With the friendlies already YouTube fodder and only hours to go before hosts Russia kicks off the 2018 World Cup finals, no clear favourite has emerged.
There are however the usual suspects.
Brazil are the bookies favourite at 4-1 and following exciting performances against Croatia & Austria, most notably from Neymar whose brilliant goals in both games suggest not only that his ankle injury has healed but he is going into this tournament with a belief this is his chance to seize the golden ball from its MessTiano grip.
Brazil though have yet to remedy the defensive vulnerabilities which were exploited to such devastating effect in 2014 by Germany. Whilst those vulnerabilities weren’t similarly exposed in qualification, the cracks were evident against Croatia and will be a real concern should that attack stumble.
Germany, at 9-2, are second favourites, despite Joachim Love’s head-scratching decision to leave Leroy Sane at home, who otherwise was surely set to become the break-out player of 2018. Whilst Germany failed to impress in either of their two tournament friendlies, including a 2-1 loss to neighbours Austria, the strenght of their squad is undeniable whilst the awe that 7-1 humiliation of Brazil will carry into every game, guarantees at least a semi final berth. Probably.
Spain are third favourites at 6-1. Their managerial shenanigans have been well documented but won’t affect their chances – it will be the disgraceful antics of captain Ramos in the European Champions final, making him football’s public enemy no. 1 that will be too heavy a weight for their increasingly tiki-takked-out style to bear – even if the pressure on UEFA to actually punish Ramos now seems to have passed..
The following pack of France (13-2), Argentina (9-1) and Belgium (11-1) to me, seem better poised to leave Moskva with the trophy.
With a starting 11, on paper, as strong as any in the tournament, an impressive bench and the disappointments of Brazil & France as motivation, Belgium should waltz into the semi-finals. From that point, their success will depend on how well Romelu, Michy and to a lesser degree Dries Mertens can convert the chances Eden and Kevin will continually supply. This is a chance Belgium will kick themselves for missing, unless they don’t miss it.
Argentina, for the prospect of seeing Messi finally lift a trophy his country, is the team most neutrals will cheering for.
Unfortunately, the squad is so far below Leo’s level that the often Messi-free Argentina only just scraped through qualification leaving their chances of success in this tournament dependent on the rest of the footballing world, falling for Sampaoli’s bluff that his squad is good enough to leave out Internationale captain Mauro Icardi.
Sorry Leo but no one’s buying it.
France surely have the most gifted squad of players. Such is the strength of their squad that coach DesChamps’ main problem has been fielding a side sufficiently grown up to play nicely together when star buddies are left on the bench.
With the 3-1 demolition of first-time-unfinalists-in60-years, Italy, it seemed DesChamp’s had finally solved that riddle only to then leap backwards with, excepting Mbappe, a wholly uninspired run (barely) out against USA.
That said, if sheer talent is to have its day in the Russian sun, France remain are my favourite to lift the trophy suggesting French composers can get busy penning a 2018 overture to match the one they following their last successful foray into Russia.
As for the outsiders, let’s go group by group for the first round.
Group A – Hosts Russia will qualify along with Egypt but neither will progress beyond quarters.
Group B – Going for an upset with Portugal & Morocco to qualify from the group at Spain’s expense.
Group C – This is a harder group than it looks. France should win but second place will be a squeaker with Denmark my top to squeak it, providing Eriksen can stay fit.
Group D – Supposedly the group of death but Argentina will ease through if Messi gets going leaving Croatia to edge second place from Nigeria. (No apologies Iceland. I’m still smarting over the humiliation you gave England in the Euros)
Group E – H to come !