Daily Mail - - World Cup 2018 - IAN LADY­MAN Foot­ball Ed­i­tor

THIS, re­mem­ber, is the World Cup that we had once hoped would take place in Eng­land. Who knows what home ad­van­tage could have done for Gareth South­gate and his team?

As it is, the 21st edi­tion of the com­pe­ti­tion finds us look­ing once again at fa­mil­iar names as we try to find a win­ner in Rus­sia over the next month or so.

In­deed two clear images from the last World Cup in Brazil point to likely can­di­dates once again.

It was in the early hours in Rio when the Ger­man play­ers fi­nally emerged from their dress­ing room with the tro­phy. It was fit­ting that when they did so, they ar­rived to­gether as one big im­pos­ing group.

That had been the se­cret for Joachim Low and his team, unity dec­o­rated by in­di­vid­ual tal­ent. Four years on, not much has changed.

It may be­muse watch­ers of the Premier League to find that Leroy Sane of Manch­ester City is not in the squad but Ger­many did not lose in qual­i­fy­ing and it is hard to imag­ine they will not be at the fore­front of things again this time round.

But what of the van­quished Ar­gentina team from the 2014 fi­nal? Four years ago, Lionel Messi walked through the in­ter­view area like a ghost. His big shot at glory with Ar­gentina had gone and one won­dered if he would be back for one more go.

What a daft no­tion that was. Messi will be 31 by the time Ar­gentina con­clude their games in Group D with a match against Nige­ria on June 26 but his form for Barcelona sug­gests that the five-time Bal­lon

d’Or win­ner still has more than enough drive and am­bi­tion to drag his coun­try to the later stages of the com­pe­ti­tion once again.

This is a World Cup that ac­tu­ally may take a while to get go­ing. We may have chuck­led when Euro­pean ri­vals such as Hol­land and Italy failed to qual­ify but it was al­ways likely that the tour­na­ment would miss them when it came round and it feels that way at the mo­ment.

The sight of Por­tu­gal ver­sus Spain in the same group is tan­ta­lis­ing and it is only a shame that their meet­ing in Sochi comes on the first day of Group B to­mor­row. If ever there was a time to place a bet on a draw then it is surely now, even if Spain will be thrown by Julen Lopetegui’s sud­den de­par­ture as man­ager.

Equally, Eng­land’s meet­ing with Bel­gium in Kalin­ingrad in Group G on June 28 looks ap­petis­ing and if things have gone as fore­cast by the time they meet that should serve as a shootout for first place in the sec­tion.

Those two games apart, though, we are slightly short of glam­our when we cast an eye across the first stage of a com­pe­ti­tion that is, of course, far too big. If you fill a tour­na­ment with medi­ocre na­tions by mak­ing qual­i­fy­ing so gen­er­ous then this is what you get.

Later in the tour­na­ment, though, there should be plenty to en­ter­tain us and one of the most in­ter­est­ing sub­plots will be the one in­volv­ing Brazil. Their tour­na­ment ended in ig­nominy last time round as they fell 7-1 in the semi-fi­nal against Ger­many. In truth, they were a lit­tle for­tu­nate to get that far.

Four years later and the five-time win­ners look a lot stronger than they did on home ter­ri­tory.

Ney­mar’s re­turn to fit­ness is timely but play­ers such as Roberto Firmino, Philippe Coutinho and Gabriel Je­sus now pro­vide stel­lar sup­port to the golden child of Brazil­ian foot­ball.

If they can find a plat­form on which such gifted play­ers can build then they could be very hard to stop.

If Eng­land do win their group and progress through the first knock­out stage then they may well meet Brazil in the last eight. Al­ready, that has a painful feel about it.

From Europe, Bel­gium have ma­tured since their dis­ap­point­ing show­ing in the Eu­ros two years ago and now have a coach, Roberto Martinez, they ac­tu­ally want to play for. Whether Eden Haz­ard can lift him­self af­ter a muted sea­son at Chelsea re­mains to be seen.

Mean­while, France should sail through a group com­pris­ing Aus­tralia, Peru and Denmark and will only be prop­erly tested when they face the likes of Croa­tia or even Ice­land in the sec­ond phase. How­ever, I would sug­gest they have not re­ally im­proved enough since Euro 2016 — where they lost in the fi­nal on home soil — to get as far this time.

PREMIER League fol­low­ers will be keen to see how Mo Salah per­forms with Egypt and it is to be hoped his fit­ness will see him right to face Luis Suarez and Uruguay in Group A. That con­test will be in­ter­est­ing but we should note that Salah is not the only rea­son Egypt are in Rus­sia and if they can find a good re­sult in that first game we could see them in the last 16.

So this is not, at first look, a World Cup that should serve up many sur­prises. If any of the top na­tions do not find them­selves in­volved at the sharp end then they re­ally should be ask­ing them­selves why.

Eng­land can­not and will not win this tour­na­ment. Gareth South­gate’s squad does not have enough qual­ity in depth. A last-eight fin­ish would be cred­itable.

In terms of the fi­nal, Brazil ver­sus Ar­gentina would sat­isfy most but it will not be a sur­prise if, some­where along the way, Ger­many get firmly in the way of all that.

19 4 Hosts W GER­MANY Win­ners W GER­MANY 19 8 Hosts AR­GENTINA Win­ners AR­GENTINA 1982 Hosts Spain Win­ners Italy 1986 Hosts Mex­ico Win­ners Ar­gentina 1990 Hosts Italy Win­ners W Ger­many 1994 Hosts USA Win­ners Brazil 1998 Hosts FRANCE Win­ners FRANCE 2002 Hosts Japan/S Korea Win­ners Brazil 2006 Hosts Ger­many Win­ners Italy 2010 Hosts South Africa Win­ners Spain 2014 Hosts Brazil Win­ners Ger­many

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