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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 September 2018

Messi's Argentina need to start well and Belgium will be tough to beat: World Cup group by group analysis

Ian Hawkey gives his impressions about the 2018 tournament draw and predicts which teams will make the knockout stages

Argentina's Lionel Messi will be 31 by the time the 2018 World Cup come around. Juan Ruiz / AFP
Argentina's Lionel Messi will be 31 by the time the 2018 World Cup come around. Juan Ruiz / AFP

Group A

Russia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Uruguay

Juan Antonio Pizzi only took the job of Saudi Arabia’s manager last week, but his deadline for readying the team has now been drawn forward a few days.

Saudi Arabia will kick off the World Cup against hosts Russia. That means formidable scrutiny, a grand stage, and the chance, perhaps, to take advantage of their opponents’ opening-night nerves.

The prospects of a broad Middle East-North African contingent in the knockout round is reduced by the coinciding of Egypt and Saudi Arabia in Group A, into which Uruguay will bring the firepower of Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez. Egypt can pick up points from both, though, and would hope to exploit recent signs of sluggishness in Russia’s defence with the pace of Mohamed Salah.

B Portugal, Spain, Morocco, Iran

Where to start with all the resonant backstories, grudges and neighbourhood rivalries in Group B? A narrow stretch of sea separates Morocco from Spain, and indeed Portugal’s south coast.

While Morocco will sense they have landed somewhere very tough in their return to World Cups after a 20-year absence, there is an encouraging, albeit distant precedent: Morocco did beat Portugal in the 1986 World Cup on the way to topping their group.

Spain against Portugal is freighted with history. The fixture featured on Spain’s road to the 2010 World Cup success and was a semi-final at Euro 2012, which Spain also won. Meanwhile Iran manager Carlos Queiroz must confront the Portugal he coached at a World Cup, a reign which featured confrontations with some senior Portugal players.

C France, Australia, Denmark, Peru

Of all the eight top-seeded nations, France seem to have come through with most to smile about from the draw. All three of their opponents required play-offs to squeeze into the line up of finalists.

Denmark’s walloping of the Republic of Ireland last month was a reminder that where there is Christian Eriksen there is menace, but France have all the savoir-faire in a group where the rest are mere middleweights.

Peru have not been at a finals since 1982. Denmark missed out on both Brazil 2014 and the last European championship, where France finished runners-up. Australia, who meet France in Kazan the first game of Group C, have been on the long flight home after the first phase in 2010 and 2014.

D Argentina, Iceland, Croatia, Nigeria

An uncanny algorithm seems to affect modern World Cup draws. Its rule: If Nigeria and Argentina are both there, then they are bound to run into one another.

Nigeria’s Super Eagles will hope that the outcome of last month’s friendly, staged in Russia, a 4-2 victory for the African team, is a better pointer than the meetings at the 1994, 2002, 2010 and 2014 World Cups, when Argentina beat them each time.

There is familiarity, too, for the pair of European contenders in the group. Iceland finished above Croatia in qualifying for this, Iceland’s first ever World Cup.

Argentina, for whom Lionel Messi leads and pursues perhaps his last big chance of the prize that has eluded him – Messi will be 31 by next June – know they need to start well in this company.

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E, Brazil, Switzerland, Costa Rica, Serbia

Brazil, anxious to exorcise the ghosts of their shocking 7-1 defeat to Germany in the semi-final of the last World Cup and in fine form in 2017, will acknowledge this looks a kind welcome to Russia, and a tournament where they begin among the top favourites.

But Switzerland and Costa Rica both reached the knockout phase in 2014, and aim for the last 16, at least, again.

Look out for some tough marking on Neymar, first when he comes up against an old foe, Juventus’s Stephan Lichtsteiner, the uncompromising Swiss captain taking him on in the group’s first fixture.

Come the match against Serbia, it will be the teak-tough Branislav Ivanovic patrolling Neymar’s territory.

F Germany, Mexico, Sweden, S Korea

The holders of the World Cup, and winners of the warm-up event for Russia 2018 - the Confederations Cup of five months ago - ought to take this collection of hurdles largely in their stride.

A less-than-full-strength German team taken by manager Joachim Low to the Confeds beat Mexico 4-1 in the quarter-final in Sochi.

Sweden can boast an even finer recent victim. They are in Russia at the expense of Italy, who they defeated in the play-offs, and the Swedes are there despite the international retirement of Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

The bandwagon beseeching Ibrahimovic to return to the national team by June will probably not recede entirely between now and then. But the Swedes will focus determinedly on finishing above Mexico, habitual last-16 qualifiers, and South Korea.

G Belgium, Panama, England, Tunisia

Tunisia, impressively solid and spirited in qualifying for what will be their fourth World Cup, can feel encouraged. They have ended up with a novice, in Panama, in their group. They also have a notoriously slow starter in England for their opening fixture.

England have triumphed just once in an opening match at World Cup in the last four attempts. Before that, in 1998, they beat Tunisia on Matchday 1, by 2-0.

The two European teams must, though, be rated favourites to progress and Belgium will carry to Russia a formidably strong squad. Pick an XI of excellent Belgians from just the top seven clubs in the English Premier League table and it shines far brighter than an England XI drawn from the same clubs.

If Tunisia can come through against Harry Kane and then the likes of Eden Hazard, Kevin de Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku with a point or two, then they give themselves a chance of progress via their match against Panama.

James Rodriguez was the star for Colombia in the previous World Cup. Martin Mejia / AP Photo
James Rodriguez was the star for Colombia in the previous World Cup. Martin Mejia / AP Photo

H Poland, Senegal, Colombia, Japan

Both Asia and Africa might glimpse in Group H their best chances of representation in the second phase.

Colombia struggled to find a settled idea of their best team in qualifying. James Rodriguez, their outstanding star at the last World Cup, has regained some of the confidence he lost while marginalised at Real Madrid during his ongoing loan spell at Bayern Munich. But they have been a less potent attacking force than their illustrious forwards should make them.

Poland, meanwhile, have a supreme attacking force in captain Robert Lewandowksi of Bayern.

Senegal have the speed going forward to trouble any opposition, with Sadio Mane their spearhead. Like Japan, the West Africans will be looking to emulate their achievements at the 2002 World Cup. Then, Senegal reached the last eight, and Japan made it to the last-16 stage.

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