By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (Dec 4, 2017) US Soccer Players – The World Cup draw is set. What comes next is six months of speculation. Which teams will advance? Can Germany repeat as champion? Can Brazil capture a sixth World Cup trophy? Will newcomers Iceland and Panama make any impact?
These are just a few of the many questions pundits and fans will ponder until the tournament kicks off June 14 at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. We now know the game that will start it all. The hosts Russia plays Saudi Arabia, arguably the first opening game in the tournament’s history to feature two unfancied sides.
Predictions, guesses, or whatever you want to call them are what will happen between now and June. Even a sure bet can go awry. A lot can transpire over the next few months. Reality gets in the way of prognosticating. Teams look great on paper, but sometimes fail to win on the field.
With the European club season in full swing, injuries to key players remains a real possibility. Players, especially the ones with the top clubs, often arrive at the World Cup tired following the long season of domestic and continental competitions. National federations, meanwhile, will use this time to iron out logistics and set up friendlies in the coming months with the aim of maximizing their chances come this summer. Here are my three takeaways from the draw and how they can potentially impact the entire competition and its outcome:
Iberian derby a potential prelude to the final
Scenario: FIFA used the October World Ranking to seed the entire tournament. That put Spain in Pot 2. That created Group B with seeded side Portugal, Spain, Morocco, and Iran. The group’s opening match between Portugal and Spain on June 15 got the heart pumping early on during the draw. It's by far the best game of the first round. However, the Iberian derby shouldn’t impact the group too much in the end. Both teams are heavy favorites to advance to the knockout round where they would face the top two teams from Group A, which features Russia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Uruguay. It’s by far the weakest group, allowing both Portugal and Spain easy access to the quarterfinals.
Prediction: Spain manages to win the group and plays Russia in the round of 16 after the host nation manages to come in second in Group A. Portugal, which finishes second in Group B, takes on Group A winners Uruguay. Both Spain and Portugal win those games and reach the quarterfinals. That could set up a very doubtful second meeting between Portugal and Spain in the final on July 15. Doubtful, but possible.
No real ‘Group of Death’ means any team can advance
Scenario: This World Cup lacks a clear “Group of Death.” Instead, it has lots of strong teams spread out across many groups. The point of separating all the teams based on the FIFA rankings was to avoid having three heavyweights in one group. The plan worked, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t intrigue. What this did was open the door for upsets. While Group D, with Argentina, Iceland, Croatia, and Nigeria is the strongest, it’s also ripe for disruption. Argentina can’t underestimate either Croatia or Iceland.
Prediction: Argentina, which struggled during qualifying, finishes second to Croatia. That sets up a round of 16 match between the two-time World Cup champions and the winners of Group C, very likely France. As a result, Croatia would face the Group C runners-up, most likely Denmark. That would leave Croatia going to the quarterfinals, while Argentina crashes out to France and Lionel Messi fails to win the World Cup once again.
Most of the traditional powers will shine in the end
Scenario: As mentioned, this is a tournament where upsets could become a thing. Like the 2002 World Cup, where Turkey finished third and South Korea fourth, there’s a very good chance an outside team or two go deep. Top seeds need to win their respective groups. Otherwise, it could make for some tasty round of 16 matchups like Germany vs Brazil or France vs Croatia. While Belgium is high on the list of potential overachievers, there are several others who could play the role of spoiler in the knockout round such as Mexico, Poland, Serbia, and Colombia. At the same time, the African and Asian teams will all underperform. Most of the European ones will not disappoint.
Prediction: Mexico, looking to reach the quarterfinals for the first time since 1986, will lose to Brazil in the round of 16 after finishing second in Group F where Germany is the clear favorite. Instead, look for Croatia to be the dark horse team at this tournament. Despite that, the traditional powers will again shine through. Like in 2002, Germany will play Brazil in the final. It would be a game loaded with subplots and a rematch of that 7-1 semifinal drubbing Germany handed them at the last World Cup. Can Germany repeat as champions or will Brazil complete its redemption? It’s all part of the guessing game that we will all be a part of until the games begin on June 14.
Clemente Lisi is a regular contributor to US Soccer Players. He is also the author of A History of the World Cup: 1930-2014. Find him on Twitter:http://twitter.com/ClementeLisi.
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