With the first match of the tournament just under a week away, which teams are favourites to top their groups, and which will potentially be the dark horses of the tournament? This World Cup is an interesting one, teams such as Iceland and Egypt will want to prove that they can take on the big teams and win, Germany are aiming to retain their title and join the illustrious group of teams who have won World Cup titles back to back. Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo will continue their on-going battle to prove who the best player in the world is. Players like Mohammed Salah, Neymar and Antoine Griezmann will want to carry their club form across to their performances for the national team. All this, when mixed together at the biggest competition in the world, should amount to an incredibly exciting tournament, with I expect, more than one surprise.
Group A – Russia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Uruguay
Group Favourite – Uruguay
Player to watch – Mohammed Salah (Egypt), Luis Suarez (Uruguay), Edinson Cavani (Uruguay)
Team to Watch – Egypt
Uruguay had a good tournament in 2014 and have a strong team this year spearheaded by Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, and anchored by Diego Godin. If they can get off to a flying start then progression from this group should be easily achievable. Egypt will also fancy their chances of getting through to the knockout stages. For them, the hope will be that Mohammed Salah recovers from the injury suffered and replicates his form at Liverpool. Russia will be looking to impress at their home tournament but they lack the quality across the pitch to challenge for the top group place. Their first game with Saudi Arabia will be an interesting one, and I can see an upset happening here, with Saudi Arabia taking advantage of any nervousness shown by the hosts.
Group B – Portugal, Spain, Morocco, Iran
Group favourites – Spain
Players to watch – Andres Iniesta (Spain), David Silva (Spain), Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal)
Team to watch – Portugal
Coming after their Euro 2016 win, Portugal will expect to get through to the knockout stages of the tournament, but I feel they won’t be progressing as group winners. There are 13 players in the squad who won that final in 2016, with a number of new, young faces and I think their reliance on Cristiano Ronaldo will mean that they will struggle if he is injured. Spain, champions in 2010, had a disappointing tournament in 2014. The Spaniards have a strong spine to their team, with some exciting young players yearning to prove themselves on the biggest stage. I expect Iran to be a tricky obstacle for the two European sides, it took Argentina 91 minutes and Lionel Messi to find a way through and defeat them in 2014, so a difficult game lies in wait. Also, keep an eye on the little magician Andres Iniesta, probably appearing in his last international tournament. He might be the inspiration Spain need to get to the latter stages of the tournament.
Group C – France, Australia, Peru, Denmark
Group favourites – France
Players to watch – Christian Eriksen (Denmark), Kylian Mbappe (France), Mat Ryan (Australia)
Team to watch – France
France’s Euro 2016 final defeat was a significant blow. It was felt by many that this was the ideal opportunity for the “golden” generation to win a trophy on home soil, but to no avail as they were defeated by Portugal. France has a point to prove. Their team is full of quality players, many of whom are young and hungry for success. Kylian Mbappe for example has had a brilliant couple of seasons in Ligue 1 and will hopefully continue that run into this World Cup. If he, along with Antoine Griezmann, Paul Pogba, N’Golo Kante, Ousmane Dembele and others perform, then we could be looking at potential finalists, and even champions. Peru may also be a dark horse in this group. They earned their place in this year’s tournament, defeating New Zealand 2-0 in a play-off, and are ranked 11th in the world, one place behind Spain, so don’t be surprised if they go through in second place. Christian Eriksen will be looking to impress after a good season with Tottenham Hotspur. I am a big fan of him as a player and wouldn’t be shocked if he helps Denmark fight for a place in the knockout stages.
Group D – Argentina, Iceland, Croatia, Nigeria
Group favourites – Argentina
Players to watch – Lionel Messi (Argentina), Paulo Dybala (Argentina), Johann Berg Gudmundsson (Iceland), Luka Modric (Croatia)
Team to watch – Iceland
Group D, this World Cup’s Group of Death. Although I have gone with Argentina to top the group, I wouldn’t be surprised to see any of these for sides there when the group stages have finished. The Argentines, with their firepower up front, are my favourites but I don’t think it will be an easy ride for them. Croatia and Iceland are talented sides, with the latter showing at the Euros what a dangerous team they can be when they are underestimated, just ask Roy Hodgson and England! Johann Berg Gudmundsson was a key player for Burnley as they qualified for the Europa League this season, and I expect him to play a similar role for Iceland at the World Cup, along with Everton’s Gylfi Sigurdsson. Nigeria will be tough opponents, and will cause problems themselves with the attacking talent they have at their disposal. Definitely a group to keep your eye on!
Group E – Brazil, Switzerland, Costa Rica, Serbia
Group favourites – Brazil
Players to watch – Neymar Jr. (Brazil), Alisson (Brazil), Xherdan Shaqiri (Switzerland), Sergej Milinkovic-Savic (Serbia)
Team to watch – Brazil
Following the harrowing semi-final defeat to Germany four years ago, Brazil will be looking to set the record straight. Talisman Neymar has recovered from the injury he suffered in February and will hope to fire Brazil to a sixth World Cup trophy. The attacking talents in this Brazil side are plentiful, but this time they are backed up by a strong midfield and a goalkeeper in Alisson who had a tremendous domestic season for Roma. So much so, that his signature is highly sought after by Real Madrid and Liverpool. Xherdan Shaqiri is one of Switzerland’s danger men and this World Cup will be a good opportunity for him to boost his profile as he looks for a move away from relegated Stoke City. Serbia will be difficult to defeat, and possessing some talented young players so may cause an upset or two. Costa Rica reached the last 16 at the 2014 World Cup, and will hope to at least match this result.
Group F – Germany, Mexico, Sweden, South Korea
Group favourites – Germany
Players to watch – Thomas Muller (Germany), Timo Werner (Germany), Son Heung-min (South Korea), Hirving Lozano (Mexico)
Team to watch – Germany
Current world champions Germany will want to put a marker down early, and show that they mean business in defending their title. Thomas Muller will also be aiming to get closer to compatriot Miroslav Klose’s record as the all-time leading World Cup goal scorer. He needs seven goals in order to beat Klose’s total, and seeing as Muller is 28 and has at least another World Cup in him, only a fool would bet against him reaching seventeen World Cup goals. However, Germany’s form going into this tournament isn’t brilliant, but I expect a team of Germany’s calibre to turn on the style once they’re there. South Korea are an interesting prospect. South Korea are an interesting prospect. Son Heung-min enjoyed a good season with Tottenham Hotspur and South Korea will need him and Ki Sung-yueng performing to the best of their ability in order to potentially cause an upset and qualify in second place. Mexico will fancy themselves for second place, with Javier Hernandez being given the task of scoring the goals to get them there. Keep an eye on Mexican youngster Hirving Lozano, he has had a stellar domestic season for PSV Eindhoven scoring 19, and assisting 11 in 34 games, and if he can transfer that sort of form then Mexico will be a dangerous side for any team.
Group G – Belgium, England, Panama, Tunisia
Group favourite – Belgium
Players to watch – Kevin De Bruyne (Belgium), Eden Hazard (Belgium), Romelu Lukaku (Belgium), Harry Kane (England), Marcus Rashford (England)
Team to watch – Belgium
With all the talent available to manager Roberto Martinez, Belgium fans must fancy their chances at this World Cup. This “golden” generation of individuals has the ability to go all the way, but will they be able to perform as a team? This question remains unanswered, and games against Panama and then Tunisia will be good markers of how this team is gelling. Belgium’s final group game against England may be the decider for who goes through as group winners, with both teams aiming to claim the top position. Harry Kane will hope that he can captain England to the knockout stages and further, but with a young, inexperienced squad, this tournament may be too soon for them. However, with players such as Kane, Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford, I wouldn’t discount England’s ability to reach the latter stages of the tournament. If Gareth Southgate can find the right balance in his team, and give them the freedom to express themselves, then England may better their 2014 result, a disappointing group stage exit, as well as their last 16 Euro 2016 result. Still, I don’t believe that Southgate knows his preferred first XI, so it will be interesting to see the team that plays in the first game. Panama and Tunisia, although lacking the quality of many World Cup teams, will be difficult to break down and will relish the chance to play European giants such as Belgium and England.
Group H – Poland, Senegal, Colombia, Japan
Group favourite – Poland
Players to watch – Robert Lewandowski (Poland), James Rodriguez (Colombia), Sadio Mane (Senegal), Keita Balde Diao (Senegal),
Team to watch – Senegal
The question here is can James Rodriguez replicate his form from the 2014 World Cup? If he can then Colombia will be dark horses and may go further into the competition than many think. Poland have a strong team and should progress as winners. Lewandowski is a natural goal scorer and if he is on form then Poland will be hard to stop. Senegal also boast a strong team this tournament, and may provide more than one shock. Underestimate them at your peril. Japan will be looking to give a good account of themselves but I feel the other three teams in this group will be stronger than them and they may leave disappointed in a few weeks time.