Every four years, the world comes together as one to enjoy the greatest spectacle in sports; the FIFA World Cup. Though soccer gets a lot of slack here in the United States, there is no doubt that it is the most popular sport in the world. 32 countries have gone through the rigors of qualifying and now have the opportunity to bring home that coveted golden trophy and etch their names in the record books. Before the Russian hosts kickoff the 21st edition of the competition against Saudi Arabia on June 14th, here’s a look at the eight groups that represent the first round of this year’s World Cup.
While the opening group is not the most intriguing, it does have some very key storylines to keep up with. Containing the likes of Egypt, Uruguay, Saudi Arabia, and the hosts Russia, group A shouldn’t have many surprises. The biggest storyline in this group will be the health of Egypt’s star man, Mohamed Salah. Salah had himself the best domestic season of his career with Liverpool in 2017-18, netting 32 goals to lead the Premier League. The availability of Salah is in question however after he injured his right shoulder during the Champions League final. Salah and his Egyptian comrades have expressed that they expect Salah to be available from the jump, but the impact he will have may be smaller than Egypt can afford. The best team in this group is Uruguay, who will be looking to make its 3rd straight appearance in the knockout stages. The hosts will simply be looking to make their fans as happy as possible, as they come into the tournament with the lowest world ranking of the 32 countries. That happiness may start and end with a result in their opening match against Saudi Arabia. In the end, expect Uruguay to win the group and Egypt to follow them, despite Salah’s injury.
Group B contains two European juggernauts in Portugal & Spain, and two countries that may not get many results in Iran and Morocco. Cristiano Ronaldo is entering his 4th World Cup with Portugal and is looking to feed off of his countries triumphant victory at the 2016 European Championships. This could be CR7’s last chance to put Portugal on top, so expect him to do everything he can to win this tournament. After a disappointing title defense in 2014, the Spaniards are ready to show the world they are still one of the best teams around. This Spanish squad is loaded with talent and it would not surprise me if they grabbed 7 points and topped this group. Iran may give these two some fits, but don’t expect too much from them. Morocco is young and fast but will more than likely struggle against the superior teams in this group. Spain and Portugal should cruise to the knockout stages with ease.
One of the more interesting groups, group C includes France, Australia, Denmark and Peru. The French are undoubtedly the favorites in this group and the tournament as a whole, but do have some doubts. They are incredibly talented, young and hungry, but have been known to regress in big games. The biggest example of this is the 2016 Euro final. France came into the game as favorites and were playing in front of a home crowd, yet squandered the opportunity to win their first major tournament since the 2003 Confederations Cup. Only time will tell if Les Bleus can seize the moment in Russia. Denmark come into the tournament as one of the most improved teams in the past few years and can definitely make some noise. Much of their results will be determined from the play of Christian Eriksen. The Tottenham midfielder was lethal in Denmark’s qualification games and will be the key man for the Danes in Russia. Australia and Peru will be the odd men out in this group, but don’t expect them to go down without a fight. Peru come into the tournament ranked 11th in the world and will have all-time leading goal scorer Pablo Guerrero back after he won an appeal to lift his one year ban from a drug violation in December. They can give France and Denmark some fits, but I don’t think they have enough talent to make it through.
The picture says it all. This group and pretty much this entire tournament is headlined by one man. Lionel Messi, the star of a generation, quite possibly the greatest player to ever play the beautiful game, will have one last legitimate shot to seal his legacy and win the World Cup. The disappointment of three straight losses in major tournament finals (2014 World Cup, 2015 & 2016 Copa America), and the brief teasing of international retirement has come and gone. La Pulga is now ready to lead his country to its greatest triumph in the sport since the days of Maradona. While Argentina should be a shoe in to make it out of the group, the team joining them is a toss-up. Most people are picking either Nigeria or Croatia. Both teams have players with experience in big games and their matchup on June 16th is one that I am very much looking forward to watching. Last but certainly not least are everyone’s favorite underdogs, Iceland. The smallest populated country to qualify for a World Cup, Iceland come into the tournament with not much of a chance, but with possibly one of the biggest fan bases. Football fans around the world fell in love with them after their unexpected quarterfinal run at the 2016 Euro’s. They may not win a game in this group, but they sure will have their fair share of fight in them. Sharpie in Argentina, pencil in Nigeria to move on from group D.
The Brazilians headline this group as they are looking to rid the embarrassment that they suffered in the semifinals on their own home turf in 2014. Since then, Brazil has gone on to win gold at the 2016 Summer Olympics, thanks in part to the man pictured above, as well as becoming the first team to qualify for Russia. They are primed for another deep run this year and with Neymar in the prime of his career, he is ready to lead Brazil to their 6th World Cup victory. Brazil will be challenged by Switzerland, Costa Rica and Serbia. The Swiss are young and talented, so don’t expect them to go away quietly. They’ll challenge Brazil for the top spot in this group, but will have to settle for second, still securing their spot in the knockout stages. Following a quarterfinal appearance in 2014, Costa Rica will be looking to make some noise again. While they should grab a victory against Serbia, Brazil and Switzerland will be too much for them. Keylor Navas will have to play lights out for the Costa Ricans to have a shot at making it out of the group. As for Serbia, well they’re just happy to be here after missing out on the 2014 tournament. Don’t expect them to do too much against three teams that are simply just better than them.
Group F features the defending champion Germans, a hungry Mexican squad, the return of Sweden and a group stage mainstay in South Korea. I’ve seen this group being labeled as the “group of death” for the tournament, but I don’t see it. Germany are just as talented, if not better than what they were when they won in 2014. They didn’t lose a single game in 2017 and have just two losses this year. They will cruise to the knockout stages and will more than likely find themselves in the semifinals for the 5th straight World Cup. The squad most likely to join them will be Mexico, who will be looking to get out of the group stage for the 7th straight World Cup. El Tri does have the talent to make a quarterfinal run, but will they have the charisma to play the way they are capable of? Sweden will be without their legendary striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and I think because of that they won’t make too much noise. The Koreans have remarkably qualified for their 9th straight World Cup, but won’t be going anywhere in a tough group.
Consisting of one of the best teams in Europe in Belgium, a young English side, a sneaky squad in Tunisia and a first timer in Panama, group G has some intriguing matchups. The Belgians are the obvious favorites and are actually my pick to win the whole thing. Their golden generation of footballers, including the likes of Romelu Lukaku, Kevin De Bruyne, Thibaut Courtois and Eden Hazard, have not played up to expectations in recent major tournaments. That is all going to change in Russia. I expect them to dominate the group and find themselves in no less than the semifinals. The Red Devils are ready to make a deep run on the world’s biggest stage. Joining them in the knockout stages will be England, but the Three Lions won’t have the easiest time. Time and time again the English have disappointed. They failed to make it out of their group in 2014 and were shocked by Iceland in the round of 16 at the 2016 Euros. I see the disappointment changing this time around. England are just too talented to not make it out of this group and a quarterfinal appearance could be in the cards. All that being said, I could be totally wrong and the English could totally fold again. Tunisia are sneaky good and could cause some problems for England’s defense, and Panama won’t want to go down lightly in their first World Cup. Expect England to make it out alive, but those two could make it interesting in group G.
The 8th and final group is the most wide open group, as it features Poland, Colombia, Senegal and Japan. The bookies have Poland and Colombia going through from group H, but it won’t be easy. Senegal has some fire power lead by Liverpool striker Sadio Mane and if he can get it going, the Lions could cause a menace to the defenses in the group. Japan are making their 6th straight World Cup appearance, and while expectations aren’t high, don’t expect them to just roll over. On paper the Colombians are the most talented squad in the group and I see them topping the four. Poland should join them, but I’m going out on a limb and saying that they tumble against Senegal and fail to go through. Robert Lewandowski goes into the tournament with his club career in question, as there is speculation that he wants to leave Bayern Munich in the summer. I think that gets into his head a little bit and without him at the top of his game there is no way Poland can go through. I have Senegal joining Colombia in the knockout stages.
The wait is finally over folks, as the tournament kicks off in less than 24 hours. Stay tuned later today for the debut of my daily World Cup podcast and make sure to come back each round, as I will be writing a preview all the way up to the final on July 15th. Thanks for reading and enjoy watching the beautiful game unfold!