The 2018 World Cup in Russia begins Thursday, June 14, and it will end with the final on Sunday, July 15. The 32 successive days of play will encompass 64 games in what promises to be one of the better World Cups in recent memory. U.S. television schedules are here, and an easy to follow World Cup resource with regular updates appears here.
Most of the world’s top stars will be in Russia, leading their national teams, from Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, to Neymar and Toni Kroos, to Kylian Mbappe and Sergio Ramos, to Luka Modric and James Rodriguez, to Mo Salah and Paolo Guerrero, to Kevin De Bruyne and Edinson Cavani, to Kaylor Navas and Harry Kane, to Chicharito Hernandez and Robert Lewandowski.
There are five pre-tournament favorites, with today’s odds at: Brazil at 9/2, Germany 26/5, Spain 13/2, France 7/1, and Argentina at 10/1. These heavy favorites exclude a number of quality sleeper contenders such as current Euro (2016) champions Portugal, and fine teams from Uruguay, Croatia, and Belgium. The cup is redolent of talent and there are several mouthwatering matches already scheduled wherein high exponents of vastly different styles of play will vie for preeminence. You can read Papa’s World Cup 2018 Predictions here.
Over the next two days Papa will also preview each of the cup’s teams in their respective eight groups, (here is Group A) thereafter each successive stage pairing will be previewed and covered, the Group of 16 and the quarterfinals, semifinals and final. At cup’s end there will also be concluding coverage recapping and assessing the cup. Once the cup begins, Papa will cover every major confrontation and many of the better secondary games all the way to the final. Let’s get started!
Teams: Spain, Portugal, Morocco, and Iran.
The Group winner will play second placed team of Group A, the second placed team will play the winner of Group A. Projection: 1—Spain, 2—Portugal.
Squad—Coach: Fernando Hierro taking over today from Julen Lopetegui, Captain: Sergio Ramos (D). Top players: David De Gea (G), Ramos, Gerard Pique (D), Isco (M), Andres Iniesta (M), David Silva (M)
Goalkeepers: Pepe Reina (Napoli), David de Gea (Man-U), Kepa Arrizabalaga (Athletic Bilbao).
Defenders: Nacho Fernandez, Sergio Ramos, Dani Carvajal (all Real Madrid), Gerard Pique, Jordi Alba (both Barcelona), Alvaro Odriozola (Real Sociedad), Nacho Monreal (Arsenal), Cesar Azpilicueta (Chelsea).
Midfielders: Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets (both Barcelona), Saul Niguez, Koke (both Atletico Madrid), Isco, Marco Asensio (both Real Madrid), Thiago Alcantara (Bayern Munich), David Silva (Manchester City).
Forwards: Iago Aspas (Celta), Rodrigo (Valencia), Diego Costa (Atleti), Lucas Vazquez (R M).
Projected lineup (4-3-3): David De Gea; Dani Carvajal, Sergio Ramos, Gerard Pique, Jordi Alba; Sergio Busquets, Thiago Alcantara, Andres Iniesta; David Silva, Iago Aspas, Isco.
Spain have their mojo back, a top team that is clicking of late, and they are looking to make amends for their poor showing in Brazil 2014 and early exit in Euro 2016. They are still mostly small physically and thus susceptible to the harsh tackles of bigger defenders, they are not as adept at tiki-taka as when Xavi was on the team, and they are reliant on a Diego Costa-based attack that has never suited their style of play. Given all of this they are still the top team in this group and will come out of it if perhaps not easily over everyone. Portugal, with a repeat Euro-type performance may edge them to the top spot.
Squad—Coach: Fernando Santos, Captain: Ronaldo (F), Top players: Ronaldo, Bernardo Silva (M)
Goalkeepers: Anthony Lopes (Lyon), Beto (Goztepe), Rui Patricio (Sporting Lisbon).
Defenders: Bruno Alves (Rangers), Cedric Soares (Southampton), Jose Fonte (Dalian Yifang), Mario Rui (Napoli), Pepe (Besiktas), Raphael Guerreiro (Dortmund), Ricardo Pereira (Porto), Ruben Dias (Benfica).
Midfielders: Adrien Silva (Leicester), Bruno Fernandes (Sporting Lisbon), Joao Mario (West Ham), Joao Moutinho (Monaco), Manuel Fernandes (Lokomotiv Moscow), William Carvalho (Sporting).
Forwards: Andre Silva (AC Milan), Bernardo Silva (Man-City), Cristiano Ronaldo (R Madrid), Gelson Martins (Sporting Lisbon), Goncalo Guedes (Valencia), Ricardo Quaresma (Besiktas).
Projected lineup (4-1-3-2): Rui Patricio; Cedric, Pepe, Bruno Alves, Raphael Guerreiro; William Carvalho; Joao Mario, Joao Moutinho, Bernardo Silva; Cristiano Ronaldo, Andre Silva.
Watch Ronaldo’s reaction to his assists and somewhat lesser role on the team and you will see this team’s cohesion and determination take center stage. CR7 is still their heart and soul, but over the past few years the back-up singers have come into their own and at times can spell the Ballon d’Or winner. This is a sleeper team, in the mold of Uruguay and Croatia, with enough above-average quality players and an abundance of recently minted confidence to make run, if all cylinders start clicking. They will make it out of the group and will give Spain a run for their money for the top spot, but Spain has the edge.
Squad—Coach: Herve Renard, Captain: Medhi Benatia (D),Top players: Benatia, Hakim Ziyech (M)
Goalkeepers: Mounir El Kajoui (Numancia), Yassine Bounou (Girona), Ahmad Reda Tagnaouti (Ittihad Tanger).
Defenders: Mehdi Benatia (Juventus), Romain Saiss (Wolves), Manuel Da Costa (Istanbul Basaksehir), Nabil Dirar (Fenerbahce), Achraf Hakimi (Real Madrid), Hamza Mendyl (Lille).
Midfielders: M’barek Boussoufa (Al Jazira), Karim El Ahmadi (Feyenoord), Youssef Ait Bennasser (Caen), Sofyan Amrabat (Feyenoord), Younes Belhanda (Galatasaray), Faycal Fajr (Getafe), Amine Harit (Schalke).
Forwards: Khalid Boutaib (Malatyaspor), Aziz Bouhaddouz (St Pauli), Ayoub El Kaabi (Renaissance Berkane), Nordin Amrabat (Leganes), Mehdi Carcela (Standard Liege), Hakim Ziyech (Ajax), Youssef En Nesyri (Malaga).
Projected lineup (4-1-4-1): Munir Mohamedi; Nabil Dirar, Medhi Benatia, Romain Saiss, Achraf Hakimi; Karim El Ahmadi; Nordin Amrabat, Younes Belhanda, Mbark Boussoufa, Hakim Ziyech; Khalid Boutaib.
Perhaps an accomplished team in its region and a good qualifier, Morocco, despite some known superior entities among its squad is still untested against the likes of the competition they will face in this group. Spain and Portugal, on their less spectacular days should be good enough to eliminate this good African squad.
Squad—Coach: Carlos Queiroz, Captain: Ashkan Dejagah (M), Top players: Sardar Azmoun (F), Alireza Jahanbakhsh (F)
Goalkeepers: Alireza Beiranvand (Persepolis), Rashid Mazaheri (Zob Ahan), Amir Abedzadeh (Maritimo).
Defenders: Majid Hosseini (Esteghlal), Ramin Rezaeian (Ostende), Mohammad Reza Khanzadeh (Padideh), Morteza Pouraliganji (Alsaad), Pejman Montazeri (Esteghlal), Milad Mohammadi (Akhmat Grozny), Roozbeh Cheshmi (Esteghlal).
Midfielders: Saeid Ezatolahi (Amkar Perm), Masoud Shojaei (AEK Athens), Mehdi Torabi (Saipa), Omid Ebrahimi (Esteghlal), Ehsan Haji Safi (Olympiacos), Karim Ansarifard (Olympiacos), Vahid Amiri (Persepolis).
Forwards: Alireza Jahanbakhsh (AZ Alkmaar), Mehdi Taremi (Al Gharafa), Sardar Azmoun (Rubin Kazan), Reza Ghoochannejhad (Heerenveen), Saman Ghoddos (Ostersunds), Ashkan Dejagah (Nottingham Forest).
Projected lineup (4-2-3-1): Alireza Beiranvand; Ramin Rezaeian, Jalal Hosseini, Morteza Pouraliganji, Milad Mohammadi; Saeid Ezatolahi, Ehsan Hajsafi; Alireza Jahanbakhsh, Ashkan Dejagah, Saman Ghoddos; Sardar Azmoun.
Iran did well in Asian qualifying and are disciplined and younger than when they nearly upset Argentina in the last World Cup. But, again, they will not have met the likes of Portugal and Spain in World Cup modes and they do not have the firepower to keep up.
Morocco v Iran will be a closely fought match with a draw written all over it precisely because neither team can afford to lose given their next two games. Portugal and Spain will go for the jugular knowing the winner here has the inside track to the top spot, but the teams know each other’s players and systems too well to surprise, Spain is the stronger side, and only Ronaldo is capable of rising above a match with top quality players at each position. So don’t be surprised if another draw ensues setting up a goal-fest rush when each European side pursues the African and Asian minnows. Portugal and Spain will draw. Portugal will beat Morocco but not by as many goals as they would want. Spain will beat Iran convincingly if not comfortably. Portugal will follow suit, and defeat Iran, but will have a harder time to score. Spain will seal their first place with a win over Morocco that surpasses what Portugal was able to achieve and thus snag the top spot.
Special thanks to: Fox Soccer, Univision Deportes, Telemundo, BeIn Sports, and ESPN en Espanol television networks and YouTube for live feeds and replays of games and plays; Getty Images, for photos; BBC Sport-Football, Yahoo Sports, ESPN FC, SI Planet Futbol, FIFA.com, Live Soccer TV, Wikipedia, and Marca.com websites, for regularly updated, published information (such as the latest team rosters featured in these previews); and World Soccer, Four-Four-Two, and ESPN magazines, and The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Guardian, and The Telegraph newspapers, for news and commentary to draw from for this coverage.