Editor’s Note: With the World Cup fast approaching, Abe Asher takes a look at groups A-D and predicts who’ll finish first through fourth as well as offering his games to watch and players of note.
Uruguay came comfortably through qualifying and are headed to a third straight World Cup with the same spine – Muslera, Godin, Suarez, and Cavani – that led them at the last two. This time with the addition of a bevy of promising new midfielders.
The blend of youth and experience in this team is hugely promising and should make easy work of this group. If they can establish some attacking rhythm before heading into the knockout stages, they’ll be a threat to make the semifinal again.
It’s all about Mo Salah, and, in particular, after his tearful exit from the Champions League final, Mo Salah’s health. His goals were the catalyst for Egypt’s return to the World Cup after 18 years away and Egypt is not built to survive his absence.
That’s largely because manager Hector Cuper’s deeply conservative approach has limited the team’s ability to generate offense as a unit. The Pharaohs are difficult to break down, with no attacking outlet without the Liverpool star.
South Africa was the first World Cup host to fail to advance out of the group stage in 2010. The Bafana Bafana did beat France and drew wth Mexico before bowing out. This Russia team is going to be much, much worse.
There are a few attacking players of note, like Euro 2012 starlet Alan Dzagoev, but a poor defense, a stodgy and uninspiring coach in Stanislav Cherchesov and two year’s worth of terrible friendly results draining confidence.
Despite drawing – luckily, eh? – the easiest group in the tournament, expectations are low.
4. Saudi Arabia
The one team that Russia should beat is Saudi Arabia, who returns to the World Cup for the first time since 2006. The Saudi squad is almost entirely domestically-based, undersized, and short of international experience. They’re not ready for this stage.
They’ve also changed coaches since qualifying, going first to Edgardo Bauza and then Juan Antonio Pizzi after he failed to make it to the finals with Chile.
He has a huge job in front of him, not least because a number of his players – whom the Saudis arranged to go on loan to Spain before the tournament – have hardly played in the last six months.
Game to Watch: Egypt vs. Saudi Arabia — Monday, June 25 10am on FS1, Telemundo & fubo
Players from both teams have highlighted this as the “Red Sea Derby,” and their most important game. Both teams will need to win if they want to move on with both likely attacking as a result in what should be a tremendous atmosphere.
Player to Watch: Mohamed Salah, Egypt
He’s the key to this group – the hopes of every team except Uruguay ride on the level of his participation – and he’s, at full health, also one of the game’s most electrifying, wonderful players.
Spain look rejuvenated, led by a new coach in Julen Lopetegui and going unbeaten in qualifying with a +33 goal differential. They remain as skillful as any side in the world in possession, but are playing faster than they have in years.
Spain were flat overrun by the Netherlands and Chile at the World Cup in Brazil and Italy in France two summers ago. While they’re never going to play fast and direct, Lopetegui has added a pressing element which has upped their energy.
The big personnel concern is at center forward. Spain won Euro 2012 without one, but the goals have dried up at the last two major tournaments. Diego Costa has always been an awkward fit, but may be in line to start.
Led by the excellent French coach Herve Renard, few teams qualified more impressively than Morocco. The Atlas Lions scored eleven goals and conceded none across their six games. They played pressing, attacking, fearless soccer.
The team is stocked with European-based players, many of whom weren’t born in Morocco, and led by Juventus center back Medhi Benatia. It’s a cosmopolitan group, and it’s more than capable of advancing through the first round.
Portugal’s triumph at Euro 2016 was all about their defense. They conceded just one goal in four knockout games. At the heart of that defense remains 35-year-old Pepe and 36-year-old Bruno Alvas.
That’s a concern. The attack has gotten somewhat fresher, with young players like Andre Silva and Bernardo Silva claiming places around Cristiano Ronaldo, but this team is still all about brute force and grinding out results.
It’s not going to be pretty. Will it be as effective as it was at the Euros? We’ll see.
Iran were the third team into the tournament after hosts Russia and Brazil, and for a familiar reason: they were impossible to break down. Former Real Madrid and Portugal boss Carlos Quieroz is a defensive specialist and his squad has bought into his philosophy.
There is also, more so than there was four years ago, some counterattacking punch. The problem is that Iran isn’t built to play from behind and might not have the technical ability to play itself out of pressure against its group stage opponents.
This is certainly a team capable of upsetting, or at least frustrating, one of the big European nations. Quieroz certainly knows Portugal well but getting the minimum four points needed to progress is a big ask.
Game to Watch: Portugal vs. Morocco — Wednesday, June 20 at 8am on FS1, Telemundo and fubo
Spain against Portugal on the tournament’s second day is must-watch, obviously, but this group has depth. Morocco in particular, with their attacking approach, could put the negative Portuguese under serious pressure.
Player to Watch: Andrés Iniesta, Spain
Don Andrés bid farewell to Barcelona in May and he’ll say goodbye to international football after this tournament. Until then, for the next month, one of the most brilliant players of his generation will act as Spain’s metronome for a final time.
France are in the midst of a talent boon, with their best generation since Zinedine Zidane’s approaching maturity, and competition for places is fierce. Only nine players from the Euro 2016 squad that reached the final are going to this tournament.
But questions about the team’s mentality and cohesion abound. Qualification wasn’t overly impressive and one of the big players, Paul Pogba or Antoine Griezmann most likely, must step up and lead.
The ceiling for this French team is extraordinarily high, but, as always, so is the potential for a flameout.
The buildup to Peru’s tournament has been dominated by their captain and star striker Paolo Guerrero who was suspended for the tournament after testing positive for trace amounts of a banned substance.
Guerrero has appealed his ban and is now back with the Peru squad.
This team’s odds are long but not insurmountable. They haven’t lost a competitive game since 2016 and play with a real sense of urgency. Returning to the finals for the first time since 1982, they will be backed by frenzied support.
It’s not a particularly special Denmark side that is returning to the World Cup after missing the 2014 edition, but it does have a special player: Tottenham’s Christian Eriksen, who scored a hat-trick in the decisive qualifier against Ireland.
The Danes are well organized around Eriksen and boast a strong central defense but they’re largely a mediocre team. They won’t play themselves out of games but, Eriksen aside, they won’t do much to inspire either.
The Aussies took the longest road to the tournament, winning exhausting playoffs against Syria and Honduras to finally qualify before their coach, Ange Posteceglou, quit.
Former Dutch coach Bert van Marwijk has taken over and he has his work cut out for him. In terms of talent, Australia is one of the tournament’s weakest teams.
That said, Australia have always played hard and together. Under Posteceglou, the Socceroos were unafraid of going forward and trying to win games proactively. They put a serious scare into the Netherlands at the last World Cup and could do something similar here.
Game to Watch: Peru vs. Denmark — Saturday, June 16 at Noon ET on FOX, Telemundo and fubo
Barring any big surprises, France should finish first and Australia last. This game, then, between Peru and Denmark, should decide second place.
Player to Watch: N’Golo Kante, France
There are bigger stars in this group, but Kante is a marvelous destroyer, perhaps the best in the world, and he needs to be a centerpiece of this team if France wants to win the tournament.
Argentina were a mess in qualifying, much as they were before the 2010 tournament, going through three managers, improving little, and only being dragged over the line and into the tournament by the incomparable Lionel Messi.
This team is spoiled with attacking talent – not just Messi, but Dybala, Higuain, Aguero, Di Maria, etc. But they still have no established system or style of play going forward and aren’t nearly as talented on the other side of the ball.
There’s also this: Argentina’s core has lost three major tournament finals in the last four years and, apart from Messi, went to pieces when the qualification campaign went south. Do they have the mental toughness required to threaten?
The darlings of Euro 2016 are back, having qualified for their first ever World Cup by winning a group that included Croatia, Turkey, and Ukraine. They’re taking to the tournament, for all intents and purposes, the exact same squad that knocked off England two summers ago.
Their continuity and experience will be a huge benefit. This is a national team with the familiarity and chemistry of a club team and they won’t be overawed by the stage or array of attacking talent they’ll face in this group.
Injuries and a general lack of pace and athleticism could be tournament-enders, but Iceland will compete and their fans’ll win plaudits from around the world again.
The only African holdover from the 2014 World Cup, Nigeria should be all kinds of fun to watch and not just because of their spectacular kits.
The Super Eagles are one of the tournament’s youngest sides. With a crop of thrilling young attacking players leading the way alongside veterans like John Obi Mikel and Victor Moses, they are suspect defensively and have a huge question mark in goal.
Croatia have, easily, one of the best midfields in the tournament. Between Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Ivan Perisic, Mateo Kovacic, there is talent and experience here that every side except Spain and Germany would covet.
The problem is that atmosphere and leadership of the team is dysfunctional. All of Croatia’s managers post-Slaven Bilic have been underwhelming and there’s no established style of play as a result. Meanwhile, the media, star players, Modric in particular, and the federation are constantly at each other’s throats.
Croatia have certainly shown flashes in recent years, like when they beat Spain at Euro 2016, but they largely haven’t been able to get out of their own way. There’s not reason to believe that will change in Russia.
Game to Watch: Argentina vs. Nigeria – Tuesday, June 26 2PM ET on FOX, Telemundo and fubo
This is probably the best group in the tournament. All four teams are credible and the margins between them should be thin with every game a compelling match to watch. But Argentina and Nigeria played a five-goal thriller in Brazil, and this game, on the final day of the group, should be wide open.
Player to Watch: Lionel Messi, Argentina
Messi is probably the best ever, no matter whether he wins a World Cup or not, but the torment he’s suffered on the international stage during this decade has been excruciating. This is likely his last World Cup, and he should shine in it.
SEE MORE: World Cup Predictions: Groups E-H