2018 FIFA World Cup Preview – Final Prediction

Who will win the World Cup? As ever, it’s a complicated question, and much of the fascination of the tournament is watching the drama play out. When assessing the 32 teams’ respective chances to take home the ultimate prize, it becomes clear that these sides can be grouped based on their levels of ambition. At the top, the main contenders are set to be the ones battling it out at the end. They are the teams who historically win the tournament, and will set victory as their goal coming in. Then there’s the second-tier, or the dark horses who have a legitimate chance of winning if things fall their way. They are more consistent performers, with quality to match anyone. The wildcards are the teams that could make it as far as the semi-finals and are capable of pulling off a big upset, while the knockout hopefuls are the largely unspectacular sides setting their sights on the round of 16. The early exiters round out the competition, being the teams with no realistic chance of winning and slim hopes of progressing past the second round. This preview will touch on all of these groups, before eventually predicting the winner of the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

The Contenders

Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany, Spain
Thanks to the non-qualification of Italy, and a number of other factors, the usual suspects may be a bit thin on the ground in Russia. Germany will always be there at the end, as will Brazil, and both sides should be considered the top favourites going into the tournament. France are the third of the contenders with a very good chance of taking home the trophy, and their quality is undeniable. Then there’s Argentina and Spain, both of whom may struggle at the tournament after distracted preparations. Argentina’s decision to cancel a pre-tournament friendly against Israel not only left them underdone but also created a diplomatic incident. Meanwhile, Spain’s decision to sack their coach two days out from the tournament is certain to impact their results, and they will now do well to escape from a tough group.

The Dark Horses

Belgium, Poland, Portugal, Uruguay
With so few of the main contenders still primed for a deep run, the door may be open for one of these sides to sneak in and buck the trend. Belgium and Poland are strong, but their runs may be hindered by the draw. If one doesn’t win their group, they may find themselves facing off in the second round. Even if Belgium, as expected, win Group G and the Poles take out Group H, quarter-final dates with Brazil (for Belgium) and Germany (for Poland) would probably finish them off. Uruguay and Portugal are probably best placed to take advantage of Spain’s woes, and both are consistent teams who are capable of going a long way.

The Wildcards

Colombia, Croatia, Egypt, England, Iceland, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal
Three of these wildcards are in Group D, where a vulnerable Argentina means that Croatia, Iceland and Nigeria are not a bad chance of taking them out. Of the three, the Croatians are probably the most damaging. They are as good, if not better than, the Argentinians, and could easily pry them out of top spot. Of course, everything could fall in a heap as well, especially with their off-field concerns, but a semi-final run is not out of the question. Nigeria and Senegal are both in tough groups where they will either thrive or crash out, while Egypt could also make a splash if they can overcome Mohamed Salah’s injury issues. The turmoil surrounding Spain leaves Morocco with a chance of edging them out, and they may be a tough opponent in the knockouts. The same can be said for Iceland, and the English are unpredictable – and dangerous.

The Knockout Hopefuls

Denmark, Mexico, Peru, Serbia, Sweden, Switzerland
These teams come from just three groups, and are in competition with each other. As a general rule, they shouldn’t make too much of a splash. The Swiss are the best of the teams in terms of ranking and consistency, but they may face stiff competition if Serbia are on their game. In Group C, Denmark and Peru will be an intriguing early match-up, while Mexico and Sweden are likely to fight it out for second place in Group F. None of these teams have much of a chance of winning it all, but they should be looking at the round of 16 as a realistic goal.

The Early Exiters

Australia, Costa Rica, Iran, Japan, Panama, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Tunisia
To put it bluntly, these teams have no hope of winning the World Cup, and they will probably be out by the round of 16. Iran are the most talented of them, but their position in a tough group with Spain, Portugal and Morocco means progress is unlikely. Of course, Spain’s issues may leave the door open, but Morocco seem better suited to take the opportunity. The Russians are hosting the event, and of these teams they are most likely to go through. They just aren’t a very good team, however, and they’d do well to get to the second round. Australia and South Korea may just slip past their opposition and take a berth in the knockout stages, while Saudi Arabia could give their campaign a big boost with an opening game win over Russia. Costa Rica will struggle to repeat their quarter-final run of 2014, especially after declining in quality, and Tunisia’s placement alongside Belgium and England is likely to cut short their participation. Japan have plenty of off-field issues, and they will struggle in a tough group. Bringing up the rear is Panama, who are clearly the least-talented team at this tournament and will do well to bring home a point.

Looking through the draw based on my predicted outcomes for each group (with Group B changed to reflect the likelihood of Portugal finishing above Spain), the second round will consist of matches between Uruguay and Spain, Portugal and Egypt, France and Argentina, Croatia and Denmark, Brazil and Mexico, Germany and Switzerland, Belgium and Colombia and Poland and England. With these clashes in mind, Portugal, Croatia, Brazil and Germany should win fairly comfortably. Poland are too good for England, and Belgium should beat Colombia (although a match between the two would be great to watch). France are too good for Argentina, and Uruguay should be too good for Spain, if La Furia Roja even make it that far. According to these results, the quarter-finals will see Uruguay play France, Portugal take on Croatia, Brazil go up against Belgium and Germany face Poland. Once again, Brazil and Germany should be too strong, as should the French. The last match-up is an intriguing one. Croatia are probably more talented than the Portuguese, and would start as favourites, but it would be a close-run affair. In the semis, the Germans would be likely to defeat the Croatians fairly comfortably, although a mouth-watering match-up between France and Brazil shapes as one of the games of the tournament. In the end, I think France’s talent will win out in the end, and I think that Les Bleus will take out the World Cup over the Germans. One thing’s for sure: with the World Cup, you just never know. Right now, with the fun beginning in a little over 12 hours, the whole tournament is a complete mystery. Let’s hope it stays pretty mysterious right to the end.

Predictions

Champions: France
Runners-up: Germany
Third Place: Brazil
Fourth Place: Croatia
Quarter-finals: Belgium, Poland, Portugal, Uruguay
Round of 16: Argentina, Colombia, Denmark, Egypt, England, Mexico, Spain, Switzerland
Top scorer: Antoine Griezmann (France)
Golden Ball: Neymar (Brazil)

2018 FIFA World Cup Preview – Group D

Group D

Teams (world ranking in brackets): Argentina (5), Iceland (22), Croatia (20), Nigeria (48)
Fixtures:
Argentina vs Iceland, Otkritie Arena, Moscow
Croatia vs Nigeria, Kaliningrad Stadium, Kaliningrad
Argentina vs Croatia, Nizhny Novgorod Stadium, Nizhny Novgorod
Nigeria vs Iceland, Volgograd Arena, Volgograd
Nigeria vs Argentina, Krestovsky Stadium, Saint Petersburg
Iceland vs Croatia, Rostov Arena, Rostov-on-Don

Argentina

Head Coach: Jorge Sampaoli
Captain: Lionel Messi
Previous Appearances: 16 (1930, 1934, 1958, 1962, 1966, 1974, 1978, 1982, 1986, 1990, 1994, 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010, 2014)
Best Finish: Champions (1978, 1986)
Qualified: CONMEBOL, 3rd
Qualification Top Scorer: Lionel Messi (7)

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Nahuel Guzmán (UANL), 12. Franco Armani (River Plate), 23. Willy Caballero (Chelsea).
Defenders: 2. Gabriel Mercado (Sevilla), 3. Nicolás Tagliafico (Ajax), 4. Christian Ansaldi (Torino), 6. Federico Fazio (Roma), 8. Marcos Acuña (Sporting), 14. Javier Mascherano (Hebei China Fortune), 16. Marcos Rojo (Manchester United), 17. Nicolás Otamendi (Manchester City).
Midfielders: 5. Lucas Biglia (Milan), 7. Éver Banega (Sevilla), 11. Ángel Di María (Paris Saint-Germain), 13. Maximiliano Meza (Independiente), 15. Manuel Lanzini (West Ham United), 18. Eduardo Salvio (Benfica), 20. Giovani Lo Celso (Paris Saint-Germain), 22. Cristian Pavón (Boca Juniors).
Forwards: 9. Gonzalo Higuaín (Juventus), 10. Lionel Messi (Barcelona), 19. Sergio Agüero (Manchester City), 21. Paulo Dybala (Juventus).

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Lionel Messi celebrates after sealing Argentina’s World Cup berth with a hat-trick against Ecuador. Messi is Argentina’s star, and plays a big role in all their success.

Argentina just did enough to make it through a hotly-contested South American qualifying group, with a final day Lionel Messi hat-trick eventually sealing a spot in Russia for Jorge Sampaoli’s team. Now they’re here, they will be a formidable opponent. The brilliant Messi leads what could be the most potent attack in the tournament, with Manchester City’s Sergio Agüero and Juventus stars Gonzalo Higuaín and Paulo Dybala all excellent goal-scorers in their own right. Ángel Di María is a skilful presence in midfield, and he will receive support from quality playmakers like Giovani Lo Celso, Cristian Pavón and Manuel Lanzini. Lucas Biglia and Éver Banega are solid players in central midfield, and the combination of a quality midfield and dynamic attack should be a fruitful one in Russia. Defensively, Nicolás Otamendi is coming off an excellent season in the Premier League, and he should combine well with Federico Fazio, Gabriel Mercado, Marcos Rojo and the experienced Javier Mascherano. The Argentinians have plenty of quality, and they will be a very tough team to beat.

There are, however, a few issues that Jorge Sampaoli will need to fix. The team has been overly reliant on Messi, and their qualifying campaign was riddled with inconsistency. Aside from Messi, no Argentinian scored more than two goals in qualifying, with neither Dybala nor Agüero scoring any goals at all. This lack of quality support for the captain was reflected in Argentina’s poor returns, with their haul of 19 goals in 18 games the equal second-worst in qualifying (tied with Paraguay and last-placed Venezuela). Considering the abundance of attacking options at Sampaoli’s disposal, this marks a concerning trend that will need to be turned around. The defence may be a more pressing concern, with Argentina still lacking quality full-backs and displaying a concerning tendency for defensive breakdowns. These issues will be exacerbated by an injury to first-choice goalkeeper Sergio Romero, and they could derail Argentina’s campaign if not fixed.

Star Player: Lionel Messi

Messi is the undisputed star of Argentina’s side, and he is at the centre of almost all of their success. He has scored more goals for the national team than any other player, and his scoring output for La Albiceleste has remarkably increased in the last few years. He has pace and incredible technical ability, and he is almost certain to perform well on the big stage.

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Nicolás Otamendi controls the ball during a pre-tournament friendly against Haiti. Otamendi has become Argentina’s best defender, and will need to perform if they are to make a deep run in Russia.

Key Player: Nicolás Otamendi

Argentina have had defensive issues for some time, and Otamendi will play a key role in ensuring these problems do not plague their tournament. Since his non-selection for the last World Cup the experienced central defender has improved and was a key part of the Manchester City side that won the Premier League this season. If he can maintain that form, Argentina will be able to thrive.

One to watch: Cristian Pavón

Pavón is one of just three members of Sampaoli’s squad under the age of 25, and the 22-year-old has the potential to make an impact in Russia. He has good skills and plenty of pace, and his ability to play on either wing should allow him to be a handy option off the bench. He is still relatively unknown outside of Argentina, and this World Cup could be a chance to announce himself on the world stage.

Verdict

Argentina are not perfect, but if their attack is on song it is good enough to paper over the rest of the cracks. They aren’t guaranteed to progress from a competitive group, but with Messi on their side they should be alright.
Likely Team (4-2-3-1): Caballero; Mercado, Fazio, Otamendi, Tagliafico; Biglia, Lo Celso; Dybala, Messi, Di María; Agüero.

Iceland

Head Coach: Heimir Hallgrimsson
Captain: Aron Gunnarsson
Previous Appearances: None
Best Finish: N/A
Qualified: UEFA, 1st Group I
Qualification Top Scorer: Gylfi Sigurðsson

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Hannes þór Halldórsson (Randers), 12. Frederik Schram (Roskilde), 13. Rúnar Alex Rúnarsson (Nordsjælland).
Defenders: 2. Birkir Már Sævarsson (Valur), 3. Samúel Friðjónsson (Vålerenga), 5. Sverrir Ingi Ingason (Rostov), 6. Ragnar Sigurðsson (Rostov), 14. Kári Árnason (Aberdeen), 15. Hólmar Örn Eyjólfsson (Levski Sofia), 18. Hörður Björgvin Magnússon (Bristol City), 23. Ari Freyr Skúlason (Lokeren).
Midfielders: 4. Albert Guðmundsson (PSV Eindhoven), 7. Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson (Burnley), 8. Birkir Bjarnason (Aston Villa), 10. Gylfi Sigurðsson (Everton), 16. Ólafur Ingi Skúlason (Kardemir Karabükspor), 17. Aron Gunnarsson (Cardiff City), 19. Rúrik Gíslason (Sandhausen), 20. Emil Hallfreðsson (Udinese), 21. Arnór Ingvi Traustason (Malmö).
Forwards: 9. Björn Bergmann Sigurðarson (Rostov), 11. Alfreð Finnbogason (Augsburg), 22. Jón Daði Böðvarsson (Reading).

Iceland were the fairytale story of Euro 2016, and they will be looking to make a similar run in their first appearance at the World Cup. The tiny North Atlantic island (with a population of just 350 thousand) progressed from a tough qualifying group to become the smallest nation to qualify for the World Cup finals, and they shouldn’t be underestimated. Their dream run at the Euros, including a stunning second round knockout of England, was built around excellent discipline and a very strong defensive structure. Ragnar Sigurðsson and Kári Árnason are solid centre-backs, and goalkeeper Hannes þór Halldórsson played the tournament of his life at the Euros and is an experienced player. Aside from providing an unlikely attacking threat with his monstrous throw-ins, captain Aron Gunnarsson is a solid presence in midfield, and wingers Birkir Bjarnason and Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson are dangerous in attack. With Gylfi Sigurðsson providing some class in midfield and Alfreð Finnbogason providing a dangerous scoring option, Iceland are a well-oiled unit who may just have what it takes to get through.

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Captain Aron Gunnarsson (centre) leads Iceland players in celebration after their Euro 2016 win over England. Iceland made it to the quarter-finals of the Euros with their dogged defence, and they have excellent team spirit.

The World Cup, however, is a tougher ask than the Euros. They have been battling injury issues in the lead-up to the tournament, with main striker Kolbeinn Sigþórsson missing with a knee injury and key players Gunnarsson, Finnbogason and Gylfi Sigurðsson all battling various complaints. Their eventual elimination from the Euros, coming in the form of an emphatic 5-2 defeat to hosts France, shows that they will struggle against stronger opponents in spite of their discipline, and their natural style of conceding possession and sitting back could leave them vulnerable. Iceland’s depth is not great, and while they have some quality players they are generally less skilled than their group stage opponents, something which could become an issue in big moments. They can be trusted to fight hard, and Heimir Hallgrimsson’s structure is very sound, but their lack of quality across the park is likely to prove their undoing in the end.

Star Player: Gylfi Sigurðsson

Sigurðsson is Iceland’s only truly world-class player, attracting a club-record fee when he moved from Swansea City to Everton at the start of the season. He is a hard-working midfielder who fits Iceland’s system well, and his ability to pop up with goals and assists in big moments will be invaluable in Russia. He is a quality player, and Iceland desperately need him to be fit and firing.

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Gylfi Sigurðsson (front), Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson (centre) and Birkir Bjarnason celebrate Guðmundsson’s qualifying goal against Kosovo. Sigurðsson is the team’s star, but wingers Bjarnason and Guðmundsson will also play a key role.

Key Player: Aron Gunnarsson

Gunnarsson is the other half of Iceland’s central midfield pairing, and while he is not as skilled as Sigurðsson he will be just as important. Gunnarsson has plenty of experience, and his physical play in the middle forms a key part of the Icelandic game plan. His long throw-ins, which tripped up the English during the Euros, allow Iceland extra attacking opportunities, something which could come in handy in tough games.

One to watch: Albert Guðmundsson

Guðmundsson comes from impressive footballing pedigree. He is a fourth generation Icelandic international, and his great-grandfather was Iceland’s first professional footballer. Now, the 20-year-old can forge his own reputation, and the PSV youth product has the talent to make an impact on the world stage. He is likely to be used off the bench, but he can find the back of the net and will be a good option for Hallgrimsson.

Verdict

The odds are stacked against Iceland making it through to the second round, but the same could have been said before the Euros. They are a disciplined group and shouldn’t be written off.
Likely Team (4-4-2): Halldórsson; Sævarsson, R Sigurðsson, Árnason, Magnússon; J Guðmundsson, Gunnarsson, G Sigurðsson, Bjarnason; Finnbogason, Boðvarsson.

Croatia

Head Coach: Zlatko Dalić
Captain: Luka Modrić
Previous Appearances: 4 (1998, 2002, 2006, 2014)
Best Finish: Third Place (1998)
Qualified: UEFA, 2nd Group I (beat Greece in play-offs)
Qualification Top Scorer: Mario Mandžukić (5)

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Dominik Livaković (Dinamo Zagreb), 12. Lovre Kalinić (Gent), 23. Danijel Subašić (Monaco).
Defenders: 2. Šime Vrsaljko (Atlético Madrid), 3. Ivan Strinić (Sampdoria), 5. Vedran Ćorluka (Lokomotiv Moscow), 6. Dejan Lovren (Liverpool), 13. Tin Jedvaj (Bayer Leverkusen), 15. Duje Ćaleta-Car (Red Bull Salzburg), 21. Domagoj Vida (Beşiktaş), 22. Josip Pivarić (Dynamo Kyiv).
Midfielders: 4. Ivan Perišić (Internazionale), 7. Ivan Rakitić (Barcelona), 8. Mateo Kovačić (Real Madrid), 10. Luka Modrić (Real Madrid), 11. Marcelo Brozović (Internazionale), 14. Filip Bradarić (Rijeka), 19. Milan Badelj (Fiorentina).
Forwards: 9. Andrej Kramarić (Hoffenheim), 16. Nikola Kalinić (Milan), 17. Mario Mandžukić (Juventus), 18. Ante Rebić (Eintracht Frankfurt), 20. Marko Pjaca (Schalke).

Croatia didn’t take a particularly smooth road to Russia, with Group D opponents Iceland edging them out and forcing them into a play-off to Greece. To their credit, they went on to blow their opponents away in Zagreb, a 4-1 win in the first leg all but sealing their passage. The Croats have players from the biggest clubs in Europe all over the park, especially through the middle. Real Madrid star Luka Modrić is a genius with the ball at his feet, and the diminutive playmaker will be complemented well by Ivan Rakitić, Mateo Kovačić, Milan Badelj and Marcelo Brozović. Ivan Perišić is always a dangerous player on the wing, and Juventus youngster Marko Pjaca has the pace and skill to make an impact. Mario Mandžukić leads the line with support from Nikola Kalinić and Andrej Kramarić, meaning there should be no shortage of goals. They only conceded four goals in qualifying, and with experienced centre-back Dejan Lovren and goalkeeper Danijel Subašić leading the defence they should be a hard team to break down.

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Ivan Perišić chases the ball during a qualifying match against Ukraine. Perišić is a dangerous winger who knows how to find the back of the net, and he adds an extra edge to Croatia’s attack.

Unfortunately for Zlatko Dalić and Croatia, the quality on the park doesn’t guarantee success. Their failure to qualify automatically was a disappointment, and Ante Čačić was removed as coach days before a crucial clash with Ukraine after a home draw with Finland jeopardised their campaign. Čačić was unpopular in the dressing room and with the fans, and it’s not clear whether his hurried replacement can avoid a similar fate and get the best out of the players. If he can’t, the results could be disastrous. Their defence could prove a weakness in Russia, and centre-backs Lovren and Domagoj Vida have been prone to defensive lapses in the past. A repeat of such errors in a competitive group could prove incredibly costly for Dalić’s side. For all their attacking quality, they only managed 15 goals in their qualifying group, another sign that all may not be well within the Croatian team. If they reach their potential, they are good enough to go a long way, but its not clear which Croatia will show up.

Star Player: Luka Modrić

Modrić is as influential as any midfielder in the world at the moment, and the diminutive playmaker will be a crucial part of Croatia’s World Cup campaign. He is the kind of player who has it all: he is calm under pressure, rarely makes a mistake in possession and never avoids his defensive duties. His exploits have been an underrated part of Real Madrid’s three consecutive Champions League titles, and Croatia will rely on his brilliance in Russia.

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Luka Modrić celebrates after scoring in Croatia’s play-off clash with Greece. Modrić has won four Champions League titles with Real Madrid, and is the main cog in the Croatian midfield.

Key Player: Dejan Lovren

Lovren has been a key part of Liverpool’s defence for the last four seasons, and it is remarkable that he has only managed 37 caps in a 10-year career with the national team. Although non-selections such as his omission for Euro 2016 were driven by a poor relationship with Čačić, he has not always been the consistent defender Croatia wanted him to be. In Russia, he has a chance to change that, and if he plays well they will be hard to beat.

One to watch: Marko Pjaca

Pjaca has gone from strength to strength since getting a chance with the national team at Euro 2016. A brilliant performance against Spain earned him a move to Juventus, and his ability to beat opponents allows him to create plenty of chances from either wing. In a settled Croatian side he is unlikely to start despite his versatility, but he could be a handful as an impact player off the bench.

Verdict

Croatia have plenty of quality, and stars like Modrić are certain to perform, but has Dalić got what it takes to bring the best out of his squad? We’ll see, but Croatia definitely have what it takes to survive – and potentially thrive – in a tough group.
Likely Team (4-2-3-1): Subašić; Vrsaljko, Lovren, Vida, Strinić; Rakitić, Badelj; Kramarić, Modrić, Perišić; Mandžukić.

Nigeria

Head Coach: Gernot Rohr
Captain: John Obi Mikel
Previous Appearances: 5 (1994, 1998, 2002, 2010, 2014)
Best Finish: Round of 16 (1994, 1998, 2014)
Qualified: CAF, 1st Group B
Qualification Top Scorer: Victor Moses (3)

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Ikechukwu Ezenwa (Enyimba), 16. Daniel Akpeyi (Chippa United), 23. Francis Uzoho (Deportivo La Coruña).
Defenders: 2. Brian Idowu (Amkar Perm), 3. Elderson Echiéjilé (Cercle Brugge), 5. William Troost-Ekong (Bursaspor), 6. Leon Balogun (Mainz), 12. Shehu Abdullahi (Bursaspor), 20. Chidozie Awaziem (Nantes), 21. Tyronne Ebuehi (ADO Den Haag), 22. Kenneth Omeruo (Kasımpaşa).
Midfielders: 4. Wilfred Ndidi (Leicester City), 8. Oghenekaro Etebo (Las Palmas), 10. John Obi Mikel (Tianjin TEDA), 11. Victor Moses (Chelsea), 15. Joel Obi (Torino), 17. Ogenyi Onazi (Trabzonspor), 18. Alex Iwobi (Arsenal), 19. John Ogu (Hapoel Be’er Sheva).
Forwards: 7. Ahmed Musa (CSKA Moscow), 9. Odion Ighalo (Changchun Yatai), 13. Simeon Nwankwo (Crotone), 14. Kelechi Iheanacho (Leicester City).

When the qualifying draw pitted Nigeria against Algeria, Cameroon and Zambia, it looked like Gernot Rohr’s men were in for a tough fight. Instead, the Nigerians cruised through to book their spot in Russia, with their only “loss” coming when they fielded an ineligible player. They will face a harder task at the World Cup, having drawn Argentina once again (the sides also faced off in 1994, 2002, 2010 and 2014). Rohr has, however, put together a side that can take it up to the world’s best. Odion Ighalo, Kelechi Iheanacho and Ahmed Musa are all quick and dangerous strikers, and Premier League duo Alex Iwobi and Victor Moses will be dangerous on the wings. John Obi Mikel has plenty of top-level experience, including 11 seasons with Chelsea, and the captain will combine well with Wilfred Ndidi, Oghenekaro Etebo and Ogenyi Onazi. Down back, Leon Balogun is a quality central defender, and he marshals a strong defence which conceded just four times in qualifying against some quality attacking players.

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John Obi Mikel (centre) chases the ball in Nigeria’s clash with Argentina at the 2014 World Cup. Nigeria have been drawn against Argentina in all but one of their World Cups, in 1998.

Nigeria may be a strong side and a very tough opponent in Russia, but they are not without issues, especially on the defensive end. The Super Eagles have major issues in goal, where the international retirement of Vincent Enyeama has left a hole that is still yet to be filled. First-choice Ikechukwu Ezenwa has fallen out of favour with Rohr and 19-year-old Francis Uzoho is likely to take the gloves in Russia. Uzoho is currently playing in Deportivo La Coruña’s second team, and it is not clear how he will perform under pressure at the World Cup, and the uncertainty around the position could come back to bite them during the tournament. Aside from centre-backs Balogun and William Troost-Ekong it is not clear who is in Rohr’s best back four, another issue that will need to be sorted out if the Super Eagles are to fly. If they can fix their problems they will be a formidable opponent, but a tough group means there is no time to warm into the campaign.

Star Player: Alex Iwobi

It’s hard to pinpoint one player as the best on this Nigerian team, but Iwobi’s goals against big opponents suggest he could be the hero at this World Cup. The 22-year-old has been getting regular game time with Arsenal, and in recent times he scored a brace against group stage opponents Argentina and a goal at Wembley against the English. He is a quality player on the wing, and could have a big impact in Russia.

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Alex Iwobi (left) battles for the ball during Nigeria’s friendly with England. Iwobi is a dangerous winger who can pierce defences and will play a big role for the Super Eagles in Russia.

Key Player: Leon Balogun

Balogun, along with Troost-Ekong, has been one of the only constant elements in Rohr’s defence, and Nigeria will need the physically imposing centre-back to stand up if they are to progress in this tournament. He has plenty of experience at the highest level, and the Super Eagles will hope that experience shines through on the big stage.

One to watch: Oghenekaro Etebo

Etebo was named CAF young player of the year in 2015, but the 22-year-old is still yet to fulfil his immense potential. He hasn’t quite pinned down one position as his best yet, but he mixes attacking talent with defensive work ethic and can play anywhere from attacking midfield to right-back. In Russia, he could be the midfielder the Super Eagles are looking for, and he has the chance to announce himself as a future star.

Verdict

Nigeria are a strong side, with plenty of exciting talents and quality players. Questions remain about their defence, however, and they may just get edged out by stronger opponents. They will be interesting to watch.
Likely Team (4-3-3): Uzoho; Idowu, Balogun, Troost-Ekong, Abdullahi; Etebo, Mikel, Ndidi; Moses, Ighalo, Iwobi.

Prediction

Will Iceland be able to repeat their Euro 2016 heroics? Will Argentina’s reliance on Lionel Messi cost them in the end? Can Zlatko Dalić get the best out of an extremely talented Croatian side? What will Nigeria bring to the table? These are just some of the many questions raised by this extremely tight group, where a slip by any one of the four sides could prove costly. On talent, Argentina and Croatia should progress, but both have lingering doubts surrounding their sides that could impact their performance. As for the others, Nigeria beat the Argentinians a few months ago, and Iceland did finish ahead of Croatia in their qualifying group. If Argentina were to miss out it would be surprising, but not entirely unprecedented. With all these unanswered questions, one thing’s for sure: Group D will be fascinating to watch.
1. Croatia, 2. Argentina, 3. Nigeria, 4. Iceland

Portugal leave it late but get the job done

Renato Sanches ran down the centre of the Stade Bollaert-Delelis without being challenged by one Croatian defender. He was on the break, and the eighteen year-old had Nani calling for the ball on his left. He kept running.

The game had been slow, and had never really reached the heights that were expected. It was possible to watch the early minutes and think that the two sides were just feeling each other out, sowing the seeds for a great game. Then ten minutes became twenty, and it became clear that the much-awaited game between Croatia and Portugal might not be all that it was cracked up to be.

Sanches was still running. He was right in the middle of Croatia’s half, and he still had Nani running and calling for the ball. Nani hadn’t been picked up, but Sanches was not passing it. Not yet anyway. He kept running.

Pepe had the first real chance of the game for the Portuguese. Raphael Guerreiro, formerly of Lorient, now at Borussia Dortmund, curled a free kick into the box, where the central defender was waiting in a great position. He couldn’t hit the target.

Sanches had reached the edge of the box, having run halfway across the field without opposition. Now Croatia decided it was time to stop him, and an opponent appeared. He decided to honour Nani’s run, and he passed it off to the left.

After Pepe’s missed chance the game had threatened to take off, with missed shots from Ivan Perisic, Mario Mandzukic and Domagoj Vida. The game had settled back into a familiar rhythm, however, as attacks continued to break down in the final third. Portugal had the supremacy, but it was difficult to tell.

More support was coming for Nani, who was sitting to the left of the Croatian goal, just inside the penalty area. Portugal’s captain and best player, Cristiano Ronaldo, was moving to the right of the goal. Nani crossed the ball in his direction.

Croatia had some great chances just after the break. Ivan Strinic’s cross was dangerous, but it was headed out for a corner. The corner was taken quickly by the Croats, and Marcelo Brozovic was in a perfect position. The game briefly looked like going to another level, but it petered out again.

The ball found Ronaldo hard against the by-line. He was wedged into a corner, and Danijel Subasic was ready to stop him. Ronaldo had been quiet by any standards, let alone his. He had barely received the ball, and when he did he was not in a position to do anything. Even still, there was a sense that something was going to happen when he got the ball.

Things started to heat up again around the hour mark, with some great chances for both teams. Sanches, who came on just after half time, gave himself every opportunity to score with some great passing but missed to the left. Vida had a great chance from Darijo Srna’s free kick, but the header went wide. A couple of minutes later Nani was played through by Adrien Silva, and he appealed for a penalty as Vida cleared the ball. The Portuguese support had been raucous throughout, and they went up another level as Carlos Vellasco Carballo waved play on. Ronaldo had a chance when he was played through, but Vida beat him in the air. Then play petered out again until the end of normal time.

Ronaldo shot. It was low, it was hard, and Subasic dropped to the ground quickly. Not quite quickly enough, as it turned out. The Monaco keeper hadn’t really been worked all day, and while he stopped Ronaldo’s shot the ball popped up, hanging over the goalmouth.

Extra time began with more activity. Perisic hit the top netting with a looping header. Nikola Kalinic missed the target after breaking through the Portuguese defence. Perisic found the space to put in a shot, but he could not hit the target. Marko Pjaca injected some more pace into the Croatian attack, and Vida nearly scored when he caught Rui Patricio out of position. The header went over the bar. Croatia were putting Portugal under plenty of pressure and looked like scoring when Sanches made his break.

The ball was still hanging in the air when Ricardo Quaresma got to it. It was sitting up in the centre of the goals, about a metre out. Quaresma, who had come on to the field as a substitute for Joao Mario, could not have had it any easier. The header was comfortably put away, and Portugal took the lead with three minutes to go.

Croatia pushed as hard as they could, and Vida had a brilliant chance in injury time when he nearly scored with a volley. He flew to meet the ball in at the back post, but his attempt drifted across the face of the goal. It proved to be the last chance of the game, and the final whistle blew as Patricio’s goal kick flew across field.

Lens – Stade Bollaert-Delelis
Croatia 0
Portugal 1 (Ricardo Quaresma 117) (a.e.t.)
Referee: Carlos Vellasco Carballo (Esp)

Croatia (4-2-3-1): Subasic – Srna, Corluka (Kramaric 120), Vida, Strinic; Modric, Badelj; Brozovic, Rakitic (Pjaca 110), Perisic; Mandzukic (N Kalinic 88).
Portugal (4-4-2): Rui Patricio – Cedric, Pepe, Jose Fonte, Raphael Guerreiro; Joao Mario (Ricardo Quaresma 87), Adrien Silva (Danilo 108), William Carvalho, Andre Gomes (Renato Sanches 50); Nani, Ronaldo.

Top 5
1. Renato Sanches (Portugal)
Sanches came on as a second-half substitute and was a cut above the rest, showing great skill and dealing with the pressure brilliantly. He was very effective on the counter attack, especially in the latter stages, and he played a great all-round game. There were some disciplinary problems, but he changed the game and was the best player on the ground.
2. Domagoj Vida (Croatia)
Vida dealt very capably with the Portuguese attack, especially when they took control in the second half. He was able to deny both Nani and Ronaldo in one-on-one situations, and he cut out plenty of Portuguese attacks. He proved to be a significant threat in attack as well, and he nearly scored from set pieces on a number of occasions.
3. Pepe (Portugal)
Pepe had a solid game at the heart of the Portuguese defence, cutting out plenty of Croatian passes and ensuring that Portugal did not concede. He had the first real chance of the game when he found space inside the Croatian box, and his defensive work was solid throughout. He played a good game, and looks to be in good form leading into the quarter-finals.
4. Marcelo Brozovic (Croatia)
Brozovic roamed around between midfield and attack and created plenty of chances with his runs down the right wing. He had plenty of the ball and went close to scoring when he received the ball from a quickly-taken corner. His pace nearly caught Portugal out on a number of occasions, and he was one of Croatia’s best.
5. Ivan Perisic (Croatia)
Perisic was not at his best, but he provided a significant threat to the Portuguese with his pace and ability to get in behind. He had some excellent chances and was able to make his way into some great scoring positions. He was one of the best players for the Croatians, and he played a solid game on the wing.

UEFA Euro 2016 Knockout Stage Preview – Croatia vs Portugal

Croatia vs Portugal, Stade Bollaert-Delelis, Lens


Match Log

Croatia

Turkey 0, Croatia 1 (Modric 41)
Czech Republic 2 (Skoda 76, Necid 89 pen), Croatia 2 (Perisic 37, Rakitic 59)
Croatia 2 (N Kalinic 45, Perisic 87), Spain 1 (Morata 7)

Portugal

Portugal 1 (Nani 31), Iceland 1 (B Bjarnason 50)
Portugal 0, Austria 0
Hungary 3 (Gera 19, Dzsudzsak 47, 55), Portugal 3 (Nani 42, Ronaldo 50, 62)

Team News

Croatia

Injury clouds still hang over key players in Luka Modric and Marco Mandzukic, and Marko Rog and Nikola Kalinic are waiting in the wings to replace them. Ante Cacic rested Marcelo Brozovic, Ivan Strinic and Domagoj Vida for the game against Spain, and they should return to replace Marko Pjaca, Sime Vrsaljko and Tin Jedvaj.
Likely team (4-2-3-1): Subasic – Srna, Corluka, Vida, Strinic; Modric, Badelj; Brozovic, Rakitic, Perisic; Mandzukic.

Portugal

The Portuguese have tried various midfield combinations throughout this tournament, and it is not particularly easy to tell who they will select against the Croatians. Andre Gomes and Raphael Guerreiro are the only injury concerns, with the latter having missed the game against Hungary with a thigh complaint.
Likely team (4-4-2): Rui Patricio – Vierinha, Pepe, R Carvalho, Raphael Guerreiro; Andre Gomes, William Carvalho, Joao Moutinho, Joao Mario; Nani, Ronaldo.

Keys to success

Croatia

Ivan Perisic has been one of the form players throughout the tournament, and Croatia will be relying on him to perform again. If Modric is unavailable then Ivan Rakitic will need to play well at the heart of midfield, where he is a top quality player and can put in an excellent performance. Portugal may be struggling, but they have had more shots than any other side at this tournament and the Croatian defence will need to be ready to deal with the challenge.

Portugal

Cristiano Ronaldo has not been at his best throughout this tournament, but he scored twice against the Hungarians in Portugal’s final group match and will look to find that form again when he takes the field against Croatia. The Portuguese have created plenty of chances throughout the tournament, and they will be looking to take control and apply plenty of pressure to the Croatian defence. The defence will need to play better than they did in the group stage, as Croatia represent a significant step-up in quality.

Prediction

This match-up looks set to be one of the best of the round of 16, with a strong, confident Croatian side going up a Portuguese team with plenty of quality. Ronaldo has the potential to win the game for Portugal on his own, but it is Croatia who have the stronger side and should progress to the quarter-finals. Croatia 2-1.

Modric stunner gives Croatia victory

Croatia have sealed a victory over Turkey in Paris by virtue of a long-range volley from Luka Modric minutes before half-time. It was a goal which rivalled Dimitri Payet’s opening night winner in quality, and it proved decisive as Ante Cacic’s men claimed a deserved 1-0 win over the Turks, who never really looked like challenging. The game started slowly, but it sputtered into life after an uneventful first 20 minutes. Croatia began to take control shortly after, and while Ozan Tufan should have put the Turkish in front with a close-range header the chances were generally going the way of the Croats. Even still, there was not much life in the game and it looked as though the sides would be level at the break. Then Modric made his great contribution. The effort was, to put it mildly, ambitious. The ball had been cleared after a corner, and it had travelled well past the Turkish penalty area. Modric judged it to perfection, and from a very long way out he volleyed. The effort went over the mass of bodies crowded inside the box, and Turkish keeper Volkan Babacan could not stop it as it went into the bottom corner. Modric was as surprised as anyone to see the ball find the back of the net from what was less than a half-chance, but it didn’t really matter.

The second half began with much more energy, and Turkey appeared to start the second period on top. It didn’t take long for Croatia to find their rhythm again, and Darijo Srna nearly managed to score when his free kick from close range hit the crossbar. Srna was at it again a couple of minutes later, with Ivan Perisic creating a golden opportunity for his captain. Perisic’s cross was deflected to Srna by Babacan, and had the attempt been on target the Turkish goalkeeper would have been caught out of position. Turkey pushed hard to get the equaliser, but it was Croatia who looked much more likely to score as the game progressed. Marcelo Brozovic’s volley was just over the bar, and had Brozovic been able to get his boot to a dangerous ball from Perisic he would have doubled his side’s lead. Perisic continued to look dangerous, and he hit the bar with a headed effort after a good cross from Mario Mandzukic. The Turkish fought all the way to the final whistle, but Croatia were much stronger and never looked like giving up their lead. The win will give Croatia great confidence in both attack and defence, and they look like a side who could go a very long way in this competition. The loss will definitely raise some questions for Turkey, who lacked energy and any kind of presence up front throughout. They have some problems, and they need to be solved quickly.

Paris – Parc des Princes
Turkey 0
Croatia 1 (Modric 41)
Referee: Jonas Eriksson (Swe)

Turkey (4-3-3): Babacan – Gokhan Gonul, Mehmet Topal, Hakan Balta, Caner Erkin; Ozan Tufan, Selcuk Inan, Ozyakup (Volkan Sen 46); Calhanoglu, Cenk Tosun (Mor 69), Arda Turan (Burak Yilmaz 65).
Croatia (4-2-3-1): Subasic – Srna, Corluka, Vida, Strinic; Modric, Badelj; Brozovic, Rakitic (Schildenfeld 89), Perisic (Kramaric 87); Mandzukic (Pjaca 90+3).

Top 5
1. Ivan Perisic (Croatia)
Perisic sprung to life in the second half, making destructive runs down the left wing and causing massive problems for Turkish right back Gokhan Gonul. He created opportunity after opportunity, and as it stood he was unlucky to end the game without a goal or an assist. He showed incredible skill on the wing, and he was the most dangerous player on the ground.
2. Darijo Srna (Croatia)
Srna’s work as an attacking right back was invaluable for Croatia, and his crosses created plenty of chances for the forwards. He could have scored twice in the second half, and he was dominant throughout the game. He created plenty of trouble for Turkey, and if he can keep up his form for the rest of the tournament Croatia will be hard to beat.
3. Volkan Sen (Turkey)
Sen only played half the game, but he provided an energy to the Turkish that was lacking in the first half. He created a very good chance almost immediately after he entered the game, and he added an enthusiasm that hadn’t been there before his entry. There were some disciplinary issues, and he was booked late, but he played a good game.
4. Marcelo Brozovic (Croatia)
Brozovic was everywhere in the first half, and while he fell off slightly during the second period he was still one of the best players on the ground. He was lively throughout, and his work drifting in from the right wing caused plenty of problems for the Turkish defence. He had a few great chances over the course of the game, and his work in the air was excellent.
5. Luka Modric (Croatia)
Modric’s biggest moment was the goal, but he was also very strong throughout and provided experience and solidity in the centre of midfield. His long-range strike was one of extraordinary quality, and he even filled in at the heart of defence when Vedran Corluka was receiving treatment for a head cut. He played well, and should get better as the tournament goes on.

UEFA Euro 2016 Preview – Final Prediction

Over the last few days I have previewed each group in-depth, looking at each team individually. With just one day to go before Euro 2016 kicks off at the Stade de France it is now time for me to pick the team who I believe will be crowned champions of the tournament one month from now. The round of 16 is not easy to pick, as it is completely dependent on which of the third-placed teams progress to the next stage. I believe that Ukraine, Turkey, Sweden and Iceland will go through as third-placed teams, but Romania and Slovakia could well be the teams that progress. This means that Switzerland play Poland, Spain face Sweden, England play Turkey and Austria come up against Italy. The other matches would be Germany and Iceland, Belgium and Croatia, France vs Ukraine and Wales vs Portugal. Spain, England, Germany, Belgium and France should all progress comfortably, leaving three very interesting games. Austria and Italy will be an excellent contest, but the solidity and experience of the Italians should prevail. Either way, it will certainly be a great game to watch. Poland and Switzerland will be interesting, but Poland’s one-two punch of Robert Lewandowski and Arkadiusz Milik should be too much for the Swiss. Wales and Portugal are dependent on Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo respectively, and this will make for an interesting game. It may be close, but Portugal have better depth and more options and should progress.

This leaves quarter-finals between Poland and Spain, England and Italy, Germany and Belgium and France and Portugal. France and Spain should go through comfortably enough, and this leaves two brilliant contests. England vs Italy is an incredibly interesting match-up, and while the Italians are strong England are the better side and should go through. The other quarter-final would see the two top-ranked sides in this tournament play off, and it could be a classic. The Germans have not been in good form, but they always stand up at major tournaments. In the end, the Germans should win due to their experience, but Belgium will always be tough to see off. The first semi-final is between Spain and England, both strong, youthful teams who will be sure to provide a great contest. Ultimately the Spanish have more experience and a better side, and as such are more likely to go through. The English are on the rise, however, and should not be written off. In the other semi-final the Germans play the French. This is a tight contest, but I feel that the French should progress with a stronger side full of incredible talent. As such, I predict that France and Spain will contest the final of Euro 2016. A game between these sides would be very interesting, but in the end the French are the better side and should lift the trophy. The Spanish cannot be written off, but my final pick for Euro 2016 is France.

Champions: France
Runners-up: Spain
Semi-finals: England, Germany.
Quarter-finals: Belgium, Italy, Poland, Portugal.
Round of 16: Austria, Croatia, Iceland, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine, Wales.
Group Stage: Albania, Czech Republic, Hungary, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland, Romania, Russia, Slovakia.
Golden Ball: Paul Pogba (France)
Golden Boot: Robert Lewandowski (Poland)
Best Young Player: Dele Alli (England)

This brings my Euro 2016 preview to a close, and I hope you have enjoyed it. Stay tuned over the next few months for articles on the Euros as well as coverage of the Premier League and the Champions League.

UEFA Euro 2016 Preview – Group D

Group D

Teams (world ranking in brackets): Spain (6), Czech Republic (30), Turkey (18), Croatia (27)
Fixtures:
Turkey vs Croatia, Parc des Princes, Paris
Spain vs Czech Republic, Stadium Municipal, Toulouse
Czech Republic vs Croatia, Stade Geoffroy-Guichard, Saint-Etienne
Spain vs Turkey, Allianz Riviera, Nice
Croatia vs Spain, Nouveau Stade de Bordeaux, Bordeaux
Czech Republic vs Turkey, Stade Bollaert-Delelis, Lens

Spain

Head Coach: Vincente del Bosque
Captain: Iker Casillas
Previous Appearances: 9 (1964, 1980, 1984, 1988, 1996, 2000, 2004, 2008, 2012)
Best Finish: Champions (1964, 2008, 2012)
Qualified: 1st Group C
UEFA Euro 2012: Champions

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Iker Casillas (Porto), 13. David de Gea (Manchester United), 23. Sergio Rico (Sevilla).
Defenders:
2. Cesar Azpilicueta (Chelsea), 3. Gerard Pique (Barcelona), 4. Marc Bartra (Barcelona), 12. Hector Bellerin (Arsenal), 15. Sergio Ramos (Real Madrid), 16. Juanfran (Atletico Madrid), 17. Mikel San Jose (Athletic Bilbao), 18. Jordi Alba (Barcelona).
Midfielders:
5. Sergio Busquets (Barcelona), 6. Andres Iniesta (Barcelona), 8. Koke (Atletico Madrid), 10. Cesc Fabregas (Chelsea), 14. Thiago Alcantara (Bayern Munchen), 19. Bruno Soriano (Villarreal), 21. David Silva (Manchester City).
Forwards:
7. Alvaro Morata (Juventus), 9. Lucas Vazquez (Real Madrid), 11. Pedro Rodriguez (Chelsea), 20. Aritz Aduriz (Athletic Bilbao), 22. Nolito (Celta Vigo).

Form Guide

Spain’s performance at the World Cup was well below their lofty expectations, and their qualifying campaign started poorly with a 2-1 defeat at the hands of Slovakia in their second match. Vincente del Bosque’s side recovered with a 4-0 win over Luxembourg, and they did not look back, winning their last eight games to qualify with a game to spare.

Strengths

Spain only conceded 3 goals in qualifying, and with the experience of Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique down back they will be incredibly difficult to score against. The midfield is exceptional, and with Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas, Koke, Sergio Busquets and David Silva the strikers will be sure to get excellent supply. The Spanish know how to win, and despite the disappointment of the 2014 World Cup they are still one of the best sides around. They are the reigning champions, and it would not be a surprise if they triumph again.

Weaknesses

Spain have been looking for a star striker for a long time, and while they thought that they had found their man in Diego Costa he has not turned out as planned. As such, they enter the finals without a star front man, and while there is plenty of promise in Alvaro Morata players like Nolito and Aritz Aduriz are past their peaks and are not likely to provide an abundance of goals at the tournament. The Spanish do not have a great deal of depth in their squad, and this could prove harmful in the case of an injury to one of their stars.

Star Player: David Silva

Silva arrived at Manchester City from Valencia in 2010, and he has developed into one of the most skilled players in the world. He is a traditional playmaker with brilliant technical skills and he will be sure to create plenty of chances for the strikers and plenty of issues for opposition defences with his work on the ball.

Key Player: Iker Casillas

Casillas has played over 150 times for Spain, and he has won everything there is to win in Spanish and European football. He is now at Porto after exiting Real Madrid, but he is still a quality player and the Spanish will rely on him to perform. If he plays like he did in the last World Cup then there will be serious issues, but it seems unlikely that he will play that poorly again.

Verdict

The Spanish are very strong in defence and they have one of the best midfield groups going around, but they are still looking for a good target up front. There is also a lack of depth in the squad but with an experienced and frugal defence and a high-quality midfield there is no limit to how far the Spanish can progress into this tournament.

Czech Republic

Head Coach: Pavel Vrba
Captain: Petr Cech
Previous Appearances: 5 (1996, 2000, 2004, 2008, 2012)
Best Finish: Runners-up (1996)
Qualified: 1st Group A
UEFA Euro 2012: Quarter-finals

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Petr Cech (Arsenal), 16. Tomas Vaclik (Basel), 23. Tomas Koubek (Slovan Liberec).
Defenders:
2. Pavel Kaderabek (Hoffenheim), 3. Michal Kadlec (Fenerbahce), 4. Theodor Gebre Selassie (Werder Bremen), 5. Roman Hubnik (Viktoria Plzen), 6. Tomas Sivok (Bursaspor), 8. David Limbersky (Viktoria Plzen), 17. Marek Suchy (Basel).
Midfielders:
9. Borek Dockal (Sparta Praha), 10. Tomas Rosicky (Arsenal), 11. Daniel Pudil (Sheffield Wednesday), 13. Jaroslav Plasil (Bordeaux), 14. Daniel Kolar (Viktoria Plzen), 15. David Pavelka (Kasimpasa), 18. Josef Sural (Sparta Praha), 19. Ladislav Krejci (Sparta Praha), 20. Jiri Skalak (Brighton), 22. Vladimir Darida (Hertha Berlin).
Forwards:
7. Tomas Necid (Bursaspor), 12. Milan Skoda (Slavia Praha), 21. David Lafata (Sparta Praha).

Form Guide

The Czech Republic began their campaign by defeating the Netherlands, and they cruised to wins from their first four games. The side slowed down afterwards, but they still managed to qualify in first place, holding out Iceland and taking top spot with another victory against the Netherlands, this time in Amsterdam.

Strengths

The Czechs have an excellent record at the Euros, both as Czechoslovakia and as the Czech Republic. Petr Cech, Tomas Rosicky and Jaroslav Plasil are all very experienced, and Michal Kadlec and Tomas Sivok marshal a very solid defence. The defence is well-rounded, with Kadlec and Sivok joined by the likes of David Limbersky, Theodor Gebre Selassie, Daniel Pudil, Marek Suchy and Pavel Kaderabek, and there is plenty of depth in the middle of the park. Overall the Czechs are a very well-rounded side and are good enough to push for the latter stages of the tournament.

Weaknesses

The Czechs have a good base, but they lack potency up front. Tomas Necid, David Lafata and Milan Skoda are all options, but they contributed just four goals in qualifying between them. Instead the scoring burden will fall upon the midfield, and this could prove harmful if players like Borek Dockal and Vaclav Pilar do not perform. In the middle Rosicky, who is a particularly important factor in the side’s success, has not played one minute of league football this season, and this lack of preparation could be a serious problem.

Star Player: Petr Cech

Cech is a record breaker at both club and international level, and he will lead the Czechs at the finals. His performances at Chelsea were nothing short of remarkable, and he is probably the best goalkeeper the club has ever had. Not much ever gets past him, and the Czech defence will be much harder to break down with him between the posts.

Key Player: Borek Dockal

Dockal scored four goals in qualifying, and with the absence of a real presence up front he will be required to find his scoring form again. In a team where goals could be a struggle Dockal could well be a game-changer, and he will be required to fire if the Czechs are going to get anywhere at the final tournament.

Verdict

The Czechs have a well-rounded and experienced side, and after making the quarter-finals in 2012 they have the ability to go just as far this time around. Cech can be relied upon to perform, and with a solid defence in front of him the Czechs are going to be hard to break down. Their issues up front could prove costly, and they have been drawn into a tough group, but they can definitely do it.

Turkey

Head Coach: Fatih Terim
Captain: Arda Turan
Previous Appearances: 3 (1996, 2000, 2008)
Best Finish: Semi-finals (2008)
Qualified: 3rd Group A (qualified as best third-placed team)
UEFA Euro 2012: Did not qualify

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Volkan Babacan (Istanbul Basaksehir), 12. Onur Kivrak (Trabzonspor), 23. Harun Tekin (Bursaspor).
Defenders:
2. Semih Kaya (Galatasaray), 3. Hakan Balta (Galatasaray), 4. Ahmet Calik (Genclerbirgili), 7. Gokhan Gonul (Fenerbahce), 13. Ismail Koybasi (Besiktas), 15. Mehmet Topal (Fenerbahce), 18. Caner Erkin (Fenerbahce), 22. Sener Ozbayrakli (Fenerbahce).
Midfielders:
5. Nuri Sahin (Borussia Dortmund), 6. Hakan Calhanoglu (Bayer Leverkusen), 8. Selcuk Inan (Galatasaray), 10. Arda Turan (Barcelona), 11. Olcay Sahan (Besiktas), 14. Oguzhan Ozyakup (Besiktas), 16. Ozan Tufan (Fenerbahce), 19. Yunus Malli (Mainz), 20. Volkan Sen (Fenerbahce).
Forwards:
9. Cenk Tosun (Besiktas), 17. Burak Yilmaz (Beijing Guoan), 21. Emre Mor (Nordsjaelland).

Form Guide

The Turkish started their qualification process horribly, with defeats to Iceland and the Czech Republic followed by a 1-1 draw against Latvia. The struggle continued but home-and-away wins against Kazakhstan kept them in contention and they beat the Dutch and the Czechs before sealing a spot as the best ranked third-placed team with a 1-0 victory over Iceland in Konya.

Strengths

The Turkish team have some excellent players in the middle of the park, and Arda Turan, Selcuk Inan, Nuri Sahin and Hakan Calhanoglu are all top class players stationed at Europe’s top clubs. The side are coming in to the tournament in excellent form having pulled off three excellent victories to round out their campaign, and Inan’s incredible work from set pieces has the ability to create plenty of chances for the Turks when they get into the front third. There is plenty of experience in defence and the combination of Mehmet Topal, Gokhan Gonul and Caner Erkin will provide solidity.

Weaknesses

Volkan Demirel has ruled himself out of international selection, and his absence leaves a hole in the number one jersey. Volkan Babacan appears likely to fill the position at the final tournament, but he is not nearly as experienced as Demirel and could struggle. Topal, Gonul and Erkin are all strong defenders, but the fourth spot in the defence is still up for grabs and could be a problem. There are options, but none are able to fully fill this void. There is a clear gulf in class between the best players in the side and the worst, and this lack of depth could be an issue.

Star Player: Arda Turan

Turan has vast experience at the highest level, and he was made captain of Galatasaray when he was just 21. He became the most expensive Turkish player ever when he transferred to Atletico Madrid, and his prowess in attacking midfield will be a massive threat for opposition defences. He has experienced plenty of success in his career, and he has the potential to have a massive tournament.

Key Player: Selcuk Inan

Inan has plenty of experience at the highest level, and in over 200 games for Galatasaray he has established himself as an excellent player and as an on-field leader. He has vast experience in the Turkish side, and if they are to go anywhere they will need him to fire and create plenty of chances. His work from set pieces is exceptionally dangerous and could prove key to Turkey’s success.

Verdict

Turkey’s top players are exceptional, but there is not much beneath them. This could prove particularly costly in the event of an injury, and the issues raised by Demirel’s departure from the squad still exist. The Turkish are, however, a strong squad, and they could have a big impact on the final tournament.

Croatia

Head Coach: Ante Cacic
Captain: Darijo Srna
Previous Appearances: 4 (1996, 2004, 2008, 2012)
Best Finish: Quarter-finals (1996, 2008)
Qualified: 2nd Group H
UEFA Euro 2012: Group Stage

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Ivan Vargic (Rijeka), 12. Lovre Kalinic (Hajduk Split), 23. Danijel Subasic (Monaco).
Defenders:
2. Sime Vrsaljko (Sassuolo), 3. Ivan Strinic (Napoli), 5. Vedran Corluka (Lokomotiv Moskva), 6. Tin Jedvaj (Bayer Leverkusen), 11. Darijo Srna (Shakhtar Donetsk), 13. Gordon Schildenfeld (Dinamo Zagreb), 21. Domagoj Vida (Dynamo Kyiv).
Midfielders:
4. Ivan Perisic (Internazionale), 7. Ivan Rakitic (Barcelona), 8. Mateo Kovacic (Real Madrid), 10. Luka Modric (Real Madrid), 14. Marcelo Brozovic (Internazionale), 15. Marko Rog (Dinamo Zagreb), 18. Ante Coric (Dinamo Zagreb), 19. Milan Badelj (Fiorentina).
Forwards:
9. Andrej Kramaric (Hoffenheim), 16. Nikola Kalinic (Fiorentina), 17. Mario Mandzukic (Juventus), 20. Marko Pjaca (Dinamo Zagreb), 22. Duje Cop (Malaga).

Form Guide

Croatia began their qualifying campaign with confidence, defeating Malta, Bulgaria and Azerbaijan before putting five goals past Norway, but after a one-point deduction for racist fan behaviour they slowed down, drawing Azerbaijan and losing 2-0 to the Norwegians in Oslo. In the end it took the help of Italy to progress, the Italians defeating Norway in the last game to put Croatia through.

Strengths

In Mario Mandzukic, Luka Modric, Mateo Kovacic, Ivan Perisic and Ivan Rakitic the Croatians have some excellent players with experience at the highest level. The attack is strong, and in addition to Mandzukic there are many other options. With Modric, Kovacic, Perisic and Rakitic in the midfield they have the class and the experience to match their opponents, and players like Darijo Srna and Vedran Corluka form a solid defence which only let in five goals during qualifying, and the Croatians have a well-rounded side with plenty of experience.

Weaknesses

The Croatians have had a very set team for some time, and while this continuity is good it leaves a large hole in the event of injury to a key player. This lack of depth could prove particularly costly at the final tournament, where the pressure is higher and the stars could fail to shine. Croatia experienced a large downturn in performances during qualifying, and their efforts away from home can only be a worry, as they will not play in Croatia at the finals. There is also the unpredictable element of the fans, whose racist behaviour has caused issues in the past and could lead to costly sanctions.

Star Player: Luka Modric

Modric has played for Real Madrid since 2012, and he has plenty of experience at the highest level. He has played countless times in the Champions League, and his work creating opportunities for the strikers from the centre of midfield will be effective and very difficult to defend. He is a top quality player, and he can provide a massive boost to the Croatian team.

Key Player: Vedran Corluka

With the omission of Dejan Lovren from the squad it will be up to Corluka to fill the void left by the first-choice centre back. Corluka has plenty of experience at the highest level, and if Croatia are to get anywhere he will need to be a leader down back and perform at the heart of defence. If he fails life will be very difficult for the Croatians.

Verdict

Croatia have a well-rounded and experienced side, but a lack of depth could be an issue. While this is the case the core group of players is exceptionally strong, and they should be able to perform better than they did at the World Cup in Brazil. They will always have to contend with the potential wildcard of the fans, but the side themselves are strong enough.

Prediction

The Spanish are comfortably the strongest team in this group, and they should progress with ease. This leaves an interesting battle for second, with Turkey, Croatia and the Czech Republic all very evenly matched sides. In the end, the Czechs could struggle due to their deficient attack, and Croatia should go through with their experience and their very strong midfield.
1. Spain, 2. Croatia, 3. Turkey, 4. Czech Republic.

Neymar stars as Brazil shine

Brazil have gained the perfect start to their 2014 FIFA World Cup campaign in Sao Paulo, defeating Croatia 3-1 thanks to 2 goals from Neymar, including a 71st minute penalty. The Brazilians started with most of the possession and territory, although it was the Croatians who took the early lead on the counter-attack. Ivica Olic played in a low cross, which Nikica Jelavic was not quite able to make contact with. The slight deflection, however, was enough to put the ball straight into the path of Marcelo, who could not avoid putting the ball past a helpless Julio Cesar into his own net. Brazil continued to press, with Oscar forcing a remarkable diving save from Stipe Pletikosa. Before too long, however, they had equalised, with Neymar’s left foot strike sneaking past Pletikosa into the bottom corner of the net. Brazil kept pushing for an equaliser, and continued to dominate in all of the key areas.

The second half began much as the first, and not much happened for the first few minutes of the period. Brazil had a clear chance denied when Neymar was stopped from breaking through the Croatian defence by a foul from Vedran Corluka. Dani Alves missed the resultant free kick but a few minutes later Brazil had the lead. Brazilian striker Fred was pulled away from Oscar’s ground cross by Dejan Lovren, and despite a slightly over-inflated reaction from the Brazilian, Japanese referee Yuichi Nishimura pointed to the spot and booked Lovren. Neymar duly converted, despite Pletikosa getting a hand to it. David Luiz was forced into action just a minute later, deflecting a ground cross from Olic over the bar. The same defender nearly scored 5 minutes after that, with his header just missing the mark. Croatia pushed hard for an equaliser, a goal disallowed after Olic was deemed to have fouled Brazilian keeper Julio Cesar. Luka Modric and Corluka both missed good opportunities, but the game was placed beyond doubt in injury time, a couple of good challenges allowing Oscar to slot the ball past Pletikosa and grant the hosts a perfect start to the tournament.

Sao Paulo – Arena de Sao Paulo
Brazil 3 (Neymar 29, 71 pen, Oscar 90+1)
Croatia 1 (Marcelo 11 og)
Referee: Yuichi Nishimura (Jpn)

Brazil: Julio Cesar – Marcelo, David Luiz, Thiago Silva, Dani Alves, Luiz Gustavo, Paulinho (Hernanes 63), Neymar (Ramires 88), Oscar, Hulk (Bernard 68), Fred.

Croatia: Pletikosa – Vrsaljko, Lovren, Corluka, Srna, Rakitic, Modric, Olic, Kovacic (Brozovic 61), Perisic, Jelavic (Rebic 78).

Key Stats

  • Brazil had 59 percent of possession.
  • Brazil had 14 shots (9 on target), while Croatia had 10 shots (4 on target).
  • Croatia made 21 fouls, while Brazil only made 5.
  • Brazil had 7 corners to Croatia’s 3.

World Cup Preview — Group A

The World Cup draw has been held and I will now analyse all the teams in depth, group by group, over the next few weeks. After I have done this I will give my prediction as to who will win the World Cup. I hope you enjoy the first instalment of my World Cup preview as I look at the teams in Group A. Note: The world rankings used in this preview are correct as of the 28th of November 2013.


Group A

Teams (world ranking in brackets): Brazil (10), Croatia (16), Mexico (20), Cameroon (51)
Fixtures:
Brazil vs Croatia, Sao Paulo
Mexico vs Cameroon, Natal
Brazil vs Mexico, Fortaleza
Cameroon vs Croatia, Manaus
Cameroon vs Brazil, Brasilia
Croatia vs Mexico, Recife


Brazil

Coach: Luiz Felipe Scolari
Captain: Thiago Silva
World Cup Appearances: 19 (1930, 1934, 1938, 1950, 1954, 1958, 1962, 1966, 1970, 1974, 1978, 1982, 1986, 1990, 1994, 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010)
Best Result: Champions (1958, 1962, 1970, 1994, 2002)
Qualified: Hosts
Qualification Top Scorer: N/A

Form Guide

Brazil are hosting this edition of the tournament, meaning that they did not have to qualify. The Brazilians have, however, had an excellent recent run of form. They also won the Confederations Cup in June, defeating reigning World Champions Spain 3-0 in the final.

Strengths

Brazil are excellent and have great depth, especially in the back four (Thiago Silva, David Luiz, Dante, Marcelo, Dani Alves and Maicon), and in attack (Neymar, Fred and Hulk). This depth in two key areas helped them win the Confederations Cup this year, and will no doubt assist them in the World Cup. They are also extremely tough to beat at home, meaning that hosting is a huge advantage.

Weaknesses

Brazil may have the home-ground advantage and excellent depth, but they fall slightly short in the goalkeeping area. First choice keeper Julio Cesar has not been given regular game-time at English Championship club QPR, and this is a real worry for the Brazilians, who will have a lot of pressure placed upon them after their Confederations Cup victory. This pressure may have a detrimental effect upon the team.


Croatia

Coach: Niko Kovac
Captain: Darijo Srna
World Cup Appearances: 3 (1998, 2002, 2006)
Best Result: 3rd Place (1998)
Qualified: Second Group A, defeated Iceland in play-off
Qualification Top Scorer: Mario Mandzukic

Form Guide

Croatia were drawn in a tough first round group in qualification, with Belgium the main threat. Croatia did keep up with the Belgians at the start, but home and away losses to Scotland dashed their hopes of automatic qualification. They were, however, given a relatively easy play-off draw (Iceland), and a 2-0 victory in Zagreb sent them through.

Strengths

Croatia are a solid team, and they only conceded 9 goals over the course of the qualifying campaign. There is a great group of strikers playing at top European clubs, with Mario Mandzukic (Bayern Munich) leading the line. The defence is another area of particular strength, with captain Darijo Srna setting up attacks from right back. In the centre Josip Simunic and the in-form Dejan Lovren are there to protect the keepers. The midfield is also strong, with players such as Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Ivan Perisic setting up chances.

Weaknesses

Croatia lack a first choice keeper, with Stipe Pletikosa and Danijel Subasic the two main options. Pletikosa was chosen for the second leg against Iceland, but he is 34 and it may be time for a new first choice. Subasic, now at Monaco, or Ivan Kelava, at Udinese, are the obvious options, as I think that they will play well if given the chance. Mandzukic also needs help in goalscoring. He scored four goals in qualifying, and the next best was two (Eduardo). Eduardo, Ivica Olic and Nikica Jelavic will need to step up if Croatia are to have success.


Mexico

Coach: Miguel Herrera
Captain: Rafael Marquez
World Cup Appearances: 14 (1930, 1950, 1954, 1958, 1962, 1966, 1970, 1978, 1986, 1994, 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010)
Best Result: Quarter Finals (1970, 1986)
Qualified: 4th in CONCACAF qualifying, defeated New Zealand in intercontinental play-off
Qualification Top Scorer: Oribe Peralta (8)

Form Guide

Mexico easily made it through a third round group consisting of Costa Rica, El Salvador and Guyana, but were lucky to scrape through the hexagonal. After a defeat at the hands of the USA they dropped to fifth, but made it to fourth after edging out Panama. They qualified after beating New Zealand 9-3 on aggregate.

Strengths

Mexico have had recent success in the world cup, reaching the round of 16 in the past 5 tournaments. In Oribe Peralta, Aldo de Nigris and Javier Hernandez the Mexicans have three world-class strikers, and Giovani dos Santos was a revelation in the 2010 finals. Rafael Marquez, Francisco Rodriguez and Carlos Salcido bring experience to the defence.

Weaknesses

Mexico don’t have a great deal of depth, with a particular lack of top-class midfielders. This is coupled with a lack of top class players who play their football in Europe. The European stars include Hernandez, dos Santos, keeper Guillermo Ochoa, Javier Aquino, Hector Moreno and the out-of-favour Carlos Vela. Whether these players will be used in the finals is uncertain, as the squad for the matches against New Zealand was made up entirely of Mexican-based players.


Cameroon

Coach: Volter Finke
Captain: Samuel Eto’o
World Cup Appearances: 6 (1982, 1990, 1994, 1998, 2002, 2010)
Best Result: Quarter Finals (1990)
Qualified: 1st Group I, defeated Tunisia in play-off
Qualification Top Scorer: Samuel Eto’o, Eric-Maxim Choupo-Moting, Jean Makoun (2)

Form Guide

Cameroon were lucky to make it through the CAF Group I, narrowly edging out Libya for first place and earning a play-off berth, where they were drawn to play Tunisia. After an away draw the Indomitable Lions won 4-1 at home to seal qualification.

Strengths

Cameroon have strength all over the park. They have a solid defence with players such as Nicolas N’Koulou, Aurelien Chedjou, Dany Nounkeu, Joel Matip, Henri Bedimo, Gaetan Bong and Benoit Assou-Ekoto. Strikers Vincent Aboubakar, Eric-Maxim Choupo-Moting and Samuel Eto’o are all playing in the top tiers of Europe, with the latter currently playing for Chelsea. Alex Song and Stephane M’Bia make sure that the midfield is solid.

Weaknesses

Cameroon suffer from not having enough back-ups. The defence is in great condition, but an injury in attack to either Eto’o (who hasn’t had a great start to the season with Chelsea) or Choupo-Moting could have a very bad impact upon the goalscoring department. The supply chain is not especially strong. In the last World Cup they lost all three matches, and they will be hoping this doesn’t happen again.


My Predictions

I think that this will be an interesting group, but Brazil should finish comfortably in first. The real battle will be for second, as Croatia, Mexico and Cameroon should be very evenly matched. Expect to see some great contests.
1. Brazil, 2. Croatia, 3. Mexico, 4. Cameroon

Next Week: I preview group B, which will be sure to excite with some very competitive matches.