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2018 World Cup: A Preview

What do we expect to see in Russia?

With all thirty-two places confirmed for Russia, World Cup fever is finally kicking in. We will find out who England’s opponents are on December 1st, but the real question surrounds who will lift Jules Rimet Trophy on July 15th. With the biggest sporting event in the world only seven months away, we review the teams in pole position to reach the Luzhinki Stadium come July.

Only one side can be world champions, but we have selected a strong six, who will all believe they can go the full way in Russia. Although we can’t be sure of the winner, we can be sure that it will be an improvement on last year’s European Championships.

The style of play, tied in with an unneeded change to the format, meant that many of the games in France last year were dull and unattractive. The winners, Portugal, lifted the trophy after only winning one game in normal time. The Iberian side drew three times in the group stage and their win over Wales in the semi-final was their only victory in normal time. Completely bonkers.

To be fair to Portugal, they had a system that clearly worked. They were dogged in their defensive approach and let current Balon D’Or holder Cristiano Ronaldo do the work in the final third. But, what is it good to watch? No.

Many of the teams were playing in meaningless fixtures (or to play for a point) as an additional 8 teams had the chance to reach knockouts. This resulted in many teams adopting a defensive approach and the majority of the goals came through set-pieces. The games became more about the fear of losing rather than the desire to win.

Unfortunately, this style of play is still prominent within European teams in World Cup qualifying. Many European teams are happy to sit deep and play on the counter, and this was visible throughout last week’s play-offs. The away goal was everything, whether that was to score it or not to concede it, but ultimately it resulted in games that were very dull to watch.

However, with a fresher mix of teams in the World Cup and the addition of South American flair, we can assume it can only get better. In 2014, there was a host of goals throughout the tournament, with teams willing to use their most creative players at every opportunity. We expect the same in 2018.

Brazil:

The addition of the South American sides is always a welcomed one. They are well represented this year with Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Colombia and Peru all booking their places over the last few months.

Brazil, as always, remain amongst the favourites for the tournament. After decimating their opponents in qualification, Tite’s squad are in a great position approaching Russia. Their reliance on Neymar has simmered with Phillipe Coutinho, Roberto Firmino and the emergence of Gabriel Jesus all contributing to a lethal attack. Jesus is quickly becoming a poster boy for Brazilian football, and although he may not be stealing the limelight from golden-boy Neymar just yet, his electric form in the Premier League illustrates how important he may be in Russia next year. After all, he’s got to be an improvement from Fred leading the line in 2014.

Supporting Brazil’s glistening forward line, they have found solidity further back, with Casemiro proving to be integral for club and country in holding midfield. Moreover, Marcelo, Thiago Silva and Miranda also at their peak, Brazil have all the tools for success in next summer’s tournaments.

Argentina:

Brazil's rivals Argentina are arguably in recovery mode. After losing three finals in three years, the deflated squad stuttered through qualification, with Captain Leo Messi securing a place in Russia with a hat-trick in the final group game. Argentina have always been seen as a top heavy side, with an embarrassment of riches in front of goal but missing pieces at the back. However, as shown in qualification, Messi has the ability to paper over these cracks alone. With the help of Aguero, Icardi, Dybala and Higuaín – all of whom are in superb form – Messi’s side still have the quality to reach the latter stages.

It is the temperament of the defence which remains the issue; Nicolas Otamendi, Marcus Rojo and Javier Mascherano are usually left with it all to do at the back, as the country has never managed to replace the reliable Javier Zanetti. Manager Jorge Sampaoli tasted continental success with Chile, but can he get this Argentina side back on track?

Germany:

Our European tips will be no surprise, with the Germans top of the list. They blew away their opponents at this summer’s Confederations Cup – and that was with an apparent ‘B’ side.

Joachim Low has perfected the blend of youth and experience in recent years, and it could be a big factor in their quest to remain champions next summer. With Lahm and Schweinstieger moving on, young talents like Joshua Kimmich and Leon Grotzeka have filled the gaps with ease. Not to mention, they have finally addressed their ‘issue’ up front, with RB Leipzig’s Timo Werner seen as the perfect fit to lead the line. The national team had never fully replaced Miroslav Klose, with Mario Gomez, Thomas Muller and even Mario Götze having stints in the number nine role.

Their squad from the previous tournament still exists as the core of the team, with Manuel Neueur, Mats Hummels, Jerome Boateng and Toni Kroos maturing in to some of the best in the world, in their respective positions. Throw in the rapid development of wide players Leroy Sane and Julian Brandt (both 21), Low’s side seem covered in almost every position. At the moment, it’s no surprise they are bookies favourite.

Read more about Germany here

France:

France were inches away from glory on home soil last year, and that bitter taste of defeat will be the catalyst of a successful tournament in Russia. The depth in their squad is unfathomable, and there will be a number of top players left at home when Deschamps takes 23 across the continent next June.

Their main outlets remain Antione Griezmann, Paul Pogba and Olivier Giroud. However, the meteoric rise of Kylian Mbappe, alongside Thomas Lemar, Ousmane Dembele and Kingsley Coman, shows that most teams will be looking to avoid France next summer.

In all honesty, they should have won last summer. A lack of conviction cost them at crucial stages, and the addition of these young talents with solid protection behind them means France should be hard to beat next summer. The unique talent of N’Golo Kante proves to be decisive for club, and hopefully for ‘Les Blues’ – for country too.

Read more about France here

Belgium:

France’s noisy neighbors will hope to improve on a disappointing exit from Euro 2016, after qualifying to the World Cup with ease. Belgium have developed one of the world’s strongest squads; an experienced and talented defence of Vincent Kompany, Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertoghen will be integral to their success, and they might have an easy job as the players in front of them are currently viewed as some of the hottest talents in Europe.

Romelu Lukaku recently became his country’s all-time top scorer and he has adapted well to life at Manchester United. Eden Hazard is clearly one of the top players in the world over the last few years, with two titles at Chelsea. Dries Mertens has come to life in a central role at Napoli. Whilst, it is Kevin De Bruyne who will be seen as the difference for the ‘Red Devils’, after an embarrassingly good start to the season at Manchester City. The red-haired genius is already odds on to life POTY at the end of the season and seems to be two steps ahead of any other player at stages this season. There will be a lot of weight on his shoulders next summer.

The main concern surrounding Belgium is whether their manager is the right man to take them forward; Roberto Martinez has got results so far, but is far from convincing amongst the natives, after problems with Roma ace Radja Nainggolan came to the forefront.

Spain:

The list wouldn’t be complete without the home of ‘tiki-taka’, as Spain remain one of the major forces on the continent. The team has evolved, and has been seen to be exiting their cycle of dominance. However, with a replenished squad full of young and exciting talent, there is no doubts Spain could lift the World Cup again.

The team has profited from Zidane’s success at Real Madrid. Zidane has built a young Spanish core throughout his team; with Carvajal, Ramos, Nacho, Asensio and Isco all playing major roles for club and country. It is the latter two which have really set the national team alight, providing pace, intelligence and an eye for goal.

The development of Alvaro Morata has been interesting too, with the ex-Real man replacing national team-mate Diego Costa at Stamford Bridge. Both (if fit) will offer great firepower for Spain going in to Russia, and with a world class goal-keeper such as David De Gea behind them , they’ve got to be one of the favourites.

The rest:

There will be a number of dark horses too, with Croatia, Poland and Portugal all offering a threat to the top ranked teams in Russia. All three teams harbour elite players capable of carrying their team to the latter stages.

England, admittedly, are not seen as favourites for success, but remain dangerous in a number of areas. Under new stewardship and a fresh squad, it could be the change the Three Lions need. Harry Kane is expected to be named skipper by Gareth Southgate, and his scintillating form and the development of Raheem Sterling, Marcus Rashford and Dele Alli is encouraging. There are a number of new faces at St. George's but whether that will be the catalyst for improved performance on the big stage remains to be seen.

Read more about England here

See you in Russia.

By Lewis McKenzie

17/11/17