It might still be six months until the World Cup kicks off in Russia on June 14th, but tournament fever is now well and truly upon us following the draw at the Kremlin Palace on Friday. The likes of Diego Maradona, Gordon Banks and Cafu were present to decide the fate of the 32 countries, with a couple of very interesting groups being produced.
Being an Englishman, the only place I can possibly start is Group H, which includes The Three Lions, Belgium, Panama and Tunisia. For me, this is perhaps as close to the perfect group as Gareth Southgate could have asked for. It’s not a draw such as that in 2010 that leaves England as the overwhelming favourites or one that could see complacency set in, but equally it is not a draw such as that in 2014 that sees them facing a very tricky test to qualify. It is somewhere in the middle of those two scenarios, which is the perfect outcome. There is nothing to suggest that Tunisia and debutants Panama will provide a major threat, with both nations lacking star players, and England should beat both teams with relative ease. A Belgium squad featuring Premier League showmen Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku is obviously where the danger lies, but we have seen how matches against the best countries in the world often make England better their own game. Ultimately, we’ll probably finish as group runners-up to Roberto Martinez’s men, but realistically that’s a wild guess as hyping up England’s chances in the past has only gone on to be proven to be the wrong idea.
With no overriding contender for the Group of Death, Portugal against Spain in Group B looks to be the tastiest fixture of the first round. The 2010 World Cup winners seem to be slight favourites, but we must not forget that Portugal surprised us all by lifting the Euro 2016 trophy last summer, and any team containing Cristiano Ronaldo is a dangerous one. The near neighbours meet in the first round of games in what is likely to be an early group decider. Before the draw was made, Morocco were being tipped by many pundits to be the dark horses at the tournament as they are led by Hervé Renard, the man who earned plaudits after winning the African Cup of Nations with both Zambia (2012) and the Ivory Coast (2015). However, this tough draw may reign in those expectations. Iran are actually ranked higher than Morocco by FIFA, but seem to be favourites to prop up the group.
Despite containing Argentina, Group D could be the tightest in the draw, with Lionel Messi & co finding qualification difficult and throwing away a two goal lead to lose 4-2 to Nigeria in a recent friendly. They will meet the African nation again in Russia, and the two sides are my tips to make it out of this group due to the attacking quality both sides possess. The aforementioned Messi is joined the likes of Sergio Aguero, Pablo Dybala and Angel di Maria in a top heavy squad, whilst Alex Iwobi and Kelechi Iheanacho (both only 21 years old) make Nigeria a very exciting prospect. But I did say this group will be tight, and Iceland and Croatia will both provide tough competition. The former of course knocked England out of Euro 2016 and have reached their first ever World Cup after winning their qualifying group. Croatia finished runners-up in that group before easing past Greece in the play-offs, but a midfield containing Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Ivan Perisic should never be written off.
Next we come to Group F, headed up by reigning champions Germany and the favourites to become the first nation to retain the trophy since Brazil did so in 1962. It’s unsurprising, considering that their squad is packed full of quality from Manuel Neuer in goal to Thomas Muller upfront, via Mats Hummels and Toni Kroos in defence and midfield respectively – you know there are plenty of other players worthy of a mention as well. Behind Joachim Low’s side, there could be a close battle for second spot. Having reached the round of 16 at each of the last six World Cups, Mexico are probably the favourites. Without Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Sweden are much more together as a team having qualified for their first World Cup since 2006, doing so by showing real quality to get through a group containing France and Holland before beating Italy in the play-offs. South Korea are the outsiders, with the national team not looking in the best of shape following a stuttering qualifying campaign. Uli Stielike was sacked as manager in June and replaced by youth coach Shin Tae-yong, whilst Tottenham’s Son Heung-min provides their main (and perhaps only) threat.
Brazil breezed through qualifying in South America and will also be one of the favourites in Russia as they look to bounce back from their humiliating 7-1 semi-final exit to Germany on home soil in 2014. In Neymar, Gabriel Jesus, Roberto Firmino, Douglas Costa and Willian, La Selecao have the most potent attack in the world and could score goals for fun in a relatively kind Group E. Switzerland are probably the best of the rest in the sense that they may have the best chance of stopping Brazil’s quality up top, due to their solid defence that includes Juventus’ Stephan Lichtsteiner and AC Milan’s Ricardo Rodríguez. Serbia topped their qualification group ahead of Wales and the Republic of Ireland, but have an ageing squad and no permanent manager after Slavoljub Muslin fell out with the FA president and lost his job. Finally, Costa Rica will find it difficult to recreate their 2014 heroics. The stars from that team, Bryan Ruiz and Joel Campbell amongst them, remain though, and a last 16 place is not beyond them.
It’s probably time we talked about hosts Russia, who will kick-off the tournament against Saudi Arabia in Group A on June 14. They are the two lowest ranked nations at the time of writing, making that an intriguing opening fixture. Whilst it should become clear why the Middle Eastern nation, currently on their tenth manager in seven years, are placed so lowly, the Russians are likely to fare slightly better with the likes of Alan Dzagoev and Aleksandr Kokorin in attack. Uruguay will be the group favourites after qualifying automatically in South America for the first time in 28 years – Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani could potentially have field days against less than impressive Group A defences. Egypt too, will fancy their chances in their first World Cup since 1990. Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah, currently the Premier League’s top scorer, will be key to their hopes.
Group H is worth keeping an eye on as it is of course where a round of 16 opponent will come from for England if we make it out of our group. After a very impressive qualifying campaign in which they won eight out of ten games and star man Robert Lewandowski netted a record-breaking 16 goals, Poland were the top seeds but would have hoped for a kinder group. Colombia will be aiming to at least match their 2014 run to the quarter-finals, with all eyes in their squad turning to James Rodriguez, who won the golden boot at the tournament, and Radamel Falcao, who missed it through injury. Likewise, Senegal will also be pinning their hopes on two key attacking talents, Sadio Mane and Keita Balde, in only their second ever World Cup. Virtually the opposite can be said for Japan, whose most notable names Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa and Shinji Okazaki have all been dropped by manager Vahid Halilhodzic in recent fixtures. The question remains whether they’ll return to the fold next summer, and if they don’t, how much that will impact upon Japan’s chances.
Many people have described Group C as the least inspiring of the lot, so it’s little surprise that I’ve come to it last. France are obviously the stand-out team, with an influx of talent making it’s way through the Les Bleus ranks in the last couple of years, culminating in a European Championships final appearance on home soil in 2016. They’ll hope to go one better on the world stage, and have as much chance as anyone with the likes of Antoine Griezmann, Kylian Mbappe and Ousmane Dembele leading the line. Fellow Europeans Denmark lead the chasing pack, spearheaded by Tottenham’s Christian Eriksen who scored a hat-trick in the play-offs as his country beat the Republic of Ireland 5-1. Peru are the second highest ranked team in the group, but are very much an unknown entity, having not competed in a World Cup since 1982. Much like France, they are a very youthful side, but the most recognisable name is 33-year-old Jefferson Farfan, formerly of PSV and Schalke but now at Lokomotiv Moscow, so he’ll feel right at home next summer. Australia were the final team to qualify for the tournament so it seems only right that this piece finishes with the Socceroos, who are still perhaps slightly over-reliant on a now nearly 38-year-old Tim Cahill. They had to work hard in qualifying, winning play-offs against both Syria and Honduras, which will stand them in good stead, but questions remain over their true quality. Huddersfield’s Aaron Mooy and Celtic’s Tom Rogic provide hope from midfield.
Olly’s Instant Group Predictions