by Tony Wyman
Former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka once said, “If God wanted us to play soccer, He wouldn’t have given us arms.” Well, Mike, He gave us legs and starting on June 14th at 10AM eastern standard time, an estimated 3.2 billion people will watch the legs representing 32 nations play in the 21st FIFA World Cup, to be staged in Russia.
The world’s biggest and most important sports event always generates as much excitement as it does anxiety as supporters live through the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat every four years when the best national teams in the world converge to decide which one deserves to hoist the FIFA World Cup Trophy. So, who is going to win this time? Read on, real football fan, and find out!
The first round of the World Cup is called the Group Stage. This is where all the teams compete in the eight groups into which the teams have been assigned. The top two teams in each stage move on. Here’s a breakdown on each team in their groups, along with the key players for each team:
Group A (Russia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Uruguay)
The weakest group of the eight, Group A really only has one question to answer: will home team Russia or Egypt join Uruguay in the knockout stage of the tournament? Russia only has one player playing in a top European league, Denis Cheryshev, who plays for Spanish side Villareal, and he’s hardly a superstar.
It is hard to imagine Russia getting past Egypt now that Liverpool talisman, the brilliant Mohamed Salah, is back to 100% fitness. Salah led the English Premier League, arguably the toughest league in the world, with Spain’s La Liga and Germany’s Bundesliga as the only challengers, with 32 goals. He lead with team, Liverpool, to a Champion’s League final, before going off injured early in the match. That injury is healed and Salah is ready and rested. Along with Arsenal’s reliable and sturdy center midfielder Mohamed Elneny, Salah should run rampant through both Russia’s and Saudi Arabia’s defenses.
Russia has some talent, particularly captain and goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev, but a combination of disunity and disputes off the field combined with a long history of failing to get past the first round of any tournament since 2008 make the hosts a long shot to get out of the group stage. Only an injury to Egypt’s Salah could give them the boost they need to escape a first round exit.
Saudi Arabia is 1000 to 1 odds to win the Cup and that might be generous. The team has been consumed with turmoil recently, with two coaches sacked. Their latest, Juan Antonio Pizzi, was just named last week. He has a team short on talent and too heavily dependent on 30-year-old striker Mohammed Al-Sahlawi to put that ball in the net. Expect a quick first round exit with the Saudis failing to capture a point in their only round in the Cup.
Uruguay, unlike the rest of the group, has a wealth of talent. Led by two aging, but still highly effective strikers, PSG’s Edinson Cavani and Barcelona’s Luis Suarez, Uruguay has one of the most lethal offenses in the tournament. With Diego Godin anchoring a dependable defense, Uruguay should easily make it into the round of 16, maybe even without losing a match in the first round.
Uruguay and Egypt advance.
Group B (Spain, Portugal, Morocco, Iran)
There’s no question which two teams are going to make it out of this group. Spain, arguably, is one of the five teams, along with France, Germany, Belgium and Brazil, that has a good chance of winning the Cup, and Portugal has Ronaldo who, despite age finally slowing him down a bit, is still one of the best players in the world. Morocco and Iran simply don’t have the players needed to get past the two European teams who will easily out class them.
This is, realistically, Ronaldo’s last chance to win a World Cup. At 32, he’s still a great player, but he’s not the footballer he was in the Cup in 2014. To make matters worse, his club team, Real Madrid, made it all the way to the last match of the season, the Champion’s League final, and left Ronaldo on the pitch the whole time. While it has been weeks since that match, it is questionable whether even a fully fit Ronaldo can put in full 90s day-in-and-day-out over the full four weeks of the Cup.
The side has a great keeper in Anthony Lopes and solid field players like Joao Moutinho and defensive center midfielder William Carvalho, so getting out of the group, even if Ronaldo misses matches, shouldn’t be a problem.
Spain, on the other hand, has an embarrassment of talent. Obviously, no discussion of Spain can take place without discussing David de Gea, arguably the best keeper in the world. With defenders like Arsenal’s Nacho Monreal, Real Madrid’s Sergio Ramos and Barcelona’s Gerard Pique in front of him, De Gea might not have much to do in the first round of the tournament.
To make matters worse for opponents, Spain isn’t short of talent in midfield or forward. Really the only question manager Julen Lopetegui has to answer is which world class striker to play, the young and gifted Marco Asensio or the ramrod Diego Costa, a predicament any coach would want.
Spain wins the group with Portugal right behind.
Group C (France, Denmark, Peru, Australia)
France and Denmark are the favorites to move forward in the first round. France has an abundance of exciting offensive players who will combine to score a scintillating number of goals in the Cup and Denmark has one of the best young defenders in the world. Peru is a defensive juggernaut, but offensively they are abject. Their most dangerous threat in front of the goal is Paolo Guerrero, the 34-year-old who is only playing because a Swiss court issued a temporary reprieve on his doping ban. Guerrero is a threat, but at 34, he’s not got the engine or wheels to carry Peru out of the group.
Australia is too reliant on 37-year-old Tim Cahill and Aston Villa’s Mile Jedinak, neither of whom are world class players capable of pulling the mediocre team newly appointed coach Bert van Marwijk is taking to Russia.
France is the clear favorite to win this group, despite a poor recent performance against the U.S. National team last week. The team is absolutely bursting with offensive talent unlike any nation in the competition.
Any team in this tournament would love to have a player like Nabil Fekir or Thomas Lemar in their line-ups, but these players will likely spend more time on the bench than they do on the pitch. Instead, France will sport wonderkid Kylian Mbappe, tipped to be the “next Thierry Henry,” and Ousmane Dembele on either side of Antoine Griezmann, arguably one of the five best players in the world, on offense.
In the midfield, they will have players like Paul Pogba, undoubtedly playing in the attacking center midfield spot in which he belongs, along with defensive midfield talisman N’Golo Kante and Steven Nzonzi or Blaise Matuidi. Shoring up the defense will be Tottenham’s keeper, Hugo Lloris, the best keeper in the world over 30 not named Manuel Neuer, with Real Madrid’s Raphael Varone and Barcelona’s Samuel Umtiti in center back.
Denmark has enough talent to rise above the first round, but not enough to get much farther.
They are a fast-improving side, but just lack the punch to get through the second round.
Tottenham’s Christian Eriksen is critical to their success.
If he has an outstanding tournament, this team can go farther than their talent says they should.
But if Eriksen is flat, Denmark doesn’t yet have the horses to pull them farther than a second-round appearance.
Prediction: France and Denmark advance easily.
Group D (Argentina, Nigeria, Croatia, Iceland)
If there is an emotional favorite in the Cup, it has to be Argentina. Home of perhaps the greatest player ever to put a foot on a ball, Lionel Messi, Argentina has enough talent to carry themselves into the quarter-finals. If there is a player who deserves to hoist the Cup after a lifetime of giving fans breathtaking goals and selfless assists, Lionel Messi is that player.
Croatia looks very tough on paper, boasting a number of players from some of the best clubs in the world, but their recent performances have been lackluster. The Super Eagles of Nigeria also have some top players from major European clubs, like Arsenal’s Alex Iwobi and Leicester’s Kelechi Iheanacho, not to mention veteran Victor Moses of Chelsea. Iceland, a nation of only 300,000 people, whose total population is 1/40 the size of Moscow, went all the way to the quarter finals of the European Championship, knocking out England and turning the tournament on its head.
Even though they struggled to make it to the Cup, 2014’s runners-up, Argentina, have enough talent to get through this group. Messi will play like this is his last chance to win the Beautiful Game’s biggest event because it, most likely, at 31-years-old is his last World Cup. An inspired Messi alone can pull out wins from thin air, but this Argentine team isn’t a one world-class player circus.
This side sports a goal-scoring arsenal that any country would love to have. Angel Di Maria, Paulo Dybala, Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Aguero and, of course, Lionel Messi, will terrify opposing defenses and force keepers to retrieve balls from their nets with alarming frequency.
And despite being slightly favored over Nigeria, Croatia is going to have its hands full containing the raw athleticism of the Super Eagles. So will the rest of the group. Nigeria walked through qualifying for the tournament and showed their fortitude when they came back from being down 2-nil in a friendly match against Argentina to win 4-2. Led by captain John Obi Mikel, the side has a commanding general in the center of the park.
Prediction: Argentina and Nigeria go through in a close group that comes down to the last match.
Group E (Brazil, Mexico, Costa Rica, Switzerland)
Brazil are among the most popular picks to win the tournament. Despite a dismal showing in 2014, which included a humiliating 7-1 mugging by Germany, Brazil, under new coach Tite, look like a side capable of winning the whole thing. Led by Real Madrid’s keeper Keylor Navas and Joel Campbell, whose 2014 World Cup heroics mesmerized his countrymen and teased Arsenal fans into believing, wrongly it turned out, their unused man had a bright future at the Emirates, Costa Rica have enough spark to earn points in this group.
Serbia has never made it past the group stage of a World Cup and, having just recently appointed a manager, it doesn’t look like 2018 will be the country’s year. Switzerland, on the other hand, brings a lot of promise to the Cup, leaving their supporters to wonder if 2018 is the year the team finally makes a serious run?
Getting out the group won’t be hard for Brazil.
In addition to world class players like keeper Allison, captain Thiago Silva, and midfield/wing artists like Philippe Coutinho, Douglas Costa and Roberto Firmino, Brazil has the heir to Messi, PSG forward Neymar.
An often divisive player among fans, Neymar is, nevertheless, a remarkable talent who possesses the electrifying skills need to propel a team to the next level. Considering the talent surrounding the forward, Neymar should have plenty of support as he competes with the game’s best players for a chance to be named player of the tournament.
Don’t rule out the Swiss, even though they lack glamorous players who dazzle fans with their magical skills. The Swiss team is well-balanced and highly experienced. They also have some players in midfield who can control a game, allowing Switzerland to grind out wins.
Players like Arsenal’s Granit Xhaka and Xerdan Shaqiri can make things happen in the middle of the park. Add a solid back line led by Manuel Akanji, the tough center defender from Basil, and Switzerland should be able to take points from low-scoring, defense-driven matches.
Prediction: Brazil captures all the available points while the Swiss finish just ahead of a surprising Costa Rica
Group F (Germany, South Korea, Sweden, Mexico)
Germany coasted through the Confederations Cup using, largely, their B-team, and look primed to defend their 2014 World Cup title, as well. They have to get by a group that is, arguably, the weakest in the tournament. South Korea, who find themselves back in the Cup where they have been since 1986.
Outside of heroics in 2002 trip to the semi-finals, the Korean team made a quick exit in the first round every Cup. They will do the same this year. And they will have company from Sweden who look like a very different team than they were when Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the best player in their nation’s history, led the team. That leaves Mexico, a side that usually falls short of expectations. They will have a decent run this year, thanks mostly to the weakness of the group they are in, but don’t expect much past the group stage.
Germany had a spectacular run qualifying for the Cup. Winning all 10 qualifying matches and averaging 4.3 goals per match, tying the Cup record, the Germans made it look simple to be in a position to defend their 2014 title. With the players they have in the squad, it is hard to see them fall short of, at least, the semi-finals. In fact, their roster is so deep, they should have the most rested team in the tournament and still manage to win every match through the quarter-finals.
Assuming forward Marco Reus stays healthy throughout the event, he could feast off of the passes he’s likely to get from midfielders like Arsenal’s Mesut Ozil, Schalke’s Leon Goretzka and English champion Ilkay Gundogan of Manchester City. Add attacking threats like Timo Werner (RB Leipzig), Thomas Muller (Bayern Munich) and Julian Draxler (Paris St-Germain), and one wonders how this team can lose. Who knows, maybe they can’t.
Mexico has gotten out of the first round in each of the last six World Cups, only to get knocked out in the round of 16 each time.
They are going to get another chance at the quarter finals this year, but are likely to fall short.
They have enough talent to get past their weaker competitors in the group and did well enough in qualifying to justify supporter’s belief they are a shoo-in to make the round of 16.
But that talent isn’t enough to carry them past the real contenders. Sure, Guillermo Ochoa is one of the best keepers in the tournament and Chicharito (West Ham’s Javier Hernandez) still has some magic in his 30-year-old legs, but the rest of the team is just pedestrian. Expect Mexican fans to go home, once again, without seeing their team make it past the round of 16.
Prediction: Brazil glide through this group without breaking a sweat while Mexico makes it past Sweden and South Korea on the way to a 7th straight run into the Round of 16.
Group G (Belgium, England, Panama, Tunisia)
Despite having a busload of talent, Belgium has yet to make it to the semi-finals of a major tournament. This year could be different. And there’s even some excitement over the English team, who sport some of the best attacking talent in the tournament.
The same really can’t be said for the other two nations in the group. Panama is in the World Cup for the first time, having beaten the United States, a nation 90 times more populous, and getting past Costa Rica in the last qualifying match, 2-1. They sport a side full of players familiar to American fans who have seen them play in Major League Soccer, but, other than that, they are a team with few recognizable stars capable of carrying Panama out of the group stage.
The same can be said for Tunisia, even though they made it to the Cup having gone undefeated in qualifying. They’ve been gone from the tournament for 12 years, but seem destined to continue their run of having never gotten out of the group stage in their previous four tries. A single win, even if it is against Panama, will seem like success for Tunisia.
For Belgium, however, nothing short of a serious shot at the title will seem like winning to this immensely talented side. Sporting Kevin De Bruyne, the electrifying midfielder from Manchester City, Chelsea’s midfield wizard Eden Hazard, the powerful Romelu Lukaku from Manchester United, and one of the top keepers in the world, Chelsea’s 6’6″ tall Thibaut Courtois, Belgium has all the players it needs to give their fans reason to believe they should buy tickets for late-tournament matches.
Belgium has been here before, though, full of promise, but weighed down by poor national team managers who wouldn’t let the team play the beautiful, dazzling and creative game they were capable of showing. Now, with Spaniard Roberto Martinez at the helm, that shouldn’t be the case this year. If Vincent Kompany, the gifted by fragile key to Belgium’s defense, can stay healthy, look to Belgium to be the darkhorse who could lift the trophy at the end.
For fans of how Lucy treats Charlie Brown with a football, there’s England.
Once again, the Three Lions should be able to go deep in the Cup.
Once again, they are likely to pull the ball away just as their fans are committed to kicking it.
Getting beaten by tiny Iceland in the 2016 Euro sent most rational fans to the pubs and they haven’t been seen since.
They should pop out after a pint though to watch England get through the group stage, at least. Striker Harry Kane, one of the best footballers in front of the goal in the world today, leads a team that, on paper at least, is as good as any in the world. With Kane up top and Man United’s talented youngster Marcus Rashford and the lightning fast Raheem Sterling of Man City pulling defenders wide, the English should put a lot of balls in the net.
They will have to score because they have some holes in defense, particularly in goal where they lack a world class top keeper. Both Jordan Pickford and Jack Butland are good young keepers, but neither have the pedigree expected of a top #1 capable of leading his team to the final rounds.
Prediction: Belgium and England go through
Group H (Columbia, Poland, Senegal, Japan)
This is a tougher group than casual fans might think on first look. The weakest side in the group is clearly Japan, but even they could surprise fans simply because the team is so experienced. Lead by Borussia Dortmund’s Shinji Kagawa, Japan could snatch a surprise win against any team in this group.
But the real contest to go through is likely between Poland and Senegal. The Senegalese had a spectacular 2002 Cup when they became the 2nd team from Africa to make the final eight. They beat France, the holders, that year with raw athleticism, pace and power. They have a similar team this year, with the game-changing pace of Saido Mane, the Liverpool star, leading the team. Unfortunately, they are likely to need more if they are going to get to the next round.
Columbia is the king of this group. With James Rodriguez eager to reprise his 2014 performance, one impressive enough to make his a global star, and Radamel Falcao primed to put the ball in the net, Columbia should have the punch necessary to take the top spot in this group.
The only question, really, is which David Ospina will show up. The Arsenal back-up keeper was brilliant in 2014 and he’s had moments of genius with Arsenal, too. But he’s also shown he is capable of unforgivable gaffes. Inconsistency over a long season is one thing, but in a tournament like the World Cup, it is unforgivable.
Poland shouldn’t have that problem. In goal for them is Wojciech Szczesny, who Arsenal sold to Juventus, making room for Ospina in reserve for Starter Petr Cech. Szczesny wore out his welcome at Arsenal after a series of disastrous blunders and discipline problems that led to manager Arsene Wenger washing his hands of the talented Pole.
Going to Juventus, though, was just what Szczesny needed. Posting 11 clean sheets over the 2017/18 season, Szczesny matured into the keeper scouts thought he someday would become. In front of him will be striker Robert Lewandowski, Poland’s all-time leading scorer.
Lewandowski is likely playing his last World Cup and will be looking to cap a good Euro 2016 performance (they made it to the quarters, losing in a shoot-out with eventual finalists, Portugal) with a long run in the World Cup. He will make it out of the group stage, but it is doubtful Poland will go much further.
Prediction: Columbia and Poland make it to the Round of 16, with Senegal nipping at their heels.
So, there’s our predictions for the group stage. We will be back after the first round with our take on which countries get past the Round of 16 to make the final 8!