The 2018 World Cup takes place in Russia from 14 June to 15 July. There are thirty-two teams taking part in eight groups of four, with the top two going through to the knockout stage. There are seven previous winners taking part and not surprisingly, they are the first seven in the betting. The only previous winners who are not here are Italy who were defeated by Sweden in the play-offs. There are seven seeds and Russia as hosts who were kept apart in the draw. Previous winners Spain, England and Uruguay were not seeded in the draw.
The hosts Russia have avoided the big guns with their seeding but there are plenty of “shrewdies” who believe they may still struggle to qualify from their group, despite home advantage. They have slipped out of the top 50 in World rankings and could struggle to beat Uruguay and a Mo Salah led Egypt. They should have too much for Saudi Arabia but will need a result from one of the other two. Uruguay will be very difficult to breakdown and a lot will depend on Suarez and Cavani up front and captain Godin marshalling the defence. Mo Salah has been on fire this season and if he can continue banging in the goals, Egypt are a danger to both Russia and Uruguay. Russia’s home advantage may be neutralised by the fact that weather conditions will be conducive to most teams, unlike when South Korea over performed with humid conditions.
It will be a major surprise if either Morocco or Iran are good enough to qualify but Morocco may be capable of taking a point off either Spain or Portugal and that could affect who finishes top of the Group. Morocco are unbeaten in fifteen games going back to June 2017 so will be tough to beat. Spain are once again one of the favourites to win outright and their match against European Champions Portugal will be fascinating. There has been only one recent meeting of the two, in 2010, where the game ended 0-0 and Spain won on penalties. As this is the first game of the group, expect things to be tight once again and a repeat score line is not out of the question. Iran are likely to struggle but do boast a number of European based players so will not be tactically naive.
It will be a surprise if France do not win the Group with the strength of their squad but they have imploded in the past and those taking 1.30 for them to win the group may have a couple of long matches to endure. The other three in the group all have a chance to qualify, with Denmark the most likely according to bookmakers who have all but written off Peru and in particular Australia. The Socceroos are no mugs and with Dutchman Bert van Marwijk at the helm, they could provide an upset. Denmark saw off Ireland in the play-offs but their squad seems to lack a little depth and Peru who usually field a number of household names have a squad that is largely unknown in Europe. They were not impressive in qualifying and beat New Zealand in the play-off game over two legs. Denmark v Australia may be the game that settles second place if the French are on their game and top the section.
Argentina are clear favourites but who will finish second is anyone’s guess. Iceland have qualified for a second tournament in a row and will be vociferously followed by a huge army of fans. The key to their success will be the two games against Croatia and Nigeria. I really wouldn’t want to call who will finish second here but the bookies have Croatia as favourites. Croatia and Iceland have met in recent seasons and Croatia won a two-legged play-off for the 2014 World Cup. These two meet in the last group game and it could be winner takes all. Nigeria are hard to get an angle on, they qualified comfortably in a group with Zambia and Cameroon but they have looked very in and out in recent friendlies however beat Argentina 4-2 in Russia last year. This is probably the group to leave alone as Argentina could have top spot sewn up before their final game and that may give Nigeria a chance.
Tournament favourites Brazil head the group and let’s hope we see the Samba football that we didn’t four years ago. There is nothing better in football than a Brazilian side playing flair football at the top of their game. Neymar could be key with his goals but this may be the tournament that highlights the skills of Coutinho. Serbia topped their group in qualifying and the rankings and the bookmakers have it close between them and Switzerland for second. Serbia lost once in a tough group with Ireland, Wales and Austria whilst the Swiss were level on points with Portugal losing just the once, away in Lisbon, but it was a much easier group. Assuming that Costa Rica are not as good as four years ago, (often a dangerous assumption) then I see Serbia getting second. Switzerland play Brazil in the first game followed by Serbia. If they lose to Brazil, then they could not afford to lose to Serbia and that would make them vulnerable. Serbia could guarantee second place with a win and not have to worry about their last game with Brazil. Costa Rica will be no pushovers but lack a superstar in an ageing squad but did top their group four years ago so Serbia and Switzerland will have to be careful.
Germany will be the bankers for many in the group betting and it is difficult to see who can stop them. Mexico and Sweden are both decent sides but the Germans are past masters at how to get through these qualifying groups with the minimum of fuss and are priced at around 1.40 to win it. Sweden had to come through the play-offs but did knock out Italy and in any one-off game are dangerous but they struggled on the road in the group stages and may let Mexico in for second. They qualified finishing top of the group containing USA, Costa Rica and Panama, losing just one game. They play Germany first and may then need to win the last two but they are capable of that and the final game is against Sweden where winner may take all. South Korea are the other team in the group and are an older squad whose best days are almost certainly behind them at this level.
This is probably the most important Group for the readers, with bookmakers clearly believing that Belgium and England will qualify, but will it be that simple. Belgium look solid and have a squad full of top players but I just have a feeling that they don’t completely play as a team and if England start the first two matches well, the final game could be closer than many expect. England always shoot themselves in the foot and a draw with Costa Rica four years ago saw them fail to qualify after losses to Italy and Uruguay. This group is easier but Tunisia are being written off which is typical of the UK media. Tunisia are currently ranked 14 in the World, one place behind England and whilst the rankings are based on many unimportant factors, it shows that Tunisia are no mugs. They can be backed at 10/1 to beat England and that is too big. Should they survive the opening game, England should then grow in confidence. Panama are probably making up the numbers as they were thumped 6-0 by the Swiss in a friendly in March and it could have been double figures.
Arguably the most open group of the eight but the bookmakers see Colombia as favourites however their form in qualifying was mixed and hardly had them marked down as serious contenders. They were unable to manage a single point away at Brazil, Argentina or Uruguay so although they may not get too far in the competition, they will meet nobody of that quality in the Group so are rightly favourites. That said they had a decent win in a friendly in Paris earlier this year and it will tough for the other three to stop them qualifying. Japan were reasonably solid in qualification but didn’t have many tough games although they did beat Australia at home and drew away. Senegal are difficult to weigh up as they won a weak group but did beat South Africa home and away and were unbeaten. Poland are the team many fancy for the group after they topped a tough looking group losing just one game. Their chances will depend on how Lewandowski performs and with rumours that he is looking for a big move to Spain, he may well come to the fore.
It is very difficult to see past the favourites in most of the groups as the extended 32 team format means there are two weaker teams in each group and should ensure the safe passage of most of the fancied teams. The most vulnerable are probably the hosts, Russia in Group A, Denmark in Group C and the two favourites in Group H, Poland and Colombia and England in Group G. Probably the best speculative bets are Egypt to qualify from Group A, Australia to qualify from Group C and Serbia to qualify in Group E.
If all pans out as the betting expects it too, the quarter finals would be Portugal v France, Brazil v Belgium, Spain v Argentina and Germany v England. After that a lot is down to nerves, experience and a little luck. I expect the Germans to be tough to beat in defence of their trophy and can see a Brazil v Germany final where the Brazilians would be looking for revenge for four years ago.
Looking at those first eight in the betting, Brazil and Germany are the two obvious big guns. Brazil need a big performance after their poor show at home four years ago and there is no doubt, as usual, that they have a huge amount of flair in the squad and the brilliance of Neymar. For me they will make the last four but at that stage they will be under huge pressure, and that makes then too short at 9/2 to consider outright. Germany are a different proposition though, as they know how to win and very rarely suffer from nerves or pressure. Once again, they should easily make the last four and after that their experience will kick in, they will be hard to beat. Spain and France come next and I feel I must oppose them for different reasons. Spain are a solid squad but lack a real top world class goal scorer. I cannot believe that France will not somehow implode by their own making. Everyone is raving about this squad but I think they are vulnerable at the back against a real top side and they may struggle to pass the quarter final stage. England are England and just never win. They have a young squad who may not feel the pressure that previous squads have felt and that will help them. However, a possible quarter final against Germany is the best they can expect but there is that banana skin in the first game and a loss to Tunisia will see them home early again. Argentina will depend hugely on Messi and if he has to perform at his best to see them win, but that is entirely possible and a quarter final against Spain would be mouth-watering. Of the other two, Belgium seem to be very like the French in that there appears to be little cliques in the squad and I cannot see them getting past Brazil. Portugal are lively outsiders even with a squad that looks a little short of top class, as with Messi for Argentina, Cristiano Ronaldo will be the key but they could easily make the semi-finals and a clash with Brazil. Of the other outsiders, keep an eye on Croatia at 33s who could provide you with a good run with players of the class of Modric, Rakitic and Mandzukic in the team.
Good luck with whatever team you decide to back and let’s hope for lots of entertaining football and plenty of goals and winnings!!