Emabis looks through potential winners of World Cup 2018, and their likely route through the tournament, to highlight some outright picks of interest.
As noted in my Group E preview, this is the most complete Brazil team I can recall. As well as their usual array of world-class attackers like Neymar, Gabriel Jesus, Philippe Coutinho, Willian and Roberto Firmino, Brazil are also well-equipped defensively with Ederson or Alisson in goal; defenders including Thiago Silva, Marquinhos, Marcelo, Miranda and Filipe Luis and defensive midfielders such as Casemiro, Fernandinho and Paulinho. All overseen by the impressive Tite. Brazil also arrive with something to prove as their embarrassing 7-1 exit to Germany in 2014, on home soil, still rancors.
Brazil have topped every World Cup group since 1978 and will do so again in Russia. None of Switzerland, Serbia or Costa Rica pose too many issues. By winning their group, Brazil effectively open up the draw by being placed on the opposite side of Spain and Germany (assuming both top their respective Groups). It also likely avoids France until the semi-final stage with Brazil's most likely opponents being Mexico (last 16) and Belgium or England (quarter-final).
Similar to Brazil, the reigning World Cup champions arrive to Russia with a vast wealth of talent to chose from. So much so, Joachim Lowe failed to find any room for Manchester City's Leroy Sane in his 23-man squad. In goals, captain Manuel Neuer starts (if fit) with Barcelona’s Marc-Andre ter Stegen a strong back-up. Germany's defence includes Antonio Rudiger, Jerome Boateng, Mats Hummels and Joshua Kimmich whilst their midfield options include Toni Kroos, Mesut Ozil, Julian Draxler and Ilkay Gundogan. And in attack, Thomas Muller, Marco Reus and Timo Werner all offer goals.
Germany has won every group since 1986 and, with Mexico, Sweden and South Korea their opponents, are likely to do so again with ease. As noted above, this keeps Germany on the opposite side of the draw to Brazil and France (assuming both top their respective Groups). Germany has reached the semi-final stages, at least, in all of their last six tournaments and has the best side of the draw of any to team - likely Serbia / Switzerland (last 16) and Belgium or England (quarter-final) - to only meet Spain or Argentina in the semi-finals.
The 2010 winners, and 2008 and 2012 European champions, are many pundit's idea of winners in Russia. It's not difficult to see why given Spain travel with a high-quality squad of depth including stars like David de Gea, Gerard Pique, Sergio Ramos, Andres Iniesta, David Silva and Diego Costa. But, as outlined in my Group B preview, I don't think this team has the same quality as prior ones particularly in attack where Rodrigo, Lucas Vazquez and Iago Aspas are unproven at this level.
By topping their group, Spain likely meet Russia or Egypt in the last 16, Argentina in the quarter-finals, Germany in the semi-finals and Brazil in the final. However, should Spain instead finish second, they would likely meet Uruguay in the Last 16, France in the quarter-finals, Brazil in the semi-finals and Germany in the final.
On paper, France has one of the very best squads in the tournament with Hugo Lloris, Benjamin Mendy, Samuel Umtiti, Raphael Varane, N’Golo Kante, Paul Pogba, Thomas Lemar, Antoine Griezmann, Kylian Mbappe and Ousman Dembele. But Didier Deschamps is one of the worst managers in Russia. He is the reason why France has been consistently inconsistent to date and remains at significant risk of under-performing yet again when it matters.
As their group also features Denmark, Peru and Australia, France will likely qualify from Group A as winners. Which should avoid Argentina as Group D winners. But it does set them on a tricky knock-out road of Group D runner-up, Croatia, in the Last 16 followed by a likely quarter-final against Portugal and semi-final against Brazil.
Argentina scored the fewest goals of any South American qualifier. A surprise given their attacking options include Messi, Aguero, Dybala, Di Maria and Higuain. But whatever their 'goals for' column shows, its not in attack where Argentina appear most fragile. It's everywhere else. Not only does the Argentinian squad lack quality outside of their attacking players, its old. Just look at the fact that 36-year-old Willy Caballero will play in goals despite making only three league appearances for Chelsea this season. And 34-year-old Javier Mascherano will also feature despite playing only 17 club games in the last two seasons - 10 in China.
If they didn't have Messi, I don't think Argentina would have a snowballs chance in hell of competing at the latter stages. But they have Messi and I think he will be enough for Argentina to top Group D ahead of Croatia. Following this, they will likely meet Denmark (or Peru) in the Last 16 and then Spain in the quarter-finals. But if there's any team you don't want old legs against, its the possession-focused Spain so an exit here is likely.
Belgium has a host of superb players like De Bruyne, Hazard, Lukaku, Courtois, Vertonghen, Alderweireld, Kompany, Mousa Dembele and Batshuayi. It's easy to understand why many punters view them as potential "dark horses". But they forget about Roberto Martinez.
For me, Martinez is a better self-promoter than manager. His lack of tactical awareness, especially in defence, means Belgium will mount no challenge of any significance. An exit to either Germany or Brazil at the quarter-final stage is the best they can expect.
Drawn in the same Group as Belgium, I expect England to also make a quarter-final before exiting to either Germany or Brazil (depending on whether they win the group or finish runner-up). This won't be new for England as they've exited at the quarter-final stages of six tournaments and only made it to the semi-finals twice - 1966 and 1990.
As noted in my Group preview, I like what Southgate is trying to do with England. He's looking to develop a young squad with a collective spirit and work ethic, and no egos, for the next two or three international tournaments. Led by the quality of Kane, Sterling and Dele Alli, this England squad has a chance of genuinely competing for major tournaments but this looks at least one tournament too early.
This is Portugal's fifth consecutive appearance at the World Cup but they only qualified from their group twice in the prior four – Germany 2006 and South Africa 2010. They arrive to Russia as reigning European champions but many consider them fortunate to win that tournament following six draws from seven games on a favourable route to the final. As noted in my group preview, you expect a team including Ronaldo, Bernardo Silva and Andre Silva to shine but it rarely does as coach Fernando Santos emphasises extreme caution to secure tight-margin results.
Somewhat unfortunate to be drawn in the same group as Spain, I think they can qualify as runner-up at the expense of Morocco and Iran. Doing so likely earns them a Last 16 tie against Uruguay and, if they win that, a quarter-final against France. Assuming they win that, they would then likely need to beat Brazil and Germany or Spain in the final to win the World Cup. It's too much to expect.
Uruguay arrive in Russia as many shrewd judges’ dark horses. This is understandable when you consider they boast a striking duo of Edison Cavani and Luis Suarez, and have been drawn alongside Russia, Egypt and Saudi Arabia in Group A.
It's important that Uruguay top their group to avoid a Last 16 tie against Spain. Assuming they do, they are likely to meet Portugal in the Last 16 before meeting France in the quarter-finals. Should they advance past France, which I don't think they do, Uruguay likely meet Brazil in the semi-finals. If they meet Brazil, they won't fear them but I can't see Uruguay beat them either.
Croatia have been tipped as many so-called expert’s ‘dark horses’ over the past number of European Championships and World Cups. But apart from one semi-final appearance at France 1998, and two quarter-final appearances at World Cup 1990 and Euro 2008, they have disappointed. The fact of the matter is that since 2002, Croatia have failed to qualify from the Group stages of three World Cups. And that was with the benefit of Modric, Rakitic and Mandzukic in their prime.
Now that those players are on the wane, it’s difficult to see why in Russia will be any different. Assuming they qualify second to Argentina, an outcome Iceland may have something to say about in the group, Croatia would meet France in the Last 16. I think France beat them here.
I'm prepared to look foolish after the event but I'm disregarding Argentina, Belgium, England, Portugal, Uruguay and Croatia as potential winners. So, of the 10 favourites for the World Cup, I can only see the top 4 as likely winners. If the top teams play to a level close to their potential, France and Brazil should avoid either other until the semi-finals as should Germany and Spain on the other side of the draw.
Of all the four teams, Germany and Brazil have the easiest routes to the semi-finals. I'm pleased to have them both onside at odds-against.
Brazil to reach the semi-finals of World Cup 2018 @ 11/10 with Ladbrokes.
From the semi-finals, I think Brazil win theirs to reach the final against either Germany or Spain. Rather than look to separate Germany and Spain, my preference is to dutch them at the odds available.