Published On: Thu, Jun 14th, 2018

Sportsnet’s 2018 FIFA World Cup picks and predictions

Sportsnet’s panel of writers, broadcasters and commentators offer their picks and predictions for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia.

The FIFA World Cup in Russia runs from June 14 to July 15, and Sportsnet.ca will have in-depth daily coverage.

JAMES SHARMAN

Final four: France, Brazil, Spain, Germany
Winner: Germany beats Brazil in the final
Tournament top scorer: Timo Werner, Germany
Biggest surprise team: Croatia
Biggest flop team: Portugal
Breakout-star to watch: Timo Werner, Germany
Group stage match to watch: Argentina vs. Croatia
Keep an eye on: I genuinely hope I am wrong, and that this is a wonderful World Cup jam packed with attacking football and drama. However, I fear the pragmatism that has creeped into the international game will continue, and we’ll be set for some cagey and defensive affairs. Sadly, FIFA will enable some of this thanks to the inclusion of Video Assistant Referee system. VAR is not ready for the World Cup, and the World Cup isn’t ready for VAR. There are still many kinks being ironed out, and many of the officials in charge of games in Russia will be inexperienced in its usage. Overall, I expect VAR to get most of the calls correct, but my concern is the time it will take to reach these conclusions. I fear that an over reliance on “getting it right” is going to kill off some of the tension and momentum in games.

STEPHEN BRUNT

Final four: France, Brazil, Spain, Germany
Winner: France beats Germany in the final
Tournament top scorer: Antoine Griezmann, France
Biggest flop team: Argentina
Breakout-star to watch: Kylian Mbappé, France
Group stage match to watch: Spain vs. Portugal
Keep an eye on: Normally, all of the hooligan stories leading up to a World Cup or Euros turn out to be empty hype (France ‘98 being the exception). Remember the police in Japan in 2002 armed with water cannons and net guns ready for violent gangs that never showed up? But Russia is a true wild card. No idea what to expect. And the locals won’t be any gentler if their team gets humiliated in the group stage.

SID SEIXEIRO

Final four: France, Portugal, Germany, Brazil
Winner: France beats Portugal in the final
Tournament top scorer: Robert Lewandowski, Poland
Biggest surprise team: Peru
Biggest flop team: Argentina
Breakout-star to watch: Saul, Spain
Group stage match to watch: Spain vs. Portugal
Keep an eye on: This tournament will go down as the one of the most controversial in World Cup history. VAR will be a scourge on 2018 that none of us will ever forget. With all due respect to Serie A and the FA Cup (where VAR is used), the stakes have never been higher. World Cup dreams will live and die based on a system that’s rarely been used. This isn’t going to go well.

JOHN MOLINARO

Final four: Brazil, Spain, Germany, France
Winner: Spain beats Brazil in the final
Tournament top scorer: Antoine Griezmann, France
Biggest surprise team: Uruguay
Biggest flop team: Argentina
Breakout-star to watch: Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, Serbia
Group stage match to watch: Spain vs. Portugal
Keep an eye on: Spain seems to be flying under the radar ahead of this tournament, with most pundits and fans talking up the chances of Germany, Brazil and France to win this World Cup. I’ve been very impressed with how Julen Lopetegui, who previously coached Spain’s youth national sides from 2010 to 2014, has restored life into the senior team program since succeeding Vicente del Bosque. He led Spain through a successful qualifying campaign (they won their group ahead of Italy), and he’s freshened up the side with emerging Spanish talent, while still calling upon veterans such as Gerard Pique, Sergio Ramos, Sergio Busquets and Andres Iniesta. I think La Roja are good enough to win the World Cup, and possibly begin a new era of Spanish dominance, like the one that ran from 2008-2012 when they won three major tournaments in a row.

JEFF BLAIR

Final four: France, Belgium, Spain, Germany
Winner: France beats Germany in the final
Tournament top scorer: Antoine Griezmann, France
Biggest surprise team: Poland
Biggest flop team: Argentina
Breakout-star to watch: Timo Werner, Germany
Group stage match to watch: Russia vs. Egypt
Keep an eye on: Mayhem. I know, I know: every Olympics or World Cup is painted as a potential world-ending disaster in the buildup to the event, then usually proceeds without incident. It all becomes a bit messy financially in the end, and the host country is left dealing with the detritus after the rest of the world clears out. But this is something else entirely, considering Russia’s open embracing of international pariah status – considering this is a country that shoots down civilian airliners, sponsored drug cheating in its own back yard during an Olympics, rigs elections around the world, poisons people in the UK, operates without fear of reprisal and is fighting undeclared wars on several fronts. Making the situation worse is the fact the host nation’s team is pathetic: ranked 65th in the world, the lowest of any team in the event, which is going to make for an awfully nasty, angry group of supporters with not much to occupy their time.

GREG BRADY

Final four: Uruguay, Belgium, Spain, Germany
Winner: Spain beats Belgium in the final
Tournament top scorer: Diego Costa, Spain
Biggest surprise team: Senegal
Biggest flop team: Argentina
Breakout star: Hirving Lozano, Mexico
Group stage match to watch: Argentina vs. Iceland
Keep an eye on: Things have been set up nicely for the host nation to do well, so seeing Russia potentially struggle in the group stage would be fascinating, but so would an extended run. They’re getting Uruguay in their Group A at the wrong time and in the wrong decade, and even a draw in the tournament opener against lowly-regarded Saudi Arabia would be fascinating.

DAN RICCIO

Final four: France, Brazil, Spain, Germany
Winner: Brazil beats Germany in the final
Tournament top scorer: Gabriel Jesus, Brazil
Biggest surprise team: Serbia
Biggest flop team: Portugal
Breakout star: Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, Serbia
Group stage match to watch: Argentina vs. Croatia
Keep an eye on: Brazil’s return to former glory. For most nations, a 16-year drought at the World Cup isn’t a talking point, but for Brazil it is almost an eternity. Adding to that, this team was embarrassed on home soil in that 7-1 loss to Germany four years ago. This is the best Brazil squad since they last won the tournament in 2002, and that makes this their chance to return to the top of the hill in the international game.

DONNOVAN BENNETT

Final four: Belgium, France, Germany, Brazil
Winner: France beats Belgium in the final
Tournament top scorer: Antoine Griezmann, France
Biggest surprise team: Senegal
Biggest flop team: Argentina
Breakout-star to watch: Timo Werner, Germany
Group stage match to watch: Portugal vs. Spain
Keep an eye on: To me the biggest story is the host nation. Russia is under the microscope for bribery scandals, hooligan violence and racism. Given their sporting reputation, doping violations will also be scrutinized. In the lead-up to the World Cup, the Krestovsky Stadium in St. Petersburg that was built for this tournament was in the news for worker deaths, fraud and being over budget. That’s before getting the geo-political minefield. Vladimir Putin’s nationalistic outlook isn’t above using international sports as a platform for his ideology. With the Russian government, there are allegations of domestic voter oppression and international voting interference. The tournament could be a chance to repair the country’s reputation or a chance to flex its muscle with the Western world watching. FIFA would prefer that the focus is on what happens on the field, free of politics and scandal. In Russia, that might not be possible.

THOMAS DOBBY

Final four: Brazil, France, Germany, Spain
Winner: Brazil beats Germany in the final
Tournament top scorer: Neymar, Brazil
Biggest surprise team: Poland
Biggest flop team: Argentina
Breakout star: Piotr Zielinski, Poland
Group stage match to watch: Argentina vs. Croatia
Keep an eye on: VAR. What is it good for? Yes, we’ve seen it in the FA Cup, across some European leagues, MLS and in the Confederations Cup, but this is the ultimate test. And that’s what it still feels like, a test. Can VAR be instituted effectively and without massive drama? Not bloody likely. It will probably ruin some huge moments, and maybe even some games, so they ultimately better be the right decisions. Call me old school, but I don’t like it one bit.

PETER GALINDO

Final four: Brazil, Spain, Germany, Uruguay
Winner: Brazil beats Germany in the final
Tournament top scorer: Luis Suarez, Uruguay
Biggest surprise team: Uruguay
Biggest flop team: Argentina
Breakout-star to watch: Hirving Lozano, Mexico
Group stage match to watch: Argentina vs. Croatia
Keep an eye on: The South American nations. Brazil has been practically unstoppable under new manager Tite, who is arguably the best tactician at the World Cup, and they are oozing with quality in all areas. Peru is a very tight-knit squad that could be this World Cup’s surprise package. Colombia has some very exciting players and is arguably a stronger squad compared to the 2014 World Cup. Uruguay is led by Atletico Madrid defensive duo Diego Godin and Jose Gimenez, who are entering the tournament in form, plus Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani are two of the world’s elite strikers – not to mention there are some promising young midfielders in the team, such as Rodrigo Bentancur and Lucas Torreira. Argentina might underwhelm, but Lionel Messi is obviously the X-factor, and he’ll be motivated knowing this might be his last chance to become a world champion.

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Sportsnet’s 2018 FIFA World Cup picks and predictions