For all of the talk leading into Friday’s draw about who wasn’t in this year’s tournament (Chile, Italy, the Netherlands, and the United States among many others), the atmosphere after the draw generally seems to be one that is optimistic. While there are certainly some matches that won’t exactly light the world on fire (Russia versus Saudi Arabia as an example) there are certainly plenty of matches that will move the needle and hopefully provide some quality football.
So let’s take a look at each group and the matches.
Russia vs Saudi Arabia (6/14 Moscow)
Egypt vs Uruguay (6/15, Yekaterinburg)
Russia vs Egypt (6/19, St. Petersburg)
Uruguay vs Saudi Arabia (6/20, Rostov)
Uruguay vs Russia (6/25, Samara)
Saudi Arabia vs Egypt (6/25, Volgograd)
Very early prediction: Uruguay, Egypt, Russia, Saudi Arabia
Quick thoughts: Heading into this tournament Russia was by far the weakest of the eight sides out of Pot A and so there was some concern that they might become just the second host ever in World Cup history to fail to make it to the knockout stage (South Africa was the first in 2010). That fear was lessened some with a group that features two sides that have not made the World Cup in decades (Egypt and Saudi Arabia) and a Uruguay side that struggled to qualify through South America. But with an easier schedule comes additional pressure and Russia will really need to step up their game if they are to advance.
If there is one match that could tip the scales in this group it is likely to be Egypt versus Uruguay. With Mohamed Salah of Liverpool scored five goals for Egypt during World Cup Qualification and is very quickly becoming one of the top goalscorers in the world. But their defense is suspect and with Luis Suarez (Barcelona) and Edinson Cavani (Paris St. Germain) Uruguay will certainly have the firepower to match The Pharaohs goal for goal.
Morocco vs Iran (6/15, Saint Petersburg)
Portugal vs Spain (6/15, Sochi)
Portugal vs Morocco (6/20, Moscow)
Iran vs Spain (6/20, Kazan)
Iran vs Portugal (6/25, Saransk)
Spain vs Morocco (6/25, Kaliningrad)
Very early prediction: Spain, Portugal, Iran, Morocco
Quick thoughts: Portugal versus Spain is obviously the talk of the tournament so far and with good reason given all of the subplots with Ronaldo. But let’s remember that very often in tournaments like this both Spain and Portugal will play it safe in group stage matches. It has proven effective for both sides given the number of titles that they have won but anyone expecting a great all-time match in the group stage may be disappointed.
The real dark horse of this group and this tournament is Iran. During the final round of World Cup Qualification Iran conceded just two goals the lowest in all of the Asia. Head coach Carlos Queiroz has put together a side that will bend but not break and is deadly on the counter-attack. Morocco plays a very similar style and with center-back Medhi Benatia (Juventus) holding down the fort they will likely not be a pushover either. The two giants of Europe would be wise to not overlook their opponents in Group B or they may find themselves out of the tournament early.
France vs Australia (6/16, Kazan)
Peru vs Denmark (6/16, Saransk)
France vs Peru (6/21, Yekaterinburg)
Denmark vs Australia (6/21, Samara)
Denmark vs France (6/26, Moscow)
Australia vs Peru (6/26, Sochi)
Very early prediction: France, Denmark, Peru, Australia
Quick thoughts: Barring some sort of 2010-level catastrophe France should get past this group rather easily. That isn’t necessarily a knock against Australia, Denmark, and Peru but rather a testament to the level of talent that Didier Deschamps has at his disposal. Les Bleus are stacked from top to bottom at the forward position with Antoine Greizmann (Atletico Madrid), Kylian Mbappe (Paris St. Germain), Kingsley Coman (Bayern Munich), Anthony Martial (Manchester United), Olivier Giroud (Arsenal), and many others vying for a finite number of spots. But one thing to remember is that France has been flush with talent before and because of poor roster decisions they have underperformed. Deschamps has to find the right roster for this team to make a deep run.
The real battle in this group though will be for second place with all three sides having a puncher’s chance of advancing. Denmark looks to be the stronger side Christian Eriksen of Tottenham lighting up the Premier League. But don’t count out Paolo Guerrero or Peru and Tim Cahill of Australia. With two talismanic strikers both Peru and Australia should have the craft and the guile to find the back of the net and keep their sides in matches during the Group Stage.
Argentina vs Iceland (6/16, Moscow)
Croatia vs Nigeria (6/16, Kaliningrad)
Argentina vs Croatia (6/21, Novgorod)
Nigeria vs Iceland (6/22, Volgograd)
Nigeria vs Argentina (6/26, Saint Petersburg)
Iceland vs Croatia (6/26, Rostov)
Very early prediction: Argentina, Iceland, Croatia, Nigeria
Outlook: Is this Messi’s last stand with Argentina? The four-time FIFA ballon d’Or winner still has yet to find glory with Argentina’s senior side and although he is just 30 years old, one has to wonder if time is running out. While his form has not depreciated for country his teammates still have yet to match his output, as evidenced by their struggles during World Cup Qualification. Croatia look to be a very strong side. However, they have only made it out of the Group Stage just once (1998-Third Place). Whether they can get points against Argentina Novgorod will largely determine their fate in Group D.
What will be interesting to see is how Iceland fare in their debut World Cup. The smallest nation to ever qualify for the World Cup bear Croatia once during qualification and held their own in a 2-0 loss to their Group D mates in Zagreb. The big question for them will likely be if they can handle the speed of Nigeria, a match that they have to earn three points out of if they have any designs of advancing. The Super Eagles did just beat Argentina 2-0 in Russia in a friendly so they should feel confident going into this tournament. However, their inexperience may prove costly against three other sides who are tested in major tournaments.
Costa Rica vs Serbia (6/17, Samara)
Brazil vs Switzerland (6/17, Rostov)
Brazil vs Costa Rica (6/22, Saint Petersburg)
Serbia vs Switzerland (6/22, Kaliningrad)
Serbia vs Brazil (6/27, Moscow)
Switzerland vs Costa Rica (6/27, Novgorod)
Very early prediction: Brazil, Costa Rica, Switzerland, Serbia
Outlook: Brazil’s road to redemption will make its way to Russia 2018 with the side favored to go deep into the tournament. Tite has rebuilt the five-time champions into a side that looks and plays more like the Brazil of old. During CONMEBOL qualification Brazil scored 41 times, which was the most among all South American sides. With multiple attacking options like Neymar (Paris St. Germain), Gabriel Jesus (Manchester City), Paulinho (Barcelona), and Philippe Coutinho (Liverpool) Brazil should have little trouble making it into the knockout stage and beyond.
The operative word there is of course should. Brazil will be lined up against three of the best defensive sides in the tournament in Switzerland, Costa Rica, and Serbia. All three sides play a defensive that requires tight marking and physical challenges meant to not only disrupt play but also the psyche of their opponents. Especially against the likes of Costa Rica and Serbia Brazil have to maintain their composure or they will find themselves playing into their opponent’s hands. Brazil cannot underestimate their opponents in this tournament or it may be an early exit.
Second place in this group will be perhaps one of the closest calls of the group stage. Of the three sides Costa Rica seems to have the edge because they are adept at playing both sides of the ball and do not have any sort of off-the-field drama (Serbia). Look for goalkeeper Keylor Navas (Real Madrid) and forward Marco Urena (San Jose Earthquakes) to have huge tournaments in Russia.
Germany vs Mexico (6/17, Moscow)
South Korea vs Sweden (6/18, Novgorod)
South Korea vs Mexico (6/23, Rostov)
Germany vs Sweden (6/23, Sochi)
South Korea vs Germany (6/27, Kazan)
Mexico vs Sweden (6/27, Yekaterinburg)
Very early prediction: Germany, Mexico, Sweden, South Korea
Outlook: Let’s get this out of the way: Germany will win this group. Die Mannschaft won all of their matches in qualification (10-0-0), scored 43 goals, and allowed just four. Four! With a defense that boasts the likes of Joshua Kimmich and Mats Hummels (both of Bayern Munich) and one of the best goalkeepers in the world in Manuel Neuer (also of Munich) Germany should very easily dispatch their opponents in Group F.
The real battle in Group F will be for second place with both Mexico and Sweden having the edge over a South Korean side that struggled during qualification. Mexico have the experience advantage over both Korea and Sweden. However they also have the tendency to allow one bad result to affect their performance in their next match. They need to avoid another 3-1 drubbing from Germany in their first match. Head coach Juan Carlos Osorio has fended off his detractors so far by always getting a result at the right time. Having a healthy Javier Hernandez (West Ham United) would go a long way towards securing a spot in the knockout round over a Swedish side that has no problem taking out World Cup mainstays (just ask Italy).
Belgium vs Panama (6/18, Sochi)
Tunisia vs England (6/18, Volgograd)
Belgium vs Tunisia (6/23, Moscow)
England vs Panama (6/24, Novgorod)
England vs Belgium (6/28, Kaliningrad)
Panama vs Tunisia (6/28, Saransk)
Very early prediction: Belgium, England, Tunisia, Panama
Outlook: Let’s just call this the ‘high-upside’ group. Both Belgium and England will likely feature sides that have a host of very enticing young prospects or players that are just about to reach their potential. Meanwhile Tunisia and Panama very much fit the mold of teams that are undervalued in the international game and could pull off a couple shock results. That both the English and Belgians have vastly underperformed at the senior level in recent tournaments makes this group much closer than it looks.
The two players from this group to keep an eye on are Harry Kane (Tottenham) of England and Romelu Lukaku (Manchester United) of Belgium. Goal Differential will play a huge role in terms who finishes on top of Group G and both are sides are going to need their number one striker to find the back of the net against the two minnows of the group. Belgium and England have struggled in recent tournaments because they haven’t had that one player that can put the team on their back and carry them to a result. With both players at around the same age (Kane will 24 in Russia while Lukaku will have just turned 25) this might be their best chance to show what they can do at the peak of their career.
Also, we are putting our money on Blas Perez of Panama being the villain of the tournament. Those who have watched him in Major League Soccer through the years know that there is perhaps no player who can get under an opponent, the referee, other supporters, the broadcasters, the mascots, and at times his own teammates skin more than El Toro. If we find BBC Commentary of the England-Panama match we will make sure to share it.
Colombia vs Japan (6/18, Saransk)
Poland vs Senegal (6/19, Moscow)
Japan vs Senegal (6/24, Yekaterinburg)
Poland vs Colombia (6/24, Kazan)
Japan vs Poland (6/28, Volgograd)
Senegal vs Colombia (6/28, Samara)
Very early prediction: Poland, Colombia, Japan, Senegal
Outlook: If you are looking for a dark horse to win it all in Russia, or at least make the top four, Poland may be your best bet. The Eagles posted an 8-1-1 record in qualification beating two very good sides in Denmark and Montenegro to earn the automatic bid out of their group. Forward Robert Lewandowski (Bayern Munich) was a big part of that run, scoring 16 of their 26 goals. His partnership with Jakub Błaszczykowski of VFL Wolfsburg has turned Poland from a team that struggled to qualify for major tournaments into one of the best sides in the world.
This will not be an easy group for them though. Colombia, despite their struggles in qualification, still feature James Rodriguez of Real Madrid while Japan are perhaps one of the most underrated attacking sides in the international game. This will likely be the last World Cup for Japan’s three-headed monster of Shinji Kagawa (Borussia Dortmund), Shinji Kagawa (Leicester City), and Keisuke Honda (Pachuca) so the Samurai Blue will want to go out with a bang. Senegal aren’t pushovers either having beaten African giants Cote D’Ivoire, South Africa, and Cape Verde in qualifying. But they have only qualified once for the World Cup (2002) and have only made it out of the group stage in the African Cup of Nations once in the last ten years (2017).
2018 World Cup