There is a World Cup soon, apparently, and the countdown to hosts Russia’s highly-anticipated curtain raiser against world-beaters Saudi Arabia is scarcely easing the unmitigated excitement.
Every man and his dog loves a prediction. Here at TEB we are barely far removed from that strange pleasure of hopelessly attempting to guess what might happen in the future, so here is what we think might happen at Russia 2018 – bar the very obvious spat between attention-deprived world leaders.
We gathered around a warm fire, coupled with our vuvuzelas, and reminisced about a 13-year-old Michael Owen waltzing around one of the world’s best defences and subsequently thwacking the ball into the top corner. Can Harry Kane and co. replicate the, erm, success of previous England teams? Or will they return home in disgrace following a defeat to a nation renowned more for being a tax haven rather than being an actual recognised country?
From who might win, to who might surprise, to where Gareth Southgate will lead his Three Lions squad, we have it all covered.
JAY CRAME (JC): France v Brazil. The French have a huge pool of talent to choose from for this tournament which is perhaps tougher than some would imagine but looking at their final squad, they have a real chance. They are likened to Dutch squads of old who have more often than not capitulated at major tournaments but if the show what they are capable of they will be a real danger. Who they will meet is a tough one and with Brazil and Germany likely to face each other at the semi final stage if all goes to plan for them both, I’ll plump for the entertaining Brazilians over a German side that is perhaps a squad of players that another final for them will be a bit of a reach.
SAM CARP (SC): In a final that will no doubt get Mundial mag readers chomping at the bit, I’m going for Spain and Brazil. The Spaniards have hardly been mentioned as potential challengers for this year’s World Cup, but boast a more balanced squad than their last two major tournaments. Equipped with a mix of experience and fresh impetus from the likes of Marco Asensio and Isco – along with the world’s best goalkeeper – they should be held in the same esteem as France and Germany. Should La Roja and Brazil win their groups, I think we’ll see them meet in the final.
MICHAEL STOKOE (MS): Like many, I do feel France versus Brazil for the final would be a good bet for many. Looking at France they have a wealth of options which is what is needed to be able to navigate through tournament football, if France don’t get to at least the semi-finals I would be very surprised. Brazil have the best front three in the tournament and if they can keep opposition out in the later rounds, Neymar and company will always carve out opportunities.
LUCY WHITE (LW): Belgium v Germany
DONOGH HURLEY (DH): France v Germany. A path to the final for both of the fancied European sides, largely down the wealth of talent they both have at their disposal. France will be driven by the disappointment of losing a European Championships on home turf that they really should have won, while the experience and class of the reigning World Champions should present them with possibly the easiest route to the Final of the fancied few.
SAM SMITH (SS): Germany and France. Two of the most talented squads at the competition squad will be looking to avenge for underachieving at Euro 2016 and will set up an all-European final. Both squads lacked the necessary experience to go all the way two years ago, but the couple of years they have each spent together since has hopefully overseen a progression in both squad cohesion and technical development.
DAN CRAME (DC): France and Argentina. Both squads are full of world class players who will be looking to bring home the biggest trophy in world football in Russia this summer after somewhat disappointing performances in recent years. France’s phenomenal squad depth and Argentina’s formidable attack will be forces to reckon with in this tournament.
JC: France. We can expect an entertaining final should the French and Brazilians go all the way and it will be such a tight call to decide the winners. Brazil will have so much to prove after their poor showing when hosting the tournament but France will have the edge to take the historic trophy for just the second time in their history.
SC: Having massively bigged up Spain in the last section, I still think Brazil will win the World Cup. Released from the shackles of pressure that weighed them down in 2014, the Selecao will be free to play with the attacking flair that made them the most exciting team to watch during qualifying. Neymar will be well-rested after missing the run-in for PSG, and will be ably supported by Gabriel Jesus, Roberto Firmino and Philippe Coutinho. In short, Brazil have the most effective attack in the tournament, and will score their way to the World Cup.
MS: I just feel France will do it. Now, it hurts to say that because, who likes the French…. Joking asides, they have everything at their disposal to go on and lift the World Cup come July.
DH: France. Deschamps will do what even Napoleon could not and successfully conquer Russia. France are older, wiser and more talented than they were two years ago.
SS: France. Germany will seek revenge for their Euro 2016 semi-final exit against an Antoine Griezmann-inspired Les Bleus, but the Atletico Madrid forward will be the star man once again in a France squad that is slightly better than Los Blancos’.
DC: It has to be France. I can’t foresee any other teams being able to complete with their extremely talented squad of which has a lot more strength in depth than other teams in the competition.
JC: Antoine Griezmann. Should my prediction work out and France go all the way, the top scorer will most likely come from them unless a striker scores a hatful in one game early in the competition! The Atletico hitman will revel in the constant supply line that he will be given but he will also create goals out of nothing by using his own creativity.
SC: Romelu Lukaku. I’m not convinced that Belgium can mount a serious challenge for the World Cup, but I’d back them to rack up plenty of goals in the group stages and early knockout rounds. With conductors like Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne feeding the supply chain, the main beneficiary will be Manchester United’s talismanic centre forward. Lukaku scored 11 goals in qualifying, and I expect him to find his goal-scoring touch in Russia.
MS: If Neymar is fit, and it looks like he might just be – he’s a good bet for golden boot. Otherwise, someone like Griezmann would be a good shout.
LW: Mo Salah
DH: The trend in recent World Cup competitions, with a few exceptions, has been for the Golden Boot to come from an unlikely source – James Rodriquez in 2014, Thomas Muller/Diego Forlan in 2010, Miroslav Klose in 2006. None of these ended up with a winners medal. Robert Lewandowski may well bag a skinful of goals in the group stages to take home the spoils, just like Oleg Salenko in 1994. My money is on Gabriel Jesus, who was Brazil’s top scorer with 7 goals in qualifying, and 9 in 15 appearances in total for the Selecao
SS: Antoine Griezmann. If France go all the way, it will be largely down to the goals of Griezmann. 29 goals in 49 appearances for Atletí across all competitions, including one in the Europa League triumph against Marseille, make him one of the world’s most potent forwards.
DC: Lionel Messi. We all know what Messi can do with a football, no matter what stage he is on. The man is one of the best players in the world, if not the best, and will want to carry his less talented side as far as he can just like he did in Brazil four years ago.
Golden Ball (best player)
JC: Brazil will still be smarting from what they will consider a disastrous home World Cup and for that reason I expect them to go deep into the tournament. They have talent but they will look to their talisman Neymar who will be one wanting to prove a point over his much publicised world record transfer fee and he will likely do so in style.
SC: Leroy Sane. The German winger set the Premier League alight for Manchester City this season and was rightly named young player of the year after terrorising some of the league’s best defenders with his turn of pace and ability on the ball. Now a regular for one of the best national teams in the world, this is a big opportunity for the 22-year-old to announce himself as the superstar that he’s destined to be.
MS: I would have gone for Salah, but with his injury you don’t know what kind of shape he will be in come the start, or if he makes it all. I know my colleague, Lucy has gone with Hazard, but he is someone who I feel is due a performance on the biggest stage. He’s been decent for an under-par Chelsea team this season, and with lots of issues surrounding his club team, the World Cup is the perfect opportunity to put himself in the thoughts of some of the biggest clubs in Europe.
LW: Eden Hazard
DH: With a two-fingered nod to Jose Mourinho watching on from the Russia Today studio, this World Cup will reaffirm everyone’s opinion on what a colossally talented footballer Paul Pogba is. France have built this talented side around Pogba since he burst onto the scene with Juventus, and the abundance of space he will be afforded will allow a midfielder of his calibre to make the tournament his own.
SS: Paul Pogba. Free from the rigidness of the eye-sore Manchester United team, the World Cup provides the midfielder with an open-goal to prove he is one of the globe’s best players. It’s up to Pogba whether he taps it in, plays with the sense of self-confidence that everyone became familiar with during his time at Juventus and dominates midfields with unmitigated superiority; seamlessly caressing the ball around the pitch as if it’s world-class Paul Pogba against a bunch of amateurs. On the flip side, he could completely miss the target, stroll around looking deeply uninterested and produce the kind of average performance that he has done for much of the past 12 months.
DC: Kevin de Bruyne. The Belgian has had a fantastic season with Manchester City and winning the Premier League so convincingly will only motivate him to continue his good form on the world stage. With other talented players like Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku and Dries Mertens to setup, he is definitely one to consider for the golden ball.
Who could surprise?
JC: Serbia. As Palace fans, we have all seen the impact that Luka Milivojevic has made in South London and he will be gracing the World Cup stage in Russia. With an eye for goal and the same for a tackle, he will be ably supporting by the likes of Branislav Ivanovic, Aleksander Kolarov, Nemanja Matic, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic (my pick of players to watch this World Cup) and Aleksander Mitrovic. They are a no nonsense side that are likely to spring a few surprises in Brazil’s group.
SC: Egypt. More often than not, the World Cup provides an African love affair for us all to get wrapped up in, and I think this is the year of the Pharaohs. In Mo Salah, they have one of the world’s most in-form players, and in Group A, they have one of the easiest routes to the knockout stages. Much will depend on Salah’s fitness, but if Egypt get the Liverpool forward firing, they could find themselves in the quarter-finals without actually having to do very much.
MS: Like Jay, Serbia are no mugs. And with the team of experienced players who are scattered all across the top European leagues they are a team to look out for.
DH: The talent of some of the traditionally big names makes it hard to plot a team who can go a long way. For all their defensive frailties Poland scored 28 goals in qualifying, in a tricky group where they finished ahead of a resurgent Denmark. Robert Lewandowki’s firepower, with the support of Napoli’s Arkadiusz Milik, may well propel them to top position in their group and set up a winnable tie against England in the next round. Nigeria will fancy their chances to finally get out of the Group of Death they always invariably get drawn in, while the quiet assurance and quality of the Serbs will be interesting to watch from a Palace perspective.
SS: Nigeria. A talented squad with a great blend of youth and experience makes up a group that is feasibly winnable, with Argentina providing the toughest opposition alongside Croatia and Euro 2016’s own surprise package, Iceland. Croatia’s ageing squad is beatable, a miracle would make Iceland as good as they were two years ago, and Argentina have their own in-house problems. The Super Eagles could go as far as the quarter-finals while exciting the world with their youthful exuberance.
DC: The surprise package for me this year is Croatia. On paper, they look like a side that teams challenging for the trophy will not fear however, with players like Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Mateo Kovacic, Mario Mandzukic and Ivan Perisic, they could be ones to keep an eye on.
Who is destined to fail?
JC: Germany. Nothing but a win will do, anything less will be a disappointment for the Germans and this World Cup could be one where the struggle to get past teams. This is a nation that is used to winning and while they are likely to work their through the competition, they perhaps have more weaknesses than they have had for some time going into a major tournament.
SC: Despite France’s wealth of attacking talent, Didier Deschamps still doesn’t seem to have pinpointed the best way to utilise it. The momentum of home advantage somewhat carried France to the final at Euro 2016, and I have a feeling that – beyond the hype – they may flatter to deceive in Russia.
MS: That’s quite a tricky one to answer. My gut instinct is that one of the major players will fall at an early hurdle, who that is, I couldn’t tell you. A hunch tells me that despite all their talented players, Belgium haven’t exactly set the world alight in previous international tournaments, but like I said, that’s a hard one to predict!
LW: England (obviously)
DH: Messi and Ronaldo.While blessed with attacking talent both Argentina and Portugal simply do not have quality at the back to propel them far in the tournament.
SS: Belgium. A talented squad but once again the Red Devils possess an underwhelming manager. Marc Wilmots had ultimately been their downfall at the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 European Championship, and new boss Roberto Martinez falls into the same category of being overtly uninspiring. Martinez’s only straw to clutch is his FA Cup triumph with Wigan Athletic in 2013 in which his tactically astute style favoured the structure of a cup competition.
DC: Spain. A very talented Spain side could surprise the many media outlets already tipping them for a good tournament with a disappointing failure once again. Much like Belgium, they have a lot of individuals and I can see this being their downfall. They need time to jel and maybe the campaign in Russia will help them to do this.
Where will England finish?
JC: Quarter-finals in what will be a experimental tournament for us. Gareth Southgate has been brought in under unconventional circumstances and has done a great job getting the Three Lions to the finals. What happens now is anyone’s guess and with our chances being downplayed, the pressure is off more so than ever before. This is a young talented squad who will have no fear particularly looking back at the youth sides success last summer. How many times have fans called for youth to be given a chance? Now we have a manager doing just that and while this tournament will perhaps come too soon for them, they will be sure to come of age.
SC: Making predictions can prove utterly fruitless in most cases, but that feels even more pertinent when trying to foresee England’s fortunes. They should get out of their group, but I don’t expect them to progress once they meet one of the so-called bigger nations in the knockout stages. I’ll settle on quarter-finals at best.
MS: Winners of course. Sorry, that was a bit of a cruel joke wasn’t it? I don’t believe this squad is capable of getting to the final, let alone the semi-finals. But the quarter-finals would represent a semblance of progress compared to what we have endured in previous tournaments.
LW: Group Stages
DH: Last 16 / quarter-final at best. If Southgate can resist shoehorning individuals into a starting XI (which England have been doing for 28 years) and set up a team that is for the betterment of a system, then they might do okay.
SS: Knocked out by likely quarter-final opponents Brazil. It will be a gutting penalty shoot-out defeat, too, because of course it will.
DC: England will get through the group stage (hopefully) only to be drawn against France, Brazil or Germany in the quarter-finals and we all know how that will work out. I think this tournament will be a good judge of progress for England considering our side is fairly young and inexperienced.