Football Nerd – World Cup Russia 2018 Preview – The Groups

Ahead of the opening match of the World Cup on Thursday here is a look at all the groups.

Group A- Russia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Uruguay

After a largely unimpressive performance in the Euros two years ago and a far from inspiring run of just four wins in eighteen friendlies played as part of their preparation for the tournament, hopes and expectation seem to have been set fairly low for the tournament hosts. Manager Stanislav Cherchesov has been trying to revamp an aging rear-guard bringing in younger players including: Viktor Vasin, Fedor Kudryashov, and Georgi Dzhikiya and moving to a three-at-the-back system. He has however upset a lot of people by leaving out defensive midfielder Igor Denisov purportedly for a bust up in their time together at CSKA Moscow. After just two goals in three games at Euro 2016 Russia will be hoping they offer more of a threat in attack this time around, with Alan Dzagoev continuing to offer the creative link to support strikers Fyodor Smolov and Aleksandr Kokorin both of whom have been in fairly rich form this season.

Thankfully for Russia they have been drawn in a group that doesn’t offer too much competition: first up will be Saudi Arabia, the lowest ranked of all the qualifying teams, in the opening match of the tournament. The hosts then face an Egypt team that may be without their best player thanks to Sergio Ramos’ antics in the Champions League Final. Should Mo Salah not be able to overcome his shoulder injury in time for the tournament, it would weaken the Pharaohs significantly. Positive results in both their opening matches could see Russia have progression secured before they face group favourites Uruguay.

La Celeste are expected to do well in this tournament based on the firepower of Luis Suarez and Edison Cavani and a solid defence organised by the always impressive Diego Godin. They will certainly fancy their chances of not only progressing from what should be a fairly straightforward group but also of making an impact in the knockout stages.

Group B- Portugal, Spain, Morocco, Iran

Group B throws up one of the most interesting games of the opening round of matches when European Champions Portugal take on Spain on the second matchday; while those two would be the obvious favourites to top the group, Morocco and Iran are somewhat unknown quantities.

Despite securing the prize in France two years ago, the nature of Portugal’s progression through the tournament in which their main aim seemed to be not to lose rather than to go out and win, continues to see them largely unfancied. However with one of the best players in the world in their ranks, albeit with a slightly dulled lustre, in Cristiano Ronaldo, supported by some exciting younger players; it would be foolish to completely write off a team that has enjoyed such recent success.

Spain seem to have been in transition since Brazil four years ago, yet despite the introduction of some newer players including Isco and Ascensio, the squad and probable starting line-up remains heavily reliant on the old guard of Ramos, Pique, Busquets and David Silva and may even feature 33-year old scorer of the tournament-winning goal eight years ago, Andres Iniesta.

Under Alex Ferguson’s former assistant Carlos Queiroz Iran, featuring in their second successive tournament for the first time in their history, have been moulded into an obstinately resilient side that will be hard to break down, although whether they can pose a threat at the other end remains a large unknown.

Morocco make their first appearance in the tournament for twenty years and like Iran are hard to break down and concede few goals. It feels almost inevitable that it will be the two European teams that will progress from this group with the game between them deciding the order in which they finish.

Group C- France, Australia, Peru, Denmark

For a while there two years ago, it very much looked like France were going to repeat their familiar trick of winning a tournament on home soil, only for them to be denied by a workmanlike Portugal side. If there were weaknesses in that squad it was the lack of a truly top class mobile striker, neither Giroud nor Gignac offering much beyond being traditional number nines; and the conundrum of how to deploy Paul Pogba and Antoine Greizmann to play to their individual strengths and to stop them working in the same spaces and stifling each other.

Since Euro 2016 however the France squad, at least from an attacking point of view, seems to have developed further with the emergence of Kylian Mbappé and Ousmane Dembele, the seeming strength in the forward positions being such that Anthony Martial and Alexandre Lacazette have been left out.

Add in players of the calibre of N’Golo Kante, Blaise Matuidi, Benjamin Mendy and Raphael Varane and it is easy to see why Les Bleus are fancied by many, yours truly included, to be right there at the business end of the tournament. Whether they can secure their first trophy away from home may depend on who they meet on the way.

In attacking playmaker Christian Eriksen, Denmark do have creativity amongst their ranks and Eriksen’s combination with Feyenoord striker Nicolai Jorgensen could be a key weapon for the Danes. However having finished five points behind Poland in the qualifying group, a second-placed finish and progression may be the limit of their ambitions.

Australia found themselves outgunned in a group containing Spain, Holland and Chile four years ago and in truth it is difficult to see how they are better placed this time around. The Socceroos’ leader and talisman over the past three tournaments, Tim Cahill, is now 38 and under the temporary stewardship of Bert Van Marwijk expectations are fairly low.

Peru return to the World Cup Finals fold for the first time in 36 years and are something of an unknown quantity as a result. However with star man, Paolo Guerrero, serving a six-month ban for failing a doping test La Blanquirroja may have to put this one down to experience.

Group D- Argentina, Iceland, Croatia, Nigeria

Once again the key question facing the runners-up last time out is whether Lionel Messi can be considered a true great of the game if he once again fails to deliver a major international trophy? On paper Argentina look to have sufficient attacking quality to be in the reckoning but finding the system that can get the best out of Messi, Aguero, Di Maria and Higuain has so far proven to be elusive for all who have tried.

Current manager Jorge Sampaoli is the third to be employed through the qualifying campaign and seems yet to have settled definitively on his preferred system; however as we seem to have said ahead of every recent tournament, if he can find a way to harness all that attacking talent and to get the best out of the best player in the world then there are definite grounds for optimism for Argentina to finally deliver on all that promise.

Croatia are seen by many as being potential dark horses given some of the experienced talents they possess: Modric, Rakitic, Perisic and Mandzukic, to name but four; but they struggled in qualifying eventually finishing second to group mates Iceland. Second place is probably the height of their ambition but will be no easy feat given they will likely have to overcome Iceland and Nigeria to achieve it.

The surprise package of Euro 2016, Iceland, will feel fairly confident of carrying on their adventure this summer. Winning a group ahead of Croatia is a clear statement of their growing pedigree and their experienced, tight-knit squad may see them punching above their weight once again.

Nigeria breezed through qualification but will have to hit the ground running to make a mark in the tournament. Reliance on a spine of Leon Balogun, John Obi Mikel and Victor Moses and perceived weaknesses in goal and upfront may prove their undoing however.

Group E- Brazil, Switzerland, Costa Rica, Serbia

After the horror of the Mineirazo, the 7-1 semi-final evisceration at the hands of Germany, Brazil will be hoping to bounce back and restore some national pride this time around. A front line that comprises permutations of Neymar, Coutinho, Firmino, Gabriel Jesus, Douglas Costa and Willian is simply mouth-watering and seems to have removed the complete and utter reliance on Neymar that was such an issue four years ago.

With added quality and steel in midfield in the form of Casemiro, Fernandinho and Paulinho; a better organised backline and a choice of quality goalkeepers with Allison being judged to be even better than Ederson who impressed so much with Manchester City; it seems that Brazil have everything they could hope for to endeavour to gain redemption and the trophy.

Behind Brazil there seems to be little to choose between the rest of the group: Switzerland seem to lack a goal threat and continue to depend heavily on Xherdan Shaqiri; Serbia seem to be somewhat functional rather than spectacular and Costa Rica will be hard-pushed to recreate their exploits of reaching the quarter finals in Brazil.

Group F – Germany, Mexico, Sweden, South Korea

The holders go into this tournament in the enviable position of being able to leave out a player of the quality of Leroy Sané; anyone who had the pleasure of watching the young winger for Manchester City last season can only conclude that they must have one hell of a squad!

In actual fact one glimpse at Joachim Löw’s squad reveals an almost embarrassment of riches. It was said that Germany won the tournament last time without having a star player and you could say the same of 2018’s vintage. One area that did need to be addressed was the Mario Gomez-sized hole at striker, having tried various possibilities Löw seems to have now settled on young RB Leipzig sensation Timo Werner as his main man up front and with some justification after he fired Germany to the Confederations Cup with three goals in the truncated tournament last summer and a total of seven in twelve full international appearances. Boasting a perfect record in qualification it would be hard to bet against Die Mannschaft carrying on that form in their opening games in Russia.

After a dominant qualifying campaign and with a sizeable contingent of European based players hopes are high that Mexico will be able to do what they haven’t done since 1986 and progress not only from the group but beyond the Round of 16. In order to do that however they probably have to overcome a Sweden side who surprised many by progressing from a qualifying group containing Holland.

South Korea unfortunately look like being the ‘also-rans’ of the group after an underwhelming qualifying campaign that saw them trail in nine points behind Iran.

 Group G – Belgium, Panama, Tunisia, England

So what hopes for England? It has been noticeable that either by design or reluctant acceptance, expectations for Gareth Southgate’s men have been downplayed across the media. Coming on the back of a woeful campaign in Brazil that brought failure to get out of the group and then elimination at the hands of Iceland in the Euros most supporters seem to have settled for not having hope so they are not disappointed. Having said that though England do possess a genuine top class striker in the form of captain Harry Kane and a youthful squad that may just come together and for once not fall apart when the pressure kicks in. Other than Belgium, who they meet in the final group game when qualification should be secured, the group looks to be straightforward if not complete plain sailing.

 Even a cursory glance at their squad list suggests that Belgium possess an enviable array of talented players however it is probably fair to say that they have failed to come together as a team in the last two tournaments. Whether Roberto Martinez is the man capable of instilling tactical discipline and organisation into them remains to be seen.

Tunisia and Panama will be hoping the two European teams are off form when they meet them but neither side looks particularly capable of causing a similar shock to that which Costa Rica achieved in England’s group last time out.

 Group H- Poland, Senegal, Colombia, Japan

The final group is intriguing because there seems to be no especially strong team in it. As quarter finalists at Euro 2016 and having one man goal machine Robert Lewandowski points to Poland probably being the favourites to finish top. Colombia were impressive in Brazil and will hope that an extended run is a possibility once again this year, with a forward threat that includes the coveted Radamel Falcao and James Rodriguez they certainly have the firepower.

Questions persist as to whether coach Aliou Cisse has managed to mould Senegal into a truly cohesive unit, they do possess one of the Premier League’s most potent attacking weapons in Liverpool’s pacey wideman Sadio Mane but it remains to be seen if they will be strong enough to match up with Poland and Colombia.

Japan sacked their manager Vahid Halilhodzic just two months ahead of the tournament after what was by all accounts a turbulent qualifying campaign, whether the new man Akira Nishino has had sufficient time to work with and improve the squad is a big question mark.

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