It’s that time of year soccer fans.
The stage is set for the worlds best to face off in Russia for the greatest trophy in all of sports—the World Cup. 32 teams, eight groups, and one champion. It’s the world’s game on the biggest stage, what’s not to love.
Although the U.S. is watching the 2018 World Cup from their couches, it’s time to break down the group stage and predict how the first round of the tournament will go.
Group A: Russia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Uruguay
- Saudi Arabia
Russia, the hosts of the tournament, got lucky this time around with one of the easier knockout round groups—especially after Mohammed Salah’s injury in the Champions League Final.
Prior to Salah’s injury, Egypt looked like a sure shot to advance to the knockout round. Salah lit up the English Premier League in his first season with Liverpool, a season in which he won the Player of the Year award and the Golden Boot after leading the league with 32 goals. However, Salah’s attendance at the World Cup was doubtful after he suffered a shoulder injury after getting tangled with Sergio Ramos. Egypt claims that he will feature in the tournament, but nothing is set in stone at the moment.
Without Salah, Egypt will most likely struggle to get past Russia and Uruguay, which leaves them out of the knockout round in my prediction. Uruguay, who are led by FC Barcelona frontman Luiz Suarez, should have no problem topping the group.
Salah’s potential absence gives Russia and Saudi Arabia hope to advance, but as it stands, Russia should get by Saudi Arabia and advance to the next round.
Group B: Portugal, Spain, Morocco, and Iran
Spain and Portugal, the 2010 World Cup winners and 2016 European Championship winners respectively, both failed to advance to the knockout rounds in the 2014 World Cup but should avoid that fate this time around.
With this possibly being Cristiano Ronaldo’s final World Cup, expect him to be on his best game this time around. With a good mix of experienced veterans and promising young talent like Valencia’s Gonçalo Guedes, the only thing that is preventing them from taking the top spot in Group B is an incredibly strong Spain squad. With arguably the best goalkeeper in the world in David De Gea and one of the strongest midfields in the tournament, Spain should top the group.
Let’s not forget about the other two teams though. Morocco had an unbeaten qualifying round and enter the tournament as one of the strongest African teams in the tournament. If one of the Iberian teams does slip up and fall out of the top two spots, Morocco will most likely be the team that replaces them.
Iran struggled at the last World Cup in Brazil and will most likely do the same in what is one of the hardest groups in the tournament. It’s worth seeing how Iran’s young star Sardar Azmoun performs though, so keep an eye on him.
Group C: France, Australia, Peru, and Denmark
France enters this year’s world cup as one of the favorites to take home the trophy and although they have a young squad—the average age is only 25-years-old—they have one of the best squads in the whole tournament.
With young stars like Ousmane Dembélé and Kylian Mbappé and world-class veterans like Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezmann, they should have no problem claiming the top spot in Group C. Denmark pose an interesting threat to France, as the Scandinavian country has a unique squad with some top talents.
Tottenham Hotspur’s playmaker Christian Eriksen will lead the line for the Danes along with Ajax’s Kasper Dolberg and Leicester City’s Kasper Schmeichel in goal. While this squad pales in comparison to France, it is by no means a bad squad. They should be able to get by weak Australia and Peru squads.
Peru arrives in Russia after a Cinderella story qualifying round after edging past Copa America champions Chile in the first qualifying round and beating New Zealand in the playoffs. However, with an inexperienced squad, Peru’s Cinderella story will most likely end here.
Group D: Argentina, Iceland, Croatia, and Nigeria
Group D is one of the toughest group in the entire tournament which makes this group extra difficult to call.
Argentina, the runner-ups at the 2014 World Cup, should be the front-runners to finish at the top of the group with the likes of Lionel Messi, Paulo Dybala, and Sergio Aguero in their squad. However, Argentina’s qualifying round for the tournament was quite tumultuous and only saw them clinch a spot on the final day following multiple poor performances.
Croatia on the other hand, qualified for the tournament following a 4-1 victory over Greece in the playoffs. The team finished in 2nd in their original group behind fellow groupmates Iceland. The Croation squad is filled with some of the world’s top midfielders, including Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic, and a solid attack headed by Ivan Perisic. While they failed to impress at the 2014 World Cup, this much improved Croatia side should excel in Russia.
Iceland qualified for the World Cup for the first time in the country’s history this year, only two years removed from their historic and unlikely run at the 2016 European Championships that saw them upset a strong England side. This team has only gotten more experienced since their great run and with main man Glyfi Sigurdsson along with top-flight stars Jóhann Gudmundsson and Alfred Finnbogsson, Iceland has a chance at a knockout round appearance.
Nigeria is also a force to be reckoned with and is led by youth with the likes of Kelechi Iheanacho, Onyinye Ndidi, and Alex Iwobi. While Nigeria had a solid qualifying round, their squad pales in comparison to their three other group members.
This group is one of the toughest to call, but in the end, the quality of Argentina and Croatia’s squads should see them through.
Group E: Brazil, Switzerland, Costa Rica, and Serbia
- Costa Rica
Group E is another tough group to call, but purely for the No.2 spot.
Brazil should easily wrap up the top spot in the group as they have one of the strongest all-around teams in the tournament with the like of Neymar, the world’s most expensive player, Gabriel Jesus, and Marcelo in their 23-man team. After crashing out in the semifinals in humiliating fashion with a 7-1 loss to eventual champions Germany in 2014, Brazil enters the 2018 tournament with something to prove. The five-time world cup winners should be favorites to claim the title this time around with their quality squad.
Serbia, Costa Rica, and Switzerland are all far behind Brazil in quality, but will all be relatively evenly matched in the fight for second place in the group.
Costa Rica had a historic run at the 2014 World Cup after they finished first in a group with Uruguay, Italy, and England. Keylor Navas carried the team to the quarterfinals, where they lost to the Netherlands—the eventual third-place finishers. With World Cup experience and success under their belts, Navas and Co should be able to advance to the next round.
While Switzerland and Serbia are by no means scrub teams, they won’t advance to the next round this year. Serbia has a strong midfield with Nemanja Matic and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic along with an experienced defense but lacks the offensive spark to carry them onto the knockout rounds. Switzerland also has quality but with leaders like Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka coming off of mediocre seasons, there isn’t much hype around this Swiss squad.
Group F: Germany, Mexico, Sweden, and South Korea
- South Korea
The second of the two groups of death this season, Group F is essentially a toss-up at this point.
The defending World Cup champions Germany should be able to top the group without issue, but the No.2 spot will be no easy task for the remaining three teams to claim. All three teams are explosive and could easily be heading to the knockout rounds if they found themselves in other groups.
Sweden enters the tournament as underdogs without one of the flashiest squads, but there’s much more to the Swedes than meets the eye. In the qualifying round, Sweden finished ahead of the Netherlands and beat group leaders France 2-1 earlier in the round. To qualify for the World Cup, the eliminated European giants and 2006 World Cup winners Italy 1-0 on aggregate. The Emil Forsberg led Sweden squad—although without main man Zlatan Ibrahimovic—is a force to be reckoned with and could emerge as a darkhorse candidate for World Cup success this year.
Mexico suffers from a World Cup curse known as the Fifth Game curse, which means that they fail to make it past the fourth game in the tournament—an outcome that has followed them for every World Cup since 1994. While Mexico has its eyes set on the fifth game, this year they may not make it to the fourth. With veteran goalkeeper and Mexican hero of the 2014 World Cup Guillermo Ochoa and promising young star Hirving Lozano in the team, El Tri has the potential to finally break the curse, but a skilled Sweden side could send them home early.
South Korea is no second-rate team either, however. Led by Tottenham Hotspur star Heung-min Son, South Korea looks to improve upon their disappointing last-place finish in Group H at the 2014 World Cup. While South Korea may have the weakest squad in the group, they could still challenge thanks to Son’s electric pace and finishing ability.
Aside from Germany, either of the three remaining teams could clinch the No.2 spot, which makes this group one to watch for sure.
Group G: Belgium, Panama, Tunisia, and England
Barring any huge upsets, Group G is one of the easier groups to predict.
Belgium and England are miles ahead of their other group mates and should have no problem taking the No.1 and 2 spots in the group. Since England is known for its inability to perform under pressure at international tournaments, Belgium should claim the top spot in this group. The quality of Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku, and Kevin De Bruyne—who all play their club soccer in England—is nearly unmatched at the World Cup this year, which should propel them over England and set them on a deep tournament run.
After finishing last in its group in Brazil in 2014 and a humiliating defeat to Iceland at Euro 2016, England needs to prove themselves at the 2018 World Cup. While the England squad is filled with great players such as Dele Alli, Harry Kane, Marcus Rashford, and Raheem Sterling, their inconsistency at the international level is cause for concern. While they should get out of Group G fine, a deep tournament run is not something many expect from the Three Lions.
Tunisia and Panama are in a similar position where they should just be happy to be in Russia. Panama shocked the world with a late Róman Torres game-winner to clinch the country’s first ever World Cup appearance at the expense of the U.S. However, its squad is nowhere near the quality or experience level of England and Belguim. While Tunisia has a handful of solid players with the likes of Wahbi Khazri and Yohan Ben Alouane, they too are far in quality from the European giants in Group G.
Group H: Poland, Senegal, Colombia, and Japan
Group H is the final group of the 2018 World Cup and is definitely a group to watch.
While no teams are standout favorites to achieve anything major at the tournament, all four teams are quality and the group features some of the world’s most exciting players.
Poland, led by world-class striker Robert Lewandowski, is a team with quality throughout. The defense is led by Dortmund fullback Lukasz Piszczek along with Kamil Glik and Wojciech Szczesny in goal, which should be a formidable back end, along with a strong midfield led by Piotr Zielinski and Grzegorz Krychowiak. While they won’t go too deep in the tournament, the Polish squad should be able to top the group.
Colombia enjoyed a successful 2014 World Cup after going unbeaten in the group stage and falling to Brazil in the quarterfinals, things shouldn’t be too different this year. James Rodriguez and co should have no problem advancing to the knockout round but may run into trouble when facing Poland’s superior defense.
Senegal is led by a lightning combination quick attack and defense with Sadio Mané and Kalidou Koulibaly. While their inexperience at the World Cup could be their downfall, this Senegal squad has the potential to surprise at the tournament. Don’t be surprised if they sneak into the top two of this group, but don’t expect much from them beyond the group stage.
Japan has the weakest squad in the group by far and doesn’t have a successful record at the World Cup. While Shinji Kagawa and Shinji Okazaki are experienced internationals, their supporting cast won’t carry them beyond the group stages.
Who do you think will move on to the next round?