The 2018 World Cup: Who Has The Edge In Russia?
Thirty-two teams have qualified for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. The qualification process began for some nations in 2015, and after grueling confederation tournaments, the stage is set for Russia.
While many of the usual suspects will appear in at the next World Cup, there will be some missing faces. Italy, the United States and the Netherlands all failed to qualify for Russia 2018. The failures of all three have opened the door for change in each country's soccer federation.
Even without the three big names, the 2018 World Cup will still be a stage for great soccer, and some new names could rise to the occasion.
Power rankings top 5
Reigning World Cup champions Germany will appear in its 17th straight tournament finals. Germany went through qualification winning all 10 matches. Joachim Low's side conceded just four goals, and go into the World Cup as favorites.
The 2010 winners go into the next World Cup rejuvenated. The Spanish won nine and drew one match during qualification; and the team's defense was stellar, giving up just three goals. The only real question is in the team's attack.
Brazil has appeared in all 21 World Cup tournaments it has attempted to qualify for, and as always, the team is expected to do very well. Brazil topped table in the marathon CONMEBOL qualification process with a +30-goal differential. The team is led by goal scorers Gabriel Jesus and Neymar, and on paper, the team is good enough to win. Brazil may not have the defense to win it all, however.
The French aren't getting much love from the official FIFA rankings right now, but France is better than most think. The team topped its qualification group, winning seven, drawing two and losing just once. The team topped both Sweden and the Netherlands to win UEFA's group A. This could be the most under-rated side ahead of the 2018 World Cup.
Portugal is the reigning UEFA European Champions. The side, led by Cristiano Ronaldo, defeated Germany in the 2016 final, and plenty of soccer experts believe that winning the Euros is much more difficult than winning the World Cup. Portugal regularly underachieves at the World Cup, but being European Champions shouldn't be overlooked
2018 World Cup contenders and pretenders
The World Cup will feature several teams that aren't in the best of form currently. Argentina is historically one of the best teams at the international level. The two-time winners finished third in CONMEBOL qualification, but the entire process was an extreme chore. At times the team looked unlikely of making it to Russia, and it came down to the final qualifying set of matches. Argentina has a number of talented individual players, including Lionel Messi and Sergio Aguero, yet as a group, the Argentines aren't good. The team finished with a 7-7-4 record and conceded 16 goals during qualification.
England qualified for Russia 2018 without suffering a loss in qualification. The problem for England is the team regularly plays well in the World Cup's build-up, only to be knocked out once the tournament begins. England hasn't done anything that suggests the team will be able to get past the quarterfinals or perform better than past efforts.
Belgium and Colombia are both hipster picks to win the tournament, as both sides contain a glut of great talent. Both nations made it to the quarterfinals in 2014, but bowed out there. With even more experience under their collective belts, Belgium and Colombia could once again be the trendy picks to make it to the final in Moscow.
Costa Rica isn't typically thought of as a major power in world soccer. But the tiny Central American nation made the tournament finals at the expense of the more powerful USA. The team finished second in CONCACAF, and has proven itself previously at the World Cup. In 2014, Costa Rica was one penalty kick away from the semifinals.
As hosts, Russia will have plenty of fan support behind them. The nation's supporters are fanatical, something they proved at Euro 2016 in France. With a country full of fans behind it, Russia could go deep into the tournament.
From Russia without love
After the scenes in France in which Russian soccer fans walked through the streets beating up fans of rival nations, there should be trepidation for any supporter heading to the country. Russian fans preyed upon soccer fans sitting at restaurants, cafes, and bars at the Euro 2016 tournament, and did so, with cold, calculated sophistication. Fans wore mixed martial arts style gear and beat others bloody and unconscious. Russian president Vladimir Putin even mocked those attacked by the country's soccer thugs and praised their patriotism. It would be a surprise if something similar doesn't occur again. Keep in mind, there are still plenty of hard feelings between Russia and former Easter Block countries.
All 32 teams will find out their fate for the 2018 World Cup on December 1st. The group stage draw will take place at the Kremlin, and each team will learn its opponents for the group stage.
By the time the tournament kicks off on June 14th, the players will have experienced a long, hard club season. As usual, the club season, travel and atmosphere in Russia could all play a part in which team lifts the Jules Rimet Trophy on July 15th.