With the regular season almost at a close, attention has already turned to the World Cup in just under a month. Russia 2018 is sure to be an exciting competition with teams from all over the world competing in the most prestigious world tournament.
It is almost upon us. Football on telly every day, a St. George's Cross hanging out the window of many a house, and the most obscure of fixtures, such as Iceland v Nigeria.
With the group stages just weeks away, I am going to make an attempt to predict the outcomes of each group from A-H. Enjoy.
Group A is an interesting one, housing the hosts, Russia. Saudi Arabia are unquestionably the weakest team in this group, hence I cannot see them picking up too many points. Egypt have the decorated Mohamed Salah in their ranks, and he could well be an important player in getting them some success. However, with Russia being the hosts, I think they will just steal second place. If they were to be knocked out in the group stages, it would be only the second time a host nation has been eliminated in the groups in the 21st century, with the only other team being South Africa. For me, Uruguay will have too much quality in their side and they will certainly be looking to improve on a disappointing 2014 tournament where they got knocked out in the round of 16.
For Iran, this is the first time in their history that they have qualified for back-to-back World Cups. However, despite this positive, Iran have only ever won one game in the competition and that was in 1998. Morocco have not played in the World Cup since 1998, but they had a successful qualifying campaign, losing just once. Despite this, it still remains unlikely that they will qualify by finishing second. The European Champions, Portugal, should have too much class for the likes of Morocco and Iran, but their main test lies against Spain. Portugal will undoubtedly be looking to build on their disappointing 2014 World Cup where they were knocked out in the group stages and they will be buoyed by their Euro 2016 win. Spain, however, will also be looking for a return to the top. They are yearning for the glory days of being back-to-back European Champions and World Champions in the space of 4 years. They didn't succumb to a single defeat in qualifying, and will most likely have the most quality in the group.
This is the first time that Peru have qualified for the World Cup since 1982. They will certainly enjoy the occasion, but it is difficult to see them doing anything particularly amazing, and they would need some fantastic performances to overcome some of the quality and experience in their group. After failing to qualify for both the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 European Championships, the Danish national team is in something of a slump and are in desperate need of a confidence boost. With the lack of recent major tournament experience in mind, I feel they will struggle to get out of the group stages. For Australia, this is the fourth consecutive World Cup that they have qualified for, though they failed to win a single game in their 2014 campaign. Their squad contains a fair few players playing in the UK, like captain Mile Jedinak and Celtic's Tom Rogic. Legend Tim Cahill is also in their squad for the competition. The French team for the World Cup has been noted for its depth, leaving out some key players such as Anthony Martial and Alexandre Lacazette. After the heartbreak of finishing runners-up in their own Euro 2016, they will be keen to bounce back and I feel they have a very strong squad which will enable them to do so.
Nigeria exceeded expectations slightly by reaching the round of 16 in their 2014 World Cup campaign, though they have failed to qualify for the two subsequent African Cup of Nations contests, suggesting they have a weakness to their squad. They have found themselves in a relatively strong group and I think they will struggle. No England fan needs reminding of Iceland's remarkable Euro 2016 campaign where they managed to reach the quarter-finals after defeating England. This is their first ever World Cup, and as a result I cannot see them doing too well purely down to lack of experience. I have put Croatia above them in second, but realistically I think second place could be won by either side. The reason I placed Croatia in second is down to the fact that they have more World Cup experience. The game between Iceland and Croatia will certainly be one to watch. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I think Argentina will top this group, having come runners-up in 2014 and having been World Champions twice before, their quality will most likely be too much for the other nations. Their attacking options are fantastic and their solid midfield should easily see them through the group stages.
Before I get into which team I think will finish where, I would like to note that I think this could be one of the more even groups of the tournament, with the exclusion of Brazil. I have out Serbia bottom down to their poor record in major tournaments in recent years. The last major tournament they qualified for was the 2010 World Cup, and they have missed out on qualifying for six major tournaments this century. Switzerland, however, have a slightly better record, qualifying for the last three World Cups. The furthest they have ever advanced in the World Cup is the quarter final stage, and that was back in 1954 when they were the host nation. Don't expect anything exceptional from the Swiss, as they look to roll past the group stages (excuse the awful pun). Costa Rica were somewhat the surprise package of the 2014 World Cup, finishing top of their group containing England, Uruguay and Italy. They marched on to the quarter finals, the furthest they have ever advanced. They also finished third in last year's Gold Cup, and will be looking to continue their golden years by advancing into the knockout stages this year. The five-time World Champions feature in this group, and they will be seeking redemption after their embarrassing 7-1 defeat against Germany at their own World Cup in 2014. Star man Neymar, as well as Gabriel Jesus, Roberto Firmino and Philippe Coutinho all feature in their squad, meaning they remain a force to be reckoned with in Russia.
South Korea have featured at every World Cup since 1986, so experience isn't a problem. They also have experience of success, finishing fourth on home soil in 2002. They will also be boosted by retaining their East Asian Cup title last year, so they will be hoping to prove themselves on the world stage. However, Mexico are likely to have more quality than the South Koreans, having reached the round of 16 in their last six World Cup campaigns. They managed a third place finish at last years Gold Cup, and their squad boasts the likes of Javier Hernandez and Giovanni dos Santos. Despite this, these players are somewhat past their best, and I think Mexico will fail to advance from the group stages. Although they haven't qualified for a World Cup since 2006, I think Sweden will manage to get to the knockout stages. They have an experienced squad and this should enable them to be tough opposition to crack. However, like I have said with some of the other groups, I think it will be neck-and-neck between Sweden and Mexico for second place. The World Champions feature in this group and they really have no competition in this group. They may be slightly disappointed at finishing third at Euro 2016, but their success rate in the World Cup is exceptional; they have not finished lower than third since 1998, and their domination should not be halted by any of their companions in group F.
This is the group everyone in England will be following and analysing intensely in the run up to the World Cup, and it certainly seems like a group England will be able to get out of. This will be Tunisia's first World Cup since 2006, though they have never managed to escape the group stages of the tournament. They also have a fairly unremarkable record in the African Cup of Nations. Their squad lacks experience, especially in midfield, so it is unlikely that they will mount any sort of challenge to the other teams in the group. Panama will be excited by the prospect of playing in their first World Cup. Their lack of experience will mean they shouldn't prove too much of a challenge to the likes of England and Belgium, but they are likely to play with a lot of freedom considering they have nothing to lose and no reputation to protect, or perhaps reignite. Unlike England, who most certainly have a reputation to reignite. Their last World Cup was a disappointment to say the least, finishing bottom of their group with just a single point, scoring only two goals in the process. The European Championships were just as disappointing, as they failed to beat Iceland in the round of 16. Gareth Southgate has named a young squad for Russia, and this has split opinion. There is certainly potential for England to succeed, and I would personally like to see us advance to the quarter finals at least. Belgium will provide a stern test for England, though their World Cup record is not hugely impressive. Recently, they reached the quarter finals of both Euro 2016 and the 2014 World Cup, showing that perhaps they have what it takes to go further. They also have a strong squad, with the likes of Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Vincent Kompany. I think if England can beat Belgium, they will win the group, but it will be a tough feat to achieve.
Senegal will go to the World Cup for only the second time in their history, with the last time being in 2002 where they reached the quarter finals. Their squad has a surprising amount of quality within, with many English-based players. The most notable being Sadio Mane and Mame Biram Diouf. However, their lack of quality across the board, particularly in defence, leads me to believe they won't be able to match their 2002 campaign. The Japan of late have qualified for every World Cup since 1998, though never getting any further than the round of 16. They, too boast some good talent in Shinji Okazaki, Shinji Kagawa and Maya Yoshida, all players who have experienced football at the top level. I think it could be a toss-up between Japan and Senegal for third place, but I can't see any of them reaching the knockout stages. Poland have a better chance than Japan and Senegal of reaching the knockout stages, despite being fairly average in major tournaments in recent years, and failing to reach the last two World Cups. They only lost once in qualifying and will be taking the likes of Robert Lewandowski to the tournament this year. Colombia impressively reached the quarter finals of the 2014 World Cup thanks to star man James Rodriguez who fired them to success. He will go to Russia looking to repeat the same feat as in 2014 and they will be boosted by a third place finish in the 2016 Copa America. The group should cease to challenge the Colombians, who could, if my predictions are correct, face England in the round of 16.
What do you make of these predictions? Leave your thoughts in the comments!