World Cup 2018 is big in every sense, high stakes poker for FIFA which needs a stellar competition to counter the growing impression that football fans are drifting away from international football and concentrating instead on the PlayStation stuff that is being served up in the Champions League.
On top of that, this is the first of two consecutive World Cups that you could describe as, at best, toxic, given the locations. With the highly controversial Qatar 2022 to follow, Russia 2018 has to be a success in every respect and, with concerns over potential crowd violence and well organised Russian hooligan groups, never mind the wider concerns for travelling LGBT supporters in particular, the pre-tournament vibes are not great. That said, every four years a frenzied press speculates over doomsday scenarios that never materialise so fingers crossed eh?
That said, giving the World Cup to countries with very real human rights issues hanging over them is dubious stuff and it’s little wonder that Sepp Blatter’s FIFA fiefdom gradually collapsed in the wake of Russian and Qatar getting the nod. It’s hard to see either nation winning the rights in a clean ballot after all. Unless Cambridge Analytica has had chance to rig it first.
Hopes for a calm and composed World Cup will in part revolve around a strong home challenge – that at least pacifies the natives. It even worked in England through much of Euro ’96, newspaper editors apart. On that front, the prognosis isn’t great for the Russians find themselves in a group that looks a little tougher than it did back in December.
Uruguay will be the favourites to progress, largely on the basis of the goalscoring exploits of Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez, but Egypt and Saudi Arabia, neither of whom would have seemed too threatening at one point, look rather more robust now. The Saudis edged out Australia in qualifying and were only a point behind Japan in that qualification group. That makes them handy competitors.
Egypt meanwhile can, fitness permitting, boast the man who can’t stop scoring goals, Mo Salah. They are not a one man team either, having players in the top leagues in England and Portugal in their number, but it will be Salah who will be the main focus of attention. If he can capture anything like his Liverpool form in Russia, he could be the star of the tournament and his side the surprise package.
After Russia failed to impress in last summer’s Confederation Cup, finding themselves in a group where all the teams look capable of taking points off one another is the worst news they could have had. The nightmare scenario of the hosts going out at the group stage is certainly possible. Even were they to survive, it’s hard to imagine them coming through the last 16 where either Spain or Portugal would be the most likely opponents, the two warm favourites to see off Morocco and Iran.
As with Lionel Messi, it’s likely to be Cristiano Ronaldo’s last World Cup but unlike Messi, he will want to make the tournament all about him. There was no little irony in Portugal finally winning a major trophy when they carried off the Euros 2016 after he had been carried off the pitch, metaphorically at least, right at the start of the final. But with one big tournament left in him, will he finally deliver his full genius for goalscoring? Portugal will need it if they are to go deep into the tournament.
Being paired with their Iberian rivals will be tough, for Spain are beginning to look resurgent once again, their 6-1 demolition of Argentina in a recent friendly a quite remarkable result. Isco looks set to be their next world star as they bid farewell to Iniesta this summer, while in David de Gea, they have arguably the world’s best goalkeeper behind them. That Argentina win aside, a lack of goals might hurt them, but they promise plenty once again after a brief fallow period since 2012.
Iceland, the surprise package of Euro 2016, no longer have virtual anonymity on their side, for the world sat up and took notice of the way they performed two summers ago, real ability allied to a relentless determination to fight to the last. Nobody will be taking them lightly and that’s going to make life even tougher than it already is in what looks a ferocious group.
Being exposed to Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain and Paulo Dybala of Argentina is some prospect. For Messi, this World Cup represents the final chance to crown his extraordinary career with the biggest trophy of them all and it’s hard to see anyone but them topping the group. Nigeria are not to be discounted either, but the fact that Iceland are in the same group as Croatia is fascinating given they were paired together in qualification too and Iceland came out top of the pile.
Croatia often promise more than they deliver, the last Euros being a case in point when they fell at the last 16, but there is undoubted quality there, even if it is getting on in years – Mandzukic, Modric and Corluka for instance. They didn’t get out of the group in the last World Cup and face that fate again for Iceland’s club mentality and cast iron will contrasts sharply with the occasional flakiness of the Croatians.
The two meet in the final group game and if there’s anything riding on it, your money would tend to be on the Icemen marching on. If Iceland do come through what is the closest thing we have to the group of death, that most likely pits them against France in the last 16 for it’s hard to imagine a scenario where they fail to top a group that includes Peru, Denmark and Australia – unless it’s because they’ve all fallen out with one another again.
France will be looking for a big tournament having failed to win their home Euros and for Paul Pogba in particular, this is a crunch tournament with Manchester United seemingly willing to move him on, albeit at a profit. He needs to put on a show to justify a reputation built at Juventus but which has been unfulfilled elsewhere. Meanwhile, Antoine Griezmann could stick another 30% on his transfer fee with a good World Cup if he’s going to finally leave Atletico Madrid behind him.
The bottom half of the draw is headed up by Brazil, still haunted by that horrific 7-1 capitulation to Germany in their home World Cup, though some of those demons were perhaps dealt with in a 1-0 friendly win in Berlin in March. That said, if the best they could do in November was a 0-0 draw with England at Wembley, perhaps they need to set their sights fairly low. But when your squad includes Neymar, Coutinho, Firmino, Douglas Costa and Gabriel Jesus – and, perhaps as important, does not include David Luiz – expectations are always going to be immense.
Costa Rica, a surprise packet in 2014, qualified comfortably enough from the Concacaf group while Serbia have enough good players to be competitive, but perhaps not enough goals in them to advance. The Swiss meanwhile were the best of the European runners up and booked their passage by grinding their way to a 1-0 play-off win over Northern Ireland. Again, they’ll be organised rather than explosive, suggesting this Brazil’s games aside, might be the Group where you can catch up on your sleep.
You’ll want to be awake for their partner group, the one that features Germany, Mexico, Sweden and South Korea, the nation that some might see as the makeweights after a poor World Cup in Brazil. They should be written off at your peril though for they have regrouped over the last four years, Spurs’ Son Heung-Min their goalscoring poster boy.
You can’t look beyond Germany as winners of the group, nor perhaps the competition itself given they carried off the Confederations Cup in Russia last summer. Reigning champions, semi-finalists at Euro 2016, they look as ominous as ever albeit that their recent friendly results haven’t been great – draws with England, France and Spain and defeat to Brazil and Austria raising the odd question. They always seem to manage to get it right on the night though and just who is going to beat them?
Mexico and Sweden will give them a nice, competitive test in the group stages, though how Sweden will fare without Zlatan Ibrahimovic at a major tournament for the first time since 2000 will be decisive for them. Will teamwork eclipse individual genius? England, along with Belgium, have been gifted the easiest draw of the lot.
Panama, in their first ever World Cup, and Tunisia, look the lightest of the lightweights and even given England’s penchant for catastrophic summer tournaments, if they fail to come through that particular group, Gareth Southgate is liable to end up with his head on a spike outside the Tower of London.
For once, England’s strengths are going forward rather than defensively and if Southgate can create a system that highlights the positives of Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling, Marcus Rashford et al and somehow masks a defence that inspires little confidence and a squadron of goalkeepers with crisp packets for hands, he might take England as far as the last eight, but surely no further. That though would represent a decent first tournament for Southgate and an England side that has a refreshingly open attitude to it compared with the paranoia of yore. With plenty of pace in the side, they might upset a team or two.
Belgium, on the other hand, have bigger ambitions, for they begin to resemble Spain circa 2008, a squad of rare talent and burgeoning experience that should all be maturing together. Like Spain prior to that Euros win in ’08, Belgium are currently seen as the great under achievers, a side that when it matters is somehow less than the sum of their parts.
Now at the right age, a group that includes Kevin de Bruyne, Eden Hazard, Thibaut Courtois, Romelu Lukaku, Vincent Kompany et al must be able to approach the World Cup with real confidence. If they find their form from the outset, they could blow the rest away.
Which leaves Group H, the nations looking to meet Belgium or England in the first knockout phase. Favourites to win the group must be Poland though again, they often flatter to deceive in qualification before underwhelming in tournaments. Robert Lewandowski will, of course, be their big threat, but the likes of Milik and Zielinski, both influential in Napoli’s pursuit of Serie A that came up just short last term, will need to come to the party in a big way too.
Their group is tough to call. Senegal are at their second World Cup having reached the last eight in 2002. They look physically powerful in midfield with Idrissa Gueye and Cheikou Kouyate both inexhaustible and then they have that little bit of star quality up top in Liverpool’s Sadio Mane.
Colombia are said to have a new golden generation at their disposal and a 3-2 win over France in Paris in March certainly backed up those sentiments. Radamel Falcao still carries the bulk of their hopes on his shoulders but he is not alone. Juventus’ Juan Cuadrado is an irrepressible creative presence in midfield, he and Bayern Munich’s James Rodriguez both being stars of the 2014 World Cup and both equipped to step up to the mark once again.
It’s a pleasingly open looking tournament at this stage, even if it’s the usual suspects that mostly catch the eye. For all that, it isn’t hard to make a case for seeing a slew of unexpected survivors from the group phase, nor for Belgium to finally carry off the trophy. We might get the vintage tournament FIFA needs after all.