So here we are, with just weeks to go until the kick-off of World Cup 2018. Whilst you might not be holding your breath for the tournament’s inaugural game, Russia vs. Saudi Arabia, there is plenty to get excited about as the world’s finest players prepare to battle it out in Russia. Will Messi finally deliver silverware at a major tournament? Is this Ronaldo’s last chance on the big stage? Who will be this year’s big surprise package?
With reigning champions Germany currently sitting atop the FIFA rankings, they are tipped by many to retain their crown this time around. However, whilst they continue to have a formidable squad, there will be a few other countries asking questions of them at this year’s event, which brings us to our ‘Five to Follow’ during Russia 2018; five picks who could present a real challenge for the German side.
Current Odds (Courtesy of BetOnline) :
- Brazil +400
- Spain +600
- Argentina +900
- Belgium +1100
- Uruguay +3300
After an impressive qualifying campaign, Brazil came out comfortable winners of their group and ten points clear at the top. Following their embarrassment at the hands of Germany during Rio 2014, they look a far more well-rounded team these days. Going forward, Brazil will always be a danger, least not because they have goal-scoring threats all over the pitch, yet it is their attacking players that will strike most fear into the opposition.
Despite some off-field struggles since his big-money move to PSG, Neymar has still recorded an impressive goal return this season. You’d expect him to put his distractions at PSG behind him and slot back into his place as Brazil’s main man, giving him the licence and freedom to really express himself – assuming his recovery following surgery on a fractured foot goes as planned. And supporting Neymar, Brazil have an array of in-form talent; Firmino off a record-breaking season at Anfield, Coutinho post his dream move to Barcelona as well as the likes of Gabriel Jesus, Willian, and Douglas Costa. They’ll be difficult to contain at this year’s finals.
Since monopolizing the major tournaments between 2008-2012 with a World Cup and two European Championships, Spain has experienced a dramatic fall from grace – culminating in a group stage exit at Rio 2014. However, with fresh blood coming through in the form of Koke, Isco, and Saúl, Spain’s new era appear to have turned a corner and transformed the famous tiki-taka style to which teams seemed to be adapting.
In March’s international friendlies, they picked apart an (albeit ‘Messi-less’) Argentina side with ease and got a respectable draw away at Germany. They are beginning to really look the part and given the manner in which Barcelona have won La Liga this year and Real Madrid reached yet another Champions League final, their key players will be ending the season on a high ahead of summer.
There’s something tangibly frustrating about an Argentinian side with so much attacking talent, who has never quite delivered on the big stage – and were similarly unconvincing in qualifying. In recent years, their issue has been (and still is!) how to fit so much firepower into their starting XI.
With that being said, having Messi (30), Higuaín (30) and Agüero (29) in the prime of their careers and stars like Paulo Dybala beginning to establish themselves as truly world class players, there is a feeling that something has to click this year. After disappointment in the final in Rio, you can’t help but feel this is Messi’s big chance to steal the show and capture that elusive international trophy; which is about the only thing missing from his (presumably, very large) trophy room.
Another squad full of promise is the small nation of Belgium. For a number of years now, they have been tipped for potential glory in major tournaments, but have fallen at the quarter-final stage in both the previous World Cup and Euros. Under Roberto Martinez and legend Thierry Henry, they are sure to play an attractive brand of football at this year’s finals.
Unlike some of the competition favourites, however, they appear to have far more balance in the team, with a wealth of quality in defence to support their attacking flair. If they can keep Vincent Kompany fit alongside Jan Vertonghen and Toby Aldeweireld, they’ll present staunch opposition to any attacking line. Going forward they’ll be hoping that creative sparks Hazard (27) and de Bruyne (26) – both now established & experienced players – can be the catalysts for a successful campaign. They aren’t short of firepower up-front either, with Manchester United’s Romelu Lukaku alongside a rejuvenated Michy Batshuayi having rediscovered his goal-scoring touch since a January loan move to Borussia Dortmund.
Admittedly an outside bet, Uruguay is a country who tend to perform at major tournaments. They came through qualifying comfortably and should gain confidence from what is a very winnable group: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Russia.
Whilst they don’t have incredible strength in depth, an attacking duo of Edinson Cavani and Luis Suárez is sure to strike fear into any team they come up against; plus, at 31 years of age, it’s likely to be a last real chance at World Cup glory for the pair. Backed up by a center-back pairing of Jose Giménez and Diego Godín, Uruguay look to have a good and solid spine to the team. A promising blend of youth and experience, their partnership at club level gives them a great mutual understanding – Atlético has conceded the fewest goals in La Liga this season. Often the Achilles heel of South American sides, Uruguay’s strong defence will certainly complement their attacking threat.
There is, without doubt, a long line of potential suitors to stop Germany returning home once again with the illustrious trophy, least not from the list above. Portugal will be vying for more success following their Euro 2016 triumph, though with an ageing squad it looks unlikely. At the other end of the spectrum, a lack of international experience may cost the likes of England and a supremely talented French side for which next time around may provide a more attainable dream, once attacking starlets such as Mbappé, Dembélé, Lemar and Martial (all under 23 years old) have a little more experience under their belts. One thing for certain is that World Cup 2018 will have us all glued to our seats in the coming weeks.