FIFA World Cup Russia 2018: Best and Worse Moments

I have the FIFA World Cup Russia 2018 withdrawals today. The prospect of no soccer today was disappointing but it is time to reflect on the tournament as a whole. The hosts held a superb tournament for the most part. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the tournament and gives out the best and worse gongs.

Embarrassing moment

A couple of standout moments come to mind and unfortunately it is all South American themed. Argentina were shambolic both on and off the pitch. A team deeply divided, a team whose coach could have easily being a Sunday League pub team gaffer such was the control that Sampaoli had during this tournament. Argentina were lucky to get out of their pool. Nigeria had them where they wanted them but did not get the job done. Messi struck a forlorn figure during this tourney.

The absence of Dybala was a disgrace and Sampaoli conceivably should have gone after the Croatian result. A team on a downward spiral. Messi would do well and retire from international football. The Argentinian national side is in crisis and an embarrassment much like Diego Maradona whose cameos at the tournament were nauseating at best. The Spanish meltdown sacking their head coach before the tourney or VAR would normally get the crown but Argentina were at a different level of embarrassment in this tourney.

Tournament Clown

The sight of Neymar rolling around the pitch resembled an injured bird after hitting a clean window. This was a tournament where the Brazilian Superstar was supposed to be the main guy; the guy to take over the mantle from Ronaldo or Messi. Wrong. The player had some excellent moments but there were disgraceful con jobs along the way. Belgium beating Brazil was the most welcome victory of the tournament; if only to get rid of Neymar whose stock value has devalued to the extent that PSG may struggle to offload the player even if they wanted to this summer.

Vinny Jones Hard Out Award

Colombia. Easy decision. Four years prior, Colombia played superb passing football but thoughts of their elimination from the tourney saw a different side to the Colombian side. The side were cynical as early as the opening exchanges against Japan. An early red card for deliberate handball was the prelude. Senegal and Poland wins subtly dampened down the dirt factor but their performance against England was deplorable. Hatchet job comes to mind; the Harry Kane penalty in normal time belied belief. Colombian players kicking turf from the penalty spot. Their antics around the referee throughout the tournament beggared belief. Their capitulation in the penalty shootout was a fitting exit for the side.

Easy on the eye Award

France flirted with the neutral with their attacking prowess against Argentina and also in the second half of their World Cup final win over Croatia. However, defensive solidity was paramount and they miss out on this award. Belgium and Croatia for me were the teams that were easy on the eye, loved their style of play, passing football. Hazard, De Bruyne vs. Modric and Rakitic. It is so hard to chose. Seeing as both side did not win anything, they jointly win this reward for their cameos in the tournament.

High Notions Award

England media. Well done England for securing a World Cup semi-final berth but the record  ignoring the win over Panama (pub side),  there was ample precious attacking moments from open play. Set piece execution was the pivotal attacking weapon of choice for England. Kane’s goals secured a quarter final berth and then Sweden came with a shockingly poor performance. Southgate is realistic; the side are going in the right direction but the side have some way to go before being considered a contender in a tournament of this stature. The losses to Belgium and Croatia exposed composure and skill shortcomings to the max in the side. England media can calm down again.

Minty Fresh Team Award

Japan. Their performances were a breathe of fresh air; incredible honesty and ethos to their play. Pundits will ridicule their tactic of all out attack against Belgium at the death in the last sixteen round but it was so adventurous; a change from the standard negativity and hold what you have approach. Martin O’Neill would have being disgusted. Their games were high octane and their never say die attitude was one of my personal favorite moments.

Manager Award

A couple of manager’s come to mind. Carlos Queiroz had Iran superbly organized and with a little more conviction in front of goal should have secured a second round berth. Gareth Southgate to lead a limited England side to a semi-final berth; most unexpected. Roberto Martinez for orchestrating the best half of tactical football in their defeat of Brazil. Didier Deschamps for me is the manager of the tournament; to even get Paul Pogba to execute at the level of performance in this tourney was outstanding (given his difficulties at Manchester United). Squad depth was abundant but the ability to create the cohesion defensively and attacking wise was seen at different points of the tournament. The water carrier has done well indeed.

Player of the Tournament 

Easy decision. Luka Modric creativity, game management and goal threat was seen to the fore throughout the tournament. The mercurial genius was unfortunately on the wrong end of the final result yesterday but his cameos in the previous rounds oozed class.

2018 FIFA World Cup Preview: Group H

The final opening round group sees an intriguing quartet. Colombia, Poland, Senegal and Japan should provide plenty of exciting fixtures with the likes of James and Lewandowsk featuring. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the group and it looks like a battle for second place with Colombia the standout team in this group.

Colombia

A potent dark horse in this tournament. Colombia’s attacking threats will seriously test any opposition in this competition. James, Falcao, Bacca bring different facets to the team. James will look to play deep and make astute runs in behind defenses. Falcao will be the ultimate goal poacher while Bacca’s aerial and shooting prowess is excellent.

This is a solid squad selection, defensively compact with Ospina in the sticks providing reassurance if defensive lapses take place. Sanchez and Arias are key personnel in the ranks, their ability to defensively organize and lead by example will be to the fore. Cuadrado as well is a player who given the opportunity could revel in this tournament given the attention that Falcao, Bacca and James will get in this tournament.

No significant weak links this side. A side who will be defensively compact but have an edge upfront. Colombia look destined to top the group. Their clash against Poland will be fascinating encounter to see how good this side is. James looks destined to have another immense tournament for Colombia.

Poland

A difficult side to work out truth be told. Poland are very Jekyll and Hyde at times; their qualification campaign saw mostly consistently high level of performance but then produced an absolute stinker against Denmark in Copenhagen. The side’s chances in this tournament rest with a couple of keynote players.

Robert Lewandowski is the talisman of the side. His goal scoring ability is excellent. Fifty-five goals in ninety-five internationals speaks volumes. He will require service from the likes of Grosicki who is an underrated player in the setup. Kubar will look to provide leadership when the opportunities arise. Szczesny and Gilk will need to provide leadership at the back.

The issue with Poland is the sheer inconsistency of the side. You will see Poland have excellent periods in games but then there will be poor periods of play which will allow opponents a foothold back into the match. They should advance from the group but not sure if they will advance any further. Disciplinary issues and squad depth could rear their head in the latter stages of this group.

Japan

Is this the tournament where Japan can cause an upset and advance to the knock out rounds? Sufficient attacking threat to chose from with the likes of Kagawa, Okazaki in the squad. Yoshida and Kawashima are excellent professionals at Southampton and Metz respectively.

Japan will provide work rate, desire, team work and organization but how defensively solid are Japan on the set piece? Poland and Colombia in particular are particularly dangerous in this facet of play and some of the goals conceded in their qualification campaign exposed basic defensive fundamentals in free kick situations.

I would love for Japan to advance. Their fan base are incredible. For Japan to advance, a lot of things need to go in their favor. Japan will at times control possession in games, they will need to make these periods of play count. I think Colombia and Poland may have just too much for the Japanese team but their work rate and fitness will keep teams honest in this group. Opening round exit looks the shrewd bet here.

Senegal

A side who have experience and talent to cause problems for the other teams in the group. The experience of the squad emphasized with the likes of Kouyate, Gueye, Mane, Biram Diouf, Sakho. Players who have a wealth of EPL experience.

Mane is the key player for this Senegal outfit. The African nation will look to hit opposition on the counter attack and Mane’s pace and prowess in front of goal will be the primary threat for the side.

The negative is defensive frailties during the friendly games in recent weeks; defensive organization on the set piece was problematic and issues at times with their shape. Training camp sessions hopefully addressed these concerns.

The outcome of their first group game against Poland will determine how far Senegal will advance in this competition. A positive result and the team will fancy their chances of group progression; otherwise, heads will go down and an early exit could be confirmed in their second fixture.

2018 FIFA World Cup Preview: Group G

Group G sees England and Belgiium pitted against Tunisia and Panama. Can a youthful England side with little pressure deliver good performances in this group? Can Belgium’s golden generation produce the results and progression that the squad depth in their ranks deserves? Hawkeye Sidekick previews the group setup.

Belgium: Potential Fulfilled?

This is an ideal group for Belgium to settle into this tournament, looking to rid the ring rust and gain confidence heading into the second round of the competition. The squad depth is stacked with talent. The spine of the team looks strong with Courtois, Kompany, Vertonghen, Dembele, Hazard, De Bruyne and Lukaku to name but a few and a squad depth whose performance levels are high.

The question for me about Belgium is how versatile and adaptable the team is given the game time circumstance. Recent tournaments have seen Belgium resort to Plan A with little deviation from that plan. Given their manager Roberto Martinez was critiqued for the same failing in club football, it will be interesting to see if Belgium can adapt as in the knock out rounds, they will be asked to change their game plan. If they can, then this is a serious contender.

Their final group game against England will determine who tops the group. Given their experience and caliber in the ranks, Belgium should qualify with ease to the second round and win the group but as mentioned the ability to change tact during the knockout rounds to achieve a result is their real test.

England

The hype about England has reduced considerably for this tournament. The side is a work in progress with question marks on defense and goalkeeping key. The goalkeeping position is up for grabs. Pickford, Butland or Pope have precious little experience at this level, not sure who will be lining up in goal for the Tunisian game? Enough said and the fact that Pickford and Butland have a mistake in them does not inspire sufficient confidence either.

The defensive side of the game has the potential to be on point. Walker, Rose and Trippier on the full back flanks will provide midfield sufficient width and their ability to defend is on point. The key question is the central defensive position and who fills the position? Will England go three at the back? Cahill or Stones need to be dominant, huge ask given their lack of first team action with their clubs this season. Question marks defensively for me.

The midfield and attacking options look exciting. Kane will score goals provided that the service from out wide is on point. Can Dele Ali start this tournament with energy and positive attacking mindset? His partnership with Kane looks key to England’s success from an attacking sense.

England should be more than capable to advance from this group but I think lapses defensively and goalkeeping are not far away. England to advance as runners up in the group with a couple of scares. For England to be a dark horse, Sterling has to deliver. Time will tell.

Tunisia

Their opening fixture against England is their proverbial cup final. They need to get something from this tie to realistically have a chance of qualifying for the second round. Tunisian’s squad looks solid and compact with the majority of players plying their trade in France, Egypt, Saudia Arabia and in Tunisia.

Massive onus in this side will fall to Leicester City’s Yohan Benalouane who will need to marshal his team mates around him from central defensive to ensure that the side is compact, hard to breakdown and organized because the attacking options while pacy have no proven goal scoring threat in this level of competition. Khazri is the focal point in attack; needs good service but given possession issues against England and Belgium, it could be a forlorn experience.

What is the hope for Tunisia? The hope and expectation is to be competitive and look to be in these group games come the final twenty minutes and look to score on the counter-attack or set-piece. The lack of goal threat is an impediment, the goal ratio in the squad is low. Tunisia to offer plenty but an opening round exit looks on the cards provided they can turn the tables on England tomorrow!

Panama

The fairy tale of making the World Cup for Panama is here. It is now time to deliver and produce good performances. The squad is comprised of players plying their trade in MLS and Central America. This is a significant improvement in opposition and I fear for Panama in all facets of play.

Their opening fixture against Belgium could be a potential nightmare unless Panama are defensively solid. Belgium have the ability to carve this side open at various stages; it is up to Panama to be compact and perhaps park the bus for the opening period and then look to probe Belgium thereafter with Perez and Tejada the key attacking threat.

Tournaments like this at times have glorious fairy tale stories but for Panama, the fairy tale ends here. Penedo and Baloy will have to produce heroics defensively for Panama to have any chance of securing a result in this group. Panama look vulnerable and an opening round exit is on the cards.

2018 FIFA World Cup Preview: Group F

Group F. A group which features Germany, the reigning World Cup Champions and one of the teams tipped to win the competition next month. Mexico, Sweden and Korea Republic will look to upset the odds but realistically it is a straight fight for the second place in the group. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the action.

Germany

Joachim Low had the luxury of not selecting Leroy Sane from the final squad, enough said. Germany are laden with talent in all positions and the squad depth is strong in all positions.

The positives for Germany is their squad’s backbone is personnel who triumphed in this competition four years ago. Kroos, Ozil, Reus, Khedira, Hummels, Boateng, Neuer all feature in this squad. Experience aplenty in the squad and their knowledge and insight in how to win this competition is invaluable.

Plenty of attacking options for Low to chose from. Gomez, Werner and Reus bring something different to the table. Gomez with his aerial threat. Werner with his movement. Reus with his pace and ability to create space in the box. Throw in Muller who can play in the nine channel and options are there for German management.

The negatives are potentially two fold: Is Manuel Neuer fully fit? If so, does Neuer have sufficient game minutes under his belt to perform at his typical ultra high levels. Low needs to make a hard call on Neuer if either question is no with ter Stegen in the wings to fill in.

Sane’s omission was a surprise. His pace, movement and ability to score goals was to the fore with Manchester City. Low and management evaluated in international football conditions and felt it was not the time for the youngster. Draxler, Brandt and Rudy are ahead of Sane in the depth chart, it is a decision if Germany do not win the competition will be discussed over and over again.

Germany will have sufficient quality to win this group with a bit to spare. Their group will not fully test the side’s full capabilities until the knock out rounds.

Mexico

Mexico realistically are hunting for the second place in this group along with Sweden and South Korea. Few surprises in the squad selection. The squad contains several marquee names.

Marquez in central defense. Salcedo looking to roam forward from full back. dos Santos looking to link midfield and attack with sharp, incisive passing. Hernandez looking for a chance to score a goal along with Carlos Vela.

Guardado and Herrera are key fulcrums for this Mexico side. Guardado at central midfield will look to protect his defense while supporting the likes of Vela with incisive runs from deep. Herrera at center back is a player with huge talent and pace, needs to be focused throughout.

The negative for Mexico is perhaps mentality based. What happens when Mexico concede the first goal? Will the team look to respond in a positive fashion or go out with a whimper? Mexico vs. Sweden decides who advances to the second round, hard to separate both teams.

Sweden

A solid team, well organized and with their threat on the set piece will pose problems for all group opponents. The positives for Sweden is their organization, they will sit in when required and this could frustrate particularly Mexico who may throw caution to the wind and let the Swedes score. Their performance against Italy on the road to secure their place in this World Cup a perfect case study.

Experience aplenty in the squad. Larsson, Olsson, Jansson, Toivonen, Forsberg have all experienced marquee tournaments and their presence will be a reassuring presence in the camp. Lindelof will have a point to prove with Sweden after a mixed season with Manchester United.

The negatives for Sweden is potentially that they struggle to score goals in major tournaments. UEFA European Championships, they exited in the group stages; their performances were extremely one dimensional from an attacking perspective.

The onus is on Toivonen and Guidetti to provide the goals upfront; otherwise Sweden will look to score from the set piece. 50/50 call with Mexico on whether they qualify for the second round.

South Korea

The underdog of the group. South Korea need to be organized in their defensive duties but questions abound on the quality of their goalkeeping and back line options to offset the threat of the other three teams in the group.

South Korea will look to their players who are plying their football careers in the UK and Germany. Heung-Min is an excellent attacking player and he will need the service from Ja-cheol and Ki Sung-yueng to impress.

The rest of the side need to be compact and solid and hope that this is enough to advance. However, with Brazil and tweak tough Serbia and Switzerland for company, an early exit looks on the cards!

2018 FIFA World Cup Preview: Group E

Group E sees Brazil enter the competition in a group containing Serbia, Switzerland and underdog Costa Rica. A group which may see some dull games but a group which should prove whether Brazil have the squad depth, defensive and attacking qualities to be considered a leading World Cup contender.

Brazil

Tite has named an extremely strong squad for this tournament. Alisson, Ederson are quality keeper options for a defense which will be led and marshaled by the likes of Thiago Silva, Marcelo and Danilo.

The midfield squad options are endless. Paulinho has had a superb debut season with Barcelona. Fred and Willian have featured well in UEFA Champions League and also have defensive solidity with the inclusions of Fernandinho and Casemiro. Coutinho has the ability to provide superb cameos for his striking options as well.

Brazil hopes will depend on how fit is Neymar; the superstar has not featured in months for PSG and he needs to be on top form for Brazil to win this tournament. Yes, Brazil do have Firmino, Jesus and Costa but Neymar on form makes this Brazil into a completely different animal. Brazil if Neymar is fully fit could be rampant in these group phase games.

Minimal negatives except for perhaps quality depth in the defensive positions if suspensions come into play in the knockout rounds. The central defensive options look limited; plenty of full back options and something to monitor as the tournament progresses. Brazil have more than enough to top this group; their composure and patience will be tested by Serbia and Switzerland who are defensively well organized.

Switzerland

The Swiss are a difficult side to analyze; undoubted footballing ability and when you see this side in qualification for major tournaments, they look the absolute part, they play attractive football but then when it comes to the marquee tournament, they park the bus, go ultra conservative and you cannot wait for the side to be out of the tournament.

The positives for Switzerland is their squad profile; many players with vast international experience. They have in Xherdan Shaqiri a player who has the ability and potential to win games with moments of sheer brilliance. Johan Djourou, Stephan Lichtsteiner, Granit Xhaka, Valon Behrami will need to provide the leadership and supply to Shaqiri for the side to be successful.

The issue I see with Switzerland is their lack of a potent front man. Seferovic is their key striker along with Shaqiri will form the goal scoring threat. The habit of turning to prototype conservative for the Swiss is also not far away as well. If they go down that route, hope that they are knocked out of the tournament early. It is no fun to watch a Switzerland under those conditions!

Serbia

An enigma. This side if the squad and management are at one will be very competitive. Serbia will look to play on the counter attack in the key fixtures of this pool, bad news for anyone paid into watch themselves and Switzerland! In Dusan Tadic, they have a player whose pace in the counter attack could create massive issues for group opposition.

The positives for the side is that the spine of the side is rock solid. Stojkovic, Ivanovic, Matic will provide defensive assurance to those around them. Kolarov has had a superb season with AS Roma and his delivery from the full back position is still on point. A team who will be defensively disciplined and will revel in the Russian summer.

The negative for the side is potentially their striker options. Aleksandar Mitrovic on top form with Serbia is a goal poacher supreme but if anyone has watched EPL can testify, the player does lose the plot from time to time. Can Serbia find an alternate striker perhaps in Prijovic to have a breakout tournament.

Expect Serbia to go 4-5-1 formation potentially with Tadic roving behind Mitrovic; marginally going for the Eastern Europeans to advance but the second round may be their lot.

Costa Rica

I love Costa Rica, a fabulous country, great people and great culture but I think this World Cup may be a chastening experience for the nation. Navas in the Costa Rica goal will have to play out of his skin to prevent his side from going down to a couple of heavy losses.

I am seeing nothing in the outfield options to inspire confidence. Gamboa, Ruiz, Oviedo and Campbell are the standout talents in this squad but this looks a daunting challenge.

A team who will struggle to score goals and struggle to keep clean sheets, hopefully Costa Rica are competitive and force a result but I am not optimistic for their chances. An early exit beckons.

2018 FIFA World Cup Preview: Group D

Group D looks tough. Argentina will look to Lionel Messi for the inspiration, creativity and goals to advance but the side defensively look vulnerable when you consider that Croatia, Iceland and Nigeria are group opponents. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the squads.

Argentina

Jorge Sampaoli has a delicate balancing act to achieve with this Argentinian squad loaded with attacking talent in striker and midfield positions but unfortunately there are questions on how defensively solid the side are with this talent in the side. The friendly loss to Spain at the start of this year was evidence if evidence was needed that Argentina defensively as a team is a work in progress and whether Sampaoli can fix this during training camp is ambitious at best.

The pros for the side are the attacking talent options. Aguero, Messi, Dybala, Di Maria, and Higuain are incredible options to have. How Sampaoli keeps these players happy with sufficient game minutes to partner the mercurial Messi is the another fine balancing act required?

Plenty of defensive leadership and responsibility is going to rest on the likes of Mascherano and Otamendi. They will need support from their central midfield area with the likes of Biglia will need to be on point in their defensive duties. Banega is another player who could have a positive impact for Argentina in this tournament.

The lack of defensive nous collectively in the team is going to give group opposition an opportunity in these opening round fixtures. Argentina to just sneak into the second round but this opening round will see vulnerabilities in this Argentinian side which a potential last sixteen side will gleefully accept despite the brilliance of Messi.

Iceland

A team of the sum of all its parts. The many years of cultivating a well run, efficient youth development system to unearth Icelandic talent has reaped its rewards. Iceland feature in yet another marquee tournament. Their support and the trademark hand clap will be greatly appreciated from the World Cup organizers.

The pluses for the side is their organization; hard to break down defensively and well organized. Their ability to execute superb set piece delivery led by Gylfi Sigurrdson and Johann Berg Gudmunson has created numerous goals and will be a live threat to all opponents. Their ability to go direct plays to the strengths of their forward line options such as Finbogason.

The negatives for the side are that they will be up against potentially at least two of the most potent attacking units in the tournament. Argentina’s attacking arsenal and their electric pace will test Iceland’s rearguard who at times have struggled to contain pacy attacking sides; elude to France quarter final loss in the UEFA Championships. The personnel has not changed drastically from this encounter. Croatia have the potential to pass a team into exhaustion.

Iceland will need to realistically get something from the Argentina and Croatia games to have a realistic chance of advancing to the second round.

Can Iceland evolve their game plan to throw different looks to their opposition? I have my doubts and I think they will at times look incredibly one dimensional. Alas, Iceland to go out in the opening round of the tournament.

Croatia

A team which should get to the semi-finals of this tournament. They are an incredible solid squad; defensively solid and with marquee midfield and attacking options to cause endless issues to opponents in this campaign.

The pros for the side are the midfield options. Luka Modric has the ability to beat teams on his own; his ability to change tempo when required, his passing range and ability to come up with decisive goals from long range are huge pluses.

Mateo Kovacic has the ability to be a player of the tournament. The Real Madrid central midfielder ticks all the boxes; good with the ball, defensively on point and ability to support his strikers with searing runs from deep.

Ivan Perisic, Nikola Kalinic and Mario Mandzukic are quality front men and offer pace, power and aerlal threat for the national side. Mandzukic in particular has had another terrific season with Juventus at club level and if provided with good service, will be scoring plenty.

If there is a negative, it can be that Croatia can at times take their foot off the pedal during a fixture. It cost them during the European Champions and the qualification saw a couple of indifferent end of campaign results due to complacency during the game.

I would be disappointed for Croatia if they cannot emerge from this group as winners. They are the standout team in this group; experience and no genuine weak links in the squad. Their passing game has the potential to destroy teams in this group. Group winners for me.

Nigeria

The African nation is known for its pace and powerful football. From their cameos in USA ’94 where the likes of Finidi George became a household name to the footballing world, this side have not being afraid to express themselves on a football pitch.

There have being years of turmoil between the association and players but this is all behind the country as they look forward to this tournament.

The side have experience straight down the spine of their side with the likes of Obi Mikel, Moses, Musa, Etebo, Ndidi, Iwobi and Ighalo. They have pace and power to exploit teams on the counter attack which could cause issues for their pool opponents.

The negative is in the defensive squad depth. The goalkeeping position in particular is quite inexperienced with Ezenwa with only twenty-six caps, the other keepers have only a handful caps between them.

The defensive options are for me personally something of an unknown and I fear that the team may be prone to a couple of defensive lapses which will cause decisive goals being conceded.

Entertaining football is the objective but whether defensively they can be solid enough is a big question mark and for this reason, it looks like an opening round exit.

2018 FIFA World Cup Preview: Group C

An interesting group on paper. A group where France, Denmark, Australia and Peru will lock horns. A group where France should be the clear favorite to top the pool but the other three teams will pose different looks which makes this group an intriguing one to predict.

France

The squad is loaded with depth and talent in all positions. Lloris, Varane, Umiti, Pogba, Kante and Griezmann to name but a few of the star studded squad assembled for Le Bleu. The key point is the harmony between management and players as in tournaments past, all has not being so rosy in the French camp leading and during major tournaments, look no further than the South African World Cup when the French side under-performed and infighting in the camp was rife.

A nice group for France to evaluate their chances of World Cup success starts with a fixture against Australia. The Danish fixture potentially is the game to decide top spot. Hoping France produce a high tempo game plan where the likes of Lemar revel out wide to supply the likes of Griezmann who will look to end speculation om his club future with an TV cameo in Spain tonight.

France personally are another dark horse in this tournament; their speed and pace is a live threat for anyone if the team are in the mood. They will top this group with a bit to spare.

Denmark

The Danish challenge needs to be respected. Their performance in their second leg playoff demolition of the Republic of Ireland was evidence that given the time and space, they will punish teams. The team is centered around Christian Eriksen, the mercurial midfielder looks destined to have an excellent tournament. His passing range, ability to create chances for colleagues and to score goals from runs from deep or long range efforts is the standout threat. Delaney as well fresh from his transfer to Borussia Dortmund can also contribute from a midfield perspective.

The team is defensively solid with the likes of Schmeichel, Christensen and Kjaer in the ranks. The issue for Denmark is if teams target Eriksen, what is the alternative Plan B. There were indifferent performances in the qualification phase of play when teams flooded the midfield area and nullified Eriksen’s influence as a result.

Their fixture against Peru who will be cagey and defensive will test Denmark’s patience and nerve to keep composed. If they can win their opening fixture, they are primed to qualify for the second round but France personally have too much in squad depth for this group of players.

Peru

The case of Paolo Guerrero has captivated all World Cup preparations for Peru. The inspirational Peru captain is now free to play in the tournament and is a timely boost for a team who will need goals to advance from this group. They have live threats upfront with Farfan and now the available Guerrero but question marks abound on the midfield creativity of the side.

Peru will look to play on the counter in these pool games and if teams do not respect Peru’s pace on the counter attack could get caught out. A potential star for Peru in the engine room of midfield is Tapia, a versatile player who plays in midfield for Feyenoord but can also play full back and center half as well. Peru’s inability to supply their key strikers could be the key impediment to qualification; defensively they are solid evident in their South American campaign.

Australia

The Socceroos will enter this group with nothing to lose. The squad is filled with domestic league players as well as players plying their trade in European leagues. The EPL and SPL representatives will need to set the tone for others to follow. Tom Rogic, Miles Jedinak, Matt Ryan have impressed with their clubs and need to show the same form in this tournament.

Aaron Mooy needs to be the play maker for this side and his performances will be an excellent gauge of how this side fare. The squad depth is a concern particularly defensively if suspension issues arise in the first two fixtures but expect Australia to provide pool opponents with plenty of issues in physicality and work rate.

Tim Cahill’s cameos to nick a goal may be required once or twice in this tournament. Australia are the underdogs in this group but there is an upset result in this group of players; not enough to advance but may dash another side’s hopes of second round progression.

2018 FIFA World Cup Preview: Group B

Group B. The battle of Iberia and then you add Morocco and Iran to the mix, hoping beyond hope that they can pull off an unlikely upset. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on a group where the opening fixtures of the round could fundamentally change the course of the tournament.

Portugal

The opening fixture of this group for Portugal will determine realistically how far they will go in this tournament. A fixture against the old enemy Spain. A fixture where both teams will look to win and establish a decisive blow in the outcome of the group. The runner up of this group has a daunting task to overcome a quietly fancied Uruguay in the second round. The winner of the group, a potential date with Russia or Egypt. What fixture would you prefer?

Portugal had an indifferent qualification campaign but got their act together at the end of the campaign to beat Switzerland comprehensively to secure automatic World Cup qualification. The squad is loaded with talent. Cristano Ronaldo will look to create and score for a side who have massive experience defensively and in midfield with the likes of Alves ,Pepe, Quaresma and Moutinho in the ranks.

Bernardo Silva has the ability and potential to be one of the stars of this tournament. The Manchester City midfielder / forward passing range and potency in front of goal will be a huge asset for Portugal to supplement the attacking workload from Ronaldo.

How will Portugal setup though for Friday’s opening fixture against Spain? I hope that they do not go into their defensive shell and look to counter attack with the attacking talent at their disposal but I suspect they will go with prototype park the bus against Spain and ultimately loss to finish second.

Spain

Julen Lopetegui has being quick to decide his future as he was announced as Real Madrid manager for next season today. The managerial announcement will surely have caused a stir in the squad particularly among the Catalan players. Unity in the camp is going to be the key for Spain to succeed in this tournament; any discontent in the camp and this tournament is over before it starts.

The squad on paper is exceptional. From David De Gea in goals to Diego Costa upfront, there is a wealth of talent and depth in the squad to cover multiple positions. The lack of goals in recent warm-up games is a concern but it was not as if Spain were not creating good attacking chances?

Iniesta and Busquets in the heart of the Spanish midfield will dictate tempo and provide defensive stability respectively. Costa in attack will irritate defenders to the brink and will punish any lapses in concentration. David Silva’s play making and runs from deep will pose opponents in this group massive issues.

The first fixture against Portugal will be the decisive fixture; a cagey encounter beckons provided no early goals are scored. Both teams will look to perform from minute one but there will be a bit of ring rust with the start of the tournament. Spain are the team to beat in this group; their qualification campaign was impressive too with their performance at home to Italy very impressive. Spain to top the pool and avoid Suarez and Godin.

Morocco

An interesting outfit to evaluate; undoubted talent with the likes of Benatia and Hakimi in the defensive ranks but I am looking for an attacking outlet to cause problems for the two big European teams. I am struggling. El Kaabi is an unknown attacking quantity and there does not appear to be goals flourishing in the ranks. Herve Renard quite frankly has his work cut out for him in this group and can only see an early exit for the North African nation whose fans will bring color, atmosphere to their fixtures.

Iran

Carlos Queiroz like Herve Renard will look to be defensively solid and look to launch counter attacks against their other group rivals. A daunting task given a look at the squad depth. Azmoun and Ghoochannejhad will provide the attacking threat for the Iranians. The worry is the other end of the pitch, not sure if the players in the goalkeeping and defensive ranks have either the experience or caliber to compete in this group. When you consider Ronaldo or Diego Costa against Iran, you suddenly start to feel my concerns for the Iranians. A result perhaps against Morocco is the objective but no hope of qualification for Iran. Queiroz will look to roam for pastures new immediately after the tournament.

2018 FIFA World Cup Preview: Group A

Italy, The Netherlands, Republic of Ireland and USA may not be at the big dance but it would not be this blog’s style without doing a proper review of the upcoming FIFA World Cup Russia 2018. This is the opening preview salvo will focus on the opening group (Group A) and the host nation have not done too badly in the draw.

Russia

Russia come into this tournament needing to answer questions on their form and their ability to create from an attacking perspective. Their preparations for the tournament have being less than ideal with a couple of notable underwhelming performances. An opening game against a Saudi Arabia who on paper offer quite less going forward should present a good opportunity for Russia to score a couple of goals and gain confidence. Russia to look to counter-attack at every given opportunity so defensively, the hosts will need to be on point. Akinfeev is a vastly experienced keeper with over one hundred caps, quality shot stopper but his ability on crosses will be thoroughly tested. The defensive shape of the side will be led and organized by the likes of Ignashevich. Smolov and Dzyuba will provide the attacking threat but need midfield quality in the form of Zhirkov to come to the fore. If they cannot produce a convincing performance against Saudi Arabia in their opening game, then this group could prove problematic but think they will just about qualify to the last sixteen where that will be that.

Saudi Arabia

Juan Antonio Pizzi is only recently appointed, his two predecessors fired in double quick time. The majority of the squad play their football domestically in Al-Alhi or Al-Hilal. Given the unrest in management issues, how will the side setup in this tournament? The attacking onus will fall on the players who ply their trade in La Liga. Al-Dawsari and Al-Muwallad are technically gifted players who will look to create for the Middle East nation but defensively they look vulnerable given the level of competition that the squad play at  domestically and even from an international perspective. Saudi Arabia will look to entice Russia out of their counter-attacking shell in the opening game; this is the key fixture for the Saudis to set the tone for the rest of the tournament. A heavy defeat and who knows if Pizzi will be leading the team for the second round of games? A potential point against Egypt is optimistic, more realistic is three losses and an early flight home.

Egypt

It is amazing to think that Egypt’s last World Cup appearance was in 1990. Egypt will not lack for physicality, fitness and quality in their ranks. Hector Cuper is a shrewd tactician and will hope that Mohammed Salah is back to full fitness to provide a serious attacking threat upfront. If the forward is, then Egypt are a massive live threat as the side have the defensive and midfield nous to cause problems for the other sides in the group. Hegazi in the heart of the defense needs to provide organization and keep his colleagues focused. Egypt defensively at times are prone to the lapse in concentration seen in their recent loss to Belgium in a warm-up contest. An even contest was blown open by two quick fire goals from Belgium. Fitness concerns abound on Elneny too, the central midfielder can provide stability for Egypt defensively. Fitness is the keyword for this Egyptian squad. If everyone is on top form, they can spring an upset against Russia and beat Saudi Arabia but lack of game time and cohesion could be their undoing. Early opening round exit due to these factors is the hunch.

Uruguay

A proverbial dark horse in this tournament. A nice opening group to settle into the tournament. Massive quality throughout a squad which is vastly experienced. Muslera is an accomplished net minder and his defensive cover boosts the likes of Godin and Gimenez. A notoriously tough team to break down defensively and then you have the sublime attacking threats in attack. Suarez and Cavani provided they receive adequate service out wide have the ability to decide games with moments of brilliance. They are the form side in this group; they should win the group with minimum fuss and look to rest their front line starters before the end of this competition phase.

Verdict

Saudi Arabia, thanks for the coming but you are gone before a ball is kicked. Uruguay will top the group and it is then a battle between Russia and Egypt for the second spot in the group. Russia as host nation pip Egypt who will rue fitness issues for the lack of progression in this tournament.