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Russia 2018 World Cup Finals draw: Glory or Despair Awaits



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Roman playwright Terence wasn’t thinking about football when he penned his immortal line but each of the coaches of the World Cup finalist agrees that fortune favours the strong.

Supporters are already weaving their nation’s path to glory, acutely aware that finding a way to avoid Brazil inevitably means facing Germany at some point. And the two are on course for a repeat of the 2006 final, or more painfully for Brazil, the 2014 semi-final.

What Brazil would turn up in Moscow if that were the case. Walking onto the pitch, glancing nervously at the Germans, what would they be thinking? Revenge or here we go again?

Will the pair even meet or are there dark horses worth looking at, as well as pitfalls in the group stage. Or in England’s case, can they avoid a pratfall?

The eight groups are drawn; we take a look at them as well as the path to the final and for whom the bell tolls.

Group A:

Russia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Uruguay

An intriguing group for the hosts, Russia. Uruguay in purely footballing terms, must be favourites but the home advantage plays into Russia’s hands. However, it’s by no means certain that they will qualify for the latter stages.

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Uruguay finished second to Brazil thanks largely to their home form. Their habit of qualifying for the finals brings the squad good experience; Federico Valverde and Matias Vecino bring youth alongside Rodriguez, Lodeiro and Gonazlez’s 228 caps between them.

Saudi Arabia are the designated whipping boys and it may come down to a case of who scores more against them than the others. There isn’t an outstanding nation in this group but three, who on their day, are capable of sublime performances.

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Egypt, after an absence of 28 years, made it to the finals, driven on in no small part by the electrifying pace and unerring finishing of Mo Salah. The Liverpool striker has been on fire since moving to the Premier League and with his nerveless penalty, confirmed Egypt’s place at football’s jamboree.

The group is far from clear but Uruguay have the class to finish top, with home advantage tipping the scale in Russia’s favour ahead of Egypt.

Prediction:
1. Uruguay
2. Russia

Group B:

Portugal, Spain, Morocco, Iran

The Iberian derby, the group’s opening game will go a long way to telling us which way this group will finish but it is the one where the dark horse may yet emerge.

Portugal may be European champions, they may have Cristiano Ronaldo but it’s Spain who are favourites for this group. It’s no surprise; La Roja cruised through their qualifying group, recording a draw in Italy before winning the return 3 – 0.

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A two-goal victory over France in a friendly served further notice of their menacing intent. With Diego Costa still to return to the attack, it’s a strong Spanish squad which travels to Russia.

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Portugal on the other hand were pushed all the way by Switzerland in qualifying but a superior goal difference saw them through. Surprise winners of Euro 2016 they may have been but of all the top seeds, it is A Selecção who are in danger of missing out on the knockout phase.

Which is down to Morocco. An obdurate team under the guidance of Hervé Renard tactical nous, the Moroccans are, along with Nigeria, one of Africa’s tougher teams to beat as Portugal and Spain will find out. And they are a team, moving as a unit with purpose, reflected in the zero goals conceded in the group phase of CAF qualifying for the World Cup.

Prediction:
1. Spain
2. Morocco

Group C:

France, Australia, Peru, Denmark

This group is all about second place. Peru and Denmark are fighting it out to join tournament dark horses France in the knockout phase. The French, runners-up at Euro 2016, are in good form, losing only to Sweden in qualifying. With young players such as Mbappe and Lemar maturing, Deschamps squad is poised to make a good impression next summer.

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Nobody who witnessed Teofilo Cubillas and his compadres at the 1978 World Cup will forget how they overwhelmed Scotland nor how they disgracefully capitulated 6 – 0 against Argentina, amid rumours of skulduggery.

La Blanquirroja shouldn’t be taken lightly. Two draws with Argentina in qualification while unbeaten home and away in 2017 bred confidence, building on a run to the 2016 Copa America quarter-finals. Only Brazil have beaten them since.

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Denmark made short work of the Republic of Ireland in the playoff second leg and took a creditable draw in a friendly with Germany in June. Their experience in the finals of major tournaments will give them the edge over the Peruvians for second place.

Turmoil and controversy mired FFA and the Socceroos will try to erase the politicking on the pitch. However, expecting them to take points in the finals is a tough call.

Prediction:
1. France
2. Denmark

Group D

Argentina, Iceland, Croatia, Nigeria

This is a tantalising group. Nigeria’s 4 – 2 win over Argentina might have been just a friendly – and the South Americans will play better – but the confidence the Super Eagles take from the performance is immeasurable.

Nigeria cruised through their group, conceding just four goals and have a youthful squad with a smattering of experience. Crowned WAFU Nations Cup winners in September, if they can find consistency in Russia, winning this group is not beyond them.

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Argentina though have Lionel Messi to dig them out of holes. By the time of the World Cup finals, Gonzalo Higuain might be welcomed back into the fold by coach Jorge Sampaoli. They made hard work of reaching the finals, requiring an own goal to secure a draw with Venezuela which put them in control of their own destiny.

Home defeats against Paraguay and Ecuador highlight the current squad’s vulnerabilities but this is Argentina and tournament football is their forte. Winning the group or finishing second offers little comfort; if they don’t meet France in the Round of Sixteen, it’s Spain in the last eight. The Albiceleste will be underdogs for both ties.

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Iceland and Croatia complete the line-up with the Scandinavians riding high following their debut at Euro 2016. The pair met in qualifying with both winning their respective home games but Strákarnir okkar edged the match in Reykjavik with a last-minute winner. Croatia were more comfortable at home and in Rostov-on-Don, their superior technique may well be the crucial difference.

Prediction:
1. Argentina
2. Nigeria

Group E

Brazil, Switzerland, Costa Rica, Serbia

This draw was straightforward a group as Brazil could have hoped for. Costa Rica and Serbia won’t kneel at the altar as football sacrifices, but Brazil have too much for them.

Tite’s men cruised through qualification and bar the recent friendly against England, made light work of this year’s opposition. The Wembley match offered a note of caution but standing up to one of Europe’s top nations defensively pleased some sections of the Brazilian media. However, England are no Germany.

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If there’s a sense that Brazil can only beat themselves, Switzerland are the likeliest group opponents to make them suffer. Obdurate defending put Northern Ireland to the sword, but a lack of goals compared to Portugal’s in the group sent them to the playoffs.

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It may prove to be an obstacle here as well; Costa Rica and Serbia aren’t powerhouses but can spring surprises along the way. That said, the Ticos are on a run of seven games without a win which may dent confidence ahead of the finals.

Serbia won their groups thanks to the Republic of Ireland eliminating Wales but can’t be taken lightly. However, they will need to improve considerably to be sure of nailing second place. It will be close run, but the Swiss have just enough to take the runners-up.

Prediction:
1. Brazil
2. Switzerland

Group F

Germany, Mexico, Sweden, South Korea

German football journalist Raphael Honigstein served as the portent of doom for the defending champions with his tweet shortly after the draw was completed. “No team who started in group F,” he warned, “has ever won the World Cup.

Let the sambas in Rio begin.

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It’s another straightforward group, this time for the Germans. None of the teams are easy opponents but by the same token, none are going to test them excessively. Their banana skin comes in the knock out stages.

The race for second is interesting. Mexico, traditional habitués of the last sixteen, have some good results away from home in the past year, if you ignore the 4 – 1 thrashing by Germany in Sochi during the Confederations Cup.

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Portugal, Poland and Belgium found out the hard way that the Mexicans are tough hombres, so Sweden cannot take them lightly. Even so, the Scandinavians came through a difficult qualifying group, consigning the Dutch to a summer on the beach, as well as beating France at home. They can’t be ignored in the race for second.

Prediction:
1. Germany
2. Sweden

Group G:

Belgium, Panama, Tunisia, England

If medals were handed out for failure at the finals of major tournaments, England’s haul would be golden each time.

Familiar foes in Tunisia and Belgium await with the latter tipped by many as potential finalists or more. Not since 2006 can the Three Lions claim to have been successful at finals. South Africa, Poland/Ukraine, Brazil; disasters of varying degrees. If England get through, the prospect is Germany or Brazil in the last eight awaits.

Whether they win the group is largely down to which Belgium turns up. The vibrant attacking force of the qualifying campaign or the timid team which faced Italy and Wales at Euro 2016. Roberto Martinez and Thierry Henry know the English game well so there will be few surprises in Gareth Southgate’s team.

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Joe Gomez’s promotion to the senior squad was a sign of belief in the younger players who were successful last summer. However, reliance is as ever, placed upon Harry Kane and Dele Alli for goals. The lack of a cutting edge from midfield will be England’s undoing in that respect and condemn them to second place without a win over Belgium.

The Belgians possess one of Europe’s most technically gifted squad. De Bruyne, Hazard, Lukaku and Mertens steal the headlines for their club and carry that form into the international scene.

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Defensively, they are none too shabby either with Kompany, Alderweireld, Vertonghen, and the highly-rated Anderlecht defender Dendoncker.

It’s an embarrassment of riches to pick from but even so is this World Cup and Euro 2020 when Belgium must deliver on their promise?

Tunisia scraped over the line to reach the finals, neck-and-neck most of the way with DR Congo. Panama reached Russia on goal difference (-1 vs. Honduras’ -6) and expectations are low in terms of getting out of the group. Third with a win over Tunisia will be a success and vice versa. Making up the numbers was invented for the two nations.

Does the name Costa Rica mean anything to you…

Prediction:
1. Belgium
2. England

Group H

Poland, Senegal, Colombia, Japan

The weakest of the groups with all the second seeds wanting to be in Poland’s group. While the games might be entertaining, the two games against Uruguay and Mexico last month offered a telling pointer or two as how this group might pan out.

Much depends on Robert Lewandowski in front of goal; the Bayern striker has an impressive 51 goals in his 91 caps. If he is to edge closer, if not surpass, the 100-cap mark in Russia, he needs the rest of the squad to pull together in an impressive way.

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It’s tempting to look at the group as a Poland and Colombia procession to the knockout stage. Senegal might think differently. A convincing qualifying campaign saw three goals conceded in the group phase. Much will depend on the form of Monaco’s Keita Balde and Sadio Mane of Liverpool.

Colombia are perennial qualifiers for the finals but serial underachievers. Not quite in England’s league in that sense, whom the winners of this group could face in the last sixteen. James Rodriguez is reborn after joining Bayern Munich while this is Radamel Falcao’s last hurrah on the world stage.

 

Japan flew under the radar in reaching the finals and expectations are low for them to reach the knockout stage. To do so, would be an outstanding achievement for a nation which is looking to the future for the 2017 EAFF E-1 Football Championship and a few of the youngsters will be looking to push their case for a place in finals squad.

Prediction:
1. Colombia
2. Poland

Our top tips:

1. Brazil and Germany to reach the final: 11/1 with William Hill - Visit William Hill

2. France to win World Cup: 6/1 with Paddy Power - Visit Paddy Power

3. Neymar Jr to be top scorer: 7/1 with Betfair - Visit Betfair

Stuart is a freelance writer and well-known Arsenal blogger, writing A Cultured Left Foot since 2006. As well as football, he regularly writes about cricket, tennis, rugby, baseball and American football.

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