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FIFA World Cup preview: All set for the group stage

Germany begin the defence of their crown as one of the top favourites. But they would be looking to avoid what their predecessors Spain and Italy did in the previous two World Cups: being knocked out in the first round as defending champions

FIFA World Cup preview: All set for the group stage

We’re just four days away from the biggest sporting event in the world, with the FIFA World Cup 2018 kicking off on Thursday as hosts Russia take on Saudi Arabia. Here’s a look at the eight groups, and how the final standings might shape-up the knockout stages.

Group A: Russia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Uruguay

Led by Luis Suarez and Edin Cavani, Uruguay are the clear favourites in the group and should top it. The competition of the second position is really between Russia and Egypt. The latter would be sweating on the fitness of Mohammed Salah, who they would need from the get-go, while the former wouldn’t want to be knocked out in the group stages as the host country. Considering question marks over Salah’s fitness, Russia might edge Egypt for second.

Group B: Portugal, Spain, Morocco, Iran

The two heavyweights Portugal and Spain will be going head to head first, in what should be the clash to settle who tops the group. European Champions Portugal, of course, would be relying on Cristiano Ronaldo and perhaps his final bid to win a World Cup, as their driving force. Spain, typically laden with La Liga stars whose teams have dominated club football for the past half a decade, would be among the top favourites to win the whole thing if they played any way near their potential. Iran and Morocco would indeed be looking to spring a surprise, if they get a look in.

Group C: France, Australia, Peru, Denmark

Euro 2016 finalists France are one of the most star-studded sides in the tournament, with the likes of Hugo Lloris, Paul Pogba, Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappe headlining the squad. While Les Blues would be the favourites to top the group, the second position is up for grabs, in what should be a three-way tussle. Denmark would be relying on Christian Eriksen, Peru on Paolo Guerrero and Australia on a midfield heart of Mile Jedinak and Massimo Luongo. Peru are on a hot streak at the moment, but the Aussies might fancy their chances.

Group D: Argentina, Iceland, Croatia, Nigeria

Like Ronaldo, this might be Lionel Messi’s last shot at winning the World Cup, having come excruciatingly close to doing so four years ago. But while Argentina might be overwhelming favourites to top the group, they’ll be facing sides that would not only feel capable of challenging the South American giants, but also be contesting among themselves for the runners-up slot. Croatia would be favourites to finish second, but both Nigeria and Iceland – the latter donning the giant killer tag – are more than capable of damaging any side in Group D.

Group E: Brazil, Switzerland, Costa Rica, Serbia

The injury for Neymar Jr in the months leading to the World Cup might turn out to be a blessing for Brazil, for, unlike his peers, their talisman should be fresh for the tournament. Brazil should cruise through the group to further establish themselves as one of the absolute favourites to bag the coveted trophy. Switzerland would be favourites for the second slot, but would need Xherdan Shaqiri to be firing on all cylinders. Serbia have a young and exciting side, and Costa Rica did manage to qualify for the World Cup with relative ease – both would be looking to displace the higher ranked Swiss side and qualify for the Round of 16.

Group F: Germany, Mexico, Sweden, South Korea

Germany begin the defence of their crown as among the top favourites and should have no trouble topping this group. But they would be looking to avoid what their predecessors Spain and Italy did in the previous two World Cups: being knocked out in the first round as defending champions. The Mexicans’ World Cup experience might give them the edge over Sweden and South Korea, but the latter two have youth that might need this very stage to burst out on the globe. Sweden especially, after having knocked Italy out in the playoffs, would feel they can take absolutely anybody on.

Group G: Belgium, Panama, Tunisia, England

This, again, would be a two-way tussle between two of the bigger names: Belgium and England. The latter have decades of underachievement under their belt, which they would be looking to rectify with a squad that isn’t as illustrious as they’ve been putting out since the turn of the century, while the former is a recently growing football heavyweight, with a starting 11 that can beat any side on a given day. With the likes of Edin Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Harry Kane, some of the biggest names are showcased in Group G. Tunisia and Panama, however, would be looking to spoil the English and Belgian parties.

Group H: Poland, Senegal, Colombia, Japan

In what is quite possibly the most balanced group of the lot, Colombia would start off as the slight favourites to top, spearheaded by James Rodriguez – the Golden Boot winner in 2014 – and Radamel Falcao. Should Poland or Senegal qualify from the group, they can actually go further than just the Round of 16, with the quality within their ranks. And while Japan have a lot of experience under their belt, it might turn out to be more of a case of aging legs by the time the group stages are wrapped up.

K Shahid

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