to feature heavily in Qatar. They are strong at the back too, particularly in central defence.

Spain’s 2014 group-stage exit signalled the end of the all-conquering team that swept all before them from 2008 up to that point and after a few disappointing years on the international scene, a new generation appears ready to pick up the baton. Enrique’s squad is largely young and their performances at Euro 2020, where they reached the semi-finals before being knocked out by eventual winners Italy, hinted that a new Spanish dynasty could very well be coming of age. With just five defeats under their belts in their last 45 outings, they head to the World Cup in fine form.

The two European nations have suffered in recent years but there are grounds for cautious optimism that they are once again on the up – which makes for difficult reading for Japan and Costa Rica. Both countries will have qualified for the tournament hopeful of making it out of the group, and both certainly face a tough ask to do just that.

To be fair to Costa Rica, perhaps they are just happy to be there. After all, their place in Qatar was only confirmed thanks to a remarkable finale to their qualification campaign where they won six and drew one of their final seven matches to book their place in the intercontinental play-off against New Zealand, where they triumphed 1-0.

It was a fine achievement - some might even say miraculous, given how unlikely an outcome it appeared at the outset - for Luis Fernando Santos, the Costa Rica manager who was appointed just before the qualifiers kicked off. Having taken over a team in relative disarray, he quickly built a defensively robust counter-attacking side – and it has proven to be hugely successful.

There are questions over just how far this group can go, though. Five starters were part of the team in 2014 that memorably reached the quarter-finals and time isn’t exactly on their side, while much of the remainder of the squad is comprised of untested, up-and-coming players.

The same cannot be said of Japan. The majority of the squad are approaching their peak years and most ply their trade in Europe’s ‘Big Five’ leagues. Four years with Hajime Moriyasu at the helm have resulted in a functional, well-oiled team where everyone understands the system and their roles within it. There are no major superstars, no standout individuals that the team revolves around, leading to a nicely-balanced outfit capable of causing their opponents difficulty.

Scottish football supporters will be familiar with the intense running and clever movement that the likes of Daizen Maeda and Kyogo Furuhashi bring to Ange Postecoglou’s team and although the latter wasn’t included in the Japanese squad, the duo’s style of play is indicative of the approach adopted by their national team. Expect quick passing, lots of running – and a gruelling encounter for anyone they share a pitch with.