Despite the perennial South American and European favourites, the World Cup 2018 still promises to be more competitive than ever, with each of the 32 teams boasting their own unique strengths. Here’s the lowdown for each of the eight groups in the tournament, kicking off from June 14 in Russia.
GROUP A: Russia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Uruguay
Favourites: It’s a delicious group, serving up all sorts of possibilities. Hosts Russia would want to give their fans a taste of some sort of glory beyond the group stage (unlikely). Uruguay would be the football layman’s choice for the group’s top position, but Mohammad Salah’s Egypt won’t let them have it easy (likely).
Dark horses: Teams from the Asian confederation have traditionally underperformed. Only an optimist would place their bets on Saudi Arabia to get anything out of this group.
Players to watch out for: Luis Suarez will be looking to bite off the competition (pun intended), but as we mentioned earlier, Egypt are piggybacking on The Pharoah, who on current form is the best player in the world. It’s their first WC showing since 1990, but that won’t really matter.
GROUP B: Portugal, Spain, Morocco, Iran
Favourites: Another exciting group, especially with the mouth-watering Iberian clash between current European champions Portugal, ranked four in the world, and 2010 World Cup winners Spain. The La Roja had a tough outing in Brazil, but they’ve bounced back and how. Odds of them winning the World Cup are placed at a handsome 6/1.
Dark horses: The biggest positive for both Morocco and minnows Iran would be the international exposure against two top sides.
Players to watch out for: Last World Cup or not, we look forward to five-time Ballon d ‘Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo’s heroics, and he’s having a fine 2018. Also watch out for former Barcelona man Andres Iniesta in the Spanish red and even Diego Costa, who could finally prove his worth with the national team.
GROUP C: France, Australia, Peru, Denmark
Favourites: Euro 2016 finalists France can probably send three different teams to the World Cup, and all of them would at least make it to the top 16 – such is the depth of talent in the Les Bleus dressing room. WC winning odds of 11/2 make them one of the four favourites to lift the trophy, alongside Germany, Brazil and Spain.
Dark horses: Denmark’s recent surge makes them the strongest contender for the second place in the group, but Australia’s epic qualification campaign offers them hope too.
Players to watch out for: Kylian Mbappe, Thomas Lemar and Antoinne Griezmann are only a few among the myriad attacking options for the French. There’s also Paul Pogba, N’Golo Kante, Raphael Varane and Samuel Umtiti in the squad, which is brimming with talent. Meanwhile, Denmark’s Christian Eriksen could light up the group with his Tottenham form.
GROUP D: Argentina, Iceland, Croatia, Nigeria
Favourites: World number five Argentina will face the familiar Nigerians for the fifth time in a World Cup. Elsewhere, Croatia’s gifted midfield will hold the key to their fortunes in the tournament.
Dark horses: The Icelandic fairytale for the smallest country to qualify for the World Cup continues, as they face global powerhouse Argentina in their opening game. Having knocked England out of the 2016 Euros, they could well be the Davids to the Goliaths of this group.
Players to watch out for: Lionel Messi would be eyeing his first big trophy with The Albiceleste, but it looks like a distant possibility, given his teammates’ recent form. The Luka Modric-Ivan Rakitic partnership could form one of the most reliable partnerships in the group.
GROUP E: Brazil, Switzerland, Costa Rica, Serbia
Favourites: It’s a dream group for Brazil, whose reemergence, after that 7-1 humiliation at the hands of Germany in 2014, has been nothing less than impressive. In fact, the Selecao are one of the bookmakers’ top choices to win the tournament, with 9/2 odds.
Dark horses: The Swiss lost only one game in the qualifiers, while Costa Rica topped the likes of former quarter finalists USA to make it to Russia. Serbia made it past Wales for the World Cup, so it’s basically a three-pronged scrape for the second place in the group.
Players to watch out for: All eyes will obviously be on the most expensive player in the world, Neymar Jr, but Brazil boasts of a formidable unit that also includes Liverpool striker Roberto Firmino, Man City wonderkid Gabriel Jesus and Real Madrid veteran Marcelo.
GROUP F: Germany, Mexico, Sweden, Korea Republic
Favourites: Defending champions Germany won the 2017 Confederations Cup with literally their second-string squad. No wonder the Die Mannschaft (odds 9/2) are also among the probable winners this year. The biggest challenge comes from Mexico – but not really. That sums up the story of El Tri’s ageing yet gritty squad.
Dark horses: Sweden ousted four-time winners Italy to book a berth in the finals, so they’re better not taken lightly. Major upsets aside, Korea look set to finish fourth in the group.
Players to watch out for: Amid the star-studded Germany squad, RB Leipzig and Bundesliga Team of the Season forward, Timo Werner has risen as the first choice striker for the national team as well. Expect Mexico’s Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernandez to also have a few tricks up his sleeve, just like Premier League compatriot Mesut Ozil.
GROUP G: Belgium, Panama, Tunisia, England
Favourites: The other Red Devils of Europe, Belgium have made it to back-to-back quarter finals – the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Euros. But if their ‘Golden’ generation, arguably one of the strongest squads on paper, finally comes good this time, expect the World No 3s to pip England to the pole position in the group. Regardless of their disappointing shows in the recent decades, the Three Lions should at least make it to the top 16.
Dark horses: Among debutants Panama and serial group stage contestants Tunisia, the African team should finish with more points.
Players to watch out for: Belgium’s attacking trio of Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku is as good as any on their day. Also, keep an eye out for Manchester United star Marcus Rashford in English colours.
GROUP H: Poland, Senegal, Colombia, Japan
Favourites: In what could be one of the most open groups in the competition, Poland can be the surprise team for fans who don’t follow football between World Cups. They’re ranked inside the top 10 in the world, ICYMI. Last time’s quarter finalists Colombia might struggle outside South America, as 2002 quarter finalists Senegal will be waiting to latch on to any such opportunity.
Dark horses: Four-time AFC Asian Cup winners and 2001 Confederation Cup runners-up Japan can be the mystery team of this World Cup.
Players to watch out for: Robert Lewandowski is one of Europe’s most lethal strikers, and has also scored the highest number of goals in the qualifiers across all confederations. And let’s not forget the spectacular prowess of 2014 WC Golden Boot winner and Bayern Munich star James Rodriguez.