With the World Cup dawning upon us quicker than Mo Salah on a loose ball in the box, we thought we would have another crack at that age old debate of whether or not football should be played on paper. We decided to go ahead and predict the entire group stages of the competition that will go down in Vladimir’s motherland in just a matter of days now. Of course, we won’t be able to recreate the same passion, the same atmosphere, the same culture, the same drama from those matches with just our words, but here goes our version of the 2018 World Cup group stages—nation-by-nation, game-by-game, finalized with tables (taking it in with a grain of salt is encouraged, but not required):
By Mario Vontey
Teams: Egypt, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Uruguay
Not every group is created equal—that’s the first thing which comes to mind when looking at the countries within this group. Group A – abbreviation (perhaps) for “Group Atrocious” – is one that not many besides the people who live in the included nations will have an eye on. Regardless, since this version of the World Cup contains no bias and plays no role of favoritism, it must be said that all the countries who go to the World Cup thoroughly deserve their place. (The lone exception is Russia, of course, who “earned” their spot by serving as host. However, since they’re also the ones who will have to suffer through earning crap tons and crap tons of cash for hosting the world’s most popular sporting competition, calling it undeserved would be harsh.) Thus all will therefore be given equal consideration.
This will only be the fourth appearance for Egypt at a World Cup, their first since 1990. Saudi Arabia will make their fifth World Cup appearance after an absence of 12 years. Russia will be looking to better their 4th place finish at the 1966 World Cup (back in their Soviet Union days). There will be added pressure on them as hosts, as Putin will not be this smiley should his country exit at an early stage of the competition, much less in the group stages.
For Uruguay, regardless of which teams they ended up with, the bare minimum expectation would have been to qualify for the knockout rounds. With opponents such as those they did end up with, it would be downright embarrassing for this South American nation to not go through. They have arguably the world’s two best strikers at their disposal in Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, and their two starting central defenders, Diego Godin and Jose Maria Gimenez, may just be the most formidable defensive partnership there is right now. The main area of concern, should this team make it to the latter stages of the World Cup, is their midfield, where the lack of any genuine “superstar” is evident. However, the whole team is characterized by work-man like performances full of heart, desire, and sheer physicality—and that could be Uruguay’s most potent weapon of all.
Uruguay aside, the remaining contenders in Group A all seem to possess the classic characteristics befitting a stereotypical dark horse. For Egypt, there’s the Mo Salah factor; “the king of Liverpool,” has already proven himself to be a gamechanger several times over in the last year. Mohamed Elneny will add some extra steel to the midfield, while Stoke’s Ramadan Sobhi will be looking to make this the platform whereby he establishes himself on the global level.
For Russia, goalkeeper and captain Akinfeev will hope that his teammates will rally for a nation that’s been in the news for all the wrong reasons in the past couple popular footballing competitions. All the distractions in regards to hooliganism and doping scandals need to be thrown out of their minds if the team is to make it far in this competition. As the World Cup is in their nation, and with the world watching, Akinfeev and crew will do all they can to make Russia proud.
For Saudi Arabia, there really isn’t much hope to cling onto. Maybe one or two of their largely unknown squad will turn up big time, maybe not. The nation did try to boost its chances by sending players on loan to La Liga for free. However, it’s unclear how effective that strategy has been. It seems more like a last-ditch attempt to ensure that the country doesn’t get embarrassed in front of the world’s eyes. Going forward, though, if Saudi Arabia does want to become better at football, the best way to do so would be to eradicate its sense of overprotection and fear with its players. Paving a route for them to take their talents to Europe will only benefit the Saudis—something they seem to have understood far too late for it to have any great effect in Russia this year.
Match 1: Russia vs. Saudi Arabia (June 14)
Russia will do everything in their power to have a good start to this tournament, and it’s difficult to see how the Saudis will combat the more talented Russians. Akinfeev and co. should win this one comfortably, 2-0.
Match 2: Egypt vs. Uruguay (June 15)
Even with Mo Salah, Egypt will have to pull out the performance of their lives to beat Uruguay. Not known as particularly possession-savvy, this game is a case of two very similar teams (at least in style) facing off. Expect a few goals, but in the end Uruguay should win 2-1.
Match 3: Russia vs. Egypt (June 19)
This game ought to be a good one for the neutrals (how you doin’ America?). Egypt’s superstar will likely make the difference in this one. Egypt will win 3-2.
Match 4: Uruguay vs. Saudi Arabia (June 20)
Match 5: Saudi Arabia vs. Egypt (June 25)
Considering the amount of support Salah has from the entire middle-eastern region, this one will be a little hard to bear for the Saudis. However, if their sacrifice means goes far…anyways football isn’t politics (erm…right?). Egypt should win, though Saudi Arabia will score one. 3-1.
Match 6: Uruguay vs. Russia (June 25)
Here’s your surprise result from this group. Russia to win 2-1.
By Nick Alberstadt
Teams: Portugal, Spain, Morocco, Iran
It may not seem so on the face of it, but the four teams that comprise Group B are all familiar with winning. Each nation topped its qualifying group – unique in this year’s tournament – and did so with a combined record of 27-8-1. In addition to fine qualification performances, the foursome can all draw on legacies of major tournament success to inspire their 2018 vintages.
Off the back of their gritty triumph in the 2016 European Championship, Portugal head to Russia as one of the pre-tournament favorites. The Portuguese rolled through a weak UEFA Group B, besting Switzerland on goal difference for top spot and automatic entry into this year’s competition. Cristiano Ronaldo and co. will expect to better their poor showing in 2014. Failing to advance out of the group this time around would be all the more disastrous, as it is likely the 33-year-old’s last chance to raise the Jules Rimet Trophy. The national team’s all-time leader in caps (149) and goals (81), CR7 will hope to add to both categories and cement his legacy on the international stage.
As their Euro 2016 final victory showed, however, Portugal are not a one-man team. The squad is full of promising young talent. Players for whom the Euros was a coming out party, like Barcelona’s André Gomes and Renato Sanches of Swansea City by way of Bayern Munich, failed to make this year’s squad after poor club seasons. Others, among them Valencia’s Gonçalo Guedes and Manchester City’s Bernardo Silva, will look to carry their fine club form into the tournament. With Ronaldo scoring 15 of Portugal’s 32 qualifying goals (and 25 more in his international career than the rest of the squad combined), a second option in front of goal may prove decisive should teams mark Ronaldo out of a match. Despite a mediocre first season at AC Milan, André Silva, who scored nine goals in qualifying, may be that option.
Undefeated in their 10 qualifying matches on the way to winning UEFA Group G, the Spanish team, like Portugal, will look to improve on a disappointing 2014 World Cup. Led into a major tournament by a new manager for the first time in a decade, La Roja’s squad is comprised of mostly familiar faces—with a few notable exceptions. New boss Julen Lopetegui wielded the axe unsparingly, dropping Chelsea trio Cesc Fàbregas, Pedro, and Álvaro Morata after poor seasons. Lopetegui, though untested at the highest level in international competition, is not without pedigree. The Basque most recently managed FC Porto, prior to which he led Spain’s under-19 and under-21 sides to European championship success.
Lopetegui’s performance may determine how far Spain progress in this year’s tournament. With a back line that practically chooses itself, balancing a midfield including well-established players like Andrés Iniesta, David Silva, and Sergio Busquets with younger talent the manager knows from his time with the youth teams, including Isco, Koke, Saúl, and Thiago, will be key. Finding the right mixture of Diego Costa’s brawn with the industry and work-rate of players like Marco Asensio, Lucas Vázquez, and Iago Aspas will also be essential.
[UPDATE: Abandon ship! Call off all bets! Spain undergoing managerial crisis, they have fired Lopetegui and placed Hierro in charge]
In the World Cup for the first time in two decades, the Atlas Lions enter the tournament looking for their second major trophy of 2018. Morocco followed up an undefeated run to top CAF Group C with a triumph in this year’s African Nations Championship. Manager Hervé Renard has a proven track record in African tournaments, leading both Zambia in 2013 and Ivory Coast in 2015 to African Cup of Nations glory. The Frenchman will need to draw on all his experience if his team are to advance out of a difficult group.
Medhi Benatia is the side’s best-known and most accomplished player. The central defender has lifted several league and cup trophies in his time with Bayern Munich and Juventus. Recent successes have shown Morocco to be a sound unit defensively, and Morocco will need commanding performances from their captain if they hope to frustrate the attacking talent of Portugal and Spain. At the other end of the field, the team will rely on goals from forwards Khalid Boutaïb, their leading scorer in qualifying, and Ayoub El Kaabi. Making his international debut in the CHAN, El Kaabi led all scorers with nine goals, earning himself player of the tournament honors. Another similar showing would suit his team nicely.
The third of Group B’s teams to make it through qualification undefeated, Iran topped AFC Group A by a healthy seven points. The three-time Asian Cup winners will hope to improve on their 2014 showing, when a combination of bad luck, late goals, and missed opportunities saw Team Melli eliminated in the group stage with only a point and a goal to their name. The Iranians have never advanced beyond the group stage in a World Cup in four previous attempts. 2018 may prove a difficult year for Carlos Queiroz’s side to break their duck.
Like Morocco, defensive solidity will be key if Iran want to advance. But putting the ball in the opposition’s net when chances—which may be few—arise is the area Iran need to improve if they are to better 2014’s results. Fortunately, two players making their World Cup debuts have proven attacking instincts. Forwards Mehdi Taremi and Sardar Azmoun netted seven of Iran’s 10 goals in qualifying, and have combined for 34 goals in 54 international appearances. Should the pair continue their fruitful partnership, Iran may well be on their way to unprecedented advancement.
Match 1: Morocco vs Iran (June 15th)
Both sides will know three points are essential if they’re to stand any chance of advancing. This may result in an open, end-to-end thriller. More likely, with neither side wanting to make a costly mistake, they will cancel each other out. 1-1
Match 2: Portugal vs Spain (June 15th)
The showpiece matchup of the group, one that will likely determine the eventual group winner. However, both teams will fancy their chances to pick up enough points in their remaining two matches to advance. That said, Spain’s possession game combined with Portugal’s strength on the counter could set up an interesting tactical battle. 2-2 on the day.
Match 3: Portugal vs Morocco (June 20th)
If the Moroccans, knowing a loss virtually eliminates them, decide to open up, Portugal have the weapons to take advantage. 2-0 to the Portuguese, leaving the Atlas Lions in need of a miracle against Spain.
Match 4: Iran vs Spain (June 20th)
The counter will be Team Melli’s best route to goal, assuming they can get the ball off the Spanish maestros. That is unlikely. Spain can be vulnerable at the back, but ought to keep the ball well enough to limit Iranian chances. 2-1 Spain.
Match 5: Iran vs Portugal (June 25th)
With Iran requiring a win by three clear goals to have any hope of advancing, the Portuguese will be feeling optimistic. Should the Iranians look to go out on a high note, the match could be a very open contest. All square, 2-2.
Match 6: Spain vs Morocco (June 25th)
Needing a win to secure top spot in the group, the Spanish are unlikely to let three points slip. Moroccan dreams of a historic result will fade beneath waves of Spanish pressure. 3-0 to the Spanish.
By Adam Sturrock
Teams: Australia, Denmark, France, Peru
Looking at this grouping seems to suggest it will be one team rising to the top and the others scrapping between themselves, but this group is a lot more interesting on paper if you dig in just a little underneath the surface. Three of the teams in the group are within spitting distance of each other in the FIFA rankings (France is 7th, Peru is 11th and Denmark is 12th…go figure) and Australia are under new leadership, meaning they are somewhat of an unknown variable.
“What do you mean there is a game against Denmark on Saturday?” says my hypothetical football fan in Lima. Russia may be on the tips of their tongues, but it would be hard to keep note of the buildup to their World Cup in 36 years if I didn’t mention what has been brewing off the pitch for the South American team. Peru’s striker, Paolo Guerrero (the surname is literally translated as warrior in English), was faced with a lengthy 14-month ban after what he claimed to be a contaminated cup of Coca tea showed up in a routine drugs test. It wouldn’t have been as big of a deal if he wasn’t the country’s all time top scorer. The 34-year old was potentially losing his only real chance to play at a World Cup—squandered by a drug rule banning performance enhancing substances. Such was the shock of the ruling that the captains of his fellow competitors (France, Denmark and Australia) submitted letters to FIFA to overturn the ruling. As the deadline came closer and closer to kick-off, all seemed lost for the Peruvian. But living up to his name, he fought with the Swiss courts and at the last minute he has now been reinstated to the Peruvian squad for Russia. The real question is, after not having much of an opportunity to kick a ball for such a large period of time, will he be sharp enough to fire the team to victory?
Focusing now on the games ahead, La Blanquirroja are probably the dark horses of the tournament to push out of the group stages. Peru have arguably the smallest number of household names in the group, but do not write them off when taking a quick scan of the table. They are an extremely solid defensive side. Unbeaten for a year and a half in the CONMEBOL qualifying stages, they have not tasted defeat since their loss against Brazil in late 2016. Peru have built on this run with impressive attacking displays led by childhood friends, Jefferson Farfán and the aforementioned Guerrero, with Edison “Orejas” Flores contributing a fair share during the country’s surge to Russia.
Admittedly, Peru were floundering in the beginning of qualification, but after hiring Ricardo Gareca as their new coach and sticking by him through tough periods, a familial spirit has developed between team-mates which has sculpted a team identity after many campaigns of not really putting a stamp on games. Their form really kicked off near the finish line—they secured their place for the World Cup with a 1-1 draw against Colombia – the qualifying goal scored by a Guerrero free-kick. And the games they faced near the end weren’t exactly a straight sprint, they overcame some big fixtures including beating Uruguay, grabbing a draw in Argentina and a 4-1 thumping of Paraguay. Their squiggly journey to Russia has met its fair share of bumps and bruises, but it only proves the collective resilience in the squad and how hard it will be for any team to break them down.
If in doubt, pass to Christian Eriksen and he’ll pass to the scorer—that has been the theme at club and at country level. If Denmark have him firing in Russia, they will have a good tournament, that’s pretty simple. But that’s a big if. Will the Spurs midfielder crack under the weight of a nation? Will his very pregnant wife rest on his mind as the tournament kicks off? His performances will drive a fairly new looking Danish team.
The Danes, who were once known for purposelessly moving the ball around the pitch, have refined their game to aggressively press teams and play relentless attacking football under new coach Age Hareide. Ireland were the unfortunate victims to witness that style of play at home when they were drummed 5-1 in their qualifying game. Most casual viewers of that game can remember how high the Danes pressed Ireland to get chances in the opposing half, with one of the latter goals created from some industrious work from Eriksen, allowing for him to pounce on a loose ball in the box and punt it into the roof of the net.
With Eriksen in the core of the team, Hareide has supplemented the squad with a talented group of young players. Chelsea’s highly rated centre-back Andreas Christensen is able to fit in three of Denmark’s positions on the pitch, playing second fiddle to a pairing of Simon Kjaer and Andreas Bjelland. Adding to their forward line is the rapidly progressing winger, Pione Sisto, who having only become a Danish citizen in 2014, has moved up the age groups quickly to senior level, where he is expected to start on the right hand side. At set pieces, they have a number of options with both Thomas Delaney and Lasse Schone more than capable of free-kick and corner kick duties when required. Denmark are predicted to compete against Peru for that second slot, but the Scandinavians have picked up a reputation for flopping when expectations are high, so perhaps sneaking their way into the final 16 is the best strategy.
The nightmare of previewing ahead for Australia is that they are very much a different kettle of fish from the team that qualified for the World Cup and are an unknown quantity all together.
The Socceroos were the darlings of the last World Cup, playing plucky football in a group of hell against the Netherlands, Chile and Spain, instead of sitting behind the ball. They didn’t get out of the group, but they won the respect of the footballing community. Skip to the next campaign, and they were barely making it past Syria and Honduras to qualify for Russia. Staring down the barrel of a gun and concluding that his style had become stale, Ange Postecoglou, Australia’s coach, resigned and left the team needing someone to fill the gap. Perhaps their performance against his national team was stuck in his mind (and that banger from Tim Cahill) but Dutchman, Bert van Marwijk, has arrived as the new first team coach after a short period where there was no one at the helm.
It is not likely that they will play the expansive football that they were known for last time, but the team does have plenty of attacking talent to cause damage if used properly. Celtic’s Tom Rogic has been building his name as one for big moments, consistently scoring in pretty much all of the Scottish Old Firm derbies and cup finals. His gangly legs are like ones belonging to an octopus, able to swivel in any direction to grab a ball in midair and dexterously manipulate the space between him and the opposing player. Alongside Huddersfield’s Aaron Mooy, the two midfielders form the country’s biggest creative threat. Australia are also blessed with the fastest runner in the Bundesliga, Mathew Leckie—a winger who plays for Hertha Berlin. Through him, Australia will always have an outlet to release pressure and prod at gaps of high defensive lines.
They also have the youngest player in this World Cup on the plane, Daniel Arzani (19), a Melbourne City attacker who has plenty of promise and will certainly have an opportunity to play. But it bears the question if he will be ready to start for the team immediately or come off the bench as a fresh option.
With such attacking talent, van Marwijk has tried to cushion any weak-points with a conservative 4-2-3-1 in his only friendlies with the side, deploying cautious fullbacks to help the defence. With tough fixtures in every game, it will be expected that Australia could play more counter attacking football, preventing as many opportunities as possible, and pouncing when one presents itself, but the group will be admittedly hard to get out of for the Aussies. Bert van Marwijk doesn’t have much time to drill the team, so it will be an uphill battle for them for sure.
Let’s be honest here, France have one of the most frightening squads in the competition. Like a good croissant, Les Bleus are comprised of seemingly hundreds of tightly spaced layers with regards to depth, all players primed for a call from France coach, Didier Deschamps.
Such a selection process was enough to make British Apprentice judge, Sir Alan Sugar blush. From front to back, they have at least four players in every position who can comfortably start if selected (unless you are Adrien Rabiot and you ungraciously choose not to go). If it wasn’t because of a clutch of unfortunate crocks, the likes of Dimitri Payet (Europe’s leading assist creator) and Laurent Koscielny would have likely joined the squad. Alas, half of the footballing country could not board the plane to Russia, and only 24 would do. In fact, only five players that started in Brazil four years ago are likely to be back in the starting line-up this year.
But let’s stop talking about depth, do I think that they will go the distance and make it out of the group? Almost certainly, but with some caveats.
The questions are mainly levied on two people’s shoulders: Paul Pogba and coach Didier Deschamps. France has pretty much every component for a great side on paper, but they have failed to form a cohesive unit in a recent spate of games. They still don’t have a set formation and a blueprint for which they can base their playing style on. Deschamps has toyed with a 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 in most games, but he hasn’t settled on one over the other.
Against smaller teams, they have made games difficult and have lacked the killing instinct to finish chances—infamously plucking a draw against lowly Luxembourg and in a friendly against a very inexperienced USA team, also underlined by a painful loss at home against Colombia after going 2-0 up in the early stages of the first half. Their Euro 2016 Final loss at home is perhaps a great example of the squad as a whole; good enough to progress into the latter stages, perhaps not quite there mentally to go all the way. They are a team (in recent years at least) that are known to make things difficult for themselves in one way or another; hark back to South Africa’s cout d’etat over the direction of the team under Raymond Domenech, or to 2002 where they notched only one point and scored no goals in the opening group.
Deschamps has a real problem of wasting precious talent if he doesn’t get his act together. In a qualification group that on paper they should’ve won with games to spare, they waited until the last fixture to officially secure their place, losing in Sweden along the way. With such a barrage of quality oozing out of every space, it becomes tempting to select the most talented, but not always the most complimentary. Center-backs Samuel Umtiti and Raphael Varane are no slouches, but they seem much more comfortable on the pitch with a guiding presence beside them in the form of the absent Koscielny. Didier Deschamps is heavily relying on preferred fullbacks, Benjamin Mendy and Djibril Sidibe, to return to form quickly after the two had lengthy spells out injured this season, with their replacements struggling in earlier friendlies.
Potentially the player that needs to step up and show his worth is Paul Pogba, something he is also often accused of not doing at club level with Manchester United. He is very clearly an extremely talented player, but he doesn’t often put the team on his shoulders when it is begging for him to do so, and he has started overcomplicating his game. France need him to be one of the leaders on the pitch and finally take a big step forward since his move from Juventus. But if the performances of young whippersnappers, Ousmane Dembele, Nabil Fekir and Kylian Mbappe, are to judge for their tournament, they are very much still a major threat to any team they face.
Match 1: France vs. Australia (Saturday, June 16th)
France may have struggled in recent times to dispatch smaller teams, but they are wildly expected to win this first game against Australia. 3-0 France.
Match 2: Peru vs. Denmark (Saturday, June 16th)
Whoever claims second in the group will likely have this game as the trophy in this tasty match. A well drilled defensive side against a pressing Danish team will create a tense affair; the Peruvians don’t have a reputation of being particularly good at winning high balls, so Denmark’s set piece takers will take pleasure in testing the waters.
Peru have become masters at grinding out results in recent fixtures, and I think this will again be the case. 2-1 Peru.
Match 3: Denmark vs. Australia (Thursday, June 21st)
With both sides failing to have a positive start to the campaign, they will both be desperate for a result. I think a draw will be in order. 1-1.
Match 4: France vs. Peru (Thursday, June 21st)
Peru will not expect to win this game, but they will definitely try to get a point out of this fixture. It won’t go that far, but I suspect the game will be a little tight. 2-1 France.
Match 5: Australia vs. Peru (Tuesday, June 26th)
It’s between two teams who had to grind their way into the World Cup via the playoffs, but Peru will go in wanting a win to progress further. 0-2 Peru.
Match 6: Denmark vs. France (Tuesday, June 26th)
At this point in my fixture list, France will have taken two wins and will have qualified. This may lead to taking the foot off the gas by playing a weaker squad against a dangerous Danish team. I think a loss is on the cards for France, judging by their history in previous fixtures. 2-1 Denmark.
By Richard DeLaurell
Teams: Argentina, Croatia, Iceland and Nigeria
The 2014 World Cup finals in Brazil are likely most memorable for the host nation’s humbling loss to eventual winners Germany in the semifinals, 1-7. But die Mannschaft subsequently earned the title in a nervy final match, 1-0 in overtime, over a much-favored Argentinian side led by the incomparable Lionel Messi. The impact of the failure of Messi to guide his national team to what would have been its third title—and thereby engrave his name in the annals of the game as one of the greatest of all time—is still uncertain. If he could lead his nation to the title this summer all would no doubt be forgiven and Lio could cruise into retirement as a legend. But that will require that he stay healthy enough to have an impact—in spring of 2018 that sometimes seemed somewhat in doubt—and also that Argentina could find a way out of a potentially quite competitive Group D (…that’s “D”…as in “death”). Yet much of the pre-tournament talk about Group D has been about second place. Part of the reason for the flurry of interest in which team could take second in Group D is the presumptive winner of Group C (whom second from D would meet in the first match of the knockout stage to follow). For now, that looks pretty certain to be Euro 2016 finalist (and host) France. Les bleus would be a huge hurdle for any team who must face them in the Round of 16. Group D’s winner, on the other hand, will meet second from C; while not necessarily a “bye” in any sense, if that group plays to form, it should at least not be as incredibly talented a side as France’s 23.
Drawn into the opening stage with Argentina for the 4th straight World Cup finals—the African side missed the 2006 finals entirely—Nigeria are considered one of the two teams most likely to finish second in Group D. The Super Eagles come in as runners up in CAF, but were the first team from Africa to qualify for Russia 2018. The side is managed by Gernot Rohr. The 64-year old German served in defense with Bordeaux during his 17 year senior career. Immediately upon retiring from the pitch, Rohr moved to the sidelines for his former club. After varying success in France he has moved on over the past fifteen years or so to a string of jobs coaching national teams, mostly CAF members. He joined Nigeria in 2016. It is easy to see why the Super Eagles are a favorite to make the Round of 16 in the buildup to Russia 2018. Rohr’s men are not without talent or experience. Among others the side boasts several names which should be very familiar to fans of world football. Notably, EPL faithful will recognize forward Alex Iwobi, presently of Arsenal and formerly an England international at U-18 level. Also up front for the Super Eagles, is striker Odion Ighalo, presently of Chinese club Changchun Yatai, but most lately seeing action with Watford in 2017. Also, Nigeria’s skipper and main on-field mastermind is John Obi Mikel. Mikel left Chelsea for the Chinese Super League (Tianjin) just last year having gained experience under both Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte. Though Ighalo fills the role of lead striker, it was Iwobi who led Nigeria to qualification, scoring the match winner against Zambia in October of ’17. He followed that up with a brace to help his side to a friendly win over Group D favorites Argentina, 4-2, on Russian soil no less. What became evident during Nigeria’s win over Sergio Agüero and company, is the former’s dearth in front of goal. The still-teenaged Francis Uzoho made a big splash for the Super Eagles who trailed 0-2 at the half. Uzoho blanked Argentina in the second to enable his side to rally. But will he be able to do the same three matches in a row against relentlessly world-class competition, all of whom will have a chance at a world championship within their grasp? If he or another goalkeeper (yet to emerge) for Nigeria could do, then…second in Group D? First might be just as likely.
Question: Who may turn out to the be most important man of the tournament for Argentina’s albiceleste? A tricky one because it might actually turn out to be Gonzalo Higuaín. I know, I’m surprised too. In any event it’s a lot to say about a player given that he is now just one on a list amongst names like Messi, Di Maria, Dybala, Agüero, Otamendi, Tagliafico, and Mascherano for starters. But Argentina head man, Jorge Sampaoli, and Higuaín have had an extremely on-again-off-again relationship during the final run-up to Russia 2018. The Juventus forward had been absent from Argentina’s squad for nearly two years. He only returned for the past two friendlies and then only because Messi himself went on record saying that he would be much happier if it were so. And that might be the major sticking point for Argentina and their coach in Russia: fully commit to Messi or try something different and perhaps therefore completely unexpected? There are options in the final roster of 23 if they choose the latter. In that respect another key man could turn out to be Maxi Meza. He is somewhat untested at this high level. He may constitute a bit of a surprise to some opponents. For the most part, however, Sampaoli’s final choices took the road more travelled; in the main, he opted for experience over surprise. Late breaking developments which have sidelined his selection for Argentina’s number 1—a mid-May injury to starting keeper, Sergio Romero—may bring the weakness of that strategy to the fore sooner than he’d like. Still, Sampaoli’s conservatism may be the most surprising thing. Yet it is important to keep in mind that the Argentinian-with-Zidane’s-hairstyle was largely responsible for Chile’s successes in recent years—coaching that nation’s senior side from 2012 to 2016. His judgment ought not to be taken lightly. And while many are already conceding him Group D, even if that turns out to be so, from that point forward Argentina’s fortunes in the World Cup finals will remain a continuing question mark.
As noted above, there has been much gnashing of teeth since the final group draw took place last December 1. With regard to Group D, much of that has concerned the other three teams and not Iceland. For the most part, D has been discussed as Argentina and either Nigeria or Croatia. But this Iceland side have been dismissed before. The story of the team’s incredible performance at Euro 2016 is so inspirational and of such popular and worldwide interest that it has its own entry in wikipedia. Less interest, however, has flowed their way since they were drawn into such a high-powered group for Russia 2018. Still, it is important to recall that ISL won its way into the World Cup by winning its qualifying group outright. That group also included Croatia and Finland—with each of whom Iceland earned a split—and Turkey, Kosovo and Ukraine. Thus far in 2018, however, lið blár have lost their two competitive friendlies, to Mexico and Peru. They are scheduled to play two more warm-up matches in June just before taking the field against Argentina in Moscow to begin World Cup group play. All of that is by way of saying that Iceland are capable—that much has not changed since 2016—but this is Group D (…as in “death”). Something has got to give. Unlike two years ago, this time around Iceland has only one head coach: Heimer Hallgrimsson. His side is currently led by the same core of players who gave birth to the legend of “Iceland at Euro16”. EPL fans will recognize Gylfi Sigurðsson of Everton…formerly of Swans…formerly of Spurs…from Swans. The guy is well-traveled, okay? But that is most likely due to the steady increase in his market-value and interested clubs. Jón Daði, lately of at least two English Championship clubs, also played a big part in qualifying Iceland for Russia18. Jón Daði seems to have found a home as a winger-forward with Reading this past year. He doesn’t score a lot internationally, but the entire Iceland side seems to thrive in low-scoring contests. Aston Villa’s Birkir Bjarnason, Ragnar Sigurðsson of Russia’s Rostov, and Arnór Ingvi Traustason of Sweden’s Malmö constitute a large part of the rest of Iceland’s current “golden generation.” On the roster but only in reserve is Kolbeinn Sigþórsson of French club Nantes. He played a big part on the Euro squad, but has had a string of injuries since. It remains to be seen what if any contributions he could make this summer. In sum, Iceland are a solid team who have played together for so long that they can truly be called, “a team.” Unlike their group opponents in the main, they have experience playing and, especially, winning against the odds.
If dismissing Iceland altogether is likely not advisable then considering Croatia not in the running to win the group outright is equally perilous. It has been exactly two decades and five World Cup Finals since Davor Šuker led the then-very “new” nation’s red and white clad football team to a shock semi-final appearance at France98. Lilian Thuram scored twice then to lead the star-studded home team—we’re talking Zidane, Djorkaeff, Karembeu, Blanc, Deschamps, and Henry for starters—to a 2-1 come from behind victory then. These days, however, Croatia’s side is peopled with many current world football talents (not as many as is France of course, but then who is?). Indeed, one of the biggest questions marks for Croatia as they arrive in Russia will be their coach, Zlatko Dalić. He has only held the job for two official matches. Granted, his team used those games to qualify for this summer’s World Cup Finals—taking down Greece, 4-1 on aggregate in the process—but he is still in that regard very much an unknown quantity. Ironically it took just that many games for the Croatian Federation to decide it was time for Ante Čačić, Dalić’s predecessor, to go. That will have been just over six months past when Russia18 begins. Regardless of who is on the touchline, however, Croatia otherwise brings an impressive array of talent to the finals and some fresh memories of success at Euro16. Croatia’s announced “provisional 24” lineup includes: Andrej Kramarić, a 26 years old forward who plays professionally for Hoffenheim of the Bundesliga. He scored 12 goals this year to help his club qualify for Europe; also, striker Nikola Kalinić, currently of AC Milan on loan from Fiorentina and Šime Vrsaljko of Athlético Madrid a stand-out at right back. In the midfield, Croatia calls upon Messi linemate, Ivan Rakitić. The 30 year old attacking midfielder, however, did suffer a broken finger in Barca’s UCL loss to Roma. And then there is the skipper: Luka Modrić. Modrić is already being approached about his life after he retires from the Bernabéu. That means two things: he is expected to be with Real Madrid until he does in fact decide to retire, and he is close to being ready to retire. Time marches on. These days Modrić plays for Zidane, Deschamps manages France’s senior team (and led them to the final at Euro16), and Davor Šuker is the president of the Croatian Football Federation who fired Ante Čačić for not qualifying the side even earlier. It might be an interesting exercise to renew that meeting of France and Croatia from so long ago, this time in the first round of the knockout stage at Russia18…on the other hand, Croatia may have other plans.
Match 1: Argentina vs Iceland (June 16th)
On paper the South Americans should easily trounce the boys from Islandia. But, as the competition has approached, Argentina has seemed to become ever more clouded as a side. I think this match will wind up very close or a draw. For prediction purposes I will call it drawn at 1.
Match 2: Croatia vs Nigeria (June 16th)
It seems very probable that this match will be a hard fought draw between these two “most-likely-to-take-second-place” teams. Particularly if Match 1 turns out as I have predicted, both sides will be very wary of giving the other side a leg up in this first round. Drawn at 2.
Match 3: Argentina vs Croatia (June 21st)
This would be the match that Sampaoli’s men will look to make their move to take first place. Croatia are facing almost as much uncertainty as are Argentina as the tournament draws near and that might give the South Americans the edge they will surely need. Argentina 2-1 Croatia.
Match 4: Nigeria vs Iceland (June 22nd)
Nigeria, as noted, have a bit of a gap in goal just now. Iceland, however, are likely the least attacking-minded side in the group. Nigeria 2-1 Iceland.
Match 5: Iceland vs Croatia (June 26th)
As the last matches kickoff, it will have become apparent that Croatia need to score goals and Iceland will be wanting a victory. That should make for an entertaining game with both sides open to taking a great many risks. Croatia 2-2 Iceland.
Match 6: Argentina vs Nigeria (June 26th)
Uncertain about their place in the knockout stages, both sides here will be forced to play a more open style as well. That should be mainly to Nigeria’s advantage. But if Argentina can use their resulting desperation as an incentive they should find a way to win the group. Argentina 3-3 Nigeria.
By Liam Crane
Teams: Brazil, Switzerland, Costa Rica, Serbia
Brazil come into the tournament as one of the favourites—which is no surprise considering they come into pretty much any football tournament of any kind as favourites. With world-class players left, right and centre, they will be looking to avenge their humiliating ending in the last World Cup. The five-time world champions have been a winning machine since their coach, Tite, took over. They actually would have qualified in first place without the points that previous coach, Dunga, acquired in the first six games. Brazil were also the first team to qualify for Russia, highlighting their dominance. Not surprisingly, they will be looking towards Neymar to light the way forward for the silky-skilled samba-style superstars.
Ah, the Swiss. Famous for its cheese, chocolate…and seemingly football at the moment too. Ranked number 6 in the FIFA World Rankings, Switzerland have enough players at their peak to go far in Russia. Coach Vladimir Petkovic said shortly after his team had secured qualification that there were no limits to his side’s progression. This group stage draw though might just have changed his mind a little bit.
Nevertheless, Swiss fans have been waiting patiently for their country to exceed expectations at a major tournament, despite how difficult it might prove. Arsenal’s new signing Stephan Lichtsteiner will captain the side and will be looking to impress in his third World Cup, and the influential Xherdan Shaqiri will provide the magic in the attacking third.
After reaching the quarter-finals in Brazil in 2014, Costa Rica have high standards to match this time around. With under 5 million people making up their entire population, it is a miracle how they topped a group with England, Italy and Uruguay four years ago and then only lost to the Netherlands on penalties. Interestingly, the Central American side played Brazil in two of the other five World Cup group stage matches, those being in 1990 and 2002. Goalkeeper Keylor Navas of Real Madrid is the most well-known player for this team and will have to be on top form if Costa Rica are to progress, and Arsenal’s (yes, he’s STILL an Arsenal player) Joel Campbell will have to have a tournament similar to the last.
One of seven national teams created after the breakup of Yugoslavia, Serbia have never made it past the group stages of a World Cup. They will obviously be hoping to improve on that this year, with a mix of experience and youth for coach Mladen Krstajic to blend together in the squad. Krstajic was only appointed after Serbia had already secured their qualification. Their team, full of long yet recognisable names, include former Premier League winners Aleksander Kolarov, Branislav Ivanovic and Nemanja Matic, as well as hot prospect Sergej Milinkovic-Savic of Lazio. Good luck to the commentators is all I can say.
Match 1: Costa Rica vs Serbia (17th June)
Might be quite an even contest and possibly quite tight with it being the first game in the group, but fancy Serbia to just have the edge and win 1-2.
Match 2: Brazil vs Switzerland (17th June)
Definitely the best game of the group and should live up to expectations with a few goals. Brazil are obviously favourites but Switzerland have enough to cause them problems. A high scorer but Brazil to win 3-1.
Match 3: Brazil vs Costa Rica (22nd June)
Brazil will have more than enough here. No contest – although Costa Rica will try and make it difficult. Brazil 3-0.
Match 4: Serbia vs Switzerland (22nd June)
An interesting one to call. Switzerland will have to go for this assuming that they were beaten by Brazil in the first game. Serbia know they play Brazil in their next game so would want to win this one to see if it is enough to get them through. Going to go for a 1-1 draw though.
Match 5: Switzerland vs Costa Rica (27th June)
The Swiss should get through this. Costa Rica unfortunately will have already gone home at this point and will be playing for pride. It should see Switzerland through (just) on goal difference. 2-0 to the Swiss.
Match 6: Serbia vs Brazil (27th June)
Serbia will be encouraged be an unbeaten group stage thus far but that will come to an end here as Brazil win three out of three. Serbia put up a good fight, but Brazil will just be too good and win 2-0.
By Mike Schmidt
Teams: Germany, Mexico, South Korea, Sweden
Headlined by current holders Germany, Group F looks reasonably entertaining on paper. Mexico make a habit of making the knockout rounds in most every World Cup they play in, while South Korea could surprise a few thanks to the form of star man Son Heung-Min. A Zlatan-less Sweden seem the odd duckling in this bunch, but never underestimate the potential for upsets in a pressure environment like the World Cup.
Champions in 2014, Low’s side boast impressive depth and a host of exciting youngsters heading into this summer’s proceedings. The only somewhat notable exclusion from their squad is the man who won them the cup 4 summers ago; but it’s hard to criticize Mario Gotze’s absence given his injury struggles over the last year. Indeed the lad himself took it in stride, wishing his Die Mannschaft teammates good fortune via Twitter shortly after Low’s provisional squad was announced.
As a Germany fan myself, I’ve got to say I’m damn impressed with the personnel Low will be able to call on in Russia. Veterans like Neuer, Boateng, Hummels, Kroos, and Khedira are tempered by the flair of youth, with 2017-2018 season standouts Werner and Kimmich earning their first trips to the world’s biggest tournament. Perhaps even more exciting is the fact that Marco Reus looks to finally be fit enough to play a World Cup, a huge boost to an already-stacked German attack.
Just about the only thing I can see preventing the Germans from a repeat of 2014 is the form of the other powerhouses in the tournament. They should certainly be good for at least a quarterfinal berth; their round of 16 opponent is likely to be the runner-up in Brazil’s group (Serbia, Costa Rica, or Switzerland). Their path to the final starts to get tough at that quarterfinal stage, as their opponent should be either England or Belgium, who are likely to finish 1-2 in Group G.
From the quarterfinals onward, it’s of course anybody’s guess. But with as balanced a team as Low has, he’ll be hard pressed to find a true challenge until 3-4 matches into the tournament, at which point his side could be in a sweet groove themselves.
North America’s strongest representative in Russia, Mexico will consider themselves favorites for the runner-up position behind Germany. I don’t see them upsetting Low’s outfit; the Germans boast far too much attacking threat for a significantly older Mexican to handle. However, Juan Carlos Osorio’s side are definitely the “best of the rest” in Group F, and progression into the next round is theirs to lose barring a South Korea upset.
Mexico’s strength lies in their relatively youthful and prolific attack, complimented by a highly experienced midfield boasting the likes of apparently evergreen Rafa Marquez. They made rather light work of topping their qualification group, though it can be argued that CONCACAF is one of, if not the softest WCQ regions. Still, they were beaten just once along the road to Russia, and outside of Germany their Group F opponents aren’t exactly top-quality anyway.
Osorio will look to his core of veteran attacking players to carry El Tri through to the knockout rounds, and it’s difficult to see them falling short. The likes of Chicharito, Gio Dos Santos, Carlos Vela, and Hector Herrera boast considerable quality and have the added incentive of playing in perhaps their last (or certainly next-to-last) World Cup. That said, they’re in for a heck of a time of things if they do indeed lock up second place in Group F. Their opponent will be group E’s winners…more than likely, that means a knockout round bout with the always dangerous Brazil.
Long gone are the days of the 2002 World Cup, where an overachieving South Korea squad benefitted from home field advantage, cavalier Gus Hiddink tactics, and no small amount of suspiciously-generous referee decisions to get as far as the tournaments’ semi-final stage. Along that magical run, they knocked out European heavyweights Italy and Spain against the odds. They’ll need to conjure up similar heroics this summer if they’re to steal a qualifying spot from either Mexico or Germany.
Traditionally a type of team where the whole is greater than the sum of its’ parts, South Korea do have a distinct advantage this year that could help them punch above their weight. That advantage, in my totally-not-biased Spurs supporter opinion, comes in the form of one man: Son Heung-Min. “Sonny” as he’s affectionately referred to in Spurs’ fan circles, is the kind of player who can carry a team if he gets going early. The guy manages it week after week in one of the toughest leagues in the world, after all, and is one of just 6 players in the South Korean squad to play his club ball outside of Asia.
I’ve seen Son absolutely eviscerate much better defenses than either Mexico or Germany can muster, so as long as he’s in the team South Korea have a shot. The Asian outfit are likely to have a rough time of things defensively, though, so if they win matches they’re going to have to do so by scoring a ton. I can see this approach working against the slightly more leaky Mexican back line, but if Germany double up on Son his side could have real problems breaking them down. Their best chance at qualification perhaps lies in beating the absolute piss out of Sweden, at least drawing with Mexico, and parking the bus against Germany in an attempt to concede less than their central American counterparts do in their fixture. Goal difference could play a factor here.
If, and it’s a mighty big if, the plucky Reds from the friendlier Korea find their way out of the group in second position, they’ll surely relished the chance to go out in a blaze of glory against Brazil in the round of 16. Then again, if they can navigate a top heavy Group F, who’s to say Sonny won’t rain on Brazil’s parade too?
Poor, poor Sweden. I mean, I can’t feel too sorry for them, what with their absurdly beautiful country and far better-than-average looking citizenry. But from a Russia 2018 standpoint, the Scandinavian outfit is up the proverbial creek without the roughly six-and-a-half foot paddle they’d need to make any headway in a tight group. I’m speaking of course, about prolific striker and renowned egomaniac Zlatan Ibrahimović, who won’t be travelling to this year’s big dance.
Fact is, without Ibra this Sweden side may be more bang-average than South Korea, which is saying something. There’s some experience in there to be sure; Premier League vet Seb Larsson has a mean free kick and forwards Toivonen and Berg have been around the game a long time. But there’s a reason this side hasn’t been to a World Cup since 06’. Outside of Zlatan’s heroics, there really just hasn’t been much quality there. Add to the less-than-impressive player pool a relatively inexperienced (at international level at least) manager, and you’ve got the recipe for an early flight home from the land of too much snow and comparatively little democracy.
Even in the highly unlikely event that Sweden labors their way to the knockout rounds at the expense of the significantly-stronger South Korea or Mexico, there’s not much promise to be had moving forward. As covered with the previous two sides, the likely opponent for Group F’s runner-up is Brazil, which doesn’t bode well for any team in the group bar Germany, really.
Match 1: Germany vs. Mexico (June 17th)
Mexico are likely to give Germany their only real game of the group, but I don’t think they’re capable of halting Low’s well-oiled machine. 3-1 to Germany.
Match 2: South Korea vs. Sweden (June 18th)
Son should be enough to guide the Asian outfit past the underdog Swedes. There’s likely a goal in it for the Scandinavians, but not enough to cause an upset. 2-1 to South Korea.
Match 3: South Korea vs. Mexico (June 23rd)
The early Group F kickoff on match day 2 looks on paper to be the closest one to call. Both sides know that a win here essentially puts one foot in the door to the knockout rounds. I fancy Korea, honestly; Son should be too much for the Mexican back four to handle. 2-1 to South Korea.
Match 4: Germany vs. Sweden (June 23rd)
Group F could essentially be decided by the time the dust settles on match day 2. Germany at the very least will clinch; Sweden don’t have enough in the locker to stop them. 4-0 to Germany.
Match 5: Germany vs. South Korea (June 27th)
The key here for South Korea is to avoid a blowout…especially if they didn’t manage to beat Mexico on match day 2. Goal difference could decide second place in the group, so I expect a park-the-bus approach from Korea with Son looking to strike on the counter. Low will expect this; I doubt the Germans will phone it in with a chance to finish a perfect group stage. 2-0 to Germany.
Match 6: Mexico vs. Sweden (June 27th)
The task here for Mexico is simple; beat up on Sweden as badly as possible to pump their goal difference up. Again, the height of the stakes here will depend on the result of match day 2; but Mexico should take care of business. 3-0 to Mexico.
|2.||Republic of Korea||3||6||4||4||0|
By JH Norris
Teams: Belgium, England, Panama, Tunisia.
Perhaps more than in any other grouping at this year’s World Cup, we know where the spotlight will be shone in Group G. The relative minnows in Panama and Tunisia have been dealt the misfortune of being plonked in the same space as two intriguingly mercurial morsels in Belgium and England. This pair have the ability to thrill and disappoint in equal measure, having failed to live up to their respective billings at recent international tournaments, though this does present the group’s underdogs with a fantastic opportunity to enjoy a spot of giant-killing. For Belgium, they face the pressure of knowing that this might be the last chance for their golden generation. For England, they go into the Cup as a relatively unknown quantity: but, as ever, and even if we aren’t saying it out loud, England expects.
Let’s get one thing straight: Belgium can win the World Cup. There’s absolutely no question about it.
On paper, there is no obvious weakness in their team. Courtois, though by his own standards he has not enjoyed an outstanding season with Chelsea, remains a ‘keeper of the highest calibre. A central defence equipped with (Premier League winner) Vincent Kompany, Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen might well be one of the best and most depthful in the whole tournament. With the attacking threat of Meunier at right wing-back, the Red Devils are a potent force going forward, while in his left-sided counterpart Yannick Carrasco we can expect the unexpected. Through the midfield and into the attack, the Belgian national side is positively dripping with talent: Hazard, de Bruyne, Mertens, Lukaku, do I need say more than just mention these names? Actually yes I do, I need to say this: the four of them have a combined 54 domestic league goals between them this past season. That is all…
Yet the question, of course, will be whether this team of individuals can make it stick. A healthy 4-1 win over Costa Rica in their final warm-up game might indicate that they can, but the doubts will hover over them like a Damoclean sword until they come good on the promise that they have. If this World Cup was decided by Fifa 18 stats, Belgium would probably win. But it isn’t… all that remains is for us to wait and see, but either way, it’ll certainly be scintillating stuff to either watch them go out in a blaze of angst and disappointment, or to take it all.
Speaking of disappointment…
I suppose I’m only semi-joking when I make that segue. For many, one thought comes to mind as they prepare for the emotional rollercoaster that is supporting England on the world’s greatest stage: Here we go again.
Certainly, this will be the invasive whisper that will snake its way into the mind of every England fan as the Three Lions take to the pitch to face Tunisia on the 18th of June. This is a game that many a weathered Englishman has seen before, in kind: Tunisia are Costa Rica, they are Iceland, they are a team that nobody has given much of a prayer to, yet they’re precisely the kind of team that can so often cause England to stutter at a big tournament.
Our hope that we won’t have to chalk this one off as yet another shameful similar instance in the history books rests on young shoulders. Harry Kane is the Three Lions’ youngest ever captain at a major tournament, epitomising the inexperienced quality of a team that boasts the least caps of any English side taken to a World Cup. Yet this shouldn’t necessarily insist that all is lost before we (sorry I’m meant to be impartial, they) step on the pitch.
There is tangible class in this team, demonstrated unequivocally by Rashford’s performance against Costa Rica last week. Furthermore, in switching to three at the back to enable a variety of combinations in midfield and attack depending on their opposition, Gareth Southgate has made England flexible without bending them so much that they break.
Furthermore, England have pace, and the fact that many players ply their trade for high-pressing sides managed by a Klopp or a Pochettino certainly helps. That this is the era of swift and incisive attacking football will certainly work in Kane and co’s favour.
The problem, though, is that this might all be completely meaningless if we fail to turn up in our opening games and instead lash out the draws that we seem to so enjoy against Tunisia and Panama. But something tells me that Southgate’s side, more cohesive and fearless than ever before, will not be the ones to do that this time around.
By rights, Panama arguably shouldn’t even be at the World Cup.
This is by no means a disrespectful jab at their ability – a ghost goal against Costa Rica heralded a 2-1 victory that saw them qualify for the finals.
Panama, in all likelihood, will be the whipping boys of this group. Unlike Costa Rica in England’s group four years ago, Panama do not boast a Navas or a Bryan Ruiz. What they do have, however, is heart.
This is a nation ravaged by the drug trade south of its borders. In 2017, Amilcar Henriquez, a man who had represented his country 85 times and whose penalty gave Panama the only title in their history, the 2009 Copa Naciones, was shot and killed in Nuevo Colon. Yet if you think this is a singular case, you’d be mistaken. Since Miguel Tello’s death in 1990, 19 Panamanian footballers have been killed.
And tragically, yet more players have seen their friends shot, yet more have been imprisoned for their part in the gangs that govern the drugs industry.
For a nation that has witnessed such violence, violence that I might add we, as ‘Western’ viewers, are unused to seeing go hand-in-hand with football, this World Cup means so much more than eleven men on a pitch. It is a symbol that some may be able to pull themselves out of the tragedy that plagues their lives due to nothing more than an accident of birth.
For these Panamanian players, football may have been the tool by which to escape a life of gangland violence or drug trafficking. We would all do well to remember this fight against adversity when we watch them take the pitch in Russia.
With a team that can boast top-level experience in some of its players, Tunisia seem the most likely of the two preconceived write-offs to upset Belgium and England’s apple cart.
Pressure has been heaped on Wahbi Khazri, who showed flashes of quality while at Sunderland last season, and who has been excellent on loan at Rennes this term, while players the likes of Leicester’s Yohan Benalouane will need to draw on the know-how that they have garnered at higher level clubs.
Realistically, Tunisia are dead-set to finish third in this group, lacking the necessary firepower to do significant damage to two well-organised sides in Belgium and England, but being a better and more robust outfit than Panama. But there’s always a lot to be said for a team who come together at the right moment, and there’s no reason that Mr. Khazri can’t be to 2018 what Joel Campbell was to 2014.
Match 1: Belgium v. Panama (June 18th)
I really don’t think this will be much of a contest. 3-0 to Belgium. All of their ability should tell, and I expect Lukaku to get himself up and running early on. A dangerous game as it could give Belgium that spurt of confidence that they so desperately need.
Match 2: England v. Tunisia (June 18th)
No doubt about it, this will be a nervy one. Perhaps the biggest question aimed at Southgate’s system in the build-up to the World Cup has been directed at whether or not his team has the necessary arsenal to break down a side set up to stop them scoring. My gut tells me that they will, but they might not make it look too easy. 1-0 to England.
Match 3: Belgium v. Tunisia (June 23rd)
If Belgium are indeed rampant against Panama as predicted, then I imagine they’ll be a bit better placed in psychological terms to take on Tunisia than England were in the opening game. This fixture has two-goal margin written all over it if those circumstances come true, so I’ll say 3-1 to the Belgians. It’s always nice to see four goals in a game…
Match 4: England v. Panama (June 24th)
The only thing really in doubt here is whether I’ll be able to excuse myself from the lunch I’ll be at to watch this game. England will win, it’s just a question of by how much. 2-0 seems on the cards to me. Hopefully Kane and Sterling will get the goals, as they both need to have netted at least once to gain some belief heading into the Belgium game.
Match 5: Panama v. Tunisia (June 28th)
Expect Tunisia to get a win to go home with something to be proud of. I think it’ll be a closer game than perhaps many are expecting, and it might even offer up a thriller… but realistically, 2-1 to Tunisia.
Match 6: England v. Belgium (June 28th)
Listen up you lot: 2-1 to England. You heard it here first. There’s just something about this Southgate team. They’re young, hungry, fearless, but more than anything, they seem more like a team than any other England side of recent years. It’ll be fiercely contested; dare I say it, it might even be a cracking game of football. And you know what? We deserve a bit of joy, impartiality be damned.
By Jeff Crum
Let’s just cut straight to the chase, shall we?
Colombia returns to their second consecutive World Cup with high expectations. When they participated in the 2014 iteration of this tournament, Colombia was in a similar group where anyone could have emerged victorious. They ended up winning their group, playing scintillating football, and being one of the “darlings” of the tournament before crashing out to hosts Brazil 2-1. Los Cafeteros, led by Jose Pekerman, are highly adaptable (Pekerman will play them in multiple formations), unafraid to be physical, technically gifted, and able to play at pace, which will serve them well in a group where their opponents project to test each one of these abilities.
Colombia provides the rare balance of both inherent chemistry and international star power. From the 2014 Squad, 21 of the 23 man roster played for one of a few teams in Colombia’s top division at the junior and senior squad level, which has helped build familiarity. The 2018 squad is expected to have a similar makeup.
The 2014 tournament also introduced two bona fide stars in James Rodriguez, currently of Bayern Munich and Juan Cuadrado, currently of Juventus. Both have maintained their star status and will be relied-upon to dictate tempo, maintain chemistry, and create chances.
Not included in the last World Cup was Radamel Falcao, who was one of the premier strikers in the world in 2014. Unfortunately, he suffered a horrible ACL injury months shy of the tournament, which not only knocked him out of the tournament but threatened to derail his career. After some rough seasons on loan in the Premier League, Falcao, now 32, has found his scoring touch again in consecutive years for both club AS Monaco and country, and is ready for his first World Cup.
So how far can this Colombia squad go? Far. Jose Pekerman, in his first World Cup with Colombia, took them as far as they’ve ever gone. Now he has the same star power with his captain and main striker back, healthy, and scoring goals. This while having a much more youthful defense as well as maintaining the quality the Cafeteros had in 2014, led by Tottenham Hotspur defensive stud Davinson Sanchez. While the squad was on the young side in 2014, this squad heads to Russia in their athletic primes and ready to make a run. There are downsides to Colombia, specifically whether they can compete with the likes of Germany and Brazil (6 pts in 8 games versus World Cup squads in qualifying). But if you are looking to bet on a dark horse to win the World Cup, why not Colombia?
While in modern times Japan’s qualification to the World Cup is seen as something of a formality, they are still looking to establish themselves with more frequency at the World Cup level. This will be their 6th consecutive time qualifying for the World Cup, and they have never passed the Round of 16; one of these instances can almost be negated, since they were a co-host nation at the 2002 World Cup. The Samurai Blue have always been a technically gifted side, and they’ll head to Russia armed with top-level talent and a new edge.
The Japanese are expected to arrive with younger bodies on the roster to compliment their more experienced class of stars, many of whom have a lot to prove during this World Cup. One example is Keisuke Honda, who is one of Japan’s most exciting players, and who has had a relative fall from grace. Once one of Europe’s most coveted players as he impressed in the Russian League and Champions League for CSKA Moscow, he moved to AC Milan shortly after the World Cup. His three years in Milan started somewhat strongly but continued to slide off a cliff; he now plies his trade in Mexico. Another example is the great Shinji Kagawa, who is still an in-demand player when healthy, who had a torrid 2014 World Cup and is looking to make amends in this edition of the tournament.
Hired to help these stars was manager Vahid Halilhodzic, who had previous success taking Algeria to the knock-out stages of World Cup 2014, before losing to eventual champion Germany in extra time. However, due to a poor string of results, and backlash from the Japanese Football Association and fans, he was fired (Halilhodzic is now suing the Japanese FA) in April. In came Akira Nishino, a Japanese manager with limited success in the J-League: Japan’s Top Flight Domestic League. Nishino is looking to bring a more offensive driven and aesthetically pleasing team, versus Halilhodzic’s teams, which are usually defensively rigid and conservative. He also has the advantage of knowing these players, as he has been a technical director for the Japanese FA since 2016. However I still have my doubts about this team being organized and prepared for the World Cup, after a change like this so close to the World Cup.
Japan had a disappointing 2014 World Cup considering the second spot in their group was for the taking after Colombia, and redemption could be in the cards. They’ll have the raw materials to play the free-flowing football Nishino, and Japan, prefer, but this isn’t a Japanese backline which I expect to hold up well against Colombia, Poland, and Senegal’s marvelous attacking talent. I envision Japan showing spurts of quality football, but having their defense let them down.
Poland enters Group H as the club from the First Pot, and with good reason. The White and Reds boast name brand quality and have the experience of mostly playing with each other over the past 5 years under Adam Nowalka’s stewardship. Despite not making the 2014 World Cup, they have the experience of making the Quarterfinals in Euro 2016, falling to eventual champions Portugal in penalty kicks. Under Nowalka, Poland are threatening to have their best run in the National Team since the 1970’s and early 1980’s.
All eyes will be on Polish striker Robert Lewandowski. He’s a scoring machine for his club, Bayern Munich, and his nation as he set a record during qualifying by scoring 16 (!) goals in 10 games. Lewandowski is looking to score for Poland on the big stage, as he was unable to score in regulation time during EURO 2016, and if Poland are going to advance, he’s going to need to score goals. Poland will provide him support in the form of Arkadiusz Milik of Napoli and Lukasz Piszczek, the main-stay right back at Borussia Dortmund.
There are some questions to face from Poland. Firstly, is this a squad who can perform on the big stages? Prior to EURO 2016, Poland scored for fun in qualifying, but on the big stage, they score 4 goals in 5 games. Secondly, there are issues of depth amongst the outfield players. Poland has been blessed in their last few international tournaments by having all of their core players available. But this also means a small number of players have the requisite experience to get the job done; an injury may derail Poland. It is also worth noting many of their players, such as Grzegorz Krychowiak, have had torrid times with their clubs since EURO 2016. Finally, many of Poland players are getting up there in age, particularly their defenders. While experienced, these defenders will have to face the likes of Colombia and Senegal, who’s pace and blinding speed will test them.
Poland has probably the best pure striker in the world in Lewandowski, and if Poland are going to advance, they will need him to score at the World Cup. If Lewandowski can score, Poland go far. If he can’t, Poland can still make it out of the first round, as they did at EURO 2016, but would need help from results around them to see them through to the knockout round.
Since shocking at the 2002 World Cup, Senegal has struggled and disappointed in their International qualifying campaigns. That’s not to say those past teams haven’t had talent; there just weren’t enough qualifications to go around. In order to qualify in Africa, you generally need either one of the best players on the Continent or great team chemistry. This time around, Senegal comes armed with possibly their most talented squad ever.
In the past Senegal was always disadvantaged versus the likes of C’ote D’ivoire, Ghana, and Cameroon, who boasted the likes of Didier Drogba, Michael Essien, and Samuel Eto’o, as well as a cast of quality which found themselves in the top European leagues. This time, they boast one of the premier players in all of Africa in the form of Sadio Mane of Liverpool. Since arriving on the Premier League scene with Southampton, Sadio Mane has been an absolute menace, possessing both unbelievable speed, power, technique, and decision making.
Mane is not alone in the class he presents up-front, as he will be joined by rising star Keita Balde of Monaco, who is primed to be the next young Monaco talent to make a big money move. The star talent extends beyond the front lines as the likes of Idrissa Gana Gueye of Everton and Kalidou Koulibaly of Napoli sure up the spine of the Senegalese squad. From a sentimental perspective, their manager, Aliou Cisse, was the Captain of that famous 2002 World Cup squad, and is likely to inspire and rile up his charges.
Senegal, like every team in this group, has the ability to get beyond the Group Stage. However, Colombia, Poland, and Japan all has chemistry and familiarity within their squads. We also will not have an idea of how good this Senegal team can be against top competition; apart from a draw earlier this year against Bosnia-Herzegovina, their last profile matchup outside of Africa was a 2-0 loss to Mexico. Furthermore, we have no clue who will be in net for the World Cup for Senegal, or if they’ll be any good. I’ll say Senegal has the talent in the outfield, and if things break right for them, they can advance out of the group.
Match 1: Colombia v. Japan (June 19)
In a rematch of a Group C match from the 2014 World Cup, there isn’t much different between the sides 4 years later. Japan is also dealing with a recent coaching change and Colombia’s striker is better than it was 4 years ago. 4-0 win for the Cafeteros as they start with a bang.
Match 2: Poland v. Senegal (June 19)
This match immediately puts someone on the back foot as these two, for my money, are competing for second. I’m going for the surprise here: I think Senegal’s speed proves too much for a older defense without stud Centre-Back Kamil Glik. 2-1 Senegal.
Match 3: Japan v. Senegal (June 24)
Japan is better suited to deal with speed, after looking mostly the better side against Ghana in a recent warm-up, despite losing. I think Japan finds their legs and earns a draw against a Senegal side, which may have their eyes on the following match. 1-1.
Match 4: Poland v. Colombia (June 24)
Colombia will be the better side, but Poland, feeling their back against the wall, will do everything they can to avoid the loss, including nicking one at the end. I go with a 1-1 draw here too.
Match 5: Japan v. Poland (June 28)
Poland needs a win, and I think they get their win here. Poland, once again, doesn’t light up the scoreboard, but does enough to take the points from Japan. Too much strike power for Japan to contain for 90 minutes, not enough striking power to claw back. 2-1 Poland makes things interesting in the game and the group.
Match 6: Senegal v. Colombia (June 28)
For Senegal to advance, they need to win or tie. A loss isn’t something which eliminates them, but they would need to get on the scoresheet. That said, this has the makings to be one of the games of the tournament. A cracker, the final is 2-1 and Senegal advances by virtue of having beaten Poland in the first match.
This post was written in collaboration with multiple Soccity authors. This is obviously a very long post, so if you see any mistakes/errors, please be proactive and let us know at [email protected].
Let us know who you think will progress from the group stages in the comments below!