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 are Groups A, B, and C) 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: Argentina, Iceland, Croatia, Nigeria.
The Group winner will play second placed team of Group C, the second placed team will play the winner of Group C. Projection: 1—Argentina, 2—Croatia, with caveats.
Squad—Coach: Jorge Sampaoli, Captain: Messi (F), Top players: Messi, Aguero (F), Higuain (F), Dybala (M)
Goalkeepers: Willy Caballero (Chelsea), Franco Armani (River Plate), Nahuel Guzman (Tigres).
Defenders: Gabriel Mercado (Sevilla), Federico Fazio (Roma), Nicolas Otamendi (Manchester City), Marcos Rojo (Manchester United), Nicolas Taglafico (Ajax), Javier Mascherano (Hebei Fortune), Marcos Acuna (Sporting Lisbon), Cristian Ansaldi (Torino).
Midfielders: Ever Banega (Sevilla), Lucas Biglia (AC M), Angel Di María & Giovani Lo Celso (PSG), Cristian Pavon (Boca Jrs), Maximiliano Meza (Independiente), Eduardo Salvio (Benfica).
Forwards: Messi (Barca), Gonzalo Higuain, Paulo Dybala (Juve), Sergio Aguero (Man-City).
Projected lineup: (3-4-2-1): Franco Armani; Nicolas Otamendi, Javier Mascherano, Marcos Rojo; Eduardo Salvio, Ever Banega, Lucas Biglia, Angel Di Maria; Lionel Messi, Paulo Dybala; Gonzalo Higuain.
Argentina with Lionel Messi should have been a South American and World Champion by now and what has kept them from those honors are myriad issues from choking (Higuain and Palacio in 2014, Messi at Copa America), to top-to-bottom disorganization and poor choices from their federation to their line-ups, to some bad temper and bad fortune (Garay clobbering Kramer and Neuer clobbering Higuain each without sanction), to meeting the surging team of the moment in finals (Chile, Chile, Germany).
This time around only Messi, Aguero and Dybala are consistently sound. The team though is otherwise topsy-turvy— unconvincingly beating Haiti despite the 4-0 score, losing to Spain 6-1 and Nigeria 4-2, and falling prey to naive political miscalculations in their final warm-up against Israel. All of this does not bode well for one of the otherwise top teams in the competition. So one of two things will happen. They will either get their act together in time or Messi will pull them through or they will fall precipitously to a trio of the toughest competitors for their particular playing style.
Iceland is too well organized, big and fast, coherent top to bottom, motivated and are going in with a “what could we possibly have to lose” mentality. To counter it Argentina will have to curtail their penchant for strategic roughhousing and focus on a collective and disciplined effort, not their strongest suit. Croatia will not fear the Argentines and will have the quality to punish any let down by the South Americans. Finally, Nigeria has already played Argentina tough twice, losing by one goal in 2014 and winning by two in 2017, they will also be harboring thoughts of an upset.
All this said, Argentina will pull out of the group thanks to Messi.
Squad—Coach: Heimir Hallgrimsson. Captain: Aron Gunnarsson (M), Top players: Gylfi Sigurdsson (M), Alfred Finnbogason (F), Johann Berg Gudmundsson (M), Ragnar Sigurdsson (D)
Goalkeepers: Hannes Thor Halldorsson (Randers FC), Runar Runarsson (FC Nordsjælland), Frederik Schram (FC Roskilde).
Defenders: Kari Arnason (Vikingur), Ari Skulason (Lokeren), Birkir Saevarsson (Valur), Sverrir Ingason (FC Rostov), Hordur Magnusson (Bristol City), Holmar Eyjolfsson (Levski Sofia), Ragnar Sigurdsson (FC Rostov).
Midfielders: Johann Gudmundsson (Burnley), Birkir Bjarnason (Aston Villa), Arnor Traustason (Malmo FF), Emil Hallfredsson (Udinese), Gylfi Sigurdsson (Everton), Olafur Skulason (Kardemir Karabukspor), Rurik Gislason (SV Sandhausen), Samuel Fridjonsson (Valerenga), Aron Gunnarsson (Cardiff City).
Forwards: Alfred Finnbogason (Augsburg), Bjorn Sigurdarson (FC Rostov), Jon Dadi Bodvarsson (Reading), Albert Gudmundsson (PSV Eindhoven).
Projected lineup (4-2-3-1): Hannes Thor Halldorsson; Birkir Mar Saevarsson, Ragnar Sigurdsson, Sverrir Ingi Ingason, Hordur Bjorgvin Magnusson; Aron Gunnarsson, Emil Hallfredsson; Johann Berg Gudmundsson, Gylfi Sigurdsson, Birkir Bjarnason; Alfred Finnbogason.
The weakest team of the group on paper, Iceland is nevertheless the coolest team in the entire competition, pun intended. Iceland also have the temperament and cohesive play to surprise all three of their opponents if they play at their best and their opponent on the day is off. But their relative naivete in major international play will show when facing more talented teams that also have that added touch of “experience”—cagy Croatia and cunning Argentina—so a potential upset of Nigeria might be their only consolation.
Squad—Coach: Zlatko Dalic, Captain: Luka Modric (M), Top players: Modric, Ivan Rakitic (M), Ivan Perisic (M), Marcelo Brozovic (M), Mateo Kovacic (M), Mario Mandzukic (F)
Goalkeepers: Danijel Subasic (Monaco), Lovre Kalinic (Gent), Dominik Livakovic (Dinamo Zagreb).
Defenders: Vedran Corluka (Lokomotiv Moscow), Domagoj Vida (Besiktas), Ivan Strinic (Milan), Dejan Lovren (Liverpool), Sime Vrsaljko (Atletico Madrid), Josip Pivaric (Dynamo Kiev), Tin Jedvaj (Bayer Leverkusen), Duje Caleta-Car (Red Bull Salzburg).
Midfielders: Luka Modric (Real Madrid), Ivan Rakitic (Barcelona), Mateo Kovacic (Real Madrid), Milan Badelj (Fiorentina), Marcelo Brozovic (Inter Milan), Filip Bradaric (Rijeka).
Forwards: Mario Mandzukic (Juventus), Ivan Perisic (Inter Milan), Nikola Kalinic (AC Milan), Andrej Kramaric (Hoffenheim), Marko Pjaca (Juventus), Ante Rebic (Fiorentina).
Projected lineup (4-3-3): Danijel Subasic; Sime Vrsaljko, Demagoj Vida, Dejan Lovren, Ivan Strinic; Marcelo Brozovic, Rakitic, Modric; Ivan Perisic, Nikola Kalinic, Mario Mandzukic.
Croatia has the guns to go far but will be hard put to get past Argentina to a top spot in the group. Their game against Nigeria may be the decider of that second slot. But, they cannot afford to look past an Iceland team with nothing to lose and all go gain by going for broke. Their game against Argentina will be the cup bellwether for the South Americans as a rock solid Croat performance (draw or win) could prove devastating for a pre-tournament contender.
Squad—Coach: Gernot Rohr, Captain: John Obi Mikel (M), Top players: Alex Iwobi (F), Victor Moses (M), Kelechi Iheanacho (F), Wilfred Ndidi (M)
Goalkeepers: Francis Uzoho (Deportivo La Coruna), Ikechukwu Ezenwa (Enyimba), Daniel Akpeyi (Chippa United).
Defenders: William Troost-Ekong, Abdullahi Shehu (both Bursaspor), Tyronne Ebuehi (Benfica), Elderson Echiejile (Cercle Brugge), Bryan Idowu (Amkar Perm), Chidozie Awaziem (Porto), Leon Balogun (Brighton), Kenneth Omeruo (Chelsea).
Midfielders: Mikel John Obi (Tianjin Teda), Ogenyi Onazi (Trabzonspor), Wilfred Ndidi (Leicester), Oghenekaro Etebo (CD Feirense), John Ogu (Hapoel Be’er Sheva), Joel Obi (Torino, Italy).
Forwards: Ahmed Musa, Kelechi Iheanacho (both Leicester), Victor Moses (Chelsea), Odion Ighalo (Changchun Yatai), Alex Iwobi (Arsenal), Simeon Nwankwo (Crotone).
Projected lineup (4-3-3): Ikechukwu Ezenwa; Shehu Abdullahi, William Troost-Ekong, Leon Balogun, Elderson Echiejile; Wilfred Ndidi, Ogenyi Onazi, John Obi Mikel; Victor Moses, Odion Ighalo, Alex Iwobi.
Nigeria is a contender for a Group of 16 slot, but they will have to manage all three matches in hopes of doing no worse than a win, draw and loss, and then hope two of the others slip up somewhere. As good as they are, their best chance is to come in third in the toughest group of the tournament.
Argentina have to beat Iceland to move on and Iceland only need a draw to buoy they hopes. This will be a tough match with a 1-0 scent about it. That lone goal will be scored by a diminutive Argentine. Croatia and Nigeria will fight for the edge and this will be their all-out match of the group. A draw sounds about right but something about the clash of styles and the quality of the players suggest someone will rise above. Croatia win this match.
At this point in time, Argentina and Croatia, with three points apiece, will feel a draw suits them and neither will risk a loss so put this one down as a draw. Nigeria will need a victory but Iceland will feel this is their best chance so expect a tough match with a winner and this one is a push.
Nigeria will fancy their chances against Argentina and the South Americans will play too cautiously to risk a killer counter that could change the entire cup’s dynamics. This may be the best game of the group because of the timing and it could be the upset of the cup. But Messi deserves better and this will be the second game in which he lifts his team to a win. Iceland and Croatia will meet with the latter able to qualify with a draw and the former with a win. This will be an all-out war that the cagy Croats will pull out.
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.