The World Cup draw took place at the Kremlin on Friday. Here’s a breakdown of what to expect from all eight groups as the buildup to next summer’s tournament kicks into high gear.
Group A: Russia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Uruguay
This is a remarkably weak group. It has the lowest ELO score of all the groups by a substantial margin, and Nate Silver tweeted that the Russians couldn’t have done much better if they had tried to rig the draw.
With that in mind: this group should have plenty of intrigue, the soul-sapping prospect of an opening game between Russia and Saudi Arabia aside.
The Saudis are rifling through managers, and have just replaced Edgardo Bauza with Juan Antonio Pizzi – the man who failed to get Chile to the tournament. Pizzi will have to ready his team for a Red Sea Derby against Mo Salah’s Egypt, while Uruguay, by hook or by crook, can always be counted upon for entertainment.
The South Americans are favorites here, but it’s a wide-open group.
Group B: Portugal, Spain, Morocco, Iran
Portugal and Spain will square off in Sochi on the second day of the tournament, and that game will likely determine first and second place.
But both teams – especially Portugal – should beware: Iran and Morocco conceded two goals between them in their final rounds qualifying. It’s not going to pretty, but those aren’t going to be easy games for either European power.
Iran, remember, shut out Argentina for 91 minutes in Brazil until Lionel Messi struck – and their manager Carlos Queiroz was born in Portuguese Mozambique and led Portugal at the 2010 World Cup.
Group C: France, Australia, Peru, Denmark
This looks like a straightforward group for the much-fancied French, who might need the group stage games to figure out their tactics and personnel as they did on their run to the final in 2006.
That leaves Peru and Denmark to battle for the second spot, with Australia, currently manager-less, again standing as one of the weakest teams in the field.
You’d tip Peru to finish second, but no player anywhere on the globe was better in qualifying than Christian Eriksson.
Group D: Argentina, Iceland, Croatia, Nigeria
Likely the best group in the tournament, and maybe the only group where all four teams have a legitimate chance of advancing. Argentina is the favorite, but their struggles over the last two years have been extensively documented.
The hope for Argentina is that, given time and space buildup to the tournament, manager Jorge Sampaoli can now install the high-press system he ran with such great effect during his time in charge of Chile.
But even if Sampaoli does get Argentina back to its best, there won’t be any easy games in this group. Croatia might be due for a big tournament, but Iceland just beat them to top their qualifying group.
Nigeria, meanwhile, top scorers in African qualifying, might be one of the most fun teams in the tournament.
Group E: Brazil, Switzerland, Costa Rica, Serbia
Brazil is going to take some beating at the top of the group, but if Costa Rica shows up with anything close to the fortitude they showed in 2014, the battle for second will be hugely competitive.
The Swiss will be competent, if nothing more, while Serbia, playing close to home, could be one of the tournament dark horses.
Group F: Germany, Mexico, Sweden, South Korea
This draw won’t trouble Germany, though that first game against Mexico in Moscow should be one of the highlights of the group stage.
The Zlatan Ibrahimovic question looms over Sweden, which has to weigh their former captain’s talent against his age, health, and the fact that the team has been markedly better since he retired after Euro ’16.
The problem is that Ibrahimovic can force Sweden’s hand somewhat. It would take some amount of fortitude to leave Zlatan out if he announces that he’s available for selection.
Mexico has considerably better players than Sweden does, but the Swedes, as Italy would attest, won’t be easy to break down. South Korea should finish a distant fourth.
Of course, what Mexico really wants is to finally reach the quarterfinal. On that front, the draw was not kind. If El Tri finishes second, they’ll likely face Brazil in the Round of 16.
Group G: Belgium, Panama, Tunisia, England
As good as Belgium-England looks, it’s very possible that both teams could already be through by the time they meet in Kaliningrad on the group’s final matchday.
All told, this should be a cakewalk for the European powers. Tunisia has won just one of their twelve past World Cup games, while Panama – making their debut in the finals – might be the field’s weakest team.
Group H: Poland, Senegal, Colombia, Japan
Colombia brings back much of the team that made the quarterfinal in 2014 – plus Falcao – but they stumbled over the finish line in South American qualifying and haven’t looked like their best selves for the better part of a year.
Poland look very much like a one-man team, while Senegal boast Sadio Mane and are managed by their 2002 World Cup captain Aliou Cisse.
Japan wasn’t all that good in qualifying, but Vahid Halilhodzic might have been the coach of the tournament in Brazil with Algeria. We’ll see what he can conjure this time.
1. FIFA’s decision to group teams based on their ranking and not geography was a good one. It’s given us better-balanced groups than we’ve had in years past, which should help the tournament from start to finish.
2. But while that change helped prevent a Group of Death, the fact that so many big name countries – Italy, the Netherlands, the U.S., Ghana, Chile – are missing this tournament was also a major contributing factor.
3. As was the case in Brazil four years ago, travel is going to be much more an issue for some teams that it will for others. An early look at the schedule suggests that England, for one, had a long ways to go to play its first three games. There won’t be anything like a trip to Manaus next summer, but travel could still have an impact.