By Alex Merchante
At long last, the final stage is set. After what seemed like an eternity that began back in March of 2015, after the world watched every minute of all 868 matches, what began as 209 teams has now dwindled into the final 32.
In just over six months, the world will commence its 21st global celebration of football. As the world looked forward in jubilation and anxiety, there was only one piece missing.
After sleepless nights for fans and players alike, the moment came on Dec. 1 as the historic State Kremlin Palace became host of the 2018 World Cup Final Draw.
The fate of 32 footballing nations lay in the chambers waiting to be selected by some of the world’s greatest players from past tournaments. Heroes of the last three World Cups, Germany’s Miroslav Klose, Spain’s Carles Puyol and Italy’s Fabio Cannavaro all became part of the action.
After all was set and done, the eight groups of four teams were assembled, laying the framework of the 2018 World Cup’s group stage:
However, the Final Draw was just a tease; just an appetizer as the world’s collective anticipation reaches fever pitch as June 14 lingers in our calendars.
Despite the lack of world football for now, there is an opportunity to peek through the glass and see what storylines await in the 2018 group stage.
Here are the groups:
Russia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Uruguay
Story to follow: An almost impossibly great start for Russia even before the first whistle
If there was one team that came off grateful for the Final Draw, it was the host nation of Russia.
While prior hosts such as South Africa in 2010 had to contend with well-established football giants France and Mexico in their group, the most dangerous team in Group A is Uruguay, currently ranked 21st in the FIFA/Coca Cola World Rankings.
Whether it was pure luck or some strings being pulled in favor for the World Cup’s host nation, there is no question that Russia has a stronger opportunity qualifying for the Round of 16, despite being ranked 65th, than most teams could imagine, including group opponents Saudi Arabia who are ranked 64th in the world.
Key players to watch: Edinson Cavani (Uruguay), Mohamed Salah (Egypt), Mohammad Al-Sahlawi (Saudi Arabia) and Igor Akinfeev (Russia)
Portugal, Spain, Morocco, Iran
Story to follow: Clash of the Euro Giants
There is no question the first highly-anticipated match of the 2018 World Cup will take place on Day Two in Sochi as the third-ranked Portugal squad faces their rival neighbors Spain, ranked sixth in the world.
The obvious showdown will come in the form of global superstar Cristiano Ronaldo, who ironically plays for Real Madrid, and Spain’s automatic goal-stopping machine, David De Gea.
Many football fans spoke in whispers in anticipation as these two football giants were said to join forces in Madrid after transfer rumors in De Gea’s club Manchester United sparked the fan fire.
However, the transfer never occurred. Group B’s top two teams, the last two Euros champions, will go at each other’s throats to stifle the other’s chances of reaching the knockout stages. Thus, there’ll be much anticipation indeed.
Key players to watch: Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal), David De Gea (Spain), Khalid Boutaïb (Morocco) and the entire Iranian defense.
France, Australia, Peru, Denmark
Story to follow: France’s New Groove and who will punch that second ticket?
There was no doubt within the first two matches of France’s 2014 World Cup campaign in Brazil that the star was Real Madrid forward Karim Benzema.
Benzema scored three goals and assisted three more in France’s 3-0 and 5-2 victories over Honduras and Switzerland, respectively.
However, over the span of four years, the new generation of French stars have taken the world by storm. Following the 2016 Euros final appearance, stars such as Paul Pogba, Olivier Giroud and Antoine Griezmann took over the French national team and have made a statement.
The team joining France in Group C into the Round of 16 remains a mystery, with shocking Peru on the current upswing as well as the steady-handed Denmark and tremendously resilient Australia, there will likely be a lot of draws in this group given the balance in Group C.
Key players to watch: Anyone in France under the age of 27, Tim Cahill (Australia), Edison Flores (Peru) and Christian Eriksen (Denmark)
Argentina, Iceland, Croatia, Nigeria
Story to watch: Can Argentina get it going again and can Iceland continue their incredible run?
Group D is an interesting one. Argentina, the 2014 World Cup finalists, managed to only qualify for Russia 2018 on a last-day victory, clinging onto the dramatic to clinch a spot.
The Argentines lacked the chemistry and teamwork they exemplified with great precision in Brazil 2014. Argentina’s four losses in the CONMEBOL qualifiers included Bolivia, Paraguay and Ecuador, all teams that failed to reach the top five of the region.
Despite entering the Final Draw as a top-seven team in the World Cup, there are likely red flags flying across Argentina in concerns of a possible poor group stage performance.
The teams that drew with Argentina into Group D won’t make things any easier. Tough underdogs Nigeria seemingly always manage their way into shaking up World Cup group stages with their powerful, fast striking up front.
Croatia and Iceland are also teams that may seem to go under the radar. The Icelandic national team will be making their first ever World Cup appearance following a stunning showing in the Euros in 2016.
Key players to watch: Lionel Messi (Argentina), Gylfi Sigurõsson (Iceland), Croatia’s midfield of Ivan Perišić, Ivan Rakitić and Luka Modrić and Kelechi Iheanacho (Nigeria)
Brazil, Switzerland, Costa Rica and Serbia
Story to follow: All eyes on Brazil
The last two games of Brazil’s World Cup history were a two-part catastrophe on home soil. The 7-1 defeat of Brazil at the hands of the squad that would eventually win the World Cup, Germany, remains one of the worst moments in Brazilian football history, if not the worst.
Although the 2016 Rio Olympic gold medal match against Germany served some justice, as the Brazilian talisman Neymar sealed the nation’s first ever football gold medal, the scars of July 8, 2014 in Belo Horizonte remain.
Brazil entered the World Cup Final Draw in second place in the world rankings, just below their dreaded foes Germany.
In a group filled with more uneventful teams, with all due respect to strong-showing Costa Rica, ever-improving Switzerland and underrated Serbia, Brazil should pass through the group with ease.
The path for Brazil following the group stage, however, is not easy. Assuming Brazil wins Group E, they will face a tough second-place team in Group F (more on that below).
Also, if Brazil and Germany both win their groups, there could be a chance for vengeance for Brazil with the possibility of a Brazil-Germany final in Moscow. The stars of Brazil today will surely shine in Russia, it’s only a matter of how bright Brazil as a squad will shine.
Key players to watch: Neymar (Brazil), all of Switzerland’s defense, Celso Borges (Costa Rica), Aleksandar Mitrović (Serbia)
Germany, Mexico, Sweden, South Korea
Story to follow: German repeat? Who will survive the Group of Death?
“What is a crown if you can’t defend it?” That saying is easier said than done in international football.
Only twice has a nation won back-to-back World Cups: the 1934 and 1938 Italian team and the 1958 and 1962 Brazilian squad.
The world’s eyes of doubt now center in on Germany. The nation whose foundation in football is built on efficiency, accuracy and near perfection will have a target on their backs the size of Munich.
Arguably the world’s greatest goalkeeper, Bayern Munich’s Manuel Neuer, along with a strong overall starting XI, will face the hardest group of the World Cup. Mexico and Sweden both pose great threats to Germany to at least stifle a perfect group record.
The second-place squad in Group F could be any of four teams featured. Group F is the group of unpredictability. Football fans, enjoy.
Key players to watch: Thomas Müller (Germany), Guillermo Ochoa (Mexico), Zlatan Ibrahimović and Ola Toivonen (Sweden)
Belgium, Panama, Tunisia, England
Story to follow: Can Belgium and England correct past mistakes?
However, the focus of Group G concerns the two group leaders that, although containing gobs of young talent, lack the past performances in major tournaments that leads them to be question marks looking into the Round of 16.
Belgium is in their golden age, with stars like Eden Hazard, goalkeeper Thibault Courtois and an onslaught of young attackers that matches France as a generation of danger forwards and attacking midfielders.
The question is whether they can capitalize and build the chemistry that its stars see in their European clubs.
Likewise, England must create a balance of its veterans with its emerging stars, some of whom competed in the 2015 U-21 Euros. The question lies where Gareth Southgate, who coached the U-21 squad in 2015, places his trust in the starting XI and who will possibly be axed off the World Cup 23-man roster.
If either England or Belgium fail to create the winning cultural environment with new talent at their disposal, a draw or even loss to Tunisia and Panama could yield disastrous results in the Round of 16 or group stage.
Key players to follow: Romelu Lukaku (Belgium), aging generation of Panama players over the age of 30, Aymen Mathlouthi (Tunisia) and whoever Gareth Southgate decides to place in England’s front line of attack.
Poland, Senegal, Colombia, Japan
Story to follow: A wild-card group with exciting potential for a shocker
There are Groups of Death, Groups of Life, and then there is 2018’s Group H.
This final group of nations leaves a host of possibilities. Poland was seen as the “weakest” of top seeds heading into the World Cup Final Draw, despite being ranked favorably in the world rankings.
Poland has a solid team but lack the high anticipation and hype that teams like France, Brazil and even England experience entering a World Cup.
They’ll be contending with returning contenders Senegal who enter their second-ever World Cup (other being in Korea/Japan 2002), along with 2014 Cinderella contenders Colombia and World Cup mainstay Japan.
Poland and Colombia can be seen as the most sophisticated squads in Group H, being parts of well-developed confederations in the UEFA and CONMEBOL, respectively.
However, Senegal’s strong playing and Japan’s resiliency to stay competitive in games cannot be overlooked in the group stage. Group H will provide the fixtures that although not exciting on paper, will provide great skill and tactical play on both sides of the pitch.
Key players to watch: Robert Lewandowski (Poland), Keita Baldé (Senegal), James Rodriguez/Carlos Bacca (Colombia) and Shinji Okazaki (Japan)