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2018 FIFA World Cup Preview: Group H

Is Colombia the favorite to finish atop of this group or is it Robert Lewandowski and the Poland national team? Can Japan and/or Senegal have an opportunity to upset one of the two favorites to reach the knockout stage?

Let’s take a look at Group H, the last group of the tournament, and see who has the best opportunity to advance.

Group A preview
Group B preview

Group C preview
Group D preview
Group E preview
Group F preview
Group G preview

Source: AFP/Martin Bernetti

Source: AFP/Martin Bernetti

Colombia

After a few difficult spells for Chelsea and Manchester United, Radamel Falcao is again performing like one of the best strikers in the Ligue 1. He was instrumental in leading Monaco to finish atop of of Ligue 1 in the 2016-17 campaign and second, behind PSG, in the 2017-18 season. He was missing from the team due to a knee injury in 2014, and will look to captain Colombia further in the knockout stage this year.

The more interesting player to observe however, is James Rodriguez. He became a household name after the 2014 FIFA World Cup, scoring the goal of the tournament and knocking in both goals against Uruguay to advance Colombia to the quarter-finals, leading Real Madrid to sign him as the tournament closed. James did struggle finding minutes in Madrid, but has now proven to be an important player for Bayern Munich. His creativity, playmaking, and most importantly, versatility will be crucial to the success of Colombia. Other Colombia stars, Radamel Falcao and Juan Cuadrado, have more defined roles, while James will be tasked with playmaking for others, building chemistry between the midfielders and the attacking players, and lastly to score as well.

The defense of Colombia has players ranging from veterans like Cristian Zapata and young players like Davinson Sanchez. The defense has been mainly solid, and has demonstrated an ability to bounce back after mistakes, such as the friendly against France where they allowed two early goals.

Colombia has their best player since Carlos Valderama, performing at the best of his abilities, and we’ll await if James Rodriguez can capture the moment as he did in 2014.

Japan

The team selected from the fourth pot for Group H was Japan. The odds of advancing from the group stage are not likely as Colombia and Poland should be the two favored teams, but Japan has advanced to the knockout phase before, most recently in 2010, and with a tournament as unpredictable as the World Cup can be, Japan does have a shot.

The national team is filled with several veterans, including Keisuke Honda, Shiniji Kagawa, Makoto Hasebe, and Shiniji Okazaki. They are also coming off a recent victory over Paraguay were they made most of their opportunities and scored four goals. However, they did not display a dominance over Paraguay that would have been a confidence boost for the unbiased viewer to see this squad as a dark horse to advance from the group. The squad before their victory over Paraguay was coming off three straight defeats.

Japan will likely seek a tie in their first match against Colombia. A tie will give Japan hope that a victory over Senegal can keep them optimistic about their chances when they face Poland in their final match.

Source: Reuters/Kacper Pempel

Source: Reuters/Kacper Pempel

Poland

Making their first World Cup appearance since 2006, Poland will have one of its most talented squads since recent memory. Led by Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski, the Poland national team will have a great chance to advance to be one of the eight final teams of the tournament.

Poland will likely face a second match showdown against Colombia, where the winner of the match will advance to be the first placed team of the group. Key performers for Poland will include Jakub Blaszczykowski, Lukasz Piszczek, and Robert Lewandowski. The Polish squad features other prominent members, but these three will be crucial members to the leadership they will need. Piszczek is a long-time member of Borussia Dortmund, making over 200 appearance for the club, and will be needed along the wings in the advanced stage of the tournament to counter stronger team’s attacks.

All eyes will be on Robert Lewandowski. In his previous three seasons with Bayern Munich, he has close to averaged a goal per game and has been rumored with a move away from the German giants. He is a gifted scorer with much technical ability, and he will have to be one of the tournament’s leading goal scorers for the Poland team to have a chance in the knockout phase.

Source: AFP

Source: AFP

Senegal

Senegal is another team making a return to the tournament after having failed to qualify in the previous editions. In their first ever FIFA World Cup played in 2002, they did make a run to the quarter-finals in 2002. The team has a few dynamic players that can shift a match and make advancing from the group stage a possibility.

The man to look at for Senegal is Sadio Mane. He recently became the first man from his country to score in a UEFA Champions League Final. At 26, Sadio is already one of the most experienced players for the national team. Senegal has several youth players in its attack, including M’Baye Niang. Sadio will have to have several moments of brilliance for Senegal as he had for Liverpool in this past season.

The Poland team who they will encounter in their first match features several experienced defenders in the defense. For a team that does not have many players with experience playing against this level of talent, or in this big a stage, Senegal will be a great team to root for as an underdog.

Predictions

Colombia, Poland, Senegal, Japan

2018 FIFA World Cup Preview: Group G
(Image: REUTERS)

(Image: REUTERS)

We now find ourselves talking about Group G, which is basically a two-team race between Belgium and England. Both of them will be fighting for first place while Tunisia and Panama will likely be playing for pride in this tournament.

Group A preview
Group B preview

Group C preview
Group D preview
Group E preview
Group F preview
Group H preview

Belgium

In terms of talent, Belgium is easily the top of this group. Filled with world class players all over the pitch, can this Belgium squad get it together and become real World Cup contenders?

The Belgians rolled through UEFA qualifying unbeaten, racking up 28 points. It was a relatively easy group as Belgium beat teams like Gibraltar and Estonia quite easily, winning by the likes of 9-0, 6-0, and 8-1 respectively. Other than a 1-1 draw against Greece and a 4-3 win over Bosnia and Herzegovina, Belgium wasn’t really challenged in their qualifying group and honestly might not be in this group either outside of England.

Belgium's attack will be set as manager Roberto Martinez has numerous options in the squad who can put the ball in the back of the net. Romelu Lukaku will likely be the man up top for them and will look to pounce and through balls from the playmakers such as Kevin De Bruyne. KDB was one of the best players in the world this season and can take Belgium far if he continues the form he was in while playing for Manchester City. Eden Hazard is a shoe-in on the left wing and is more than capable of taking on defenders by himself. Dries Mertens, who played all of this season at striker for Napoli, can also play out on the wing or in a CAM/CF role. Martinez has a lot of options he can tinker with and can move around some versatile offensive players. The backups aren’t bad either with Yannick Carrasco and Michy Batshuayi being solid attacking options off the bench.

One of the more controversial snubs of the World Cup was Belgium leaving Roma midfielder Radja Nainggolan at home, a surprising omission given how much the midfielder played for his country in the 2016 Euros, even scored the opening goal in that semi-final against Wales. The 30-year-old could have still been a solid presence for this team. He’s a solid box to box midfielder who isn’t afraid to make a tackle along with providing a blast from outside the penalty area with his right foot.

Without their best central midfielder, Belgium will rely on the likes of Moussa Dembele, Axel Witsel, and the ever talked about Marouane Fellaini. Youri Tielemans is also on the 23-man roster but given he’s only 21 and the players in front of him Same goes for Thorgan Hazard (Eden’s younger brother) and Adnan Januzaj, who can play out in the wings. Dembele is the most skilled out of the trio and had an amazing season for Tottenham in England. He controlled play whenever he got on the ball and really shined in European competition against the likes of Juventus and Real Madrid. Making sure he can be the main carrier in the midfield will be crucial for Belgium.

Martinez installed a back three for Belgium on the road to Russia, a pretty smart tactic considering how long we as a soccer community have been pointing out the lack of solid fullbacks in the Belgium team. The Tottenham duo of Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld are expected to start along with Barcelona’s Thomas Vermaelen. PSG’s Thomas Meunier is the only real fullback/wingback Martinez can deploy and could be played on the right wing. Thibaut Courtois is the obvious favorite to start in goal.

Belgium is the most talented team in the group and on paper, they look like a team destined to top it. But you never know with this Belgium squad. It’s always up and down with them. But given the opponents they are facing, they should be fine.

Panama

This is a historic World Cup for Panama as they are embarking on their first ever trip to this tournament. They finished runners-up in the 4th round of CONCACAF qualifying, and then shocked the world by finishing 3rd in the 5th round, gaining automatic qualification to Russia thanks to a 2-1 win over Costa Rica on the final matchday and USA’s loss to Trinidad and Tobago.

While this is their first go-around at the WC, Panama has a number of players who have played numerous games together. They have six players on their roster who have logged over 100 caps for their country and 10 players with 70 or more caps. You can’t really call it experience but there is solidarity among this team.

Now we all mostly know what is going to happen when Panama takes the field, they are going to sit deep and try to break teams with a counter attack. Panama really isn’t an attacking side as they showed in qualifying. They scored nine goals in the Hex qualifying (CONCACAF 5th round), the second-lowest total in the group. Behind the defensive duo of Roman Torres and captain Felipe Baloy, Panama will try to soak up as much pressure as possible to make the game as boring as possible. Panama can’t allow themselves to get opened up and lose their defensive shape. Otherwise, they will be picked apart by the two top teams in this group. If they do win possession, they will look to blast it forward towards either Blas Perez or Luis Tejada. Both are Panama’s top goal scorers with 43 goals each for their country. Torres is also a threat towards goal on set pieces.

This is a tough first introduction for Panama. They will be really pushed to their limits defensively against England and Belgium. Hopefully, for them, a game against Tunisia offers them a chance to win a game at the World Cup.

Tunisia

Like Panama, Tunisia had to go through two rounds of qualifying to make the World Cup. They started in the second round of AFCON qualifying and advanced to the third round by beating Mauritania 4-2 over the course of two legs. Both games ended in 2-1 wins for Tunisia as they headed into the group stage of qualifying. There they topped Group A, beating the likes of Libya, Guinea, and Congo. Thanks to a 0-0 draw against Libya, Tunisia with 14 points were able to barely edge out Congo who had 13 after beating Guinea 3-1 that same day. In the end, Tunisia went undefeated in the 2nd and 3rd round of AFCON qualifying to get to Russia.

Tunisia really doesn’t have that experienced of a squad as no player on the team have played more than 70 caps for their team. For them, it really is more about the experience and the takeaways they can learn from the World Cup.

Against the big guns, Tunisia will also sit back and try to limit the amount of pressure which will come their way. Defenders Ali Maaloul and Syam Ben Youssef are the most veteran on the backline with both having more than 40 caps to their name. An interesting prospect to look out for is Gent’s Dylan Bronn but who knows if he will see the pitch in Russia.

The main man to look out is forward Wahbi Khazri. The Rennes striker is the main man for Tunisia and everything will channel through him offensively. Having scored 12 goals for his country, Khazri is the most lethal attacker that his side has. He’s one of the only players on this team who have experience playing in Europe. Khazri has played in both England (Sunderland) and France (Rennes). He will try to use some of the experience in those moments to help.

There’s not much else to say about this Tunisia team other than to hope they can withstand the pressure from England and Belgium while looking forward to the Panama game for some reconciliation in terms of points

England

Similar to their European counterparts in Belgium, England also had a very solid UEFA qualifying campaign. They went undefeated and bested the likes of Slovakia, Scotland, and Slovenia to top the group. It seems Gareth Southgate has got this team clicking on all cylinders and when it was all said and done, they were eight points ahead of second place.

We all know this but England’s attack will rely heavily on the right foot of Harry Kane. He scored five goals in qualifying and with no other England player scoring more than one, all the pressure is onto Kane to make his presence known in Russia. But it’s not like he won’t have some help though. Raheem Sterling will look to continue his great run in form and will likely play behind Kane while also being able to be deployed on the wings. Sterling’s ability to play all over the place offensively can really help England in terms of their offensive creativity and how they can generate chances. Sterling’s pace will help attract defenders and could open up spaces for Kane to exploit. It could even open up spaces for Kane to take some time and fire a cannon into the top corner.

Dele Alli will also be deployed in the midfield to help out in attack. Jesse Lingard and Ruben Loftus-Cheek are hard workers in the midfield as well. Both are great at tracking back and helping press or break up plays when needed. With solid defensive awareness and work ethic, both can be used in Southgate’s system but also can’t be counted out when it comes to being a goal threat.

One thing which has been talked about a lot when it comes to England has been their switch to a back three. Southgate has used the likes of Harry Maguire, John Stones, and Kyle Walker at the back to protect the net. It has worked to some degree and it has a little bit of everything. Stones can provide some passing from out the back while Walker gives you some speed on that right-hand side. Maguire is a big physical defender who can get up and challenge on aerial crosses. The back three hasn’t been exposed too much since Southgate has deployed it and it honestly won’t be until they play Belgium. They have done a good job at remaining in shape and not getting caught out with silly mistakes. Particularly with Stones, who has shown the ability to try and do too much while playing in the Premier League. Too many times for either Manchester City or Everton we saw Stones be cheeky and it costed his team goals at times. But not with England, he has seemed a lot more composed and with him being the main CB in the back three, he needs to be as solid as ever.

England has gone under a lot of changes since their last time in Brazil and even the Euros. Out is the old guard and there is new life in this team. They will be trying to forget the embarrassing loss to Iceland in the Euros and focus on what’s ahead. England has a solid chance to finish first in this group with finishing second being almost a guarantee. It will all come down to how they do against Belgium.

Prediction

This is a two-team group between the two European giants. Like I’ve said earlier, the winner of this group will come down to the England - Belgium game. England has been fun to watch but this Belgium team is way too talented.

Belgium, England, Panama, Tunisia

2018 FIFA World Cup Preview: Group F

Is this group a race for second place? Can Mexico give Germany’s route difficult to obtaining first place in this group, or will they flame out with Osorio’s tactics when facing tougher competition? How will Sweden do without former national team star, Zlatan Ibrahimovic? Is this the "Group of Death?"

These questions will be answered in two weeks when those three clubs join South Korea to see who advances to the knockout rounds.

Let’s go through each team, and see what their chances are of advancing out of the group stage and their probability of continuing in the knockout phase.

Group A preview
Group B preview

Group C preview
Group D preview
Group E preview
Group G preview
Group H preview

Source: Jon Olav Nesvold/AP Photo

Source: Jon Olav Nesvold/AP Photo

Germany

The Germans are a consensus top three favorite to win the tournament across. Bovada currently has them with the best odds to win the tournament at +450. Several starters from their 2014 championship campaign return, but will be without all-time leading scorer of the World Cup, Miroslav Klose, as he has transitioned to an assistant coaching role. However, what makes Germany so special is their remarkable depth. If one player is injured or someone is playing to the less of their abilities, they have enough from the rest of their squad to win a game.

Marco Reus and Ilkay Gundogan, who both missed the 2014 tournament, are in the squad for Germany looking to capture the trophy they missed out on four years ago. The player to most look forward to for Germany is Thomas Muller. The Bayern Munich star has been one of the best players of the previous two tournaments, and he will seek to continue his World Cup scoring streak as he moves closer to the all-time scoring record held by Klose. Muller has been the most consistent players for the national team, and his heroics will be needed in close matches.

Joachim Low will also have to decide between playing without a striker, or using the young Timo Werner or veteran Mario Gomez. Low will also have to deal with the absence of Phillip Lahm and Bastian Schweinsteiger, but luckily Joshua Kimmich has quickly developed into the next star for the national team, and Sami Khedira can play well in the defensive midfield role.

Germany has arguably the most success in the history of the FIFA World Cup, as their consistent play has provided them with four straight top three finishes. For the team to match its 2014 success, Muller, Jerome Boateng, Toni Kroos and Mesut Ozil will have to maintain the level of play they did in the previous tournament, along with help from the players making their first starts to the tournament.

Source: Kelley L Cox/USA Today Sports

Source: Kelley L Cox/USA Today Sports

Mexico

El Tri will look to break their curse of five straight Round of 16 finishes and advance to the quarter-finals, which they have not been to since they hosted the tournament in 1986. Arguably Mexico’s finest squad in years, the team boasts more players playing in European leagues than in its own Liga MX for the first time ever.

There are guaranteed starters for El Tri, including Hector Moreno, Miguel Layun, Andres Guardado, and Hector Herrera. Javier “Chicharito” Hernández and Guillermo "Memo" Ochoa have also likely secured their spots in the starting Xi. However, with Mexico’s manager, Juan Carlos Osorio, nothing is guaranteed. Osorio has given starting positions and the majority of minutes to the aforementioned players, but his rotations have drawn confusion and ire from fans. For these players as well as Carlos Vela and the Dos Santos brothers, this is the tournament they have been waiting for, to prove to themselves that the hype that revolved around them since their teen years was merited as they will lead Mexico to the fifth match and possibly further in the tournament.

For Mexico to succeed, they will need to convert the opportunities they are presented with in front of the goal. Mexico continued to experiment with players as the starting XI is likely not set and will vary depending on the opponent they face and their situation during the tournament, which has led to only one goal scored for El Tri in the previous three matches. Hector Herrera and the players Osorio decides to choose to be the attacking wings will have to be Mexico’s best players to provide them with the tempo they are seeking.

Their first match will be against Germany, the defending champions, and for Mexico to avoid a likely Brazil match-up in the Round of 16, they will have to finish atop of their group. A difficult task, but to succeed in the World Cup, you have to confront several challenges.

Source: Reuters

Source: Reuters

South Korea

South Korea is looking to make it to the knockout stage for just the third time in its history. They were a great story in 2002, when South Korea reached the semi-finals and became the first Asian country to reach the final four. You can argue South Korea is perhaps the likeliest to finish last in Group F, but with the inconsistencies Mexico has displayed and Sweden not playing its best either in recent matches, they do have a solid chance at the runner-up spot.

This South Korea team will need strong play from Son Heung-min to advance to the knockout phase. Son has played against the Premier League’s top defenders in his three years at Tottenham, and has demonstrated great pace and his desire to want to create scoring plays makes him a threat. Ki Sung-yueng is another player who has commanded the midfield for South Korea as well as the Premier League, and will look to impress club teams as he is currently unsigned for the next season.

The first match for South Korea will be against Sweden. The loser of the match will likely be knocked out of contention from advancing from the group. In the previous two matches against European opponents, South Korea has lost both games and in the match against Poland, they generated six more shots on target than their opponent yet lost the match. Opportunities come slim in the World Cup, and if South Korea will seek to be one of the advancing teams of their group, they must be their finishing.

Sweden

The absence of one of the game’s largest personalities, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, from the national team has been debated by many. However, the final squad is confirmed and we must analyze how the team will perform with the players they have.

Sweden has a great understanding of what their identity is and who should be the eleven players on the pitch. The team is captained by defender Andreas Granqvist, likely playing in his last World Cup, and young defender Victor Lindelof, who did not feature much for Manchester United in his freshman season with the club, will have to be a steady force for a team who at times has not maintained much possession of the ball. They have also failed to score in their three previous outings and have been in unimpressive since the more positive start of 2017 they had. The team also has not played in the tournament since 2006 and failed to reach the knockout phase in their past three European Championship tournaments played.

The squad is experienced, but have not been successful in high profile matches. They did however defeat Italy to obtain a spot in the tournament. In a tournament that can cause shock, Sweden will have an opportunity to advance, but they will need some luck going their way.

Predictions

Germany, Mexico, Sweden, South Korea

2018 FIFA World Cup Preview: Group E
Pedro Vilela / Getty Images

Pedro Vilela / Getty Images

Group A preview
Group B preview

Group C preview
Group D preview
Group F preview
Group G preview
Group H preview

We now move on to Group E. Again we find similar traits to groups A and C. There is one clear favorite to finish first in Brazil but after them, second place is up for grabs. Mainly between Switzerland and Serbia.

Brazil

There wasn’t a more dominant team in World Cup qualifying than Brazil. They breezed through CONMEBOL qualifying, finishing first with 41 points, 10 ahead of second place Uruguay. Brazil only lost once during qualifying and it was in the opening matchday against Chile. Since then, Brazil has been on fire. They are one of the deepest squads in the tournament and have more than enough talent to be called legitimate title contenders.

It all starts up top for Brazil and as we saw in the last World Cup, everything will be functioning through Neymar. The PSG winger scored 6 goals in qualifying and will be healthy to suit up when they play their first match against Switzerland. He’s not often used on the wings when playing for Brazil but this time around Neymar will get some much-needed help when it comes to the attack up front.

Manchester City’s Gabriel Jesus had a breakout year for the Citizens and when you combine it with his 7 goals in qualifying, you can see why he would be the first choice striker. Behind Jesus’s pace and crafty moves, Brazil has two guys up top who can beat defenders one on one and slot it into the back of the net. Roberto Firmino and Willian will also be attacking options as well. Douglas Costa, who had a great season with Juventus in Serie A, should get a look too.

The midfield also has many options for Tite to choose from. Casemiro can sit back in front of the back four and be a destroyer in the same role he has with Real Madrid. Fernandinho can also provide defense solidarity as well as veteran leadership.

In terms of attacking options from the midfield, it’s the Barcelona duo of Philippe Coutinho and Paulinho. For Coutinho, Brazil can play him on the left wing if they want to or even centrally in a CAM role. He is expected to be another playmaker and can certainly score too. Paulinho is an aerial threat along with having a big work rate. He can get up and down the pitch, working sort of as a box to box midfielder at times. At Barcelona, Paulinho was always known for coming in late on attacks to provide another man and scoring threat. Expect him to do the same with Brazil if subbed on.

Defensively, Brazil is decent overall. Allison is expected to be the starting goalie despite his backup Ederson having a brilliant season for Man City. Miranda and Thiago Silva will be there as the center backs while Marcelo will be running up and down the left flank, providing offensive support at times. With Dani Alves not selected to the 23-man roster, Danilo will likely be starting at right back in his place. Only question about the defense are the fullbacks and if being too attack-minded will leave them exposed.

Brazil is clearly head and shoulders the best team in this group. They are certainly one of the top four teams in this tournament and should breeze through Group E.

Switzerland

The Swiss had a much tougher time qualifying for the World Cup. They finished second in Group B, losing on goal difference despite being tied on points with Portugal. If it wasn’t for a 2-0 loss to Portugal on the final matchday, they could have finished first but they had to settle for second place. It took a Ricardo Rodriguez penalty to win a tense two-legged playoff with Northern Ireland to advance to Russia, where they'll bring an interesting squad to this tournament.

On the wings, Switzerland will have two dynamic players in Xherdan Shaqiri and Breel Embolo. Both are capable of creating offensive chances on their own and like we saw from Shaqiri in the 2014 WC and the Euro’s, he’s not afraid of cutting inside and blasting a shot into the corner. The real question will be for Embolo, who is getting his first real World Cup action. Only 21 years old, expectations are going to be high for the Schalke forward and it will be interesting to see how much he can produce for this Swiss side. Benfica’s Haris Seferovic and Josip Drmic are solid striking options up top. Seferovic might get the nod due to him leading Switzerland in scoring in qualifying with 4 goals.

In the midfield, Switzerland also have some quality as well with Granit Xhaka being a solid link between the defense and the midfield. Hopefully, for the midfielder, he will be looking to play much better in this World Cup than he did for his club team Arsenal this past season. For the Swiss, Xhaka can string passes all over the field while also coming in as a solid attacking option from time to time. Valon Behrami, Blerim Dzemaili, and Gelson Fernandes are also experienced players in the midfield, but expect the first two to be put in the starting XI in Russia.

Like the midfield, the defense has some World Cup experience and most of the same guys who played in Brazil will be playing in Russia. For the fullback spots, captain Stephan Lichtsteiner showed this past season that even at age 34, he can still contribute offensively and defensively. Ricardo Rodriguez had a lackluster year at AC Milan but still can be a dangerous threat moving forward in attack as well as a solid set-piece taker for his country. John Djourou is expected to be one of the starting center backs and is the third member of this defense to have more than 50 caps to his name (73). Questions will be asked about who will start next to him as manager Vladimir Petkovic has some options to choose from. One name to look for will be Fabian Schar. Yon Sommer is expected to start in goal.

Switzerland will be fighting for second place in this group and it will all come down to their match against Serbia. They have some talent in different areas of the pitch but will rely on the experienced guys to take them to the knockout stages once again.  

Costa Rica

Costa Rica made a shock run to the quarterfinals in the 2014 World Cup and will look to play spoilers again. They finished second in the CONCACAF hex stage with a +6 goal difference. It was a great qualifying run for them, which included two victories over the United States with one of them being a 4-0 beatdown in November 2016. Just like Switzerland, Costa Rica will be bringing a lot of the same squad as well as the same tactics.

In Brazil, we raved about Costa Rica’s defensive structure despite playing a 3-man back line, and they're expected to stick with the same strategy this time around. With players such as Oscar Duarte, Cristian Gamboa, Johnny Acosta, and Giancarlo Gonzalez all coming with them in their 23-man squad, Costa Rica will have options to choose from. Sunderland and former Everton fullback Bryan Oviedo can play at wingback if need be. But playing at the back 3 comes with its risk and given how much Costa Rica will be sitting back in this game, you can expect a lot of teams to be trying to exploit the space given. Especially in the case that one of the three center backs get beaten.

That’s where Keylor Navas comes in. He had a breakout year in Brazil and has played ok at Real Madrid ever since. Navas will be a huge part of Costa Rica’s success and if they want to pull off another upset. But one has to wonder just how many shots he can save against the teams in this group.

For attack, Costa Rica still relies a lot on their captain Bryan Ruiz to be the link which holds this team together. Christian Bolanos will provide support in the middle of the park as well. But questions will be asked about which of their two solid striking options they'll choose from. Joel Campbell showed out at the '14 WC and Marco Urena had the key goal against Uruguay last year to gain their first upset win of the tournament. Both are good options to choose from and it could be possible for Costa Rica to play them both with Campbell on the left wing.

Costa Rica has a tall task getting out of this group, but this isn’t the first time we have doubted Los Ticos. It’s hard to forget that they got out of a group with England, Uruguay, and Italy last time around. If there is a team which knows how to pull off a stunner, it’s this team. They are well drilled defensively and their structure will be tested. Costa Rica is going to have to soak up a bunch of pressure defensively hit gold on the counter and on set pieces as well.

Serbia

Serbia had a good qualifying campaign in Europe, losing only once in UEFA’s group D while beating the likes of Wales, topping the group and earning automatic qualification for Russia. They have a solid squad which will rely on some talent who are coming off remarkable seasons for their clubs.

Up top, Fulham striker Aleksandar Mitrovic expects to start and there is no reason why he shouldn’t. He had a great second half of the season, helping Fulham get promoted to the Premier League in addition to leading the Serbian team in scoring during qualification. Right behind him will likely be Lazio’s Sergej Milinkovic-Savic. The 23-year-old midfielder will have all eyes on him as he will be expected to be the main playmaker for his country. He showed capabilities of being a solid box-to-box midfielder in Serie A and at 6’3, he certainly has the physical traits to dominate the midfield. But expect things to be a bit bumpy for him as he hasn’t had that many caps for his country. He will be the future of Serbia and if he has a solid World Cup, this may be the summer where he gets signed by a big club.

Dusan Tadic will also help out in attack after a solid season at Southampton, also scoring 4 goals in qualifying. Adem Ljajic is be a name to look out for as well. Nemanja Matic will be a solid defensive midfield and will help break up opposing attacks. He can sit in front of the back four and provide much-needed cover for them.

On defense, Serbia is going to rely on experience, but it also sees an aging group in its last go-around. There are 4 defenders over the age of 31 on this Serbian team, with captain Alexander Kolarov being the youngest at 32. He and former Chelsea right-back Branislav Ivanovic will be manning the left and right sides of the pitch respectively. Kolarov is still a decent offensive option going forward and has shown his left foot can still produce some rockets. He’ll be Serbia’s go to on free kicks and a set-piece specialist. Ivanovic isn’t any younger and could get exposed on that right-hand side. He may not even offer any threat moving forward but only time will tell with him.

Past them on the flanks, there will be even more questions and it doesn’t help that a lot of their younger players don’t have a lot of experience. Matic will have to do a lot of covering for them but overall as a unit they still work well together. Like I said, this a defense going through it’s last World Cup and they will still be stingy to some degree.

Serbia still has the quality to get past this group but it will come down to if Mitrovic and Milinkovic-Savic can shine like they did this season. Youth isn’t on their side but Serbia do have the experience to go off of. This is a core which has played a lot together and should be a challenge to play for any team in this group.

Prediction

Brazil will run this group and it will be a toss-up between Switzerland and Serbia. Costa Rica could make some noise but there is too much offensive quality for them to keep out. Ultimately, Switzerland will edge out Serbia but it will be a very close match. It will come down to whose playmakers can stand out the most.

Brazil, Switzerland, Serbia, Costa Rica

2018 FIFA World Cup preview: Group D
Source: AFP

Source: AFP

Group D features either the best or second best player in the game, with Lionel Messi looking to capture glory with Argentina. Messi and his teammates should be favored to finish atop of the group, but they will face a challenge from Croatia, who boast a strong midfield, headlined by Real Madrid’s Luka Modric and Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic. Let’s take a look at what each team will have to do move forward in the tournament.

Group A preview
Group B preview

Group C preview
Group E preview
Group F preview
Group G preview
Group H preview

Argentina

The Albiceleste will not be playing again until their first game of the tournament against Iceland, as there friendly against Israel was canceled. All eyes will be on Messi, as they should be. We have had the privilege to watch Messi for over a decade now, and success with Argentina has been met with losses in multiple championship matches, including the 2014 FIFA World Cup. The group will have similar aspirations to 2014, which was to be champions. Argentina has great talent in attack, but struggled to score in its qualifiers and also was on the verge of not qualifying.

This will likely be the last tournament we see Angel Di Maria, Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero, and Gonzalo Higuain at the peak of their powers in the attack of Argentina. Javier Mascherano will also likely be playing in his final tournament. For Argentina to win, Manager Sampaoli will have to maintain a disciplined squad in defense, where Argentina has not produced the same level of talent as its attacking players, and Aguero and Di Maria will need to take of advantage of the attention Messi is able to draw. Aguero suffered an injury that kept him out of much of the late season of Manchester City. Luckily for him, their first game should be a good chance to bring him to speed.

Croatia

Source: Reuters

Source: Reuters

After failing to advance from the group stage in 2014, Croatia will seek to take advantage of its golden generation of midfielders and look to challenge a team in the knockout stage. The team is led by Luka Modric, who commands the midfield for Real Madrid and has been a crucial component of their three previous Champions League campaigns. Another Real Madrid player for the team, Mateo Kovacic, and Ivan Rakitic, playing for rival FC Barcelona, will be great to partner alongside Modric to maintain tempo and control of the game. The other key players to look at will be Mario Mandzukic, the former Bayern Munich forward and now Juventus player, will have to be a threat in the aerial game and Andrej Kramaric has had recent success scoring for the national team.

Croatia did not have its greatest performance in its recent match against Brazil, as Neymar scored in his comeback to the national team. However, they should be favored to finish second in the group, and could be a threat to Argentina with its ability to pressure a defense and Argentina’s inconsistent play.

Iceland

Iceland is making its first ever appearance in the FIFA World Cup. After having made the quarterfinals in the Euro 2016, the team has lost its previous three matches to Mexico and two other teams who have not made an appearance in the World Cup in at least 20 years. The loss to Norway was a game that demonstrated a lack of composure of a squad with veterans playing with their respective clubs but not much international experience.

While Iceland is ranked only three spots lower than Croatia in the FIFA rankings, this is just another example of the flaws in the rankings and the squad will be relying on counterattacks for most of its matches in the tournament. Iceland will face-off against Ghana in its last match before playing Argentina in its opener of the tournament. Not the opponent they were looking to start off their first ever World Cup campaign against, but welcome to the tournament Iceland.

Nigeria

Source: Nike

Source: Nike

Nigeria will play in its first match of the 2018 FIFA World Cup against Croatia, which will be an important determinant if it can finish as a runner-up in Group D. The squad is captained by John Obi Mikel, who was a long-time Chelsea midfielder and a decorated African player who played in of the top teams in the world. Victor Moses, who has been on loan for several teams in the Premier League, will have to excel along the wings to take pressure off the Nigeria defense. Alex Iwobi, recently turned 22, will have a hard task at hand but his experience at Arsenal over the past three seasons will serve him well against the defense of Argentina and Croatia.

The Nigeria team has not had much success when confronted with tougher competition than it faces in the CAF. However, the team does have experience on its side and has proven before that it is capable of reaching the knockout stage.

(Also, the jersey sales for the Nigeria have soared as it has been dubbed the jersey of the tournament)

Predictions

Argentina, Croatia, Nigeria, Iceland

2018 FIFA World Cup Preview: Group C
Photo credit: AFP/Getty Images

Photo credit: AFP/Getty Images

Much like Group A, we find ourselves having one clear favorite to finish at the top of the group (France) while we see second place being a fight between the remaining teams, particularly two have a real shot. France should comfortably advance but Denmark and Peru both have a shout of making the knockout rounds via a second place finish while Australia are trying to play spoilers once again.

Group A preview
Group B preview

Group D preview
Group E preview
Group F preview
Group G preview
Group H preview

France

As one would expect, France are the presumed favorites of this group and with good reason. They are one of the deepest squads in the entire tournament and are some people’s pick to win it all. France cruised through UEFA qualifying, losing only one game in a group which included Sweden and the Netherlands. The campaign was impressive despite drawing against the likes of Belarus and Luxembourg during it. France will need to be on their A game from the start in this World Cup. Especially if they want to advance deep into the tournament. Last time around, they lost to eventual winners Germany with a Mats Hummels header being the difference.

France boast one of the top squads and have quality on all three levels of the pitch. Starting with attack, where they have Atletico Madrid strike Antoine Griezmann at striker, who scored 4 goals during qualifying. He will likely be flanked by starlets Kylian Mbappe and Ousmane Dembele, both have impressed at the club level and are expected to get a lot of minutes in Russia. More questions will be asked of Dembele cause of his rocky first season with Barcelona where he suffered from injury. Mbappe can also play as a striker and his movement to find gaps in the defense will be key. He’s a great all around playmaker and will get everyone involved. They just need to get him the ball. Defense will be strong with Hugo Lloris at the back, who despite the occasional keeping error, is still a top goalie. Samuel Umtiti was a top five defender in Europe for FC Barcelona and will be flanked by Real Madrid’s Raphael Varane. Both are under 26 years and represent the new age of defense with Laurent Koscielny out of the tournament with an injury.

In the midfield Didier Deschamps will have numerous options to choose from. There are a bunch of combinations he could roll out. An ideal midfield would be one of Steven N’Zonzi, N’Golo Kante, and Paul Pogba. N’Zonzi is a great passer, as shown when he plays for Sevilla, and along with Kante can protect the backline by playing the role of destroying an opposing counterattacks. Both N’Zonzi and Kante can get back on defense and eat up space in a hurry. This will allow Pogba to go forward, where he is the most useful. Using Pogba in a holding role would be a grave mistake and would limit his creativity offensively. France gets a lot better when Pogba is up the pitch for offensive support.

The France are the best team in this group and should advance easily. It will take them some major slip ups to finish anything lower than first place.  

Denmark

While France’s UEFA qualifying campaign was quite smooth sailing, the same can’t be said about Denmark’s. They finished second in Group E behind Poland and thanks to a draw against Romania, were able to hold off Montenegro in third place. From there Denmark advanced to the playoff-off round where they faced off against the Republic of Ireland in a two-leg tie. After a tense 0-0 draw in Copenhagen, Denmark was facing some pressure as they went to Dublin for the return leg. The pressure was short lived as Denmark beat the brakes off Ireland in the second leg, beating them 5-1 with Christian Eriksen scoring a hattrick.

When looking at this squad, it’s clear that Eriksen will be running the show for them in Russia. Everything offensively will go through the Spurs midfielder, just like it did in qualifying. Along with the hattrick in the second round, Eriksen scored 8 goals in qualifying for his country. A very creative player in the final third, he will be the perfect set up man for Denmark and you will see a majority of their chances generated by him. At striker however, Denmark don’t have a target man as Nicklas Bendtner is out of the squad due to injury. It’s a roll of the dice in terms of who will start up for the Danish. Martin Braithwaite, Andreas Cornelius, Yuusuf Polsen, Nicolai Jorgensen, and even Ajax youngster Kasper Dolberg will be options for manager Age Hareide. It will be great to see Eriksen be used to his best offensively but it means nothing for Denmark if they can’t score goals and by looking at their strike force, it’s going to be a fight to put the ball in the back of the net.

At the back goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel will be the leader. The Leicester City goalkeeper had another solid year in the Premier League and will not be an issue for them. The real problem for Denmark will be in front of him. Sevilla centre back Simon Kjaer will likely be captaining the side and leads a defense which only gave up 8 goals in qualifying, the least total in their group.

Denmark are stingy at the back and rely a fat chunk of their offensive potential on the shoulders of Eriksen. They will be hard to break down but there are numerous questions about their attack. It really comes down to the game against Peru which will decide their fate. If they can knock them off, they have a solid shot at second place in Group C.

Peru

Like Denmark, Peru had a stressful journey to the World Cup as they had some nervy moments during their qualification process. They finished 5th in the CONMEBOL qualifying on goal difference and were able to hold off Chile as both nations were tied on 26 points each. It was much thanks to a draw against Colombia combined with a Chile loss to Brazil which sent Peru to a playoff round. In the playoff round, Peru faced off against New Zealand and were able to cruise to a 2-0 aggregate victory with both goals coming in the away leg. Now they are looking to play as an upset team looking to capture the attention of the world.

Peru has some experienced players, with 5 members of their WC squad having played 60 or more caps for them. Luckily for Peru, it’s spread all over the pitch. Christian Ramos and Luis Advincula provide stability at the back while Orlando City’s Yoshimar Yotun and Watford’s Andre Carrillo could be useful options in the midfield. But Peru’s strong point is in their attack.

While Jefferson Farfan and Raul Ruidiaz are also options up top, a big boost for Peru came last week when it was announced that striker Paolo Guerrero’s ban for drugs had been lifted, allowing the player to be selected for the final 23-man squad. Being the country’s leading goalscorer in their entire history, getting Guerrero back instantly makes Peru a dangerous side in Group C. All of the attack relies on Guerrero and he’s completely fine with being the focal point of it all. He instantly made his presence known by coming back from the suspension and scoring a brace against Saudi Arabia in a recent friendly. It seems he is picking up where he left off.

Like Denmark, there is a path for Peru to qualify through the knockout stages in this group. But it will all depend on how they play the Danish. Picking up points against Australia will be crucial as well. They rely a lot on Guerrero’s smarts and instincts to get them goals but they will need a step up from everyone all over the pitch if they want to make noise in the first World Cup they’ve been to in 36 years.

Australia

It seems to be a trend here in Group C but like the two previous teams before them, Australia also had to go through a playoff-round to get here. They finished third in Group B of AFC qualifying, finishing third to Saudi Arabia on goal difference as both sides were tied on 19 points and despite Australia beating Thailand 2-1 on the final matchday. Australia then had to play the 3rd team in Group A, Syria, in a two-leg playoff. After drawing 1-1 in the first leg the two teams headed to Sydney for an all-important second leg. There it finished 1-1 as well and off we went to extra time. There, Australian legend Tim Cahill scored the game winning goal in 109th minute to send Australia to another playoff round. This time it was against Honduras with the winner going to the World Cup. Again the first leg didn’t break the deadlock with the score being 0-0 but once again the Aussies came back to life when the tie switched to Sydney for the second leg. Captain Mile Jedinak scored a hattrick to send them to the World Cup on a 3-1 aggregate scoreline.

Although this is only Australia's 4th World Cup in their history, they do have some players who have a lot of experience at this level. Particularly when it comes to Cahill and Jedinak. Those two are the anchors of the Socceroos and will provide leadership wherever needed. Cahill is the greatest ever Australian goalscorer, and scored an absolute stunner against the Netherlands in the 2014 group stage, but at age 38 who knows how much impact he will have in attack. But luckily for him, some of the younger guys stepped up in qualifying. Tomi Juric scored 5 and Herta Berlin’s Mathew Leckie scored 3 for the Socceroos during qualifying. Those two are going to be the top selections if former Dutch boss Bert Van Marwijk decides to not start Cahill, which is a likely scenario.

As per usual, Australia will look to generate a lot of their goals on the counter as they are one of the weaker teams in this group. But their midfield has some quality players who can funnel the ball to wingers or even start a counter themselves. Jedinak is a steady presence sitting back in front of the back four while Huddersfield’s Aaron Mooy is also someone to look for in the midfield. QPR’s Massimo Luongo is also worth a look at well. It’s a good mix of talent in the Australian midfield but as always, it’s how the defend which will see if they can hold their own in this group.

Matty Ryan is a quality goalie at the back and his experience playing for teams such as Valencia, Genk, and Brighton should help. There are questions ahead of him with only one Australian defender on this team having more than 30 caps, which would be Trent Sainsbury, who spent 2017 on loan at Inter. The Australian defense can’t afford to give up an easy goals like they did in qualifying as they are already going to be under a lot of pressure defensively.

Australia is the real underdog in this group but it isn’t as bad as they had it in 2014 when they were slotted with Spain, Chile, and the Netherlands. This time it’s a lot more easier with the teams they are grouped with. They will likely need to snatch wins against both Denmark and Peru back to back. The first mountain to climb is against France. They can’t afford to get blown out, mostly due to goal difference. If they can somehow get a draw it could go a long way in the Aussies making a shock run to the knockout rounds.

Prediction

Like Group A, we already know who is finishing first in this group, it’s France. Second place is once again up for grabs, mostly between Denmark and Peru. It’s a very tough call and cases are strong for both sides but Denmark has a real playmaker in Eriksen and he will be the difference. The first matchday, which pits the two sides against each other will likely decide the way the group will tilt

France, Denmark, Peru, Australia
 

2018 FIFA World Cup Preview: Group B
Paul White/AP Photo

Paul White/AP Photo

Portugal and Spain will likely be in a two-horse race for first place in the group, and will also likely be the two teams to advance to the knockout phase. However, Portugal does not have the same well-balanced roster than their neighbors Spain have, and Spain suffered a humiliating collapse in the 2014 tournament after their golden-age players captured the title in 2010.

Let’s take a look at the for each team in Group B, and review their chances of advancing from the group stage and what they can do in the knockout phase.

Group A preview
Group C preview
Group D preview
Group E preview
Group F preview
Group G preview
Group H preview

Iran

Iran will be in their second consecutive World Cup after going through a period of missing the tournament and qualifying for it in the previous four World Cups. Iran has only lost two matches since June 4, 2018, but will have difficulty facing Spain in the second match of the group phase. Sardar Azmoun will be the player to focus on for Iran. Although only 23, he has established himself as a capable scorer for the national team; he has netted 23 times in 32 appearances for Iran. Iran will likely need a tie against Portugal along with a win against Morocco to advance to the knockout phase.

Morocco

Morocco will be playing in their fifth World Cup ever, and they are captained by Juventus defender Medhi Benatia. Like Iran, Morocco has a key player who will be a cornerstone for the national team’s future, Real Madrid defender Achraf Hakimi. Expectations for the national team will be to advance to the knockout phase, but they will have to face off against Iran in their opener. Lose against Iran and their possibilities of advancing likely reach zero, but win big against Iran, and you give yourself a chance against the two heavy favorites to advance.

Portugal

The 2016 European Champions will look to win their first ever World Cup as this is likely the last chance we will see Cristiano at the peak of his powers in the tournament. The spotlight will be on Ronaldo, as it should, he is Portugal’s most capped player, their leading goal scorer, was the captain of the championship squad of the 2016 Euro, and has won four of the last five UEFA Champions League with Real Madrid, just to list a few of his accomplishments.

The roster is missing several key players from the 2-16 Euro Final, including Nani, Renato Sanches, and Eder. This Portugal squad will be reliant on several young players who are proving themselves for their respective clubs, including Andre Silva and Bernardo Silva (no relation). For this team to challenge Spain and finish top of the group, the attacking players will have to find a way to take advantage of the increased attention Ronaldo will draw, and the defense led by Pepe will have to hold similar to the Euro 2016 only conceded one goal in the knockout phase and held France scoreless in the final.

Spain

The Spain national team has the third best odds to win the tournament, according to Bovada. The squad maintains several players from their golden-age generation, including captain Sergio Ramos, his centre-back partner and club rival Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets, and 2010 World Cup legend, Andres Iniesta. Manchester City midfielder, David Silva, was also an important part of the roster, but was not as integral as the other four in 2010.

When comparing Spain to several teams in the tournament, you can argue it has an embarrassment of riches. Spain left out Cesc Fabregas, Marc Bartra, Pedro, and Alvaro Morata from the 2018 World Cup roster, players who would be perhaps captains of several teams in the tournament. However, La Roja has been underwhelming in its last two major tournaments, the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the Euro 2016. Since the the Euro 2016, Spain has not suffered defeat, and is also coming off a massive 6-1 victory over Argentina, albeit without Messi.

The starting defense for Spain is almost set, but Carvajal’s hamstring injury will be something to monitor considering they face Portugal in their first match. Marco Asensio and Thiago Alcantara will likely both feature in the tournament as substitutes for an aging Iniesta and other midfielders in the starting eleven. The squad will be favored to finish atop the group, but should learn from its previous mistakes and be prepared for the challenges the other teams offer.

Prediction: Spain, Portugal, Iran, Morocco

2018 FIFA World Cup Preview: Group A
Uruguay are clear favorites but who will finish second in Group A? (Reuters)

Uruguay are clear favorites but who will finish second in Group A? (Reuters)

It’s almost time for the World Cup. So here are the Barber’s Chair Network, we will be doing previews for each group. Going through each of them, looking at the teams, and giving our predictions on how they will turn out.

Let’s start out with Group A. The one which features home country Russia, Uruguay, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. While there is one clear favorite in Uruguay, second place is up for grabs. Russia and Egypt certainly have some talented players on each side as well and should make it an interesting battle for that vaunted second place.

Group B preview
Group C preview
Group D preview
Group E preview
Group F preview
Group G preview
Group H preview

Uruguay

It was a super strong qualifying campaign for Uruguay as they finished second only to Brazil in CONEMBOL. Thanks to a 3-1 win over Bolivia, Uruguay were able to hold off Argentina for second place and qualify comfortably. They were the strongest side and certainly have the best all around attack in the group. It all starts with the two strikers they boast in PSG’s Edinson Cavani and Barcelona’s Luis Suarez. Both can play off each other, having the ability to make smart runs behind the defense, and will almost certainly be the two talismen up top for La Celeste. As we saw in the World Cup last year, if you even give them an inch of space they can punish you. Just ask England.

The defense will be solid as well with an Atletico Madrid pairing of Diego Godin and Jose Maria Gimenez starting. They will also have Lazio centre back Martin Caceres in reserve if necessary. However the midfield will be the biggest question for Uruguay. Guys like Matias Vecino, Rodrigo Bentancur, and Gaston Ramirez will all be interesting options and will look to provide support for Uruguay's strike duo. The midfielders aren’t exactly any players who have proven themselves on this stage but if they can step up, it will be a huge boost for Uruguay.

Even with doubts in the middle of the park, Uruguay is easily the best team in their group. Especially with Suarez and Cavani looking to punish teams who make any sort of defensive mistake. Uruguay should advance easily.

Russia

Russia obviously qualified through being the host nation but face a stiff test in this group. This is a much different Russian squad than we saw in Brazil. Especially up top with Alexander Kokorin out of the squad, mostly due to injury. In his place starting will likely be Krasnodar striker Fedor Smolov. He scored 14 goals in the Russian Premier League and should provide some quality up top. Russia will also have other choices up top in Artem Dzyuba and Aleksey Miranchuk. In the midfield they have the likes of Denis Cheryshev from Villarreal, Alan Dzagoev, and Yuri Zhirkov among others. There a lot of options but Cheryshev is one who shows attacking quality so there’s a chance he will be playing in the opening match against Saudi Arabia.

The defense is shaky but it’s not necessarily because of their centre backs or fullbacks, it’s goalie Igor Akinfeev. He’s prone to errors and had a howler against South Korea last World Cup. He’s still sure fill in starter on this Russia squad but there will be times where their lack of quality at the back will be shown.

Best case scenario out of this group for Russia is second and it all starts with the first game against Saudi Arabia. Taking at least a point from that game is crucial as well as beating Egypt. If Russia can’t do the second, they are headed for an exit in the group stage.

Egypt

Now this is the wild card team for Group A. The Pharaohs easily qualified for Russia by topping their group in qualifying, knocking out Ghana in the process. It certainly helped reduce the sting which they suffered by losing the Africa Cup of Nations final to Cameroon. Having only lost once during qualifying, Egypt will be looking to raise some eyebrows and make the knockout rounds. They certainly have the quality and as you know, it all starts up top with winger Mohamed Salah. He had the best season of any attacker in Europe and scored 43 goals for Liverpool, including a whopping 32 in the Premier League. Salah is by far Egypt’s best player and a lot of the attack will go through him. He will be looked upon as the man who can create chances for them along with being the driving force for their counterattack. Salah will be the release outlet and as he has shown at the club level, if you give him too much space, he can blow right by you and it will end with you picking the ball out of your own net.

Mohamed Elneny will be the quality man in midfield for Egypt as the Arsenal midfielder will be responsible for doing it all in that area of the park. They will be asked to hold down the fort in front of the back four while also being able to spring balls for a counterattack. Against the likes of Uruguay, Egypt will be pushed back a lot and the midfield will be key making sure they don’t get completely overpowered. The defense is decent, only allowing 4 goals during qualifying and are led by West Brom’s Ahmed Hegazi.

The biggest question for Egypt is the health of Salah. After suffering a shoulder injury against Real Madrid in the Champions League final, his health for this WC is in question. Numerous reports say he will likely only miss Egypt's opening clash, which is against Uruguay. Honestly this was the best case scenario for Egypt. If the reports are true, it makes Salah available against their huge game against Russia and Saudi Arabia, two games they could win. That should enough to see them progress.

Saudi Arabia

This is only Saudi Arabia’s 4th World Cup in their history and first since 2006. They will be hoping to recreate the magic from 1994 which saw them reach the Round of 16. Saudi Arabia had a thrilling qualifying campaign. They finished second ahead of Australia thanks to a 1-0 win over group leaders Japan on the final day. It was Fahad Al-Muwallad, who spend the season on loan at Levante, who scored the crucial goal in the 63rd minute. It helped them avoid a playoff round as they went through on automatic qualification. Led by former Chile manager Juan Antonio Pizzi, Saudi Arabia will be looking to play the roles of spoilers in this group.

Saudi Arabia don’t have the quality like the rest of the teams in their group but it doesn’t mean they will back down from the fight. Under Pizzi’s reign they have seen more stability in terms of tactics and will adjust based on their opponent. Obviously Pizzi can’t press like he used to while managing Chile but he will still load up defensive players on either side depending on the threat. They will surely sit back and look to absorb the pressure thrown at them. Expect Saudi Arabia to do a lot of defending while trying to spring Mohammed Al-Sahlawi as a release valve.

Most of their offense will flow through striker Al-Sahlawi, just like it did for qualifying. He scored a whopping 16 goals during WC qualification for Saudi Arabia, even scoring a hattrick against Timor-Leste. He will be their talisman during this group stage. Even at the age of 31, he still has shown some super speed and can get in behind defenses if they are not paying attention.

Their biggest game will be their first one against Russia. It will be their best chance to get points from this group and even if they can’t qualify out of it, they will try and make games against them tough.

Prediction: Uruguay is easily the best team in this group but it’s a coin flip between Russia and Egypt for second place. It all depends on Salah’s health and if the winger is healthy, second place is Egypt’s for the taking.

Uruguay, Egypt, Russia, Saudi Arabia