Published On: Wed, Jun 13th, 2018

A look at the World Cup’s first-round groups

The World Cup kicks off on Thursday with a lone match, getting Group A underway with host Russia taking on Saudi Arabia. The group stage runs until Thursday, June 28, with the top two teams in each group advancing to the round of 16. From pretenders to contenders and everything in between, here’s what you need to know about the first round of action.

Group A:

Star’s prediction: 1. Uruguay (14) 2. Egypt (45) 3. Russia (70) 4. Saudi Arabia (67)

One of Uruguay’s main tasks in this tournament will be keeping Luis Suarez in check, after the striker made headlines in the 2014 tournament for biting an Italian player and subsequently being banned from the remainder of the competition. Egyptian striker Mo Salah is hoping to play despite dislocating his shoulder in the Champions League final in late May with his club team Liverpool. How healthy he is remains to be seen. Egypt is making its first World Cup appearance since 1990, thanks in large part to contributions from the 25-year-old, who had a hand in all of the seven goals that helped get his team to Russia. If Salah isn’t at his best, host Russia could make a play for the No. 2 spot in the group.

Group B:

Star’s prediction: 1. Spain (10) 2. Portugal (4) 3. Morocco (41) 4. Iran (37)

This group should be dominated by Spain and Portugal, with the head-to-head match deciding who goes through in top spot and who is relegated to second place. The Cristiano Ronaldo-led Portuguese team won 9 of 10 qualifying matches and the reigning European champions will look to once again grind their way to the final, an approach that has proven effective, if not always pretty. While Germany, France and Brazil are getting the bulk of the attention coming into this tournament, Spain is considered the dark horse of the main contenders, with many believing the likes of Gerard Pique, Sergio Ramos, Sergio Busquets and company are returning to the dominant form they maintained between 2008 and 2012, when Spain won the 2010 World Cup and the 2012 European Championship.

Group C:

Star’s prediction: 1. France (7) 2. Denmark (12) 3. Peru (11) 4. Australia (36)

Peru has a case to become one of the heartwarming underdog stories early in this tournament, making its first World Cup in 36 years. The South American country has had success in the Copa America in recent years, but getting out of the group will be an uphill climb. France will be a team to watch throughout, and coach Didier Deschamps side shouldn’t have any trouble in the first round. Denmark’s fate will rest heavily on midfielder Christian Eriksen’s shoulders. The Tottenham Hotspur playmaker is one of the best in the game and his performance could dictate how far the Danes get, though advancing to the round of 16 over Australia and Peru should be a slam dunk.

Group D:

Star’s prediction: 1. Argentina (5) 2. Croatia (20) 3. Iceland (22) 4. Nigeria (48)

If not for a hattrick by striker Lionel Messi during the last qualifying match, Argentina might not have even made the trip to Russia. With one of the world’s best players in its midst, Argentina is not a team to count out, nor does it have much competition in this stage. But going forward, the Argentinians might not have enough outside of Messi to compete with favourite like Germany, Brazil, France and Spain. Croatia, led by Real Madrid midfielder Luca Modric, continues its run as a seemingly perennial dark horse in international competitions and while Iceland, the smallest country ever to qualify for the World Cup, and Nigeria will likely fight it out for pride and third place, both could pose a threat to the group’s bigger names. Nigeria did beat Argentina 4-2 in a friendly back in November, after all.

Group E:

Star’s prediction: 1. Brazil (2) 2. Switzerland (6) 3. Serbia (34) 4. Costa Rica (23)

Brazil will be looking for redemption of sorts, after a humiliating 7-1 loss to Germany on home soil at the 2014 tournament. A coaching change that saw Tite replace Dunga seemed to reignite the Brazilian squad, the first team to qualify for this World Cup. Now, the most successful national team in the history of the tournament, with five titles, is believed to have the attacking gifts and the defensive stability to add to that tally. Elsewhere, the battle for the No. 2 spot is expected to come down to a showdown between Switzerland and Serbia. While the Swiss are ranked well above the Serbians, they have a history of struggling in international competitions. Serbia’s blend of youth and experience has the tools to cause an upset.

Group F:

Star’s prediction: 1. Germany (1) 2. Mexico (15) 3. Sweden (24) 4. South Korea (57)

Ten qualifying matches, 10 wins is pretty much all you need to know about the defending champions Germany at this stage. The team is looking to become the first nation to win back-to-back World Cups since Brazil did so in the 1958 and 1962 iterations, and the Germans are not expected to be troubled by the group stage. There will be no Zlatan Ibrahimovic for Sweden, though you’ll probably hear his name linked to the team throughout the tournament; the striker retired from the international game in 2016 and wasn’t asked to return despite looking like his usual self with Major League Soccer’s Los Angeles Galaxy this season. His absence and the shadow it casts may not be good for Sweden, but could work in Mexico’s favour as the two vie for the No. 2 spot.

Group G:

Star’s prediction: 1. Belgium (3) 2. England (12) 3. Tunisia (21) 4. Panama (55)

A few of the game’s most exciting attackers will be in the spotlight in this group, including Belgium’s Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard and England’s Harry Kane. Neither team is expected to get much competition from either Tunisia or Panama, a team making its World Cup debut. This group should shake out in a fairly straightforward manner, with Belgium at the top and England in the runners-up position. Where those teams go from there should be more interesting. Belgium is now considered one of the best teams in the world, but has little to show for it. England enters the tournament with a young and inexperienced roster under a relatively young and inexperienced coach in Gareth Southgate, who will be managing his first major international event.

Group H:

Star’s prediction: 1. Poland (8) 2. Colombia (16) 3. Senegal (27) 4. Japan (61)

If you’re asking the Star to pick a so-called “group of death”, it’s Group H. While there might not be any outright contenders, each nation has the talent to get through the group stage and into the round of 16. What — or, rather, who — Polish supporters will hope sets their team apart is striker Robert Lewandowski. The Bayern Munich star has the ability to single-handedly make it difficult for the other countries to compete. Colombia is coming off a quarterfinals appearance in 2014 that could boost its confidence, Segenal is arguably the strongest African nation in Russia and Japan has become a tournament mainstay, if just months out from a coaching change.

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TORONTO STAR

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A look at the World Cup’s first-round groups