1. Spain to win the World Cup
Oh, yes – still. As far as World Cup preparations go, sacking your manager on the eve of the tournament – and two days before your first game – doesn’t quite make for the best. But Julen Lopetegui is a goner, and Spain will kick off in Russia with Fernando Hierro in charge.
There are more concerns. As brilliant as Andres Iniesta is, he’s a starter in a team that will keep possession and build up slowly – and that core lacks a bit of dynamism to break down low blocks. We saw it in a (relatively unimportant) friendly against Tunisia before Lopetegui brought in quicker, more direct players in the second half, and more famously in the knockout loss against Italy at Euro 2016.
But there is much more to like about this team. Spain boast ridiculous talent in their ranks, and will be eager to give Iniesta – and themselves – one more (or last) World Cup trophy. Their squad runs deep with quality options. If things aren’t working against defensive barricades early, they can bring on Marco Asensio to inject some pace and flair on the flanks; Iago Aspas to create more off-the-ball movement behind the lines; or Koke to help stabilise the team and nudge them towards a more direct approach. Keep going down the list. The options are endless.
2. Belgium to reach the final
There are safer bets for World Cup finalists – Brazil, France and Germany are all in Belgium’s bracket – but those other choices wouldn’t be ‘bold’ enough, would they?
It’s time. Every year we expect great things from Belgium, but this year feels different. It’s the first time that the Belgians have this version of Kevin De Bruyne – the one who morphed into a top-five footballer under Pep Guardiola. Having a player in the KDB mould almost automatically makes you a contender, but Belgium have enough collective talent to make this team achieve great things. Eden Hazard could be anything, but should be reaching the peak of his powers too.
Questions, though: how will this team fare defensively? Will Radja Nainggolan’s omission be regretted? Which version of Yannick Carrasco will show up? Hmm.
3. Rodriguez will fire – and Perez will bring him back to Real Madrid
James Rodriguez still has his heart in Madrid. He gets emotional when he speaks about his time there, dished out an on-field apology when he scored at the Bernabeu in last season’s Champions League semi-final, and even kicked the ball out for a Marco Asensio injury – much to the annoyance of his team-mates.
Colombia may not make it beyond the last 16, but James managed some fine form last season and typically steps up for his national team. Zinedine Zidane has left Real Madrid; Florentino Perez will swoon to bring James back from his loan – but will have to push, as the ball is in Bayern’s court.
4. Brazil endure an upset – but Neymar still wins Golden Boot
Brazil will likely have to go through Belgium in the quarter-finals, which means they have to lose for these predictions to add up (and that’s the real quiz).
But they are scarily good under Tite and will likely bulldoze their way through the first four matches. Neymar hasn’t missed a beat since returning from injury and has looked unstoppable. It’s not inconceivable that he'll score a hatful before Brazil bounce out.
And so, the case for that early exit. World Cup wins are built on defensive solidity, and while the Seleção’s record under Tite is mightily impressive – 16 clean sheets in 21 matches – they will come up against sterner opposition eventually in Russia. Dani Alves is out and his replacements are limited, Marcelo is prone to leaving space behind, Thiago Silva and Miranda lack the mobility they once had. Hope, at least, for the rest.
5. Diego Costa to lose his starting spot quickly
Spain champion free-flowing football, with every piece of their side fitting together seamlessly. The awkward fit will be Costa, whose profile alone makes him difficult to drop.
But Hierro probably won’t hesitate if things start looking awkward in the opening match against Portugal. Look for the interim Spain coach to either introduce Asensio as a false nine – as Lopetegui did against Italy in the qualifiers – or roll with Aspas or Rodrigo. The latter in particular can throw his body around well but also drop in to do defensive work if needed.
6. Germany don’t concede a single goal... until they face England
Germany are a team of cyborgs. They have the second-best goal-differential in the history of this tournament, and look good to keep clean sheets against Sweden, Mexico, South Korea and in the last 16 against the Group E runners-up (likely Switzerland or Serbia).
That impressive run will end when they face the best England side in years (come on!). Joachim Low’s team should still go through in the quarter-finals, but it will be a test. Harry Kane belter incoming.
7. England’s quarter-final exit regarded as moral victory
In any normal World Cup year, with the talent at their disposal, exiting at the quarter-final stage would have been a failure for England.
Not this year. The Three Lions will play good football as they navigate their way through the group stage under Gareth Southgate. They may fall short and allow Belgium to top the group, but England should hit their stride by the time they face Germany – going toe-to-toe with the defending champions in a narrow, heartbreaking loss.
Southgate’s 3-5-2 will bring discipline and balance, and the width of his side will give opposing teams trouble.
8. Argentina out at the group stage
This will be the shock of the tournament. Jorge Sampaoli’s men are top heavy but still struggled to score in qualifying (only Bolivia bagged fewer), and there are serious midfield and defensive concerns.
Croatia are packing plenty of firepower in Russia, Iceland pride themselves on being horrible to play against, and Nigeria beat the Albiceleste 4-2 in a November friendly. Lionel Messi will likely be in God-mode, but it still might not be enough.
9. Iceland swoon everyone again
The biggest winner of Argentina’s struggles will be the Nordic nation, who will continue to build on their historic run of Euro 2016. That was no fluke: they finished above Croatia, Turkey and Ukraine in qualifying – another monumental achievement.
Heimir Hallgrimsson’s team will be typically tough to break down, and they pose enough danger on set-pieces and crosses to nick a goal or two in situations where the odds suggest otherwise.
“Everyone spoke about how bad England were [at Euro 2016], but watch the game again,” midfielder Aron Gunnarsson wrote on the Players’ Tribune recently. “Look at how organised we are. We run. We shut down space. We cover for each other. What Eidur [Gudjohnsen] had said after training was spot on: we really are horrible to play against.”
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