Mohamed Salah, FW, Egypt
Egypt’s main man led the Pharaohs back to the World Cup for the first time since 1990. He’s been in scintillating form this year, scoring 43 goals in all competitions and leading Liverpool to the Champions League Final. The Egyptians will be holding their breath as he recovers from shoulder injury sustained in the Champions League Final which looks to keep him out of the first two qualifying matches. Will Salah ‘let his people go’ to the Round of 16?
Russia vs. Egypt
The hosts take on the Pharaohs in the second matchday in Group A for a likely place in the knockout rounds at stake. Russia looks to avoid joining South Africa as the only hosts to not make it out of the group stages, while Egypt will be looking to make it to the knockout rounds for the first time in their history.
Make no mistake, Uruguay are heavy favorites to win a very weak Group A. However, La Celeste is not getting the buzz they deserve as a contender for the World Cup. Uruguay has the perfect blend of experience in youth across the team, plus a recent history of success in the World Cup, reaching knockout rounds (fourth place in 2010, round of 16 in 2014) in each of the past two editions. With that in mind, I like Uruguay to make the semi-finals in 2018.
Uruguay and Egypt
In a very weak Group A, Uruguay is my pick to win the group, and I like Egypt and Mo Salah breaking Russian hearts and advance to the Round of 16.
Cristiano Ronaldo, FW, Portugal
Ronaldo and Messi are without a doubt the two greatest players of their generation. This is Ronaldo’s fourth (and potentially final) World Cup and his last chance to add to his legend by lifting the Jules Rimet trophy.
Portugal vs. Spain
The Iberian Derby is one of the oldest international rivalries in the world, and now it happens on the world’s biggest stage. Spain looks to rebound from their embarrassing performance in Brazil 4 years ago, while Portugal will want to build off of their magical European Championship triumph in 2016.
The Iranian team played quite well in 2014 and were a tough out against eventual runner-up Argentina. It took a moment of Lionel Messi magic for Iran to be defeated. As the best team in Asian qualifying in 2018, keep your eye out for Team Melli.
Spain (group winners) and Portugal (runners-up)
I expect Spain to go through as the group winner and—despite a tough Iran side—Portugal will go through as number two.
Paul Pogba, MF, France
This vibrant Frenchman was once the world’s most expensive footballer. Now is his time to prove his worth to the national team. Antoine Griezmann will be important, but the midfield success hinges on Pogba’s ability to go forward and take control of the match when France has the ball.
France vs. Australia
The Socceroos are armed with their loud and boisterous fans, and as one of the lowest ranked teams, will have nothing to lose. They could spring an upset in the Group C opener.
Led by Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Christian Eriksen, Denmark is very strong in attack. They defeated North American powerhouse Mexico in their final World Cup tune-up, showing this team has what it takes to make a deep run to the later stages of the tournament.
France (group winners) and Denmark (runners-up)
France looks primed to go through as the group winners, but those great Danes will be nipping at their heels.
Lionel Messi, MF, Argentina
Messi returns to lead La Albiceleste back to the World Cup after coming up just short in 2014. As good as Messi has been, he will always be in the shadow of Argentina’s other legend, Diego Maradona—unless he delivers that elusive third World Cup title for Argentina.
Croatia vs. Nigeria
Not only do these teams have the best home jerseys in the tournament by far, but in my mind they are two contenders to advance out of Group D. The Croatians have a talented squad led by Real Madrid midfielder Luka Modric, while the Super Eagles of Nigeria have added some youth to a team that advanced to the Round of 16 in 2014.
Making their first World Cup appearance, the smallest nation in the World Cup will have their hands full in this group. However, as they showed during their run to the quarterfinals of the European Championship, the Vikings have the capability to go toe to toe with the world’s best.
Argentina and Croatia
Messi will carry Argentina through to the knockout rounds, while I think Croatia will get enough points from their matches to go through as Group D runners-up.
Neymar Jr, FW, Brazil
Brazil’s success will rest on the shoulders of their #10. He, and the rest of the Samba Boys, will be eager to erase the memories from the 7-1 spanking at the hands of Germany 4 years ago. While Neymar brings flair and beauty to the game, he is also the captain of the team. And Brazil expects results.
Brazil vs. Costa Rica
Los Ticos are lead by their captain Bryan Ruiz, strike partner Joel Campbell, and Real Madrid keeper Keylor Navas. This team made a surprising run in Brazil, and will be looking to shock the football world again with an upset of Brazil.
Xherdan Shaqiri might be listed at 5’6”, but he has a hammer for a left foot and is a proven goal scorer for club (Stoke City of the Premier League) and country. The success of the Swiss in Russia could come down to his left foot.
Brazil and Costa Rica
Call me crazy, but I’m betting on two of the best teams in the Americas to beat two middle-of-the-packers from Europe. I have Brazil going through in the top spot, with Costa Rica punching that second ticket.
Who is the player to watch in this group?
Timo Werner, FW, Germany
Since Miroslav Klose (the all time leading scorer in World Cup history) retired, Die Mannschaft has been searching for a striker to lead the line and supply the goals. Enter Timo Werner, whose speed will leave every defense in a fit. The 21 year-old shined for the Germans in the 2017 Confederations Cup, winning the Golden Boot for most goals scored in the tournament, so Germany will need him to step up once more as they look to repeat as World Champions.
Germany vs. Mexico
In the Group of Death, a key start is essential for success. In 2014, Germany pummeled Portugal 4-0 on their way to winning the World Cup, while Portugal ended up crashing out of the group after three matches. Will this talented Mexico team attack the Germans and go for the 3 points and the victory, or will they be more cautious and try to grind out a result? This match will have definite implications on who qualifies from this group and in what order.
Lacking a major star on their team, the Swedes eliminated one perennial World Cup contender in the Netherlands and beat the four-time champion Italy in a playoff to make it to Russia. What they lack in star power, they make up for in teamwork and tactical acumen. They will not be fazed by the big stage.
Germany and Mexico
I have Germany penciled in to repeat as world champions, so I think they progress as group winners. In second spot, I think El Tri (Mexico) will be able to break down the Swedes in their final group match and advance as runners up.
Kevin De Bruyne, MF, Belgium
The Manchester City midfielder was sensational this domestic season, and will be massively important for Belgium to progress deep into the tournament like many expect them. While the Red Devils boast riches in attacking talent, they will expect to run everything through KDB.
England vs. Belgium
These two teams are loaded with players from the Premier League and are the favorites to qualify from the group. Both teams are full of offensive talent but have plenty of question marks on defense. Because of that, there is the potential for a lot of goals in this match, which for the neutral football fan, will be lots of fun!
The Panamanians shockingly qualified for the World Cup (albeit in questionable circumstances) in front of the United States. Los Canaleros do not have a single in one of Europe’s top 5 domestic leagues. Nevertheless, Panama plays a very disciplined and unified style of football, which could give their group opponents some trouble.
England and Belgium
Sure, anything can happen, but here it’s all chalk. But I have England as the group winners and Belgium as the runners-up.
James Rodriguez, FW, Colombia
James broke onto the scene in the 2014 World Cup by winning the Golden Boot with a series of insane goals (including this peach of a goal versus Uruguay). He struggled for form post-2014 World Cup, but a move to Bayern Munich has rejuvenated him, and he returns to the World Cup looking poised and ready to lead the line for Los Cafeteros.
Poland vs. Senegal
Both teams are returning to the World Cup after being absent from the tournament for over a decade. Both teams dominated their respective qualifying groups and the strength of both of these teams lies in their attack. Whichever team can step up on the defensive end will not only be well positioned to win this match, but also to advance from Group G.
The Lions of Teranga are making their first appearance in the World Cup since the 2002 squad made it to the quarterfinals of the World Cup that year. This year’s edition is led by Liverpool forward Sadio Mane, Napoli defender Kalidou Kouliably and a host of players plying their trades in France, Germany, and England. They have the speed and the talent to emulate the 2002 side and make a deep run into the tournament.
Colombia and Senegal
In Group H, look for Colombia to emerge as group winners and Senegal to do enough versus Japan and Poland and advance as runners up.