GROUP A: I watched the World Cup draw conducted by 1986 top scorer Gary Lineker live, so I do not believe it is fixed. That’s why I’m genuinely surprised hosts Russia got a draw that ensures they will make it to at least the Round of 16. Russia are helped by the fact they face Saudi Arabia, one of the tournament’s rank outsiders. A good start would settle jangled nerves and set Russia up for a push for group leadership.
One of Africa’s representatives Egypt, who lost to Uganda Cranes at Namboole, must contend with Uruguay’s lethal attacking pair Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani in their opening game.
This is only Egypt’s third ever World Cup foray after excursions in 1934 and 1990. Egypt’s Pharaohs, led by Liverpool’s Mohammed Salah, assisted by Ahmed Hegazi and 45-year-old keeper El Hadary, should at least break their winless duck by beating Saudi Arabia for their first ever World Cup victory.
How they will finish: 1- Uruguay, 2- Russia, 3- Egypt, 4- Saudi Arabia.
GROUP B: Julien Lopetegui’s red hot La Roja confront European champions Portugal on Day Two of ‘Russia 2018’ in what is perhaps the pick of first round ties. You would have thought 2010 champions Spain would be the seeded team. But no. They are ranked lower than Portugal, which dictated they were in the second pot. Make no mistake about it. Spain are the stronger side.
I expect them to edge this tie, before sweeping past Morocco and Iran because, despite Cristiano Ronaldo’s star quality, Spain’s entire starting lineup is drawn from players featuring for the world’s ten strongest teams. Herve Renard’s Atlas Lions, one of Africa’s five representatives, must start as favourites to stop Carlos Quieroz’s Iran in their opener. So once again, an African team is equipped to put three points on board.
How they will finish: 1- Spain, 2- Portugal, 3- Morocco, 4- Iran.
GROUP C: Didier Deschamps’ Les Beus have an excellent chance to gather a good head of steam for an assault on the title, as the draw has been kind to them. None of Australia’s Socceroos, Peru or even Denmark have the pedigree to threaten France’s progress to the knock out rounds. The key for Deschamps is to get his team selection right.
In a side teeming with talent, Hugo Lloris, Samuel Umtiti, Paul Pogba, Ngolo Kante and Kylian Mbappe are the five pillars that must start crucial games if Les Bleus are to match their 1998 triumph. France are strong enough to wipe the floor with Australia, before more demanding assignments against Denmark and Peru.
Thirty years ago Denmark illuminated Mexico 1986 with Michael Laudrup, Preben Elkjaer and Soren Lerby. This time round Christian Erikssen, Andreas Christensen and, Kasper Dolberg will propel the Scandinavians into the Round of 16. The key for them is beating a Peru side that needed a play-off victory over New Zealand’s Kiwis to get to Russia 2018.
How they will finish: 1- France, 2- Denmark, 3- Peru, 4- Australia.
GROUP D: Nigeria’s Super Eagles are Africa’s strongest representatives. They’ve also been drawn in the tournament’s Group of Death. Any of Argentina, Iceland and Croatia can progress from this group.
You have to assume two-time winners Argentina will progress courtesy of their pedigree, FIFA ranking and Lionel Messi. But for the Pumas to compete for top honours, coach Jorge Sampaoli must decide who of Mauro Icardi, Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain can partner Messi. Though they recently ambushed Albicete 4-2 in a buildup international, I fear for Nigeria.
Croatia are hard as nails competitors whereas Iceland, whose population is just 0.5 per cent of Nigeria’s, always punch above their weight. I will be positively surprised if Nigeria make the knock out rounds.
How they will finish 1- Argentina, 2- Croatia, 3- Nigeria, 4- Iceland.
GROUP E: Five time winners are buzzing after making light work of a very competitive South America qualifying zone.
The Samba Boys are tooled to canter into the Second Round, as neither Switzerland nor Serbia or Costa Rica have the players or history to challenge them.
Quarter finalists at Brazil 2014, Costa Rica have regressed, and will be considered cannon fodder in Group E. Serbia and Switzerland are just about of equal strength, with the Swiss having the edge courtesy of better World Cup experience.
After the 7-1 loss to Germany in their home World Cup, Paris Saint Germain striker, Neymar, also the world’s most expensive player, feels Russia 2018 offers his Selecao team mates a perfect opportunity to redeem themselves. Having starred in Brazil’s Olympic Games triumph, this could be Neymar’s World Cup.
How they will finish: 1- Brazil, 2- Switzerland, 3- Serbia, 4- Costa Rica.
GROUP F: Champions Germany are the most consistent team in World Cup history. Joachim Loew’s juggernaut underlined their credentials by lifting the Confederations Cup earlier this year with a developmental team.
Mexico were one of the teams they subdued as Loew unearthed Leon Goretzka, Timo Werner and Lars Stindl onto the world stage. The Central Americans will provide Germany’s toughest test in their opening game. Sweden, conquerors of four time champions Italy in the playoffs, will be hoping to upset the applecart.
They have the impetus of starting against minnows South Korea, which should catapult them into contention for a place in the knock out rounds along with Germany. Widely regarded as Sweden’s greatest ever, Zlatan Ibrahimovic could come out of retirement for his last hurrah.
How they will finish: 1- Germany, 2- Mexico, 3- Sweden, 4- South Korea.
GROUP G: 1966 World Cup winners England landed by far the easiest draw among teams in Pot 2 of the draw. Gareth Southgate’s Three Lions begin their campaign with a clash with Tunisia’s Carthage Eagles, one of Africa’s representatives. Twenty years ago, a strong Tunisia outfit with a number of then African club champions Esperance players lost 0-2 to an England side that wasn’t as talented as the current generation. I can therefore see the Three Lions shooting down the Carthage Eagles. Belgium, which is packed with English Premier League players, will provide England’s sternest test.
Belgium are immensely talented but inconsistent. However, with Kevin de Bruyne and Eden Hazard in their ranks, a place in the last 16 is theirs for the asking.
How they will finish: 1- England, 2- Belgium, 3- Tunisia, 4- Panama.
GROUP H: Senegal ought to bring their A game to the biggest stage if they are to challenge Poland, Colombia and Japan for Group H lordship. Lions of Terranga boss Aliou Cisse was part of the side that famously beat pre-tournament favourites France 1-0 in the opening match of World Cup 2002, before eventually succumbing to Turkey at the quarter final stage.
Guts will be needed from Napoli defensive stalwart Khalidou Koulibaly and Anderlecht’s Kara Moudji as they try to cope with Poland’s Robert Lewandowski, who netted a whooping 16 goals in the qualifiers.
The confrontation with Colombia should determine who joins the Poles in the round of 16, as Japan’s Samurai are not the force they once were. I have a good feeling about Senegal. Sadio Mane and Keita Balde can propel them into the knock out rounds.
How they will finish: 1- Poland, 2- Senegal, 3- Colombia, 4- Japan.