World Cup 2018 Preview (Part One)

1,432 days after Mario Gotze’s volley nestled into the back of the Argentinian net, the twenty-first edition of the FIFA World Cup will kick off in the Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow. In spite of all the talk of bribery, the fall of Sepp Blatter’s regime, condemnation over the ingrained culture of racism at games, concerns over hooliganism and the spectre of VAR, it’s still near-on impossible not to get a little giddy when the beginning of a World Cup approaches. Will we be treated to the festival of football served up in Brazil four years ago? Or hours of relentless droning not witnessed since South Africa 2010, when Mark Lawrenson last provided co-comms on a World Cup final. Will Russia 2018 give us the kind of iconic moment that Zinedine Zidane delivered in 2006’s final? Will the smaller nations provide us with the seismic shocks of Senegal, South Korea and Turkey in 2002? Perhaps France might repeat their triumph of ’98 or, more likely, England will have the same kind of impact they offered at USA ’94. Ahead of the tournament we’ve tried our best to size up each nation, pick out a player to keep your eye on, and made fanciful predictions that will, undoubtedly, leave us red-faced come July 15th. So, without further ado, here’s the TLF World Cup 2018 Preview (Part One).

 

Group A

Group A

Russia

Russia owe South Africa a debt of gratitude. Not only were the 2010 World Cup hosts trailblazers in exchanging cash for votes ahead of the host selection back in 2004, but their national team also became the first host nation to exit a World Cup in the first round. That takes the pressure off Stanislav Cherchesov’s side somewhat coming into the tournament, though there are no guarantees they’ll match Bafana Bafana’s four points from 2010’s group stage. Things haven’t exactly gone to plan in the last decade for Russia, after a successful run to the semi-finals of the 2008 European Championships under Guus Hiddink, a poor showing at Euro 2012 did for Dick Advocaat and Fabio Capello was brought in as the man to shape Russian football in time for their own World Cup. No wins and just two goals in Brazil four years ago was a disappointing return, and by the time they headed to France in 2016, Capello had picked up his last payslip. One point and two goals from the Euros were overshadowed by fan violence, particularly in the meeting with England, and Russia exited the competition in disgrace.

Leading up to the World Cup things haven’t improved a great deal – just three wins were recorded in 2017, none of which came against high-ranking sides – though last summer’s Confederations Cup at least showed Russia’s capability of hosting football’s biggest competition, even if they were dumped out at the group stage. Eyebrows were raised as December’s draw pitted them in the group with the lowest average FIFA ranking – 43.75 – though in fairness Russia themselves are dragging that average down; ranked 65th in the world ahead of the draw, they’re lowest ranked side in the competition. An opening game against Saudi Arabia (the second lowest ranked side at the tournament) will give us some idea of how Russia will get on this summer, before progressively tougher games against Egypt and Uruguay will provide sterner tests for a limited side. They’re unlikely to capture many hearts, though they’ll be more than happy if they can capture four points.

One to Watch: Fyodor Smolov
Though Russia don’t possess the devastating attacking capabilities of Uruguay or Egypt, they do at least have an experienced striker who knows where the net is. Smolov comes into the tournament off another decent season with Krasnodor where, for the third season in a row, he struck double figures, despite being limited to 24 appearances. At 6’1 Smolov offers a threat in the air, while also being a bastard for a long-ranger, both of which should come in handy when chances are at a premium. With five goals the former Dynamo Moscow man was Russia’s top scorer in 2017, and eyes will be on him to power the host nation out of the group.

Prediction: Group Stage
It’s never nice to see a host nation leave the competition early, even one ruled by a maniac, but Russia may take some comfort in the knowledge that it probably won’t be as humiliating as their predecessors exit four years ago. Unfortunately the hosts look weak in all the wrong areas, and though they’ll fancy getting a result in the opening game, Egypt and Uruguay may have too much for them. If the latter are already through to the second round the dynamic of Russia’s final game could dramatically change. But if ifs and buts were vodka and nuts, we’d all have an unusual cocktail.

 

Uruguay

Having missed two of the three parties in the 90s Uruguay became the perennial last-gasp men, earning qualification to four successive tournaments through the back door between 2002 and 2014 at the expense of Jordan, Costa Rica and Australia twice. This time around they stormed qualifying, finishing second behind Brazil in the grueling eighteen match CONMEBOL campaign, notching convincing victories against Colombia and Chile on the way. Having made such a big impression by finishing fourth in 2010, the biggest impression in Brazil was left by Luis Suarez’s teeth in Giorgio Chiellini’s shoulder as the decision of La Celeste’s star man to skip lunch came back to, er, bite him. This time though, it could all be different. Suarez has not only taken a break from plunging his considerable gnashers into the opposition, but has also enhanced his reputation as one of the deadliest strikers in Europe, while partner Edinson Cavani continues to rip Ligue 1 a new one having scored 28 in 32 for Paris Saint-Germain despite having to contend with another massive ego with a hairstyle.  There are question marks over Óscar Tabárez’s ageing squad (though at 71 the boss is no spring chicken), who, with an average age of 28.7, were the fourth oldest in World Cup qualifying, but one man’s age is another’s experience. The South Americans are a wily bunch, and with this likely to be the last chance for the key members of this squad to reach a World Cup final, have no doubts that winning friends in Russia will be bottom of the priority list.

One to Watch:
Rodrigo Bentancur
The future of Uruguayan football. At eighteen years of age Bentancur was a regular in the double-winning Boca Juniors side, and last summer Juventus splashed €9.5 million on the youngster, days after his 20th birthday. Though his role has largely been bit-part this season, making 18 of his 27 appearances from the bench, the midfielder has shown he can be a key part of Max Allegri’s plans for the future. A defensive midfielder that’s both comfortable in the tackle and capable of spraying the ball around, Bentancur is the figurehead of a clutch of players leading the charge for the next Uruguayan generation. Having played the majority of both games in the China Cup in March, its clear Tabárez is keen on  the young man, though whether he’ll be called upon from the start in Russia is up for debate.

Prediction: Semi-Finals (Fourth Place)
If everything goes to form then their route won’t be easy, but Uruguay will be expected to top the group and head into the knockouts full of confidence. The likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Paul Pogba will stand in their way, but the quality and experience throughout the team will serve Uruguay well. Provided Luis eats his Cheerios on matchday.

 

Egypt

There are a select few sides in this year’s World Cup whose hopes hinge on the form of a single player. Egypt are one of them. The Pharoahs sealed their place in Russia back in October with a dramatic victory over Congo, with one Mohamed Salah scoring a penalty in the 94th minute to snatch victory. That was the Liverpool forward’s fifth goal of the campaign – Egypt scored a total of eight, and Salah sat out the dead rubber in Ghana on the final matchday. Now, like England ahead of seemingly every international tournament from 1998 to 2010, Egypt are being made to sweat over the fitness of the African Footballer of the Year after Sergio Ramos swapped the dark arts for a straightforward arm bar in the Champions League final. Beyond Salah there is still plenty of talent in Egypt’s squad. Abdallah Said, an attacking midfielder who plies his trade in Finland, was Egypt’s second highest scorer in qualification with three, while fans of Premier League relegation will be familiar with Ahmed Hegazi and Ramadan Sobhi. Mohamed El Neny is also a key cog in midfield, and won’t be hindered by playing alongside Granit Xhaka. Even so, if they’re to progress Salah must start, particularly in the crucial second game against Russia where progression to the second round may well be decided.

One to Watch:Essam El-Hadary
The scenes of jubilation as Egypt secured their qualification for Russia were punctuated by shots of goalkeeper Essam El-Hadary shedding tears of joy. This was the veteran’s sixth qualification campaign, and though he and Egypt had come close in 2010 (eventually losing a playoff against fierce rivals Algeria), this marked the North Africans’ first successful campaign since 1990. At 44, El-Hadary could be excused for thinking it may never happen, but now he’ll captain his country at a World Cup finals, simultaneously becoming the oldest player to appear at the tournament, succeeding Faryd Mondragón, Colombia’s reserve ‘keeper from 2014. Having conceded just four goals during qualifying, and with four African Cup of Nations titles to his name, the Al-Taawoun stopper arrives in good form and excellent pedigree. Provided Salah and co can do the business up front, Héctor Cúper can be sure he’s got a safe pair of hands at the back.

Prediction:  Second Round
With the caveat that Mohamed Salah is available, Egypt pose a real threat going forward, and it’s difficult to see Russia or Saudi Arabia contending with his pace and trickery. At the back Egypt look solid, so expect all three group games to be tight affairs. In all likelihood Cúper’s side will face the winners of Group B in the second round which, by our calculations, will be Spain. Cue Salah v Ramos: Round Two. Unfortunately it’s hard to see the Egyptians progressing much further from that point.

 

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia return to the World Cup after a 12 year absence looking to register their first win on the world’s biggest stage since Saeed Al-Owairan in 1994 and all that. The Green Falcons secured their qualification with a 1-0 win over Japan in Jeddah in the final group game of the qualifying campaign, finishing ahead of Australia on goal difference in a group of serious mixed ability, with winless Thailand providing a whipping boy, while both Iraq and the United Arab Emirates offered stiff opposition, but ultimately the three best teams won through. Away from the World Cup, Saudi Arabia’s recent history has been far from glittering, with a group stage exit at this season’s Arabian Gulf Cup the latest disappointment, following on from elimination at the same stage in 2015’s Asian Cup. On the plus side, they finished  joint highest goalscorers in qualifying with Japan, and are yet to see a game with fewer than two goals so far in 2018 – what they lack in efficiency they more than make up for in entertainment. Dreams of progressing past the first round are likely to be no more than that – avoiding a hammering akin to the 8-0 loss against Germany in 2002 may well prove sufficient.

One to Watch: Yahya Al-Shehri
Coach Juan Antonio Pizzi sensationally dropped the Green Falcons star player Nawaf Al-Abed when naming his final squad, after the playmaker and penalty maestro spent the second half of the season struggling with injuries. In his stead, it will fall to Al-Nassr winger Al-Shehri to provide the spark for Saudi Arabia. The 27 year old has earned the nickname ‘The Arabian Messi’ for his dazzling footwork and bamboozling of opposition defenders, and was part of the La Liga experiment in January, as the Saudi Arabian FA struck a deal with the Spanish league to sent a raft of players over to gain experience of an elite level league. Though never thrust into the first team at Leganes, Al-Shehri played his part in getting the Saudis to the tournament, scoring five goals in qualifying, including the winner against Iraq. He’ll find the going a little tougher against the likes of Diego Godin, but if Pizzi’s side are to make their mark on the tournament it’s likely that Al-Shehri will be involved.

Prediction: Group Stage
It’s difficult to see where Saudi Arabia will pick up points this summer, with Uruguay and Egypt likely to have too much quality for them, while opening night jitters against the hosts are a real possibility. If, though, they’re able to snatch a surprise result in that first game (and we’ve seen plenty of those), suddenly its all to play for. We reckon they’ll be heading home empty-handed.

Group B

 Group B

Spain

EDIT: Since this preview was written, the Spanish FA have taken the bold step of sacking Julen Lopetegui two days before their first World Cup group game. In light of this certain caveats must be added, with Fernando Hierro’s track record as a manager limited to say the least. Regardless, the Spanish squad is still one of the strongest in the competition, and if Hierro is able to harness strength through adversity, they still look good to make the semi-finals. 

On the 7th October 2006, the Spanish players trudged off the pitch at the Råsundastadion in Solna having been beaten 2-0 by Sweden in a qualifier for the 2008 European Championships. The significance of the result would only become clear later as, having been beaten in their previous qualifier by Northern Ireland it looked, at the time, to leave Luis Aragonés’ chances of qualifying for the tournament in Austria and Switzerland in the balance. That was the end of the beginning, however, as Spain would not lose back to back games for the next seven years and eight months, a run of 109 that saw just one competitive defeat along the way (three if you count the Confederations Cup), and a haul of two Henri Delauney trophies and one World Cup. That run came to a catastrophic end in Brazil as Arjen Robben and his Netherlands teammates trampled all over Iker Casillas’ reputation in a 5-1 victory, before Chile picked over Spain’s lifeless corpse to eliminate the holders at the first hurdle. A below par showing at Euro 2016 only further fanned the flames of doubt surrounding Spain’s new generation, but they arrive in Brazil with renewed hope of returning to those days of dominance. A draw away at Italy was the only blot on the Spanish copybook during qualification, and they finished with the third best attack and joint best defence across UEFA. An eye-catching 6-1 victory over Argentina in March had Spain’s critics sitting up to take notice, and with old sparring partners Portugal providing the sternest test of the group, Spain will fancy their chances of comfortably progressing into the knockouts. Though two of the axis of footballing mecca in Xavi and Alonso may no longer be gracing the international stage, Andres Iniesta has joined the squad for his swansong, and Julen Lopetegui Fernando Hierro will still able to call upon the world’s best goalkeeper in David De Gea, a fearsome central defensive partnership in Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique, and a host of attacking talent.

One to Watch: Isco
The quality possessed by Real Madrid attacker Isco has never been in doubt, but over the past eighteen months he’s stepped up to become the natural heir to Cristiano Ronaldo’s throne. Seven goals and seven assists in La Liga this season is no mean return, particularly for a team that struggled domestically, while capping off the season with his fourth Champions League medal since joining the Spanish giants five years ago will be very pleasing indeed for the Andalusian. His importance to the national team is clear too, having finished the qualifying campaign with five goals (the joint highest for Spain, alongside Diego Costa, Alvaro Morata and David Silva), he then stole the limelight in the demolition of Argentina with an exquisite hat-trick. If Spain are to hit the heights of 2010 this summer, then expect Isco to be heavily involved.

Prediction: Semi-finals (Third)
Undoubtedly better than the ageing side that bombed so spectacularly in Brazil, though arguably not quite as complete as the 2010 vintage, expect Spain to perform in line with their collective ability this summer. They’ve got the attacking talent to brush smaller sides aside, but question marks over their resolve when the going gets tough still remain. A semi-final would represent an excellent tournament for Lopetegui Hierro, particularly given the hoo-har in the lead-up.

 

Portugal

Portugal are the current holders of the European Championships. They qualified for the World Cup with nine wins from ten, and a goal difference of +28. Their squad includes one of the greatest footballers the game has seen. But…are they actually any good? They must be, surely…though they only won one game at the Euros in regulation time (and that was against a team with Hal Robson-Kanu up front), and had only the top two sides from each group progressed to the second round they’d have been eliminated. Plus their qualifying group contained Switzerland (who willfully kill old people), Hungary (who haven’t been very good since the 1950s), Faroe Islands, Latvia and Andorra. The antithesis of the Gauntlet event on ITV’s Gladiators. The Faroe Islands finished fourth for God’s sake.  I mean, they did manage to scrape past France to win their first piece of international silverware without the help of His Majesty, thanks to a scuffed toe-poke from a Swansea City reject – you can’t make this up. Still, when it comes to the World Cup, Portugal have failed to bother the latter stages in all but one tournament since 1966, as Ronaldo winked his way through to the semi-finals in 2006. The squad is decent, if not spectacular, and is full of players that have either played for West Ham (Jose Fonte), been on loan at West Ham (Joao Mario), almost signed for West Ham (William Carvalho) or will almost certainly be linked with West Ham post-World Cup (for the optimist: Andre Silva; for the realist: Pepe). They’ll almost certainly have enough to get out of the group, but prepare yourselves for some of Cristiano’s famously delicious tears.

One to Watch:Raphaël Guerreiro
Though the highlight of his injury-hit season may have been going viral with a goal in training, Guerreiro is still one of Portugal’s brightest talents. A miserable campaign blighted by a three month spell out after ankle surgery and three separate muscle injuries that kept him on the treatment table from January to April meant the full-back only made eight appearances at club level, but Fernando Santos still sees him as a vital part of Portugal’s first team. A menace going forwards, and comfortable in both defensive and attacking positions, Guerreiro’s flexibility is matched only by his ferocious left-foot. A stunning free-kick in the final of the Euros was picturesque enough to win the tournament, though on that occasion the dead ball specialist was thwarted by the woodwork. If he can convince the Holy One to delegate that particular responsibility this summer, the Dortmund man might find himself racking up the goals.

Prediction: Second Round
Too good to fall at the first hurdle, but unlikely to be good enough once they meet a side possessing real quality. Chances are they’ll meet Uruguay in the second round, with Suarez and Cavani licking their lips at the prospect of facing Jose Fonte and Pepe. For Ronaldo, this is surely his last World Cup, but he’ll know by now that he can’t do it all himself, no matter how many overhead kicks he attempts.

 

Morocco

Having tried (and failed) to win the hosting rights to this blasted tournament on four separate occasions since 1994, Morocco have decided to have a go at turning up at one again, having failed to qualify since France ’98. On that occasion they were knocked out by a late Norway goal against Brazil in the groups, and saw their key players shipped off to the West Midlands as punishment. In the intervening period Morocco have so often been the nearly men, finishing second in their qualification group on three occasions, and once missing out on goal difference. This time though, they had Herve Renard in the dugout and some kind of forcefield in front of goal – played six, conceded zero, and wrapped up their place at the World Cup with a 2-0 victory away at Ivory Coast. Unsurprisingly, they arrive with low expectations, sneaking into the FIFA Top 50 rankings ahead of the draw but predicted by few to make an impression. Captain Medhi Benatia is the cornerstone on which Renard has built his team, while Numancia ‘keeper Munir kept all six clean sheets in qualifying. There are goals in this Morocco side, though whether they have the creativity to carve open Spain or Portugal is questionable. Ayoub El Kaabi, top scorer in the squad with ten goals from eight caps, could emerge as a surprise breakthrough star, as one of only three players to play their club football domestically.

One to Watch:Hakim Ziyech
The talent factory at Ajax continues to churn out exciting youngsters, but even when it doesn’t, the Dutch giants just poach players from everyone else. Central midfielder Ziyech joins up with his fellow countrymen after a blistering season in Amsterdam, gobbling up nine goals and laying on an outrageous fifteen assists in thirty-four Eredivisie appearances. Having worked up the youth ranks at Heerenveen and impressed across two seasons with Twente, Ziyech made the switch to the Amsterdam Arena in 2016, and now looks likely to be on the move once again, with Liverpool and Roma both sniffing around. Fleet of foot and blessed with balance, as well as an eye for a killer pass, Renard will be hoping Ziyech is keen to impress his suitors over the summer, as he’ll hold the key to Morocco pulling off a shock.

Prediction: Group Stage
Given their aegis in qualifying, it’s difficult to see Morocco being on the end of a shoeing at any point in the competition, but more often than not that extra bit of quality will win out at this level. The meeting with Portugal on Matchday 2 will make or break Herve Renard’s tournament, but keeping Ronaldo quiet may be a bridge too far.

 

Iran

Much like Morocco, Iran stormed through qualifying with an almost impenetrable defence. It wasn’t until the final game, by which time Team Melli were already long qualified, that Syria finally breached Ali Beiranvand’s goal on a dramatic evening in Tehran. At the other end, their goal a game average was the lowest of any Asian side to qualify, with three goalless draws away from home (along with two single goal victories) providing perhaps the dullest qualifying campaign of any team at the tournament. This, then, is Queirozball.  The former Real Madrid manager is now into his seventh year as Iran’s head coach, and is yet to tap into the notion of free-flowing attacking football – in Brazil, Iran returned home having scored just once, while also combining with Nigeria to sap much of the joy from the opening round of fixtures. Their last World Cup win came on that balmy night in Lyon against the United States in 1998, if Carlos Queiroz can emulate that, then fans at home will be more than happy.

One to Watch: Sardar Azmoun
Iran may not score many goals, but when they do it’s usually young striker Sardar Azmoun on the scoresheet. During qualifying the 23 year old hit a preposterous eleven strikes in sixteen games, finishing joint third in the top scorer charts for AFC with Tim Cahill. At club level he’s slightly less prolific, but he will at least be familiar with his surroundings this summer, having moved to Rubin Kazan in 2012, and having spent three seasons with Rostov. Five goals and three assists from thirteen starts is far from shoddy, but his inability to nail down a starting berth suggests manager Kurban Berdyev has identified a weakness in Azmoun’s game that is rarely punished in the Asian qualifiers.

Prediction: Group Stage
Remortgage your house, empty your ISA, sell all your valuable belongings and lump everything on ‘Iran Team Goals – Under 0.5’. Obviously don’t do that, but also don’t expect Carlos Queiroz’s team to turn up and entertain. They know how to stifle teams and defend for their lives – and they were minutes away from a famous result against Argentina four years ago – but at the other end of the pitch they struggle for goals. Low scoring defeats, and possibly a goalless draw aside, don’t expect much from Team Melli.

 

Group C

Group C

France

Didier Deschamps’ side arrive in Russia with the heavy weight of expectation on young shoulders. With an average age of 26.4, Les Blues qualified with the fourth youngest squad of the tournament, and the exuberance of youth present in their current crop are a big reason for many tipping France to secure their second World Cup win. Benjamin Mendy, Samuel Umtiti, Nabil Fekir, Corentin Tolisso, Ousmane Dembele and Kylian Mbappe are all under 25 and go into the tournament with strong claims for starting berths, while experience is present in the forms of Adil Rami, Blaise Matuidi, and captain Hugo Lloris. Despite the obvious talent at their disposal, however, this France team are far from infallible. In qualifying they were held to an incredible goalless draw at home by Luxembourg, while Belarus also picked up 20% of their points from the campaign against Deschamps and co. A friendly defeat to Colombia in March – in which France relinquished a two goal lead in Saint-Denis – highlighted a defence that could best be described as ‘generous’, while the leaders that propelled the team in ’98 – Barthez, Blanc, Thuram, Zidane, Vieira, Deschamps et al – are no longer present in the French ranks. A meek exit in Brazil was followed by an unconvincing run to the European Championships final as hosts, and evidence that this team has the requisite steel to win an international tournament is yet to present itself.

 One to Watch: Presnel Kimpembe
Perhaps the least heralded of Les Bleus’ enfant prodige, this season marked Kimpembe’s transition from promising starlet to first team fixture at Paris Saint Germain, starting 27 of 38 games in Ligue 1 as the French giants conceded a measly 29 goals all season. Though currently behind Raphael Varane and Umititi in the pecking order for a place in the centre of Deschamps’ defence, Kimpembe will be knocking on the door should those shaky foundations come a cropper in the early stages of the competition. A defender in the classic continental mould, Kimpembe has displayed a wise head on young shoulders for his club this season, as well as his classy ability on the ball, and racked up a pass success rate of 95% across the season – not bad for a relative rookie.

 Prediction: Quarter Finals
Surely a case of too much, too soon for this young French side. The draw has been relatively kind, and they shouldn’t face too much bother getting out of the groups, but once things get serious in the knockouts, the pressure may start to show. We fancy them to get through to the quarters, but they could be eaten alive by a canny South American side in the latter stages.

 

Denmark

Allan Simonsen, Michael Laudrup, Jon Dahl Tomasson, Christian Eriksen. Spot the odd one out. Well, obviously its Tomasson, but for the purposes of this preview we’re talking about Eriksen, because at least the other three had a willing support cast with the quality to supplement their leading man. This Denmark side are far from vintage (though they will be wearing another sumptuous offering from Hummel) and beyond the Middlefart Magician, it’s difficult to see a great deal of danger in the squad. Somehow Nicklas Bendtner is still a thing, with 23 goals for Rosenborg enough for Norwegian head coach Åge Hareide to call him up – presumably Hareide only watches the Eliteserien. Clearly the manager’s forty game spell at Norwich City in the 1980s hasn’t clouded his judgement too much as Ipswich Town’s Jonas Knudsen also makes the squad, alongside fellow Championship defender Andreas Bjelland of Brentford. On the whole the Danes look like a squad who’ve just about passed their prime – though if tournament performance is anything to go by, it’s difficult to judge if they’d ever reached it in the first place – this is only their second World Cup since 2002, and they didn’t qualify for Euro 2016, when basically everyone was allowed in. Eriksen brought his one man show to Dublin in the playoffs to secure Denmark’s place in Russia, but expecting him to do it for a whole summer is a big ask.

One to Watch: Pione Sisto
Okay, suggesting that Denmark only have one decent player is reductive and, frankly, incorrect, but if Eriksen has an off-day during the tournament, Hareide will be hopeful that Celta Vigo’s wizard is able to step up. Sisto came to the attention of Europe’s great and good after an eye-catching performance for FC Midtjylland against Manchester United in the Europa League, and the following summer was snapped up by Vigo in a bid to break into La Liga’s top four. Collectively it hasn’t exactly gone to plan, but little blame can be laid at the door of the Ugandan born winger, who followed up his six goals from last season with another five this time out, as well as nine assists. In March his netted his first international goal against Panama, and has become a settled member of the first team under Hareide. Peru and France will do well to spend an afternoon brushing up on the Danes Plan B.

 Prediction: Group Stage
“Denmark are out?!” you’ll say, after hearing the news second-hand because you had to spend the afternoon of the Group C deciders looking at another friend’s newborn baby that you couldn’t care less about. It’s a baby. It doesn’t do anything. Then, after a moment’s reflection, you’ll say “yeah, makes sense”. It would be tremendous to see them pull off the kind of performance that Ireland didn’t see coming at the Aviva Stadium, but you just can’t see it coming, can you?

 

Peru

The biggest ‘will he, won’t he’ saga since Donald J Trump finally planted a sloppy kiss on the chops of Kim Jong-un in the dramatic season finale of Life As We Know It, Peru captain Paolo Guerrero was cleared to play at the World Cup after his ban for testing positive for cocaine was frozen until after the tournament. That decision is likely to have a huge bearing on how The Incas get on in Russia, with four of Guerrero’s five goals during qualifying having an impact on the final result. The lesser spotted Peruvians have been absent from the tournament since 1982, as the retirement of the iconic Teofilo Cubillas coincided with a downturn in fortunes for the South Americans, but this time round they squeezed past New Zealand in an Intercontinental Playoff following a dramatic climax to the CONMEBOL campaign, with a trademark flail from David Ospina gifting Peru a priceless equaliser against Colombia, which was enough to see them edge out Chile. Their preparation for the tournament has been far from testing, though a victory over Croatia back in March suggests there’s enough quality in the squad to give the second tier of sides in the tournament a game, while a win in Iceland four days later showed Ricardo Gareca’s team are no soft touches. Plus hopefully Nobby Solano will bring his trumpet.

One to Watch: Renato Tapia
Given Peru’s paucity at the back (they conceded 26 goals in qualifying – more than any other side that made it to Russia), Feyenoord’s destroyer Renato Tapia will need to be at the top of his game to protect a back four that are more alpaca than Alamo. Still yet to cement his place in the first team at De Kuip, Tapia did at least play his part in Feyenoord’s Eredivisie win in 2017, going on to make four appearances in the Champions League this season. Despite that lack of game time, Tapia has earned himself a reputation as a tough tackler, as well as looking comfortable in possession. He clearly has the trust of Gareca too, starting thirteen of Peru’s eighteen qualifiers, and scoring the winner against Ecuador.

 Prediction: Second Round
This stable’s only big enough for a few dark horses, so here’s the first. France’s frightening attack aside there’s little to fear for Peru in Group C, and they’ll certainly fancy their chances of taking points off Denmark on Matchday One. A win in that game and Gareca’s side will be well on their way. If they’re able to finish above France in the group, then the tournament might just open up for them, but we reckon they’ll finish second and probably meet old foes Argentina in the last sixteen.

 

Australia

Funny story about Australia. In 2005, the FFA applied to join the Asian Football Confederation, having spent most of the previous forty years bashing Polynesian islands up and down the pitch in the Oceania qualifying section, in order to play more competitive football and ultimately improve the national side. Later that year, having announced they would be leaving OFC ahead of the 2010 qualifying campaign, they beat Uruguay in an Intercontinental Playoff to book their place at the World Cup in Germany 2006. Under Guus Hiddink they went on to post their best performance at the tournament, being eliminated in the second round by a last minute, softly awarded Francesco Totti penalty for Italy and ending the tournament in 16th place. Four years later in South Africa, having qualified through the Asian section, they were knocked out of the group with four points, ending the tournament in 21st place. Last time out, in Brazil, they once again exited at the group stage, though this time with a big fat zero points, ending the tournament in 30th place. The best laid plans of Bruces and Sheilas often leave you looking like a drongo. Still, they’re back once again, and they’re still relying on Tim Cahill to score goals, which is a sorry state of affairs. They do possess a few players of genuine quality, mind – Aaron Mooy, Mile Jedinak and Mat Ryan have all graced the Premier League with esteem in recent memory, while Tom Rogic is one of Celtic’s outstanding players, as if that means anything anymore. Still, it’s difficult to see them finishing anywhere but bottom of the group.

One to Watch: Tomi Juric
If Tim Cahill isn’t in the mood to bother corner flags it might be left up to FC Luzern forward Juric to do the heavy lifting. After Cahill and Jedinak – who both scored large portions of their goals in the OFC qualifiers, so do they even count? – Juric has the best strike rate in the squad with roughly one in four, rising to one in three for his club this season. Juric also emerged as one of four top scorers in the AFC Third Round qualifiers, before Cahill stole the headlines in the playoffs. Much like the Millwall man, Juric thrives off crosses and operates best as a target man, which is lucky because you sense Australia won’t be seeing much of the ball on the deck during their group. Lumping the ball up to the big man is likely to be the Socceroos best chance of a little respite, never mind goals.

Prediction: Group Stage
They probably won’t be the worst team at the tournament. They might even pick up a point or two – stranger things have happened – but wallabies will fly before Australia make it out of this group. At least they’re a good laugh to have around, eh?

Group D

Group D

Argentina

One of the biggest questions on everybody’s lips ahead of the World Cup is: which Argentina are going to turn up? Will it be the one that introduced the world to a 19 year old Lionel Messi in Germany, whilst simultaneously blitzing Serbia and Montenegro and scoring the most iconic team goals of the 21st century? Or perhaps the shambles that barely qualified for South Africa under the tutelage of El Diego, the final roll of the dice for relevance in the modern game from a quintessentially  20th century icon, and proceeded to be humiliated by Germany’s young guns? Or will it be the school of 2014, many of whom will retain their place in Russia, who efficiently but, let’s face it, mind-numbingly plotted a path to the final thanks to their one two-in-a-generation talisman? Well probably a little from columns A, B, and C. Much like in 2010, Argentina’s place at the tournament wasn’t secured until the final game of the qualifying campaign, and much like in 2014, it was left to their diminutive genius to supply the goods, as Messi scored a hat-trick in Quito to prevent the ignomy of failing to qualify for only the second time in the history of the competition. For the Barcelona man this may well be last chance saloon, but if he can be considered unfortunate to be playing in the same era as Cristiano Ronaldo and thus face competition for his status as the world’s greatest, then surely his greatest misfortune is to have played at four World Cups in a squad so lacking in key areas. Like Paraguayan superfan Larissa Riquelme, who’ll be much missed at this tournament by the operators of PervCam, Argentina are ludicrously top-heavy. Alongside Messi, coach Jorge Sampaoli can call upon the striking talents of Gonzalo Higuain (24 in 50 for Juventus), Paulo Dybala (26 in 46 for Juventus), and Sergio Aguero (30 in 40 for Manchester City), aided and abetted by a support cast of Angel Di Maria, Giovanni Lo Celso, and Ever Banega. Behind them, things start to get a little dicey. The reputations of Federico Fazio and Nicolas Otamendi have been somewhat restored in the past twelve months, but whether they can combine as a solid unit together is another question, while Milan’s Lucas Biglia can expect to have a busy few weeks defending the back line as the rest of his teammates are caught on the break. Recent results have been far from heartening – the 6-1 defeat in Spain represented a nadir in Sampaoli’s reign, though one wonders whether it may just galvanise this squad – being the big fish in Group D’s small pond might work in their favour.

One to Watch: Cristian Pavon
Surely now only months away from being described as ‘The New Maradona’, even though the old New Maradona is still technically the New Maradona, the Boca Juniors winger is, of course, nothing like Diego. More inclined to race down the wing and play a killer pass than take it past three defenders and fail a drugs test, Pavon has caught the eye of European scouts over the past eighteen months, and you’d fancy he’ll be making an appearance on BT Sport come next season. With six goals and eleven assists from twenty-six Primera Division appearances this season, Pavon played a huge part in Boca’s 33rd league title win, playing a part in 34% of his side’s goals. In Russia he’s not exactly front of the pecking order when it comes to attacking options, but a player of his calibre is a useful weapon for Sampaoli.

Prediction: Quarter Finals
There’s just something about this side that’s difficult to trust come the big games. In Brazil, Argentina’s route to the final was assisted by the luck of the draw. In Russia, they’ll undoubtedly have to face one of the favourites to reach the semi-finals and, even with Messi on top form, it’s difficult to see them putting in the kind of performance that wins a tournament.

Croatia

In 1998, having qualified for the World Cup at the first time of asking following their national independence five years earlier, Croatia made the feted ‘Dark Horse’ label their own and, despite having failed to make it past the group stage in the three tournaments they’ve qualified for since, the team from the Balkans continue to grasp onto that tag, despite strong competition from Belgium. For a while it looked as though Croatia would miss out on qualification for the second time in their history, as Iceland took control of their group, and Finland and Turkey took four points from them in the latter stages of the campaign. On the eve of their final qualifier – a winner takes all clash with Ukraine in Kiev – the Croatia FA took the bold step of sacking national team coach Ante Čačić and replacing him with Zlatko Dalić. A 2-0 victory in Kiev was followed up by a 4-1 aggregate victory over Greece in the playoffs, and the gamble paid off. Since then results have been mixed, and there’s a feeling that the young players coming up through the ranks and into the national team aren’t yet comparable to their forebears. The spine of Danijel Subašić, Dejan Lovren, Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Mario Mandzukic and Ivan Perisic are all 28 or over, and beyond Šime Vrsaljko and Mateo Kovačić, there are few players that look like they’ll be playing at the top level over the next decade. That doesn’t necessarily harm their chances in this tournament, but after a long slog of a season those older legs may begin to tire. Particularly against sides whose modus operandi are skill, pace, and toil.

One to Watch: Andrej Kramaric
Perhaps best known as the man who missed out on Leicester City’s remarkable Premier League win, having been loaned out to 1899 Hoffenheim in the January transfer window and later making his move permanent. Since leaving the King Power, Kramaric has been having a lovely old time, helping the small town club to a Champions League qualification place and banging in 36 goals in 93 appearances. At 5’11 he’s not exactly a target man, but his upper body strength makes him the ideal focal point for a midfield that like to play along the ground, while his creativity means he’s also able to operate off the main striker. Expect plenty of long range efforts from the former Fox, and don’t be surprised to see a move back to England mooted after the tournament.

Prediction: Group Stage
For all the obvious quality they possess, Croatia just seem to lack something. Perhaps it’s their ability to get the job done when needed, or perhaps they’re missing a goalscorer like Suker or a leader like Stimac. Their last three first round exits have been decided in the final game of the group stage. In Russia they’ll face Iceland last. It could be a case of do or die.

Iceland

Iceland became the smallest nation to ever qualify for a World Cup finals by topping a tough looking group involving Croatia, Ukraine and Turkey, thanks largely to an immaculate 100% home record that saw a stingy backline concede just twice. For those wishing to give themselves alcohol poisoning this summer, your best plan of action would be to devise an ‘Iceland World Cup Drinking Game’ whereby a shot is taken every time a commentator mentions Coventry, the Viking Clap or Roy Hodgson. Though you might be dead by half-time of their opening game. Yes, yes, Heimir Hallgrímsson’s team are massive underdogs, but they’ve also shown what long-term planning and savvy investment can do for a nation’s sporting prospects, having ploughed money into grassroots development before the financial crash and now reaping the rewards. Those at St George’s Park take note. The Golden Generation may be at the top of a downwards slope (Gylfi Sigurdsson is 28), but there seems to be plenty of new blood emerging through the ranks for Iceland, with seven of Hallgrímsson’s squad aged 25 or under. Having already beaten Croatia in qualifying, and having shown at the Euros that they’re more than capable of parking the bus against a big side like Argentina, Iceland’s grit could serve them well in Russia, while the added touches of class provided by the likes of Sigurdsson and Johan Berg Gudmundsson could make all the difference in tight games. Plus, they’ve got the loveliest nickname in the tournament: ‘Our Boys’.

One to Watch: Sverrir Ingi Ingason
One of Iceland’s up-and-coming stars is Ingason, who at 24 has already taken in five leagues across Europe, and will feel at home this summer after spending the 17/18 season at FC Rostov. Whilst it wasn’t an entirely satisfactory season in the Russian Premier League for Rostov, Ingason can reflect on a job well done, as his side finished with the second meanest defence outside the top four, conceding just 28 goals in 30 games, with the Icelandic centre-back a near ever-present. With an average of 5.9 clearances per game, and 1.1 shot stopping blocks, as well as his four man of the match awards, Ingason has clearly found his feet in Russia, and may well court the interest of some of the bigger sides in the league, particularly if he has an impressive World Cup.

Prediction: Group Stage
Group D is one of two that seems nigh-on impossible to call, but the gut feeling is that Iceland will struggle to gather the points they’ll need to progress. Expect a cagey start against Argentina, followed by a team progressively coming out of their shell as the competition goes on.

Nigeria

For many, including this dedicated follower of fashion, Nigeria have already won the World Cup thanks to Nike’s absolute worldie of a kit, released a fortnight before the tournament and sold out within fifteen minutes. The Super Eagles are no strangers to sartorial delights, having worn an eye-catching kit during their World Cup debut at USA 94 as Rashid Yekini and Daniel Amokachi fired them to the second round. Since then they’ve delighted and disappointed in equal measure, shocking Spain in Lens at France 98 before crashing out against Denmark in the last sixteen, followed by back to back Group Stage exits in 2002 and 2010. In Brazil they edged past Bosnia and Herzegovina and played their part in a thrilling defeat against Argentina, before meekly succumbing to France in the second round. If they’re to earn a shot at Deschamps’ team in Russia they’re going to have to address a leaky defence that conceded a goal a game during qualifying (though two of those goals were awarded by FIFA after Nigeria had fielded an ineligible player) . Fortunately they’ve got stacks of attacking talent to fall back on, with plenty of faces familiar to Premier League fans. Leicester City pair Kelechi Iheanacho and Ahmed Musa have experienced differing fortunes over the past 12 months, but both offer a threat up front, as does former Watford striker Odion Ighalo. Victor Moses was Nigeria’s top scorer in qualifying, playing a more advanced role than at Chelsea, while the midfield is anchored by two more players with Chelsea and Leicester connections – Wilfried Ndidi and captain John Obi Mikel. Sadly Moses Simon, who has been earning admiring glances with his performances on the wing for Gent, misses out, but Gernot Rohr’s team should have enough up top to worry defences.

One to Watch: Ahmed Musa
The Curse of Leicester City strikes again. Signed by The Foxes in the wake of their Premier League win, Musa was identified as the long-term replacement for Jamie Vardy, possessing the same explosive burst of pace and finishing ability as the Leicester Golden Boy, but also capable of pulling something out of the bag, as his two goals against Argentina in Brazil had shown. Sadly the move didn’t work out and, after just five goals in thirty three appearances, Musa was shipped back to CSKA Moscow on loan in January. Happily for the 25 year old, his golden touch has been rediscovered, and seven goals in sixteen appearances since the turn of the year suggest that he’s played himself back into form. While there’s plenty of competition for a place up front in this Nigeria team, none of Musa’s teammates can do what he can, and Rohr will be hoping he’ll emerge as the Super Eagles’ not-so-secret weapon.

Prediction: Second Round
Nigeria tend to start tournaments strong, having won three of their five opening games. If they can see off Croatia on Matchday One, they’ll fancy their chances of progression. The threat of Argentina – they’ve faced the South Americans four times in five World Cups, losing all four – awaits in Matchday Three, and by then it might be job done.

 

Part two of our World Cup Preview is available right…here

One thought on “World Cup 2018 Preview (Part One)

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