Even though the US is not at the 2018 World Cup, the show/circus will go on with plenty of amazing stories to cover on and off the pitch. While the group stage might not be as enthralling as recent tournaments because of who didn't qualify, the possibility for surprises always exists, and when the tournament is hosted by off the beaten path nations, the tournament can often throw a surprise or two.
Here's my semi-uneducated view on the 2018 World Cup, and who will be World Champion in a month's time:
(EDIT: now re-jiggered to consider Spain amazingly firing their manager the day before the tournament starts)
4. Saudi Arabia
If it wasn't for Mo Salah's injury concerns, Egypt might have been the favorite to finish second here. But with the injury questions left unanswered, Russia would be the pick now to just sneak through into the knockout stage. Russia has more of their first line talent than they did at the Confederations Cup, but it probably won't change their fortunes too much. If Salah can be healthy by the time the two nations play, perhaps Egypt could pull off a bit of an upset. But with Salah potentially at only 75% at best, it doesn't seem likely that the Pharoahs will advance.
Even though Spain fired Julen Lopetegui for not telling any of his co-workers that he was considering the Real Madrid job the day before the tournament, it's hard to imagine Spain being that negatively affected by this, at least initially. Fernando Hierro is no outsider to the national team and has said that he won't change many plans for the tournament, and his major task may now be guiding a fractured squad through the inevitable ups and downs that will come. Thankfully for la Roja, their group is not very challenging and their most difficult game is first up. But for a team that looked so good under Lopetegui, it's hard to imagine the sailing being anything but choppy for Spain after everything that the squad and federation has gone through.
Perhaps Portugal are the biggest beneficiary of the entire mess their neighbors in Iberia are dealing with. No strangers to World Cup circuses themselves (see 2002 and 2014), their unity and defensive solidity might help them snatch something from the first game, perhaps taking them to the top of the group, instantly changing the dynamic of not only the group, but the tournament. Their squad outside of Ronaldo is not as talented as Spain's is, but that didn't matter much when they won the Euros two years ago. They may have more challenges from a pure footballing perspective with Iran and Morocco than Spain may, but even after what happened with Spain, Portugal's destiny might not be all that different from when Lopetegui was manager.
France have not been inspiring in their pre-World Cup friendlies, and Didier Deschamps is not what anyone would call a tactical mastermind. They play too often like a team of individuals, which for a team of this talent level is a disappointment. However, that problem will only become evident perhaps during the quarterfinals, not during the group stage, though a couple of teams here could give them a tricky run. Peru with Paolo Guerrero is a different team than they are without him, and his presence enough may be enough to send Peru through. Denmark have Christian Eriksen, which may be enough to see them through, but he has 22 goals himself and the rest of his team has 44. If another star emerges, they could go through themselves. Australia has a better chance of getting points in this group than they did in 2014, at least.
Argentina have not looked nearly as good as they should under Jorge Sampaoli, especially considering the time Sampaoli has had with the squad now. Their 6-1 loss to Spain in March is glued to the memory, and that's not a good final impression to have. Of course they have as much talent as anyone else in the tournament, and there's still this Messi guy that may be good at soccer, but these factors haven't come together to help Argentina win anything before, and it's the doubt that recent performances have cast over la Albiceleste that is a major concern here.
Croatia may not have another major tournament with the Modric-Rakitic-Mandzukic troika that has propelled them to becoming one of the better sides in Europe recently, and there isn't much behind them. Time hasn't yet been called on their international prowess just yet, so their brilliance should be enough to get them through. Nigeria have always been one of the better African nations at World Cup's past, and if they can summon what they summoned in 2014 against Argentina again, they could easily make it through again. Iceland's fairy tale story was amazing at Euro 2016 when they shocked the world, but no one will be surprised by them this time around, and the sum of their parts is exceeded by everyone else in their group, sadly.
4. Costa Rica
Roberto Carlos says that this Brazil team has sacrificed a little of its attacking verve for defensive solidity, which may play as sacrilege at home, but to neutral observers is a fresh take for a Brazil team that desperately needs that spine, which they have from back to front now. Casemiro could be one of the most important players if Brazil are to win a sixth star this World Cup. Having Neymar, Phillipe Coutinho, Roberto Firmino and Gabriel Jesus also helps too. They're a favorite for a reason.
The race for second is going to be one of the more fascinating battles during the group stage. Switzerland is always solid and has a pedigree of making the knockout stage at big tournaments, especially recently, and they do have some good gamebreakers that Serbia and Costa Rica don't. Serbia's best player, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic is going to be a breakout star of this tournament, but the Serbs don't have much beyond him that would concern many teams. And while Costa Rica are always going to be difficult to play against, there's the sense that they won't be surprising anyone this time around, and that they might be getting a little long in the tooth too.
4. South Korea
Germany will look a fair bit different to the 2014 team that won the World Cup, even though many of the parts will be the same. They'll be playing with true forwards instead of the false nines they used throughout the last couple of major tournaments, which changes how they're going to play in a big way. It also makes them better, and more tactically flexible, in spite of how they looked in some pre World Cup friendlies. Their oldest player is also 32, which tells you a lot as to how Germany continues to be so good.
Mexico always find a way to make it out of their group during these tournaments, and they will again because this is their easiest World Cup group in some time. Germany will probably beat them, but they can easily beat Sweden and South Korea. Sweden don't have enough goals in their team if they get broken down defensively, and South Korea have only player that would scare you in Heung Min-Son, and he doesn't have the Spurs attack with him for his nation.
Belgium have won the "best team with the worst manager" award in their last two tournaments since with Marc Wilmots, they always looked three steps behind their opponents tactically. Roberto Martinez has his faults as a manager, but they aren't going to be as exposed during a short tournament as they are during a long club season. Because of that, we can now focus on how talented they are, and have been, for years now. If Vincent Kompany isn't fit, that could be a major problem, but this is their best chance yet to win a trophy for their golden generation.
England don't have nearly the pressure they often carry with them coming into major tournaments, and perhaps its the skeptcism of Gareth Southgate and his tactics, or that the team is so young and a great generation of youth is coming behind this group, but there is a youthful optimism about the Three Lions in this tournament. That's exciting and refreshing for once. And no Tony Adams, the Spurs players will not be England's downfall here.
Tunisia could be a tricky out for the two big boys here, and Panama will be happy to be here, but in the end will be cannon fodder. Imagine how much trickier this group would have been if Panama was replaced by the US.
Colombia aren't quite as youthful and exuberant as they were in Brazil, but they are still very, very good. They've looked solid throughout qualifying, and have the potential with their stars to break games open that other teams in this group do not have. Jose Pekerman's tactics will probably hold Colombia back as the tournament goes on, but they should have enough to win the group.
Poland will be very much Robert Lewandowski focused and for good reason, but keep an eye on Arkadiusz Milik, the Napoli forward who also has a fair few goals in him. They could win this group, but they don't have quite enough to overcome Colombia here, and they also have a threat behind them in Senegal, who in their only World Cup made it shockingly to extra time in the quarterfinals in 2002 before finally being felled. They have a good spine of players familiar to Premier League fans and a couple of intriguing forward options in M'Baye Niang and Keita Balde, so it would not be a surprise at all if they advanced, or maybe even won their group. Japan always put in a decent account of themselves at major tournaments, but always end up looking like they have a talent deficit too.
Knockout Stage (in bracket order):
Round of 16:
Uruguay over Portugal (A1 over B2)
France over Croatia (C1 over D2)
Brazil over Mexico (E1 over F2)
Belgium over Poland (G1 over H2)
Spain over Russia (B1 over A2)
Argentina over Peru (D1 over C2)
Germany over Switzerland (F1 over E2)
England over Colombia (G2 over H1)
France over Uruguay (C1 over A1)
Brazil over Belgium (E1 over G1)
Argentina over Spain (D1 over B1)
Germany over England (F1 over G2)
Brazil over France (E1 over C1)
Germany over Argentina (F1 over D1)
Brazil over Germany (E1 over F1)
Golden Ball: Neymar
Golden Boot: Timo Werner
Best Young Player: Kylian Mbappe
Golden Glove: Brazil's keeper (Alisson or Ederson)
After Spain's decision to sack Lopetegui, no changes to this bracket or the Group B standings were made.
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