An es­ti­mate of the Rus­sia World Cup pipe­line

Some un­der­dogs may sur­prise with their performances in the tour­na­ment

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - WORLD CUP - By James Jabra

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.

GROUP A:

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.

GROUP B:

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.

GROUP C:

FRANCE AUS­TRALIA PERU DEN­MARK

Win­ners: France

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.

GROUP E:

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.

GROUP F:

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.

GROUP G:

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.

GROUP H:

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.

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