I just watched Italy go through the motions in a win over Saudi Arabia, and then Team USA rolling past Bolivia with a younger team. While those offered a small boost of morale, I’m reminded of how meaningless these games actually are, as neither are preparing for a World Cup.
And while my attitude toward this edition of world football’s showpiece has been that of negativity since Italy and the USA confirmed missing out, I’m starting to change my mood just a little.
For this go around, I’ll get to be a neutral, and in that I think it will be fun. While there’ll be no ecstasy for me as a fan, there won’t be any heartache either.
With that, I decided to take a neutral’s dive into this World Cup, and offer my take on how it will finish from beginning to end. If you know how I predict things, you know I’ll get a little weird. No favoritism here, and just my unbiased opinions just two weeks before the whole thing kicks off.
Arranged by predicted order of finish.
- Uruguay: I really like how they are set up heading into this World Cup. Part of getting far in this tournament is the need for a reliable goal scorer. Uruguay have two, with Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez. The midfield is far improved and more dynamic than the 2014 edition, and the defense and goalkeeping have a lot of experience. They are in a group they should breeze through.
- Egypt: Mohammed Salah is going to play. I’m not worried. Egypt also boast a number of players with top flight experience, but it’s all about Salah, and he’ll carry this team to a runner up spot and knock off Russia.
- Russia: I wasn’t impressed with what I saw of them at the Confederations Cup, and looking at their squad I can’t see how they’ll be able to beat the two teams I have in front of them. Russia v Egypt is the most critical match of this group, but again, Salah will be the best player on the pitch in that game and the hosts won’t have an answer for him.
- Saudi Arabia: They lost in a friendly to an Italy side that looked like they were going through the motions, and I didn’t see anything to them that suggests they’ll be a threat. If they get a point from this group it will be an achievement.
- Spain: An embarrassment of riches in this team, they’ll beat Portugal to the top spot in this group. Coming into the World Cup with arguably the best collection of midfielders. Whoever Julen Lopetegui starts as a striker stands a good chance at winning the Golden Boot.
- Portugal: The reigning European Champions have the reigning World Player of the Year in Ronaldo. There’s plenty of experience in defense but the concern for me is whether they’re a step slow now. A striker needs to step up to help take some of the scoring burden off Ronaldo.
- Morocco: There are a handful of groups in this World Cup that I think this Morocco team could qualify from. Unfortunately they’re in with Spain and Portugal. The African side, though, will make their superiors sweat a little in their matches. Medhi Benatia came off a career season with Juventus, and Hakim Ziyech will be on show for bigger clubs to take interest in his talent.
- Iran: Carlos Queiroz will have this team organized, and will make things uncomfortable for the teams in front of them, but they’ll be too short on talent to decide games. If there are goals, they’ll come from Alireza Jahanbakhsh, who led the Dutch Eredivisie this season.
- Denmark: This is where I get weird. Everyone is picking France, and I get it because they are loaded. But the Danes have enough talent to make it interesting against the French. Christian Eriksen will be the main man, but he has forwards in front of him capable of scoring. On the other end, the heart of the defense is solid with Kaspar Schmeichel, Andreas Christensen and Simon Kjaer. There’s just enough to pull off the upset and I’ll go against the conventional wisdom.
- France: I just feel like Didier Deschamps is going to screw this up. Do you play Paul Pogba or not? Griezmann as the main striker or playing off Giroud? As you can see there are plenty of decisions that can get overthought with a team so talented. They should win the group, but I’m not afraid to bet against them.
- Peru: They’ll be painfully close in this group, and I get why they’re a trendy pick to qualify. I just can’t get there. Getting Paolo Guerrero back is huge, as he forms an interesting attack with Andre Carrillo and veteran Jefferson Farfan.
- Australia: There are some interesting pieces to this team and a World Cup finalist coach in Bert Van Marwijk, but those pieces will be hard-pressed to carry the Aussies to one of the top two spots. A disaster in 2014, Australia will be better this time around, but still in the same position.
- Argentina: With how tough this group is, you could have Argentina ending up in any of the four positions and it wouldn’t necessarily surprise me. The fact that they’ll open with (and beat) Iceland will give them some momentum. When you have Lionel Messi in your ranks, you’re a favorite just about every time. And there’s plenty of attacking talent around him. However, will the defense and goalkeeping hold up?
- Croatia: If you think Nigeria finishes here I won’t fight you. I’m giving the slightest edge to Croatia though, largely because they have experience everywhere on the pitch. This team has the make up to make a deep run in the World Cup. A striker does need to emerge though.
- Nigeria: Another team that will fall painfully short. Some decent attacking options in their team but the defense concerns me, especially when dealing with Argentina and Croatia.
- Iceland: They’ll play a strong team game and give the rest of this group fits. However it’s not a good sign when Iceland’s signature player, Gylfi Sigurdsson, struggled for form all season. They’ll snatch a point or two and all their games will be close.
- Brazil: My goodness. Neymar is back from injury and working to get to full fitness, and the crazy thing is that this Brazil are really good without him. However, you know he’ll be there. So much talent that you can’t just key on the #10. As good as the Selecao have looked since winning the World Cup in 2002. The defense? I rate their goalkeeper, Alisson, as one of the best in the tournament going in.
- Serbia: Everyone else likes Switzerland. I don’t. If you haven’t heard of Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, you will know him well in the group stages. The Lazio midfielder carries a high price tag that may only get higher. He’ll have an impact for a veteran team. Like Croatia, a striker needs to emerge, but they have it at all the other positions and the benefit of Brazil being their last group game.
- Switzerland: I’m struggling to get excited about the Swiss. Largely because Shaqiri was below average for his club and I don’t think he’ll switch back on. There are some decent pieces to this side, but the misery of facing Brazil first will have them reeling throughout the rest of the group stage.
- Costa Rica: Veteran team with a solid goalkeeper. They’re quarterfinal run in 2014 was something special where a lot of things broke the right way for them. I just don’t see a repeat of this. Maybe they grab 3rd from this group, but won’t do any more than that.
- Germany: The defending champions are so deep that they won the Confederations Cup last summer with their reserves. It can be argued that the form of many of the squad’s players was a little indifferent with their clubs. When they put on the Germany kits, their club form doesn’t matter. Experience all over the pitch, along with a couple young players capable of being difference makers. Thomas Muller will be keen to add to his career World Cup goal tally, but I also hope to see Timo Werner get his shot.
- Mexico: They just know how to get to the second round. Six consecutive World Cups beyond the group stage. They have plenty of attacking talent blended with experience in defense. A nice combination to have.
- Korea Republic: They will like their chances to unseat Mexico in particular and get to the knockout stage. Heung-Min Son proved he could be a difference maker with his club at times and now that’ll be needed for the Koreans to have a chance to progress. They have a chance to set the tone against Sweden before what will be a pivotal match against Mexico.
- Sweden: No I’m not doing this because they knocked out Italy. They labored to that triumph and one only needs to see the state of Italy from their friendlies. Emil Forsberg will be one to watch, but I just think overall the Swedes will struggle to score goals.
- Belgium: They’re a dark horse again, much like they were in 2014. They were quarterfinalists then, and followed that up with a last eight finish at the Euros in 2016. Absolutely loaded going forward and very experienced in defense.
- England: This will be your 9-6-1-1 group as far as how the points play out. 7-7-1-1 is also not out of the question and Belgium and England will see each other last after each taking 2 wins off their group counterparts. Plenty of talent going forward, but will the defense be good enough?
- Tunisia: They’re too far off the top two and only slightly better than Panama.
- Panama: The debutants are really making up the numbers, and will be happy to take a point home in a draw with Tunisia, they’ll find a way.
- Colombia: I like the form that some of these players are in, coming in to this World Cup. Just about everything will run through James Rodriguez; Juan Cuadrado, Carlos Bacca, and Radamel Falcao will be ready to contribute as well. The defense is experienced enough, too. Great potential with Colombia again and they’ll hope to improve on their last 8 finish in 2014.
- Senegal: I really wanted to put this team at the top of the group. I think everyone is sleeping on them. Dangerous going forward with players like Sadio Mane, Keita Balde, and Mbaye Niang. Kalidou Koulibaly is an elite defender who won’t be scared of Lewandowski or Falcao. I see them pulling off the upset over Poland and then beating Japan, setting up a showdown with the Colombians for the group win.
- Poland: The goalkeeping will be outstanding and it will have to be with veteran defender Kamil Glik likely out through injury. Robert Lewandowski always gives the Poles a chance, and his goal scoring in qualifying was outstanding, but I just think the Senegalese are going to put on a surprise here at the expense of the Poles.
- Japan: Talented team when you look at the midfielders they have, but with the teams they’re grouped with I just think they’re punching about their weight. A reliable goalscorer will need to emerge if they are going to have a chance. They’ll give Colombia everything they have in their first match and fall short, then lose to Senegal in a letdown, ending their World Cup early again.
ROUND OF 16
- Uruguay 2, Portugal 1: I told you, I really like Uruguay this time around. The easy group will have them be able to manage things and they’ll be ready for Ronaldo and the European Champions.
- Croatia 2, Denmark 0: The Danes are hungover from the shock of upsetting the French in the group stage, and Croatia’s veteran midfield pulls them apart.
- Brazil 3, Mexico 0: Neymar and co will continue El Tri’s 2nd round jinx.
- Belgium 3, Senegal 2: A neutral’s delight. The pace of this match will be frenetic with the Belgians just outlasting Senegal’s bid to shock the world.
- Spain 3, Egypt 0: Ramos v Salah again will be the headlines, but it ends there. Spain will play their way around the rest of the Egyptians and Salah will see little of the ball.
- France 2, Argentina 1: Les Bleus get it figured out after the group stage to leave Messi without a trophy for his country yet again.
- Germany 4, Serbia 0: The slow Serbian defense will be their undoing as the champions will pick them apart.
- Colombia 2, England 1: The attacking quality of the Colombians will be just too much for Gareth Southgate’s men.
- Uruguay 1, Croatia 0: In what will be a tightly contested and cagey match, Uruguay have the better goalscorers and that will be enough to see them through.
- Brazil 2, Belgium 1: The Belgians will push the Selecao all the way, and the goalkeeping of Alisson will help Brazil hang on for the win.
- Spain beats France on penalties: Penalties are inevitable at some point in the knockout rounds so I’ll call it here. After 1-1 through 120 minutes, Spain will edge it on the spot kicks with David De Gea being the better goalkeeper.
- Germany 1, Colombia 0: It’s Germany, managed by Joachim Low, they go to major international competitions and they reach semifinals. It’s what they do. Germany will win this on a set piece and hold off the Colombian attack for a 2010 semifinal rematch with Spain.
- Brazil 3, Uruguay 1: Neymar puts on a masterclass en route to the final. Uruguay will get a goal out of this but Tite’s men will be too much.
- Spain 1, Germany 0: This was the score when they met in the Euro 2008 final and the World Cup 2010 semifinal, and it will happen again. The match will be balanced, but Spain will find the odd goal to go through.
THIRD PLACE MATCH
- Germany 3, Uruguay 2: Christian Stuani will get a brace for the Uruguayans, but the Germans will be too much.
WORLD CUP 2018 FINAL: BRAZIL V SPAIN
The Calcio Consultant’s World Cup Winner is: BRAZIL
The Selecao are going to be World Champions for the sixth time. It will be Neymar’s tournament, but he clearly will not do it alone.
Alisson will come up with important saves throughout the tournament, and Brazil can rely on plenty of other attackers to produce the goals. But the No 10 will shine brightest for Tite’s men, and while he won’t score in the World Cup final, he’ll be a provider.
Spain will look to out-possess the Brazilians and indeed I see them having the edge in that area, but what Brazil offer going forward will be too dangerous. It will be a final to savor with World Class talent on display for both teams, and Brazil will come away as champions.