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World Cup 2018 predictions: Our writers pick their winners, best players, top scorers and where England will finish

Who will be the stand-out names in Russia this summer?

Tuesday 12 June 2018 11:04 BST
2018 Russia World Cup in numbers

The World Cup 2018 is about to get underway, but what do our writers think will happen in Russia? Here, they predict their winners, best players, top scorers, dark horses and where England will finish…


Miguel Delaney (Chief Football Writer): Spain. Ridiculous strength in depth but I also think a required cohesion and fluidity that takes them ahead of teams with more “stars” like Brazil and France. Diego Costa gives them a finisher, too.

Jonathan Liew (Chief Sports Writer): Spain, beating France in the final. Hit just the right sweet spots for me: between patience and vigour, solidity and creativity, youth and experience, tournament pedigree (eleven survivors from 2014, six from 2010) and tournament hunger (two consecutive failures).

Jack Pitt-Brooke (Football Writer): Spain. The best goalkeeper in the world, the best centre-backs in the world and still one of the best midfields of all time. Yes, they were terrible at Brazil 2014 and Euro 2016, but Vicente del Bosque had overstayed his welcome, and the team looks sharper and hungrier under Julen Lopetegui now. The only question is up front: the gamble on Diego Costa did not come off four years ago. Will he be any more use this time?

Ed Malyon (Sports Editor): I’ve changed my mind so many times on this. I think all of the countries are flawed, even the best ones, and we’ve spoken in the past about deficiencies in international and coaching. France and Spain have the best-quality squads while Brazil have the best combination of team and coach, narrowly pipping Germany to that. If we aren’t betting – and I wouldn’t back Brazil because the price is too short – then I think they’re most likely champions so I’ll put them here, but it’s a very open field of around five teams.

Lawrence Ostlere (Sports Night Editor): Of the big four – Brazil, Spain, Germany, France – I think Brazil have the strongest group of 13 or 14 core players needed to win a World Cup. Major tournaments are usually defined by big players and I imagine Neymar, Philippe Coutinho and Gabriel Jesus will be in the final in Moscow having scored plenty of goals to get there, with one or two memorable ones along the way.

Jack Austin (Sports Reporter): It’s a difficult one because amongst the group of four or five heavyweights, I don’t think there is one that stands out above all the rest. I’ll go Spain, for sheer lack of fearless young talent coming through to support the wiser old-heads who have already tasted international success.

Luke Brown (Sports Reporter): I think I fancy France. But then again Spain and Germany can’t be ruled out. Brazil look pretty tasty, too. So to conclude I don’t really know. Pass.

None of our writers believe Germany can retain their title (Getty)

Sam Lovett (Sports Reporter): Spain. After the disappointment of their Euros campaign in France, Spain have risen from the ashes thanks to the talents of a new emerging core. Under Julen Lopetegui, an exciting vision of Spanish football is beginning to crystallise with the likes of Marco Asensio, Lucas Vazquez and Isco leading the revolution. Take into consideration the presence of Sergio Ramos, Gerard Pique and David de Gea, this is a squad that strikes the perfect balance between hardened experience and youthful exuberance. Once they build up their momentum, this tournament is Spain’s for the taking.

Liam Twomey (Sports Reporter): Spain. Julen Lopetegui has done a fantastic job of reinvigorating a fading generation of World Cup winners with fresh talent. No squad at the tournament has more big-game experience, with 13 of the 23 hailing from Real Madrid, Barcelona or Atletico Madrid. A fit and hungry Diego Costa should also give them a new dimension up front.

Adam Hamdani (Social Editor): Spain. Their team is a joke, everywhere you look it’s so strong and there’s levels below each level of strength that, sadly, would be the star for England. If not Spain then France or Brazil. I can’t see Germany retaining it.

Best player:

MD: Leo Messi. He’s still by far the best in the world, albeit in a frustratingly disjointed Argentina, but I think he’ll drag them as far as possible again.

JL: Isco. Somehow manages to produce his best stuff at international level, and may even feature as a false No9 if Julen Lopetegui decides to leave out Diego Costa.

JPB: Thiago. Arguably the most talented midfielder of his generation, Thiago Alcantara has not fulfilled his potential at Bayern Munich because of injuries. But there are not many players who can pass like him as well as dancing away from opponents in the middle of the pitch. Fit again, he can give Spain the rhythm that Xavi always used to.

Messi picked up the Golden Ball in 2014 despite losing in the final (Getty Images)

EM: Lionel Messi will do what he did last time – drag Argentina through the competition.

LO: Brazil will go deep in the tournament and Neymar is their best player. The bigger question is whether it could be the start of his reign as the best player on the planet, and the beginning of the end for the Messi-Ronaldo duopoly of the Ballon d’Or.

JA: I’m going to have to go for Antoine Griezmann again. I’m backing France to reach the semi-finals so he should have seven games to score in and with the likes of Paul Pogba, Kylian Mbappe et al. around him there will be plenty of opportunities.

LB: David Silva is arguably Spain’s most important player, with 11 goals in the country’s last 15 matches since World Cup qualification began. Spain will surely go far and Silva will be at the heart of that.

SL: Lionel Messi. The manner in which Lionel Messi heaved Argentina into this summer’s tournament, hitting a match-winning hat-trick against Ecuador in their final qualifier, told you everything you need to know: this is a player hell-bent on exorcising his World Cup demons. After that night in Quito, and his more recent exploits, the midfielder looks ready to reach another level in Russia as he bids to land the one trophy that has evaded him throughout his career. His displays will be in vain – Argentina’s defensive woes will ultimately be their undoing – but that won’t stop the veteran from bowing out in style.

LT: All eyes will be on Andres Iniesta in his last international tournament, but Isco will be Spain’s creative hub. He blends the ability to see and execute killer passes with a formidable eye for goal himself, and with so many other attacking threats in Lopetegui’s team, opposing defences can’t afford to focus on him.

AH: Neymar. He’s had a horrible half a season but steps up when his country need him. As long as there are no injuries, he’ll have a good tournament.

Top scorer:

MD: In the words of Andy Cole, it’s a difficult one, could be anyone! No, I think I’ll go Antoine Griezmann. France probably getting to at least the semi-finals.

JL: Isco or Kylian Mbappe.

JPB: Antoine Griezmann. One of the game’s most instinctive, elusive forwards, Griezmann has given Atletico Madrid a cutting edge and won them the Europa League this season. France know how good he is and are willing to build him a platform to perform on, even if it means starting Olivier Giroud as a target man alongside him.

EM: I fully expect Neymar to nab this, with Brazil’s worst-case scenario surely an unfortunate semi-final defeat.

LO: Neymar, again.

JA: I’m going to have to go for Antoine Griezmann again. I’m backing France to reach the semi-finals so he should have seven games to score in and with the likes of Paul Pogba, Kylian Mbappe et al. around him there will be plenty of opportunities.

LB: Neymar. Brazil have a fairly easy group and you would expect Neymar to fancy his chances against the likes of Costa Rica – who conceded six goals in their two warm-up games against England and Belgium – and Serbia, who let in four more goals than both Republic of Ireland and Wales in their qualifying group.

SL: Kylian Mbappe. France have been gifted a relatively soft group, which the side will dominate with ease. This means plenty of goals, with Mbappe, as one of France’s leading forwards, set to benefit. Despite being a relative newcomer to the international stage, the youngster has shown few signs of stage-fright so far, memorably bagging a brace in France’s warm-up fixture against Russia last March. Having already shined in Europe, this will be his moment to announce himself to the rest of the world.

James Rodriguez picked up the Golden Boot in 2014 (Getty)

LT: Timo Werner. Germany’s golden generation has struggled to produce conventional centre-forwards and Werner is hardly a like-for-like replacement for Miroslav Klose, but he is arguably even more suited to Joachim Low’s system. His pace offers a new threat in transition, and he will benefit from a new level of service to what he is used to at RB Leipzig.

AH: Antoine Griezmann. He did it at the Euros and he’ll do it in Russia.

Dark horse:

MD: Colombia could be very dangerous for Belgium or England in the last 16... and I think are going in a little underrated despite 2014.

JL: If I told you there was a European team at the World Cup that hadn’t lost home or away since 2016, that had a proven ability to grind out results in big games, that had come through an incredibly tough qualifying run-in, that had knocked Brazil out of their last major tournament, that are settled, hard-running, well-organised and have just been boosted by the return of their best player, then you would probably make them one of the tournament favourites. Peru aren’t one of the tournament favourites, because they’re only Peru. But all the rest holds true; it’s incredible how little buzz they’re attracting. They’re currently 9/1 to make the quarters, behind some very ordinary European teams. Lump on.

JPB: Poland. How much do you need to succeed in international football? Solid defensive organisation and a world-class number 9 can go a long way. Poland may be predictable, but when you have Robert Lewandowski up front all you need is to keep out goals at the other end of the pitch. Could win a tight group and even reach the quarter-finals.

EM: Do Colombia count? I think they might be too big and well-known. If you want a country that many expect not to get out of the groups then Senegal have enough wildcard attacking players to shock people.

LO: I fancy anyone in Group H to emerge as a dark horse, but of the four I’ll pick Senegal. They have several quality players including Sadio Mane would not have to play one of the really outstanding teams until the quarter-finals.

JA: If they can count as a dark horse, then I’m going Colombia. They have a fairly open group and should get through top, meaning it will likely be England or Belgium awaiting them – two teams notorious for struggling in big games. After that, anything could happen.

LB: I mean they’re not going to win it, but I really fancy Senegal to have a good tournament. Drawn in the easiest group, any team with a spine of Kalidou Koulibaly, Idrissa Gueye and Sadio Mane deserves respect. Expect them to better their memorable 2002 run.

SL: Portugal. Can you count the 2016 European champions as dark horses? Not really. But given the manner in which they snuck to glory in France two years ago, there’s no reason why they can’t do the same again this time around. With Cristiano Ronaldo among their ranks, Portugal possess the means to flip any game on its head and come away with a result. Notoriously difficult to break down, too, Fernando Santos’ side is this year’s joker in the pack.

LT: It’s difficult to see an obvious weakness in Uruguay, which can take you a long way in international tournaments. The understanding between Atletico Madrid pair Diego Godin and Jose Gimenez gives them a rock-solid foundation, while Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani provide more quality up front than most teams in the competition possess. Also, their midfield is much improved.

AH: Croatia. I like the look of their squad and they have Luka Modric, who is the best midfielder in the world. Mario Mandzukic will no doubt nick a few goals during the tournament and who knows how far they could go?

How far will England get?

MD: Quarter-final. I think they’ll have a good, energising tournament but will go out to one of the tournament’s top band once they meet them. That will still of course be a better tournament than any since 2006.

JL: Second round. As highly as I rate the job Gareth Southgate has done, we still have no idea how this England side will cope under the mental strain of knockout tournament football, and so far I don’t see any reason to regard them any differently to its predecessors. As such, I reckon they’ll go out to the first decent team they face – probably Colombia.

JPB: Quarter-finals. The most common answer to this question but also the obvious one. England will surely qualify from their group and would then be narrow favourites in the last-16, although Lewandowski’s Poland or James’ Colombia could certainly cause them problems. But against a proper team like Germany or Brazil in the quarters? With this inexperienced defence or midfield? Anything further than the last eight would be remarkable.

EM: Quarter-finals and home, which is about right for a team that’s probably 10-12th in the world.

LO: I like this England team and I’ve been impressed by Gareth Southgate, but I’m cautious given how they’ve struggled to create chances over the past six friendlies. Saying that, their tournament draw is about as inviting as it gets. I’ll plump for a quarter-final exit.

JA: It all depends on if they finish above Belgium. If they do, they could get quarters. Fail and I see them extending their terrible run of no knockout victories since 2002. I feel the latter may occur and a Round-of-16 defeat awaits.

LB: Second round. Colombia, Senegal and possibly even Poland are just too good. To be honest just escaping the group would be progress, especially considering how underrated Tunisia are.

SL: Quarter-finals. What a relief. Long gone are the days when, in the darkest depths of our conscience, we clung penitently to the thought that, quite possibly, against all odds, no matter how improbable, this could be our year. Yes, those days are over. Now, it’s only John Obi Mikel who continues to harbour such delusions of grandeur while the rest of us have woken up to the cold realities of the matter: England really aren’t that good. A run to the quarters is the limit to this side, and even then that’s pushing it. Roll on Qatar 2022…

LT: Quarter-finals. If, as expected, they finish second to Belgium in Group G, England will likely face Poland, Senegal or Colombia in the round of 16. All of those are dangerous but beatable opponents. Germany will almost certainly be waiting in the last eight, though, and we know how that particular movie ends.

AH: Quarters. I like the look of Gareth Southgate’s team and as much as the players say they want to go as far as possible, if they come up against the heavyweights and it’s likely they will in Brazil, they surely won’t have the ability to get through.

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