World Cup 2018 Preview (Part Two)

Welcome to the second part of our World Cup 2018 Preview, if you haven’t read our summary of Groups A-D then what on earth are you doing here? In Part One we rubbished Russia’s chances of getting out of the group, dismissed Iran as no-hopers, and earmarked Denmark and Croatia as surprise fallers at the first hurdle – so expect them all to make it through to the second round. Here we’ll be looking at the final four groups, cherry picking the players that all the beardy Neck Oil drinkers will claim to have known about since they were twinkles in their fathers’ eyes, and making bold and almost certainly ill-fated predictions for each side’s likely performance. So, as the locals say:  Давайте начнем!

 

Group E

 Group E

Brazil

You’re trying to create history. You’re trying to erase history. The big one has finally returned to your own backyard. Fifty-four years of hurt. Fifty-four years of creating a name for yourselves, but still you can’t erase history. Ghiggia’s goal. Heartbreak in Rio. The Maracanazo. You’re trying to erase history. You’re trying to create history. You stumble through the groups. You avoid defeat by a whisker. You lose your latest hero to injury. But you’re still in this. Still able to create history. Still able to erase history. In Belo Horizonte, you face Germany. You lose 7-1. In front of your own fans. In your own backyard. You erase fifty-four years of history. You create history. You are Brazil, and you’ve just suffered the biggest ever defeat in a World Cup semi-final.

But that’s all water under the bridge now, isn’t it? The reaction to that seismic defeat was nowhere near as hysterical as the loss to Uruguay in 1950, perhaps because the Brazilian faithful weren’t convinced their side could win the World Cup. Since that fateful July evening plenty has changed for the Brazilian national team. Fading force Julio Cesar has been replaced by two of the world’s best young goalkeepers; creator-in-chief Oscar has been upgraded to Philippe Coutinho; Laurel & Hardy strike pair Hulk and Fred have thankfully given way to the artful stylings of Gabriel Jesus and Roberto Firmino, and Neymar is now the world’s most expensive player. Off the back of that humiliating meeting with Germany, Brazil flew through qualifying losing just once in 18 games and finishing ten points ahead of second-placed Uruguay. As many goals as points (41) and the meanest defence in South America (11).  This time, it’s personal.

One to Watch:  Alisson
Alisson Becker had just broken into the Internacional team in 2014, but since then he’s come a long way, making the move to Roma in 2016 and establishing himself as first choice ‘keeper this season. After an impressive campaign in which only Juventus conceded fewer than I Giallorossi, with Alisson keeping seventeen clean sheets in Serie A, it looks as though he’ll be joining fellow Brazil stopper Ederson in the Premier League as Liverpool close in on the Porto Alegre born goalkeeper. Making his international debut against Venezuela in the qualifying campaign, Alisson has gone on to make the position his own, making sixteen appearances in qualifying, and conceding just nine times. Much like Ederson, Alisson is a ‘keeper in the modern sweeper mould, as if Brazil needed anymore flair, and his distribution over long distance adds another bow to coach Tite’s arrow. As Liverpool proved in the Champions League, there are some question marks surrounding his decision making under pressure, with the keeper at fault for a least two of the Reds goals in Roma’s semi-final, but there are few in the world whose all round game is as accomplished as his.

Prediction: Winners
Yes, that’s right. We’re predicting Brazil to win. Call us crazy. Call us stupid. Call us out for having the same hackneyed opinion as your clueless father-in-law. Though this side might lack an out-and-out goalscorer like Ronaldo or Romario, there’s still enough flair and creativity for a forward to miss ten chances a game and still come out on the winning side. The steel in the centre provided by Fernandinho and Casemiro could also prove decisive, with Brazil coming into a tournament with the kind of solidity in midfield not seen since Gilberto Silva or Dunga. It’s going to take one hell of a side to beat this team, and at the moment it’s difficult to pick out a decent candidate.

 

Switzerland

One of football’s greatest ironies is that Switzerland are not a team for the neutrals. Though they’ve had their moments – arriving at USA ’94 in their first World Cup appearance for 28 years and hammering an excellent Romania side, shocking favourites Spain in their opening game of 2010, and playing their part in a silly 5-2 defeat against France four years ago – they have largely been forgettable for a team so regularly in attendance. Having taken those surprising three points against Spain, they went on to pick up just one more point and exit the group stage in South Africa, while a second round berth in Brazil produced a backs-against-the-wall snoozefest in the extra-time defeat to Argentina. Then there’s Ukraine in 2006, which I for one am yet to receive compensation for, given the two and a half hours of my life sacrificed to watch what surely will go down as the worst game in World Cup history. But, the past is the past, and an accomplished qualifying campaign saw the Swiss miss out on a 100% record at the last hurdle, losing to Portugal and thus falling into a playoff place. Against Northern Ireland they needed a dodgy penalty to secure qualification, but 24 goals across 12 games is nothing to be sniffed at. There’s certainly talent in this squad, from squat magician Xherdan Shaqiri to winger Steven Zuber, but it’s all a bit…meh. Switzerland are the kind of team that’ll appear in the round of sixteen and you’ll have no recollection of how, but be safe in the knowledge that’s the absolute furthest they’ll go.

One to Watch:
Breel Embolo
Two years ago Embolo had forged a reputation as an exciting up-and-coming striker with Basel, having hit double figures for a second season running. A €20m move to Schalke followed and, as yet, he hasn’t quite lived up to that early promise. Used more from the bench than as a starter, Embolo managed to trouble the scoresheet just three times this season, matching the total of his first term in Gelsenkirchen. This World Cup offers the Cameroon-born forward a chance to prove his doubters wrong, and potentially put himself back in the frame for a starting berth at the Veltins Arena next season. More comfortable being used as a defensive forward, Embolo’s 6’1 frame makes him an ideal target man, though he also possesses the kind of pace that could prove vital for a team looking to play on the counter. If he’s able to receive the ball into feet, a propensity for winning free-kicks might come in handy, and with Shaqiri on the pitch that could prove Switzerland’s best route to goal.

Prediction: Group Stage
There’s always one side that makes it out of the group at the expense of an exciting team, and while Switzerland fit the profile it’s difficult to make a case for them filling the role in Russia. With Brazil in the first game, it’s looking like an uphill struggle for Vladimir Petković, and the Swiss are hardly known for turning up in must-win games.

 

Serbia

Back for the second time in their fifth incarnation (if you count Kingdom of Yugoslavia and Federal Republic of Yugoslavia as separate entities to, er, Yugoslavia), Serbia are hoping to better their disappointing performance in 2010 where, having arrived as a potential dark horse, left with a solitary, hollow victory against Germany as their only souvenir. Since then a new crop of players has emerged, and Serbia are experiencing something of a golden generation. Though some of the older heads remain from their maiden campaign, including the likes of Branislav Ivanovic and Aleksander Kolarov, the bulk of those further up the field represent a new dawn for Serbian football, with Luka Milivojevic and Nemanja Matic running the engine room behind the creative talents of Dusan Tadic and battering ram Aleksander Mitrovic. The Newcastle striker was Serbia’s top scorer in qualifying as they topped their group ahead of Republic of Ireland, Wales and Austria, and he’s also enjoyed a renaissance this season having joined Championship side Fulham on loan. Twelve goals in twenty games suggests a player hitting form at just the right time, and if Mladen Krstajić’s side play to Mitrovic’s strengths – and the stats suggest they have been – then the burly frontman could make a serious dent on the tournament. Which would make a change from defenders. Besides from Brazil, Serbia’s biggest challenge will be tackling their ill-discipline, which saw them pick up three red cards and eighteen yellows during qualifying. If they can keep that in check, they’ve got an excellent chance of making an impression in Russia.

One to Watch: Sergej Milinković-Savić
Those in the know have had this name on their lips all season. The Lazio midfield maestro has won plenty of admirers this season with his direct, pacy runs and his ability to pick a pass. Rumours abound that Jose Mourinho is interested in making the young Serb his latest target for ire at Old Trafford and, with Lazio missing out on Champions League qualification on the final day of the Serie A season, it seems likely that Milinković-Savić will be headed for pastures new. Twelve goals from an attacking midfield role is more than decent, and at 6’3 he possesses the kind of ability in the air rarely seen from a playmaker. Alongside Tadic, Milinković-Savić is the man that makes Serbia tick, and with the watching world to impress, the 21 year old will be keen to turn it on.

Prediction:  Second Round
Could Serbia be the new dark horses? Unlikely given that, if they find their way into the second round behind Brazil, the chances are they’ll face Germany, but Black Beauty certainly seems to be a fan of the Balkans. If the circumstances are right, with Mitrovic on fire, Tadic and co supplying the bullets, and a creaky backline being protected by Matic, then a first ever group progression could be on the cards. But there’s always a chance that all three games will be abandoned following some Serbian tantrums.

 

Costa Rica

They say lightning never strikes twice, which is patently untrue if you live on Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela, where lightning strikes on more than two-hundred days a year and, chances are, you’ll bump into it more than once. Travel some eight hundred miles west, however, and you’ll find Costa Rica where, trust us, lightning doesn’t strike twice. The North Americans were the surprise package in Brazil four years ago, reaching the quarter-finals with some impressive victories over Uruguay and Italy, before succumbing to Louis Van Gaal’s mind games in a penalty shootout defeat against the Netherlands. Oh the humiliation. A decent qualifying campaign saw Los Ticos finish comfortably in second behind Mexico, with a 4-0 shoeing of the United States a particular highlight, while their knack of snatching a draw from the jaws of the defeat – they came from behind three times in the campaign to take a point – proved a handy skill to have. Unfortunately this is an ageing squad, with New York City defender Rónald Matarrita the only member of the final 23 under the age of 25, and ten players over the age of 30, including key men Keylor Navas, Celso Borges, and Bryan Ruiz. All of which means this could be Costa Rica’s final foray into the tournament for a while, though whether that has any psychological bearing on the squad is up for debate. In a group where, theoretically, there’s only one place up for grabs, fine margins will be the key to progression, and it’s difficult to identify anything that gives Costa Rica an edge.

One to Watch: Marco Ureña
At 28, LAFC striker Ureña is far from a spring chicken, but in one of the oldest squads in the tournament he at least offers some much needed legs alongside the languid stylings of Ruiz. Top scorer in qualifying with three, Ureña has started the new MLS season in fine form, laying on four assists in the opening seven games. Though he mightn’t be the most prolific, the former Kuban Krasnodor frontman at least provides guile and graft, both of which will be needed to overcome Switzerland and Serbia.

Prediction: Group Stage
Sadly, it seems that 2014 was a one-off, and Costa Rica are headed for a Sputnik-style crash to Earth. The energy of four years ago no longer seems present in the current squad, and as it turns out Joel Campbell isn’t the world beater he’d convinced everyone he was. You can almost smell the stifling goalless draw with Switzerland from here.

 

Group F

 Group F

Germany

Death, taxes, and Germany’s domination of international football. Once a source of mild irritation, but now a welcome constant in an ever increasingly terrifying world. It seems bizarre that Germany have only won the World Cup once since their unification after 1990, given how synonymous they’ve become with success on the world stage, but tournament finishes of quarter-final, quarter-final, final, semi-final, semi-final, winners are the kind that England fans can only dream of. Heading to Russia with the trophy in tow, it’s no surprise that they’re once again among the favourites, bidding to become the first side to retain the title since Brazil in 1962. The mooted departure of Joachim Low, whose twelve years in post have seen Germany re-emerge from the ashes of their great 90s team, has been put to bed after the 58 year old signed a new two year deal, and the true nature of the embarrassment of riches available to the German boss has become clear in the weeks leading up to the tournament. There’s no place in the squad for 2014 match-winner Mario Gotze, nor the man who assisted him, Andre Schurrle, while Leroy Sane, one of Manchester City’s outstanding performers this season, was a shock late omission from the final squad. Low explained the decision was purely tactical, with Julian Brandt a better fit in his 4-2-3-1 system than Sane, who’s spent much of the season operating on the left of a front three for Pep Guardiola. And we thought Jack Wilshere missing out was scandalous.

On the pitch, preparation ahead of the tournament has been far from smooth – in the six games since qualifying Germany have won just once – albeit against lowly Saudi Arabia. Even so, Low was able to win last summer’s Confederations Cup at a canter, despite taking a second string squad to Russia, while a qualification record of ten wins from ten speaks for itself. Those that have made the final squad include the spine of the 2014 winning side, with Manuel Neuer returning from injury in the nick of time to join up with Bayern Munich teammate Mats Hummels, while Toni Kroos arrives fresh from a third successive Champions League win, and Thomas Muller looks to repeat his feats from 2010 and 2014 with another five goals. The biggest concern for the German squad is up front where, Muller aside, there are question marks over each striking option. Mario Gomez was a surprise inclusion by Low after a low-key season with Stuttgart, while Timo Werner, who impressed at the Confederations Cup, has yet to experience a major tournament. Marco Reus, desperately unlucky to miss out on the last two tournaments, will finally make his World Cup bow for Germany, but as always concerns over his fitness persist. Still, it’s a bloody good squad isn’t it?

One to Watch:  Leon Goretzka
Though his season was somewhat curtailed by controversy, Leon Goretzka has still emerged as the bright light of German football. An all action central-midfielder who’s as fierce in the tackle as he’s dynamic in distribution, his decision to announce that he’d be joining Bayern Munich from Schalke halfway through the season was a ballsy one. Facing up to brutal criticism from the Veltins Arena faithful (‘PISS OFF, GORETZKA’ read one mild-mannered banner), Goretzka got on with the job in hand, and ended the season with four goals and two assists despite missing more than a third of the campaign. Identified as the natural successor to Sami Khedira, Goretzka may not find himself a guaranteed starter in Russia, despite being one of the holders’ most talented players but, given the maturity shown this season , you can guarantee composure when the 23 year old is called upon.

Prediction: Runners up
Retaining the World Cup takes something very rare and special – mainly two consecutive generations of fantastic players – and while this Germany side is packed full of up and coming talent, their performances under pressure could be the undoing of a side lacking the leadership of four years ago.

 

Mexico

A World Cup without Mexico would be like a quesadilla without cheese; a bottle of tequila without the morning of regret; an English summer without some bellend shouting “COME ON, TIM!” at Wimbledon. Put simply: they’re always there. Apart from in 1990, of course, when the Cachirules scandal led to them being banned from all FIFA-sanctioned competition for two years. And 1938, when they withdrew because they couldn’t be bothered to schlepp across to France, having schlepped across to Italy in 1934 only to be knocked out by the United States in a qualifier on the eve of the tournament. And in 1974 and 1982, when they didn’t qualify. But otherwise, they’re always there. El Tri topped the CONCACAF Hex for the first time in twenty years, and did so with some style, losing just once – in their final game at Honduras. Plenty of the squad that suffered late heartbreak against the Netherlands in 2014 remain: Rafael Marquez has taken leave of  Chichen Itza for another summer to appear in what must be his fifteenth World Cup and Guillermo Ochoa, Mexico’s breakout star in Brazil, is also back, having failed to live up to his performances four years ago. Javier Hernandez, Giovanni Dos Santos, Miguel Layun and Hector Moreno all return a little older, a little more grizzled, and a little less sharp than previously, but all still capable of affecting a game, while the new blood arrives in the likes of Porto pair Diego Reyes and Jesus Manuel Corona, and Eintracht Frankfurt’s Carlos Salcedo. Having conceded just once since the turn of the year, Juan Carlos Osorio’s side look defensively sound at the very least, but that can only take you so far in a tournament, and a lack of goals might prove Mexico’s undoing.

One to Watch: Hirving Lozano
Mexico might struggle to score, but it won’t be for the want of creativity. PSV Eindhoven’s bandito has fast emerged as the poster boy for the future of Mexico’s national team. Having made his debut two years ago, Lozano cemented his place in the first team with six goals during qualifying, and his perfomances in the Eredivise this season will have delighted his national team coach. Seventeen goals (yeah, but…) and eight assists (…it’s only Holland…) earned him a championship medal in his first season at the Philips Stadion, playing a part in 28% of the Dutch giants’ league goals, and winning eight Man of the Match awards along the way. Averaging over 2.5 key passes a game, and drawing the same number of fouls, Lozano proved himself a nuisance to defences across the Netherlands, and will hope to have the same impact in Russia. With four yellow cards and two reds, questions must be asked about the 22 year old’s temperament, but with the ability in his feet to create chances, he’s a ticking timebomb worth taking a risk on.

Prediction: Second Round
Obviously. Mexico always make it to the second round. No more, no less. Apart from in 1986, but let’s just ignore that. Since 1994 they’ve been ever-presents without troubling the quarters and, with the likelihood of them finishing behind Germany in the group and going on to face Brazil, its difficult to see that changing this summer.

 

South Korea

Remember Pop Idol?  Remember ‘Attack of the Clones’? Remember the first camera phone? Remember Yu-Gi-Oh cards? Remember GARLIC BREAD? Do you? Do you remember all those things? Does it bring you joy remembering all those things? Well imagine what it must be like for a South Korean football fan who can also remember things that happened in 2002. A fourth place finish against all the odds, and victories against Portugal, Italy and Spain along the way, for many this was a new dawn for Asian football, and we’d be seeing South Korea and their neighbours challenging in the latter stages of the World Cup from then on. In the three tournaments since, they’ve made it out of the group stage once, and in Brazil they finished bottom of perhaps the weakest group of the tournament. Their great success in 2002, besides hiring Guus Hiddink to get the national team in order (if only Russia had thought of that before…), was keeping things tight at the back, conceding just three times in six matches before the Third Place playoff (where they contrived to concede the fastest goal in World Cup history on their way to a 3-2 defeat to Turkey). Since that tournament they’ve struggled to plug gaps at the back, having shipped 18 in the last three tournaments and only being pipped to the worst defence in their qualifying pool by Qatar (good luck in four years, lads!). Still, what can’t defend must be able to attack, and to counter that leaky backline, the Taegeuk Warriors scored eleven times in ten matches, pipping Syria to second place. A largely ageing squad (only five players are 25 or under) at least suggests experience if not promise for the future, and in Son Heung-Min, South Korea possess a genuinely top class forward. Shuttling midfield pair Koo Ja-cheol and Ki Sung-yueng, of Augsburg and Swansea respectively, are the other most notable members of the squad. Sadly that trio won’t be able to do it all themselves, and South Korea’s defence is likely to be their undoing.

One to Watch: Hwang Hee-chan
Being snapped up by FC Liefering in Austria at the age of 18 clearly suggests that Hwang possessed plenty of potential and, after a couple of impressive seasons in the Austrian second division he was snaffled up by Red Bull Salzburg in 2015. Sixteen goals in his second season at the Red Bull Arena were followed this term by a flurry of five in Europe, including a vital goal against Lazio in the Europa League quarter-finals as Salzburg went on a surprise run to the last four. A 5’9 he’s more of a scampering pace-merchant than a beanpole target man, but he could prove decent foil for Son late on in games when Shin Tae-yong requires an injection of pace.

Prediction: Group Stage
Look, we all wish it was 2002 again: just ask Dr Fox. The harsh reality is that South Korea were never able to truly capitalise on that run to the semi-finals, and as such world football has left them behind once again. Their one scrap of joy is likely to come against the less enterprising Swedes.

 

Sweden

Fans of arrogant acrobats will be disappointed to see Zlatan Ibrahimovic shun an opportunity to steal the limelight by reversing his international retirement to join up with his Sweden teammates this summer. In his stead it falls on the shoulders of a weary cast of has-beens and never-weres to shoot the Scandinavians out of the group. Marcus Berg, formerly a mediocre striker in the top European leagues, has entered his own semi-retirement by moving to the UAE and picking up top dollar by banging in the goals for Al-Ain. His return of 8 goals in qualifying looks impressive on paper, until you realise that six of those came against whipping boys Luxembourg and Belarus. Next in line for a striking berth is Ola Toivonen, who managed the grand total of zero goals in twelve Premier League appearances for Sunderland, and John Guidetti, once an exciting prospect, who’s developed into a player with the attitude of Zlatan and the aptitude of Zoltar. He thinks he’s a Big deal. One wonders then, with this cast of misfits, how on earth Sweden not only managed to qualify, but did so having scored an impressive 26 goals in ten games. Once again the minnows have helped to skew the story, and once the seventeen goals notched up against the bottom two sides in the group are accounted for, nine in six is less impressive. A tip of the hat should also be offered the way of the Netherlands who, with their staggering ineptitude, paved the way for Sweden to take second place. It’s not all rotten eggs in Janne Andersson’s camp however, as shown in the impressive bus-parking job in Milan as Italy were beaten in the playoffs (you were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off etc.), a solid defence comprising both youth – Victor Lindelof and Ludwig Augustinsson in particular look to have successful years ahead of them – and the experience of captain Andreas Granqvist. It’s a shame, then, that going through after three nil-nils is extremely unlikely.

One to Watch: Emil Forsberg
The RB Leipzig midfielder has been talked up since breaking into the Malmo first team as a 21 year old in 2013. Since then he’s made the adjustment from the Allsvenskan to the Bundesliga 2, and swiftly stepped up into not only a Bundesliga level player, but an outstanding part of a Champions League chasing side. Though this season was marred by a two month spell on the sidelines, Forsberg was still able to put his name in the Leipzig history books by scoring their first ever goal in the Champions League against Monaco, and contributed a further four goals and four assists when available for selection. Often deployed as a winger, Forsberg’s right foot will be spending the summer doing its best trebuchet impression as Andersson’s ‘launch it at the big man’ tactic looks the most likely to bear fruit. As the Swedes most reliable attacking outlet, it’ll fall to Forsberg to make things happen.

Prediction: Group Stage
Luckily the Swedes have had enough good news for one year with ABBA reforming, so watching their team crash out at the group stage of the World Cup won’t come as too much of a blow. A lack of quality striking options is always going to hinder a teams chances and this squad is the equivalent of Andersson turning up at Waterloo brandishing a lifeless herring.

 

Group G

 Group G

Belgium

Sometimes horses have the wrong jockey, and it doesn’t matter how highly rated they are by the bookmakers, how physically fit they are, or how much hay they snaffle, when it comes to race day they’re always going to fall at the final furlong if the fella riding them is jigging away to Jason Derulo on his iPod. Sometimes metaphors can be tortured, too. But with the squad available to them, Belgium should have been aiming a lot higher than Roberto Martinez during their search for Marc Wilmots’ replacement in 2016. Alas, with a flash of Thierry Henry’s twinkling beard, the Spaniard was appointed and Belgium romped home in qualifying. Well of course they did, did you see their group? Gibraltar, Cyprus, Greece  – it was thirteen months of banterous lads holidays. Still, there’s no denying the quality in Belgium’s squad, with a midfield including Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard, Moussa Dembele, Yannick Carrasco and Axel Witsel the stuff of fantasy football. Elsewhere, a sturdy looking backline includes Thibaut Courtois, Jan Vertonghen, and Toby Alderweireld, while full-back Thomas Meunier showed his attacking prowess in qualifying with five goals. Meanwhile a frontline including Romelu Lukaku and Dries Mertens – 49 club goals between them this season – is enough to have defences quaking in their boots this summer. Unbeaten since a post-Euros friendly against Spain in 2016, the quality of opposition that Belgium have faced in the intervening twenty months makes it difficult to chart their progress as a team – last week’s goalless draw with Portugal is the first time the Red Devils have faced a side ranked top fifteen in the world since their last defeat. There are undoubtedly weaknesses in this side, not least defensively, a famous Martinez blindspot where experience trumps mobility. Strength in depth could also prove an issue as, outside the starting eleven, Belgium have been forced to call upon players that represent a drastic drop in quality – Dedryk Boyata and Nacer Chadli, understudies for Vincent Kompany and Hazard, spring to mind. With the haze of ‘dark horses’ and ‘hipsters choice’ now finally cleared, Belgium can at least get on with the job in hand, and another kind draw should see them safely into the third week of the competition.

One to Watch: Leander Dendoncker
One of only seven players in Belgium’s 23 man squad yet to be added to a Premier League team’s books (though West Ham are said to be sniffing around), the Anderlecht youngster looks set to carry Moussa Dembele’s torch for the next generation. A little ganglier than the Spurs midfielder, and not yet as fleet-footed, Dendoncker plays the role of classy destroyer, and at 23 already has over 150 league appearances for the purple and whites under his belt. This season hasn’t exactly been a classic, with Anderlecht finishing third and Dendoncker’s impact limited, but he can take solace from the fact that Dembele was batting away the advances of Birmingham City at the same age. All good things come to those who wait. With only four caps, the defensive midfielder travels east as one of Belgium’s least experienced players, but should Martinez need to call on him, there’s no reason why he won’t be able to do a job. Or a least throw in a few crunching tackles.

Prediction: Quarter Finals
Whether it’s because their key players ply their trade in the Premier League, or because they’re in the midst of one of those fabled ‘golden generations’, there’s something relatable to long-term followers of England with this Belgium side. And, like those England teams of yore that people genuinely and foolishly thought could win the World Cup, the sense is that as soon as Belgium come up against a top side, they’re done for. That’ll be the quarter finals then.

 

England

The Sun and The Daily Mail have spent the last two years trying to convince anyone that would listen that there’s no evidence that Brexit will have a negative impact on the British economy, which makes it all the more ironic that they’ve already pinned England’s failure in Russia on an underperforming Sterling. Yes, yes, we’ve been here before. Bobby Robson’s a traitor (for taking a job after being informed that his contract wasn’t going to be renewed by the FA); Gazza’s been on a bender (at his own birthday party, sanctioned by England’s management team); David Beckham’s too flash (though he saved England’s bacon on numerous occasions); Wayne Rooney’s from a council estate (imagine the working classes having aspirations?), but the targeted vilification of Raheem Sterling, one of England’s brightest young players, for a series of non-incidents stretches above and beyond ‘undermining the national team’. It also diverts attention from the fact that, for once, the English press don’t think their boys can go and win the thing. And with good reason. Another straightforward qualifying campaign was navigated as though it were the last helicopter from Saigon, and under the watchful eye of a manager who isn’t sure if he even wants the job, England have been functional at best. But there’s definitely something there. The vim and vigour of youth. The carefree abandon of footballers no longer weighed down by expectation. A crop of players in the spring of their careers, who’ve enjoyed good seasons at their clubs, and are yet to suffer the crushing disappointment of a penalty shootout defeat (Ashley Young aside). Sure, the central midfield pairing looks a little staid, and yes that back three definitely has a few mistakes in it, and you can bet your bottom dollar one of these young guns will have their face plastered over the back pages under the headline ‘ENGLAND’S SHAME’ at some point over the summer, but for once the England national team are arriving at a major international tournament and being encouraged to just go out and play. Until they win their first game, at which point the whole country will lose its shit and start drafting a petition for Gareth Southgate to be knighted.

One to Watch: Raheem Sterling
For a while it looked as though there was something missing from Sterling’s game that would never emerge, but this season the Manchester City man blossomed. Twenty-three goals in fifty appearances is an outstanding return, even in a side that walked the Premier League, with an additional twelve assists being the icing on the cake. Working under Pep Guardiola has clearly given Sterling confidence, and his reading of the game has improved tenfold since the Spaniard took office at the Etihad. It’s difficult to understate how important Sterling is to England’s chances of a memorable tournament this summer, which makes the victimization of him even more mystifying.

Prediction: Quarter Finals
Come on, lads. Let’s be serious. England should make it out of the group, though who they’ll face in the second round is the golden question. If things fall nicely then a quarter final berth is well within reach, but it’ll take the kind of performance that demands the nostalgic-talking-head-tribute-show-in-twenty-five-years treatment to make it much further.

 

Tunisia

Nabil Maâloul led Tunisia through qualifying unbeaten as The Eagles of Carthage booked their place in Russia with consummate ease, but they arrive looking for their first World Cup win since 1978. These barren forty years have seen the North Africans qualify for four subsequent tournaments – the last in 2006 – and take home a solitary point each time. This time, however, things might be different. A lack of goals in previous appearances have hamstrung Tunisia, who scored just once on two separate occasions at the tournament, but eleven from six in qualifying suggests they may have found their shooting boots. Wahbi Khazri, a familiar name on Wearside, has emerged as a key creative force in Tunisia’s frontline, and after a productive season on loan at Rennes, the Sunderland man will be champing at the bit to dazzle on the biggest stage. Maâloul also has youth on his side, with only a clutch of his 23 man squad tipping the balance over thirty, and nine players aged twenty-five or under able to offer fresh legs. Imposing ‘keeper and captain Aymen Mathlouthi’s three clean sheets in qualifying will also offer hope of Tunisia keeping it tight at the back, something they were unable to do in their last appearance, shipping an average of two goals per game. Results have also been positive during Tunisia’s preparation, including a comeback from two-down to draw 2-2 with Portugal in Braga, though the late withdrawals of Aymen Abdennour – the highly rated rock in the centre of Tunisia’s defence – and Youssef Msakni – star player and top goalscorer in qualifying – may dampen the spirits somewhat.

One to Watch: Bassem Srarfi
The 20 year old midfielder snapped up by Nice last summer enjoyed a breakout season on the south coast of France, becoming a regular in Lucien Favre’s side as they chased a European spot. A strong, direct runner who likes to cut in from the right flank, Srarfi topped his season off by making his international debut against Iran in March. Taken as back-up for Khazri, the youngsters pace from the bench could come in handy should Tunisia keep it tight against the group favourites.

Prediction: Group Stage
This is perhaps Tunisia’s best crop of players since 2004’s African Cup of Nations winners, though they’d undoubtedly be stronger with the addition of Abdennour and Msakni. It’s a shame, then, that they find themselves in a group with two of the better seeded teams, who’ll be able to exploit a lack of big game experience in Maâloul’s side.

 

Panama

Before we wax lyrical about Panama’s qualification being one of the best World Cup stories of the modern era, we should probably clear up the misconception that the Panama Hat is native to Central America. It was, in fact, invented in Ecuador. Now, isn’t it incredible that little old Panama have qualified for the World Cup? Particularly at the expense of the United States, a nation with a population almost a hundred times bigger. Panama’s place in Russia was secured on a remarkable final evening of qualifying, as the US contrived to lose to Trinidad and Tobago, and Panama came from behind to beat the already qualified Costa Rica in Panama City. Let’s just ignore the ghost goal the Costa Ricans scored late on which, had goal-line technology been in use, would have closed the door on  Los Canaleros. Still, they’re here now, but one imagines they won’t be getting too comfy. Goals are a problem for Hernán Darío Gómez and his team, averaging less than one a game in qualification, and managing to score just once away from home. And when they’re not not scoring them, they’re letting them in – three clean sheets in ten games were offset by a 4-0 walloping from the US in Orlando, where presumably the visitors were distracted by Universal Studios. That form has carried on into 2018, and a 6-0 pasting at the hands of Switzerland offers a grim foreshadowing of their potential fate when faced with Lukaku and co. They’ve also got the oldest squad at the tournament, with an average age of 29.4, and the bones don’t creak much louder than first-choice striker Luis Tejada who, now at his 19th club of a seventeen year career, will be flying the flag for journeymen everywhere in Russia.

One to Watch: Gabriel Torres
A comparative rookie at 29, Torres can play across the front-line, and will likely be used to provide support to Tejeda during the tournament. Three goals in qualifying, including the crucial equaliser against Costa Rica in the final game, were enough to see him finish the campaign as Panama’s joint top scorer, while he’s flown out of the traps with new club  Huachipato in Chile, scoring nine goals in his first fifteen games. Whether the chances will come his way is another question altogether.

Prediction: Group Stage
If he were still alive, there would surely be no greater honour for the Central Americans than for Jim Bowen to approach the Panama team on their way out of Russia and ask, with a solemn expression ‘Have you had a nice time, at least?’ It looks like being that kind of tournament. Their final game, against Tunisia, is likely to be a battle for pride, and perhaps the football gods will be shining down on them in Saransk, but the 180 minutes scheduled before them could be some of the longest in the lives of Panama’s players and supporters.


 Group H

 Group H

Colombia

Ahead of the 1994 World Cup, Pele tipped Colombia to go all the way after pulling Argentina’s pants down in the qualifiers. We shouldn’t be too surprised that the Brazilian legend was considerably way off the mark given that he once named Nicky Butt as one of the 100 best players in the world, and thought making diamonds out of his own hair was a viable business plan. In fairness to the voice of erectile dysfunction, some twenty short years later Colombia finally did turn up to a World Cup, making a big impression in Brazil as they reached the quarter-finals. That was Los Cafeteros’ best finish at the tournament by some distance, and they’ll be hoping to go further this time round with a fresh crop of players and all-time top scorer Radamel Falcao in tow. James Rodriguez, the breakout star of the last World Cup has seen his star wane a little in the last eighteen months, but still ended the season with a championship medal after being shipped out on loan to Bayern Munich from Real Madrid. At the back, the unnerving sight of David Ospina taking his place as Colombia’s number one goalkeeper is offset by the emergence of Davinson Sanchez, who impressed in his debut season in the Premier League and at 22 surely has a long international career ahead of him. Defending was an issue during qualification, as Colombia conceded more than a goal a game thanks to a couple of wallopings at the hands of Uruguay and Argentina. In fact their place in Russia was under jeopardy right to the end of the campaign, after an incredible collapse at home to Paraguay saw Jose Pekermen’s side relinquish an 88th minute lead to lose 2-1. Had Ospina not palmed a Peruvian free-kick into his own net in the final game the passage to the finals may have been smoother, but after Falcao relayed the message to opposition players that a draw was enough to send both teams through the game played out to a mutually beneficial conclusion. There’s undoubtedly danger in the final third of this Colombia team, with Rodriguez and Falcao ably assisted by Carlos Bacca and Brighton winger José Izquierdo, but a little inexperience and ineptitude at the back may cost them at the vital moment.

One to Watch: Yerry Mina
Twenty-one months older, and with three more caps, Mina has taken on the role of mentor for fellow centre-back Sanchez by default, but their combined inexperience means it’s a case of the blind leading the blind in front of a goalkeeper who doesn’t know his left from right. Mina arrived at Barcelona in January for €11.8m as one of South America’s most highly rated young defenders, but things haven’t all gone his own way in Catalonia. He’s started only four games since his arrival at the Nou Camp, and one of those was the 5-4 defeat at Levante that ended Barca’s hopes of an unbeaten season, which saw Mina booked and scapegoated for the result. So here’s his opportunity to remind the world why Barcelona signed him in the first place, having shown himself to be an excellent technical footballer in Brazil, whilst still able to proficiently perform the nuts and bolts role of an old school centre-back. Given the man in nets, Mina will have to act as the last line of defence in Russia, so his form could have a major bearing on Colombia’s success.

Prediction: Second Round
Colombia were unlucky to go out in the quarters four years ago, coming up against the hosts and a partisan atmosphere. It feels like a case of now or never for many members of their squad, particularly the likes of Falcao, Cristian Zapata and Juan Cuadrado who find themselves the wrong side of thirty. Unfortunately they lack a top class goalkeeper, and the guts of the side are perhaps a little green to go deep into a tournament. Actually, let’s just say they’ll do the complete opposite of whatever Pele predicts.

 

Poland

Remarkably this is Poland’s first World Cup appearance for twelve years, even though they’ve been talked about as an up and coming force in world football for approximately the same amount of time. In their last couple of appearances they’ve been averagely average, but a little closer to home they’ve at least made it to the quarter-finals of a major tournament, losing out to a jammy Portugal side in the quarters of Euro 2016. Like Portugal, Poland’s fortunes fall on the shoulders of one man, and if you think that’s harsh then you haven’t just worked out how many points Robert Lewandowski’s goals earned them in qualifying (it’s 12 by the way – without them they’d have finished below Montenegro and Romania, and yes we know that’s not how causality works). The Bayern Munich hitman finished top scorer in the UEFA section of qualification with sixteen goals, and undoubtedly he arrives at the tournament as one of the most feared strikers in the world, but beyond the odd fleck of stardust here are there, Poland’s squad is more promise than finished product. Playmakers Jakub Błaszczykowski and Kamil Grosicki are likely to be heading to their final tournament, while Grzegorz Krychowiak’s career as a glamorous curio in West Bromwich was short of an unmitigated disaster. At the back a decent pair of ‘keepers in Wojciech Szczęsny and Łukasz Fabiański are supported by an ageing defence, making Poland the international equivalent of AFC Bournemouth, though there is an injection of youth courtesy of Sampdoria right-back Bartosz Bereszyński, who’s enjoyed a steady if not spectacular debut season in Serie A. In an unpredictable group Lewandowski might just prove the difference, but facing three teams who’ve all got pace in their arsenal will cause some sleepless nights for Adam Nawałka’s defence.

One to Watch: Piotr Zielinski
Well established as a creative force at Napoli after two successful seasons at the San Paolo, and earmarked as the long term successor to Marek Hamsik’s neopolitan crown, Zielinski must now stamp his mark on the national team. With much of the creativity in Poland’s squad preparing their bus pass application, the relationship between the midfielder and Lewandowski (or club-mate Arkadiusz Milik should he make the starting line-up) will be crucial in their search for goals. Used sparingly by Maurizio Sarri this season, Zielinski only managed fourteen league starts, but still chipped in with four goals and two assists, averaging an impressive pass success rate of 88%. At 24, the former Udinese man still has a run-up to his peak, but Nawałka will expect some performances in Russia.

Prediction: Group Stage
They’re always a danger with a player the calibre of Lewandowski up front, and you’d back him to bag a few in the group, but that immobile defence is a major concern. The likes of Rodriguez, Mane and Okazaki could have a field day running at the Polish backline and that, more than anything, is likely to be their downfall.

 

Senegal

The world was united with unrivalled glee when holders France were beaten in the opening game of the 2002 World Cup by a team of, what we all presumed were, sub-Saharan fisherman, but certainly weren’t elite level sportsmen. Then half the squad moved to the Premier League and our snide, ill-informed opinions were proven utterly correct. That magical run to the quarter-finals that lit up the 2002 tournament was the only time Senegal had qualified for the World Cup until this summer, but thanks to a multicultural, multinational Premier League, as well as full coverage of pretty much every top level game in the world, we can now say with complete confidence that this Senegal side are a little bit decent. They stormed qualification, unbeaten in six games and taking fourteen points, while failing to score just once and netting twice in every other game. In Kalidou Koulibaly they’ve got a force of nature in the centre of defence, a 6’5 tower of rock that’s more than capable of knocking the ball around as if playing on baize. In front of him, a couple of velvet hands in iron gloves in captain Cheikhou Kouyate and Idrissa Gueye – both more than comfortable as part of an attack, and neither willing to shirk out of a crunching tackle. The attack is spearheaded by Sadio Mane, who needs little introduction after his twenty goal season with Liverpool, ably assisted by a cast of mavericks including M’Baye Niang, and Diafra Sakho, as well as veteran and new boy pairing Moussa Sow and Ismaila Sarr. Mame Biram Diouf has also made the journey for the sake of morale. In short, this is a team not to be taken lightly, and though they may lack a little pace in defence, they more than make up for it up front.

One to Watch: Keita Baldé
The golden bad boy of African football, Baldé opted to play for his father’s country of birth rather than his own, turning down Spain after winning a cap for Catalonia. The Monaco forward was once a member of Barcelona’s famed La Masia academy, but a practical joke during a tour of Qatar led to him being shunted out on loan, at which point Lazio pounced and took him to Italy. Since then the 23 year old’s reputation has grown by the season, and Monaco won the race to his signature last summer with a €30m bid, pinpointing the Senegalese as the man to replace Kylian Mbappe. Able to play as a central striker or as part of a front three, Baldé’s debut season in France was far from an overwhelming success, but eight goals and five assists and his ability to get the crowd on their feet with his direct running has proven a salve on the wounds of Moncao’s firesale.

Prediction: Second Round
They’ve got the quality to go deeper into the competition, and it’s tempting to apply the official Dark Horse tag to Aliou Cissé’s team, but then they also looked odds on to win last year’s African Cup of Nations until Cameroon stopped them in their tracks in the quarter finals. Whatever happens, Senegal will be thrilling to watch, and they’ve got more than enough to give England or Belgium a decent game in the second round.

 

Japan

Ah, lovely old Japan. With your stylish kits, your iconic players and your irrational fear of shame. Even when they hosted the tournament Japan allowed themselves to be outshone by co-hosts South Korea, such is their unwavering humility. Now, sadly, they’re a shadow of the team that brought us Hidetoshi Nakata, Junichi Inamoto, Shunsuke Nakamura and Keisuke Honda. Honda himself is still on the scene, but is no longer the bright young prospect that schooled Denmark in South Africa, while Leicester’s Shinji Okazaki and Shinji Kagawa, the current generation’s star players, are unlikely to have enough in the tank to inspire their team out of the group. Like South Korea, Japan have represented Asia at each of the last five World Cups, and there’s an argument that a lack of quality opposition in qualifying – as well as a national league that lacks the quality of top leagues in the other continents – has hindered their progress. Saying that, the majority of Japan’s squad play their club football in Europe, with captain Makoto Hasebe and defensive pair Maya Yoshida and Hiroki Sakai all appearing in one of the top five leagues this season. A solitary point in Brazil represented their worst performance since their first appearance in 1998, in a far weaker group, and though the unpredictable nature of their group this time around may play into their hands, the attacking options available to each of their competitiors will be difficult for Japan to match.

One to Watch: Eiji Kawashima
Veteran ‘keeper Kawashima heads to his third World Cup after a bizarre season which saw him start as second choice for both club and country. With Metz embroiled in a relegation scrap from the moment a ball was kicked in Ligue 1, Kawashima was eventually thrust into first team action and his performances were a catalyst for an upturn in form that had pundits whispering about a miracle escape. Sadly his average of four saves a game wasn’t enough to prevent the inevitable, though Kawashima did at least earn a recall to the national team, and he’ll be expecting to have a busy summer.

Prediction: Group Stage
This is far from a vintage Japan side, and there’s every chance they could finish the tournament without a point. Their speed of attack could give them the edge over Poland and Senegal, but a proneness to concede from set pieces, added to the enormous frames of the likes of Lewandowski and Koulibaly, might see them bested anyway.

 

So there you have it, thirty-two days of jaw-dropping skill, nail-biting drama, and mind-numbing debate over VAR await us, but in the end I think we all know who the winner will be. Capitalism. Now, if you don’t mind we’re off for a lie down with a cold compress to try and fight this WORLD CUP FEVER.

 

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