Don’t look now, but there are only a few more months to go before the 2018 World Cup. Ghana may not be competing this time, but there will still be a lot of terrific football, and most of the world will, as always, tune in. So to help kick off the excitement, here’s our early look at the eight groups for the first stage of football’s biggest tournament.
Group A (Russia, Uruguay, Saudi Arabia, Egypt)
This could actually prove to be an interesting group. Much has been made of the fact that Russia, the host nation, has the easiest group in recent history by some statistical measures. That said, at least one betting preview notes that Uruguay look to be in the best shape to reach the final. Saudi Arabia and Egypt, meanwhile, are being counted out, and will play with nothing to lose. Group A could be surprisingly competitive, but we expect Uruguay and Russia to make it out, likely in that order.
Group B (Spain, Portugal, Morocco, Iran)
If there’s one group that looks to be decided in advance, at least in terms of which two teams will emerge, it’s probably this one. Spain isn’t the power it was a decade ago but it’s still one of the best teams in the world. Portugal is inconsistent, but is still led by UEFA Player of the Year Cristiano Ronaldo. Of the other two, Morocco is actually quite a capable side, but it would be surprising if either team moved on.
Group C (France, Peru, Denmark, Australia)
France is being considered as a tournament favorite this time around with a squad that’s been revitalized with young talent. The French should emerge with a group win. Of the other three teams, however, it’s tough to know what to expect. Australia is probably a long shot, but between Peru and Denmark it’s a toss-up. Peru hasn’t been in the World Cup in 36 years, and Denmark had to claw its way in via a playoff. Both sides can run hot and cold – and their match on June 16th could ultimately decide who advances with France. We’ll take Peru.
Group D (Argentina, Croatia, Iceland, Nigeria)
There’s also been a lot of talk about the lack of a “Group of Death” in this year’s draw. That might be the case, but Group D will be very closely contested even if it’s not filled with traditional powerhouses. Argentina is the big name and probably the favorite to win, but all four teams truly have a chance. Iceland tends to play together and with passion; Nigeria can always put up a fight; and Croatia has legitimate star players, led by Luka Modric. It’s truly a toss-up, but we’re picking Croatia to win the group surprisingly, and Argentina to advance in second.
Group E (Brazil, Switzerland, Costa Rica, Serbia)
Brazil will join France as one of the true tournament favorites, and many world football fans will recall that Costa Rica has had its moments in recent Cups. Switzerland is the second best team in the group by statistics, however, so it’s a tricky group to project. We’ll guess Brazil wins easily and Switzerland manages to advance, though that second spot truly is up for grabs.
Group F (Germany, Mexico, Sweden, South Korea)
This should be an interesting group to watch. Germany, a title favorite (and defending champion) should advance, but will have to play good football against capable sides in Mexico and Sweden. The real intrigue here may be the rumored return of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, though the Swedish striker has said his international career is over. Assuming he doesn’t return however we’d give Mexico, which was excellent in qualifying, a slight edge to advance behind Germany.
Group G (England, Belgium, Panama, Tunisia)
Things should be pretty straightforward here, but the battle at the top will be interesting. Panama and Tunisia are among the weaker teams in the draw and will be happy to be competing; it’ll be a huge disappointment for either England or Belgium to advance. Which one of them leads the group is anyone’s guess, but we’ll give the edge to Belgium simply because it’s been a better Cup side of late.
Group H (Poland, Columbia, Senegal, Japan)
This is a very skilled group, and one without a clear-cut favorite. If you go by rankings, Poland ought to be the best side, but you’ll find plenty of fans and analysts who would disagree. Columbia may have the most talent, and we’d bet on the South Americans to top the group. Beyond that, it feels like a toss-up, but we’ll take the surprise pick of Japan to advance. A few young up-and-comers like Takuma Asano should make the Japanese an interesting side to watch.