The World Cup draw is done and dusted and while fans will be sticking up their wallcharts and booking hotels and flights, the world is abuzz with anticipation about a tournament laden with sub-plots.
Attention inevitably turns to determining the ‘group of death’. However, for Bleacher Report’s associate editor Jack Collins, there are more intriguing questions.
Collins said: “I don’t think there’s a group of death that stands out. Whilst Group F looks tricky, it’s not as if more than one of the teams there is a major favourite to win the tournament. In that respect, only Group G stands out.
“More interesting are the groups in which all four of the teams will fancy their chances of qualifying – Group H [containing Poland, Senegal, Colombia and Japan] is very much open for all four teams to put their stamp on, whilst Serbia, Switzerland and Costa Rica will all fancy their chances of qualifying in second place behind Brazil.”
In terms of matches that stand out, Collins believes that Portugal and Spain will be one of the matches of the group stage, along with another encounter containing a tournament favourite.
“Germany will come into the tournament full of confidence, but Mexico have proved over the course of the qualifying campaign and in recent friendly matches that they are a handful for any team.”
Collins feels that despite their recent tournament struggles, Spain will be firmly among the contenders.
“With Isco behind Morata and the guile and skill their midfield possess, Spain could regain the coveted trophy. I’d love to see Argentina win it and Messi to complete his collection, but unless Sampaoli can find a way of getting Messi and Dybala to work in tandem, they might struggle.”
Portugal share a group with their Iberian neighbours and Collins warns they could face a battle to progress.
“Portugal will have to negotiate a tricky tie against Iran, who got through qualifying without losing and only conceding three goals. They’re a much tougher proposition than any will imagine and if Portugal start the World Cup in the same sluggish fashion that they did in the Euros, they’ll be in real danger of falling out at the group stage.”
When it comes to the players that will light up the tournament, Collins highlighted a familiar face.
“I think this could really be Mo Salah’s World Cup. Looking at that group, he has the ability to cut through those defences like a hot knife through butter if he continues the form he’s in for Liverpool.
“I wouldn’t be surprised to see a breakout star among the Danes alongside Christian Eriksen. Kasper Dolberg leading the line by June is very possible and if the Ajax star can recreate his club form from last year, he could be a star in Russia.”
Collins believes that both Egypt and Denmark could set the cat amongst the pigeons and upset the applecart, while Mexico will be a team that no-one will want to face.
Finally, the question that will be discussed up and down the country. How far will England go? Given that the Three Lions have not won a knockout match at a major tournament since 2006, expectations are tempered.
However, the group is kind and Collins feels Gareth Southgate’s men can confound the critics.
“The Belgium game will be a good test of England’s mettle – and from the knockouts, as we know, anything can happen.
“If England can win the group, they’ll have a decent shot at the quarters, where Brazil would almost certainly lie in wait – but if Southgate’s young squad have got firing by that point, then who knows. That said, if I was a betting man, quarter-finals is where I’d lay my hat.”
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