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What’s going on y’all? I’ll be giving you a quick preview of the World Cup group stages. I’ll throw in some odds for you (us) degenerates looking to make a quick buck so we don’t have to drive an Uber at nights. Just remember that I’m never wrong, just sometimes I’m less right than I want to be. Let’s cook.
Pretty simply the best team in the group and I’m not sure it’s close. Their front line is led by all-world strikers in Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, of Barcelona and PSG (respectively). While not the deepest team in the tournament, they have skilled flair players across the board, including midfielder Rodrigo Bentancur of Juventus and Jose Gimenez of Atletico Madrid. They are a lock to score goals, and will almost assuredly make it out of a generally weak group.
The host nation has some pretty inflated odds to make it to the elimination round, with their home field advantage hoping to carry them through. In soccer, away teams often have to play a more defensive game, forfeiting possession in order to strike on the counter-attack. One of the older squads in the tournament, they will actually rely on 22-year-old Aleksandr Golovin to get them the goals they need for qualification.
The most interesting team in the group by far. Their odds are deflated thanks to an injury to Mo Salah in the Champions League final, but they’ve waited 22 years for this moment and will not shy away. They have the oldest player in World Cup history in Essam El-Hadary (45 years old!) and a solid defense, but their hopes rest entirely on the shoulder (quite literally) of Salah. He put together one of the best seasons in Premier League history with his goalscoring exploits, and his pace and movement put defenders on the floor (sometimes way too literally).
That man Mo! Another Salah beauty 🔥 pic.twitter.com/RPXv24P2YO
— NBC Sports Soccer (@NBCSportsSoccer) March 17, 2018
Saudi Arabia (+3300)
Not much to say here that the odds don’t say already. The weakest team in the group, they will be sitting back most matches and simply trying not to concede. Other teams simply have too much firepower.
Runner Up: Egypt
One of the most talented teams in the tournament and heavy favorites to win their group, Spain has all the tools to make a run. Their odds are almost entirely based on a head-to-head against Portugal, with Iran and Morocco not real threats to sneak into the round of 16. They have the best goalkeeper on the planet in David De Gea, two of the best defenders on the planet in Sergio Ramos and Pique (not to mention Real Soceidad’s Odriozola, a promising young talent who is an excellent crosser), and some of the best midfielders in the world such as Thiago Alacantra, Marco Asensio, and Isco (among others). UPDATE: Spain fired their manager one day before the tournament. That’s bad. I’m not sure how it will affect them but it can’t possibly help.
You might be asking yourself how a team that won Euro 2016 and has Ronaldo isn’t even favored to win their group. Well, people forget that they just barely qualified for the knockout rounds, having drawn all of their group stage matches. But this team is way more than just Ronaldo. A solid, if unspectacular, defense is shielded by a midfield starring Bruno Fernandes, Joao Mario, Joao Moutinho, and William Carvalho, and has a murderers row in attack with Andre and Bernardo Silva, Gelson Martins, Goncalo Guedes, and international stalwart Quaresma. They defend stoutly and are devastating on the counter.
The Moroccans have a solid team, with star defender Medhi Benatia and attacker Hakim Ziyech. Unfortunately for them, they are in a group with two of Europe’s elite. They will be hoping to grab about 4 points in the group and hope that will be enough to be the runners-up in the group.
One of the worse teams in the tournament and by a pretty solid margin the worst team in the group, they will defend for their lives and look to grab a clean sheet or two. They’ve only conceded 4 goals in their last 8 matches, but that was mostly against opponents on their level. This isn’t as much of a step up in competition as it is an elevator ride to the penthouse.
Runner Up: Spain
Probably one of the three best teams on the planet and can score at will on their day. They literally couldn’t find room for world-class players like Aymeric Laporte, Adrian Rabiot, and Anthony Martial. Their defense and mentality in big games has been questioned, and a 1-1 draw with the USA this week did not help to ease their fans’ nerves, but it would be a shock to not win the group with Denmark their biggest threat. Their bench could probably qualify for the tournament on its own.
Two words. Christian Eriksen. The Danish midfielder is one of the best attacking midfielders on the planet, and is a threat from anywhere within 40 yards of the goal, especially from set pieces. Chelsea defender Andreas Christensen is one of the brightest young defenders in the sport, and Kasper Dolberg is a strong presence in attack. They could make a bit of noise in this tournament with a friendly draw in the Round of 16, should they make it that far.
With no real stars carrying this roster, Peru is a machine that needs all 11 players on the pitch to be totally in sync. Their odds are a bit shocking, considering the gulf in talent between them and Denmark/France, and it’s something to keep an eye on, but they should be disposed of early.
Home to the greatest national team nickname in the sport, the Socceroos actually have quite a bit of talent on the squad. They have the timeless Tim Cahill (born in 1979!) in attack, Robbie Kruse and Aaron Mooy in midfield, and Brad Jones/Mat Ryan in net. Unlikely to make it out of the group, they have nothing to lose and are fun to watch. I wouldn’t be shocked to see them grab 4 points in the group.
Runner Up: Denmark
Everybody knows Messi is the engine to this team. In fact, it’s been 19 months(!!!) since anybody else besides the GOAT has scored for this team. I could just preview this team by showing you Messi highlights set to various house music songs. Seriously, I could do that. But, and please read this in your Stephen A. Smith voice…HOWEVER, I’ll give you more info on his supporting cast. Gonzalo Higuain is a phenomenal striker, despite his many faults and big game mentality issues, Paulo Dybala is maybe the best player on the planet under 25 years old, and they have the free scoring Sergio Aguero (not to mention midfield wizard Angel Di Maria and Javier Mascherano). While criticized at club level, Nicolas Otamendi and Marcos Rojo are solid international players. This is likely Messi’s last World Cup. Take the over in all of their games.
My favorite sleeper pick in the tournament. Croatia has some unbelievable talent, with Mateo Kovacic, Luca Modric, and Ivan Rakitic commanding the midfield, and striker Mario Mandzukic flanked by Ivan Perisic and Marko Pjaca on the wings. Dejan Lovren and Tin Jedvaj are solid defenders tasked with shielding Danijel Subasic in goal. Do not sleep on them, and I have them *spoiler* going far.
Easily the team with the most swagger coming into the tournament, Nigeria is probably the best team in Africa at the moment. Kelechi Ihenacho and Ahmed Musa are a solid strike force, with Victor Moses and Alex Iwobi playing on the wings. Wilfred Ndidi is one of the best defensive midfielders in England and John Mikel Obi played for Chelsea forever before his move to China. They will be a lot of fun to watch, especially in their green and white kits.
The Euro 2016 darlings defend like their lives depend on it, can eviscerate you from set pieces with their enormous stature, and have the Icelandic clap that was brought to the NFL by the Minnesota Vikings. Oh and there’s something about their names but I can’t quite put my finger on it…
Runner Up: Croatia
It’s not usually a good thing when your national team’s most famous World Cup moment was losing 7-1 in a game in your own country (I know it’s a 6 minute video but you should really watch all of it to grasp how outrageous this was. I mean, the announcer says “this could be embarrassing” when it was 3-0 in 25 minutes. Germany would still score 4 more goals). But they are much better now. They are deep and are seemingly unanimously one of the 2 best teams in the tournament along with…Germany. Neymar, Gabriel Jesus, and Phil Coutinho will lead the attack, with Roberto Firmino, Douglas Costa, and Willian coming off the bench. A tenacious midfield and defense is backed by Roma shot stopper Alisson, who was dubbed by his goalkeeping coach “The Messi of goalkeepers”.
The 3 time quarterfinalists boast a strong squad, with Roman Burki/Yann Sommer in net, and Stephan Lichtsteiner, Nico Elvedi, and left footed free kick wizard Ricardo Rodriguez in defense. The polarizing Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka line up in midfield, and talented strikers Josip Drmic and Breel Embolo leading the line. They will be a popular pick to make the Round of 16 and are a solid upset pick, but…
…I REALLY like this Serbia team. Their defense has some solid players with Aleksander Kolarov and Branislav Ivanovic, but their midfield is where they really shine. Nemanja Matic is a devastating defensive midfielder and will line up with one of Luka Milivojevic or Marko Grujic, the Liverpool midfielder who led Cardiff City to Premier League promotion on loan. But the stars of this roster are Southampton winger/attacking midfielder Dusan Tadic and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, who currently plies his trade for Lazio, but is one of the biggest up-and-coming talents in the world. He’s my pick to be this World Cup’s James Rodriguez. Up front, Aleksandar Mitrovic is a physical force who defenses must account for when crosses come into the box, a near-impossible challenge when he gets the kind of service he craves from Tadic, Kolarov, and Ivanovic.
Costa Rica (+1800)
Led by goalkeeper Keylor Navas, Costa Rica look to build off of their 2014 World Cup, where they were ousted after a shocking run that saw them escape their group with Uruguay, England, and Italy and make the quarterfinals. Unfortunately, the secret is out and they’re just not strong enough.
Runner Up: Serbia
The best team in the tournament and the odds show. The 2014 winners just cut Leroy Sane from their squad a week before the tournament (for those who don’t know, he’s probably one of the 5 or 6 best wingers in the world) so they’re as talented and deep as ever. Joachim Low’s squad have an excellent shot at winning again this year, and I wouldn’t put it past them to cruise into the final four.
America’s team! They play an aggressive style of soccer, which relies on dominating the ball and carrying the ball to the edge of the box, where their dynamic midfielders can score from range or provide a killer ball to Chicharito or Gio Dos Santos. It will be a tough fight to the round of 16 for the Mexicans.
The Swedes no longer have the services of the polarizing but undoubtedly great Zlatan Ibrahimovic, but they still have plenty of talent. Led by RB Leipzig midfielder Emil Forsberg and center back Victor Lindelof, they defend tough and score world class goals. A sneaky pick to pull a Costa Rica this year.
South Korea (+2000)
The Koreans are led by Son Heung-Min, the Tottenham winger who can slice any defense to pieces. But they lack depth and don’t have much talent outside of him. They will absolutely steal a point or two somewhere, but it won’t be enough to get out of the group.
Runner Up: Sweden
One of the most talented teams in the world, the Belgians often seem to fold on the big stages, like when they were ousted of Euro 2016 by Wales. They are currently ranked 3rd in FIFA’s rankings, and are led by the ever world-class Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne. When firing on all cylinders, they can rip a team to shreds, but Roberto Martinez has not been a convincing manager, who often plays too conservatively despite the talent around him.
The English have all the pieces, but can they make a run at their first World Cup in 50 years? Raheem Sterling, Harry Kane, and Marcus Rashford lead their attack and can cut teams to ribbons, and they have defended stoutly over the past few months. If they can keep that mentality up, this could be their year.
Tunisia is a relative unknown, but they are not a team to be taken lightly. They’ve drawn against superior squads in Portugal and Turkey, and only lost to Spain by a 1-0 scoreline. That being said, it would take a miracle to make it out of such a top-heavy group.
Another squad with no real talisman, it would be hard to see the Panamanians make it out of the group stages. They defend stoutly and try to attack teams on the counter, but their lack of talent is going to make that extremely tough against teams in Belgium and England who will hold the ball for upwards of 60-70 percent of the game.
Runner Up: Belgium
Everyone remembers what James Rodriguez did last World Cup, winning the Golden Boot and scoring ridiculous goals in what seemed like every game. While this Colombia team is not as good as last tournaments, they are young and dangerous. David Ospina will man the net while Davinson Sanchez and Yerry Mina will afford him protection as the center backs. Jose Izquierdo and Juan Cuadrado provide strong width to help break down teams who are willing to sit back and give James the space he needs, and Falcao/Bacca will clean up any balls in the 18-yard box.
When you think of Poland, you have to immediately think of all-world striker Robert Lewandowski. He’s one of the 3 best strikers in the world and he can’t stop scoring for the Polish squad at the moment. In midfield, Piotr Zielinski is the star while Jakub Blaszczykowski (I had to copy and paste the name) provides width. But, if they are to advance and make any sort of run, it will be because Lewandowski goes supernova.
The Senegalese are a very sneaky pick to make a run past the group stages this year. Their attack is deadly with Monaco’s Keita Balde and Liverpool’s Sadio Mane, and their midfield can stifle opponents with their pace and energy, though they are a bit suspect at the back. They will struggle against players of Lewandowski and Falcao, but they have the strength going forward to bring the fight to teams.
The odds might say differently, but Japan has some star power in their lineup. Maya Yoshida has been a solid Premier League defender for years now with Southampton, Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda have ranged from good to spectacular at club level, and Shinji Okazaki was a key piece to Leicester City’s shock Premier League title run. I’m not sure they will be able to get it done, but this group seems to be up for grabs. I would not be shocked if they pulled off an upset and wound up looking for a draw on match day 3 to secure the second spot in their group.
Runner Up: Senegal