It’s that time again!
It would seem that a lot of the previews for Egypt have had to be re-written since the CPL final but, all appearances to the contrary, they are more than just the Muhammad Salah show, though the EPL Golden Boot holder is undoubtedly vital to their chances of making good in their first finals appearance since 1990. Salah scored over half of Egypt’s qualifying goals in a sometimes nervy campaign, so if he will be unable to play, Egypt will rapidly have to come up with a Plan B, driven by probing midfielder Mohamed Elheny, left winger Trezeguet, forward director Rangy or veteran goalkeeper El-Hadary, likely to become the oldest player in World Cup history at age 45. Egypt set up defensively which will stand them in good stead against Uruguay, but their forward threat, especially when the left backs are released to surge ahead, should not be dismissed, and you would expect them to beat near-neighbours Saudi Arabia, which just leaves the hosts. Salah would be a huge loss, and though Egypt should still be more than capable of showing why they have won four AFCON’s since their last World Cup appearance (finalists in the most recent edition) without him, one feels that the striker’s absence would have a debilitating impact. We may be about to find out just how good Egypt really are.
The last few years have been poor for Russia, since the highs of that 2008 semi-final finish, with the host nation failing to get to South Africa, and crashing out at every group stage since, including last year’s Confederations Cup. Coach Stanislav Cherchesov wants to set his team up as hard pressing and counter-attacking, but the end result over the last few years of friendlies has been to lose a lot of games and concede a lot of goals. Akinfeev isn’t the keeper he used to be, the defence is patched together after retirements and injuries (10 different players have been used at CB in two years), numerous midfielders have fallen out with the coach, and Russia lack any real stand-out forwards like two of their Group A rivals have (the Russian League’s Fedor Smolov is the likeliest contender after Aleksandr Kokorin of Zenit did his cruciate). Host’s tend to do well in World Cup’s, and not only because they get some extra leeway from officials. The roar of the home crowd can be a motivator. But in Russia, that crowd can turn nasty quick, and be a burden. A good showing in their first game may propel them on, but another first round exit is very conceivable. Only one host nation – South Africa – have failed to advance past the group stage. One doesn’t know if such a statistic will be a relief or a weight for Russia. The game against a Salah-less Egypt may decide their chances.
Saudi Arabia have little to remember fondly about their last two World Cups, memorably shipping twelve goals in three games in 2002, including a 3-0 loss to Ireland. But they have more immediate negatives to deal with: they are currently on their third coach in 12 months after contract disputes and re-evaluations (one of them, Bert van Marwijk, now coaches Australia), and are the lowest ranked team in the Finals (discounting the hosts, who haven’t played competitively recently). As you would expect, a squad made up almost entirely of players from the top two clubs in the Saudi league is unlikely to put much fear into any opponent, and there has been some reported mortification from a botched plan to send some of their best players on loan to La Liga clubs to up their level (they mostly sat on the bench). Still, while I’m not au fait with the Saudi squad at all, you still have to respect their progression through qualifying, pipping Australia to an automatic qualifying spot late-on, and some recent friendly wins, so there is some indication they are prepared to put previous tournament failures behind them. A game-plan based around combining midfield and defence and frustrating opponents seems likely. If they could get something off the hosts in the opener, it would be something. I read that Mohammad Al-Sahlawi, the joint top scorer in Asian qualifying, is the man to watch for them. Nevertheless, replicating their stunning second round performance in 1994 remains a pipe dream.
Has it really only been four years since Luis Suarez’ phantom bite began to derail Uruguay’s bid for a third World Cup? Since then he’s gone from accolade to accolade with Barca, while Uruguay have huffed and puffed in two successive Copa Americas, though they strolled through CONMEBOL qualifying, second only to a rampant Brazil. Coach Oscar Tabarez, a man who has guided most of his team from their debuts to the present, is going into his fourth World Cup with Uruguay and while their days of being considered genuine contenders have probably slipped away, you feel a team with Suarez, Cavani and Godin should make light work of this group. The mixture of youth and experience may fare quite well, even if Tabarez has half an eye on a more blooded team going far in 2022, with a change from his usually conservative counter-attacking style, in favour of something more initiative focused, using the number of new midfielders all trying to nab a starting place. Getting the service to the front two will be the big thing, but there are no opponents here that should cause undue concern, and if they can grab three points in that opener against Egypt, Uruguay should be in a good position. If they match recent tournament form, 2018 could be disastrous but if those front two click, Uruguay could conceivably go quite far.
Iran still holds fond memories of ’98 and the victory over the USA, but that’s all they are: memories. Twenty years on, and they don’t seem any more likely to make a breakthrough at the big stage, despite being the highest ranked Asian team in the competition. A pedestrian stroll through qualification should not be considered too high of an achievement, replete as the AFC is with below-average sides. Their defence is highly rated, but they’ll have to do more than not leak goals to get past this group, and Carlos Queiroz’ side have become a bit more attacking since 2014 . Much of the squad are Asian based which, meaning no disrespect, doesn’t bode well for a team going up against Spain and Portugal. The really big exception, aside from traditional goal-getter Sardar Azmoun, and biggest wild-card, is the Dutch league top-scorer, right winger Alireza Jahanbakhsh, whose fortunes will determine much for Iran, especially against the North Africans. It seems like too much to hope for, and I doubt Iran will be improving much on their limited 2014 performance.
Are Morocco dark horse candidates? Topping a difficult qualifying group, conceding no goals in the process, though three of those matches were 0-0 (made up for in part by a memorable 6-0 destruction of Mali), showcases their ability. Coach Herve Renard is adept at setting up watertight structures and grabbing what he can at the other end, and so it will be interesting seeing Morocco come up against the likes of Spain and Portugal. They should have little trepidation of this challenge really, with low expectations and a capacity to frustrate. At least one point from those Spain/Portugal games is perfectly possible, and Iran are perfectly beatable, which would put the knock-outs on the table. Herve Renard knows how to tackle tournaments too, having won AFCON twice with two different nations. Much will depend on the likes of Ajax’s Hakim Ziyech and chief goalscorer Khalid Boutaib, though maybe it’s Karim El Ahmadi just in front of the back line that will be the linchpin for Morocco’s success or failure.
It seems strange that European Champions Portugal are not really considered one of the favourites, but here we are. Despite winning Euro 2016, despite that impressive nine match winning streak in qualifying, despite only conceding two goals during that run, you still feel that Portugal are just that little bit too limited, too dependent on their star man, with their only losses since the Euros being in matches where Ronaldo was not playing. Detractors easily look at their route to that Euro success, where they failed to click into gear until the semis, and rode their luck big-time before then. A World Cup, where third place won’t be good enough in the group stage, will not forgive such a tardy effort. But if Ronaldo can replicate his late season form, and if that ageing defence headlined by Pepe can hold, they should be able to get out of the group, with the match against their Iberian rivals sure to be telling about their ability to go any further. A quarter-final place is very achievable, and Portugal have proven they can navigate tricky ties if the need arises. Winning the whole thing still can’t be considered a likely outcome, but it would be foolish to discount them entirely.
Well, it can’t go much worse this time for Spain. Four years after the tiki-taka regime fell to pieces in Brazil, and two years on from a disappointing second round exit in France, Spain will be desperate to return to the form that saw them become one of national footballs all-time great teams. Their qualifying form showcased their immense strengths, with 28 points won, 36 goals scored and just three conceded in Julen Lopetegui’s inaugural campaign (compare their 2014 conquerors the Dutch, who failed to make the Finals). The possession centric approach is still ever present, with the likes of Iniesta, Busquets and Silva vital to making it work, and when it does work the results are spectacular, as seen in the 2008-2012 years. But when it breaks down, as it has in those times when Spain fail to make the possession count for much, you get 2014-2016. The lack of a clear goal-scorer may hurt them, with the multitude of options for that role still yet to present an obvious choice. Still, only an idiot would count out a team that has De Gea, Ramos, Isco and Diego Costa among its starters, and Spain should navigate this group easily enough, bar that tantalising Iberian derby perhaps. After that, well, there are a lot of players here going for redemptive national glory for what is likely to be the last time, and that could count for a lot. They should certainly be considered one of the favourites.
(Addendum: Spain have just sacked Lopetegui literally a hour before this post was published, which is bound to have a major effect on their chances. I’ll stick to my current predictions for the sake of simplicity, but I don’t think I would consider them among the leading contenders anymore).
Australia may be perennial qualifiers now, but they still seem unable to push-on and become a potential dark horse. Indeed, there may be a bit of regression, as they needed to get by two tricky play-offs against Syria and Honduras after finishing behind Japan and Saudi Arabia in qualifying, before well-regarded coach Ange Postecoglou resigned, citing the pressure of the job and its impact on his life beyond football. Short-term boss Bert van Marwijk will probably switch Postecoglou’s attacking set-up for a more pragmatic reactive one, with much emphasis on a midfield containing Aaron Mooy and Tom Rogic. Most of the public are probably familiar with Tim Cahill upfront, but it isn’t clear if the ageing target man will get much time on the field: Tomi Juric of Swiss side Lurzen is the man to supplant from that forward position. It’s a very difficult group for the Aussies to tackle, and while it’s unlikely they will disgrace themselves, even 3rd place would be considered a good return. The longer term prospects are more unclear.
I guess after the humiliating circumstances of Ireland’s exit from qualifying, I could do worse than shout for our vanquishers Denmark. In Christian Eriksen they have a truly stand-out player who elevates everyone around him, and plenty of talent elsewhere, from Schmichael in goal to Delaney further up-field. Strong, organised, and capable of playing decent route one football alongside the Eriksen driven counter-attacks, Denmark can turn in some exceptional performances, like that second leg hammering of Ireland, but also a 4-0 obliteration of Poland in qualifying, which really shows why Denmark are in their best position since ’98. Unfortunate for them that they are in such a difficult group, and they may well be the one of three great teams to miss out: some question marks over defensive selections may scupper their chances yet and there is the unfortunately distracting issue of Eriksen’s heavily pregnant partner, due to give birth just as the tournament starts. I think Peru may have the beating of them.
You feel that this may be France’s moment. Notwithstanding that home draw against Luxembourg, they topped a difficult group ahead of Sweden and the Dutch to get here, and will feel they can be considered serious contenders. While they rode their luck a tad in their run to the final two years ago, their quality was obvious, and the core of the team is still quite young as well. Pogba, Kante, Mpappe, Griezman, these are names that would walk into the squads of nearly every other team at the Finals. There may be some issues in defence, especially on the flanks, but on paper France have an incredible team, and a coach, in Didier Deschamps, who knows how to win on the big stage. But we should not discount some of the repeating frailties for France: overbearing expectations from home, inter-squad squabbles and a perception that, when the going gets tough, France struggle to make a team out of their multitude of talented individuals. It’s a difficult group, with banana skins abounding. France should be good enough to top it, but perhaps not without some labour. If they click into gear, it could 1998 and 2000 again. If they don’t, it could be 2002 and 2010. I happen to think they’ll get it together and top the group, but don’t quite see them being contenders for the biggest prize just yet.
Speaking of dark horses, how about Peru? This is a joyous moment for a team that has soared up the FIFA rankings in recent seasons, and will now take part in their first Finals for the better part of four decades. Peru appears to have put behind them allegations of corruption and squad in-fighting that had their association in a dire state as little as seven years ago. Actual qualification was a close shave after a last game 1-1 draw with Columbia and a more difficult than expected play-off with New Zealand, but they have gotten there. The legal drama over captain and star man Pablo Gurrero has been an unwelcome distraction, but now that he has been given clearance he’s likely to be the critical factor in Peru’s efforts, though we should not discount the possible impact of Jefferson Farva of the Russian league and Andre Carillo of the EPL. Defensively very sound, and more adventurous going forward than they ever have been, Peru can have serious expectations of getting out of this group, and potentially going further. It is a tough group but I do fancy Peru to show their team quality and advance, with their match-up against the Danes likely to be the defining showdown.
As always with Argentina, much talk revolves around Messi, with the frankly ridiculous suggestion that this is the 30 year old’s last chance to win an international tournament. Such focus ignores Argentina’s immense attacking capabilities elsewhere – Aguero, Di Maria, Higuian, to name but a few – and helps to cover up their defensive deficiencies, not helped by Jorge Sampaoli’s – the third manager in recent times – sometimes suicidal tactics of attacking full-backs, that nearly led to disaster in a qualifying campaign replete with losses to teams that did not progress. Argentina still got there, barely, but preparations for the Finals have been difficult, with numerous question marks over positional favourites, concerns about a defence suffering from injury and a nasty 6-1 friendly defeat to Spain. They could well be in for a shock against a very capable Icelandic side, and then find themselves under pressure against the others but still, failure to advance to the knock-outs seems inconceivable for a team with this much talent. Winning the whole thing is another matter. If Messi can deliver, in ways he has sometimes struggled on the international level, then anything is possible. But Argentina need their other superstars to step-up just as much.
Croatia are a good team, but I can’t be the only one who perceives them as being a bit stuck. It’s twenty years since they lit up France, but their second golden generation has failed to do the same thing in any of their tournaments. They huffed and puffed at times in qualification, sacking a manager before the end of the campaign, with Zlatko Dalic guiding them to a play-off win over Greece. A squad with this many top-quality midfielders – Modric, Kovacic, Rakitic, Perisic – can’t be under-estimated, and they aren’t without stars up-front either, with Mandzukic just the best of a fine crop. The problems lie mostly off the field, with consistent complaints and rumours that coaches struggle to exert enough influence on the team, or to garner enough respect from the superstars used to playing for the best clubs of Italy and Spain. Defence too might be a worry, with an aging and error prone back-four a consistent Achilles heel. The tie with the other European team in the group is shaping up to be a tense decider between the two already, with Croatia well aware of the danger they pose. This could be Croatia’s low ebb.
At one point will we stop referring to Iceland as underdogs? Russia 2018 may be that moment. The revolution of Icelandic football has seen them leap up the rankings and become competitive at the highest levels, topping qualifying groups and getting to the last eight of Euro 2016, giving England a well-deserved defeat on the way. No other team has as much belief, as much of a tight-knit squad and as much passionate home support as Iceland, and that can count for a lot at events like this, where inexperience can often be a killer. No Icelandic defender will quail in the face of Messi and company, not when the clapping starts. The issue may be in body rather than spirit, with numerous players, including key forwards Sigurdsson and Sigthorsson, and captain Finnbogason, either injured or just returning from injuries. But I have a great respect and fondness for this Icelandic team, who have a tendency to pull off stunning performance just when they need to, and Russia may just be the latest stage. Nigeria, are not world-beaters, they traded wins against Croatia in qualifying and the Argentinians have their problems: why not Iceland to take advantage? They deserve more than labels of flukes, and this is the perfect stage to banish such pronouncements.
Of all the African sides in the World Cup, Nigeria may be the hardest to call in terms of expectations. They play decent attacking football with a young, spirited team and qualified with so much ease they could handle a striped result after fielding an ineligible player. They have a plethora of attacking talent playing in England from Iwobi to Moses to Ndidi, and while he has gone off to the less challenging climes of the Chinese Super League, John Obi Mikel remains a talismanic option at midfield. And yet, it seems you’re just waiting for another off-field dispute, like those that wrecked their 1998 and 2014 campaigns, to spring up again, even if Gernot Rohr’s side look the most united and trouble-free that Nigeria have ever been heading into a tournament. A defence that could be a bit tighter is bound to cause issues, with numerous goalkeeping problems leaving Rohr reliant on 19 year old Francis Uzoho, who has played just two matches at club level this season. It’s a tough group too, with Nigeria having a poor record against Argentina, and thus needing to get something out of tricky ties with Iceland and Croatia. Even without any bonus disputes, this may be a challenge too far.
It was a serious time of introspection for Brazil in the aftermath of that semi-final, and back-to-back stutterings in Copa Americas, but, to their immense credit, they have bounced back. Olympic Success in 2016, combined with a stampeding of CONMEBOL qualification (losing only once in 18 matches) under new coach Tite shows Brazil are very much on the up again, and it’s hard to envision them having too much of an issue with this group. Question marks remain about the fitness of Neymar, but Tite has an array of other attacking options: Coutinho, Firminho, Gabriel Jesus to name a few, and that over-reliance on Neymar, that so crippled Brazil at the critical moment in 2014, is gone. Going by their performances in qualifying, for once, a team popularly perceived as an all-attacking force might actually live up to that oft-undeserved label. There is a fine balance throughout the side also, with new blood bolstering the defence. Brazil expects, it always does, and this side seems to stand a good chance of a redemptive run to a 6th World Cup title. Of course, a slip-up in the group might mean Germany in the second round, and it may still be a tournament too early for that showdown, as mouth-watering as it would be to a neutral.
It’s not nice being branded as a fluke: Costa Rica have the chance to banish such labels this summer. The spectacular success of 2014 was replicated by an only occasionally difficult qualifying campaign, that included a memorable 4-0 thumping of the United States. Both sides of that scoreline tell a tale, and it’s in defence that the Costa Rica may be most strong, with a confident back-line and one of the worlds best keepers in Keylor Navas, now celebrating another Champions League triumph. Up-front, there are some injury concerns for Joel Campbell of Real Betis and Marco Urena of Los Angeles, but if they get going they are a threat to any opposition. Usually, the Central American sides are naturally considered also-rans before a ball is kicked – see Panama, below – but the world expects of Costa Rica after that 2014 run, and making it out of this group, while easily considered perhaps a step beyond them, would perhaps establish Costa Rica firmly as the best side in CONCACAF today, depending on how Mexico get on. But, somehow, I don’t see lightning striking twice in this case, with their European opponents not as likely to keel over as others did in the 2014 group phase.
Much like neighbours Croatia, Serbia seem uniquely caught between the realm of potential contenders and perennial also-ran. The team is full of quality players without a doubt, but the golden generation is gone, and with it any labels of dark horse. The qualifying campaign was difficult, with tight wins over Ireland and Georgia the thin line between topping the group and finishing in third, but top the group they did, largely on the back of an impressive goal tally (not that it saved former coach Slavoljub Muslin). Aleksander Mitrovic, who once banged in 36 goals in the Belgian league before some more disappointing spells in England, will be backed to continue that trend, with the likes of Dusan Tadic, Nemanja Matic and forward-faring Aleksander Kolarov coming up the line behind him. But will they come together in the pressure cooker of this group? There were some bad performances in qualifying, not least a loss to Austria, and if things go wrong, Serbia may not have the wherewithal to implement a Plan B. They have the good fortune to play Brazil last, which could be crucial in a group where every side has serious expectations of advancing.
Switzerland survived a perilous play-off with Northern Ireland to get here, but their continued appearances at the top stages is no longer surprising. Nine wins from ten in qualifying was, astonishingly enough, only good for second, but shows how Vladimir Petkovic’s hard-pressing counter-attacking game pays dividends. Behrami, Xhaka and Dzemaili will surely be raring to go against Serbia and Costa Rica, and Switzerland in general are set-up will to absorb Brazil’s attack and strike back when the moment is right. The only real problem may by in the striker role the Swiss have struggled to fill, but they’ll be satisfied to win their games by one if it comes to it, relying on their many talented midfield and wing players to provide the goals. The match against Serbia is the do-or-die moment, for both nations really, and I would fancy the Swiss to get to the top two. Beyond that it’s probably Germany, and an end to the journey.
Holders Germany, whose current incarnation won the World Cup with such professional ruthlessness in 2014, are always going to be in contention. Their qualification record, fixity of tenure in their manager, statistical analysis acumen and sheer weight of quality players means they shouldn’t have too many problems topping this group, even if dropping points to some of the other Group F teams wouldn’t be a major shock. They won the Confederations Cup with what was commonly perceived as a B team, illustrating the strength in depth they enjoy that most other teams don’t. Hummels, Kroos, Muller, Reus and Wagner are some of the best players in the world in their positions. The only possible question mark is in goal, where it remains to be seen if Manuel Neuer will win a fitness battle, though Ter Stegen is an able replacement. Beyond that, in five major international tournaments under Low, Germany have gotten to at least the last four. Failure to replicate that form would be a major surprise. Man for man, there’s few better than any of their established starting line-up. They’re winning this group, and marching on afterwards, and it’s hard to imagine them not still being in contention in mid-July.
Of all the Asian teams, expectations from the rest of the world seem to routinely rest primarily on South Korea, after their 2002 heroics, but this is a different ROK. This time around, South Korea limped into the Finals after winning just four of ten qualifying matches, replacing coach Uli Stielike with Shin Tae-Yong before they qualified. Things have improved a bit since the change, but South Korea’s perennial issues with their error-prone back four and goalkeeper will probably cost them dear. Spurs midfielder Son Heung-Min carries a lot of expectations for this team, which seems to favour a Tottenham-esque counter-attacking mindset when going forward. Most of the rest of the squad will be unknowns to the west: captain Ki Sung-Yeung of Swansea City may be the stand-out. Home expectations are apparently quite low, and it seems unlikely that South Korea will be getting out of this group.
Maybe this is it. Maybe 2018 is the year that Mexico don’t go out in the second round. Six straight exits in the last 16 leaves a bitter taste, but it isn’t clear if Mexico have improved enough to get beyond that hump. Qualification was a doddle – only rarely is it not in the limited CONCACAF federation – but the Finals are different. Conceding just seven goals in qualifying is all well and good against the likes of Panama, but Germany are a significantly harder proposition. Good attacking threat in Lozano and Vela is all well and good against a lacklustre United States, but how will they play against a steadier Sweden? Coach Osorio is much criticised at home for his failure to solve midfield issues and establish a set style of play and bagging second place in a difficult group should be classed as a success: Brazil likely await if they achieve that. More likely I feel is Mexico don’t have to deal with the possibility of a second round exit at all, with the Swedish game the pivotal clash.
The era of Zlatan is over, and Sweden enter a major tournament without their talismanic forward, whose every utterance on the World Cup appears to get as much attention as his nations chances. But Sweden are entitled to say “Zlatan who?” after a qualifying campaign where they finished in-between France and the Dutch, before besting Buffon’s Italy over two legs. The second leg of that game was a defensive masterclass, and that may be Sweden’s game-plan for a group full of attacking opposition. It doesn’t hurt that a good few players in the squad ply their club trade in Russia. On the forward side, Emil Forsberg of RB Leipzig may be the man to watch, but there are others too: Marcus Berg and Ola Toivenan may have iffy club fortunes recently, but are still good for a few goals. It’s at the back where the problems are, with Victor Lindelof having a poor club season at Man Utd and first choice keeper Robin Olsen out with injury. The game against Mexico will be pivotal, but a Swedish team high on spirit and co-operation should be good enough to edge it.
You feel as if this is the moment for Belgium: to do-or-die, to finally live up the expectations and become challengers, or meekly fall back into the role of “almost there”. Their qualifying form was simply blistering, dropping just two points and scoring 43 goals in the process, tied with defending champions Germany. The golden generation will probably never be better, from Courtois in goal, Vertonghen and Alderweireld in defence, Dembele and Nainggolan in midfield. And then there is the critical three: Hazard, De Bruyne and Lukaku, three stellar players at the height of their powers, who can turn games on their heads individually, and who, when they click as a team, become absolutely unstoppable. It’s that clicking that’s the issue, with Belgium falling short of grand expectations in their last two tournaments. New coach Roberto Martinez may be the man to pull it all together, but to do so he’ll have to silence sceptics of his three-man defence, and his occasional preference for Fellaini in midfield. Only England should give Belgium a challenge in this group, and even that should have its limits, on paper. It’s in the knock-outs that this team will, as stated, do-or-die. If they play as well as they can, there’s no reason why Belgium can’t go all the way.
As has become common in recent tournaments, it seems popular to downplay the chances of England. Roy Hodgson’s utterly disastrous tournament record, capped off by a (for England) shock defeat to Iceland, means Gareth Southgate can go into Russia without the heavy expectations other men in his position have previously carried. And let’s not act like the England team, that coasted through qualifying with barely any difficulties, is without its abilities. Kane and Vardy have been banging in the goals this season, Alli and Sterling are brilliant providers. Southgate’s willingness to wield the axe, on past-it players like Rooney and Hart, has undoubtedly been to England’s benefit, with the national side consistently having issues converting great individuals into a great team. But the problems are also there, not least an inevitably uncertain situation between the sticks, and some weaknesses in central defence (Phil Jones is still staking a starting place for some reason) that teams like Belgium will be happy to exploit. Beyond that, England’s biggest negative may simply be psychological, especially when the dreaded prospect of a penalty shoot-out rears its head. The top seeds may well be a step too far, but the English should be getting out of this group. If they don’t, Southgate may well find himself under pressure, expectations or no. A potential second round tie with Columbia may be his greatest test.
Lucky to be where they are, everything that happens from this point on for Panama is a bonus for a country with no World Cup Finals pedigree. The third qualifier from CONCACAF has frequently become a whipping boy in the group stage, and that’s likely to be the case here, with Panama taking advantage of a spectacular US self-destruction, and some very fortunate refereeing decisions, to get this far. An ageing strike-force and porous back line means Panama were -1 GD in qualifying, and I doubt any of the teams in Group G will be giving up many goals. There are glimmers of talent, perhaps most notably keeper Jaime Pnedo, but all of their best players are the wrong side of 30, and have zero experience at this level. They can only try and park the bus as well as they can, but that strategy has its limits. Only one CONCACAF team making their debut in the Finals has made it past the group stage in nearly 50 years (Costa Rica in 1990), a suitable indicator of how things will go for Panama.
Completing an unlikely North African trifecta is Tunisia. Qualification hinged on two back-and-forth matches with DR Congo they managed to get four points out of, where they demonstrated heaps of resolve and ability to get back into games. But the Finals, and a group with Belgium and England, is a much harder prospect. Injuries have seriously disrupted their preparations, with the worst undoubtedly being their top scorer Youssef Msakni. Much expectation will lie on Wahbi Khazri, once of Sunderland, now doing considerably better with Rennes. With so many players out or carrying knocks, and a general lack of experience at this level, it does not seem likely that Tunisia will be advancing far, and may very well be out of contention before they face the only manageable game against Panama. Even with the injuries, that would be a disappointing return for Tunisia, who go into the tournament the highest ranked team in Africa.
European audiences tuning in to Columbia for the first time since their thrilling play in 2014 might be surprised to see the change. Columbia laboured through qualifying, scoring just six points from 24 against the other qualifiers, and relying on wins against lower-ranked sides to scrap over the line. The slide is evident in the FIFA Rankings, with Columbia falling from 5th to 16th between the start of qualifying and now. But the job was done, and now the world expects to see James Rodriguez and Radamel Falcao banging in the goals, with Falcao presumably desperate to make up for missing 2014 due to injury. We should not neglect to mention Columbia’s strength in defence though, exemplified by Spurs centre back Davinson Sanchez. It’s in midfield where Columbia may be in trouble, with a perception that they are often over-run in that area. Despite the struggle in qualifying, you would expect them to top this group, as they aim, at the very least, to reach the last eight again.
By now established as perpetual qualifiers, Japan will want to make a really good go of it in a group they have, on paper, a reasonable chance of getting out of. Topping their qualification pool ahead of Iran and Australia was no mean feat, and the team is full of veterans from the last two World Cup campaigns, like Keisuke Honda, Makoto Hasebe and, of course, Shinji Kagawa. But looking beyond results, the cracks begin to show, with Japan’s lacklustre performances and a poor showing in friendlies leading to the sacking of coach Vahid Halilhodzic just two months out from their opening game. New boss Akira Nishino has a lot to do to bring the team together and very little time to do it in. He’ll need the aforementioned veterans to do a lot of that work for him in terms of morale, with no easy games ahead. Replicating the advancement of 2002 and 2010 is hard to foresee in the circumstances, and really Japan would be doing well to avoid 4th place.
Our last European entry is Poland. Qualification was never really in doubt for a team that won eight of ten games, but one of the two was a devastating 4-0 defeat to Denmark, that indicates Poland are not the dark horses they hope to be considered as. Robert Lewandowski, playing in his first World Cup, is undoubtedly the team’s best player, with an astonishing 16 goals in qualifying, but it would be foolish to dismiss the Poles as a one-man-team, with Glik, Krychowiak and Linetty among their other quality players. The thing that might undo Poland is injury and match fitness, with many of their starting line-up carrying knocks or lacking in game time, like goalie Wojciech Szczeny, who spent most of his Juve season watching Buffon play. Lewandowski scored just once in an otherwise decent Euro 2016 campaign, and Poland will need him to replicate his club form – 39 goals with Bayern this season – if they are to maintain or improve on that outing. At least second place, and maybe more depending on how Columbia play, is a solid bet. After that, it may be England or Belgium, and that may be this generation’s defining challenge.
Rounding off the African contingent is Senegal. A relatively straightforward qualification was only upset by the necessity of replaying a fixture against South Africa, and Aliou Cisse’s side might be the strongest to come out of CAF. Sadio Mane’s had a fine season with Liverpool and will be expected to lead the attack, but there are good players elsewhere, like Everton’s Idrissa Gueye in midfield or Napoli’s Koulibaly in central defence. The question is whether Cisse is capable of pulling things together for the tougher contests against the top seeds in this group. Emulating the 2002 team, that beat France and reached the quarter-finals, is obviously the dream, and getting out of this group is well within the bounds of possibility. But to do that, they will need to be better going forward than they have been, and Mane will need to perform to his very best in a team where he will not have the same level of service as he does at club level. Some see Senegal as Africa’s best chance of reaching the last four for the first time, but that’s fairy-tale thinking.
I would love to offer thoughts and opinions on every game as I have in the past, but I fear I do not have the free time in my present circumstances. I may offer comment on any specific incidents or controversies that arise, especially over the VAR system that is sure to provoke much discussion, but other than that I will offer further predictions once the group stage is complete. If asked who I would say will win the tournament right now, working through a rudimentary predictor, I came up with a German win over Belgium in the final, but the best laid predictions rarely work out.
64 games await!