With the biggest show on Earth about to kick off in Russia, it’s time to run the rule over the 32 nations taking part and make some early predictions. Trying to guess how the whole tournament will pan out is a mug’s game and I will inevitably be very wrong, so in this post I will be looking at the group stage. How many of the 16 qualifiers will I guess correctly?
Hosts Russia could have barely asked for an easier draw, and yet almost nobody gives him a hope of qualifying. They are ranking 70th in the world, between Guinea and Macedonia, which gives you an idea of the weakness of their team, so they will surely need 2002 levels of corrupt refereeing to reach the second round. Uruguay look strong favourites to top the group, and even if Mo Salah doesn’t recover in time I expect Egypt to be strong enough to qualify. The tournament’s opening game will be crucial for both Russia and Saudi Arabia if they are to stand a reasonable chance of finishing top two.
My top two: Uruguay and Egypt
This group on paper looks to be clear-cut, but there is potential for an upset. Spain open their tournament against neighbours Portugal, in a game that could be a group stage highlight. Regardless of the result of this match, I expect both teams to qualify but Morocco are no mugs and could pull off a surprise win against Portugal. The Euro 2016 winners don’t look as strong as two years ago and will once again rely on Cristiano Ronaldo to lead the way. Spain had a disastrous World Cup in 2014 but are one of the pre-tournament this time round, and I expect to win the group with a 100% record. Iran are strong defensively but I don’t see them being a factor.
My top two: Spain and Portugal
While Group B looks a little dour, I expect more flair and excitement from Group C. France’s squad is unbelievable but there is a nagging feeling with them that they don’t know their best system, which could ultimately see them fall short. Les Bleus are strong favourites to top the group with Peru and Denmark scrapping it out for the other qualifying spot. Peru are at their first World Cup since 1982 and have captain Paolo Guerrero back in questionable circumstances after his drugs ban was temporarily lifted. Australia don’t look particularly strong this year but they can’t be underestimated, while Denmark have the long throws of Jonas Knudsen which will strike fear into the hearts of the world’s greatest footballers.
My top two: France and Peru
This group looks similar to Group C on paper, but for various reasons this could be the most open group. Argentina and Croatia should theoretically go through, but they are having issues with a shambolic defence and perjury chances respectively. This is surely Lionel Messi’s last chance to win a World Cup, and while his team has plenty of attacking options they won’t be strong enough at the back in the latter stages. Croatia are not at their best but it’s difficult to make a compelling argument for either Iceland or Nigeria to go through ahead of them. Having said that, Iceland finished ahead of Croatia in qualifying so they can’t be written off, and Nigeria should be capable of scoring goals.
My top two: Argentina and Croatia
Brazil were a shambles by the end of the 2014 World Cup, but in the intervening years their squad has improved significantly and they are one of the pre-tournament favourites. I fully expect them to come through this group with a 100% record, but second place is harder to call. Switzerland are sixth in the FIFA rankings, and while that is probably overstating their strength they will still fancy their chances of making the second round. Serbia have some in-form players, including Milinkovic-Savic and Mitrovic, while Costa Rica will be hoping to repeat their performance from four years ago, where they topped the ‘Group of Death’ ahead of Uruguay, Italy and England.
My top two: Brazil and Switzerland
This is one of the more clear-cut groups of this year’s World Cup, with two clear favourites to qualify. Reigning champions Germany are tipped to go deep in the tournament again and they’ll have no problems making it to the second round. They have even been able to leave Leroy Sane at home, an indication of the strength and depth in their squad. Mexico have regularly made it through the group stage at previous World Cups and I expect them to do the same again this time, with neither Sweden or South Korea strong enough to cause major problems. The Swedes squeaked past a shambolic Italy to make it to Russia but they lack the firepower to go deep in this tournament.
My top two: Germany and Mexico
It would be a major surprise if England or Belgium failed to make it through this group, despite the deficiencies of both sides. Gareth Southgate’s squad is the least capped squad at the tournament and expectations are low, but the lack of pressure may well work in their favour. Belgium’s biggest weakness is the man standing on the touchline – their squad may still be one of the best in Russia but Martinez lacks the tactical nous to take them to the latter stages. Tunisia have the potential to cause a surprise, especially given England’s recent World Cup record, but I expect an ageing Panama side to be out of their depth.
My top two: England and Belgium
This group is another tough one to call with no standout side. Poland waltzed through qualifying but may have peaked a year early – they will be reliant on Robert Lewandowski’s goals if they are to make it to the latter stages. James Rodriguez burst onto the world stage in 2014 and he will be the key man for Colombia as the aim to repeat that success, and I’m confident they should be able to see off both Japan and Senegal. The latter have a number of top-level players, including Sadio Mane and Kalidou Koulibaly, so they will be a threat and have a strong chance of going through, but I can’t see Japan causing any major problems.
My top two: Colombia and Poland