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World Cup: The best teams, games, players, and who will win it all

  • Soccer-WCup-Preview

    The refurbished Luzhniki stadium in Moscow, Russia, where the opening match and final of the World Cup will be played when the soccer world gathers at 12 stadiums in 11 cities across the European portion of Russia starting June 14 for a 32-day, 64-match championship.

    ASSOCIATED PRESS

  • Soccer-WCup-Poland

    Poland's Robert Lewandowski, left, celebrates scoring a goal with Kamil Grosicki during a World Cup qualifier. The Bayern Munich star leads a Polish team that could make noise at the event.

    ASSOCIATED PRESS

  • Soccer-WCup-Egypt

    Egypt's Mohamed Salah, center, battles for the ball with Congo's Delvin N'Dinga, right, and Tobias Badila during a World Cup qualifier. Salah's outstanding season with Liverpool makes him a player to watch at the tournament.

    ASSOCIATED PRESS

  • Belgium-Egypt-Soccer

    Belgium's Kevin De Bruyne, right, battles for control of the ball against Egypt's Tarek Hamed during a friendly June 6. De Bruyne leads a talented Belgium team into the World Cup.

    ASSOCIATED PRESS

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There’s no way around this for the American soccer fan. The next month is going to be tough.

The United States will miss the World Cup, which begins Thursday in Russia, for the first time since 1986 after a ruinous qualifying cycle that ended in humiliation with a 2-1 loss at Trinidad & Tobago, sealing the Americans’ fate for this summer.

The U.S. has company on the outside, as regulars Ghana and traditional powers Italy and the Netherlands all missed qualification as well. Organizers, despite our reasonable letters, have declined to cancel the entire thing. The party will go on without us.

Here’s what to watch.

RELATED: The Sharp 7 trivia quiz takes on the World Cup

Group by group 

Group A: Egypt, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Uruguay

With home field and a remarkably easy group, Russia has but one small problem: Its team isn’t good. The Russians haven’t won in nine months, and Uruguay’s top-shelf talent behind Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani should win this group with nine points. That leaves one spot. Egyptian striker Mohamed Salah is one of the world’s premier goal scorers, but he’s recovering from a shoulder injury. If he’s fit, the Pharaohs could spoil Russia’s party.

Predicted top two: Uruguay, Egypt

Group B: Portugal, Spain, Morocco, Iran

Spain arguably is the most compelling team in the tournament, as the former rulers of world soccer seek one more run behind the likes of Sergio Ramos, Andres Iniesta, and David Silva. The question: do La Roja have enough goal-scoring flair? Because Portugal sure does; Cristiano Ronaldo and Andre Silva scored 24 goals in qualifying. It would take a monumental upset to keep either Spain or Portugal out of the knockout rounds.

Predicted top two: Spain, Portugal

Group C: Australia, France, Peru, Denmark

France is teeming with young talent like Antoine Griezmann and Paul Pogba, has a proven goalkeeper in Hugo Lloris, and a manager in Didier Deschamps who was on the country’s 1998 World Cup winning team. The 12th-ranked Danes are no slouch, but Peru is without its best player, Paolo Guerrero, who is suspended because of a failed doping test, and Australia is a non-threat. As with Group B, both European teams should ease past the group stage.

Predicted top two: France, Denmark

Group D: Argentina, Croatia, Iceland, Nigeria

Lionel Messi has achieved everything in soccer except for a World Cup. Messi will turn 31 during the tournament, and this probably is his last, best shot to get it after falling in the 2014 final. This group is no picnic, either. Croatia arguably has the best midfield in the tournament, Nigeria has Premier League quality in its outfield players, and Iceland plays exceptionally well together. Still, the Argentines are the class of the group.

Predicted top two: Argentina, Nigeria

Group E: Brazil, Costa Rica, Serbia, Switzerland

For four years, “7-1” has been the most offensive insult in Brazil. The 7-1 thrashing Brazil took vs. Germany in 2014 hangs around the team, which still is the odds-on favorite in the tourney. Brazil no longer lives and dies with Neymar, and it should be in for the long haul. Costa Rica went to the quarterfinals in 2014, but don’t sleep on the Swiss, who are dangerous on the wings and capable of winning a knockout game.

Predicted top two: Brazil, Switzerland

Group F: Germany, Mexico, South Korea, Sweden

This might well be the most difficult group in the tournament. Germany, the defending World Cup champion, is deep and skilled with or without goalkeeper Manuel Neuer. Mexico has made the round of 16 six consecutive times. Sweden survived a rugged qualifying group and stunned Italy in a playoff to get here. Korea’s attack is flush with speed. Germany should get through, but the second spot in this group could be anyone.

Predicted top two: Germany, Mexico

Group G: Belgium, England, Panama, Tunisia

This is now or never for Belgium’s “Golden Generation,” the best side the country has ever produced. For a small nation — and for any nation — the likes of Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard, and Romelu Lukaku on one team creates big dreams. England is the only team in the group about which the Belgians must worry, as Tunisia is beat up and Panama is playing in its first World Cup.

Predicted top two: Belgium, England

Group H: Colombia, Poland, Japan, Senegal

Two tournament darkhorses reside in Group H. Colombia has the players (world stars James Rodriguez and Radamel Falcao among them) to beat anyone in a knockout game. Poland received a devastating blow with center back Kamil Glik’s injury, but their side remains dangerous with Robert Lewandowski and Jakub Blaszczykowski, not to mention thousands of Polish fans who will make the trek to Russia. Japan’s aging core plays a fun brand of soccer, but has seen its best days.

Predicted top two: Colombia, Poland

3 must-see group games

Get the popcorn ready for these games that stand above the rest.

Portugal vs. Spain, June 15 in Sochi: How about this for a group opener? This final-caliber match likely will decide Group B and give one side a cleaner path to the quarters.

Argentina vs. Croatia, June 21 in Nizhny Novgorod: An ample test for both, as Argentina was a 2014 finalist and Croatia is mercurial but can beat anyone, as evidenced by its defeat of Spain at Euro 2016.

Mexico vs. Sweden, June 27 in Ekaterinburg: In the Group of Death, both of these teams likely will have a chance to advance with a win. The circumstances should make for terrific drama.

3 players to watch

In soccer, one moment of brilliance can be the difference. These players can provide it.

Mohamed Salah, Egypt: The Liverpool forward is one of the most fun players in the world and he’s coming off arguably the best club season for any player in this World Cup. Across all competitions, Salah scored a whopping 44 times — including 32 goals in 36 Premier League appearances — and won England’s player of the year award. Salah is by far Egypt’s best player, and the Pharaohs likely will go only as far as he can take them.

James Rodriguez, Colombia: At age 26, Rodriguez is in his prime, and he’s the type of player who can turn a knockout game with one run. The Bayern Munich man is part of a deep, experienced midfield that plays with flair and creativity. Despite losing in the quarterfinals, Rodriguez led the 2014 World Cup in scoring with six goals, and Colombia’s case to go back to the round of eight depends on No. 10.

Kevin De Bruyne, Belgium: The Belgians have not yet turned their talent into a deep run, but a standout tournament from De Bruyne could change that. De Bruyne is one of the most well-rounded players in the world, as he can dictate entire games from the midfield, jump seamlessly into attack, and create from anywhere. Manchester City paid a club record £54M pounds ($72 million) for De Bruyne. There’s a reason.

3 rooting interests

No U.S.? No problem. Here’s three teams worth getting behind.

Iceland: Everyone loves an underdog, and Iceland is the ultimate one. The smallest nation to ever qualify with just 334,252 residents, Iceland has a beloved team that went to the quarterfinals of the 2016 European Championships.

Uruguay: Perhaps the most undervalued team in the tournament. Uruguay is solid all the way around, with two elite central defenders and an attack that can build from anywhere.

Poland: The Eagles have their best side in decades, best player ever in Robert Lewandowski, and Russian stadiums will be full of singing Poles ready to celebrate at a moment’s notice. Na zdrowie.

Prediction time

Semifinals: Brazil beats France; Argentina downs Germany

Final: Argentina beats Brazil

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