Sunday, June 3, 2018

World Cup 2018 - My predictions

11 days away and I still can’t build up to the level of excitement from recent World Cups.  I’m sure that making travel plans for Brazil 4 years ago has a lot to do with it, but I really had no desire to go to Russia.  And don’t get me started about Qatar.  That “decision” still reeks of bribery and corruption.  Proof that money CAN buy anything.  Deep inside I still hope FIFA would overturn it, but that looks very unlikely, especially since the recent “independent” investigations have not come up with anything conclusive.  Seems like the revamped FIFA leadership does not have the guts to play that political suicide game… Oh, well.  Let’s leave that alone for now.  Once the tournament is under way, fans will just surely focus on the sport.

To get myself hyped-up, I’m siding with tradition going through my predictions for the tournament.  My track record – with the exception of “calling” Spain winners in South Africa – has been more wrong than right.  But it’s still fun.  So, cutting down on my typically nonsensical (yet somewhat truth-seeded) diatribe, here we go:

Group A:
Uruguay should easily top this group.  Solid defense (Godín, Giménez, Cáceres all very strong) and with Cavani + Suárez up front goals should not be an issue.  The midfield may prove to be a weakness, and despite Tabárez being a good tactician, I don’t see them repeating the 4th place finish in 2010.  Russia and Egypt will battle for the second.  Home support and referee lenience for the home country may prove to be the deciding factor, but with mostly home-grown players, Russia has not impressed much in recent friendlies.  Egypt has a rising star in Salah, but despite recent success in the African Cup of Nations (lost the final to Cameroon last year) they’ve only been to the World Cup once (in Italy) since 1934!  They have a lot to prove, but the pressure of it might be their undoing.  Oh, and there’s Saudi Arabia in that group; visitors, pretty much…

Group B:
Spain all the way, for me.  I think they have an even stronger team than 4 years ago, and they’re looking to make amends for the group-stage exit in Brazil.  Watching them live lose to Chile at Maracanã is still a bittersweet memory.  Portugal should be second.  There’s no real competition from Morocco or Iran.  The highlights for those players will be swapping shirts [souvenirs] with Iniesta, Piqué, Ramos, Ronaldo, etc.

Group C:
France is easy.  Love some of the young talent they’re bringing on (Dembélé, Mbappé, Lemar).  And they have Kanté (one of the best midfielders at the moment), not to mention Griezmann and some of their more established stars. Oh, and there’s Pogba, who I used to love until Mourinho got his incapable hands on him and managed to destroy his style.  I really hope Deschamps plays him in the more advanced role he used to have at Juve.  Denmark and Peru could go either way, but I give the edge to the Europeans.  Australia may just play the tiebreaker role with those two…

Group D:
Strongest group, in my opinion.  Argentina had a real shot at it 4 years ago, and a stronger team, I believe.  They do have a better coach (imho) but Messi is older and doubt he’ll be able to carry the team.  I hope he proves me wrong, but the reality is, if teams can neutralize him (easier said than done) then Argentina is just another average team.  Croatia is my pick to win the group.  Rakitić, Kovačić and Modrić may prove the best midfield in the competition, and with Mandžukić and Perišić up front, they’ll do well.  Their defense is the weak spot.  And sometimes it’s defense that “wins” games…  Iceland is “gritty” but they no longer have the element of surprise from the Euros two years ago.  Nigeria has some individual talents, but also have a tendency to implode at these things (as do most African nations who are yet to figure out how to get individual talents to play as a team, instead of showcasing their individual talents for potential moves abroad.  For in the end, only a hand-full of teams are in it to win it; the rest is just a chance for players to get that next big contract.  That’s an overly-pragmatic perspective – even for me – but it’s reality…)

Group E:
Brazil top, with a lot to prove from the disappointment of 4 years ago on home soil.  The Swiss second, not by much, based on a bit more experience and depth than Serbia.  Ticos there for the pictures…

Group F:
Germany will win the group, but I think they’re overall weaker than 4 years ago.  May not go all the way, but you can never discount them.  Timo Werner will be an exciting forward to watch.  Mexico may have the edge over Sweden (despite the fact that the Nordics got here by knocking out Italy).  The Aztecs have passed the group stage in the last 6 world cups.  And they have some amazing new talent.  I think technique and speed will win over physicality in this instance.  The Koreans will struggle, as usual…

Group G:
Belgium and England have a very easy group.  At least on paper.  Also on paper, Belgium has a good squad, but they disappointed 2 years ago losing to Wales in the quarterfinals at the Euros.  They should still top the group, and we’ll see from there.  Tunisia and Panama (World Cup debutants), more “tourists”.

Group H:
Poland has been solid recently and should top the group.  They’ll have some competition from Columbia, and Senegal seems to be the strongest of the African nations, but the South Americans should come in second.  Japan could play the decider in this group.

Once the weed-out process (aka group-stage) is complete, the real tournament begins (I’m wondering how long before the World Cup will start adopting the Champions League format where the bigger teams don’t come in until later; I know it won’t, for obvious reasons, but just putting it out there…)

France – Argentina will send Messi and Co. in an early vacation.  Which is why the South American should try to win the group, in order to avoid the French.  Uruguay will beat Portugal, but not easy.  Think extra time or even penalties.  Spain will have it easy with Russia, Brazil the same with Mexico, and Germany with Switzerland.  The closer games will be Croatia – Denmark (Croatia to win), Belgium – Colombia (the Europeans with the edge) and Poland – England (where the brits may edge through, if their weak spot [defense] can figure out a way to stop Lewandowski.

The quarterfinals will pin Uruguay against France (Les Bleus to win), Brazil against Belgium (Cariocas on top, but not easily), Germany against England (always a good duel, but mismatched in the German’s favor this time), and Spain against Croatia (you already know my pick here).

Semis will have France over Brazil (somehow I think the French have more depth, which is always a bit plus in long tournaments) and Spain over Germany.  That should give us a dream final (which frankly can go either way, despite my affinity for Spanish football) and a third place game that would give Brazil the opportunity to make amends for the 7-1 drubbing in the last World Cup.

There.  I feel better, more pumped up already.  My heart says Spain will win again, but the realist in me thinks France has the better squad.  It’s just a matter of how well Deschamps keeps them under control, as they’re known to blow up from time to time (e.g. lose the Euro final against a Ronaldo-less Portugal two years ago).

Oh, and few more things before I go:
  1. USA not qualified for the first time in 32 years.  Still can’t believe that “achievement” given the teams in the CONCACAF.  Klinsmann, the first coach to claim that achievement in recent time.  It will have a big effect in the non-soccer-knowing American public…
  2. Italy and Holland missing also.  Tells you a lot about how European football has been evolving recently…
  3. VAR.  I’m a big fan (considering I’m also a football purist) but I think that they still haven’t figured out some of the “hows” and “whens” yet.  At least in some of the competitions they’re using it already, it’s a bit hit and miss.  We’ll just have to see, I guess, but one thing’s for sure:  Maradona’s hand of god would not be in football history if VAR was a thing in 1986!
And as predictions go, some of my recent hits and [mostly] misses below.  Clearly not that good of a track record, but love going back in time every now and again:


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