From Russia with Love #2 – More FIFA World Cup 2018 Predictions

The Group Stage is over, but there’s still a lot of football to be played.

The World Cup kicked off in Moscow just over two weeks ago and we had some fantastic action, great goals and some bizarre situations. We’ve seen 122 goals (an excellent average of over 2.5 per game) and we can only hope for more of the same. I begin with a review of each group then I’ll go through who I think will win each game to the final. I had a tough time picking some, especially as I got closer to the final, so don’t hold back with any feedback, thoughts and criticisms. So, without further ado…

Group A

Hosts Russia came out of the traps hot, with a performance that the players or fans won’t forget in a while, a 5-0 victory over Saudi Arabia. The Russians didn’t stop there, following up in match day 2 with a stunning 3-1 victory over Egypt.

Uruguay were solid as expected, if not spectacular with consecutive 1-0 wins over Egypt and Saudi Arabia, needing an 89th minute goal to see them past the Pharaohs. With both teams 2/2, match day 3 hosted a mouth watering winner-take-all game, in which Uruguay mowed through the home side in a 3-1 victory. The Russians will say that Igor Smolnikov‘s 36th minute sending off was the difference maker but given that they were already 2-0 at the time, they were ultimate facing an uphill struggle anyway.

In what ended up being a dead rubber in the last game of the group, a 95th winner from Salem Al Dawsari saw Saudi Arabia win their first World Cup match since USA ’94 and send Egypt home with 3 defeats in what will be a disappointing end to a disappointing campaign for the Egyptians.

Pre-Tournament Prediction: 1) Uruguay 2) Russia 3) Egypt 4) Saudi Arabia

Final Group Standings: 1) Uruguay 2) Russia 3) Saudi Arabia 4) Egypt

Total correct predictions: 2/4

 

Group B

Group B started with the best match of the group stage by a fair distance in my opinion when Spain and Portugal fought out a fantastic 3-3 draw. This was a great match for neutrals and would be one I’d show any non-soccer fan to show them the best of the sport. It had everything – excellent players, great goals and plenty of drama.

The draw in the first game gave the winner of game two hope of qualifying for the second round and Iran grabbed the opportunity beating Morocco 1-0, their first win since France 1998.

Portugal and Spain both struggled to 1-0 wins Morocco and Iran respectively, after which they were separated only by the fact that Spain had few yellow cards from their first two matches. And these struggles continued into match day 3 with Spain needing a last-minute VAR awarded goal to snatch a 2-2 draw with the Moroccans, and Portugal coming within inches of elimination! Had Mehdi Tameri’s injury time effect gone a foot further to the right, Iran would’ve been through and Portugal would be looking out their passports.

In the end it was as you were in this group, with Iago Aspas’ audacious last minute backheel sending Spain through as group winners.

Pre-Tournament Prediction: 1) Spain 2) Portugal 3) Iran 4) Morocco

Final Group Standings: 1) Spain 2) Portugal 3) Iran 4) Morocco

Total Correct Predictions: 6/8

 

Group C

Group C was always going to be a tight group and it showed in that only one of the games had a winning margin of more than one goal. France were the first team to take maximum points with a very 2018 victory, with one goal coming through an Antoine Griezmann penalty awarded by VAR, and Paul Pogba’s late winner given by goal line technology. And from there Les Bleus never looked in any danger of going home early, and a workmanlike performance against a decent Peru side was enough to send the, through with one game to spare.

Denmark were also extremely solid in their first two games, without being overly spectacular, with a good win over Peru and a draw against Australia. What will be disappointing is that this group due to the fixture list producing a final round matchup between the two favourites who were both already through.

And it didn’t really take too long for the football cynics and casual fans alike to realise what was going to happen. The only thing that ever really happens when two team who know a draw suits both – a boring 0-0 draw that delighted no one that watched it. The only benefit to that is that more eyes may have been tempted to watch Australia and Peru end what will be disappointing tournaments for both, with Peru coming out with a 2-0 victory

Pre-Tournament Predictions: 1) France 2) Peru 3) Denmark 4) Australia

Final Group Standings: 1) France 2) Denmark 3) Peru 4) Australia

Total Correct Predictions: 8/12

 

Group D

Well, for the damp squib that Group C ended up being, Group D was the opposite with the second place still up in the air as the clocked ticked towards 90 mins of last match day. And the group started with a bang also, with Croatia putting in a good performance to beat Nigeria, after Lionel Messi of all people having a last-minute penalty saved by the Icelandic goalkeeper (and part-time film director) Hannes Halldorsson. Incidentally, Sergio Aguero’s goal was the first competitive Argentina goal NOT scored by Lionel Messi since November 2016.

If not for the late drama against Iceland, you could’ve been forgiven for thinking that Messi hadn’t yet turned up to Russia, as he was a passenger in match day 2 where he was powerless to stop defensive mistakes and a poor all round performance in a 3-0 humbling at the hands of Croatia. Nigeria beat Iceland in the other match to put themselves 2nd with only Argentina to play.

In match day 3 the tides turned dramatically numerous times and with a back and forth match between Nigeria and Argentina being won with a Marcos Rojo volley 10 mins from the final whistle. However, with both games finely balanced at 1-1, Iceland still had a realistic chance of going through – it was almost a case of next goal wins. And in the end, it was, with Rojo‘ goal sending Argentina through, much to the delight of Diego Maradona in the stands. In amongst the chaos, it is easy to overlook the fact that Croatia’s own late winner means that they became only the second team to qualify with 3 wins from 3 matches.

Pre-Tournament Predictions: 1) Argentina 2) Croatia 3) Nigeria 4) Iceland

Final Group Standings: 1) Croatia 2) Argentina 3) Nigeria 4) Iceland

Total Correct Predictions: 10/16

Mario Gomez and Mats Hummels realise their World Cup is over

Group E

Group E was meant to have a straightforward narrative with a “Brazil and One Other” outcome, but that was sent right out the window with an opening match 1-1 draw in which Brazil were very lacklustre, the Swiss were resolute and both teams cancelled each other out. This was a perfect opportunity for one of the other teams to take pole position in the group and the chance was taken by Serbia with a deserved 1-0 victory over Costa Rica with a superb Aleksander Kolarov free-kick the difference.

Match day 2 saw late drama in both games, starting with Brazil vs. Costa Rica. The Selecao huffed and puffed in a poor performance against a Costa Rica team determined to sit back, soak up pressure and try to hit Brazil on the counter attack, and this worked extremely well for 91 minutes until Coutinho and Neymar popped up with two late goals.

In the all-European second match, Switzerland ran out 2-1 winners with a superb late winner from Xherdan Shaqiri giving his team a lifeline in the group. This set up a crucial last day with one point separating Brazil, Serbia and Switzerland, with the Swiss having somewhat of an easier route through to the next round by playing the already eliminated Costa Ricans.

Despite having the perceived easier game, and possibly thinking they had the game won after a Josip Drmic goal 2 minutes from the end, Switzerland could only manage a 2-2 draw with Costa Rica with goalkeeper Yann Sommer being credited with a bizarre own goal after a Joel Campbell penalty hit the bar, only to hit the unaware goalie in the back and the ball fell into the net. In a more straightforward winner-takes-all affair, Brazil ran out comfortable 2-0 victors over Serbia, eliminating the Serbians at the group stage for the 3rd time in their last 3 appearances.

Pre-Tournament Predictions: 1) Brazil 2) Switzerland 3) Serbia 4) Costa Rica

Final Group Standings: 1) Brazil 2) Switzerland 3) Serbia 4) Costa Rica

Total Correct Predictions: 14/20

 

Group F

Well, well, well, we don’t have to look far for the biggest shock of the tournament. If Group D was a night of excitement with Argentina almost going out, from start to finish Group F was just as dramatic, if not more. It all started on matchday one when Mexico trumped the current World Champions, with a fantastic Hirving Luzano goal being the difference between the two sides. A solid 1-0 win for Sweden over South Korea meant that Germany absolutely needed to win their second game over the Scandinavians to give themselves a lifeline.

And give themselves a lifeline they did, but they left it late. With the seconds dying down, Toni Kroos scored from a well worked free kick routine from a position you wouldn’t normally try to shoot from, but desperate times called for desperate measures. Would this be the spark to light the German fire and help them push on in this tournament? South Korea would have something to say about that. A Mexico 2-1 win over the Koreans in Rostov-on-Don meant that both they and Sweden had a very straightforward mission – win, and you guarantee you qualify, anything else and you’re reliant on the Germans failing to beat South Korea. And this is where the group gets good.

Sweden were the team to take advantage, guaranteeing a reasonably pressure free afternoon, going 2-0 up after an hour before an Edson Alvarez own goal sealed the deal for the Swedes, solidifying their position at the top of the group, and through to the next round. But all was not lost for the Mexicans, as Germany were only drawing 0-0 with South Korea. And they continued to draw 0-0 with South Korea……and continued, and as time was quickly running out for Die Mannschaft, the unthinkable happened – South Korea scored.

Kim Young-Gwon scored a 91st minute goal to put the world champions on a cliff edge. And as the Germans piled forward, including goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, in search of an equaliser, South Korea cleared the ball upfield and Son Heung-Min tapped the ball into the empty net sealing a 2-0 win for the Koreans. This consigned Germany to finishing rock bottom of the group, in their worst World Cup performance since 1938 – the only other time they’ve failed to qualify from the group stage.

Pre-Tournament Predictions: 1) Germany 2) Sweden 3) Mexico 4) South Korea

Final Group Standings: 1) Sweden 2) Mexico 3) South Korea 4) Germany

Total Correct Predictions: 14/24

 

Group G

Group G was always going to be a two-horse race with England and Belgium fighting it out to see who would finish top of the group and theoretically get the easier game in the second round. And it went to form in the first two games with Belgium putting in a professional performance to see aside debutants Panama in a 3-0 win before England required an injury time winner from captain Harry Kane to post a 2-1 win over Tunisia.

In match day two England were ruthless in the first half against then Panamanians scoring 5 before half time, eventually running out 6-1 winners. Belgium were equally as dominant in their match against Tunisia as they won 5-2 which leads us into a position that is extremely rare in professional sport.

Going into match day 3 there was a lot of talk on this side of the pond surrounding the outcome of this group, namely that it may well be more beneficial not to win the group. This leads some people to believe that Belgium and England may make many squad changes to weaken their sides. Now given these are the 23 best players from their respective countries, these sides are hardly weak, however the game turned out to be a poor affair with little action with Belgium coming away with an eventual 1-0 win, after a very good goal from Adnan Januzaj.

With so little action it’s hard to argue that either of these teams really wanted to win, but you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do at the end of the day, and the result is not very entertaining. For those wondering, Tunisia came from behind to beat Panama 2-1 in the last game.

Pre-Tournament Predictions: 1) Belgium 2) England 3) Tunisia 4) Panama

Final Group Standings: 1) Belgium 2) England 3) Tunisia 4) Panama

Total Correct Predictions: 18/28

 

Group H

I need to apologise to the Group H participants as I feel in hindsight that I might have been too harsh on them in the preview article. I called them midcarders and they went out and proved me wrong in some entertaining games. I’m not taking full credit for it, but I’d like to think I had something to do with it.

The group started off in fantastic style with not one, but two underdog wins, with Senegal outclassing a lacklustre Poland side in a 2-1 victory, before Japan overcame Colombia with an equally impressive display, winning by the same score line. Game on in Group H then.

Japan and Senegal played each other first in match day 2 knowing a win for either team would mean they would have one foot in the next round and would qualify outright  if there wasn’t a victor other game. The result of this was a fantastic back and forth encounter in which the two nations cancelled each other out in an extremely entertaining 2-2 draw. This opened the door for Colombia and Poland who played later in the day.

This was another easy to understand situation – it was lose and you’re out, anything else and you still stand an outside chance. Poland didn’t quite get the memo as they never really showed up and were outclassed by a Colombia side coming into their own, constantly threatening and eventually running out convincing 3-0 winners. This means top seeds Poland are eliminated with one game to play, somewhat justifying my comments about them only being top seeds by playing the system.

Then came possibly the most controversial incident on the tournament so far, more so than any VAR review. Japan, Senegal and Colombia are all separated by just one point going into the last game, Japan and Senegal are equal on points, goal difference and goals scored but are both going through until Poland score just before the hour mark. This goal meant the Colombia leapfrogged Japan into 2nd place and the 0-0 score at this point was good enough to send both Colombia and Senegal through.

At this point then game ground to a halt, with both teams mutually accepting that the result was good enough for each other and basically stopped playing at 100%. Then Yerry Mina threw a spanner in the works by giving Colombia the lead, and both 1-0 scores held until the end of the game.

With exactly the same score in each game for both Japan and Senegal, the only thing that separated the team was the number of yellow cards – Japan were given 4 compared to Senegal’s 6 and Senegal are on their way home, having the unfortunate honour of being the first team to ever be knocked out of a major tournament in fair play. It will be interesting to see what action, if any, FIFA this method of separating teams.

Pre-Tournament Predictions: 1) Colombia 2) Poland 3) Japan 4) Senegal

Final Group Standings: 1) Colombia 2) Japan 3) Senegal 4) Poland

Total Correct Predictions: 19/32

 

With the group stage now passed, we now only have 16 games to play before it wraps up for another 4 years. I batted over .500 for the first round but 19 right out of 32 was lower than I’d hoped, but soccer being soccer, it’s never that easy. If it was, I’d be a millionaire with all the bets I’ve played on the sport over the years.

The knock out stage draw is determined by Groups A and B, C and D, E and F, and G and H all being paired together,  with the top side playing the runners up of their opposing group. With the shocks we saw in the first round, we have some mouthwatering ties in the next round, and the potential for more going forward.

I know that this article has been long already, so I’ll try to keep this as brief as possible.

This is how the knockout round looks now; how will it look after July 15th?

Round of 16

The 2nd round kicks off in Kazan with on Saturday with the showpiece match of the round when France take on Argentina. The French were solid and  professional in their progression to this round, whereas Argentina got through by the skin of their teeth, so it’s France that takes this one for me, they will play the winners of Uruguay vs Portugal. This game is a tricky one to choose from, as both teams were underwhelming two of the group games, but for me it will be a Uruguay win only because of the momentum they have after going 3-0 in the group stage.

Spain play Russia and Croatia play Denmark the following day and these are more cut and dry for me. Despite home field advantage, Spain will overcome the Russians at this stage and it should be a win for Croatia also, who have possibly been the most consistently good team in the tournament, also going 3/3 in the group with excellent performances throughout.

Also, fairly easy predictions in my eyes are the day three games, which should see Belgium and Brazil progress over Japan and Mexico respectively. Less so is the last couple of games which pit Colombia and England together as well as an all-European tie between Sweden and Switzerland. Both could easily go either way, but I think that Colombia will triumph over England given that they are building momentum and Sweden going through over Switzerland as they impressed me more all round than Switzerland

 

Quarter Final

The quarter final represents teams making it over the halfway point as this is the point where you’d have played more games than you’ll need to play to win the trophy and the big games come thick and fast. I have France meeting Uruguay here, which I again see being a tight affair, but having watched both teams, I feel France could take this one.

They will meet the winners of my next quarter final, Brazil vs Belgium. As strong as Belgium are, and as much talent as they have, Brazil always bring their A-game at the business end of the World Cup (Bell Horizonte four years ago aside) and I think they’ll take this one.

Then bottom half of the draw will firstly see Spain and Croatia take on each other and this one will be a tight affair should it happen. Spain have the pedigree in big tournaments but seeing how both teams played in the groups, I’m inclined to pick Croatia to reach their first semi final since 1998. And  rounding out the group I see Colombia going over Sweden should it happen, and for all intents and purposes, the winner of Colombia-England will beat the winner of Switzerland-Sweden in my eyes.

Semi Final and Beyond

My predictions have brought up a repeat of the 1998 Final with France taking on Brazil. This will be a tight encounter once again and is a tricky one to pick a winner for. My heart says Brazil, but my gut instinct is saying France because of how both teams played in the group stages. Either team can build or lose momentum in the meantime but I’m going to let my heart rule my head here and say Brazil will get to the final, because the Brazil and the World Cup have always gone hand in hand.

The other semi final for me will be more cut and dry as I’ve been extremely impressed with the Croatians and I think that they’ll be playing Brazil in the final as they’ve played themselves into the kinder side of the draw.

This puts France and Colombia in the exhibition (see: pointless, redundant) 3rd and 4th place playoff. This will likely be a tame affair as neither side will likely want to play one last match after losing a semi final and it’s only the World Cup and the Olympic tournament that has this match. In any event I see France taking this one.

And then, on July 15th in the Luzhniki Stadium, we will see the 2018 world champions crowned. This one is anyone’s guess, but for me it’s going to be Brazil. They haven’t won the World Cup for 12 years and this is the biggest gap they’ve had since they won in 1994 after a 22-year wait. They have so many attacking threats that I think that they’ll prevail over a Croatia side who will go home proud regardless of when they go out. They’ll go far but given my predictions I can’t see past Brazil.

However, these are just my predictions based on 3 matches for each team, and a lot can change in the next two weeks. Even if Brazil win their round of 16 game I may feel differently after watching them, and this is a tournament with an extremely good chance of having a first-time winner (even though I have the 5-time champions winning).

The only thing that’s certain is that we’ll see some very entertaining games, and our remit now is to sit back, relax and enjoy.

Neymar with the Confederations Cup in 2013, will he have a different trophy in his hands in two weeks?

Author: Calum McDougall