World Cup predictions
The 2018 World Cup is finally upon us. We’ve blown the dust off our crystal ball and looked into it to bring you these nine bold predictions for the coming weeks. You won’t hold these against us, will you?
1. Spain to win the World Cup
As far as World Cup preparations go, sacking your manager on the eve of the tournament 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 is still so much to like about this team, though, and their squad is brimming with quality options. Spain can control games like few other sides, with their midfield so jam-packed with gifted technicians that Cesc Fabregas didn’t even make the final 23. David de Gea is the world’s best goalkeeper and a back four of Dani Carvajal, Sergio Ramos, Gerard Pique and Jordi Alba isn’t bad either.
2. Belgium to reach the final
It’s time. Every year we expect great things from Belgium, but this year feels different. It’s the first time the Red Devils have this version of Kevin De Bruyne – the one who morphed into a top-five footballer under Pep Guardiola.
There’s also Eden Hazard, Dries Mertens and Romelu Lukaku at the top of the pitch, while Vincent Kompany, Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen are among the best centre-backs the Premier League has seen this decade. Roberto Martinez may not be the best tactician, but Belgium’s individual quality could make the difference.
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 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 the five-time champions bow out.
World Cup wins are built on defensive solidity, and while the Selecao'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.
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 new boss Fernando Hierro won’t hesitate if things start looking awkward in the opening match against Portugal. Look for the interim Spain coach to either introduce Marco Asensio as a false nine – as Julen Lopetegui did against Italy in the qualifiers – or roll with Iago Aspas or Rodrigo. Failing to drop Costa arguably cost Spain in 2014, and they won’t make the same mistake again.
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 time. 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.
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 with that defence and midfield it still might not be enough.
9. Iceland swoon everyone again
The biggest winner of Argentina’s struggles will be the Nordic nation, who are seeking 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 charges will be tough to break down, and they pose enough danger from set-pieces and crosses to nick a goal or two in situations where the odds would suggest otherwise. Every player knows what is expected of him and that will help Iceland make more history by advancing to the knockout rounds on their World Cup debut.