The 2018 FIFA World Cup begins tomorrow, when 32 countries begin their quest to win the biggest sporting event in the world.
Can Cristiano Ronaldo lead Portugal to world glory after winning Euros 2016? Can Lionel Messi finally win a final of a major tournament? Can Spain recapture their 2010 glory? Can Germany repeat?
With eight groups and with the top two from each group advancing to the knockout round, here are predictions of who will survive the group stage, and who will be going home early in Russia. In predicted order of finish.
Russia received a favorable draw as the hosts, being placed in what is considered as one of the weakest groups of the tournament and should move on as group runner-up despite rocky play at the last few major tournaments. Uruguay is the clear favorite here, led by all-time leading goal scorer Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani and are primed to win the group and will look to rebound after a disappointing 2014 World Cup. Egypt, who hasn’t appeared in a World Cup since 1990, rest their hopes on dynamic striker Mo Salah, who, if healthy after suffering an injury in the Champions League Final, looks to lead Egypt to glory. Saudi Arabia is making their first trip to the World Cup since 2006, has an uphill battle against more experienced and balanced sides.
4) Saudi Arabia
Spain are the favorites here, looking to recapture their 2010 glory after bowing out in the group stage in Brazil 2014. With a mostly older, more experienced group of players, Spain has talent, and despite just sacking their coach today, they should remain the favorites in the group. Portugal led by Cristiano Ronaldo will challenge Spain for the top of the group. Ronaldo scored 15 goals in World Cup qualifying, and if he can keep it up Portugal will be dangerous. Iran blew threw the qualification stages, going unbeaten, but face a much tougher task with Spain and Portugal in their group than what they faced in Asian qualifying. Morocco will rely heavily on their defense in the World Cup after only allowing one goal in qualifying.
France is not only the favorite to win the group, they’re one of the favorites to win the World Cup. They certainly have the talent to win the tournament, with stars from the top leagues around Europe and can add a second World Cup title to their resume with a victory. Denmark has the possibility to make the knockout round for the first time since 2002 and a stout defense (only eight goals allowed in 10 WCQ) should send them through as group runner-up. Peru received a big lift when Paolo Guerrero was cleared to compete in the World Cup, the first for Peru since 1986, and could be a possible knockout round team if they can get past Denmark. Australia is making their fourth straight World Cup, but they walked a fine line in doing so, and are most likely an early exit in this group.
Argentina, the 2014 runner-up in the favorite in Group D. It required a Lionel Messi hat trick for them to qualify, but with arguably the best player in the world, they appear as the easy favorite at the top of the group. Croatia, who started the qualifying stages well and then struggled at the end, should be sent through as the group runner-up and look to build on a surprising run at the 2016 Euros. Iceland is a great story, making the World Cup for the first time and becoming the smallest country to ever qualify. After making a Cinderella run to the quarterfinals of the 2016 Euros, they have a shot to make the knockout round with their tactical brand of football. After cruising through African qualifying, Nigeria is clearly the biggest chance the continent has to make a run and with a younger team than in years past, they’ll look to shock the group and advance to the knockout stage.
Brazil are the runaway favorites in this group, and with a healthy Neymar are a favorite to hoist the World Cup after getting blown out in the 2014 semifinals on home soil after Neymar was injured. During the qualifying stages, Brazil scored 41 goals in 18 matches, and are clearly the best team from South America. This edition of the World Cup is Switzerland’s chance to finally break through past the Round of 16, where they’ve reached two of the last three tournaments and are one of the hottest teams entering the World Cup, winning 10 of their last 12 games. After a Cinderella run in the 2014 World Cup, Costa Rica returns virtually the same squad in 2018, and with the top goalkeeper in CONCACAF in Keylor Navas and a tough defense, Los Ticos will be tough to score on. Serbia will rely on experience in Russia, with most of the players 29 or older, to move on past the group stage.
3) Costa Rica
In one of the most intriguing groups at the World Cup, Germany look to repeat as champions and are the favorite to win the group. They ran through UEFA qualifying, winning all 10 games and are one of the favorites to take home the title. Mexico, the top team from CONCACAF, are looking to move past the Round of 16, which they haven’t moved past since 1986. They have a lot of chances to score goals with attacking players like Chicharito and Tecatito, but can they finally make it to the quarterfinals? Sweden is in the World Cup for the first time since 2006, but without top playmaker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Sweden doesn’t have much of a chance against better offensive sides. South Korea hasn’t impressed leading up to the World Cup, losing four out of five friendly matches and finished second in their group in qualifying. Expect South Korea to continue to underachieve and finish last in a tough group.
4) South Korea
If all goes to plan, Belgium and England will face off in their final match to determine who finishes 1-2 in the group. Belgium is one of the handful of favorites to possibly win the World Cup, and with what is considered the country’s “golden generation” of players who to this point have underachieved, have a chance to make a deep run with their deep talent pool. England is the clear No. 2 in this group despite having some issues at the goalie position. England hasn’t looked fantastic leading up to the World Cup, but they haven’t looked terrible either, just somewhere in between, but should easily dispatch Panama and Tunisia. Panama is making their first ever World Cup appearance with a veteran savvy squad, but very nearly missed qualifying at all. Tunisia had the easiest road to qualifying out of Africa, and they’ll be big underdogs against much more competitive and complete teams than what they faced in the qualification rounds.
This group is the hardest to pick a winner, with any of the teams possibly moving on or bottoming out. It’s the most even group in Russia. Poland, led by Robert Lewandowski, is in the World Cup for the first time since 2006. They won eight of 10 games in qualifying, finishing five points ahead of Denmark, and are the favorites in an even group. Colombia went on a quarterfinal run in the 2014 World Cup, and many of the same attacking players will be in Russia, including top player James Rodriguez, although their back-line defense is a bit of a question. Japan is making their record sixth consecutive World Cup and looks to make it past the Round of 16 for the first time. A large amount of that will depend on whether Shinji Kagawa can produce on a big stage, something that has eluded him in the past. Senegal looks to advance using their speed and athleticism, looking to beat teams with pace after finishing atop their group in World Cup qualifying.
You can watch all matches of the 2018 FIFA World Cup on Fox and FS1. The first match kicks off 9 a.m. MT on Thursday, when host nation Russia takes on Saudi Arabia in Group A play.