A general view of Luschniki Stadium in Moscow on June 13, 2018, one day prior to the start of the FIFA World Cup 2018.

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Hartnett: Previewing The World Cup

Uruguay, Germany, France Among Teams To Watch

June 13, 2018 - 10:59 am

The 2018 World Cup boasts intriguing storylines, plucky underdogs and emerging stars ready to set the tournament alight. Oddly, traditional qualifiers Italy, Netherlands, Chile, Ghana and the United States failed to punch a ticket to Russia.

Here are a group-by-group breakdown, tournament favorites, surprise teams and players to watch:

GROUP A

Egypt’s hope of a deep run hinges on the health of Mohamed Salah, the English Premier League's 38-game-season record goalscorer. If Salah is fully recovered from a Champions League Final shoulder injury, his blistering pace and defense-shredding skill could make Egypt a World Cup Final dark horse. Should he not be operating at full capacity, Egypt could struggle for goals and could be undone by a leaky defense.

MORE: North American Trio Beats Morocco To Host 2026 World Cup

A pair of world-class attackers in Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani should supply Uruguay with a steady stream of goals, while a central defense partnership of Diego Godin and Jose Maria Gimenez that helped Atletico Madrid win the 2018 Europa League should be difficult for opponents to crack.

Luis Suarez with FC Barcelona
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Beset by injuries and without a clear starting 11, it would be surprising if Russia challenges Egypt and Uruguay. The absence of forward Alexander Kokorin is a major blow.

Saudi Arabia will try to play compact and frustrate opponents, but a lack of experience against top-tier opponents points to a last-place finish.

To advance to the round of 16: Egypt, Uruguay         

GROUP B

Portugal’s Euro 2016 championship came as a surprise to many. Since then, Portugal has become less reliant on captain Cristiano Ronaldo’s brilliance through the development of Bernardo Silva, Adrien Silva and Goncalo Guedes. A potent Portuguese attack may need to overcompensate for a declining back four. Pepe and Jose Fonte have regressed.

Spain has struggled to replace its golden era stars that captured Euro 2008, World Cup 2010 and Euro 2012 titles. The generation of Xavi, Carles Puyol, Xabi Alonso, David Villa and Fernando Torres is gone. As legendary midfielder Andres Iniesta prepares for his final World Cup and captain Sergio Ramos and David Silva tick closer to their mid-30s, the next wave will need to make their mark. Isco, Saul Niguez, Marco Asensio and Rodrigo must shine when called upon. Combative striker Diego Costa will need to mesh well with Spain’s flowing football.

Spain has sacked manager Julen Lopetegui after he accepted the Real Madrid job. Fernando Hierro has taken over as Spanish national team manager. Lopetegui’s sudden firing means that Hierro’s first match guiding the national team will be against Portugal on Friday in Spain’s World Cup opener. On top of this, Hierro will bring tactical changes that could see Costa in the starting 11.

Morocco can be a tricky opponent for the group favorites. Ajax midfielder Hakim Ziyech is highly regarded for his playmaking and free-kick ability. Fullback Achraf Hakimi is making great strides with Champions League winner Real Madrid. The biggest question mark stands between the sticks: Munir, who barely played for Numancia of the Spanish second division. 

Iran has improved, but anything more than a point or two gained in the group stage would be a major shock.

To advance to the round of 16: Portugal, Spain

GROUP C

France brings a star-studded squad to Russia. Key midfielder Paul Pogba is the total package. Kylian Mbappe, Antoine Griezmann, Anthony Martial and Thomas Lemar bring trickery, pace and goals. Up front, in the midfield, in defense and in goal, France has all the talent to win the World Cup, and it’s up to head coach Didier Deschamps to make it all mesh.

Denmark possesses one of the world’s elite playmakers in Christian Eriksen. He is backed by tall, physical teammates. A lack of overall quality in the starting 11 could make the Danes vulnerable.

Ranked 11th in the FIFA World rankings, Peru is built on spirit and teamwork. With his team lacking household names, head coach Ricardo Gareca is able to coax elegant football from a group of players whose whole is greater than the sum of their parts.

Australia, headlined by fan favorite forward Tim Cahill, is likely to have a tough time given the strength of their opposition and lack of preparation against quality sides.

To advance to the round of 16: France, Peru

GROUP D

Argentina's Lionel Messi has been the greatest athlete on the planet for a decade, yet World Cup success eludes him. Knee injuries have knocked out creative playmaker Manuel Lanzini and first-choice goalkeeper Sergio Romero from of the tournament. Messi and Sergio Aguero form a dynamite striking partnership, but Argentina’s soft underbelly in defense and goal is concerning.

Argentina's Lionel Messi (10) controls the ball against Chile in the championship match of the 2016 Copa America Centenario on June 26, 2016, at MetLife Stadium.
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Iceland surprised many by reaching the Euro 2016 quarterfinals. Its success is tied in part to the health of key midfielder Gylfi Sigurdsson, who is recovering from a knee injury.

Croatia could be a sneaky dark horse in this year’s tournament. Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic provide plenty of creativity in the midfield, and Mario Mandzukic is a reliable goal-getter.

Nigeria boasts a number of recognizable English Premier League faces, including Victor Moses, Wilfred Ndidi, Kelechi Iheanacho and Alex Iwobi. Captain John Obi Mikel enjoyed a successful spell at Chelsea. This group is fairly open, but a shaky goalkeeping situation could hurt the Super Eagles’ chances.

To advance to the round of 16: Argentina, Croatia

GROUP E

Brazil enters the tournament as a heavy favorite thanks to the attacking prowess of Neymar, Philippe Coutinho, Gabriel Jesus and Roberto Firmino. Goalkeeper Alisson has attracted the interest of Europe’s leading clubs. Though the attack gets much of the media focus, a strong back four led by Thiago Silva is hard to crack.

Switzerland brings a solid squad to Russia and a team-first ethic is prioritized. Xherdan Shaqiri is a difficult winger to contain, and striker Breel Embolo is a star in the making.

Boasting a strong defense and a combative roster, Costa Rica will set out to catch opponents of the counter. After reaching the quarterfinals in 2014, it will be difficult to repeat the trick in Russia.

Serbia could either emerge as a surprise team or bow out quickly. Dusan Tadic and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic provide plenty of creative spark, but a shaky backline is a major concern.

To advance to the round of 16: Brazil, Switzerland

GROUP F

Defending World Cup champion Germany enters this year’s tournament No. 1 in the FIFA rankings. Though Bastian Schweinsteiger, Philipp Lahm and Per Mertesacker are gone, Die Mannschaft is once again a hot favorite. Timo Werner will lead the line, constantly ask questions of any defense and get a steady supply line from Tony Kroos and Mesut Ozil.

Mexico makes a habit of reaching the round of 16, but it’s hard to tell whether this year’s group can go further. A big factor will be which version of enigmatic striker Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez shows up.

The big question facing Sweden is how a team short on striking options will fare without Zlatan Ibrahimovic. No Zlatan, no party?

Pre-tournament injuries to Lee Keun-ho and Kwon Chang-hoon are a blow to South Korea, but Tottenham’s Son Heung-min can be a game-changer.

To advance to the round of 16: Germany, Mexico

GROUP G

There’s an anxious aura surrounding a hugely talented yet overdue Belgian team. Kevin De Bruyne might be the world’s best midfielder. Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku and Dries Mertens are a handful for any defense. Belgium has all the talent, and pressure will be on manager Roberto Martinez to push this squad to greatness.

England has taken steps forward under manager Gareth Southgate. Harry Kane can carry the Three Lions, but their backline is far from convincing.

Panama and Tunisia will likely struggle in this top-heavy group.

To advance to the round of 16: Belgium, England

GROUP H

Out of all the groups, the hardest to predict will be a fiercely contested Group H. Poland’s Robert Lewandowski is as automatic of a scorer as there is on the planet, but Poland’s defense struggled throughout the qualifying rounds.

The impact of world-class duo Radamel Falcao and James Rodriguez gives Colombia a legit chance of going deep in this year’s tournament. Juan Cuadrado provides trickiness on the wing and La Tricolor looks strong at the back with the emergence of Davinson Sanchez.

Senegal also boasts a formidable defense, and Liverpool’s Sadio Mane’s pace and trickiness can unlock any defense.

Japan should not be overlooked due to stars Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa.

To advance to the round of 16: Poland, Colombia

TOP SCORER: Luis Suarez (Uruguay)

FINAL PREDICTION: Uruguay defeats Germany

Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey​