World Cup

We have waited four years for this and it’s finally here! The return of the world’s biggest tournament is here. Fresh off our massive 32 nation World Cup Preview Series, we’re taking things a step further in coverage and giving you predictions on how we think the tournament will go.

Our panel of 4 experts breaks down the major predictions. Remember we’re experts, one of us is going to be very correct with all this!

1. Who will be the most entertaining team?

James Wilkinson, Belgium: I’m considering my answer to be in the “Non-Brazil category” because otherwise I simply could’ve boiled down all of this to “Brazil, duh”. But Belgium is exciting for a number of reasons. They have a manager in Roberto Martinez never met an attacking strategy he didn’t like. There will be bodies thrown forward. A lot of them. Then take into account the fact that this attack is populated by some incredible talent, Belgium makes its case for the team neutrals absolutely must watch. Eden Hazard, Dries Mertens, Romelu Lukaku, Michy Bathshuayi, and someone by the name of Kevin De Bruyne to set them all up. Their first match is against lowly Panama, so if you’re a fan of a certain North American team that missed the World Cup and are looking for vengeance, tune in. There will be fireworks.

Tise Okuo, Morocco: Morocco, Spain, Peru, Germany. These four teams should play the most appealing football for the neutral. The Germans make football so easy to watch, they never make the wrong passes, they make the beautiful game simple. Spain are still Spain, they can pass you to death and leave you dancing to their entrancing beat, whoever their new coach is is unlikely to change that with only 2 days in charge (bonkers from Real Madrid, absolutely mad decision to announce this before the World Cup). I think the Moroccans will surprise quite a few observers simply because they’re probably the least known quantity of the four. It’s tight between Morocco and Ricardo Gareca’s Peru who may be the most entertaining underdog at this World Cup because they won’t compromise on their systems for anyone. Peru are a delight in full flow and will feature true wingers. I’ll go with Morocco on this one because it’ll be great seeing them match up with the Iberian giants.

Mason Morawitz, France: I have these guys facing the Germans in the finals of my bracket, and for good reason. The talent the French are bringing is the deepest and most youthful in years. With Griezmann in his prime and on the verge of a potential Barcelona deal, I have no doubts we will see him as a constant threat to opposing defences as he wants to prove his place in his future starting XI. Paul Pogba is coming off of a mediocre second half of the season, and will likely have a little extra bite to his game. I see more of the confidence he showed against the youthful USA side in their last friendly; playing with a bit of flair when in a 1v1 mismatch, never afraid to take a strike from long range to keep a keeper on his line. Their most exciting player to watch – Kylian Mbappe. His pace is electric and he has the ability to stretch teams long, or take them on from wing situations. I believe the attention Griezmann and Pogba will receive in their attacking central roles will allow for Mbappe to be dangerous diagonally. Expect Olivier Giroud to bring some wow factor – whether wondergoal or crucial tap in its all the same to him.

Andrew McCole, Poland/Iceland: I couldn’t narrow down my most entertaining teams, so I’m going to go with both Poland and Iceland. Poland has an exhilarating attack but they also have the second ingredient to be an entertaining team: a bad defense. While Lewy and co. might pour in the goals on one end, the likelihood that they’ll give up a ton of goals is just as high. As most World Cup games end 1-0 or 2-1, a team capable of 4-3 or 3-3 games has to sit high up on the list.
For Iceland, it’s just a matter of a team and fanbase enjoying the moment and celebrating every single positive moment that their squad is able to accomplish in Russia. Easily the best story in the last European Championships, Iceland has nothing to lose and everything to gain while they’re in Russia. If this group is able to make it to the knockout stages, then brace yourselves for some true fun.

2. Who will win the Golden Boot?

Andrew, Olivier Giroud: It might sound absolutely ridiculous to claim that my choice could find the net more often than stars like Neymar, Messi, Ronaldo, or others, but the logic isn’t as crazy as you’d think on first impression. Most Golden Boot players make their mint during the group stage, as knockout stage games tend to be non-Brazil vs Germany type scorelines. France might be in the easiest group for one of the big name teams, and goals in the group tend to be scored via the simplest, most route-one type methods as teams are shaking out their nerves. Olivier Giroud is going to be the target for most crosses, the central point of Griezmann attacking on the left/Mbappe attacking on the right, and the benefactor of most mistakes in the box. I’d expect Giroud to actually leave the group with enough goals that a goal or two more in the knock out phase would be enough to propel him to the top of the scoring charts.

Mason, Thomas Muller: A 4-way tie for the golden boot in 2010 wasn’t enough. Sitting at 10 World Cup goals he has the highest total of all players entering the tournament – with the next closest being James with his 6 from the 2014 Cup. Thomas deserves the goal scoring record and I think to do so this year would be when Germany needs it most. Not lacking creatives in the attack – all Germany needs is someone to put the ball in the net, and Thomas Muller has been that engine physically and emotionally for the team since his inclusion. While Timo Werner may start up top and find more opportunities in behind the defence, I see Muller finding his spaces and hitting the back of the net – 7 times to pass his old teammate Miroslav Klose.

Tise, Gabriel Jesus & Romelu Lukaku: Brazil ought to get to at least the semis of this tournament which means lots of chances to score and the guy at the tip of their sword will be Gabriel Jesus. He will benefit greatly from the movement and ability of Brazil’s other vast attacking weapons.
Romelu Lukaku feels like a man on a mission. Belgium may not go as far as Brazil at Russia 2018 but I get the sense Lukaku will have multiple games where he scores multiple goals to get a good buffer on the top scorer wars.

James, Neymar: I’m probably not going out on a limb here, but Neymar feels like a guy primed for a huge World Cup. We all know it killed him to miss the end of the World Cup in 2014 with injury, and his shortened season this past year caused the media all up in a stir again. Neymar is going to use this World Cup to try and show he’s the best player in the World. When he’s on the pitch for Brazil, he’s still the focal point of their attack, and we know he’s capable of being prolific in front of net. I’m going to assume he’s fully recovered from his foot injury, and therefore is fresh after not having to play a grueling club season like all of his peers. A fresh Neymar who is as motivated as he is talented? Yes please. Sign me up for some of that!

3. Who will be the breakout star?

Tise, Alex Iwobi: There are quite a few candidates for this but most of them are already known/proven quantities. Kylian Mbappe hasn’t had a major international tournament run yet but he’s not exactly an unknown quantity and wouldn’t necessarily be breaking out. I’ll go with Alex Iwobi of the Super Eagles. He’s desperate to get to the next level and Nigeria will give him the platform to shine. He and the Super Eagles should have a good tournament.

Mason, Xherdan Shaqiri: One of the biggest talents I’ve seen be wasted by his club year after year since his last appearance in the World Cup – especially embarrassing of recent having been demoted from the Premier League. He’s going to have a lot to prove in terms of his self worth. This time around it’s all on his shoulders for the Swiss, being the attacking catalyst which they feed off of. I think we see the “power cube” regain confidence and be a constant threat at goal, directly or through his magical left footed service. The freedom in his attacking role is any player’s dream and one that shows confidence by his manager. He will read between the defensive lines and find his space diagonally when needed to open the game – fellow attackers rotating in the front 3 to allow him space to maneuver.

Andrew, Paulo Dybala: A constant story of “almost,” and “not yet,” Dybala is the face of the adidas Glitch in Russia, and he’ll be part of the squad trying to lighten the load on Lionel Messi. Despite already making a name in the Juventus Jersey, he’s flown under the shadow of Buffon’s last season while in Italy and he’s been the fourth player on Argentina’s striking pecking order (behind Messi, Higuain, and Aguero). It’s time for him to insert himself as the future of Argentina’s attack and (outside of Messi) probably the only striking option to still be playing at the next World Cup. I know it’s tough to “breakout” from already playing in the Champions League and being on one of the biggest clubs in Europe, but this tournament will be Dybala’s chance to insert his name as one of the best attackers on the planet.

James, Hirving Lozano: Mexico quietly has a team stocked with young guys playing on some major European teams. But in a group looking like it’s one of the strongest Mexico squads in recent memory, Hirving Lozano stands out as a player about to burst onto the world stage in a big way. The guy was a near unknown a year ago and suddenly looks primed to start for a Mexico team with massive ambitions. He scored 19 goals in all competitions for PSV this season and is electrifying on the left side for El Tri. This tournament will be his chance to go from a favorite of Eredivisie and Mexico fans to a household soccer name. His team is built around attacking play, and with a major role in that style, Lozano should have a big tournament. Don’t be surprised to see him as the topic of transfer rumors as soon as the tournament ends, as it seems only a matter of time before he’s plying his trade for one of Europe’s bigger clubs.

4. Who will be the most outstanding young player?

Mason, Kylian Mbappe: As I’ve said – the kid is just electric. In the running for the golden boot as a 19 year old pending the role he is given in the starting XI (I can see him easily bagging 4-5 goals if not left as a lone striker). He brings that sense of unpredictability that keeps you at the edge of your seat, and with the quality he’s got around him he has no option but to shine.

Andrew, Timo Werner: While Germany rolls to an eventual title, I really hope that their youth gets a chance to shine. With a large group of players entering the tournament as 23 or younger, there’s a chance that most of these players have a serious audition to become the German stars of tomorrow. Timo Werner has been lighting things up with Red Bulls Leipzig, but somehow still remains a bit under the radar for most casual fans of the game. Thomas Muller will probably get the start, but Mario Gomez’s age means that Werner has a definite shot at getting time on the pitch during the current World Cup. He already has 8 goals in 14 appearances, which is already the best goal return of any player on Germany’s roster.

James, Kylian Mbappe: Is this a cop out? Maybe, but I don’t care. There are a lot of young players in this tournament who I think can break out in a major way, and honorable mention to Kelechi Iheanacho of Nigeria. Mbappe is a 150 million dollar man, playing in massive champions league games for one of the biggest teams in Europe, and is likely to be a key piece of France’s World Cup hopes. Oh, he’s also only 19 years old. When I was 19 I was getting fat and learning why Tequila has a reputation. In hindsight those things may be related. But I digress. It’s hard to imagine being so talented at so young. Since I have big expectations for France, I expect Mbappe to show why he was such a sought after player in last summer’s transfer market. He’ll be the star youngster from this tourney.

Tise, Ousmane Dembele: Kylian Mbappe is a good guess here but if he’s not scoring (and the French will probably spread the goals) then his overall impact is unlikely to be as heralded as he’d want. Ousmane Dembele on the other hand doesn’t have to score to leave jaws on the floor. He will be fresh (missed most of the season from injury) and I get the feeling he’s going to really toy with some defenses in Russia. If the end product (goals and assists) matches his skills, France will be very hard to stop. If the end product goes awry, no worries, he’ll still be a joy to watch anyhow.

5. Who is your dark horse pick?

Andrew, Uruguay: I know it’s tough to justify any team ranked in FIFA’s top 20 as a “dark horse,” but we’ve been saying that Belgium is a dark horse for years! Uruguay has suffered mightily when they don’t have their best 11 on the field, and their defense has been abject at best during qualifying. However, if Uruguay can take advantage of their group and start getting on a roll, there aren’t many attacks in the game as potent as theirs! A group of Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt might be the easiest chance to start a road to success, and (as I’m sure everyone will mention), you only have to win four games in a row once you exit the group which any team that gets on a streak is capable of doing. Nobody will want to see Suarez/Cavani heading towards their goal, so Uruguay might make a huge dent in Russia.

James, England: Please stop laughing. I am cautiously optimistic about this England team. Recent foibles from the Three Lions have turned them into a punchline, and I get that, but this squad is not your Mum’s England. They’re one of the youngest in the tournament, and yet have a roster filled with players who have had success at the highest levels of European soccer. They’re lacking a true creative midfield presence, but I think that may be a blessing in disguise. It’s forced England to take a more pragmatic approach with their tactics. That may leave them open for an upset in the group stages since they won’t be dominating low level competition but it could prove to be their benefit when they go up against heavyweights in the quarterfinals and even the *GASP* Semi-finals. Against strong squads who want to win possession and hold the ball, England are going to be just fine sitting back and waiting for a chance to get the ball to one of their dangerous attackers. Kane, Sterling, Rashford, Dele, and Vardy off the bench is as potent as you’re going to find up top. Then all you need is a little luck. Isn’t England due for, like, a smidgen of luck! It’s not the darkest of horses, but I’m saying they’ll be in the Semis. Just, don’t look at who they’ll need to go through to get there.

Tise, Uruguay: This is a tough one. The top three/four (Germany, France, Brazil, Spain – a bit of an unknown now) at this tournament have really complete squads and on paper they’re a step above the other teams but at major tournaments, all it takes is luck, a run of good games, and some key players showing up, and voila a team could be really troublesome. England, Nigeria, Denmark, Croatia, Peru all have the feel of teams who could be proper nuisances for the more acclaimed sides. Argentina are brutally underrated for a team that has Leo Messi but losing 6-1 to Spain will do that to you. They’ll be a difficult opponent however they got to the last final and have Messi so they’re are not quite dark horses. I’ll go with Uruguay. Two World Cups to their name, a semifinal in 2010, two of the world’s best strikers in Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, and a bunch of young mids in De Arrascaeta, Torreira and Betancur who are ready to burst onto the international scene. Throw in the hardy no-nonsense defense plus a veteran coach in Tabarez and they could make another semi-final run and upset one of the faves on the way.

Mason, Argentina: No team has more talent with less chance to win by the odds. Yet, they play the beautiful game – not the tactical, grounded at the back line and well rounded football that the big 4 have (France, Germany, Spain, Brazil). It’s the particular attacking brand of play that leaves them sitting on the fence of “expecting greatness” going forward and “expecting inevitable weakness” in defense. If one was to tell me to pick the winner 10 times with a fresh mind, one of those instances Argentina would be lurking after 9 picks of Germany and France. Outside of the favorites they are the only non-complete team I can see making a very dangerous run in to the Semi Finals. It’s all about legacy, and this could be Messi’s year alongside strike partner Sergio Aguero to etch their place into history deservingly so.

6. Who will win the World Cup?

Andrew, Germany: Considering that Germany’s substitutes would be heavily favored to win this tournament if they fielded a second team, it’s not a difficult decision to see Germany as winning their 2nd World Cup in a row. For some strange reason, it seems like the pressure hasn’t built up for their repeat in a way that I would have expected, so Germany should be able to play free and dominate any opponent that finds themselves on the pitch. Not to mention that they have the mental edge over several of the other tournament favorites (especially Argentina and Brazil), and it starts to make this pick almost feel like a safe choice (which hurts my heart). If Thomas Muller gets hot, this pick becomes an absolute no-brainer.

Mason, Germany: I’ve been crossing my fingers for 3 days in preparation of making my selection. It’s hard to pick the team you WANT to win in fear of a jinx but Germany are my favorites. Disregarding their #1 world ranking, they’ve shown the past 3 World Cups that they are determined to get results under Low’s tactics (finishing 3rd, 3rd, and 1st). The key to raising the cup again is the performance of center backs and in the central midfield. When Germany are playing well, it starts with sound defence lead by one of the best between the pipes, the globally labeled sweeper-keeper – Manuel Neuer. Boateng’s athleticism needs to be met with Hummels’ maturity/control and they’ve got arguably the strongest CB pairing in the cup. The impact of Toni Kroos will greatly determine the results. If Khedira is able to sit in front of the back line and allow Kroos to find the ball, control tempo, and distribute, things will open up for the creators Ozil, Muller, Reus, Draxler.

James, France: There are reasons to doubt France. I get it. I’ll admit I don’t trust Didier Deschamps further than I can throw him but this is an absolutely stacked team, at every level. They only need to figure things out for 7 matches. Seven matches! That’s it! Picking France is betting on raw talent over system, and that’s an easy bet for me to make in international soccer. With an attack featuring a plethora of fast, versatile forwards – not to mention the continually underappreciated Giroud – this is a team that can run away and hide by scoring early and often. Add in the fact that the presence of N’Golo Kante should free up Pogba to freelance further up the pitch where he’s most effective and ooh boy things could get fun. Even with their manager doing his best to neuter them, I expect France to lift the trophy in a month.

Tise, Germany: Spain, France, Brazil and Germany will go in as co-faves to win the tournament. I’ll rule Spain out because Real Madrid thought it’d be a good idea to announce Lopetegui as their new coach days before the cup started and unless Hierro turns into Zidane, this spells chaos. France have the weakest coach and defense (it wins championships) of the four, and Brazil will be swimming against history seeing how teams struggle to win the cup outside their continent. That leaves Germany, they just face the small historical problem of being the first team to successfully defend the cup since Brazil in 1962. No big deal. It’s a toss-up between any of these four for me and it’ll come down to who’s freshest and mentally strongest come semi-final time but like Gary Lineker once said “Football is a simple game. Twenty-two men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win.” Plus if it came to penalties between these four nations, I go with Germany 7 times out of 10.


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