Soccer / World Cup

Russia awaits as stars get ready to battle for World Cup

by Andrew McKirdy

Staff Writer

The World Cup kicks off on Thursday (midnight Friday, Japan time) in Russia, marking the tournament’s return to Europe for the first time since 2006. Thirty-two teams will compete over the next month for a place in the final at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium on July 15.

Here is a rundown of the eight first-round groups.

Russia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Uruguay

Russia begins the tournament as one of the weakest home nations in recent World Cup history, but a very favorable first-round draw has handed Stanislav Cherchesov’s team a lifeline.

Russia flopped badly in Brazil four years ago and fared little better at the European Championship in 2016, and the hosts will be hoping that a noisy home support will be enough to carry them through.

Uruguay will begin the competition as the group favorite, with strikers Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani likely to cause problems for any defense they come up against.

Egypt will rely heavily on ace forward Mohamed Salah in the North Africans’ first World Cup appearance since 1990, although a shoulder injury he sustained in the Champions League final may check his momentum.

Saudi Arabia comes into the tournament having dispensed with two managers since securing qualification last September, and will face an uphill battle to reach the knockout phase for the first time since 1994. A positive result for the Saudis in the opening game against Russia, however, could set the scene for an unpredictable group.

Portugal, Spain, Morocco, Iran

Spain suffered a nightmare defense of its 2010 title in Brazil four years ago, going home after the first round following humbling defeats to the Netherlands and Chile.

La Furia Roja have since recovered under manager Julen Lopetegui, however, and with stars like Sergio Ramos, David Silva and J. League-bound Andres Iniesta still at the top of their game, a second world title is a distinct possibility.

European champion Portugal is likely to push Spain hard for top spot in the group, with Cristiano Ronaldo desperate to finish on a high in what will likely be his last World Cup.

Morocco and Iran look destined to battle it out for third place, although Morocco will have help from its European diaspora in a squad largely made up of players born in France and the Netherlands.

Iran almost held Argentina to a goalless draw at the 2014 World Cup, only to be undone by a late piece of Lionel Messi magic. Manager Carlos Queiroz has fashioned Team Melli into one of the best teams in Asia, and he will relish another crack at the world’s top teams in Russia.

France, Australia, Peru, Denmark

France has been growing in strength under the management of former World Cup-winning midfielder Didier Deschamps, and will be determined to lift the trophy after losing to Portugal in the European Championship final on home soil two years ago.

Deschamps takes a squad loaded with talent to Russia, and it would be no surprise to see the likes of Antoine Griezmann, Paul Pogba and Kylian Mbappe take the tournament by storm.

Denmark will likely give France its sternest test of the first round, and in midfielder Christian Eriksen the Danes have a player capable of inflicting damage on any team in the tournament.

Australia made it to Russia after a marathon qualifying campaign comprising 22 games, but manager Ange Postecoglou stepped down as soon as the Socceroos had punched their ticket. Replacement Bert van Marwijk has inherited a squad of spirited but limited players.

Peru returns to the World Cup stage for the first time since 1982 and will have talismanic striker Paolo Guerrero available after his doping ban was suspended. With top-level experience in short supply elsewhere in the squad, the South Americans will need all the help they can get.

Argentina, Iceland, Croatia, Nigeria

All eyes will again be on Lionel Messi as he attempts to cement his legacy by winning the prize that has eluded Argentina ever since Diego Maradona lifted the trophy in 1986.

Messi was named player of the tournament in 2014 despite flagging at the finish as Argentina lost to Germany in the final, but the 30-year-old is still at the height of his powers and will be ably assisted in Russia by Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain and Angel Di Maria.

Iceland shocked the whole of Europe when it beat England in the second round of Euro 2016, and went on to prove that it was no fluke when it became the smallest nation ever to qualify for the World Cup. With talented players like Gylfi Sigurdsson and a ferocious team spirit, Iceland’s success story may not be finished yet.

Croatia arrives in Russia with an experienced squad featuring star names such as Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Mario Mandzukic, and will be looking to end a dismal record of failing to reach the knockout stage since 1998.

Nigeria has been drawn in a first-round group with Argentina for the fifth time in six World Cups, and has lost each of their previous encounters. The Super Eagles will at least be encouraged by a 4-2 friendly win over the South Americans in Russia last November.

Brazil, Switzerland, Costa Rica, Serbia

Brazil returns to the World Cup scarred by its 7-1 humiliation by Germany in the semifinals on home soil four years ago, but manager Tite has gradually rebuilt confidence and the Selecao begin the tournament as one of the favorites to lift the trophy.

Brazil became the first team to qualify for Russia 2018 with a series of dominating performances, and Neymar’s return to fitness over the past few weeks could not have come at a better time for a side that already boasts such attacking talents as Gabriel Jesus, Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino.

Costa Rica surprised everyone by reaching the quarterfinals four years ago, beating Uruguay, Italy and Greece along the way. The Ticos’ chances of a repeating the trick in Russia look slim, however, despite the presence of Real Madrid goalkeeper Keylor Navas.

Switzerland booked its place in Russia after squeezing past Northern Ireland in a playoff, but Vladimir Petkovic’s side has experience and quality and will be aiming for a place in the knockout round at the very least.

Serbia has had little to shout about on the international stage in recent years, but manager Mladen Krstajic has some talented players at his disposal and could cause an upset with expectations likely to be low.

Germany, Mexico, Sweden, South Korea

No team has retained the World Cup since Brazil in 1962, and defending champion Germany’s mettle will be tested from the outset in what looks like one of the toughest groups of the first round.

In Joachim Low’s team’s favor, however, is an iron resolve, winning mentality, and such a formidable depth of talent that the manager feels he can afford to leave players of the caliber of Manchester City winger Leroy Sane at home.

Sweden will fancy its chances of causing an upset after eliminating four-time champion Italy in a qualifying playoff. Former star player Zlatan Ibrahimovic retired from the team two years ago, but Emil Forsberg has emerged as a more low-key but still effective figurehead.

Mexico will be desperate to reach the quarterfinals having fallen at the round-of-16 stage at each of the past six World Cups, and forward Hirving Lozano will be key to achieving those ambitions.

South Korea struggled in Brazil four years ago but should bring a little more bite this time, with Tottenham striker Son Heung-min a potential star if his teammates can give him the support he needs.

Belgium, England, Panama, Tunisia

Belgium has been tipped as a dark horse to win the competition, and one glance at Roberto Martinez’s squad is enough to see why.

Les Diables Rouges have players of the highest quality in every position, and the likes of Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard could make history if everything clicks into place.

England would love to possess such riches, but manager Gareth Southgate does have quality at his own disposal. Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling could make an impact with expectations at home likely to be slightly more muted this time, although the team’s lack of experience could prove to be either a blessing or a curse.

Panama and Tunisia find themselves as rank outsiders in the group, with Panama appearing at the World Cup for the first time after helping to eliminate the United States in sensational fashion.

Tunisia returns to the tournament after a 12-year absence, and manager Nabil Maaloul has turned to Europe to recruit players of North African heritage born mainly in France. Whether that will be enough to help the team spring an upset remains to be seen.

Colombia, Japan, Poland, Senegal

Colombia caught the world’s attention with an impressive run to the quarterfinals in Brazil four years ago, but it is difficult to gauge whether the team has progressed or taken a step backward since then.

Players like James Rodriguez and Radamel Falcao are certainly still good enough to make another splash in Russia this summer, even if the element of surprise will not work in Colombia’s favor this time.

Japan heads into the World Cup full of uncertainty, having taken the drastic measure of firing manager Vahid Halilhodzic two months before the start of the tournament. Replacement Akira Nishino has a tough job on his hands trying to pick up the pieces.

Poland possesses one of the best strikers in the world in Robert Lewandowski, but his supporting cast is not on the same level and any problems with the Bayern Munich man will undoubtedly affect the whole team.

Senegal returns to the World Cup for the first time since reaching the quarterfinals in its one and only appearance in 2002, and striker Sadio Mane should be a handful for opponents as the West Africans look to make a name for themselves again.