An estimate of the Russia World Cup pipeline
Some underdogs may surprise with their performances in the tournament
Beirut: After the World Cup kicked off Thursday, The Daily Star deliberates which teams will make it to the next round and those who might miss out.
RUSSIA SAUDI ARABIA URUGUAY EGYPT
Winners: Uruguay Uruguay’s vastly experienced group with coach Oscar Tabarez – in his 12th year in charge – possess the pedigree to comfortably navigate their way out of this group.
A tough outing is in the offing against Egypt Saturday, but a 2-2 draw will be followed by routine wins over Russia and Saudi Arabia.
Runners-up: Egypt Hector Cuper has molded Egypt into a highly functional side and their defensive organization will make those inevitable Mohammad Salah moments count even more.
Player to watch: Mohammad Salah Forty four goals during a breathtaking debut season with Liverpool has Salah as perhaps the most talked about player heading to Russia. After scoring against some of England and Europe’s finest, there’s no reason the pocket-rocket won’t replicate his form in the face of eminently pedestrian sides like Russia and Saudi Arabia.
SPAIN PORTUGAL IRAN MOROCCO
Winners: Spain Despite the fiasco precipitated by Julian Lopetegui’s sacking, “La Roja” should walk this group with a moribund Portugal side their nearest rivals. Though they are yet to truly replace former striker David Villa, Diego Costa will be chomping at the bit as he bids to prove the doubters wrong.
Runners-up: Portugal Iran’s miserly defense will prove an issue for the regnant European champions, who again will rely heavily on talisman Cristiano Ronaldo. A 1-0 win over Carlos Querioz’s side should see Portugal stagger over the line and into the second round.
Player to watch: Cristiano Ronaldo One asterisk on Ronaldo’s glowing resume remains an underwhelming scoring record at the World Cup. The five-time Ballon d’Or winner has scored just three times in as many tournaments with this edition perhaps his last chance for a defining moment on football’s grandest stage.
FRANCE AUSTRALIA PERU DENMARK
A potential banana-skin of a group will tell us much about Didier Deschamps’ side who harbor genuine ambitions of winning this summer’s showpiece event. The former Marseille and Juventus player has yet to truly convince the naysayers of his managerial credentials despite guiding France to a runners-up finish in Euro 2016.
Runners up: Denmark This will be a toss-up between Denmark and Peru. Lead by the exquisite Christian Eriksen, who was instrumental in his side’s playoff win over the Republic of Ireland, Denmark will scrape into the second round ahead of a Peru outfit buoyed by the reinstatement of captain Paolo Guerrero. Player to Watch: Paul Pogba After two richly uninspired seasons at Manchester United, many are beginning to wonder what all the fuss was about regarding the mercurial midfielder. It remains to be seen which system Deschamps will use to accommodate Pogba as time runs out for the gangly playmaker to justify his then-record 90 million pound move to England.
GROUP D: ARGENTINA CROATIA ICELAND NIGERIA
Winners: Croatia This is undoubtedly the most impressive squad since Davor Suker and co embarked on their unforgettable run to third place in 1998. With Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic pulling the strings in midfield and Mario Mandzukic and Ivan Perisic up front, Croatia are capable of beating any side including Argentina. A 2-1 win over Argentina June 21 will see Croatia secure top spot with maximum points.
Runners-up: Argentina Despite a midfield lacking in creativity, Lionel Messi’s Argentina should have enough to see of the tiny nation of Iceland and a Dangerous Nigeria. Getting beyond the second round might prove a stretch for the two-time champions.
Player to watch: Lionel Messi After almost single-handedly dragging Argentina through qualification, Messi will again have to be at his imperious best lest the twotime champions suffer an early exit. Nigeria and in particular Iceland will be hard to break down, but the diminutive genius should prove all the difference.
BRAZIL SWITZERLAND SERBIA COSTA RICA
Winners: Brazil Group E represents very interesting opposition for the Selecao as they look to limber up for greater tests to come.
Runners-up: Serbia Serbia have the experience as well as a potential game-changer in Sergej Milinkovic-Savic to truly set the cat among the pigeons in Group E. Nemanja Matic will add some much-needed composure in midfield, though the lack of a potent striker remains an issue.
Player to watch: Roberto Firmino Firmino might have to settle for the role of understudy to Gabriel Jesus in the early goings, but expect this inimitable talent to gradually acclimatize in Russia. The Liverpool star has almost perfected the false nine role – a position conceived by the great Austrian player Mathias Sindelar – and will be vital to Brazil’s hopes of a sixth crown.
GERMANY SWEDEN SOUTH KOREA MEXICO
Winners: Death, taxes and Germany winning this group. Though they may struggle in the latter rounds, there is little to suggest that Joachim Loew’s charges won’t saunter past manifestly ordinary sides in Mexico, Sweden and South Korea. Runners-up: Sweden With little attacking talent on display, Sweden’s ability to defend efficiently will be crucial in winning the second-place sweepstakes. Player to watch: Emil Forsberg Attacking midfielder Forsberg has dazzled at times for Leipzig in the past two seasons, forming a devastating partnership with Timo Werner as the nascent German club finished second in the Bundesliga in 2017. A prominent performance is needed from the stylish Forsberg if Sweden are to progress.
ENGLAND BELGIUM PANAMA TUNISIA
Winners: Belgium It’s hard to back against Belgium’s golden generation easing into the second round. Roberto Martinez has a laundry list of talent from which to choose, chief among them being Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku.
Runners-up: England Gareth Southgate’s England remain something of an unknown quantity. England’s attacking threat is undeniable, though markedly offset by a dearth of options in midfield. Panama, easily the weakest country in the tournament, and Tunisia means the “Three Lions should safely qualify for the next round. Whether or not they can progress beyond that is totally anyone’s guess. Player to watch: Raheem Sterling Sterling took his game to another level under the guidance of Pep Guardiola as Manchester City roared to their third Premier League title. A newfound understanding of both time and space saw the former Liverpool player end the campaign with an impressive 22 goals and 12 assists. And, with Harry Kane inevitably garnering most of the attention from England’s opposition, Sterling will have the perfect diversion as he looks to make his mark in Russia.
POLAND COLOMBIA JAPAN SENEGAL
Winners: Colombia Still boasting the majority of the squad that exceeded expectations in Brazil four years ago, Colombia enter this tournament as perhaps the dark horses. Radamel Falcao has enjoyed a resurgence after his career appeared to be fading into obscurity, while James Rodriguez is slowly rediscovering his form since moving to Bayern Munich. Colombia look a shoe-in to top Group H as the accomplished Jose Peckerman continues to improve his side.
Runners-up: Senegal With Poland exhibiting an overreliance on Robert Lewandowski and Japan perennial underachievers, Senegal are well-placed to sneak through to the second place. The threats of Sadio Mane and Keita Balde can’t be ignored as Senegal look to replicate their run to the 2002 quarterfinals.
Player to watch: Sadio Mane The electric Liverpool winner will be keen to put Champions League final heartbreak behind him with a positive showing in Russia. After such a prolific season in England, Mane will be required to assume an ever greater role for Africa’s most dangerous side.
Philipp Lahm holds up the World Cup trophy as the team celebrates their victory at the World Cup final in 2018.