Month: June 2018

World Cup 2018 Preview: Group H

These previews will be as free from well-trodden ‘narratives’ as is possible. There are a plethora of other ones out there – some well-informed, some… not so much. I have opted for brevity over bells and whistles, but I still think they provide a fresh take on the most highly anticipated tournament.

Previous previews:

Group A

Group B

Group C

Group D

Group E

Group F

Group G

 

Poland

 

Head Coach: Adam Nawałka
Odds to Win: 66-1
Likely XI:

Poland
Tactics & Players to Watch: Nawałka has experimented with a 3-4-2-1 in the build-up friendlies. Without the rock-solid Kamil Glik for at least the first two matches, they’re more likely to retain the change of shape to cover more ground centrally. Again, the wing-backs are tasked with supporting the attacking options and will lay on lots of whipped crosses for potent captain Robert Lewandowski to get on the end of. The Bayern Munich superstar will be assisted by Arkadiusz Milik once more, who will play off him to the left. On the right, Piotr Zieliński will try to play both of them in behind the backline and has been in fine form for Napoli. Karol Linetty will dictate the tempo in the middle third, shuttling between the back three to collect the ball and playing one-twos with Gregorz Krychowiak to bypass their opponents.
Prediction: They should be able to shrug off the disappointment of Euro 2016 in an intriguing group at this tournament. Glik is a big miss and the front three will need to up their game to cover for his absence, such is the Monaco centre back’s utility at both ends of the pitch. The last 16 might be as far as they go, but it’s not exactly out of the question that they could go a little further, should enough players in the XI be on song.

 

Senegal

 

Head Coach: Aliou Cissé
Odds to Win: 150-1
Likely XI:

Senegal
Tactics & Players to Watch: The two holding midfielders will not participate in attacks from open play but captain Cheikhou Kouyaté has proven many times in the Premier League that he can pose a big threat from long range and set pieces. He and Idrissa Gana Gueye will play the ball back to the defence for them to hit long for the pacey front four to run onto. Cissé has plenty of options to choose from for three of the four spots; Sadio Mané is obviously a shoe-in and often plays behind the main striker but can just as easily be found on either flank; Keita Baldé is another exciting, quick winger in a roster full of them and even more remarkable is that he’s adept with both feet.
Prediction: If they can keep the ball in the final third for long spells, it stands them in good stead to get out of the group. The holding midfielders lack any kind of creativity and Kalidou Koulibaly aside, the defence is far from special. If the backline are pressed, it will severely impinge on their gameplan. If they strike early on against Poland in their opening game, it blows the group wide open, even more than it already appears before a ball is kicked. Equally, they might finish bottom – neither outcome would be a surprise, despite their array of attacking talent.

 

Colombia

 

Head Coach: José Pekerman
Odds to Win: 40-1
Likely XI:

Colombia.PNG
Tactics & Players to Watch: Pekerman sets Colombia up in a conventional 4-2-3-1, where he instructs his side to press assertively in wide areas. Davinson Sánchez, off the back of a superb season for Tottenham Hotspur, will be the standout player in defence. His playing style is well suited to the variety of opposition he will come up against in the group stage. Carlos Sánchez will collect the ball from him and look for James Rodríguez whenever possible. The latter will come deeper when he needs to and then look for the darting runs of the wingers. Mateus Uribe will cross from the byline frequently for Falcao, who is deadly in the six-yard area. Juan Cuadrado will do much the same and he always poses a threat in a bright yellow shirt.
Prediction: I think they’re being somewhat overrated in the betting and other predictions I’ve read and these are partly based on their performance at the last finals and a cursory glance at the more famous names on the teamsheet. David Ospina always has an error in him, the defence and midfield (James aside) are nothing particularly special. Up top, Falcao is only ever involved or useful in one phase of play, making him one-dimensional and the side will be even more reliant on the Bayern Munich playmaker than in 2014 to carry La Tricolor out of the group. They won’t live up to their billing.

 

Japan

 

Head Coach: Akira Nishino
Odds to Win: 250-1
Likely XI:

Japan
Tactics & Players to Watch: Captain Makoto Hasebe anchors a very forward thinking midfield and can also fill in at centre back if required. Samurai Blue will press and counter through quick interchanges between the flanks and Shinji Kagawa. The two-time Borussia Dortmund schemer has lost a yard of pace but maintains a silky touch and an eye for goal. On the left, Takashi Inui netted two in the most recent friendly against Paraguay and might get the nod, although there are plenty of choices for Nishino on both wings. Keisuke Honda, having redeemed himself at Pachuca in Liga MX and now restored to the national team, will drift inside from the right and make late runs into the area. The full backs will both bomb up the field to cross from deep. Shinji Okazaki’s work rate is key to unsettling opposition defences and Yoshinori Muto will either press the backline or step back to allow balls and space in behind.
Prediction: Expectations are very low back home, especially given that Nishino has had a mere handful months to assemble his squad and try out his ideas. The impressive victory over Paraguay has lifted things a bit, with Inui and Kagawa both looking to be back to their best. They will still need their defence to be on top form to progress, but second spot is not beyond them, especially if they’re underestimated.

 

I hope you have enjoyed these previews. I have no national team affiliation or inherent bias, other than hoping (but not expecting) some surprises in the tournament, and not just in the group stages!

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World Cup 2018 Preview: Group G

These previews will be as free from well-trodden ‘narratives’ as is possible. There are a plethora of other ones out there – some well-informed, some… not so much. I have opted for brevity over bells and whistles, but I still think they provide a fresh take on the most highly anticipated tournament.

Previous previews:

Group A

Group B

Group C

Group D

Group E

Group F

 

Belgium

 

Head Coach: Roberto Martínez
Odds to Win: 10-1
Likely XI:

Belgium
Tactics & Players to Watch: It’s already very well-documented that neither Yannick Ferreira Carrasco nor Thomas Meunier are especially suited to sitting back; the former is a winger by trade but both have plenty to offer going forward and the Red Devils will always be in the final third in large numbers. Martínez emphasises attack, which is a good fit for the personnel on the roster. It can be possession-based or quick, reasonably direct thrusts.The flanking centre backs split, both to offer passing options for the goalkeeper and to sweep up after the wing-backs. If selected, Axel Witsel will be the closest approximation Belgium have to a holding midfielder. Kevin De Bruyne now adopts a similar role at both club and national level, dictating the play as only he can. Dries Mertens will be deployed just behind the main striker (unless a tactical change is required).

Eden Hazard will stretch the defences with his unpredictable trickery. There are plenty of options on the bench should they be needed – not least of which, is his younger brother, Thorgan Hazard, who takes up similar positions but is more of a creator than a short, sharp passer. Michy Batshauyi enjoyed a fruitful half-season on loan at Borussia Dortmund; he’s more fleet of foot than Romelu Lukaku and you can guarantee at least two of the three sides in the group will bunker down against their vaunted opponents.
Prediction: Along with Argentina (and now Spain, after today’s huge news), there is a wide range of outcomes that are possible for Belgium. They might find Tunisia tricky to break down and England seem to have a setup that’s keenly matched for Martínez’ formation and tactics. I think they’ll come second in the group and be beaten by the Three Lions in that last game. That will make their path to the final trickier on paper. It can then go one of two ways – either the head coach swallows a bit of pride and employs more players with defensive mentalities to balance things out or they could fall embarrassingly early. I actually think it will be the former – they, like Uruguay, have a decent chance of winning it. It’s do or die.

 

Panama

 

Head Coach: Hernán Gómez
Odds to Win: 1,000-1
Likely XI:

Panama
Tactics & Players to Watch: Contrary to popular belief, Panama will more often appear as a 3-4-3 than a 5-4-1. The emphasis will still be to keep things watertight. Captain Róman Torres is a muscular leader in a backline that will sit deep and initiate counterattacks when they regain possession. Fidel Escobar will be key from set pieces and watch out for his long-range shots. Once the opposition have been stymied, despite most of their ages, the starting XI can be deceptively quick on the break. The wide midfielders are key to maintaining their shape and supplying the frontmen, who are all capable of getting behind the defence at speed.
Prediction: They will not be walkovers and could easily steal at least a point from their Group H opponents, who will surely collect one or two knocks from their physical style. The longer in each game they can maintain a clean sheet, the more their belief will increase that something can be gleaned. Goals at the other end are also an issue, so, whilst qualification is probably beyond them, competing with two of the more favoured sides in the world will be an achievement in itself.

 

Tunisia

 

Head Coach: Nabil Maâloul
Odds to Win: 750-1
Likely XI:

Tunisia
Tactics & Players to Watch: Playing out of defence in a methodical manner is how the head coach has sThe wingers will shuttle up and down the wide spaces, offering protection to the full-backs and support to the lone striker. Shorn of more potent options through injury in the build-up to the tournament, Wahbi Khazri could start in that position. Whilst at Rennes on loan, he stepped into that role because of an injury crisis and excelled, taking on defenders with relish, beating them on the dribble and scoring a decent amount of goals. The Eagles of Carthage will be heavily reliant on him to break the deadlock, as well as the vast experience of custodian and captain Aymen Mathlouthi to keep clean sheets and organise a young defence.
Prediction: Tunisia have shown in recent friendlies that they could be a big thorn in the sides of both the heavy hitters of the group. If they frustrate one of them as they managed to do for so long against Spain recently and come out with a point, then there’s a slither of hope that they could sneak through, as long as they dispatch Panama. It could then come down to goal difference, which isn’t likely to favour Maâloul’s charges. They have never won a game at any of their four previous finals, but I think that unwanted record will be broken this time around.

 

England

 

Head Coach: Gareth Southgate
Odds to Win: 16-1
Likely XI:

England.PNG
Tactics & Players to Watch: Southgate has proven his tactical flexibility and willingness to devise a system first, then match the players to it. In a 3-5-1-1, John Stones will likely be the leader of the centre back trio, and his style revolves around turning with the ball and picking out teammates with a good selection of passing. The wing-backs will provide almost the entire width in the XI, although Kyle Walker might step out of the back to cover gaps on the right. Raheem Sterling’s creativity and pace are key to unlocking defences that will be high in numbers and deep on the pitch. Should he be unavailable or the manager feels in need of another player with vision, Ruben Loftus-Cheek will be tasked with pulling the strings from the middle third, utilising the speed of the side to latch onto his through balls.
Prediction: The group shouldn’t phase them too much, although they will do well to remember not to get caught up the pitch in numbers, especially in the wing-back areas. The current crop of players are more comfortable in possession than previous iterations and the tactics match what many of them are used to (and suited for) at club level, playing for the elite. Reaching the quarter finals would represent a good return for Southgate in his first tournament at senior level, with many on the roster not yet at their peak in terms of age. There would be no shame in losing to Germany or Brazil at that stage, and, with muted expectations and harmony in the camp, the near future looks bright for the Three Lions.

World Cup 2018 Preview: Group F

These previews will be as free from well-trodden ‘narratives’ as is possible. There are a plethora of other ones out there – some well-informed, some… not so much. I have opted for brevity over bells and whistles, but I still think they provide a fresh take on the most highly anticipated tournament.

Group A can be found here, Group B here, Group C here, Group D here and Group E here.

Germany

 

Head Coach: Joachim Löw
Odds to Win: 5-1
Likely XI:

Germany
Tactics & Players to Watch: With Manuel Neuer behind them, the entire back four push up to compress the space in front of them. Both centre backs are very good on the ball, so they have every confidence in passing between each other and the double pivot in midfield. Joshua Kimmich is very similar in style to legend Philip Lahm but with a greater propensity to shoot. Thomas Müller will do as he always has for Germany, making intelligent runs from wide into the area to finish off chances created by his teammates and he will be ably assisted by Kimmich. Toni Kroos and Mesut Özil will hog possession and look for the direct running and pace of Timo Werner to play him through the defence. He stays on the shoulder of the last defender and is a different kind of threat to what they have had in recent tournaments.
Prediction: Collectively, they have less experience than the winning side of 2014 but look ominously strong across the board. Their ambition is to retain the World Cup, which would be no mean feat, given the quality of opposition this time around. There might be an issue if either Kimmich or Sami Khedira are unavailable in the latter stages, as there are no obvious replacements for their roles. I think they’ll reach the semi-final stage and bow out there, winning third place.

Mexico

 

Head Coach: Juan Carlos Osorio
Odds to Win: 80-1
Likely XI:

Mexico
Tactics & Players to Watch: Probably a one-of-a-kind formation at the finals, the 3-1-3-3 will see the wider centre backs split and play long balls down the flanks to the wingers. Captain Andrés Guardado will sit in front of the defence and spray balls forward to Marco Fabián. He will use his positioning and playmaking skills to ensure that Javier Hernández isn’t isolated up top. On the right, Hirving Lozano is a very exciting prospect. He should take some of the burden away from the ‘Little Pea’ and conjure up something on his own to help Mexico.
Prediction: Osorio is deeply disliked by El Tri supporters. They also have a real battle on their hands to maintain their consecutive record of qualifying for the last 16. Germany are everyone’s favourites to top the group with ease, so it’s imperative they beat Sweden in the likely decider. I honestly don’t see them doing that against a side that bested Italy to make it to Russia 2018, which would constitute a dismal failure.

 

Sweden

 

Head Coach: Janne Andersson
Odds to Win: 150-1 
Likely XI:

Sweden
Tactics & Players to Watch: Conservatively set up, the first and second considerations will be to keep their shape (two banks of four) and not concede, respectively. The full-backs will push up, whilst the wide midfielders will tuck inside. Emil Forsberg will operate in a similar role to that with his club RB Leipzig. He’s the one player in the XI really capable of creating something and shooting from distance. In defence, Viktor Lindelof, having endured a torrid season with Manchester United, will need to put that behind him and show his class and covering ability.
Prediction: I believe they’ll be able to shut out both Korea Republic and Mexico, which will stand them in great stead to be runners-up in the group. Germany will be a different matter entirely, but passage to the last 16 will be something akin to success for this group, reliant as they are on Forsberg, Seb Larsson’s set pieces and on shutting down attacks in mid-block.

 

Korea Republic

 

Head Coach: Shin Tae-yong
Odds to Win: 500-1
Likely XI:

Korea Republic
Tactics & Players to Watch: The wide midfielders will tuck inside, allowing both full-backs, especially one-time Bundesliga player Park Joo-ho, to bomb forwards. When pressing, the shape will look more like a 4-3-3, with Ki Seung-yeung’s central midfield partner joining the attack. Hwang Hee-chan has had a decent campaign for RB Salzburg in Austria; he needs to take some of the inevitable flak away from Son Heung-min, Korea Republic’s only elite player on paper. Ki will be an avenue for goals from dead balls. A quick, tidy, technical side, they will need Son to be on top form to carve out chances in open play.
Prediction: As much as I’d like to see them make it out of the group, I can’t foresee a method for them. Germany will likely captialise on a mediocre defence whilst thwarting Son. A similar story could be told in the Sweden game, unless someone else can take up the cudgels. There may more space to work with in the Mexico encounter. Win that crucial second game and they might stand a chance of escaping if Die Mannschaft are already assured of first and choose to rest some of their personnel.

World Cup 2018 Preview: Group E

These previews will be as free from well-trodden ‘narratives’ as is possible. There are a plethora of other ones out there – some well-informed, some… not so much. I have opted for brevity over bells and whistles, but I still think they provide a fresh take on the most highly anticipated tournament.

Group A can be found here, Group B here, Group C here and Group D here.

Brazil

 

Head Coach: Tite
Odds to Win: 4-1 (Favourites)
Likely XI:

Brazil
Tactics & Players to Watch: Tite has built a much more defensively solid side, but without really sacrificing any of the attacking verve. Thiago Silva or Marquinhos will step out of defence to play the ball to Casemiro, who does a remarkable job at positioning himself in both attacking and defending phases of play. The other central midfielders will drop deep to look for the ball, whilst the full-backs bomb on and will be extremely high up the pitch in games they are expected to dominate. If selected, Willian will carry out an important role on the right of the front three; he is expected to cover a lot of ground in a fluid system. The burden for goals rests mostly elsewhere, of course. Neymar and Gabriel Jesus alone are enough to worry any opposition manager, but it’s important they don’t focus solely on the elite names. Almost every single outfield player is a goal threat from at least one situation or another.
Prediction: There is always relentless pressure and expectation that Brazil will get to the final of every tournament they feature in. They certainly have the roster to win it and there is real strength in depth in almost every position, save for a couple of concerns at right-back, without the mercurial Dani Alves. Tite is a more astute tactician than they have had recently, so a repeat of the débacle four years ago is unlikely. Even the semi-finals would constitute abject failure and perhaps said pressure is the only element preventing them from a sixth title.

Switzerland

 

Head Coach: Vladimir Petković
Odds to Win: 150-1
Likely XI:

Switzerland
Tactics & Players to Watch: Another 4-2-3-1, the main threats are Xherdan Shaqiri, cutting in from the left and the injury-ridden Breel Embolo on the right, who will look to stretch the opposition by pulling out wide with the ball and dart inside without it. The central player of the three will come back to take the ball from the holding midfielders, whilst also making a late run into the area to support the striker when possible. There is considerable experience at full-back; Ricardo Rodríguez is always a threat from set pieces and is the first choice penalty taker. In the middle, Manuel Ekanji might just get the nod. He has a very bright future ahead of him and he is excellent at picking out his teammates at a wide variety of distances.
Prediction: Up top, they are likely to struggle. However, they do have two game-changers in the XI and the defence looks mean, which they will need to be against Serbia and Brazil. It looks like a straight fight against the former for second spot, but on their day, they’re more than capable of frustrating and upsetting more fancied sides. I think they might just fail on this occasion to qualify, but there won’t be much in it.

 

Costa Rica

 

Head Coach:  Óscar Ramírez
Odds to Win: 500-1
Likely XI:

Costa Rica
Tactics & Players to Watch: The shape will flip from a 3-4-3 to a 5-4-1 without the ball. Los Ticos are set up to play the ball out from the back; the flanking centre backs will split to give elite custodian, Keylor Navas, passing options. Both the wing-backs and wingers will tuck inside to play in between the lines. In truth, the defending starts from the main striker. In possession, they will get the ball wide and have the natural advantage of being able to double up on their opponents with their chosen formation. This will hinge on both Bryan Oviedo and Christian Gamboa’s work rate on the flanks. Bryan Ruiz is also a canny operator and, whilst he has lost a yard of pace, can still do plenty of damage.
Prediction: It’s difficult to foresee a repeat of four years ago, but stranger things have happened. Navas’ shot-stopping will be heavily called upon to save the day for Costa Rica. They could certainly take points off both UEFA sides but two draws won’t be sufficient to prevent them from finishing bottom. Ramírez’ side are seasoned competitors and should not be taken lightly.

 

Serbia

 

Head Coach: Mladen Krstajić
Odds to Win: 150-1
Likely XI:

Serbia
Tactics & Players to Watch: Captain Aleksandar Kolarov remains a big threat from set pieces and if given any space to cross from deep. Serbia play vertically, with the back four shielded by another two. Sergej Milinković-Savić is a prodigious talent and a move to one of the world’s elite clubs seems inevitable either during or after the tournament. The playmaker roams the centre of the park, looking to support the wider players by feeding them through passes or by running into the space created by the extreme abrasiveness of Aleksandar Mitrović. The Fulham loanee has just enjoyed an excellent half-season at club level and looks to be back to his best. There’s much more to him than initially meets the eye, and, supplied by a dangerous attacking midfield, he should be on the end of a good number of chances, even against the likes of Brazil.
Prediction: A solid ‘dark horse’ candidate, if they can oust Switzerland, they have a real chance of making the quarter-finals. The worry for them is if teams can exploit the gaps left by Kolarov and the ambling figure of Branislav Ivanović on the opposite wing. No matter how they perform, they will be exciting to watch for the neutral and will doubtlessly earn some admirers along the way. It could be a tournament to remember…

World Cup 2018 Preview: Group D

These previews will be as free from well-trodden ‘narratives’ as is possible. There are a plethora of other ones out there – some well-informed, some… not so much. I have opted for brevity over bells and whistles, but I still think they provide a fresh take on the most highly anticipated tournament.

Group A can be found here, Group B here and Group C here.

Argentina

 

Head Coach: Jorge Sampaoli
Odds to Win: 10-1
Likely XI:

Argentina.PNG
Tactics & Players to Watch: Sampaoli is a master at rotating both his players and the formation he uses – four have been utilised in the run-up to the tournament. In a 4-2-3-1, the world’s greatest player, Leo Messi, could be the ’10’ or cut inside from the right. He’s likely to be omnipresent in an unbalanced midfield, with only Lucas Biglia offering much protection for the defence. Gio Lo Celso will cover the gaps left in Angel Di María’s wake, and, in an ideal world, he’d be a more disciplined selection on that flank. Manuel Lanzini’s late injury has left the slot behind the sole striker open – Juventus’ Paulo Dybala is the likeliest candidate, but has yet to truly shine on the international stage. His nous will be pivotal in relieving the overwhelming pressure on Messi. Argentina are likely to massively dominate possession in every group game at the very least.
Prediction: Other players must step up with goals or it could mean an embarrassingly early exit á la 2002 for the South American giants. Their tactical setup is only favourable against Croatia and sterile possession won’t be enough against the stout defence of Iceland. On the flip side, they could reach the final if enough players perform and a suspect backline aren’t severely tested. I’m erring towards the former outcome in an even group.

Iceland

 

Head Coach: Heimar Hallgrímsson
Odds to Win: 250-1
Likely XI:

Iceland.PNG
Tactics & Players to Watch: If you think of how Burnley play, they’re a reasonable approximation for Iceland. Two solid banks of four, with captain Aron Gunnarsson sticking like a magnet on any opposing attacking midfielder. Nominally defensive, they will actually commit lots of bodies forward on the counter. Most of the attacks will come from out wide. Birkir Bjarnason will drift inside when the crosses come from the other wing. Glyfi Sigurðsson’s set pieces will be key against all three sides in their group; watch out also for the young inside forward Albert Thor Gudmundsson if they are chasing the game and need an injection of pace up top. He has already notched several times at senior international level and will pose a very different threat to the two starting strikers.
Prediction: What would cap off an incredible few years for Iceland would be progression to the last 16. Even in this group, it’s not beyond them. They proved in the qualification for the tournament that they have the measure of Croatia, beating them in one of their duals and also to first place. If they can come out of their opener with a famous draw (or even a win), they’ll stand an excellent chance.

 

Croatia

 

Head Coach: Zlatko Dalić
Odds to Win: 33-1
Likely XI:

Croatia
Tactics & Players to Watch: Pressing high from the outset, Croatia strike a good balance between width and congesting the middle of the field. Their front four are particularly impressive; captain Luka Modrić needs no introduction, other than to say he’s deployed more than often than not as an advanced playmaker for his national team, rather than the deeper role he’s made his own for Real Madrid in recentyears. Andrej Kramarić has shaken off the disappointment of his spell in the Premier League and has blossomed into an excellent player, whether he’s through the middle or nominally wide. If it’s the latter, he’ll cut inside to support Mario Mandžukić, who acts as a target man. On the other flank, Ivan Perišić is one of the best in the world at timing runs into the area from the left. Further back, there’s plenty of experience in defence. Should they be given the runaround, youngster Tin Jedvaj is a calming presence at the back, combining an easy-on-the-style with a good range of passing.
Prediction: Should Argentina implode, they might once again fight it out with Iceland to progress. There’s undisputed quality in the furthest five players but they will need Milan Badelj to stay fit/available, as he’s the only one in the squad capable of holding the midfield together and putting his foot in. The first choice centre back pairing are also a concern, given their distinct lack of pace and propensity to make costly mistakes.

 

Nigeria

 

Head Coach: Gernot Rohr
Odds to Win: 250-1
Likely XI:

Nigeria
Tactics & Players to Watch: Nigeria are all about very quick transitions from the back to the front, with Rohr favouring a direct style of play that allows the pacey wide players to get on the ball as much as possible to give the opposition defence the runaround. The midfield three are extremely solid and also do their bit in attack. Alex Iwobi is a prominent figurehead for his national side, chipping in with goals in a freer role than he has enjoyed at Arsenal up to this juncture. Look out too for Kelechi Ihenacho from the bench. The Leicester City striker is languidly clinical and offers a more varied threat than Odion Ighalo. In goal, Francis Uzoho is set to be the youngest custodian to start at the tournament. He will need to shake off the mistake he made in a recent friendly against England, as the stakes will be much higher.
Prediction: If they can keep on the front foot, they could progress from the group. They have an exciting array of players in attacking areas. Further back, there is much more uncertainty, including between the posts. The system asks a ridiculous amount from the midfield when Nigeria lose possession. Maintaining control will be essential to their ambitions.

World Cup 2018 Preview: Group C

These previews will be as free from well-trodden ‘narratives’ as is possible. There are a plethora of other ones out there – some well-informed, some… not so much. I have opted for brevity over bells and whistles, but I still think they provide a fresh take on the most highly anticipated tournament.

Group A can be found here; Group B here.

France

Head Coach: Didier Deschamps
Odds to Win: 6-1
Likely XI:

France
Tactics & Players to Watch: The full-backs will push up the pitch to support Les Bleus’ inside forwards. France will press in midfield areas and the solidity offered behind Paul Pogba in a 4-3-3 should give the talisman licence to get close to the front three without worrying too much about his defensive duties. In games where they don’t have the lion’s share of possession, Steven Nzonzi might be a preferred option. He has both the aerial ability and the guile to screen the back four effectively. Kylian Mbappé will offer much more than blistering pace on the right and is a good tip to be top goalscorer. He and Antoine Griezmann can transition quickly from sticking close to the target man to darting off into the half-space to provide crosses. If the combination isn’t working, there are plenty of exciting players to call upon, not least of which is Nabil Fekir His positional flexibility provides Deschamps with a dynamic, game-changing option.
Prediction: They should qualify from the group reasonably comfortably, but I’d be lying if I said I had the same confidence in the team as most other pundits to reach the final. There is a distinct lack of leadership on the roster, both full-backs are labouring to full fitness after lengthy injury spells and Pogba’s presence can almost as often be a liability as it is an asset.

Australia

Head Coach: Bert van Marwijk
Odds to Win: 1,000-1
Likely XI:

Australia.PNG
Tactics & Players to Watch: Matthew Ryan is a key component of the Socceroos’ squad. His calming presence in goal gives the back four the confidence they need to push up when in possession. The double pivot in midfield will be essential in preventing the team from being overrun. Aaron Mooy dictates the play whilst captain Mile Jedinak covers a lot of ground, especially on the right flank. Much of the goal threat will come from Tom Rogic. The Celtic schemer will be handed a free role by van Marwijk and he will look to make peeling runs off the sole striker to be an extra body in the box.
Prediction: Their path to these finals was a very rocky one. Having guided Saudi Arabia reasonably comfortably, the head coach jumped ship and faces an uphill task to get Australia out of the group. Their recent warm-up friendlies have given some cause for optimism and they will need to be ultra-disciplined to best Denmark and Peru. I think they’ll finish bottom but not without bloodying a few noses.

 

Peru

 

Head Coach: Ricardo Gareca
Odds to Win: 200-1
Likely XI:

Peru.PNG
Tactics & Players to Watch: Captain Paolo Guerrero’s drug ban has been overturned, so he will lead the line ahead of an exciting trio. The vastly experienced Jefferson Farfán will offer supporting runs on the right; in the middle, Christian Cueva will roam about in an effort to dictate the tempo. On the left, Edison Flores has been the difference maker under Gareca’s stewardship and will weigh in with some goals of his own. Both full-backs are dangerous in a side full of technical ability.
Prediction: There’s little to split them and Denmark on paper, so the onus is on both teams to go full-pelt for the three points, with a high likelihood that a victory will hand them second. Guerrero’s presence will be a massive filip to the entire group and there’s every chance that they can escape the group.

 

Denmark

 

Head Coach: Åge Hareide
Odds to Win: 100-1
Likely XI:

Denmark.PNG
Tactics & Players to Watch: Another setup where the full-backs are key in supporting the wide men. The holding midfielders will sit in to allow Christian Eriksen to run riot. Much of the emphasis and expectation will be on his shoulders and he’s much more prominent in front of goal for his national side. Pione Sisto has electric pace and a bright future ahead of him. Here, he will be tuck in behind Nicolai Jørgensen; the striker possesses a similar physique to Yussuf Poulsen on the right and they will administer a stern examination of all three sides’ defences they will face in the group stages.
Prediction: There is a lack of depth in the full-back areas but they look very difficult to penetrate in the centre. Whether Eriksen will have as much space to work in is questionable and he might feel the pressure to perform. As I said above, it’s hard to call for second place but I’m leaning towards Peru, as they look to have goals from more areas of the pitch. Time will tell.

World Cup 2018 Preview: Group B

These previews will be as free from well-trodden ‘narratives’ as is possible. There are a plethora of other ones out there – some well-informed, some… not so much. I have opted for brevity over bells and whistles, but I still think they provide a fresh take on the most highly anticipated tournament.

Group A can be found here.

Portugal

Head Coach: Fernando Santos
Odds to Win: 22-1
Likely XI:

Portugal
Tactics & Players to Watch: In spite of the obvious array of attacking talent, Santos places emphasis firmly on defence first. The centre back pairing (perm two from three) are vastly experienced, extremely aggressive and slower than probably any others in the tournament. Raphael Guerreiro is a very pacey, offensive-minded full-back. Like his compatriot on the opposite flank, he will stand up high cross after high cross from deep to look for the predatory Cristiano Ronaldo. The superstar is the focal point of the side but he will ably assisted by Bernardo Silva and the emergence of Gonçalo Guedes, who will offer support to Ronaldo and feed balls into him in a variety of ways.
Prediction: I have a feeling they will not progress from this group, especially if they fail to beat Morocco. For all the talent at Santos’ disposal, the defence is a big worry, especially if the marauding full-backs are caught high up the pitch and any forward with pace runs in behind the lumbering centre backs on the break. Their setup is more suited when they’re not the favourites to win a match and whilst on paper, they’d fancy their chances in two of the three ties, it remains to be seen whether they can change tack whilst simultaneously hiding their frailties.

Spain

Head Coach: Julen Lopetegui
Odds to Win: 11-2
Likely XI:

Spain
Tactics & Players to Watch: With the wide forwards likely to tuck inside, much of the width will instead come from the full-backs, who will have plenty of targets to aim for. Isco is an excellent shout for Golden Boot winner despite not being an out-and-out striker. With Diego Costa charged with doing the dirty work and drawing defenders (and fouls), there is ample opportunity for Spain to dominate possession in every group game and play between intricate passes in between the lines. Should Costa not prove effective or be on a yellow card, Iago Aspas could coax the backline to step forward by operating in a false nine role, giving his teammates room to manoeuvre in the half spaces.
Prediction: It’s hard to pick fault with their roster. Yes, Sergio Ramos and Gerard Piqué are not quite as nimble as they once were, but they still cover ground more than capably. The frustrations, as ever, will rear their heads if they find an opposing side hard to break down. That’s a distinct possibility in this group, with two of the three sides they face likely to form an ultra-defensive posture. They should overcome those obstacles and book passage to at least the quarter finals. They have the potential to win it but I just see them falling ever-so-slightly short.

 

Morocco

 

Head Coach: Hervé Renard
Odds to Win: 500-1
Likely XI:

Morocco
Tactics & Players to Watch: The second most attack-minded side in the group, Morocco will surge forward at pace whenever they have successfully soaked up the pressure. Romain Saïss has wowed Wolves fans with his class at the back and alongside Juventus stalwart and national team captain, Mehdi Banatia, they are like two colossi. The full-backs are speedy and are well-screened by the holding midfield pair. Hakim Ziyech will explode onto the biggest stage of all, creating chances for his side with his dribbling, trickery and ability to cut inside.
Prediction: They will surprise some pundits, who look at the group and cannot entertain any other notion than an Iberian one-two. Defeat IR Iran and avoid defeat to Portugal and that will probably be sufficient to take them into the knockout rounds. They are a big threat going forward and solid at the back, as evidenced by conceding just one during qualification. Yes, the standards are higher, but write them off at your peril.

IR Iran

 

Head Coach: Carlos Queiroz
Odds to Win: 750-1
Likely XI:

IR Iran
Tactics & Players to Watch: Defensively organised, Queiroz’ charges try to win the ball back aggressively in the mid-block, congesting the midfield area by adopting a narrow stance in an effort to force their opponents to look for other avenues. The central midfielders will play long balls into the channels for the wingers to chase. Alireza Jahanbakhsh is adept with both feet and at taking on his marker and beating them on the dribble. He will look for the top goalscorer in their qualification, Sardar Azmoun, with a variety of crosses. The furthest midfielder from that flank will step up to give IR Iran at least three bodies in the area whenever possible.
Prediction: They will need all their defensive qualities to resist every side they will face in the group. They are outsiders to qualify but, just like with Morocco, a win in that game will stand them in good stead to gain a point from one of their two remaining fixtures. I don’t think they’ll manage that, nor do I believe they’ll roll over. Much will rely on their Plan A coming off. Queiroz has several tricks up his sleeve and will keep his opposite numbers guessing with his lineup and tactics. Whether that will be enough is a different matter entirely in a tough group.

World Cup 2018 Preview: Group A

These previews will be as free from well-trodden ‘narratives’ as is possible. There are a plethora of other ones out there – some well-informed, some… not so much. I have opted for brevity over bells and whistles, but I still think they provide a fresh take on the most highly-anticipated tournament 

Russia

Head Coach: Stanislav Cherchesov
Odds to Win: 66-1
Likely XI:

Russia.PNG
Tactics & Players to Watch: Goalkeeper and back three aside, the other spots are far from certain. The defence will look to feed direct balls to the wing-backs, who in turn will look to the precociously talented Alexander Golovin to carry the attack into the final third and give Fyodor Smolov something to work with; the latter is prolific at club level but has found providing the same output on the international scene somewhat more difficult. Look for him to try lots of shots from range if a route through the opposition is blocked off. A patient approach is the order of the day from Cherchesov and when they are without the ball, they will look to cut off the space in the centre of the pitch, inviting teams to go wide and play high crosses into the area.
Prediction: A squad decimated by injury in the run-up to the tournament, qualification to the knockout stages would be considered a success. A highly partisan crowd, albeit a fanbase with low expectations, will doubtlessly lift Russia when they appear to be struggling. The hosts will be reliant on Golovin to conjure something up for Smolov or himself and as such, it’s difficult to foresee a glut of chances being created and converted, even with the supposed weakness of their group. I don’t believe they have enough quality to qualify from their group and that outcome would make them only the second host nation (after South Africa in 2010) to fail to do so.

Saudi Arabia

 

Head Coach: Juan Antonio Pizzi
Odds to Win: 1,000-1
Likely XI:

Saudi Arabia.PNG
Tactics & Players to Watch: Saudi Arabia will look to play on the counter; their main threat comes down the left flank. Yasser al-Shahrani and Salem al-Dawsari are a potent combination that possess a great understanding. The attacking midfield trio are likely to switch positions throughout each game periodically. Taiseer al-Jassim will play quick, long balls to his more advanced teammates and the lone striker. There is a distinct lack of pace in the centre of the back-line, which Pizzi attempts to compensate by deploying them close to their own box.
Prediction: Not quite the whipping boys many other pundits have them characterised as, the Green Eagles will nevertheless find qualification beyond them. That said, a positive result against Russia in the opener is a distinct possibility. Should they gain at least a point, their confidence will be massively boosted. Succumbing to Uruguay is a scenario that is hard to envisage not occurring, so everything would hinge on the final game versus Egypt…

Egypt

 

Head Coach: Héctor Cúper
Odds to Win: 200-1
Likely XI:

Egypt.PNG
Tactics & Players to Watch: Much like Group A opponents Saudi Arabia, the first and foremost consideration for Egypt is to keep things watertight at the back. To that end, two holding midfielders are deployed ahead of the defensive line. The latter of these two, Mohamed Elneny, will perform a key role for the Pharaohs, shuttling between the lines to support the attacking midfield trio. Trezeguet shouldn’t be unduly overlooked. Naturally, all of the media attention will be on Mo Salah (who might just recover from his shoulder injury in time for the first game). That might just play to the winger’s advantage though and his job will be to take some of the creative and scoring pressure off his teammate. The lone striker, probably Marwan Mohsen, will chase down any long balls played up to him, with the aim of either pushing the opponents’ defence further back or creating space for runners from the trio to exploit.
Prediction: Even if Salah hadn’t declared himself fit, I’d still have fancied Egypt to claim the runners-up berth. The defence are rock-solid and are well-marshalled. There are enough outlets in forward areas to suggest they will take the chances they create themselves or gain through opposition mistakes. The last 16 might be as far as they go but that would still constitute success and their run will prove they are much more than a one-man team.

Uruguay

 

Head Coach: Óscar Tabárez
Odds to Win: 25-1
Likely XI:

 
Tactics & Players to Watch:
Prediction: