Part of our 2018 FIFA World Cup Hub
Group A: Uruguay & Russia
I would definitely expect Uruguay to top the group. Even ignoring recent form, the relative weakness of the other three teams in this group makes Uruguay’s spot in the next round almost guaranteed. It would take something truly special to knock this team off of the top spot.
More controversially, I would expect Russia to take the 2nd spot, although it could also easily be taken by Egypt. Russia will enjoy home advantage. Although they have lost many of their recent friendlies at home, they still consistently win against teams of Egypt’s calibre.
Egypt could narrowly miss out on progressing to the next stage. Although I will personally be supporting Egypt over Russia, the team has simply not shown the recent form that their star striker has. The team relies too heavily on Mohamed Salah to be more likely than not to beat Russia, a team stacked with Champions League veterans.
It would be very surprising to see Saudi Arabia not finish last place in this group. Their entire team has little to no big tournament experience, and they enter with a new coach that is unlikely to be as familiar with the team as the other coaches in this group. Overall, they have no quality players that could make the Saudis a potential dark horse in this tournament.
The FIFA Rankings would have Egypt go through and Russia bottoming the group. Bookies almost universally agree with my prediction. This group is by far the weakest group in the tournament, by any measure that I could come up with. All measures also suggest that this group is the least likely to produce a World Cup winner.
Group B: Spain & Portugal
I’ve picked the 2010 World Cup champions over the 2016 Euro champions to win this group. It is hard not to fancy that the last of Spain’s golden generation will make a deep run into this year’s tournament, especially after an impressive 6-1 win against Argentina. The team has been in good form since the departure of Vicente del Bosque, whose tactics were getting stale after a legendary run from 2008 to 2012.
Portugal will almost certainly qualify for the next round barring a major meltdown. They are captained by Cristiano Ronaldo, who finally won a major international competition with Portugal at Euro 2016. It is hard to imagine Morocco or Iran posing a serious threat to their chances.
I have Iran finishing ahead of Morocco despite betting odds. Although Morocco arguably has shown better form in recent friendlies, the Iranian players’ tournament experience and coach Carlos Queiroz will shift the balance in their favour.
Morocco could definitely avoid finishing bottom of the group. They beat Nigeria 4-0 in the final of a domestic league players’ tournament earlier this year, and have recently beaten European teams like Serbia and Slovakia. However, unlike Iran, none of their players will have experience playing at a World Cup.
The FIFA Rankings would have Portugal finishing ahead of Spain. Bookies tend to favour Morocco over Iran.
Group C: France & Peru
France is considered by many to be one of the favourites of this tournament. Their team has seen continued improvement over the better part of a decade. Didier Deschamps has built up the team since 2012 and has shown pretty consistent results. They were runners-up at Euro 2016, and have shown even more impressive form in qualification and friendlies. They look even more formidable when you look at how many of their players have become stars in top clubs around Europe.
Some people laughed when I predicted Peru to qualify for the World Cup, but I am going to go one further and say that they will probably qualify for the Round of 16. Betting odds are in favour of Denmark, but Peru has incomparably more experience playing against world class teams, and Denmark has become an infrequent visitor to major international tournaments.
Denmark has had some impressive recent results, including a 4-0 home win from less than a year ago against seeded Poland. However, compared to Peru, their team lacks experience playing many high-pressure games within a short period of time.
Asian Cup champions Australia would have to do well not to finish last in this group. With neither a consistent goalscorer nor a reliable or experienced defence, it will be very difficult to overcome the other three teams. Tim Cahill is now 38 years old and still plays an integral role on the team.
The FIFA Rankings would agree with my ordering of this group. Bookies are putting their money on Denmark progressing over Peru. This group is the 2nd “Group of Death” according to FIFA Rankings, in a virtual tie with Group E.
Group D: Argentina & Croatia
Argentina is in poor form compared to the quality we are used to seeing from them. A string of poor performances culminated earlier in the year with a 6-1 loss to Spain. Still, they should still be expected to win this group by sheer difference in calibre compared to the other teams. It would take more than one big upset for Argentina not to progress.
Croatia has not exactly shown world class form either, but they have shown consistent enough quality that they are more likely than not to beat Iceland for the 2nd spot in this group. In friendlies and qualification, they have consistently beat teams that you would expect them to beat, and have consistently lost to teams you would expect them to lose to.
I, like most neutral observers, would love for Iceland to survive this group. However, the betting odds have Iceland most likely to finish last in the group despite their strong fairytale performance at Euro 2016. I cannot justify such a strong departure from rankings and betting odds based on their recent performances, which have shown that their defence leaves much to desire.
I have Nigeria at the bottom of this group despite their beautiful kits this year. They have been hugely inconsistent, which is usually not a good sign for teams going into a major tournament. Despite an impressive qualification campaign against Zambia, Algeria, and Cameroon, I do not think that the Nigerian team has the chemistry required to beat Argentina or Croatia (a chronic problem for Nigeria).
The FIFA Rankings would agree with my ordering of this group. Bookies tend to have Nigeria finishing 3rd ahead of Iceland.
Group E: Brazil & Switzerland
Brazil has been in tremendous form and seem to be at their peak just in time for the World Cup. They seem to be the world’s overall favourite to win this year’s World Cup. Despite being drawn in the group of death, it is hard to see them not finishing at the top of this group.
Switzerland looks to have been struggling in recent games at first glance, but they have been experimenting with players and tactics against mostly weaker teams. I would expect them to take 2nd spot just based on the quality of their players. Xherdan Shaqiri is back again and he is still in his mid-20s. The rest of the squad features a nice balance between fresh and familiar names.
Serbia will likely finish 3rd in the group. Although they have had consistent form in the past year, there is enough of a skill gap with Switzerland that surviving this group would be an upset. This will actually be their first time playing either Switzerland or Iceland, which is somewhat rare for World Cup competitors from the same continent.
Costa Rica shocked the world 4 years ago by making it to the quarterfinals, where they lost to the Netherlands on penalties. They finished top of a group in which everyone predicted they would finish last, against former champions Uruguay, Italy, and England. I watched their last friendly against Belgium earlier this week, and I cannot see them repeating the same feat this year. However, stranger things have happened…
The FIFA Rankings would have Serbia bottom of the group instead of Costa Rica. Bookies agree with my prediction. This group is the “Group of Death” according to FIFA Rankings, and it is easy to see why. Bookies also predict that this group is the most likely to have this year’s World Cup winner.
Group F: Germany & Mexico
Germany will almost certainly finish top of this group. It has been less than a year since their convincing win against Mexico on their way to winning the Confederations Cup in Russia. Their country could have fielded 3 or 4 separate squads, any one of which would have had a decent shot of winning the World Cup. For those who follow soccer, a look at their roster will make it clear that it almost does not matter who coach Joachim Loew start. There are only a handful of teams at this tournament that even have a decent chance of beating Germany. Do not be fooled by recent friendly results, where they tried out some novel combinations and formations.
Mexico easily finished at the top of North American qualifying once again, and have once again brought a team of world class players both known (playing in Europe and MLS) and unknown (playing in the very good Mexican domestic league). Expect them to take the 2nd spot in this group, which is what almost everyone has been predicting.
Sweden eliminated Italy from qualification by winning their play-off 1-0 on aggregate. This time, they are without Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and bring a squad of largely lesser known players spread out in different leagues around the world. I would expect them to miss out on the Round of 16, but still finish 3rd ahead of Korea.
Unfortunately, Korea, where I was born, is really not looking great for this year’s World Cup. Riddled with inconsistent and injury-prone players, the recent turnover has been just high enough to cause chemistry problems while being just low enough to bring no real renewal to the team. They come into this tournament lacking confidence, having consistently spent the last few years losing to teams they would have traditionally defeated. It would be nice for them to escape with a win, most likely to come against Sweden.
The FIFA Rankings, bookies, and I are all making the same prediction of this group.
Group G: Belgium & England
Belgium, in my opinion, is one of the most overrated teams. Their squad is stacked with household names that have shown that they do not play well together (at least, compared to their individual quality). It would still be very surprising to see them not qualify from this group, especially given their recent form. However, their golden generation are currently at their peak, so it would not be surprising to see them reach the quarterfinals.
England can win this group, but any England fan knows that England is never a safe team to bet on. I would still strongly expect them to progress from this group.
I have Tunisia 3rd and Panama 4th in this group, although neither team has any real major tournament experience and they are of roughly the same calibre. Tunisia has shown a little more promise based on recent friendly results, and this is backed up by betting odds.
It would be a huge upset to see either Tunisia or Panama surviving this group.
The FIFA Rankings, bookies, and I are all making the same prediction of this group. However, I do think that England could just as easily beat Belgium, and Panama could just as easily beat Tunisia.
Group H: Colombia & Poland
Colombia is bringing the same main players as they did at the last World Cup, and most of them will be back in 2022 should they qualify. Despite not being seeded, they appear to be the favourites of this group, with their only real serious opponent in this group being Poland.
Poland are the seeds and could win this group. That being said, they did struggle a lot in friendlies, with a narrow home win against Korea but losing to Nigeria. Their biggest downside is their lack of depth, as most of their “mini golden generation” has retired. The only household names that remain are Piszczek and Lewandowski. Expect to see a very thin bench from this team, which will really become a significant handicap in the knockout stages if they qualify.
Senegal has exceeded expectations before, most famously by reaching the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup. However, like in 2002, it will take a meltdown by one of the two favoured teams in this group for Senegal to have a real chance of progressing. They have not shown any especially promising potential, and they seem to be seriously lacking in chemistry, especially with their 5 lonely midfielders.
Japan, like the rest of the Asian teams, have been facing a serious slump in the past few years. Despite a lot of really high profile names, and a string of experiments with foreign coaches, they just have not been able to pull together as a team. As most of their “golden generation” from the turn of the decade will probably retire after this year’s tournament, I think that it is safe to say that Japan is a team in serious decline. Although they are within striking distance from Senegal, I would expect them to finish last in this group.
The FIFA Rankings would have Poland ahead of Colombia. Bookies and I think that Colombia are the more likely side to win the group.
Round of 16
To Advance on June 30: France & Portugal
France are 13 FIFA rankings ahead of Croatia. Bookies favour France to reach the quarterfinals over Croatia.
Portugal are just 10 FIFA rankings ahead of Uruguay. Bookies very slightly favour Portugal to reach the quarterfinals over Uruguay.
To Advance on July 1: Spain & Argentina
Spain are 60 FIFA rankings ahead of Russia. Bookies strongly favour Spain to reach the quarterfinals over Russia.
Argentina are just 6 FIFA rankings ahead of Peru. Bookies strongly favour Argentina to reach the quarterfinals over Peru.
To Advance on July 2: Brazil & Belgium
Brazil are 13 FIFA rankings ahead of Mexico. Bookies strongly favour Brazil to reach the quarterfinals over Mexico.
Belgium are just 5 FIFA rankings ahead of Poland. Bookies strongly favour Belgium to reach the quarterfinals over Poland.
To Advance on July 3: Germany & England
Germany are just 5 FIFA rankings ahead of Switzerland. Bookies strongly favour Germany to reach the quarterfinals over Switzerland.
England are just 3.5 FIFA rankings ahead of Colombia. Bookies slightly favour England to reach the quarterfinals over Colombia.
To Advance on July 6: France & Brazil
France are actually 3 FIFA rankings behind Portugal. Bookies favour France to reach the semifinals over Portugal.
Brazil are just 1 mere FIFA ranking ahead of Belgium. Bookies favour Brazil to reach the semifinals over Belgium.
To Advance on July 7: Germany & Spain
Germany are 11.5 FIFA rankings ahead of England. Bookies favour Germany to reach the semifinals over England.
Spain are actually 5 FIFA rankings behind Argentina. Bookies slightly favour Spain to reach the semifinals over Argentina.
To Advance on July 10: Brazil
Brazil are just 5 FIFA rankings ahead of France. Bookies slightly favour Brazil to reach the final over France.
To Advance on July 11: Germany
Germany are just 9 FIFA rankings ahead of Spain. Bookies actually very slightly favour Spain to reach the final over Germany.
The semifinals are the stage of the tournament where the German machine often begins to lose steam, and they would be facing a lot more pressure to perform than Spain, who would at least be relieved to have shown significant improvement since the last 4 years.
However, I would still put my money on Germany because of the relative depth of the benches. We do not yet know who will be injured or in poor form over the course of this tournament. While Spain can definitely field a first-11 full of household names, Germany is the only team at this tournament who has 23 reliable players.
Spain is in a transition period, as they compete in their first tournament since many of their star players from 2010 retired after the 2014 World Cup and Euro 2016. They should be happy with a semifinal finish as they look ahead to Euro 2020, where they will likely be strong contenders for the title.
To Finish 3rd: Spain over France
The 3rd place play-off is traditionally the most unpredictable match in the World Cup. Spain are actually 3 FIFA rankings behind France. Bookies very slightly favour Spain to take 3rd place ahead of France.
The Final: Germany over Brazil
Germany and Brazil are 1st and 2nd in the FIFA Rankings respectively. Bookies actually very slightly favour Brazil to win the World Cup over Germany.
Brazil has seen a lot of turnover since the last World Cup, where they lost 7-1 to Germany in the semifinals. Although they would be eager for revenge if they meet Germany in the final, I doubt whether Brazil will be able to handle the pressure, with their relatively inexperienced team and a new manager who has no previous international coaching experience.
In comparison, Loew has been Germany manager for over a decade, and has just gotten comfortable in the position. Under him, Germany has become unrecognizable from their team at the turn of the century. With a country like Germany, there is never any shortage of world class players, and coaching quality becomes a very important factor. The team is a very symmetrical blend of young and old, but the average soccer fan will be familiar with most of their names.
A: Germany, Spain
A-: Argentina, Belgium, Colombia, England, France, Peru, Portugal
B+: Croatia, Denmark, Mexico, Poland, Switzerland, Uruguay
B: Australia, Costa Rica, Iceland, Iran, Korea, Morocco, Senegal, Serbia, Sweden
B-: Egypt, Japan, Nigeria, Panama, Russia, Tunisia
C+: Saudi Arabia
C: (e.g. Armenia, Guinea, Zambia)
C-: (e.g. Botswana, Latvia, Luxembourg)
D+: (e.g. Angola, Fiji, Sudan)
D: (e.g. Afghanistan, Barbados, Liechtenstein)
D-: (e.g. Malaysia, Singapore, South Sudan)
F: (e.g. Maldives, Pakistan, Seychelles)