The World Cup kicked off yesterday with much fanfare and a couple of oops moments, something which any Opening Ceremony seems to be incomplete without. Hosts Russia made the perfect start, sweeping aside a tired-looking Saudi Arabia and putting the pressure on the other teams in their group. A full review of the action from Groups A and B will be published in the next article.
In this article, I will preview the first set of matches for Groups E through H, to finish off the preview series.
Match 1: Costa Rica vs Serbia
Much like action in Group A, both Costa Rica and Serbia will be looking to score early points as the teams fancied to qualify from the group face-off in the other match. Serbia boasts of strong midfield with the pairing of Matic and Milinkovic-Savic the perfect foil for each other. The former has a lot of experience in playing for top clubs while the latter is one of the hottest midfield prospects in all of Europe at the moment. They will be well supported by Dusan Tadic, who is an always willing runner down the wings. Alexander Mitrovic, on his day is lethal in front of goal, with only his temperament and consistency coming in the way sometimes. Costa Rica, while without any major superstars, always hold potential for a major upset or two in these tournaments. Their goalkeeper, Keylor Navas, is a three time defending UEFA Champions League winner with Real Madrid, a record which will take some beating, by any goalkeeper anywhere! Their midfield and forward line is aging, so they won’t be depending on pace, but rather brains and teamwork to target success at this tournament. I can see the North Americans pull off a minor upset here, taking victory by the odd goal.
Prediction: Costa Rica 2 – 1 Serbia
Match 2: Brazil vs Switzerland
It has become somewhat of a custom for Brazil to start it off a major tournament with a tricky fixture. It is also a custom for them to overcome those fixtures, albeit after a wobble. This time around, I don’t see them wobbling. The Selecao should get past their European opponents easily, but won’t bet for them keeping a clean sheet. Brazil’s forward line of Neymar and Gabriel Jesus, with Coutinho behind them, and Firmino off the bench later will be too hot to handle for the Swiss. For the latter, a lot will depend on the midfield pairing of Shaqiri and Behrami, and on how well they play at the back. It seems almost an impossible task keeping this Brazilian attacking line-up from scoring. Perhaps the only way to get one over on them is to frustrate them by playing a deep line and blocking off the channels. Easier said than done!
Predictions: Brazil 3 – 1 Switzerland
Match 1: Germany vs Mexico
Germany, the defending champions, haven’t had the best of run-ups to this tournament with a loss against Poland and a narrow 2-1 win against lowly Saudi Arabia in the friendlies. However, come a major tournament and they transform into a well-oiled and well-drilled clockwork. No team has defended the World Cup since Brazil in 1962 and it won’t be easy for this German team to do the same. Their defense starts against a sprightly Mexico, who have become an ever-present figure in this tournament. The Mexicans will be looking to take advantage of the slow starting Germans, who seem to take their time getting used to each other but their get into top gear and don’t look back from there. Javier Hernandez and up-and-comer Hirving Lozano will be the danger man for the Central Americans with the ageless Giovani Dos Santos running things from midfield. A special mention for Rafael Marquez, who will be turning out for his fifth World Cup, joining Antonio Carbajal, Lothar Matthaeus and Gianluigi Buffon on that list. As for the Germans, provided Ozil is not injured, the mid-field trio of Ozil, Kroos and Khedira look to be the most important part of this squad in terms of both creativity and solidity. They have a lot of players who can play further forward but will need the work of this triumvirate to set them up. Given Germany’s habit of starting off slow, and Mexico’s never-say-die attitude, I’d predict a close match separated by a single goal. The defending champions to shade this for me.
Prediction: Germany 2 – 1 Mexico
Match 2: Sweden vs South Korea
Sweden were the ultimate giant-killers in the Playoffs, knocking out 2006 champions Italy after a 1-0 win at home, and keeping the Azzurri out in the return leg. They will start this match as favourites. Their stalwart Ibrahimovich has retired, and the team has reached this far without him, so they can’t be taken lightly. With a good mix of youth and experience throughout, they should be favourites to qualify from this group along with Germany. Watch out for Emil Forsberg to be their differentiator, both in this match as well in the rest of the tournament. South Korea have failed to reach the lofty heights they reached at home in 2002. A lot of their hopes will rest on striker Son Heung Min, who has been in the form of his life for Tottenham this season. There’s not a lot of experience otherwise and it looks tough for them to pick up any points in this tournament. I can see Sweden easily walk away with this one.
Prediction: Sweden 3 – 0 South Korea
Match 1: Belgium vs Panama
The golden generation of Belgium start off their World Cup campaign against debutantes Panama, in what should be an easy start. The Belgians will be looking to shed their underachievers tag and will be looking to lay down a marker of intent in this match. With Kevin de Bruyne and Yannick Carrasco running midfield and the likes of Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku up top, there should be a lot of goals in this team. The defensive quartet of Kompany, Alderweireld, Verthongen and Vermaelen look formidable but their fitness is always a concern. Personally, I don’t think they’ll all start together, overlapping best positions also being a reason. No worried for them in the goalkeeping department either with Courtois expected to be one the safest hands in the tournament. Anything Panama achieve in this tournament will be a bonus. Boasting no known names and no previous experience in this sort of competitions it looks a slippery slope for them. However, the World Cup has been known to throw up romantic stories and this would be some story if they can somehow upset the odds. Sadly, I can’t see that happening under any circumstances and predict Belgium to romp home.
Prediction: Belgium 4 – 0 Panama
Match 2: Tunisia vs England
Is there ever a match at a major tournament for England that is not a potential banana skin? The Tunisians won’t be pushovers, with some players having decent experience playing in European leagues. They will try to sit back and stifle the English attack, and look to catch them out on the counter. England should really have enough quality to get past their opponents but as history would show, they are prone to running out of ideas when faced with a dogged opponent. They will do well to start with two forwards up front, Kane and Vardy have very different strengths and should complement each other. The midfield is a problem area, with a lack of depth. At the end of the day, what will matter is whether England are smart enough to adapt to the situation or whether Tunisia will be able to hold forte. Without much assurance, I’ll go with a narrow win for the English in this one.
Prediction: Tunisia 0 – 1 England
Match 1: Colombia vs Japan
Colombia and Japan will get us off in the most open group of the tournament. The Colombians were the darlings of the neutrals in the last edition of the World Cup with James Rodriguez making a name for himself with superb performances throughout and an unforgettable goal against Uruguay in the Round of 16. This time around, they’re perhaps not as good a unit but should still be competitive. The same James will be the stalwart in midfield with support from Cuadrado while the forward pairing of Falcao and Bacca are capable of coming up with the goods. For Japan, the story is about aging stalwarts leading in search of Japan, with Honda and Okazaki well into their 30s. Shinji Kagawa will be the glue and the creator in midfield, and he will have a lot of responsibility on his shoulders. I can’t see Japan having the quality or the firepower to get past this Colombia side and will go with a comfortable win for the latter.
Prediction: Colombia 2 – 0 Japan
Match 2: Poland vs Senegal
Poland have had a good run of games leading up to the tournament, even coming from behind to defeat Germany in the pre-tournament friendlies. As you know, I’ve already tipped Senegal to reach the Quarter Finals with the talent they’ve got. With this mind, I could very well see this as being the best match of Matchday 1, despite there being more high-profile clashes elsewhere. Sadio Mane has been in red hot form this season. They have Kouyate and Gueye in midfield, and a strong forward line consisting of Sow, Keita Balde, Niang, Sakho and Diouf, any two of whom are likely to partner Mane up front. At their explosive best, they’ll be very hard to keep out. Their defense has top class experience in the form Koulibaly, who despite being only 26, is rated highly and is a regular for Napoli in the Serie A. Poland come into the tournament as one of the eight seeded teams and will be looking to improve their performances at the World Cup. Their last two appearances have ended in Group Stage eliminations and their last result of note was in 1982, a 3rd place finish. They have all the tools to progress though. Robert Lewandowski has been one the premier strikers in Europe for the last few years and has had a good season. Grosicki, Blaszczykowski and Krychowiak have a lot of experience at this level, and Piotr Zielinski is being tipped for big things in the future. All things considered, this could very well turn out to be the match that decides the winner of this group. I predict Senegal to edge a high-scoring thriller.
Prediction: Poland 2 – 3 Senegal