On Thursday afternoon it finally begins- Footballs great and good will gather in Moscow for the World Cup opening ceremony.
So whilst the strange national costumes are being ironed down in The Kremlin laundry room how do the groups actually look and who should make it to the knockout phase;
Group A: Russia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Uruguay
So the opening match of the greatest show on earth will be: Russia vs Saudi Arabia! Not the most exciting of openers but with hosts Russia pre determined to head pot 1 this was always a danger. Like all host nations Russia’s progress is hard to asses given they’ve only played friendlies over the last 18 months but a group stage exit in the Confederations Cup doesn’t bode well.
Meanwhile Unheralded Saudi Arabia with a squad based exclusively in the Saudi Domestic League will arrive in Russia hoping to repeat their heroics of USA ’94.
Russia need to win the opener to stand a realistic chance of making the knock out phase given the tough draw they got from pots 2 & 3- Uruguay & Egypt. Egypt are a largely defensive side but possess a dynamic attacking threat in Liverpool’s Mo Salah- the big question is how fit will Salah be after his shoulder injury in the Champions League Final? Then there’s Uruguay another strong defensive side but complemented by the deadly front pair of Suarez & Edison Cavani. With Suarez & Cavani both aged 30 this represents a last shot at the World Cup and Uruguay may well struggle beyond this tournament but for now Uruguay are the group favourites.
Must watch game: June 15th 1pm (BST)- Egypt vs Uruguay A clash of Liverpool past and present as Suarez takes on Salah.
Prediction: 1st Uruguay, 2nd Egypt, 3rd Russia, 4th Saudi Arabia
Group B: Portugal, Spain, Morocco, Iran
There’s no doubting the tie of the round: Spain vs Portugal on day 2. European Champions Portugal as seeds got the draw nobody wanted in their Iberian neighbours. Portugal are of course reliant on His Royal CR7ness who’ll be making his final World Cup appearance. But they looked impressive in qualifying with their midfield of Joao Mario, Bernardo Silva and Adrien Silva adding creativity and allowing Ronaldo to play a role similar to that at Real Madrid.
Spain looked to be in transition for much of qualifying with the likes of Xavi, Casillas and Xavi Alonso long gone. That was until they smashed Italy 3-0 in September and suddenly they were the Spain of old. New coach Julen Lopetegui still has issues blending the new talents of Isco, Koke and Marco Asensio with the surviving World Cup winners of Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets & David Silva but that’s a problem most coaches wouldn’t mind and as recent weeks have shown yet again they have the world’s best ‘keeper in David De Gea.
It all seems very harsh on Iran & Morocco both of whom qualified impressively. Morocco made it at the expense of Ivory Coast with Juve’s Mehdi Benatia leading a strong back line but winning the opener against Iran looks paramount if they are to seriously challenge Spain or Portugal for qualification.
Iran too need to win that opener to have a chance. Their squad will consist mostly of home based players and there are few outstanding individuals but they did show in the last World Cup they are a stubborn well organised side with a goal in them on the break.
Must watch game: June 15th 7pm (BST)- Portugal vs Spain- No introduction necessary
Prediction: 1st Spain, 2nd Portugal, 3rd Morocco, 4th Iran