It’s June and that means only one thing: the 2018 World Cup in Russia is just a couple of weeks away.
Your 2018/19 Forge Press Sports Team have laid all their cards on the table and given some of their predictions.
It’s a dangerous game to play and all five of them will probably look daft at some point, but here we go…
Adam May (Head of Sport): France. My heart says Spain because I think they’ve learnt from a torrid 2014 World Cup, and I would love Andres Iniesta to claim another crown. I don’t think it’ll happen, though, and have instead gone for France. The power they have up front (Giroud will be a useful weapon and I still think it’s criminal that Arsenal sold him to Chelsea) will test most teams with 19-year-old Kylian Mbappé appearing in his first major international tournament, and they have driving midfielders that will help dictate the tempo. They have a strong defence as well and all the ingredients, as far as I can see, to win it. They’ve learnt from their 2010 debacle and are in a healthy position now. You only have to look at the players who didn’t make the plane to see their strength in depth.
Josh Taylor (Sports Editor): Argentina. People who have paid attention to the NBA play-offs will be familiar with a certain Lebron James, a near immortal player who has dragged his team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, kicking and screaming to the finals with some impressive performances. The Cavs are known as a team full of players who underperform and, inevitably, lean on James to pull them through, which he has done, and more. I feel you can draw comparisons from this relationship and apply them to Lionel Messi’s own with his national team Argentina. La Albiceleste are a team who struggled through the qualifying rounds and looked to Messi to pull them through and, shock, he did. With Messi coming off a more than adequate season from Barcelona I think he can do more of the same and it’s the Messi factor I believe will cause Argentina to pull off a dramatic upset.
Patrick Burke (Sports Editor): Brazil. Manager Tite has got the Seleção purring, and they finished ten points clear of nearest challengers Uruguay in qualification. He has got the best out of star-man Neymar, but with Gabriel Jesus and Philippe Coutinho forming a three-pronged attack, they are less reliant on him than in 2014. Centre-backs Marquinhos and Miranda should make Brazil more solid, and the emergence of Casemiro adds greater quality to the midfield. They also have the required fire in their bellies as they look to avenge their humiliation on home turf against Germany four years ago. It’s been 16 years since the record five-time winners were victorious on the highest stage, and this current side perhaps represents their best chance to end the drought.
Charlie Payne (Sports Copy Editor): Brazil. It sounds strange to say about the five-time World Cup winners, but Brazil have a point to prove, and I think they’re going to do it. They’ve banished the demons that plagued their 2014 campaign (i.e. having David Luiz and Dante in defence), and the boost of Neymar returning to fitness just in time for the tournament. A narrow victory over Germany in the final.
Michael Ekman (Online Sports Editor): Germany. It was a difficult choice between Germany or Spain in my mind, as I feel that Spain have recently started playing a more entertaining brand of football rather than their possession-based tiki-taka that we saw in 2008 up until 2014. They haven’t lost a game since manager Julen Lopetegui took over, either. Given that Germany have such depth in their squad, with basically every player being as good as the next one, I reckon they have more than enough quality to retain their title. Joachim Löw has consistently been able to bring Germany at least to the semi-finals of every tournament where he has been in charge and I don’t see why he would not be able to replicate his 2014 heroics in this tournament as well.
AM: Nigeria. They are in a strong Group D, featuring the likes of Argentina, Iceland and Croatia and, while the overall winner of that group is nearly all but confirmed, Nigeria could represent a threat and surprise a few people.They reached the last 16 in 2014 and will have to win at least one of their first two matches to be within a chance though as they face Messi and co in their final group game on 26 June. Their opener against Croatia is key to their success but with Arsenal’s Alex Iwobi and Chelsea’s Victor Moses they possess pace and will oppose a counter-attacking threat. The question is whether they have enough firepower to finish teams off.
JT: Poland. It was quite hard to pick this team. Belgium have grown enough for them not to be a surprise and they should be aiming for the semis. I also think Croatia’s squad has grown too old to surprise anyone. I’m going to go with Poland. They have enough to get out of the group and with any luck could beat one of England or Belgium. They have a few younger faces like Milik and Linetty while also been captained by the lethal Lewandowski. They have enough to progress.
PB: Croatia. This is probably the last chance for the ‘golden generation’ to succeed at a major tournament, something the likes of Ivan Rakitić, Luka Modric and Mario Mandžukić will be acutely aware of. They proved their capabilities at Euro 2016 by topping a group which included holders Spain, and will be keen to set the record straight after a very disappointing, negative performance against Portugal in the round-of-16 denied them a favourable route to the final. The clash with Argentina in Nizhny Novgorod looks one of the highlights of the group stage. Jorge Sampaoli’s side (admittedly minus Lionel Messi) were recently humiliated 6-1 in Spain and scraped through qualifying, so if Croatia play to their capabilities, they could triumph in Group D and put themselves in with a shout of reaching the latter stages.
CP: Senegal. I think Senegal have the potential and the players in key areas to overhaul one of Poland or Colombia and get out of Group H. With Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly marshalling the defence, Idrissa Gueye buzzing around the midfield and the driving force of Sadio Mané in attack, they’ve got a great chance to raise some eyebrows.
MK: Iceland. We all remember Iceland’s unexpected endeavour in Euro 2016 but they seem even more likely to perform better now than they did then. It looks like they have built from that experience as they finished top of their qualifying group ahead of Croatia, Ukraine, and Turkey – three strong teams. While the only clear star player they have is Gylfi Sigurdssðn, they do not seem to be too over reliant on him performing well, and are still able to maintain an organised defence while also creating chances from counter attacks and set-pieces.
AM: Lionel Messi. He will have the weight on his shoulders but he looked sharp in Argentina’s recent friendly and will want to prove those who doubt he can win the World Cup wrong. He agonisingly lost out in 2014’s final as Germany were crowned winners and, while I don’t think Argentina will win the competition outright, Messi will fancy himself to bag a few goals in the group. He’ll be in tip-top form after a brilliant, title-winning season for Barcelona.
JT: Lionel Messi. Going through my logic of Argentina winning the tournament by way of Messi leading them, it’s only fair to say that he’ll net quite a few. I’ll go on record and say he’ll score eight goals. (Please Lionel, Please).
PB: Antoine Griezmann. He was also the leading scorer at Euro 2016, comes off the back of another fine season at Atletico Madrid and is the main man in a French team packed full of talented, creative players. With group stage matches against Australia, Peru and Denmark, Griezmann could be well on his way to this honour by the time the knockout stages begin.
CP: Olivier Giroud. Bear with me on this one. Giroud is a nailed on starter for the French team as the focal point of the attack, and with such great creative players around him and with Les Bleus’ group so low on quality, I can see the big man notching a few on the path to the latter rounds.
ME: Antoine Griezmann. The Frenchman has been absolutely lethal for Atletico Madrid all season. He has shown several times that he is able to perform in big games, as was seen in the last European Championship and throughout Atletico’s Europa League-winning campaign. He will most likely start behind Giroud in a number 10 role but that’s where he performs best for France as he gets enough space to do what he does best – score goals.
AM: N’Golo Kanté. The man is a machine and will dictate France’s tempo and will brush off opponents with ease. With all the flair France possess going forward, he will be crucial to the team’s advancement in the competition, providing a protective wall in front of the defence and breaking up play. Players like Kanté often go unnoticed, but his input will be crucial. I’m being hopeful on this one and FIFA will probably give it to a flair player. Messi, anyone?
JT: Lionel Messi. He’s the darling of FIFA and if he leads Argentina to a World Cup it’s nailed on. However, I could honestly see Salah getting it, even if he only scores a goal and Egypt don’t qualify for the knockout rounds…
PB: Neymar. If Brazil are to go all the way, their talisman will play a huge part. He helped drag his team to the semi-finals last time around, where injury ruled him out of contention, and you sense that this is a footballer built for big matches in a similar vein to Cristiano Ronaldo.
CP: Philippe Coutinho. As previously stated, I think Brazil are going to lift the trophy in the Luzhniki Stadium, and Coutinho is going to be the pick of the squad. Neymar won’t be 100% having not played for four months, so it will be up to his Barcelona replacement to spur the Seleção on to glory.
ME: Neymar. As stated, I believe Germany will win the tournament, but I believe they will be facing Brazil in that final, a place that Neymar will have guided his team to. Even though he has been injured for most of the spring, he should have more than enough capability to guide Brazil throughout this World Cup campaign. With his quality in this Brazil team, I would imagine they put every opposition they face to the test.
AM: Marc-Andre ter Stegen. I can’t see Neuer starting after an injury-plagued season, so fully expect ter Stegen to take the reigns and showcase his talents. He’s a top-class keeper and will be tough to break-down.
JT: Manuel Neuer. This is an easy one. Germany have a completely sound defence and the keeper himself isn’t half bad, either. Spain seem to have lost all ability to compete at national tournaments and France have seen their defence hit with a costly injury to Laurent Koscielny.
PB: David de Gea. The Manchester United man has established himself as one of the world’s all round top goalkeepers. This tournament could make him the undisputed best of the lot.
CP: Either Manuel Neuer or Marc-Andre ter Stegen. I definitely think Germany’s goalkeeper will come out on top in the tournament, it just depends on which one plays. Neuer will certainly start if he’s fit enough, but hasn’t played all season so might not be risked, so ter Stegen would be the very capable deputy.
ME: Manuel Neuer (Given that he starts). It’s still unclear if Manuel Neuer will be Germany’s number 1 after missing basically the entire season due to injury. If he is deemed fit enough to play, he has to be seen as the most likely candidate for the award. Otherwise, it will probably be his compatriot Ter Stegen who’ll take the reins between the posts and bring home this award instead.
Best Young Player:
AM: Julian Brandt. The 22-year-old Germany winger may not get a lot of starts early on but his impressive wing-play could be a useful alternative for Joachim Löw’s men. He made his Bundesliga debut at just 17 for Bayer Leverkusen before playing against PSG in the Champions League three days later. He’s one to watch and, while it may be a tournament too soon to have a definitive impact, clubs will sit up and listen.
JT: Kylian Mbappé. France have an exciting young side and not one player in that side has a higher ceiling than Kylian Mbappé. He’s come off a great year with PSG and I think he’ll replicate that with France, he’s in contention to start and will be a more than capable provider for Antoine Griezmann.
PB: Gabriel Jesus. Although Kylian Mbappé could also be a strong contender, Jesus’ 20 goals in 39 appearances for Manchester City having just turned 21 is sensational, and he will relish his centre-forward role with Neymar and Coutinho either side of him.
CP: Leroy Sané. Off the back of winning Young Player of the Year in the Premier League, I think Sané will impress again. He and fellow German youngster Timo Werner add an injection of pace to the forward line that Die Mannschaft would otherwise lack, and can cause serious problems in the channels from Özil and Kroos’ pinpoint passes.
ME: Gabriel Jesus. The young forward will be essential to Brazil’s potential success in this tournament and is expected to start ahead of Roberto Firmino up front. He only has 15 caps for the Seleção but he’s scored nine times in those appearances and was instrumental in their qualifying campaign. He has every potential to be this World Cup’s brightest young star.
Where England will finish:
AM: Quarter-finals. Runners-up in the group after beating Tunisia and Panama before earning a draw against Belgium’s ‘golden generation’ (how long have we been saying that for now?) with Harry Kane leading the line. It says everything about the confidence among England fans that we’ve got a striker in Kane who has scored 30 Premier League goals this season and yet we still lack confidence. It’s an exciting Three Lions side that has flair, depth and a bit of stability with Delph and Dier in there, too. The back-three of Walker, Stones and Maguire is also exciting and the players certainly seem to be on-board with it. The lack of experience in goal concerns me but they have to get the experience at some point, so why not now?
JT: All roads lead to the quarter-finals. I think we have enough skill to see us through the group and past Colombia and Poland, if they qualify. But the possibility of teams like France and Brazil deeper in the competition? That will probably end our hopes. I can’t help but be hopeful Kane can perform where Rooney couldn’t and Southgate can utilise the pace at his disposal, we have a young and exciting squad but the increased media pressure may be too much for the Three Lions.
PB: Quarter-finals. The majority of the team have been mainstays for the last two years, and this tournament represents a huge opportunity. Belgium are a formidable outfit, but finishing lower than second in a group also containing Tunisia and Panama would be a disaster of Icelandic proportions. From there, Gareth Southgate’s men would face one of Poland, Senegal, Colombia and Japan – all good sides, but with match winners such as Alli, Sterling and Kane in the Three Lions’ starting XI, not progressing any further would have to be deemed a failure. A Brazil or a Germany would probably then have too much for England, but the last eight has to be the goal.
CP: Quarter-finals. I like this England side and the identity Gareth Southgate has started to build within it. I think we’ll come through the group on top, ahead of Belgium (under the slightly dodgy management of Roberto Martinez). We’ll then battle hard to beat the runner-up of Group H in the round of 16, before having our backsides handed to us by Brazil in Kazan on 6 July.
ME: Round-of-16. England have an interesting team and should be able to get some points from both Tunisia and Panama but I doubt they will finish above Belgium, leaving them in second place in their group. That means that they would most likely face either Poland or Colombia in the Round-of-16, two very strong teams that I reckon would triumph over England and send the Three Lions home.