In June the 21st FIFA World Cup finals will get under way in Russia.
The tournament opener is a real clash of the titans, as the hosts Russia entertain Saudi Arabia… okay, maybe not, but we still get a childish excitement heading into a World Cup.
Here are our 7 countries most likely to win the 2018 World Cup
We start off this seven with two-time World Cup winners Argentina, and some may be surprised we haven’t got them ranked a little higher. The bookies have Argentina as their fifth favourites, with most pricing them at around 9/1. In truth, though, Argentina are all over the place right now. They only just scraped through qualifying, finishing just a couple of points ahead of Peru - and they have lost 6-1 to Spain and 4-2 to Nigeria since then. What’s more, they face numerous potential banana skins in the group stages, with Croatia, Iceland and Nigeria all being tricky customers. There’s only one reason Argentina can be considered contenders in Russia, and that’s Lionel Messi, but we think it will be too much of an ask for the Barcelona man to transform this disjointed side into world champions.
England supporters unveil a huge three lions flag in the crowd ahead of the International friendly football match between England and Italy at Wembley stadium in London on March 27, 2018.
Alright, alright, you can stop laughing; we don’t think England are going to win the thing, they’re only sixth. There are some pretty big pros and cons for England heading into the finals in Russia. Reasons to be positive include the fact that they couldn’t have hand-picked an easier group for themselves - where have we heard that before? - they have one of the best centre-forwards in the world and with Gareth Southgate’s back three, England seem to have a system which could be effective against teams with more talent than themselves. In their last four games, England have faced Italy, Brazil, Germany and the Netherlands, and they didn’t lose a single game.
On the other hand, I fear that Southgate’s back three, whilst potentially very useful against top teams, could be too conservative against Tunisia and Panama. I think they’ll seriously miss Kyle Walker’s pace and offensive threats if he’s played at centre-back, and nerves could start to set in if they struggle to break those two sides down. All in all, there are reasons to be optimistic for England fans, and there’s the potential for their youthful squad to surprise one or two.
If I was asked to name a dark horse in the race to win the 2018 World Cup, my suggestion would be Uruguay. The bookies have them as the ninth favourites, priced as high as 35/1, but I think they’ve a great chance of reaching at least the quarter-finals. In Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez, Uruguay have two arguably world class centre-forwards, both of whom will be 35 when the next World Cup arrives, so they’ll know this is probably their last chance of success. They have a good goalkeeper and a highly experienced backline, and Uruguay are a team who often turn up for tournaments. I think they’ll comfortably win their group before beating Portugal in the round of 16, which would most likely set up a tough quarter-final against France.
TOPSHOT - Paris Saint-Germain's Uruguayan forward Edinson Cavani celebrates after winning the French L1 title at the end of the French L1 football match Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) vs Rennes...
Speak of the devil, our fourth favourite for the finals in Russia are France. It’s no secret that the French have an excellent crop of young players available to them right now, and they reached the final of Euro 2016. The players Didier Deschamps left out of his final 23 man squad have been doing the rounds recently, and they’re testament to the quality and depth he has at his disposal. The average age of their back four will probably be 24, unless Adil Rami starts, they have great options and legs in the middle of the park with Kante, Matuidi, N’Zonzi and Pogba, and obvious attacking threats with the likes of Mbappe, Dembele and Griezmann.
I still think there’s something missing from this French squad, though, and they don’t look like champions elect to me. They should have an easy route to the quarter-finals, where we think they’ll meet Uruguay. Win that and it’ll most likely be Brazil in the semis - and we think that might be a step too far for this young French squad.
From a trio of consecutive major trophies between 2008 and 2012 to an embarrassing early exit in the group stages in 2014, the world will be waiting eagerly to see what kind of Spanish national team arrives in Russia. We think it’ll be a dangerous one. On paper, they have arguably the best goalkeeping, defensive and midfield options of any country, but I still have some concerns about them up front - and on whichever flank Isco isn’t occupying. There’ll be no easing into the finals for Spain, who face near-neighbours and European champions Portugal in their opening game, but if they can come through that unscathed, I fancy them to reach the semi-finals.
Fans wave German flags at the Fanmeile public viewing at Brandenburg Gate prior to the Germany vs. Italy UEFA Euro 2012 semi-finals match on June 28, 2012 in Berlin, Germany.
It doesn’t matter who’s in their squad, who’s managing them or who they’re drawn against, Germany are always potential winners when it comes to major tournaments. 2018 will be no exception, and much like France, the defending world champions have fantastic depth. Their one to eleven will be very strong, with the only major question marks being at left-back and centre-forward. Personally, I’d play Thomas Muller through the middle to free up an extra spot of those three in behind the forward, where Joachim Low has such a plethora of options. But the World Cup winning boss tried Mario Gotze up front in qualifying, and there are suggestions that it’ll be Timo Werner who plays there in Russia.
Whatever happens, you’d be amazed if Germany weren’t there or thereabouts come the knockout stages in July. We think they’ll make at least the semi-finals, but the loss of real characters and leaders like Bastian Schweinsteiger, Philipp Lahm and Miroslav Klose will be felt, so they’re not quite our favourites to win.
The nation that are our favourites to win this summer's World Cup are the five time champions of Brazil. Following their 7-1 thumping at the hands of Germany on home soil, Brazil have some making up to do, but they look a much more well-rounded outfit under Tite than they did under Luiz Felipe Scolari. Brazil no longer seem wholly reliant on Thiago Silva for defensive solidity and Neymar for attacking threat. Their central midfield reeks of quality, with Casemiro and Fernandinho as holding options, they can choose from Coutinho, Costa and Neymar on the flanks, with Gabriel Jesus and Roberto Firmino offering serious competition through the middle.
Brazil will miss Dani Alves at right-back, with either Fagner or Danilo having to replace him, but we still make the Brazilians favourites for the finals in Russia. Brazil have lost just one of their last 19 matches, a run which stretches back to September 2016, and includes wins over Uruguay, Argentina and Germany.
Now for a word on those that missed out… Of the bookies favourites, there are only really two that didn’t make our top seven - Belgium and Portugal. Belgium are either the fifth or sixth favourites, and one look at their squad makes it easy to see why. From Alderweireld and Vertonghen to Hazard and De Bruyne, it’s a squad laced with quality, and don’t be fooled into thinking we think Uruguay or England have better squads than Belgium. We just still aren’t convinced that Belgium have what it takes to win a major finals. The cliche about them being a team of individuals still rings true, and I’m not convinced Roberto Martinez is the man to change that.
As for Portugal, they are the European champions - but what a bizarre win it was. They finished third in their group and only actually won one match all tournament in 90 minutes. Take nothing away from them, but lightning doesn’t strike twice, or so they say. We think Portugal will get through the group stage, but lose to Uruguay in the round of 16 or France in the Quarters.