9 bold predictions we're making for World Cup 2018
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 stabilize 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 teammates.
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.