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World Cup 2018: Russia

 

Russia kickoff the World Cup 2018 on Thursday June 14 against Saudi Arabia. Russia come into the tournament ranked 70th in the world and the lowest ranked national team at the World Cup.

Manager Stanislav Cherchesov has his work cut out for him.

Russia have never got past the group stage at the World Cup. On all three occasions, the team has gone home following its first three matches of the tournament. In nine World Cup matches, Russia have won just twice, drawn twice and lost five times. History does not bode well for Cherchesov and his players.

Despite the team’s past lack of success at the World Cup, Russia received an incredible boost when the tournament draw was made. Russia will play Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Uruguay. It is the weakest group at the World Cup and Russia can get points from at least two of the matches. The team’s toughest group match will be against Uruguay. However, Russia will conveniently play Uruguay on the final group stage match day. The South Americans are expected to top the group and both teams could finish the group stage simply in need of a draw to go through.

Only two players called-up by Cherchesov play their football outside of Russia. The team’s reliance on a Russian Premier League-based talent could come back to hurt the team in the latter stages. Neither foreign-based player, Denis Cheryshev nor Vladimir Gabulov, will be figured into the team’s starting XI on match day 1. Instead, Cherchesov will deploy a group of Russian players he is familiar with that play weekly in the domestic league.

Striker Fyodor Smolov will be deployed as the team’s lone forward in a 4-5-1 formation. He has only scored 12 goals in 32 international matches. Despite being 34, former Chelsea player Yuri Zhirkov will be played on the left flank. Against younger, quicker opponents, Zhirkov may struggle. Fitness could be a problem for the ageing player as the tournament progresses.

Russia captain Igor Akinfeev has 106 caps for the national team. He has long been considered one of the top goalkeepers in the world. Saudi Arabia and Egypt’s weak attacks will play right into the goalkeeper’s safe hands. If the Russians can stay defensively organised against Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the team has an opportunity to secure needed points.

Cherchesov and Russia’s progression to the round of 16 will be determined in their first two matches. If the Russians are unable to get points against Saudi Arabia and Egypt, they will struggle on match day 3 against Uruguay. Three points on opening night will give Russia a fighting chance to make the knockout stage.

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World Cup 2018: Uruguay

 

Uruguay go to the World Cup 2018 as the No. 14 ranked team in the world. It is a surprise ranking due to the amount of quality manager Oscar Tabarez has in his squad.

Luis Suarez, Edinson Cavani and Diego Godin are just three of the names Tabarez has called upon to bring the South Americans success.

The South American nation is a two-time World Cup winner. The inaugural 1930 World Cup winner and the 1950 winner, Uruguay have qualified for the two most recent tournaments in South African and Brazil.

It was at the South African World Cup that Uruguay achieved their most success post-1970. Uruguay finished fourth and the team will be remembered for Luis Suarez’s dastardly handball that prevented a sure goal for Ghana. The goal would have eliminated Uruguay in extra-time. However, a missed penalty led to a penalty shootout won by the South Americans.

Since then, Suarez has gone from a rising football star into one of the best players in the world. Suarez has scored 51 goals in 98 games for the national side. He is coming off of another superb season at Barcelona in which he tallied 31 goals. But controversy is never far behind the striker. In Brazil four years ago, Suarez bit Italy defender Giorgio Chiellini. He was banned for four months following the incident. Uruguay need Suarez to be in the right frame of mind at this year’s tournament, if the team wants to go deep into the knockout phase.

Cavani is the perfect accompaniment to Suarez. The Paris Saint-Germain striker is cool and calm in front of goal and won’t take a bite out of an opposing defender. Cavani’s international strike rate has seen him draw criticism at times. He has tallied 42 goals in 101 matches; and some believe he should be scoring more goals in the Uruguay shirt.

Manager Tabarez is in his second term as Uruguay manager. His reign has lasted 12 years and seen the manager oversee two World Cup tournaments already. Now 71, Tabarez will take charge of a third World Cup with players he is incredibly familiar with.

Uruguay will benefit from their draw in Group A. The group is the weakest on paper. Egypt is Uruguay’s match day 1 opponent ad the African nation is ranked 45th in the FIFA rankings. Saudi Arabia are ranked 67th while Russia comes in at 70th. Uruguay should have no difficult topping Group A.

Once through the group, Tabarez and company will have a Group B team waiting for them. Spain, Portugal, Morocco and Iran make up Group B. Uruguay will fancy their chances against each of those Group B teams in the round of 16.

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World Cup 2018: France

 

France are one of the favourites going into the World Cup 2018. There is a lot to love about Didier Deschamps’ team.

France have talent all over the pitch and the team may have the best striker in the world right now in Antoine Griezmann.

The French are coming off of a runner-up finish at the Euro 2016 tournament, but can they parlay their success in the UEFA tournament onto the world stage?

The French will play in Group C and will kick off their campaign against Australia on June 16. Deschamps’ team will then play Peru on match day 2 and finish the group stage on June 26 against Denmark. France are expected to go through as Group C winners and most sportsbooks are more concerned with which team will come second. There is plenty of reason to be confident that France will win Group C.

Griezmann will be France’s most important player. Forget Paul Pogba and his everchanging attitude, Griezmann makes the French run. Griezmann topped the goal scoring charts at Euro 2016 and he has the chance to do it again this summer. If France make the round of 16, the team will have at least four games for Griezmann to score goals. However, France should make it to the quarterfinals, giving him at least five matches to tally goals.

This will be Deschamps’ second World Cup in charge of the national side. He took France to the quarterfinals in Brazil in 2014. This may be France’s most talented squad of all-time and Deschamps has already shown he can take the team deep into tournaments. Deschamps not only coached France to the Euro 2016 final two years ago, but the manager was a part of the France’s 1998 World Cup winning team.

Some football experts say France are favourites to win the 2022 edition of the tournament rather than this year’s event. Those experts believe France’s players need further seasoning before they are ready. However, the team looks just as likely this summer to win the tournament as ever. The team’s youth is one of the things that makes it so exciting. Griezmann will be joined by players Kyliann Mbappe, Thomas Lemar and Nabil Fekir. The team is exciting and look far more dangerous than FIFA’s No. 1 ranked Germany ahead of the tournament.

France looked impressive in their three World Cup warm-up matches. The team defeated Ireland and Italy before drawing with a United States team desperate to make up for missing the tournament. France will top Group C. The knockout stage draw will be the deciding factor in a World Cup final appearance or not.

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World Cup 2018: Egypt

 

Egypt will appear in their first World Cup in 28 years. The last time the Egyptians played in the tournament was Italia 1990.

This year’s appearance will mark just the third time Egypt have made the finals.

A fortunate draw in Group A against Russia, Saudi Arabia and Uruguay means Egypt have the opportunity to reach the round of 16 for the first time ever. Despite being Africa’s most successful national team in continental competitions, Egypt have never been able to translate that success over to the World Cup stage.

Star player Mohamed Salah was the driving force for Egypt’s World Cup qualification. His dramatic two goal performance against Congo sent the national team to the World Cup and a country into hysterics.

A shoulder injury sustained in the Champions League final looked to have ended Salah’s chances of playing at the tournament. However, the Egyptian ace has been working hard to rehab the injury. The national team will do everything it can to get Salah into the team. It looks likely that he will start Egypt’s World Cup opener on June 15 against Uruguay.

Egypt have been in poor form of late. The team hasn’t won a game since qualifying for the World Cup in October 2018. Hector Cuper’s team is winless in six matches and most recently lost 3-0 to Belgium in a World Cup warm-up friendly. The team didn’t have Salah available, and just like Liverpool last term, the Pharoahs rely heavily on the forward. Salah featured in just one Egypt friendly following the national team’s qualification for the World Cup. The team’s hopes of making the round of 16 will rest on his injured shoulder.

Fortunately, Egypt’s chances of qualifying are good. Russia are in poor form as well having gone winless in their World Cup tune-up matches. Saudi Arabia lost their three World Cup warm-up games, giving up seven goals and scoring just twice. Uruguay are expected to top the group and they are the only one of the four to be in-form.

 

Nine players called-up by Cuper play football outside of Africa or the Middle East. The nine foreign-based players will bring experience to the side. However, with so many players coming from African and Middle Eastern football leagues, Egypt will have weaknesses on the pitch and bench. Currently ranked 35th in the world, Egypt are still ranked higher than both Russia and Saudi Arabia.

 

Egypt’s hopes of qualifying for the knockout stages will come down to Salah’s fitness. If he can play all three group matches, the team could finish second behind Uruguay. However, if Salah isn’t able to play to his fullest, Egypt will struggle in the group stage.

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World Cup 2018: Colombia

 

Colombia will start their World Cup 2018 campaign in Mordovia against Group H rival Japan.

Colombia’s Group H draw was very fortunate and Jose Pekerman’s team is favoured to go through to the knockout round. Poland and Senegal round out Group H.

The Colombians made it to the quarterfinals four years ago in Brazil.There, the team was defeated by Brazil. This time around, a winnable group means Pekerman’s squad cannot only top its group, but it can go deep into the World Cup knockout rounds. Colombia have a squad of proven veteran players and rising stars in the club game. Captain Radamel Falcao is the undisputed leader of the side. Falcao has scored 29 goals in 73 international appearances. He may not score the team’s most goals in Russia, but he will make the attack tick.

James Rodriguez burst onto the international scene at the last World Cup. The attacking midfielder topped the scoring charts in Brazil. His performances influenced Real Madrid to pay £63 million for him. He has since moved to Bayern Munich, where he excelled last term. Rodriguez has 21 goals in 63 international tournaments. He will be counted on to create and score from the midfield.

Colombia’s biggest weakness could be in defence. Davinson Sanchez is still new to the senior national team. The Tottenham centre-back will be the anchor to the team’s defence. AC Milan’s 31-year-old Cristian Zapata will pair with Sanchez in central defence. Age could be an issue as defenders Oscar Murillo and Farid Diaz are also over 30.

Pekerman is an astute manager that is well versed in football tactics. Pekerman managed Argentina at the 2006 World Cup before moving into the club coaching ranks in Mexico. He then took over Colombia during 2014 World Cup qualifiers after the team’s two previous managers had been sacked. Pekerman led the national side into the tournament and has made Colombia a top South American team.

Colombia are a team full of stars and they are capable of repeating their feats from Brazil 2014. If Pekerman’s team get through Group H, the team will play a side from Group G in the knockout round. Belgium or England are the most likely teams to be waiting for Colombia in the round of 16. The quarterfinals would see a team from Group E or Group F waiting for them in the quarterfinals. Colombia could face off against Brazil for a second straight tournament in the last eight.

The Colombians are a very talented side. Colombia will need a bit of luck once they get to the knockout rounds when the competition gets more difficult, however.

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World Cup 2018: Japan

 

The World Cup 2018 marks the sixth straight World Cup Japan have qualified for.

On two of the team’s previous appearances at the tournament, the national team has qualified for the round of 16. The Group H team could qualify for the knockout round. However, Japan will need to play their best football to get past Colombia, Poland and Senegal.

Japan manager Akira Nishino has only been in the job since April. Despite leading the national team to qualification, the Japan Football Association sacked previous manager Vahid Halilhodzic with just two months to go until the tournament. Halilhodzic had been Japan’s manager since 2015. Halilhodzic did not get along well with the JFA and problems continued to mount between the two sides leading to his dismissal. There are large doubts over whether Nishino can lead the team to success. Nishino was out of coaching for nearly three years before taking over the role.

Nishino has been in charge of two friendlies and both saw the Samurai Blue lose. In fact, Nishino hasn’t seen his team score a goal in the two friendlies he has overseen. Japan lost to Ghana 2-0 in May and most recently to Switzerland in a World Cup prep match by the same scoreline. The Japanese have one more friendly before the tournament starts against Paraguay. If Japan lose to the South Americans, then the team and its fans should be very worried.

Japan do have good players within their ranks. Borussia Dortmund midfielder Shinji Kagawa is capable of creating and scoring goals from midfielder. Eintracht Frankfurt’s Makoto Hasebe is a workhorse in the defensive midfield. He can protect the team’s defence and win the ball for counter-attacks. All three forwards Nishino has selected for the World Cup play in Europe.

Leicester City’s Shinji Okazaki is the highest profile of the three. He is a hard worker and has scored 50 goals in 112 national team appearances. Okazaki will play alongside Yuya Osako and Yoshinori Muto. Both are good professionals but neither have scored many international goals.

The national team’s turmoil is hard to overlook. Due to the sacking of Halilhodzic with just two months to go to the tournament and Japan’s lacklustre World Cup build up, getting through the group will be difficult. Making it even harder will be Colombia and Poland, the two sides are expected to go through. Senegal won’t be a pushover either. The African side has quality players in its ranks including Liverpool’s Sadio Mane. If Japan can reach the round of 16, it should be seen as a good performance at the World Cup.

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World Cup 2018: Brazil

 

Brazil go into the World Cup 2018 as the sportsbooks’ favourite to win the competition.

The Brazilians have a loaded team featuring Neymar, Marcelo, Alisson, Philippe Coutinho and more. The national team has experienced players combined with energetic, youthful members that make them a difficult side to beat.

Under manager Tite, Brazil stormed to the top of CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying with 41 points from a possible 54. Forwards Gabriel Jesus, Neymar and Paulinho combined to score 19 of the team’s 41 goals on the way to Russia. Tite’s reign as manager has been a breath of fresh air. His predecessor, Dunga, was more defensive and his preference was for Brazil to be stronger rather than silky smooth. Tite has done away with Dunga’s pragmatism and sexy football with swagger has returned.

Forward Neymar is the team’s leader and how the Paris Saint-Germain man plays will determine how far Brazil go at the World Cup. In 2014, Neymar’s injury in the quarterfinal against Colombia curbed all hope the nation had for winning the World Cup. A 7-1 dismantling at the hands of Germany followed in the semifinals; and without Neymar, Brazil were beaten in the third-place game by the Netherlands. In Brazil’s last two matches at the 2014 tournament, the team was outscored 10-1.

Neymar will not be fit going into the World Cup, which immediately raises questions over how well Brazil will do in Russia. The forward suffered a foot injury in February and is only now back in training. Prior to the World Cup, he won’t have played a meaningful football match for club or country, and whether his body can hold up to the rigours of the tournament are unknown. The forward has already stated he could suffer foot injury relapse and be out the entire World Cup.

With or without Neymar, Brazil have a fantastic array of attacking footballers. Jesus has proven himself at Manchester City and he is only getting better at the international level. Countinho has come into his own with the national team and is finally performing for his country like he does for his club.

 But what about Brazil’s defence? The side gave up 10 goals in two games in 2014 World Cup. Is Brazil’s defensive unit any better?

The team gave up just 11 goals in qualifying, the lowest number in CONMEBOL. Brazil’s defence will see several of the players from the last World Cup reprise their roles this year. Thiago Silva and Marcelo are the two constants, and depending on injury, David Luiz could return – although fitness could keep him out. PSG centre-back Marquinhos is also expected to be a part of Tite’s back line. The team is expected to be without right-back and captain Dani Alves, however. Alves is suffering from a knee injury and his loss could affect Brazil’s defensive performances. In addition, the right-back’s personality will be a miss on the pitch and so will his leadership.

Brazil’s individual parts are exceptional, and when put together, Tite’s side is a formidable opponent. Against the world’s best teams, and not just South American rivals, Brazil may not be such an elite force going into the tournament. Of course, a lot higes on Neymar and just how fit the forward is in Russia.

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World Cup 2018: Germany

Germany head to the World Cup 2018 in Russia as one of the favourites to lift the Jules Rimet Trophy. The Germans won the 2014 edition of the tournament as the team outlasted Argentina in the final, 1-0.

Joachim Low’s team also had a memorable semifinal win on the way to championship game, dismantling host country Brazil, 7-1.

Germany have already started their preparations for the World Cup by extending Low’s contract. The manager will remain in the position until 2022. The move dashed all hope clubs like Arsenal had of snapping up the German’s signature.

In addition to signing a new deal, Low has released his provisional squad for this summer’s event. He has left Liverpool midfielder Emre Can and Borussia Dortmund attacker Mario Gotze out of his team. Can is still working his way back from injury and has missed out on Liverpool’s last two months of matches. Gotze scored Germany’s winning goal in the final four years ago, but the player’s form has declined in recent years following the goal.

In all, Germany have 27 players selected to the provisional side and four will be released before the team heads to Germany. One notable selection is Manuel Neuer. The goalkeeper has missed the club season due to a broken foot. It is hoped he can return to form even without playing a meaningful competitive game.

Germany will play in a difficult group on paper. Group F features Mexico, Sweden and South Korea alongside the reigning World Cup winners. Although it won’t be a group of death, the three remaining sides are very capable teams. Germany do have the better individual players, but their opponents won’t go easily.

If Germany have a weak point on paper, it is the squad’s forward line. Veterans Mario Gomez and Thomas Mueller are joined by Nils Petersen, Marco Reus and Timo Werner. Mueller’s selection to the final squad should be assured and Gomez brings plenty of international goal scoring experience to the team. His only drawback is consistency. Reus fought injury for much of the season but is an exciting creative player. The X-Factors for Germany will be Petersen and Werner.

Petersen scored 15 goals in the Bundesliga, the most by a German in the league. But it seems he is an outsider at this level. Werner tallied 13 for his club RB Leipzig. Both are talented strikers, but Werner is the player expected to go to Russia and be tasked with scoring goals. Quick, exciting and on the radar of Europe’s top clubs, Werner could earn a big money move with his performance in Russia.

Germany have a complete squad and Low’s side is well disciplined. The Germans will want to have a better showing than at Euro 2016 when they crashed out in the semifinal against France. Whether Germany can repeat as champions it is difficult to tell. The top teams at the World Cup all have immense talent. Germany have reach the semifinals or better at the last four World Cups. This year shouldn’t be any different.

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World Cup 2018: Denmark

 

You must go back to South Africa and the 2010 World Cup to find the last time Denmark played in the tournament.  Many neutral fans will not remember them at the event as the Danes bowed out at the group stages.

Having last reached the knockout stages of the World Cup in 2002, Denmark will be hoping to progress to the Round of 16 in Russia from a group containing France, Peru and Australia.

Denmark required a playoff to reach the 2018 World Cup finals having finished second in a qualifying group to Poland.  They were paired with Republic of Ireland and despite being held to a 0-0 draw in the first leg of the tie, Denmark dismantled the Irish in the away leg, defeating them 5-1 in Dublin.

The draw for the tournament has been kind and although France are the favourites to win Group C, Denmark have a great chance of finishing second and qualifying for the Round of 16.

Looking at Denmark’s squad, they have arguably their strongest team since the class of ’86 and while the current team must go some way to emulating the likes of Michael Laudrup and Preben Elkjaer they have one man who will key throughout the tournament and his name is Christian Eriksen.

It was the Tottenham Hotspur man who led his team to the World Cup with a fantastic hattrick in the second leg of the playoff against Republic of Ireland.  Having been in the playoff, it appears as though the Danes struggled to qualify for the tournament and they started slowly but their form has picked up at just right time.

 

The 4-0 victory over group winners Poland highlights just how Denmark have grown as a team in recent months and while Eriksen will need to be at his best in Russia, other players are stepping up to the plate.

 

Thomas Delaney has had a good season with Werder Bremen in the Bundesliga.  Another German based player, Leipzig’s Yussuf Poulsen, will be hoping to lead the Danish attack and get the goals which will see them remain in Russia beyond the group stages.

The key to Denmark’s chances will be the first two games of the group against Peru and Australia and if they win them, which they are favourites to do, the final match against France will be to see who tops the group.

Aage Hareide did well during his time at Malmo, leading them to the Swedish title and the Champions League group stages.  If he can take Denmark into the knockout stages of the World Cup, Hareide will receive the plaudits once more and although winning the tournament is out of the question, topping the group is not.