World Cup 2018 Group Stage Preview

Group A – Russia, Uruguay, Saudi Arabia, Egypt

Uruguay, a country of only 3.5 million people, always fields a competitive team. It is the smallest country to ever win a World Cup. It beat Argentina as hosts in 1930 and bested Brazil 2-1 in 1950 in the the original Maracanazo. In total, Uruguay have won 20 official titles, a world record for most international titles by any country. The team is a prohibitive favorite in this group. It wouldn’t surprise me if they win all three games. This year’s team is loaded and very experienced at every position: Muslera (G), two world class defenders Diego Godin and Maxi Pereira, and two world class strikers Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani. Although not quite as well known as their superstars, Betancur (Juventus) and Vecino (Inter Milan) are two young dynamic players.  If this midfield gels, Uruguay will be a strong favorite to make the final 8 and maybe even the final four.

Egypt’s chances at advancing out of the group took a huge hit when their best player (maybe the best forward in the world this past year), Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah, went out with a dislocated shoulder in the Champions League Final against Real Madrid. Salah looks to be somewhat fit and will play in the World Cup. If he’s even at 80%, Egypt should surprise in this group.  If they can beat Russia in the second game of the group they should advance.

Russia did not perform very well going 1-2 in the Confederations Cup in 2017. They beat New Zealand but lost to Portugal and Mexico.  Since then, they’ve played only a series of friendlies since they didn’t have to qualify for the Cup. They only have a handful of players that play outside of the Russian league.  But the history of the World Cup is that the host nation generally performs much better than their ranking  indicate. Russia should handle Saudi Arabia in the opener, but I don’t give them a chance against Uruguay. The game against Egypt should decide which of those teams gets out of the group.

Saudia Arabia’s best performance in a World Cup was in 1994, when they beat both Belgium and Morocco before losing to a very good Sweden team in the Round of 16. Perhaps the best goal scored in the World Cup of 1994 came from a Saudia  player. Other than that, I have no idea about this team or their abilities, but I think they will go winless and possibly routed by Uruguay, although I don’t think they’ll lose by as a big a margin as when they lost to Germany (0-8) in the 2002 World Cup.

Predictions: Uruguay, Egypt

Group B – Spain, Portugal, Iran, Morocco

Spain has always been one of my favorite teams in the world. One could argue that in the past 10 years, they have been the best footballing team on the entire planet.  While they have under-performed in the last two major competitions (WC 2014 and Euro 2016), this can be attributed to the fact that it is extremely difficult to remain dominant, especially in the most popular sport in the world.

But the as the roster was announced for this World Cup, it is obvious that Spain are back with an embarrassment of riches at every position. At goal (De Gea, Pepe Reina), in the back (Carvajal, Ramos, Pique, Jordi Alba, Azpilicueta, Monreal), in the midfield (Busquets, Iniesta, David Silva, Alcantara) and in attack (Isco – is he Brazilian ?, Asencio,  Lucas Vazques, Diego Costa). The names read like a who’s who of Spanish and English football. The presence of Spanish footballers in Spain is nothing short of a second Armada. As they say in Spain, “joder, claro que vamos a ganar la Copa”, which roughly translates to: “shit, of course we’re going to win it all”.

It is those missing from the team are what makes this so shocking. When Cesc Fabregas and Juan Mata can’t make the team, well you get the picture. Spain has so many world-class players, they could field two World Cup squads. Maybe in 2026, when the World Cup expands to 48 teams, they should be given two spots !

But this fairy tale in the making, meaning the run to the championship, may have been shattered two days two days before the opening kickoff, when the Spanish camp imploded with the worst scandal before the Cup. Their manager Julen Lopetegui, was announced as the next manager of Real Madrid on Tuesday June 12. The Spanish federation chief, Luis Rubiales, promptly fired Lopetegui from his post, and in his place installed Fernando Hierro, the long-time and most excellent Real Madrid and Spain central defender (500 and 90 appearances respectively). As good a player as he was, Hierro is largely inexperienced as coach with only one year under his belt.

The effect of this bombshell is largely unknown. Is the dressing room a mess ?  Is there division between the players over how the situation was handled ? We know for sure that Sergio Ramos lobbied Rubiales hard to allow Lopetegui to continue on to no avail. It’s interesting to note that Pique tweeted that this situation could be compared to the University of Michigan situation in 1989, when coach Steve Fischer was named coach of the team before the NCAA tournament, and the Maize and Blue had one of the greatest runs in March Madness and won the championship.

Pique tweeted: “Todos unidos, ahora más que nunca”. For all soccer loving fans, let’s hope that this mentality prevails so Spain can again rock the world.

As a parenthetical note, blame Zinedine Zidane for these events. His resignation from Real Madrid, after the Blancos won their second straight Champions League Crown, paved the way for this scandal. Go Bleus ! (read below).

Portugal is the reigning European champion, having won their first major title in Euro 2016. Portugal has Cristiano Ronaldo and a good supporting cast (this is not the Cleveland Cavaliers of recent vintage).  Their main weakness is that their two central defenders, upon which they depend so heavily to not only stop opponents but also to initiate the attack, are the aging Bruno Alves (35) and Pepe (36). They have talented midfielders in Adrien Silva and Joao Mouthinho, as well as forwards Andre Silva, Ricardo Quaresma, and of course the eternal Ronaldo, who could lay claim to being the greatest true #9 ever to play.

Portugal should come out of this group in the first place (only due to the mess in Spain) and should face a fairly weak opponent from Group B (either Egypt or Russia), paving their way to the quarters and possibly beyond.

Iran and Morocco have no hope. They are lost at sea in this group.  The match between them will probably be entertaining however.

Predictions: Portugal, Spain

Group C – France, Australia, Peru, Denmark

According to the FIFA rankings, Group C is the most challenging group, featuring France (9th), Australia (39th), Peru (11th), and Denmark (12th), yet it hardly stands out to anyone as the Group of Death. But it does seem to be a very balanced group which could feature some very exciting matches.

France’s situation is very much like Spain’s. They are overflowing with talent at every position, they have many players plying their trade in the EPL and La Liga, and they are also one of the favorites to win the trophy. They also left some notable players at home (Benzema, Martial, Lacazette).

The French have a more potent attacking force whereas the Spanish are better defensively. The obvious difference is that Didier Deschamps is firmly in command as the manager so the drama in the ‘Bleus’ camp is lacking. With little injury worries, France is loaded in midfield (Kanté, Matuidi, Pogba) and in attack (Dembélé, Mbappé, Griezmann, Giroud). Heir defenders are not as well recognized but Varane (Real Madrid) and Umtiti (Barcelona) were pivotal in their team’s success this year.

The French are very young and talented. Deschamp’s role is to motivate his young players to play beyond their ages so they can be serious contenders. They should win this group easily and are capable of a deep run in this tournament.

Denmark has a decent squad that finished second to Poland in Euro qualifying and then thrashed Ireland 5-1 in the two legged playoffs to qualify for the World Cup. Their undeniable leader is Chrisan Eriksen, Tottenham’s excellent playmaking midfielder. This team features a cast of players that mostly play outside of Denmark in the 4 major European leagues.  Their recent good set of results, including a 2-0 win over Mexico in a pre Cup friendly should give this team a good lift. If they can beat Peru, they should go through to the next stage.

Australia’s road to the World Cup was dubious at best, having to beat Syria, a country mired in a vicious 7 year Civil War, in a two legged playoff, winning by a 3-2 aggregate score.  They then beat Honduras 3-1 in a second playoffs, so one could say the best thing about this team is that it is battle tested. It is also a veteran squad led by Tim Cahill (106 caps), Lucas Neill (96 caps), and Brett Emerton (95 caps).  The road out of this group will be difficult for the Socceroos to manage. I’ll be yelling “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie” chant during their group games but not beyond.

Peru hasn’t been to a World Cup since 1982 (was Nene Cubillas still playing back then ?) but has been a team on the rise (semi-finals in Copa America in 2011 and 2015 and the quarters in 2016). It also qualified as the fourth team in the rigorous CONMEBOL. It is a team on the rise and just two weeks ago was given the best news it could have when FIFA cleared Peru’s best player and all-time leading scorer, Paolo Guerrero, to play in the World Cup. Led mostly by players who play in South America, they have the individual talent and fire to upset Denmark. The winner of that game should have a leg up to qualify in the second spot in this group.

Predictions: France, Peru

Group D –  Argentina, Croatia, Nigeria, Iceland

What is about the luck of the draw that almost always seems to put Argentina and Nigeria in the same group ? Here they both are again and they both should get out of this group. In 1994, in Maradona’s last World Cup, Argentina beat the Super Eagles 2-1. In 2002 and 2010, Argentina again beat Nigeria by identical 1-0 scores, and again beat them 3-2 in 2014.  So while Argentina owns Nigeria in the World Cup, it hasn’t been easy and Nigeria has managed to come out of the group on multiple occasions.

The big story of this group of course is Argentina’s quest for its major title since 1993, which is the year they last won Copa America.  In that time span, they have lost a World Cup Final (2014), four Copa Americas (2004, 2007, 2015, 2016), and the Confederation Cup (2005).

Will this be Leo Messi’s last run ?  The prevailing opinion is yes. After retiring for a brief period of time after the 2014 World Cup final, Messi came back and was pivotal in Argentina’s miserable qualifying run, including netting three goals in a 3-1 victory over Ecuador to clinch the third of fourth qualifying spots in CONMEBOL. If not for that victory, Argentina would have to had qualified via the playoff system. Instead that spot went to Peru.

Argentina is loaded with as much talent as all the big favorites. They are solid in the back (Otamendi, Rojo, Mascherano, Mercado), possess a decent corpse of midfielders (Lanzini, Biglia, Banega, DiMaria), but their forwards are their forte (Dybala, Messi, Aguero, Higuaín). Their one weak spot is at goalkeeper, where Caballero (their likely #1) is a second goalkeeper at Chelsea.

The problem for Sampaoli has always been assembling the right kind of team around Messi. Whereas at Barca Messi has always relied on the great playmaking of Busquets, Xavi and Iniesta, no Argentinian has been able to perform at that level. Messi will need Banega and Biglia to step up and play the best football of their careers.

With a still very vibrant, dynamic, and highly motivated Messi, Argentina will get out of this group. The question will be can they go all the way ? With the absence of a top keeper, Argentina is a likely finalist, and unfortunately, a runner-up yet again.

Croatia has two of the best midfielders in the world in Modric (Real Madrid) and Rakitic (Barcelona), and a talented striker in Mandzukic (Juventus). The only issue for Croatia’s golden generation is that they average over 30 years of age and that can spell disaster at the World Cup level, especially if they get off on the wrong foot in their inaugural game against Nigeria.

iceland_chant

Iceland burst on the scene with their victory of England in the Euro 2016 Round of 16. During the World Cup qualifying campaign they continued their streak of success with their victories over Ireland, Turkey, and fellow group teams Croatia. They have earned the moniker as the giant-killers and are no longer an unknown quantity. Plus, their fans have a killer clap/chant that has made the team even more famous.

Iceland are highly dependent on two ‘sons (Gunnarsson and Sigurdsson), the teams two most important players.  They have been plagued by injuries in the lead up to the Cup. If they are not fully fit, this team will not be able to compete with the others in this group.  Another factor is that, since they are now a known quantity, their rivals have had time to study their style and tactics. Does Iceland have other individual resources required to overcome any injury to the big two ?  Probably not. Their first game against Argentina is key. If they can stay close they may be competitive; if not they will not survive in this highly competitive group.

Prediction: Argentina, Nigeria (again)

Group E – Brazil, Switzerland, Costa Rica, Serbia

Brazil have some of the world’s best soccer players. The country has always counted as players as one of its exports, with estimates of over 15,000 playing abroad. Can Brazil recover from the most humiliating defeat in its history, the 7-1 thrashing at the hands of Germany in the 2014 semi-final, and finally restore itself to its rightful place in the hegemony of world soccer ?   It may not be in the Group stage against inferior rivals, but when it faces another powerhouse, will it be able to forget the past ? That’s the question that is on everyone’s mind at the outset of the competition.

There are many new players in this squad. I became a huge fan of Philippe Coutinho while he was at Liverpool, mostly impressed by his fine playmaking and his ability to rocket shots from well beyond the 18-yard line. He is the one player that I think will shine in this tournament, my sleeper if you will. Paired with William as the other attacking mid and buttressed by Casemiro and Fernandinho makes this the best midfield in the tournament, perhaps even better than Spain’s.

Up front, the dynamic Douglas Costa and Neymar make for a dynamic duo.  In the back, Thiago Silva is solid in the center, while the Marcelo whirlwind style makes him the best left back in the world.  Brazil’s traditional weakness has been the goalkeeper. This year they have two excellent stoppers in Alisson (AS Roma) and Ederson (Man City).

On paper, there is no weakness on this team. It really is up to them to get out of their heads and conquer the daemons from four years ago and show the world it is capable of the beautiful game once again.

Switzerland has two of the greatest names in football: Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaquiri. Add AC Milan defender Ricardo Rodriguez to the mix, and if we just used their first names, this team starts to resemble Brazil, at least in name only.  The Swiss struggled to qualify, having to beat Northern Ireland in the playoff. But they are here, and the guess is that they’re good enough individually to take second in this group but not go much further than that.

Costa Rica made the final 8 last time, a feat that will be hard to duplicate again, for various reasons. Both Joe Campbell and Bryan Ruiz, two of the Ticos best scorers are coming back from injury and their form is still to be determined.  Their other forward, Marco Ureña, has been on fine form for LAFC in MLS. Costa Rica can count on one of the world’s best keepers in Keylor Navas, but will their defense be as disciplined as they were four years ago, when they led all teams with their offside trap ? I will root for Minnesota United defender Francisco Calvo and hope that he does well. In a tough group, the ageing Ticos will fall just short.

Serbia is led by the defenders Alexander Kolarov (AS Roma) and ex-Chelsea Branislav Ivanović, midfielder Nemanja Matić (Man United), and of Nikola Milinković (Fiorentina). They are a talented and strong and experienced squad. They are led by Mladen Krstajic, who has only been with the team since October of 2017.  They will struggle against all three teams they face and will not make it out of the group.

Predictions: Brazil, Switzerland

Group F – Germany, Mexico, South Korea, Sweden

Mexico and Germany have quite a World Cup history. Germany has been the Azteca’s nemesis for generations. In the 1986 World Cup quarter-final in blistering Monterrey, Mexico severely outplayed Germany over 120 minutes but couldn’t score. They wilted in the penalty kick shoot-out. Germany went all the way to the final before losing to Maradona’s Argentina 3-2 in a most thrilling final.  In France 1998, Mexico’s held a 1-0 lead until the 80th minute before Germany struck twice on set pieces to vanquish Mexico yet again. Two of Mexico’s loses in the fourth game have thus come at the hands of the Germans. At least this time they meet in the group stage so Mexico can’t be eliminated with a loss. But in order to escape the group, Mexico can’t afford a slip-up of the kind they had last year’s Confederation Cup, where their A team fell to Germany’s B squad by a shocking 4-1 scoreline. If they do, its curtain for Mexico.  But as is their custom of playing the best teams evenly at the World Cup, if they can get one point from this key game, Mexico should be able to advance. If they can beat Germany then its better but I wouldn’t count on that.

Mexico’s biggest issue is that their talent pool is actually too deep and their manager Carlos Osorio hasn’t fielded the same lineup twice in over 31 games now. He switches the keepers every game which is simply unheard of in World Cup qualifying. If he sticks with Memo Ochoa, who I think was one of the best keepers last go round, Mexico will be well served.

At the back, Mexico has four players from European clubs: Diego Reyes (Porto), Carlos Salcedo (Eintracht Frankfurt), Layun (Sevilla), and Hector Moreno (Real Sociedad). In midfield, Marcos Fabian (Eintracht Frankfurt), Andres Guardado (Betis), Hector Herrera (Porto), and the dos Santos brothers (LA Galaxy) provide both quality and vast experience.

Most surprisingly, Mexico chose to take 7 forwards, with the most famous being Chicharito (West Ham) and Carlos Vela (LAFC), but Raul Jimenez (Benfica) and Hirving Lozano (PSV) can also strike fear into any defense.  The sheer number of forwards is an interesting choice, one that indicates that Osorio will employ an attacking philosophy in this World Cup. Against Sweden and South Korea, that is a good strategy; against W. Germany it could, however, be very costly.  But having lost only 7 of 45 games under his watch, Osorio has a record that shows he knows what he is doing.

Mexico has nobody to fear in the group stage. Other teams should fear it. Mexico’s issues have always been in that fourth game. Their inability to play the famous ‘quinto partido’ (5th game) since 1986 is what most motivates this team. I am one fan who will ardently be hoping that they can finally get the monkey off of their back.

What more needs to be said about Germany other than, along with Brazil, they are the  top favorites to win it all. Germany is so good that they won the Confederations Cup last year with their second-tier squad, made up mostly of young players. No other country, other than Brazil and Spain, have the vast resources to be able to field two World Cup quality teams.

The Germans are solid at all levels. They boast two World quality keepers: Manuel Nauer (Bayern Munich) and Marc-André Ter Stegen (Barcelona). They have the Bayern Munich defense (Boateng, Hummerls, Kimmich). At midfield they are immensely talented with the elegant Kroos (Real Madrid), the young and dynamic Julian Draxler (Paris St. Germain), veterans Sami Khedira (Juventus) and Memet Ozil (Arsenal), and Marco Reus (Borussia Dortmund). Surprisingly (or not), Joachim Lowe chose only three forwards, amongst them experienced goal-scorer Thomas Muller (Bayern Munich) and Mario Gomez (Sttutgart).

The other huge plus for this team has been the stability of its leadership, where Joachim Lowe has been the manager for 12 years now. Although the playing style has changed, the fact that Germany has had the same manager for that long is extremely beneficial.

Having said all of that, having fully regaled plaudits upon this team, could it be that Germany are  due for a letdown ? Probably not in the group stage or the Round of 16, but after that, it does become extremely difficult to defend the crown.

Sweden’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s retired from international football last year but Sweden managed a lackluster 1-0 two legged playoff win over Italy to get in to the World Cup. Without their superstar, the team did not impress in winning an equally struggling Italian team. They have two aging forwards (Marcus Berg and Oila Toivonen), a very good midfielder Emil Forsberg. They play a 4-4-2 and are very direct in their attack, so don’t expect a lot of technical wizardry from this team. Although Mexico are much better man for man, this is the kind of team (hard, tall European) that give the Aztecas fits. If Mexico can beat Sweden, they will move on; if they can’t they may not make it out.

South Korea is an unknown quantity. Only four of their players play outside of Japan and South Korea. The most famous of those is Tottenham’s Son Heung-min (Tottenham), who proved last year to be a lethal striker. South Korea is always very well organized, super fit and super fast. They tied Spain and Mexico 1-1 in 1994 and Spain in 1998 respectively. In the 2002 World Cup co-hosted by South Korea and Japan they made it to the final four. I expect them to be competitive but not to get out of this group.

Predictions: Germany, Mexico

Group G – England, Belgium, Panama, Tunisia

Belgium has to be the prohibitive favorite in this group. Belgium’s Golden Generation is  composed of proven players such as Eden Hazard and Thibaut Courtois (Chelsea), Romelo Lukaku and Fellaini (ManUnited), Kevin DeBruyne and Vincent Kompany (Man City) and Jan Vertongen (Tottenham).  That core is strong up the middle as any team in the world and features a player Hazard who plays the entire field as well as anyone (are you listening Costa Rica manager ?). The only Red Devils only difficult game will be against the Three Lions. The fact that all of Belgium’s stars play in England will make this game seem like an EPL super darby, and rival only Spain vs Portugal as the marquee matchup of the first round.

If you watch a lot of English Premier League football, England’s team will be instantly recognizable. The defense has Phil Jones and Ashley Young (Man U), Gary Cahill (Chelsea), John Stones and Kyle Walker (Man City). At midfield, Raheem Sterling and Fabian Delph (Man City), Eric Dier and Dele Ali (Tottenham), and Jesse Lingard (Man U).  Up front, the names are more commonplace: Vardy (Leicester), Harry Kane (Tottenham), Marcus Rashford (Man U), and Danny Welbeck (Arsenal). The biggest name missing is Joe Hart, previously England’s #1 keeper, who was left out. Still, the nod will probably go to Stoke City’s Jack Butland, who had a marvelous season after coming back from a foot injury.

England has great balance between experience and youth and have all the players necessary to not only make a run but to win the World Cup. The EPL is the world’s most competitive league and also one of its most diverse, featuring top level players from everywhere on the planet. It is also one of the most prominent with matches broadcast around the world. The question will be how good are the English players within that league. Are they as good as everyone else that plays there ? They will have a chance to prove that they truly are now.

Panama qualified for the World Cup on a combination of goals late in CONCACAF qualifying. Roman Torres scored in extra time in San Jose to qualify his country for its first ever World Cup at the same time that the US were losing to Trinidad and Tobago. They will be competitive initially but then will be overwhelmed by the vastly superior talent of the two powerhouses.

Tunisia will face a similar fate. Seven of their players play in La Ligue with most others playing in Saudi Arabia or Tunisia. Without any presence in the top leagues, this team will succumb to the giants. It may not be pretty as it happens.

Predictions: Belgium, England

Group H – Colombia, Japan, Poland, Senegal

This group is tricky. While Poland and Colombia are the two obvious favorites, one cannot completely count out the other two teams.

Senegal qualified for the World Cup after beating South Africa 2-0 after FIFA overturned their previous loss to the same team due to match fixing. Every single one of their players are in the top European leagues with the exception of their #1 keeper, Khadim Ndiyae. Liverpool’s Sadio Manne is their best known player but far from their only with quality. This is a fast and athletic team and like Mexico, they carry seven forwards, which would suggest an attacking mentality. Can they repeat their success of 2002, when Senegal stunned France and made a run to the quarterfinals ?  I think they will stun Poland and make it out of the group, but will lose in the Round of 16.

Colombia finished 4th in the CONMEBOL qualifying, the world’s longest qualifying and possibly most rigorous campaign featuring 18 games. This team is battle tested and talented, and returns many quality players from the last World Cup including Cuadrado (Juventus) and James Rodriguez (BayernMunich), winner of last World Cup’s golden boot, at midfield, David Ospina (Arsenal) in goal, and Radamel Falcao (Monaco). Their entire defense is based at European teams and is equipped to handle the pressure at this level of play. The Cafeteros will definitely exit this group, but it will be a struggle. The game against Senegal should be a dandy.

Poland qualified number one in a very weak UEFA Group E. They are a strong team up front with Robert Lewandosky (Bayern Munich) a proven goal scorer who scored 16 goals in qualification. But four of their defenders – Lukasz Piszczek, Kamil Glik, Michal Pazdan, Maciej Rybus – are all aged over 30. This will make them vulnerable against speedy and energetic sides like Senegal and Japan.

Japan dominated AFC Group B qualifying taking the top place over Saudi Arabia and Australia. Japan has many players in Europe and arguably their best midfield Keisuke Honda in Mexico ( Pachuca). They are a fast technical team that cannot be overlooked.  Japan, like Spain, recently promoted their technical director (Akira Nishino) to the job as coach. Without much time to work with the team, Japan’s success will be limited. They do not, after all, possess Spain’s level of talent.

Predictions: Colombia, Senegal

 

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s