Group A: Uruguay Ease Through, But Hosts Could Struggle
Russia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Uruguay
A Uruguay side packed with quality playing throughout Europe’s major leagues and attack spearheaded by none other than Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani is surely the favourites to top Group A, but they will still be challenged by Egypt, who have high hopes through their Premier League talisman, Mohamed Salah and the host Russian side packed with quality players. Saudi Arabia will have their work cut out for them to qualify, but again this is football and anything is possible.
Russia: The hosts now managed by Stanislaus Cherchesov have changed a lot after a string of disappointing performances at Euro 2016. They have an impressive attack with Fyodor Smolov leading the line. Their preferred system of play is 3-5-2. They are Currently Ranked 66th in the world. Their key player takes the form of goalkeeper-captain, Igor Akinfeev, with over 100 caps to his name. The hosts will be relying on all his experience to make it over the line, but they will need to more than that to keep their knockout hopes alive.
Saudi Arabia: This Saudi Arabian side managed by Juan Antonio Pizzi may be the lowest ranked team in the World Cup but there’s never a dull moment when the Green Falcons are around. The squad has some talent but they lack international experience. Their preferred system of play is 4-3-3. They are currently ranked 67th in the world. Their star striker, Mohammad Al-Sahlawi, will be crucial to their success. The veteran striker scored 16 goals in the qualifying campaign. However, it seems like they’re unlikely to challenge for the precious runner-up slot.
Egypt: The Egyptian side managed by Hector Cuper is a mixture of youth and experience. They are a difficult side to breakdown, the Pharaohs have conceded more than one goal only once in the last 30 games. Their preferred system of play is 4-2-3-1. They are currently ranked 46th in the world. No doubt, Mohamed Salah is the man to watch, he has always delivered when called upon. The speedy forward has 32 goals in 56 international appearances to his name with 5 of those coming in the final round of qualifiers. He could be the difference as Egypt look to qualify as runners-up.
Uruguay: The Uruguayan side managed by Oscar Tabarez qualified for the World Cup in style, with only the Brazilian side finishing above them in the qualifying campaign. La Celeste are favourites to top the Group. They have impressive depth at every position and like to play attacking football. Their preferred system of play is 4-4-2. They are currently ranked 17th in the World. Uruguayan hopes of winning their third World Cup rest on El Matador, Edinson Cavani. The top goal-scorer of the South American qualifiers, the Paris Saint-Germain striker has been more deadly for Uruguay than Barcelona’s Luis Suarez. They are poised to claim the top spot in the group.
Group B: Iberian Kings Do Battle For Top Spot
Iran, Morocco, Portugal, Spain
It may seem premature to view this group as merely a shootout between Spain and Portugal, but it is unlikely that Iran or Morocco will do anything to disrupt the natural order. While trivialising the abilities of the other teams would be grossly unfair, it wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest that both European teams will be fielding second-string sides when they face them later in the group stages. Certainly, after the Iberians square off in the first round of fixtures, this group may be of little interest to neutrals.
Spain: There was a point in recent memory where it seemed as though Spain could do no wrong. They took home the gold in 2010, in between two European championship. This made the last 4 years of Spanish soccer appear a slightly bottomless trough by comparison. After failing to make the knockout stages in the 2014 world cup and being knocked out in the first round of the 2016 European championships, the team finally seems to be displaying some respectable form. With three of their four warm-up games under their belt comprised of two draws against world No.1 Germany and Switzerland along with an emphatic 6-1 victory against Argentina, La Roja are showing knockout stage material though a tournament win may be ambitious.
Portugal: Big things would be expected of the reigning European champions, though Portugal has as yet only mustered one warm up game win against Egypt. A brutal 3-0 defeat to the unqualified Netherlands really inspires hope in no one. Portugal do still have a secret weapon in the form of the universally acclaimed Cristiano Ronaldo who’s late goal secured the teams win in the aforementioned Egypt game. The sceptic must ask though, is one man enough? If they do find their form, tough Portugal are capable of reaching the knockout stages.
Iran: For the first time in the competition’s history Iran has qualified for two successive World Cups. For this reason not much is expected of the team. The team is under a revamp however, playing a more offensive style of football than is typically expected of them. With players such as Sardar Azmoun bringing European club experience to the national team the seeds of potential have been planted. Their warm-ups are currently 2:2 in terms of a win loss ratio with one game to go against Lithuania. Iran will not make it beyond the pool stages but they will be eager to prove that they can compete with the heavy weights.
Morocco: Morocco would appear to be the weakest team in the group. Returning after a two-decade absence from the tournament, the Atlas Lions are back with new coach Hervé Renard, who has inspired the team to their best form in years. The warm ups have also been kind to Morocco with wins against Slovakia, Uzbekistan and fellow tournament participants Serbia. While they won’t make the quarter finals, Morocco will likely come home with a win and a bright future.
Group C: From Russia With (The Group of) Love
Australia, Denmark, France, Peru
We often hear of the Group of Death, but Group C in the World Cup 2018 has been coined the Group of Love. The group consists of France, Denmark, Peru and Australia. The four countries have made public statements of goodwill towards each other in the lead up to kick off in Russia, but the group is sure to provide quality entertainment such is the level of star quality on show between the four teams.
France: Euro 2016 runners-up are one of the favourites to win the tournament outright. They have an abundance of world class talent and international experience at their disposal, and it is widely predicted that they will comfortably top the group. Their key player is undoubtedly Antoine Griezmann. Euro 2016 top scorer and player of the tournament, Griezmann is technically brilliant and is a sublime finisher, posing a huge threat to any defensive line. Marseille winger Florian Thauvin, PSG teenager Kylian Mbappé, Olivier Giroud and Ousmane Dembélé are also players to watch.
Peru: Los Incas’ preparation for the World Cup has been marred with controversy as their captain and pivotal player, Paolo Guerrero, faced a lengthy ban after testing positive in a drugs test. However, after huge public outcry and sporting pleas from the captains of the three opposing teams, Guerrero won an appeal and will feature in Russia. Peru is also backboned by Jefferson Farfán, Renato Tapia and Christian Cueva. Managed by Ricardo Gareca, they have the potential to be dangerous and certainly have the ability to cause an upset. Peru are odds on to place second in the group but write them off at your peril, as they have no shortage of talent and most importantly; hunger.
Denmark: Coached by Age Hareide, the Danes also have world class players in their ranks. 26-year-old Tottenham star Christian Eriksen is their in-form star player who can score given an inch of space. He booked Denmark a place in Russia by scoring a hat-trick in the play-off against the Republic of Ireland. He is the architect of all good play on the field and Denmark will look to him for some big performances in the group stages and beyond. Peru v. Denmark is likely to be a key fixture with this being a possible battle for runner-up and a place in the last 16. With the winner likely to go through, a draw would make for some tense viewing in the remaining games.
Australia: Australia are the clear underdogs of group C. “The Socceroos” will be looking to redeem themselves after a dismal display in 2014. Veteran Tim Cahill remains a key player, with the 38-year-old maintaining his mouth-watering skill levels. Aston Villa midfielder and international caption Mile Jedinak is also a player worth looking out for. The Aussies are expected to come fourth in the group but they could quite possibly qualify if they can channel their pride and desire into pulling at least one win or draw.
Group D: Aging Argentinian Defence Leaves Them Vulnerable
Argentina, Croatia, Iceland, Nigeria
In his 15-year professional career, Lionel Messi has done almost everything. Two things have eluded him however, and while there’s no denying that he would also love to win on a rainy night in Stoke (which, unless he joins Leeds United, won’t be happening anytime soon), a World Cup would be his crowning glory. Leading his beloved Argentina to the rarest of prizes would cement his status as a true football god. However, his side must overcome tough obstacles in the form of Group G, and his team are a far cry from the 2014 finalists.
Iceland: The smallest nation in the tournament, Iceland will want to make an impact at their first World Cup. At Euro 2016, the islanders lit up the competition, beating the mighty England and to make it to the quarter-finals in their first major competition appearance. The team is currently ranked 22nd in the FIFA world rankings. Many have high hopes for this country of approximately 340,000 people. They face strong opposition, but there is a good possibility of the Icelanders finishing second in their group to make it into the knockout stages. Everton’s Gylfi Sigurdsson will be one to watch, as will Aron Gunnarsson, who was instrumental in Cardiff City’s promotion to the Premier League this season.
Nigeria: Nigeria will be interesting to watch. The Eagles do not have a strong track record in the tournament, having only making it to the last 16 on three separate occasions in 1994, 1998 and 2014. However, if there’s a place for surprises, it’s the World Cup. The Eagles could be the underdogs, possibly making it far this time round. They are the lowest ranked team in the group, taking up 47th place in the FIFA World Rankings, but the ranking can be quite arbitrary and lacking in real world performance influenced by passion and effort. Nigeria should not be underestimated in their pursuit of glory. Key players include Chelsea’s Victor Moses and elder statesman John Obi Mikel.
Argentina: Many have tipped this to be Messi and Argentina’s year, but how many times have we heard that? To prove his worth, the Barcelona legend will need to rally the troops. The Argentinian side are packed full of world class players. For this side not win the World Cup would be a tragedy.Even though their prospects are high they must not take the competition lightly. They are lacking in the defensive side with one defender from a major club being Nicholas Otamendi (Manchester City) and without the injured Claudio Bravo, they will have to make do with Chelsea’s Willy Caballero. Obviously, Messi is their main man, with Angel Di Maria also a key player.
Croatia: Croatia, also known as the Blazers, are favourites to come second in this group. The Blazers have strong history in the competition, coming third in 1998. They are the dark horses of the competition, having a strong chance to make it into the quarter-finals. Their star power include Luka Modric of Real Madrid and Barcelona midfielder Ivan Rakitic.
Group E: Brazil group toppers, steady Serbs to follow
Brazil, Costa Rica, Serbia, Switzerland
Group E is certainly a group most people would see as “straightforward”. Brazil are, and for good reason, strong favourites to top the group. The main question that remains is; who will progress alongside them? You would have to think that any one of Serbia, Switzerland and Costa Rica could do so.
Brazil: One of the favourites to win the tournament in Russia, Brazil have a squad that is simply stacked with individual talent. Of course, Brazil have never lacked individuals of extraordinary ability but until recently they have seemed defensively and mentally frail. When Tite took over in June 2016 however, these frailties seemed to vanish as Brazil easily brushed aside all opposition in their qualifying campaign to qualify comfortably. Naturally, when the World Cup comes along all eyes will be on one man, Neymar Júnior, the PSG forward who carries the hopes of one of football’s greatest nations. The forward line of Jesus, Neymar and Coutinho will likely be the cause of sleepless nights for any defence which has to face them. Prediction: Semi-finals
Costa Rica: Costa Rica’s squad is remarkably similar to the one which reached the quarter-finals in 2014. It is possible that 9 of the players who started against the Netherlands in that defeat could be in their starting eleven this June. 4 years is a long time in football terms and it is unlikely that Los Ticos will be able to replicate their 2014 heroics. Their hopes hinge on the form of Keylor Navas. Bryan Ruiz is Costa Rica’s top scorer and captain will need to lead from the front. Prediction: Group Stages
Serbia: An exciting team, at least on paper. They are a physically imposing team who also have plenty of players capable of amazing pieces of skill. However, their qualifying campaign was far from exciting and at times almost dull. Nevertheless, it is likely that they will progress alongside Brazil. If they are to progress, Sergej Milinković-Savic will really have to step up and illustrate why he’s linked to Manchester United every 10 minutes. Nemanja Matic will have to provide that base at the centre of midfield if Serbia are to succeed. Prediction: Round of 16
Switzerland: The Swiss are ranked 6th in Fifa world rankings, with most people expecting them to reach the round of 16. I would be worried however by their lack of attacking threat. Haris Seferovic will likely be the starting striker and he only has 11 international goals and hasn’t scored for Benfica since October. If Switzerland intend to make it out of their group, Xherdan Shaqiri will have to be in top form, Granit Xhaka of course will also be essential in orchestrating Switzerland’s attacking play. Prediction: Group Stages
Group F: The Group of Death, But For Who?
Germany, Mexico, South Korea, Sweden
One of the most competitive groups of the tournament, Group F, with the obvious exception of Germany, is going to be very difficult to call. Group F’s race for the position of best of the rest is guaranteed to be a tight one with all three teams showing potential in the qualifying rounds. Here is a quick round-up of the runners and riders.
Sweden: Sweden undeniably had the most eventful qualifying campaign of the three. Having lost the services of the legendary Zlatan Ibrahimovic many struggled to see how Sweden would emerge from a group that contained France, Holland and an in-form Bulgaria. And yet, here we are. The question remains; will Sweden be haunted by the ghost of Zlatan? The star man is Emile Forsberg who has been somewhat of a sleeper hit in Europe these past two seasons; the 16/17 season saw him help RB Leipzig to an unprecedented second place finish in the Bundesliga, scoring 8 in the process. His injury plagued season is likely a big factor in Leipzig’s 14-point slip down to sixth. Sweden’s campaign will likely similarly hinge of Fosberg’s form.
South Korea: South Korea had a similarly close call in the Asian qualifiers winning only 4 of their 10 matches, relying on the failures of others to sneak through. They will be relying heavily on the talents of Tottenham’s Heung Min Son. Son has managed an impressive tally of 12 goals and 6 assists this season following on from his last season of 14 and 6. He’s the type of player that could nick you a goal through a moment of a brilliance. Son is the best wide player in the group and will cause problems for all three teams, especially Mexico who like to line up with a narrow three at the back. Also be on the lookout for Ki Sung-Yueng who has proven himself more than capable to fans of the EPL during his time at Swansea.
Mexico: Having missed out on the second round for the past 6 tournaments, Mexico will be hoping to go one better this year. Of the three second place contenders they are the most balanced. They have a lot of returning pros from last tournament and a few youngsters on the wings who will be keen to prove themselves. Everton target Hirving Lozano has been lighting things up in the Eredivisie with PSV this season and his blistering pace will be tough to deal with. Star-man Hernandez is finally returning to form for West ham. Captain Andres Guardado will provide stability and leadership in the midfield and fan favourite Ochoa returns in goal. Mexico are a solid team and will be favourites to progress.
Germany: There’s not too much to say at this stage. The defending champions are shoe-ins to finish first in the group. It is difficult to see anyone in the group sneaking a goal past the centre back pairing of Boateng and Mats Hummels who have been a formidable wall for Bayern this season and with Neuer in net there’s little chance that that back line will be tested. The biggest talking point with Germany is their inexplicable omission of Leroy Sane from the squad. Without him their options on the wings start to look limited; there could be the potential for a nil-nil if one of their opponents decide to setup with a stacked defence.
Group G: England and Belgium Leave Others to Play for Pride
Belgium, England, Panama, Tunisia
Group G will be one of the groups to grab the attention of fans. The pool contains two powerhouse teams, England and Belgium, as well as the underdogs in Tunisia and Panama. The matchup between England and Belgium will be highly anticipated and hotly contested, as the two teams battle for the number one seed. Panama and Tunisia will look to make an unlikely upset in this pool if the two teams have hopes of making it to the knockout stages.
Belgium: The expectation for this group is for Belgium to come out on top. Sitting at 3rd in the FIFA rankings ,the team will look to cause trouble for other top tier teams, not only in their group, but in the knockout stages of the competition. With a lineup of such individually talented star players in the likes of Eden Hazard, Kevin de Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku under the guidance of coach Roberto Martinez, the high expectations for this team come as no surprise. If this Belgium lineup can come out hot in this pool and take down their major opponent in England, they could be a real contender to dethrone Germany and take home the title for the first time in the country’s world cup career.
England: However, looking to stop the all star lineup of Belgium is the almost equally as strong English team. England are coming off a disappointing finish in last years world cup, after not making it out of the group stages. This year the side will look to make amends to the previous poor performance by taking the top spot in this pool. Out of this young squad the focus will be on Tottenham striker Harry Kane. If Kane can continue on his form, after scoring five goals in six qualifying matches, the dangerous striker will be a handful for the Belgium.
Panama: In a historic debut at the World Cup, Panama will be searching for more than just a cameo. Hernan Dario Gomez is no stranger to the tournament, having coached both Colombia and Ecuador in previous World Cups, and will look to steer Panama out of the group stage and into the knockout stage of the competition. While the line-up for this team is not spectacular, striker Blas Perez is the nation’s lethal weapon, with a personal tally of 43 goals.
Tunisia: Tunisia, on the other hand, have been here before. However, having only won one of their previous 13 World Cup games, it is unlikely that this team will pull off anything spectacular. Coach Nabil Maaloul and captain Aymen Mathlouthi will attempt to lead their team out of this pool, with the matchups against both England and Panama being pivotal if this team wants to rewrite their World Cup history and make it to the knockout stages.
Group H: An Exciting Pool With No Clear Favourite
Columbia, Japan, Poland, Senegal
Group H is unique in this World Cup as it is probably the most volatile group. Out of Poland, Senegal, Japan, and Columbia, the best team is most arguably Poland, but after that it is a pretty close toss-up between Senegal and Colombia, with Japan being an underdog, but not out of the running. There are some really talented players in this pool, and it will be interesting and entertaining to watch.
Poland: Poland return to the World Cup for the first time since 2006, with Robert Lewandowski as their guiding light. By grace of the Bayern Munich striker’s boot, Poland made it to the quarter-finals in the 2016 Euros. Another notable player on Poland’s side is their goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny, who is also the keeper for Juventus. Poland is favored to win in this pool, but it will not be easy for them. They will find tough competition from Columbia and Senegal.
Senegal: Senegal are in Russia on their second ever World Cup trip. In their 2002 debut, they had a defining upset beating previous champions France. Senegal could show another upset in 2018, being led by Sadio Mane, who is also a winger for Liverpool. Mane is not Senegal’s sole talent however, Keita Balde the Monaco winger could also be a game changer.
Columbia: Colombia is another very realistic winner of this pool. In last year’s cup, Colombia was a surprise star team, making all the way to the round of eight (eventually losing to home team Brazil). In Colombia’s arsenal is James Rodriguez, midfielder for Bayern Munich, as well as Monaco striker Falcao and midfielder Carlos Sanchez.
Japan: Japan is coming to Russia after a horrible no win previous cup and a recent coaching switch up. This has made their run in qualifiers dramatic, but they haven’t shown any real star players or hopes of making it out of the pool. They have players from Southampton (Yoshida), Inter Milan (Nagatomo), and Frankfurt (Hasebe), but none of them have shown any real game changing ability, in season or on this national team.
Additional reporting by Yash Pandey, Sam Hayes, Laura Stack, Zweli Mabidikana, Charlie Giese, Ronan O’Hanlon, Eoin Kelly, Liam Collins