World Cup 2018 Russia – Almost Time!
On June 14th, at the beautiful Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, the “greatest show on earth” will commence. No offense to the Ringling Brothers, but no we are not talking about the Circus but the World Cup 2018. And while some may disagree that the tournament isn’t the “greatest show on earth” by any metric it is certainly the most popular event on the planet.
But not all is great this time around. Let’s get that out of the way right now. The US didn’t qualify. The first time they have not been in the tournament since 1986. Its a bummer. Its shameful. Its also done with so fans need to get over it. And while perhaps its weak solace there are some pretty solid soccer countries that aren’t going either. Misery loves company so who are the top teams staying home besides the US? Well for starters there is Chile. Winners of the last two Copa America tournaments and a team that made the final of the 2017 Confederations Cup losing 1-0 to Germany. Chile, currently 9th in the FIFA rankings is the highest ranked team to miss out. Then there is Cameroon. The most successful African team in the history of the World Cup and winners of the 2017 Africa Nations Cup. Or how about the Netherlands. Having made three straight World Cups and having finished 3rd in 2014 after having lost in the final in 2010! Nope staying home. And they didn’t qualify for Euro 2016 either so they have missed the last two major tournaments. How they mighty Dutch have fallen! And lastly there is Italy. Italy has played in every World Cup except the 1958 tournament held in Sweden. Guess who knocked Italy out of this years tournament? Yup, you guessed it, Sweden.
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Okay so that’s a pretty stout list of major soccer countries that are staying home. So why should fans of those countries watch this year’s tournament? Well clearly rabid soccer fans are going to watch just for the sport. But what about the more casual fan? Well here are a couple of thoughts on how and why US soccer fans should pay attention.
Learn more about the current game. How is it being played? How do the teams that did make it stack up to the current US program? Does the US have players coming up into the program that can help get the ship righted? Watch the next two pre-World Cup friendlies (June 2 with Ireland and June 9 with France) and you will get a good look at some of the future US players. This will give you some initial gauge as to how the future looks.
Most everybody has relatives or knows someone from one of the countries that is playing. Pick a team and follow them. Get emotionally involved. Or do what many fans of other sports do when their team doesn’t make the playoffs. Take baseball as an example. For most of the readers of this article you’ll be Orioles fans. They won’t be in the playoffs this year. But its a pretty good bet that the dreaded Red Sox and Yankees will be. So come the playoffs you can watch and root like hell for other teams to curb stomp them. Try the same thing for the World Cup. Have a team you can’t stand for whatever reason? Watch and hope they get beat up on!
And lastly just watch for the fun of it. Three billion people (the number that watched in 2014) can’t all be wrong!
Before outlining the Group Stage, its important to remember what the Group Stage is and what it is not. There are several things that teams attempt to achieve during the Group Stage. First and foremost THE target in the Group Stage is to advance. The World Cup is a month long tournament coming after (for most players) long club seasons. European leagues just finished their seasons in May. So while players are in good form they have not had any appreciable breaks from playing since last summer. Simply put you don’t win the tournament in the Group Stage but you sure can lose it. So teams play to advance. The top two teams in each group advance. That is the goal. Certainly winning the group is generally good. The winner of each group gets paired with a second place team from another group for the Quarterfinal Stage. But there have been plenty of examples where teams actually have ended up with better pairings taking second place.
Secondly, and almost as important, is being able to rest players. This is a long tournament with a fair bit of travel. Its over 1500 miles between the easternmost and westernmost venues. Not as significant as the last World Cup in Brazil but still an important factor. To be successful teams have to balance getting the points they need to advance while also keeping players fresh. The ultimate goal is to have assured advancement after the first two Group Stage matches so wholesale changes can be made for the third Group Stage match. However, this doesn’t happen very often. Coaches will have to be very careful with choosing their starting lineups and how to use their three substitutions. One thing for sure. You will not see teams using the same starting lineup in back to back matches. Look no further than the last two US matches during qualification to see how that works out. There were a lot of reasons why the we failed to qualify but at the end of the day we played the last match at Trinidad and Tobago with the same starting eleven as had played Panama four days earlier. Tired legs did the US no favors.
Lastly, and while this one is less important its still a factor, and that is to get exposure and playing time for your younger less experienced players. Teams will need them the further they go in the tournament.
Enough background, lets breakdown each group (current FIFA rankings noted) and what the keys to each team are and how the Group Stage is likely to shake out.
Russia (66) – The host team in maybe one of the weakest groups in the history of the World Cup and frankly lucky to have drawn this one. This is one of Russia’s weakest squads ever and they will need lots of help to move forward. This team will need goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev to be in top form and striker Fedor Smolov to look like the goal scoring leader that he was in the Russian Premier League for two years running (2015-2016 and 2016-2017). There weakness is on defense but they are playing at home and open against Saudi Arabia. Win that one and they may have a shot?
Saudi Arabia (67) – The good news for the Saudi’s is that the vast majority of their players know each other well with most coming from the top two teams in the Saudi Premier League. But that’s about the extent of the good news. They don’t have a single player on their roster with World Cup experience, they have done poorly in the last African continent tournaments, and they have limited experienced players from top European Leagues. Oh, and they are on their third coach in the last year. Don’t look for them to advance.
Egypt (46) – The Pharaohs hopes rely on a single player, Mohamed Salah. Salah was the leading goal scored in the English Premier League and has simply been unstoppable. Unstoppable that is until the final of the UEFA Champions League when the Liverpool star suffered a bad shoulder injury and had to be taken out barely 20 minutes into the match. Estimated to miss three weeks that puts him in doubt for the Uruguay match on June 15th. If Salah comes back for that match or makes it back for the final two then Egypt is likely to advance. If he doesn’t they won’t.
Uruguay (17) – The Uruguayans are clearly the team expected to win this weak group. They are laced with star players and many with previous World Cup experience. The strength of the team lies in their defense and in one of the best attacking duos in the world in Luis Suarez and Edinson Caviani. Caviani led all South American goal scorers during qualifying. If he and Suarez continue to combine they have the talent to make a fairly deep run in the tournament.
Portugal (4) – Doubtful there are few if any soccer fans who don’t recognize that player. Cristiano Ronaldo is one of the most known players in the world and his aura has gone way beyond the pitch. And its not without merit. He did just lead his club team, Real Madrid, to its third straight UEFA Champions League title. Since the 2014 World Cup, Portugal has won 20 of 24 matches having lost just twice. In both of those loses, Ronaldo was out with an injury. He has formed a strong scoring partnership with Andre Silva and expect that to continue under Coach Fernando Santos. Their achilles heel? If they have one its their reliance on Ronaldo. At 33 years old he is getting to an age where you wonder if his legs can continue to hold out. Ronaldo had a slow start to the 2017-2018 season, but has been unstoppable since the start of the year. And he is hungry, very hungry. And a hungry Ronaldo is a dangerous player. Portugal advances but then things get much harder for them. They are in a tough group and it may take a toll on them. If they stay fresh then they will be a tough out down the road.
Spain (8) – What a tough draw for them and Portugal. One of only two groups with two top ten ranked teams. Spain sailed through their qualifying matches winning nine and having one draw. Scoring 36 goals while only allowing three. That’s a plus 33 goal differential and for the mathematically challenged thats better than a plus three per match. Yikes, regardless of their competition that is unheard of. Spian wins by possessing the ball and when they do lose it they quickly pressure to regain possession. The theory being you can’t lose a game if the other team never has the ball and they are good at it. Very good. Their midfield of Sergio Busguets, Andres Iniesta, and David Silva will once again lead this possession approach. Spain’s biggest weakness of last though has been its inability to turn all their possession into goals. They have tried a handful of players up top lately and none have really seized the opportunity. It appears they will go with Diego Costa up front. If he finds his form then Spain could make a deep run. In any event expect Spain to advance.
Morocco (42) – Its a tough road ahead for the Atlas Lions. They will need some serious help in the form of Portugal or Spain getting upset for any chance to advance. They have one of the stoutest defenses in all of Africa. They did not allow a single goal in their six qualifying matches. The flipside is that they don’t score either. In fact, they drew their first four matches 0-0. However, they did finish in much better form scoring nine times in their final two matches. To advance they will have to win their first math against Iran and then find someway to defeat one of the two European powerhouses. Possible but doubtful.
Iran (36) – They sailed through qualification becoming the second team (first was Brazil) to qualify. And they did it with a stout defense. They didn’t even allow a goal in their 10 matches until the final match when they were already assured of the trip to Russia. But this team is different than the one that finished last in their group in 2014. They do have some attacking options. Led by winger Alireza Jahanbakhsh who led the Dutch league in scoring. The problem is that while they have a stout defense they have not played a strong level of competition leading up to the World Cup. Playing Latvia, Uzbekistan and Sierra Leone might not have them adequately prepared for the three teams they will face in the Group Stage. Don’t expect to see them advance. They basically have the same task in front of them as Morocco.
France (7) – Always an enigma, are Les Bleus. Most countries would love to have the talent and depth of the French. They are loaded, talented, and young. The problem once again seems to be with their attitude. They are a team that seems to play below the collective sum of their parts. When you have players like strikers Antoine Griezmann and Kylina Mbappe, midfielder Paul Pogba, and keeper Hugo Lloris the expectations are high. The team was riding high after making the final in Euro 2016 but of late have come under fire for less than expected performance. They qualified top of their Group but not without some questions such as how did they lose at home to Luxembourg? Then there are performances like Greizmann’s only scoring four times in 10 qualifying matches and having stated he’d “prefer to play basketball.” That does’nt sound like a focused player. They should win their group or at least advance. And if they come together as a unit they could make a deep run. Conversely, they could flame out if off the field issues overshadow their on field performance.
Australia (40) – The Socceroos qualified, but just barely, having to face off against Syria and then Honduras in two two-legged playoffs. However, as soon as they qualified their manager Ange Postecoglou resigned given new manager Bert van Marwijk few precious months to get the squad aligned with they system he wants to play. Never an easy thing to accomplish and trying to do so right before the tournament is extra difficult. They are not without talent just not any household names even most die hard fans would recognize. During qualifications they took an all out attacking approach. And it worked to a point but the new manager will likely insist on a more balanced approach. And given the roster that is probably their best option. Its unlikey they will advance out of the group given the competition. But they will play hard and should make a decent showing.
Peru (11) – They qualified out of South America and are making their first World Cup appearance in 36 years. They started out woefully during qualifying and looked to be missing out once again. But their last loss was to Brazil 2-0 clear back in November of 2016. Since that time they are undefeated in 12 matches. Mostly playing strong defense and with a good blend of youth and experienced players. The best news for Peru is the return of all time leading goal scorer and team captain Paolo Guerrero. Guerrero was suspended for testing positive for cocaine last October. FIFA originally banned him for 12 months but the ban was halved by the FIFA appeals committee meaning he would be available come the World Cup. Then the World Anti-Doping Agency appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (Cas) who extended the ban to 14 months once again making him miss out. But just two days ago the same CAS lifted the suspension while they hear Guerrero’s appeal. So he’s back in play. Crazy stuff but it might just be the lift Peru needs to make it to the knockout stages.
Denmark (12) – The Red and White had to face off with Ireland in a home and home series for final qualification. A goalless draw in Copenhagen left them having to pull off some magic in Dublin. And did they ever stunning the Irish 5-1 on their home pitch. Denmark’s strength lies in their ability to play direct to their tall players (6 ft 3 Nicolai Jorgensen and 6ft 4 Andreas Cornelius) or to beat teams with a solid ground game led by playmaker Christian Eriksen and winger Pione Sisto. The weakness lies in the back four. Unless they find a solid combination during the friendlies in the run up to the tournament they could be subject to an early exit. However, if they find some consistency in the back then they should be fighting with Peru for second in the group.
Argentina (5) – Probably more pressure on the Argentine Captain, Lionel Messi, than any other player in the tournament. Messi, the best player in the world, has yet to lead his country to a major tournament victory. Since coming up to the national team, Argentina (with Messi) has competed in three World Cups and four Copa Americas. Their best finishes being runners up in the 2014 WC and three times in the Copa America. Messi, who had announced his retirement from international play after the finals loss to Chile in Copa America Centario 2016, decided to give it one more shot. This will be his last. Messi, who just lead his club team, Barcelona, to both the Spanish La Liga and Copa Del Rey titles is joined by a host of international stars including Sergio Aguero, Angel Di Maria, and Gonzalo Higuain. They are not without their warts however. Manager Jorge Sampaoli has tinkered with the lineup a lot recently and the players come to Russia not sure just who is going to be playing where. But if they gel they they could make a strong run. They should win their group, although its not an easy one. But unlike 2014 where their draw gave them an easier path to the final not so this time around. Depending, of course, on other outcomes, but their path potentially takes them through Spain, Brazil, and Germany. That’s a tough road but this is Messi and companies last chance.
Iceland (22) – Iceland has a very unique quality about it in that most all their players developed together and they display to cohesiveness more typically seen of a club team. And they have an incredible belief in each other. Think a mix of club team and family. If WC predictions were based solely on team unity them Iceland would be clear favorites. Unfortunately, while unity is clearly a good thing, they have some significant weaknesses that makes advancement out of this tough group a challenge. They have been racked with injuries. Three key attackers (Gylfi Sigurdsson, Kolbeinn Sigthorsson, and Alfred Finnbogason) are all coming off major injuries and they must have two of them match fit and in form to have any chance. And its unlikey that Sigthorsson can contribute at a high level. Although he has been included on their final 23 man roster he has not played a match since March.
Croatia (18) – The Blazers struggled a bit in qualifying taking second in their group behind Iceland (yes they got drawn with them again) and only managed to find the net 15 times in 10 matches. They are led by a midfield quartet of some of the best midfielders in the world. Luka Modric and Mateo Kovacic wear club jerseys for Real Madrid. Then there is Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic and Inter Milan’s Ivan Perisic and and Marcelo Brozovic. Their weakness lies in defense. While adequate they are prone to errors and although they don’t make many errors they seem to come at most inopportune times. They also have a relatively new and inexperienced manager in Zlatko Dalic and there have been rumblings that he was appointed more as a figure head than decision maker. Hard to know just how the players will respond. Talent wise they can beat any other team on a given day and they should battle Iceland for second in the group.
Nigeria (47) – The key to this team is their unity and depth across the board. They are a deep squad with talent everywhere on the field. Well except for one spot and that is in the very back. They do not have a quality goalkeeper, in fact its very weak position no matter which way they go. Long time keeper, Vincent Enyeama, has retired from international soccer and was replaced by Carl Ikeme who led them through qualifying. However, Ikeme was diagnosed with acute leukemia last July. So Manager of the Super Eagles, Gernot Rohr, turned 19-year-old Francis Uzoho. With only 180 minutes of playing time in the La Liga his inexperience may get exposed in the WC. Unfortunately for Nigeria, they got drawn into one of if not the most difficult group in the tournament and will probably not advance.
Brazil (2) – No team enters the tournament with more incentive to erase bad memories than Brazil. They entered the 2014 WC playing well and as one of the favorites. But they got humiliated in the semi-finals by Germany 7-1 in what many say was the countries worst defeat ever. The problem with the 2014 team is that they were over reliant on their star player, Neymar. While still their centerpiece under Manager Tite they have become more balanced in their approach. Under Tite they players got back in form and started producing the results they expect (and demand!) in Brazil. In fact, they were the first team to qualify for 2018. They are loaded with recognized stars besides Neymar. When you see a lineup with the names like Dani Alves, Marcello, Casemeiro, Gabriel Alves, and Phillipe Coutinho then you have reason to be afraid. Very afraid. They are a very good team and there potential weakness is also the thing that makes them so good. Wingers Marcello and Dani Alves like to attack and attack deeply. This creates tremendous pressure for their opponents. However, if teams can absorb that attack and quickly counter it can leave them vulnerable. They advance out of their group. How far will they ultimately go? If they gel they are going to go far. Far enough to bring them their 6th WC Title? We shall see.
Switzerland (6) – The Swiss are a good team. A solid team. A fundamentally strong team. But they are not the #6 best ranked team in the world. The Swiss’ strength lies in their wings (Ricardo Rodriguez and Stephan Lichtsteiner) and attacking midfielder (Xherdan Shaqiri) their best player. The biggest issue for them is goal scoring. One would think when they have strong flank players and one of the best attacking midfielders in the game that the goals should come. Unfortunately their forwards have just been inconsistent and not able to score and that will be a problem come the tournament. Ultimately it may lead to their demise and an early exit.
Costa Rica (25) – The Ticos are an interesting team and they are taking pretty much the same squad to Russia that embarrassed the US back last fall 4-0. That match was the final straw that resulted in the termination of US Manager Jurgen Klinsmann. CR made the quarter-finals in the last WC and hope to repeat that this time around. To do so will require their defense to continue to play at a high level and some world class goalkeeping. Thankfully, they have Keylor Nevas in the net. Nevas was in the nets for Real Madrid’s recent three peat for the UEFA Champions League title and he is clearly one of the top keepers in the world. They have a good shot to advance but this is a tough group and they will not be able to afford any slip ups in their matches against Switzerland or Serbia.
Serbia (35) – The Serbs are a team who historically seems to overperform the sum of their parts. Which they need to do to enjoy any success in Russia. Not that they don’t have talent, they do. Just not a lot of it. They do have a good midfield lead by Nemanja Matic and Luka Milivojevic. Their key attacking player, Aleksandar Mitrovic, scored six times during qualifying but has had limited opportunity this past season in the English Premier League, and a loan to the Championship League seemed a step back. But he had a strong second half of the club season and hopes to parlay that to Russia. Time will tell. Their key match will be their first one against Costa Rica. To advance they will have to earn some points. Serbia, Costa Rica, and Switzerland all have the ability to advance. But only of them will.
Germany (1) – 2014 WC Champions and they qualified first in their group this time around. They played 10 matches in qualifying. They won 10 matches. They scored 43 times (most in European qualifying along with Belgium) and they only allowed three, yes three, goals against. They are insanely good. Will they repeat? They certainly have the team to do so. They are good everywhere on the field. They are a team loaded with talent yet they don’t have any true superstars. They truly thrive on the sum of the parts being greater. Well they do have one superstar in goalkeeper Manuel Neuer. If not the best keeper in the world he is surely one of the best. On one top ten list he is rated as #6 and the only reason he is that low is because he has not played a competitive match since last September. Out with injury means his fitness and match form will be in question for Russia. But his backup is no slouch, a guy named Marc-Andre Ter Stegen. Oh and on that ranking list? He’s only #4. Look for them to advance and reach a seventh straight semi-final. Get to that point and anything can happen. Afterall did anybody believe they would crush Brazil 7-1 in 2014?
Mexico (15) – El Tri was the regional qualifying champion and are in their sixth straight WC. The good news for Mexico is that outside of Germany (who should win the group easily) they have two teams they should be able to handle. Much will depend on how young striker Hirving Lozano plays. If he plays at the level he showed in his first season in the Dutch league then things could go well. Their weakness has been a struggle to maintain possession in the midfield. If they overcome that they have a good chance to advance. If not they could be in trouble. But at the end of the day they should advance taking second in their group and go on to play Brazil in the first knockout match. Then they go home.
Sweden (23) – Surprisingly enough, the team has actually gotten better after the retirement of star Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Without their star striker they have been forced to play a more balanced team game and they have gelled in doing that. They are a tight cohesive unit even if they lack a lot of stars. The problem for Sweden is two fold. Come the WC, unity and team play is great but at some point you come up against teams with more talent. Unity can overcome talent but a talented team with unity wins most every time. The second problem for them is that a number of key players have not been in good form of late or even getting much playing time with their clubs. That does not bode well for so unless Mexico stumbles they likely go home.
South Korea (61) – They are a fun team to watch. They like to attack with speed and they are surprisingly quick as they showed against Columbia in a November friendly. And speed always presents issues for opposing defenses. They can score and score fast. Son Heung-Min is their star forward and he had a very good season for the Tottenham Hotspurs. The problem for South Korea is that you also have to play defense. They don’t. They actually only won four of their ten qualifying matches and in reality qualified more from the stumbling of others than of their own accord. Again they are a fun team to watch but they are going home after the group stage. Their defense as a whole including their goalkeeper are prone to big mistakes and that just doesn’t work on the international stage.
England (13) – The founders of the modern game is of course, England. Yet as well as they typically do in the WC, they have not made it past the Round of 16 since they last won the tournament in 1966. Don’t expect this year to be much different. They will be one of the most athletic and fastest teams in Russia. They have a bevy of outstanding young players, including Harry Kane who was second in the English Premier League in scoring this past season. They are not one of the most possession oriented teams. However, they have three players Raheem Sterling, Jamie Vardy and Marcus Rashford that will punish teams in transition. They also have three defenders who are very good at pushing forward to support the attack (Danny Rose, Kyle Walker and Kieran Trippier). The biggest question mark lies in the center backs. None of the options are got much playing time toward the end of their club seasons. That could prove to be an issue. Still look for England to advance taking second in the group. They would likely face Columbia in the first knockout stage, a game they could win. Well as long as they avoid penalties. England is bad. Really bad, as in they have the worst penalty shootout record in the world. So to win they have to score.
Belgium (3) – One of the top teams in the world right now and they are playing like it. The scored 43 goals during qualifying and their travel to Russia was never in doubt. Just one look at their starting XI that includes names like Thibaut Courtois, Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld, Vincent Kompany, Mousa Dembele, Eden Hazard, and Romelu Lukaku scares most opponents into submission. If that isn’t enough then there is that one other guy. What’s his name again? Oh yeah, Kevin De Bruyne who is one the best playmakers in the game right now. But like every team they are not without their flaws. This teams isn’t a lack of talent or conditioning or tactics. Its one of belief. Do they have the killer instinct to finish teams off? Look no further than the 2014 WC match against the United States. Post match headlines could have read Belgium trounces United States. Belgium crushes United States. Or any of a number of other similar storylines. The problem? Belgium actually won 2-1 with all three goals being scored in the 30 minute extra time period. Belgium was a fluky goal away from losing that match even though they had an amazing 27 shots on goal. Only an insane performance from American keeper Tim Howard kept the game close. They will advance. Win the group and they likely face Brazil in the quarter-finals. Take second and they likely face Germany in the quarter-finals. Tough no matter how you look at it.
Panama (56) – The Panamanians are in their first WC ever and good for them. It will be short lived. They just don’t have the players with top international exposure to be able to handle the game at the speed it will be played in Russia. Not that they are without talent. They have a solid roster but much of that is older players and while that will provide a calming influence to the younger players they also may not have the legs for three matches in a short time frame. Certainly many US fans will be pulling for them since they are from the same qualifying region and its always good to see CONCACAF teams do well (except for one unamed team). But they have don’t have a single game in the Group Stage where they are likely to be favored.
Tunisia (14) – They had one of the easiest qualifying routes in Africa so don’t be mislead by their inflated ranking. Now they are a good team and they have a trio of midfielders in Ferjani Sassi, Mohamed Amine Ben Amor and Ghaylen Chaaleli that will provide good positioning and energy in the middle of the field to ensure they are competitive. And they will provide teams in their group some scary moments. In the end they just don’t have the horsepower to hang with England and Belgium and Panama may even give them fits, especially since its their last match when they may already be eliminated.
Columbia (16) – The Columbians are a colorful lot and staunch supporters of their National Team. Probably few if any countries around the world have more ardent fans than Columbia. Add that to having a good team led by James Rodriguez, the top scorer at the 2014 WC and they get take it to the next level. The question will be can the team take it to the next level? They are a consistent team in that they beat the teams they should but they also fail to rise to the occasion and pull of the upsets of the bigger teams. Their stated goal is to play five matches. That means having to win their first knockout stage game against (most likely) either England or Belgium. Beating one of those teams and advancing the the quarter-finals would drive their fans to dizzying heights. Lets hope to see that.
Poland (10) – The big question coming into the tournament is are they a one trick pony? Now that one trick, Robert Lewandowski, is as good as it gets and he has been on fire. Lewandowski was the leading scorer in European qualification and was the top scorer in the German Bundesliga. His 29 goals were 14 ahead of the next highest scorer. But Poland is much more than a one trick pony even if there leading pony is a thoroughbred. They boast a solid veteran defense led by center back Kamil Glik, right back Lukasz Piszczek, and defensive midfielder Grzegorz Krychowiak. They make few mistakes and don’t typically lose games on mistakes. You have to beat them. They are in a tough group and flip a coin as to whether they advance. They are good enough to make the quarter-finals and in a tough enough group to perhaps not even advance.
Senegal (28) – It will take more than Liverpool star Sadio Mane for the team to get out of the group. But they sure have a great start with Mane. Fresh off a strong season with Liverpool both in the English Premier League and the UEFA Champions league, he is in superb form for Russia. He will be supported by several attacking options including M’Baye Niang. But the fortunes of Senegal likely lie with the play of defensive midfielder Idrissa Gueye. If Gueye can freeze opponents attach and find quick outlet passes to push the team forward they can do some damage. If they find the right magic, early on, they have a chance to get out of the group and then who knows. But they haven’t found that magic yet in the recent friendlies. Time will tell.
Japan (60) – They are sunk. Out of the gate they are in trouble. They Japanese federation canned their Manager a mere two months ago leaving the team in turmoil. Two months isn’t much time for the new manager, Akira Nishino, to get the team past that turmoil and playing as a unit. Keisuke Honda, with his beach blond hair, remains the teams most known player. Although his presence on the field has diminished over the years his leadership in the locker room will be critical if this team is to do much of anything but to return home after the Group Stage. A decent showing in the Group Stage is about all they an hope for. But they will probably head home.
So with that prefacing just who wins World Cup Russia 2018? Well, its like any other sport. Funny things happen and given the way the event plays out makes it especially tough to predict the winner. The biggest issue is the post Group Stage mathces. One and done is tough in any sport. Bad matchups, poor weather, unfavorable call, an unlucky bounce and the better team can end up on the losing end.
It looks like there are three pots you could put the teams in. The first pot, the likely winners, include Germany, Brazil, France, and Spain. The second pot are two teams that are closer to the top pot than the third pot and they are Argentina and Belgium. The third pot would include England, Poland, Portugal, and Uruguay. Any of those ten teams have a legitimate shot to make a run. It all starts on June 14th and it should be a fantastic month of soccer.
Steve is an avid fan of all things soccer and the O's. Originally from the west, he grew up in the Baltimore area. He returned to the west for college where he earned a BS degree in Chemical Engineering from Montana State University and spent 36 years working at the Idaho National Laboratory prior to retiring in 2013. It was during his school years in Baltimore where he learned to play soccer and that developed into a life long passion. He played competitively for over 40 years and was a four year starting goalkeeper at MSU. He also coached and refereed in the Idaho premier soccer and High School programs for many years.