Confederations Cup is more than just a World Cup warm-up
MOSCOW -- The Confederations Cup is routinely referred to as a warm-up for the World Cup. It's not inaccurate, of course, but it's also not exactly a summer invitational either.
Unless you're the host nation, you have to qualify for the event by winning your continental competition, or the World Cup itself. Which means getting here is tougher than qualifying for a World Cup. Much tougher, in fact. (Unless you hail from Oceania, in which case it's easier, because you don't have to go through a playoff against a side from another confederation.)
While it's true that Germany, the defending world champions, are sending an under-strength squad, it's equally true that this decision is pretty much unprecedented. It's not as if Joachim Low's team is made up of pub players either, which is why they're still among the favorites.
Still, Low was criticised by Alexei Sorokin, head of the Russia 2018 World Cup organising committee.
"The heart of a football fan bleeds when the reigning World Cup winner plays without stars -- they are the reason fans attend matches," he said.
His words suggest that perhaps he's a better organizer than he is a salesman: It's hard to picture Vince McMahon or PT Barnum effectively saying, "Hey fans! There are no stars here so you probably shouldn't buy tickets!"
Toni Kroos, Thomas Muller, Jerome Boateng, Marco Reus, Mats Hummels and Mesut Ozil are all staying home. They're all 27 or older, and apart from Boateng and Reus (who both missed a big chunk of last season due to injury and are being given time off to ensure they heal fully), they all played at least 53 competitive games in the past 12 months.
With a congested season coming up, you can see why Low doesn't want to take any chances. Leroy Sane, Mario Gotze, Julian Weigl and Manuel Neuer will also be absent due to injury, although you'd imagine if this were the real thing, most of them would grit their teeth and find a way to be there.
But don't be fooled. This isn't quite Germany's B-team. There is plenty of depth at the back with the likes of Jonas Hector, Joshua Kimmich and Antonio Rudiger, plus Bayern-bound Niklas Sule. Further up the pitch, Julian Draxler -- who had a strong finish to the season at Paris Saint-Germain -- and former wunderkind Timo Werner are bound to pack a mean punch. This Germany side have a point to prove and are coming in hungry.
They'll face stern competition in Group B, which is easily the tougher of the two groups. Chile, winners of the Copa America, have transitioned from folk hero Jorge Sampaoli to Juan Antonio Pizzi, but the philosophy hasn't changed much. Expect furious pressing, high tempo and a tremendous amount of self-belief. Alexis Sanchez, Arturo Vidal and Gary Model lead a side with tons of chemistry and experience; 11 players have at least 50 caps and seven have been capped at least 90 times.
Then there's Cameroon. They were one of the stories of 2017 when, after a rash of veteran stars turned down Hugo Broos' African Nations Cup call-up, they still went out and won the tournament against all odds. Having been written off like that once before, you don't want to discount them again, particularly when they have one of the most exciting players around -- and the hero of the Nations Cup -- in Christian Bassogog.
After winning the Asian Cup in dramatic fashion, Ange Postecoglou's Australia are looking to cause an upset or two in Russia. This is a team that is greater than the sum of its parts, with a potential shutdown keeper in Matthew Ryan and a golden oldie -- 37-year-old Tim Cahill -- up front. Plus, the Socceroos relish the underdog tag more than most.
Over in Group A, hosts Russia have had a difficult time, prompting even president Vladimir Putin to urge them to play "like warriors." They were disappointing at the Euros, and the build up to the Confederations Cup hasn't been great either.
Coach Stanislav Cherchesov won the Double in Poland, but left to answer his country's call and lead the pre-World Cup shake-up. An already uninspiring squad has been further depleted by injuries to defender Mario Fernandes, midfielder Roman Zobnin, target man Artem Dzyuba and (most of all) Alan Dzagoev, Russia's main creative threat. Russian fans are ready to get behind them, but the pressure is huge. And stoking enthusiasm seems like a really tall order right now.
Cristiano Ronaldo -- who else? -- leads a strong Portugal team with a nice blend of veterans (Nani, Pepe, Jose Fonte, Ricardo Quaresma) and youth (Andre Silva, Bernardo Silva, Raphael Guerreiro). At the Euros, they were stronger than their imperfections and seemingly had a hero -- and, no, it wasn't always Ronaldo -- pop up in every game. Now, it almost feels as if they don't need it: That's what getting the monkey off your back can do, particularly when you have a savvy tactician like Fernando Santos pulling the strings on the bench.
Mexico are ranked 17th in the world and have been close to perfect in CONCACAF qualifying, though the 7-0 humiliation they suffered at the hands of Chile in the Copa America Centenario a year ago still stings. Juan Carlos Osorio has put together a tough side, with a genuine goal-threat in Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez up front and a wily midfield. Gold Cup aside, Mexico have achieved little on the big stage. Given the favourable draw, this could be as good a chance as they've had in a long time.
New Zealand are Oceania's representatives and most have them earmarked to prop up the bottom of the group, a bit like Tahiti four years ago. But make no mistake about it: the All Whites are no Tahiti. They're a smaller nation that thinks -- and plays -- like a bigger one, mainly to maximise the skills of centre-forward Chris Wood, who scored 27 goals for Leeds United in the English second tier last year. The talent gap is obvious -- and the absence of Premier League defender Winston Reid won't help -- but they're an awkward side to play against.
Above all else, this could be the last ever Confederations Cup. Rumours are rife that FIFA are exploring the possibility of replacing it with a club competition held in the summer, something like a global version of the Champions League.
If that's the case, you hope the event will go out with a bang -- at least enough to get folks excited for the big tournament, which is less than a year away.
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.