The 2018 World Cup draw was just about right: enough mouth-watering meetings to make the groups compelling while handing most of the big hitters ample opportunity to get to the latter rounds, when we can expect some of the best players on the planet to face off on football’s greatest stage.
The hosts, Russia, have been handed a relatively soft group but will be wary of Egypt and Uruguay, Portugal and Spain will collide in Group B, while England should theoretically have a relatively straightforward route to the quarter-finals barring the kind of fiasco that has become a staple of the Great British summer.
Here is a breakdown of the eight groups for the tournament, which begins with Russia vs Saudi Arabia at the Luzhniki Stadium in the capital on 14 June.
Russia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Uruguay: The hosts had the advantage of avoiding some of the biggest hitters like Brazil and Germany with their position in pot one, but will still be challenged in a group which includes Egypt – who will have high hopes for one of the Premier League’s in-form players in Mohamed Salah – and a Uruguay side packed with quality playing throughout Europe’s major leagues and spearheaded by Luis Suarez; Uruguay will surely be the favourites to top the group given their smooth qualification. The opener against Saudi Arabia is not the glamour tie organisers might have hoped for but is an opportunity to get off to a winning start for the hosts. Saudi Arabia will have their work cut out to qualify but this is a fairly open group – and the lowest in terms of cumulative world rankings – which is difficult to predict.
Portugal, Spain, Morocco, Iran: The third game of the tournament will be the first heavyweight clash: the Iberian derby. On paper it appears a strong group with Morocco one of the most impressive teams in African qualifying (they did not concede a goal), up against the reigning European champions Portugal and the 2010 World Cup winners Spain. Iran will be unfancied but that will suit Carlos Queiroz’s well-organised team who have enough quality and spirit to spring a surprise along the way.
France, Australia, Peru, Denmark: France will begin Group C as strong favourites to progress with the multi-talented squad at Didier Deschamps’ disposal, but there is no obvious weakness in the group and they will need to avoid the kind of mistakes in qualifying which led to a defeat against Sweden and a draw with Luxembourg. Australia are in a state of limbo following the resignation of coach Ange Postecoglou in November but have strength in midfield with Huddersfield’s Aaron Mooy and Celtic’s Tom Rogic, as well as the evergreen Tim Cahill. Peru are the least fancied of the South American teams but have some talented young players, while Denmark will need Christian Eriksen at his best – as he was in the play-offs against Republic of Ireland – in order to progress.
Argentina, Iceland, Croatia, Nigeria: On paper this is another strong and open group. Argentina will understandably be the favourites with Lionel Messi determined to finally claim a major trophy for his country, but they struggled in qualifying and all three of their opponents in Group D will fancy their chances against Jorge Sampaoli’s team. It is Groundhog Day for Nigeria who face Argentina for the fifth time in their six World Cups, though they won impressively when the two teams came up against each other in a recent friendly. Iceland will be hopeful of taking the thunder clap on another memorable run in a major tournament while Croatia will be tricky oppoenents if Luka Modric ticks. Iceland beat Croatia to top spot in qualifying to reach Russia.
Brazil, Switzerland, Costa Rica, Serbia: Brazil were one of the teams to avoid and it seems likely Switzerland, Costa Rica and Serbia will be battling for the remaining qualifying place. The Swiss needed a play-off win over Northern Ireland to make it to the tournament but have sparks of quality in their squad in Xherdan Shaqiri and Steven Zuber. Costa Rica reached the last eight four years ago and are tricky to predict but will fancy their chances once more, while Serbia’s confident qualification – in which they only lost once – makes the team with Nemanja Matic in central midfield a potential threat.
Germany, Mexico, Sweden, South Korea: Germany are the reigning champions and are the slight favourites for the tournament, just ahead of Brazil in most quarters. It is another group that appears set up for a fierce battle for second spot, with Mexico leading the way after a convincing qualification and Javier Hernandez in their front line. They will face a South Korea side currently under the management of their youth coach following the sacking of Uli Stielike in June in the wake of some less than convincing displays, and Sweden who lack the superstar quality of Zlatan Ibrahimovic but remain a well-organised force.
Belgium, Panama, Tunisia, England: England avoided some of the biggest names in world football but it would be wrong to consider the group an easy one, with Belgium producing a record-breaking qualifying campaign. However Kevin De Bruyne publicly criticised Roberto Martinez’s tactics last month and it is clearly not a totally settled camp. Panama are a hard-working but callow team albeit with an experienced leader in manager Hernan Dario Gomez, who has coached Colombia at four World Cups. Tunisia topped their qualifying group to reach Russia and have plenty of unpredictable attacking flair which England must find a way to contain.
Poland, Senegal, Colombia, Japan: This might just be the weakest group in the tournament, on paper, as the only one without a former World Cup winner, but it could also provide a compelling contest between four well-matched teams. Robert Lewandowski is the standout player, having racked up 16 goals to drag his country to Russia, while Sadio Mane will have a similar level of expectation on his shoulders when Senegal take on Poland in the group’s opening game. Colombia finished fourth in South American qualifying and in James Rodriguez and Radamel Falcao they have abundant ability in the final third. Japan have experience both on the pitch in Maya Yoshida and Shinji Okazaki, and on the touchline in manager Vahid Halilhodzic. If there was such a thing as the hipster’s World Cup group, this would be it.
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