Effective yet subdued draw in Moscow yesterday. The thirty-two teams now can plan for the tournament next year with the conclusion of the draw. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the draw and is trying to get excited alas with no success.
Group A: Russia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Uruguay
When the Russian football delegation arrived for the draw, an opening fixture against Saudi Arabia would have being the most opportune fixture for the hosts to kick off the campaign. Let us be frank. The hosts have to be happy with this draw. Egypt will be tricky and pacy with Salah in the ranks but realistically, defensive weaknesses will undermine their challenge. Uruguay look the form side of this group so the final fixture between the proverbial top two will go some way to determining who from the group will advance the deepest. Uruguay are well organized, defensively tight and will star quality of Suarez and Cavani upfront should top the group. Russia at home though will be competitive. Russia and Uruguay to advance.
Group B: Portugal, Spain, Morocco and Iran
An Iberian derby is the highlight of this group. Morocco and Iran will look to upset the odds but it is the two European sides who will advance to the last sixteen. The opening fixture between Spain and Portugal will decide who tops the group and for the vanquished, a little more work to get through. Morocco and Iran will look to be well organized but I am seeing zero attacking threat from either to seriously upset the form book here. Spain are not what they once are but are still an excellent outfit. Pique at center back and the Catalan question could arouse squad upheaval before this tournament. The attacking options look good for Spain. Costa needs to return to form early next year to provide competition for the likes of Morata. Portugal are solid, all hinges on Ronaldo right now with the likes of Renato Sanchez totally out of sorts. Spain will edge the Iberian derby, advance as group winners. Portugal should get through as well with minimum of fuss.
Group C: France, Australia, Peru and Denmark
Ireland’s conqueror in the UEFA World Cup playoff Denmark have being given a reasonable draw to advance to the last sixteen. Eriksen is the key fulcrum for the Danes, he was sublime against the Republic of Ireland over the two legs. France on paper look the class act of the group. A vast array of talent in the squad for Deschamps to chose from in all positions. Peru qualified from South America so have to be respected but the altitude factor is eliminated, look average against a limited New Zealand outfit in the playoff. Australia come into this group with nothing to lose, solid and well organized but it is the threat upfront or lack of which would be a worry for the Socceroos. European teams again to the fore. Peru perhaps could provide a shock but right now, it does not look likely.
Group D: Argentina, Iceland, Croatia and Nigeria
The group of death. There are two schools of thought around Argentina’s faltering South American campaign. Head coach issues not playing to the squad strengths or the struggles are good to be identified now before the main tournament. Argentina whatever way you spin it struggled in the South American qualification process. Without Messi and this side may not have qualified. The mercurial genius came up trumps at the end of the qualification process, other attacking options shirked their responsibility. The defensive performance also left plenty to be desired; onus on Jorge Sampaoli to get the formation right and make the side more cohesive.
An arduous task when you consider Croatia, Iceland and Nigeria are in the group. Croatia for me are the form team of this group. They have the ability and potential to produce in this tournament; incredibly comfortable with the ball and with threats such as Modric’s passing, this is a side who could embarrass other group opposition.
Iceland will be durable, well organized and look to expose any defensive weakness on set pieces. They have some superb footballers. Gudmunsen and Sigurddson’s attacking threat from open play complements the side’s setup. Nigeria will be flamboyant, one touch football but defensively could be exposed if their setup is not on point if they decide to go all out attack. Croatia for me will top the group with Argentina and Iceland vying for the second spot, edge to Messi gives it to Argentina but the side need to improve significantly or there will be an early exit.
Group E: Brazil, Switzerland, Costa Rica and Serbia
Brazil are the form team in this group and should advance to the last sixteen with the minimum of fuss. Neymar inspired Brazil to a strong South American qualification campaign. I saw the England friendly game and the performance was patchy. Are Brazil defensively better equipped to handle the threat of a Germany, France, Spain? I still have reservations but that debate is for another day.
The battle for second will be the main talking point of this group. Switzerland perhaps have the edge given that they play Brazil first up in the group. Brazil at times are sometimes to slow to start in tournaments past and the Swiss will look to their organization and skill of Shaquiri to create a goal scoring opportunity. Switzerland had to work hard to get past Northern Ireland in the UEFA playoff; a contentious penalty the deciding event of the two legs. Switzerland did create chances in the two legs but their lack of striking prowess was evident, needs to improve.
Serbia are a dark horse to go deep into this tournament. Defensively setup well, imposing midfield with Matic and attacking threats with the likes of Mitrovic and Kolarov coming from deep. Their last couple of games in the European campaign hardly would inspire confidence but this is a side who will relish the occasion of playing in Eastern Europe. Costa Rica, unknown quantity for me. Form in the CONCACAF was decent but realize that they have to be at their best, coupled with some opposition under performance to stake a claim for the second place berth. Brazil to top the group, slight edge to Serbia given their more potent attacking threat but it will be closely fought with the Swiss.
Group F: Germany, Mexico, Sweden and Korea Republic
Reigning World Cup champions Germany face a stiff but still manageable group. Korea Republic look the minnows straight out of the bat, little evidence on their Asian World Cup form to suggest that they will pose any threat to the other three teams. Germany’s squad looks ominously placed to advance deep into the tournament. The fact that they won the Confederation Cup minus several established stars spoke volumes. Their experience of playing in Russia in this tournament can only assist the side and Loew will be grateful that the group opposition will provide a good early test to see where his squad are at ahead of the knockout rounds.
Sweden and Mexico will be vying for the second spot. The Swedes were superb in securing their World Cup spot, nullified the Italian threat and deservedly advanced to Russia. Defensively solid, hard working and with the threat and emergence of Zlatan, they are a side who deserve maximum respect. Mexico enter this tournament with a couple of key questions to answer; what is their best formation? who will take the mantle of scoring responsibilities in this tournament? are they defensively solid enough on set piece to keep in games? Germany to top the group. Sweden to advance as runners up.
Group G: Belgium, Panama, Tunisia and England
Belgium and England will be happy with the group that they were paired in. Debutantes Panama enter the competition, they will be enthusiastic but that will only get you so far as there are concerns defensively as well as who will the chief goal scoring threat for the side in the group stages? Tunisia will be solid but again the lack of goal scoring threat undermines their chances of progress. The key fixture will be when England face Belgium. Belgium should be favorites but this golden generation have being a letdown in previous tournaments. Martinez will look to play one touch football but question marks on a Plan B persist with both manager and national team? England should be going into this tournament with nothing to lose. Their quality has being exposed in recent tournaments, it should be an opportunity for Gareth Southgate to blood new players into the tournament and stick with them long term. Kane will be a key cog for England. Belgium and England to probably draw the last game so it will go on goals scored against the other two teams in the group. Belgium to top the group. England surely cannot screw this group qualification up, can they?
Group H: Poland, Senegal, Colombia and Japan
An intriguing final pool selection. Colombia should be the team to beat in this group. Rodriguez is a quality player and has a point to prove to world football after Real Madrid considered him surplus to requirements at the end of last season. Colombia are well overdue a good run in this competition and with the way this group is setup, they should be group winners on paper. Poland with Lewandowski can never be written off. Well organized and with a star striker in the ranks but the 4-0 hammering away to Denmark has stuck with me. They were kicked off the park by the Danes; the work rate and tempo were abject. They have a point to prove in this group. Eastern European World Cup so the motivation to do well will be high. Senegal and Japan have plenty to prove in the coming months, form guide has being a mixed bag for both. Defensive lapses (and they will happen) will take place and it looks like Colombia and Poland for me to advance. More form guide to be created in the coming months but it looks like the usual teams will feature in the last sixteen; two weeks to settle into the tournament before the big battles start.