Russia is all set to host the 21st FIFA World Cup, and the month long carnival is set to kick off on Thursday (June 14th) as the hosts take on Saudi Arabia. Here is a small preview of the teams and likely qualifiers to the knockout stages.
URUGUAY, RUSSIA, SAUDI ARABIA, EGYPT
Spearheaded by Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, Uruguay will be the favourites to qualify from Group A. The two-time world cup champions had one of the most difficult qualifying phases, grouped with Argentina and Brazil, and finished second. They have lost just one of their last 9 games (all internationals) and their toughest competition is expected to come from Egypt. The African nation, who will be playing in the World Cup for the first time in 28 years, will be riding on their incredible qualifying campaign. They will also rely on their star man Mohamed Salah, who converted a 94th minute penalty to secure their ticket. However, his fitness remains a worry after he suffered a shoulder injury in the Champions League finals with Liverpool.
Russia and Saudi Arabia will kick off the 2018 World Cup. Russia will be buoyed by their home support, however their recent form will not make easy reading. They are winless in 7 games, conceding 13 goals in the process. They would want to improve their showing in the major stage as well after they failed to win a game in the previous edition in Brazil.
Coached by former Chile coach Juan Antonio Pizzi, Saudi Arabia will be making their fifth appearance in the World Cup. Striker Mohammad-Al-Sahlawi finished joint top scorer in the qualification to Russia and Saudi Arabia will be dependent on his goals if they are to secure their first win since the 1994 edition.
PORTUGAL, SPAIN, MOROCCO, IRAN
European stalwart Portugal and Spain will be favourites to qualify to the knockout phases. Spain has endured disappointment in the last few international tournaments, and their preparations for the Russian World Cup was mired in confusion as they sacked head coach Julen Lopetegui just 24 hours ahead of the start of the World Cup. Despite Loptegui chopping and changing things up front, Spain have shone in front of goal, scoring 24 in their last 9 internationals, including 6 against Argentina.
Portugal will rely on their talisman Cristiano Ronaldo (81 intl. goals in 149 games) in front of goal and hey will fancy their chances to make it to the last 8 with a formidable mix of youth and experience in midfield and in the back line.
Morocco and Iran complete Group B. Both these sides could pull of an upset on their day, but if they can do it under pressure remains to be seen. Iran, who were the first to qualify for Russia from Asia, have had a decent run going into the World Cup, winning 7 of their last 10 games under Carlos Queiroz and will be the likelier side to challenge Spain or Portugal.
FRANCE, PERU, DENMARK, AUSTRALIA
France will be favourites to qualify from Group C. The 2016 Euro Runners-Up have abundant talent at their disposal and it would be considered a disappointing campaign if they do not make it to the last 4 atleast. Antoine Griezmann is expected to lead the front line, and with the pace of Kylian Mbappe on the wing and Paul Pogba driving forward from midfield, France have a potent attacking threat. However, at the back, Didier Deschamp’s side have kept just one clean sheet in their last 6 games.
It will be an interesting watch to see how the other 3 teams in the group, namely Peru, Denmark and Australia, fare. All 3 teams have had difficult qualifying campaigns, and the Cristian Eriksen led Denmark will probably have the slight edge over the other two teams.
ARGENTINA, NIGERIA, CROATIA, ICELAND
Lionel Messi’s hat trick fired Argentina into the World Cup on the final day of South American qualifiers, and they have a less than straight forward task from getting out of their group in Russia. Paired with Croatia, Nigeria and Iceland, Jorge Sampoli’s side will need to up their game from their qualifying showing which included 7 wins, 7 Draws and 4 Losses.
Nigeria got the better of Argentina when the two sides met in November, and with a young and dynamic squad the Super Eagles could pull off a surprise or two in the tournament. With Luka Modric pulling the strings in midfield, ably supported by Ivan Rakitic, Ivan Perisic, Mario Mandzukic, a hugely experienced Croation side are likely to pose the toughest challenge to Argentina.
After their exploits in the 2016 Euros, Iceland can no longer be considered “minnows”, but whether the debutants can repeat their heroics on the World Cup stage remains to be questioned.
BRAZIL, SWITZERLAND, COSTA RICA, SERBIA
The 7-1 drubbing from Germany in the previous edition will no doubt still be fresh in Brazil’s mind. However, since Tite took over, the Samba Boys have showed glimpses of their attacking best, tasting defeat just once of and topping their qualification group, which included Argentina, Uruguay, Colombia and Chile.
Brazil will be one of the favourites to capture their sixth world cup and with a strong defensive unit with silky smooth attack in front, they look one of the most balanced squads in Russia. They are unbeaten in 10, scoring 18 and conceding just 2.
Neymar, who has scored 54 goals in 84 games for Brazil, comes into this World Cup , just as he left the last one, with concerns over his fitness. However, with the likes of Firminho, Gabriel Jesus all in good form, Brazil may not sweat if the 26-year-old is unlikely to feature for the full 90 mins in the opening games.
Switzerland were just pipped by Portugal to gain automatic qualification, and with the likes of Stephan Lichtsteiner and Xherdan Shaqiri in their squad, they will be fancying their chances to progress to the next round. Costa Rica, the surprise quarterfinalists of the 2014 World Cup, will once again be a dark horse. Serbia round off the group, and have some big names in their squad but have flattered to deceive in the big stage. The likes of Nemanja Matic, Branislav Ivanovic, Aleksandar Kolorov provide a solid foundation, but the attack led by Aleksandar Mitrovic will need prove consistency if they are to pack a punch.
GERMANY, MEXICO, SOUTH KOREA, SWEDEN
World Champions Germany will head into Russia with much of the talk being around the omission of Leroy Sane from their squad. Germany romped into Russia by winning all their 10 games in qualification, but Joachim Low’s side will begin their quest for a 5th title on the back of a winless run of 5 in their last 6 matches. They are one of the favourites for the title, and should the No.1 ranked side lift the trophy on July 15th, they will become only the third side to achieve back-to-back World Cups. (Italy and Brazil are the other teams). Youngster Timo Werner is expected to lead the line for the defending champions, who have one of the deepest squads in the competition.
Led by their all-time leading scorer Javier Hernandez and a resurgent Carlos Vela, Mexico are the other team likely to join Germany in the knockout phases. Sweden finished ahead of much more fancied Netherlands in the qualifying stages and knocked Italy out to seal their spot. However, the lack of any real firepower without the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic could hurt Janne Andersson’s side. Last reaching the knockout stages in 2002, South Korea have their task cut out. Tottenham Hotspur’s Son Heung-min had a breakout season in the Premier League and will lead the line for the Asian side, but their defensive fragilities could prove costly as the start their campaign with just one win from their last 6 games.
BELGIUM, ENGLAND, TUNISIA, PANAMA
Belgium and England will headline Group G.
Belgium have a supremely talented squad their all facets of the game, but they have failed to deliver under pressure as a cohesive unit. Expectations are high for their “Golden Generation”, and they come into the World Cup in good form. With 8 wins from their last 10, Belgium have scored 34 goals and leaked just 8 goals.
England have one of the youngest squads in Russia, and their pace in front of goal will be their biggest asset. However, a major worry for Gareth Southgate’s side will be the thin midfield, and center back options. Despite a few weaknesses in their squad, England should comfortably make it out of the group along with Belgium.
Tunisia and Panama complete Group G. Former Sunderland striker Wahbi Khazri will lead the line for Tunisia, while debutants Panama will want to make an impression in their first outing.
COLOMBIA, POLAND, SENEGAL, JAPAN
With no big names in Group H, Colombia will probably be favourites to progress in a wide open group.
Without Radamel Falcao in the previous edition, James Rodriguez finished as the top scorer in Brazil and after a difficult few difficult seasons with Real Madrid, James recaptured his form with 7 goals and 11 assists as Bayern secured the Bundesliga title. Falcao, who will make his World Cup debut at 32, scored 18 goals for Monaco last season and much threat down the attacking front is expected to come from these two.
The young centre back pairing of Totteham Hotspur’s Davinson Sanchez and Barcelona’s Yerry Minna will make an exciting backline.
Poland will be pinning their hopes on Robert Lewandowski, who scored 16 goals in qualifying. Much of their attacking threat will come from their all-time leading scorer to up his tally in Russia in their first appearance since 2006. They have won 5 and lost just 3 of their last 10 games, scoring 19 but have been shaky at the back conceding 13 goals.
Senegal have just one win in their last 5 games coming into the World Cup, and will be outsiders to qualify. Liverpool winger Sadio Mane will need to convert his club form into the international stage, but with a solid midfield Senegal could provide an upset. Japan round up Group H and arrive in Russia on a terrible patch of form. The Blue Samurai’s have lost 6 of their last 10 games, conceding 16 goals in the process and scoring 12. They will bank on the experience of the likes of skipper Makoto Hasebe, Keisuke Honda, Maya Yoshida and Shinji Okazaki if they are to make a splash in their sixth straight world cup.
*Tabular representation of recent form