World Cup 2018: Group-by-group analysis, stats, player breakdowns and predictions

A month-long soccer bonanza is here, as the 2018 World Cup in Russia starts Thursday with the host nation taking on Saudi Arabia.

The World Cup, a 32-team event, pits the survivors of a grueling regional qualification schedule against each other. Elite football nations such as Italy, Chile and the Netherlands, as well as the U.S., failed to qualify for this year’s World Cup. Germany defeated Argentina to win the 2014 event after embarrassing host Brazil in the semifinal.

Two teams make it out of each group based on round-robin points. Teams receive three points for a win and one point for a draw. Once out of group play, the tournament switches back to single elimination from the Round of 16 onward, with the 2018 World Cup final scheduled for July 15.

Here’s an in-depth look at all eight groups in this year’s World Cup:

Group A

Teams: Egypt, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Uruguay

Key Games: Uruguay vs. Egypt, June 15; Russia vs. Egypt, June 19

Players to watch: Mohamed Salah (Egypt), Luis Suarez (Uruguay), Edinson Cavani (Uruguay), Diego Godin (Uruguay), Mohammad Al-Sahlawi (Saudi Arabia)

Facts to remember:  

  • Russia 2018 will mark Egypt’s first World Cup since Italy 1990. 
  • Al-Sahlawi netted 16 goals on the road to Russia. The 30-year-old forward finished 2018 World Cup qualifying as joint-top scorer, along with Poland’s Robert Lewandowski and UAE’s Ahmed Khalil.
  • Uruguay are two-time champions of the World Cup, having won the inaugural Cup in 1930, and again at Brazil in 1950.

Prediction: Egypt needed a near miracle finish in qualifying to reach its first World Cup in 28 years, but mighty Salah, who led the English Premier League in goals this season, should lead them out of a relatively tame group. With a number of Premier League players on the roster, Egypt packs a punch at every level of the pitch. Uruguay, with its experience and talent, will likely win this group, but Egypt should edge host Russia for a spot in the knockout stage.

Group B

Teams: Iran, Morocco, Portugal and Spain

Key Games: Portugal vs. Spain, June 15; Morocco vs. Portugal, June 20

Players to watch: Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal), Bernardo Silva (Portugal), Diego Costa (Spain), Sergio Ramos (Spain), Sardar Azmoun (Iran)

Facts to remember:

  • Iran were the third team to book their place at the 2018 World Cup after hosts Russia and 2014 hosts Brazil.
  • Morocco topped a tightly-contested African zone Group C to secure qualification to Russia 2018, eliminating the Ivory Coast, Gabon and Mali.
  • Portugal enters the competition as reigning Euro winners, while Spain won the 2010 World Cup.

Prediction: Out of all the groups, this one appears to be the most clear cut — as far as qualification is concerned. Spain, with playmakers like Isco and Marco Asensio feeding the front line, look to rebound from a shocking 2014 World Cup. Despite Spain’s decisions to fire coach Julen Lopetegui on the eve of the tournament and leave Chelsea forward Alvaro Morata off the roster, they should have enough firepower to win the group. Portugal, despite taking a small dip in form since 2016, will then finish second in the group.

Group C

Teams: Australia, Denmark, France and Peru

Key Games: Peru vs. Denmark, June 16; France vs. Peru, June 21

Players to watch: Paul Pogba (France), Antoine Griezmann (France), Christian Eriksen (Denmark), Jefferson Farfan (Peru), Tim Cahill (Australia)

Facts to remember:

  • Cahill has a chance to become just the fourth player to score in four different World Cups, joining Uwe Seeler, Pele and Miroslav Klose on the illustrious list.
  • France and Peru have only ever faced each other once before, on April 28, 1982 in a preparatory match for the World Cup in Spain.
  • According to the latest FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking in November, Group C is the most challenging pool of Russia 2018, featuring France (ninth), Australia (39th), Peru (11th) and Denmark (12th).

Prediction: France decided to leave stars such as Karim Benzema, Anthony Martial, Alexandre Lacazette and Aymeric Laporte off the roster, raising some eyebrows, but it will prove smart, as Didier Deschamps picked players with minimal attitude problems. France should cruise through this group as champions. Denmark and Peru could be locked in a tight battle for second, but Peru has more all-around talent and should advance to the knockout stage.

Group D

Teams: Argentina, Croatia, Iceland and Nigeria

Key Games: Croatia vs. Nigeria, June 16; Argentina vs. Nigeria, June 26

Players to watch: Lionel Messi (Argentina), Sergio Aguero (Argentina), Gylfi Sigurdsson (Iceland), Victor Moses (Nigeria), Luka Modric (Croatia)

Facts to remember:

  • Argentina and Nigeria have met in four World Cup group stages, with Argentina winning all four matches: 2-1 in 1994, 1-0 in 2002, 1-0 in 2010 and 3-2 in 2014.
  • Argentina have never taken on Iceland before, while Croatia and Nigeria will also do battle for the first time.
  • Barcelona teammates Messi and Ivan Rakitic (Croatia) will face off June 21, marking one of the most intriguing matchups between club teammates.

Prediction: This one is wide open. Argentina and Croatia have the most club talent, and the most recognizable names, but Argentina struggled, barely making it through qualifying. Still, with the likes of Messi, Aguero, Paulo Dybala and Gonzalo Higuain in attack, Argentina should win the group. Despite Croatia’s talent, Nigeria makes it through to the knockout stage with a big win over Iceland.

Group E

Teams: Brazil, Costa Rica, Serbia and Switzerland

Key Games: Costa Rica vs. Serbia, June 17; Serbia vs. Brazil, June 27

Players to watch: Neymar (Brazil), Marcelo (Brazil), Nemanja Matic (Serbia), Joel Campbell (Costa Rica), Ricardo Rodriguez (Switzerland)

Facts to remember:

  • Brazil, Switzerland and Serbia (competing as the former Yugoslavia) were all drawn in the same first-round group at Brazil 1950.
  • After Russia, who qualified automatically as tournament hosts, Brazil were the first side to seal their place at Russia 2018, thanks to a 3-0 defeat of Paraguay.
  • Brazil have won the most World Cup titles with five, winning the tournament in 1958,1962, 1970, 1994 and 2002.

Prediction: Brazil have the talent and depth to win the entire tournament. While all four of these teams are intriguing, Brazil should cruise to the top spot. Costa Rica proved the Cinderella team in 2014, winning a group many thought they’d struggle to earn a point in. But it would again be a long shot for them to advance this year, with Serbia stronger and more physical and the Swiss more talented. Brazil wins the group, with Switzerland finishing second.

Group F

Teams: Germany, Korea Republic, Mexico and Sweden

Key Games: Germany vs. Mexico, June 17; Sweden vs. Mexico, June 27

Players to watch:  Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez (Mexico), Hirving Lozano (Mexico), Thomas Muller (Germany), Timo Werner (Germany), Son Heung-min (Korea Republic),

Facts to remember:

  • Germany and Mexico met in the semifinal of the FIFA Confederations Cup Russia in June 2017. Germany won 4-1 and ultimately won the competition.
  • Sweden and Germany scored a combined 16 goals during 2014 FIFA World Cup qualification. Joachim Low’s side threw away a 4-0 lead in an incredible game in Berlin in October 2012 that ultimately ended 4-4. A year later, the Germans turned a 2-0 deficit into a 5-3 win.
  • Mexico has lost in the Round of 16 in each of the last six World Cups.

Prediction: Playing in Europe with a mixture of confidence, youth and experience, Germany looks set to repeat as World Cup champions. Mexico has been a lock to make it out of their group stage in recent competitions, but haven’t been able to advance past that. Korea has been ravaged by injuries, and Sweden might put people to sleep with its park-the-bus mentality. Germany wins the group, and Mexico finishes second.

Group G

Teams: Belgium, England, Panama and Tunisia

Key Games: England vs. Panama, June 24; England vs. Belgium, June 28

Players to watch: Harry Kane (England), Raheem Sterling (England), Eden Hazard (Belgium), Kevin De Bruyne (Belgium), Roman Torres (Panama)

Facts to remember:

  • Panama will be playing in its first World Cup, becoming the first newcomers to qualify from CONCACAF since Trinidad and Tobago in 2006.
  • Tunisia’s one and only victory in 12 World Cup matches came in 1978, when they defeated Mexico to register the first ever win by an African nation on the global stage.
  • Belgium made the quarterfinals at the 2014 World Cup, marking only the second time its advanced past the Round of 16.

Prediction: Belgium and England are going to advance. Even England’s recent shambolic nature can’t hold it down in this gift of a group. But can they beat the Red Devils for first place in the group? It will be tough with Belgium’s elite cast of characters. Belgium wins the group, and England finishes second.

Group H

Teams: Colombia, Japan, Poland and Senegal

Key Games: Poland vs. Senegal, June 19; Colombia vs. Senegal, June 28

Players to watch:  Robert Lewandowski (Poland), Piotr Zielinski (Poland), James Rodriguez (Colombia), Shinji Kagawa (Japan), Sadio Mane (Senegal)

Facts to remember:

  • Lewandowski scored 16 goals in 10 appearances to top the European qualifying scoring charts.
  • Colombia earned the last automatic qualification spot out of South America. It reached the quarterfinals in 2014 for the first time in history.
  • Senegal’s previous lone appearance at the World Cup was a memorable one, as it reached the quarterfinals of Korea/Japan 2002.

Prediction: The group of death? In a World Cup void of any true group to claim that title, this one is as close as it gets. All four teams have the firepower to make it through, and three have the talent to make a run. Senegal and Colombia use pace and determination to beat opponents, while Poland’s structured defense and midfield rely on Lewandowski for goals. Colombia wins the group, and Poland, playing close to home, finishes second.

Share if you enjoyed this post!

Source link