Predicted order of finish: Argentina, Croatia, Iceland, Nigeria.
Outlook: How fun is this going to be? Lionel Messi and Argentina? Yes, please. Iceland (pop. 337,000) and the spine-tingling Viking Clap making World Cup debuts? Oh yeah. Croatia’s array of high-end attackers? Definitely. Nigeria’s highflying Super Eagles? But of course.
Messi could shroud Argentina’s problems by himself. He is extraordinary. Still, he will need a stable supporting cast to draw attention from him. Capable contributors are abundant: Angel di Maria, Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain and Paulo Dybala, 24, who has scored 52 goals in three seasons with Juventus.
Iceland barely missed out on the 2014 World Cup, then made the most of its first European Championship visit by going unbeaten in group play and upsetting England in the round of 16.
Twenty years ago, in their first World Cup as an independent nation, the Croatians finished third. Since then, they’ve been a bust, winning two matches in nine attempts during three group-stage exits.
The midfield and front-line personnel is individually stellar: Luka Modric (Real Madrid), Ivan Rakitic (Barcelona), Ivan Perisic (Inter Milan), Nikola Kalinic (AC Milan) and Mario Mandzukic ( Juventus).
In its sixth attempt, Nigeria is looking to finally fulfill the enormous promise that took root in the 1990s. It has never ventured beyond the round of 16. Chelsea midfielder Victor Moses leads the way.
Argentina’s Lionel Messi will need some help from his teammates.