Sam's Obsession: FIFA World Cup 2018

Three weeks on from the 2018 FIFA World Cup Draw, Off the Pitch’s Sam Horscraft rates England’s chances and gives a group-by-group rundown on the tournament in Russia.

Could these predictions come back to haunt him?

Before I get started on this, let me tell you something, the World Cup is the best thing in the… well, world! Anyone who says otherwise is just plain wrong. I love the tournament! I study the groups, I fill out the wall charts, I purchase Panini sticker books and play swapsies with my friends. And to be honest, I expect that to be the case every four years for the rest of my life.

I’m working on the assumption that 90% of you reading this will not be heading out to Russia, meaning you will experience next summer’s football feast from the sofa, or at the pub. For the other 10%, good on you, stay safe and enjoy what should be a fantastic experience! 

England – Everything you need to know:

Fixtures:
Tunisia vs England – Monday, June 18th, 7pm, Volgograd
England vs Panama – Sunday, June 24th 1pm, Nizhny Novgorod
England vs Belgium – Thursday, June 28th, 7pm, Kaliningrad

What a lucky, lucky draw for England! Gareth Southgate’s side have avoided potential disaster with this group, as it easily could have been a very different story. The timings are also great news for all Three Lions fans as there will be no games during normal working hours, meaning you can save your ‘sick day’ for Iran vs Morocco in Group B.

Even the fixture order has fallen into place because it’s a real positive that we play Belgium last. I’m hopeful that we can gain six points from the first two games, secure qualification and have a good old go against the side sitting fifth in the world rankings without too much pressure!

I know nothing is guaranteed with England, especially at a major tournament. In recent years we have failed to beat USA, Algeria, Costa Rica, Slovakia and Iceland (I could go on). However, ‘World Cup hope’ is what’s going to get me through December to June, and you can’t stop me believing!

Opponents:

Tunisia

Those of you old enough to remember, England’s opening fixture will be a repeat of their first game at World Cup ’98. Glenn Hoddle’s side came away 2-0 winners on a very warm afternoon in Marseille thanks to goals from Alan Shearer and a corker from Paul Scholes. I am confident of a similar result on June 18th. The pressure will be on, and the African nation are certainly no walkover. Ranked 27 in the world, they topped their qualifying group without losing a game. This will be their fifth appearance at the finals and coached by former Hannover 96 player Nabil Maaloul, they’ll be hard-working and will make things difficult.

Sam Says: England win 2-0

Panama

I’m sure everyone had a second glance when they saw this name in the hat. But Panama have made it to their first World Cup and did so in dramatic fashion. Roman Torres’ 88th minute thunderbolt against Costa Rica sent the Central American country into a frenzy, knocking out USA in the process. There will be some familiarity for Southgate with opposition coach Hernan Dario Gomez having managed against England back  in 1998 when David Beckham’s delightful free-kick contributed to a 2-0 win. The outsiders will certainly give it a real good go against in Nizhny Novgorod, but again I’m backing us to come through the test.

Sam Says: England win 3-1

Belgium

The outcome and magnitude of this game will all depend on the first two results. If the form books are correct (which is rarely the case with England) this should be a straight shoot-out for top spot. The pressure will also be on Belgium’s stars don’t forget, with their ‘Golden Generation’ failing in quarter finals against Argentina and Wales in their past two major tournament appearances.  Roberto Martinez’s squad depth is just crazy; star after star, but surely if the Three Lions will have any success they have to keep Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard quiet. Fail to do that and it could be a gloomy evening for Southgate’s men. However, I’m taking the spirit of David Platt’s wonder goal in this same fixture back at Italia ’90 and predicting an entertaining draw.

Sam Says: 2-2

I feel like my patriotic optimism could come back to haunt me here! I know England haven’t got the strongest squad, and we clearly are lacking in midfield, but the way the groups and fixtures have worked out, I’m backing them to finish as runners-up on goal difference to the mighty Belgium.

Reason for optimism?

Understandably, due to England’s poor performances at recent major tournaments, something that hasn’t been widely discussed is our possible last-16 opponents. Once again, I’m very aware that we all thought this 18 months ago when we faced minnows Iceland at Euro 2016 (less said about that the better). But this time we would face the winners/runners-up of Group H – likely to be one of Poland, Colombia or Senegal. Considering the amount of world-class teams we could have faced, another very winnable game looks to be on the cards.  

Finally, coming down from my dreamland of an England side doing everything their supposed to at a World Cup, my optimism fully shuts down at the quarter-final stage, where Germany or Brazil will probably be waiting. Yes, we performed well in friendlies again these sides last month, but I think we all know a knockout match at a major tournament is a very different prospect.

Sam Says: England to battle hard, but come up short in the quarter-finals.

The Rest:

Group A: Russia , Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Uruguay

Let’s be honest, not the most exciting first group, and certainly not the most exciting opening game! The Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow will showcase the curtain-raiser pitting hosts Russia against Saudi Arabia. This will be a hard one to predict though, will Egypt’s Mo Salah shine in his country’s first World Cup since 1990, or will Luis Suarez show that bite (sorry couldn’t resist) every side needs?

Sam Says: Winners – Egypt, Runners-up – Uruguay

Group B: Portugal, Spain, Morocco, Iran

Well this is more like it! The stand-out game of Group B is of course the heavyweight clash between Iberian rivals Portugal and Spain – the previous two European champions. That game takes place June 15th in Sochi – set the date in the diary for that one folks! This group is not just a two-horse race though, don’t write off Morocco (you can rule out Iran). The African side came through a tough qualifying campaign and could cause some problems for the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and David de Gea. 

Sam Says: Winners – Spain, Runners-up – Portugal

Group C: France, Australia, Peru, Denmark

Interesting group this one. You never know what you’ll get from France at a tournament. They can either play mesmirising football, or have the squabbles of a pub team! I think the former will be on show for Les Bleus in 2018, as they have both the talent and squad depth that make them one of the favourites. Another interesting element is Australia and a certain Mr. Tim Cahill, who has produced magic moments in the past. The ex-Everton star will be going to his fourth World Cup and has never failed to score at the finals. That being said, I think the opposition will prove too tough for the Green and Gold.

Sam Says: Winners – France, Runners-up – Denmark

Group D: Argentina, Iceland, Croatia, Nigeria

What a group! Every game could be a corker. This could be where I have egg on my face prediction-wise because I’m backing the Croats to top the group! Lionel Messi will be desperate to lead his team to glory in what could be his last attempt after losing in the 2014 final. Fan-favourites Iceland will also be a hit in Russia, they could certainly spring some surprises having already beaten Croatia 1-0 in qualifying. Poor old Nigeria always seem to face the Argies. This will be the fifth time in seven finals appearances that the Super Eagles have had to take on the two-time winners. 

Sam Says: Winners – Croatia, Runners-up – Argentina

Group E: Brazil, Switzerland, Costa Rica, Serbia

Brazil have looked very impressive since coach Tite took over in June 2016. The record five-time winners should be going very far in this tournament and I expect them to advance in top spot. You could throw a blanket over the other sides, they’re all very competent teams who on their day are a tough match for anyone. Switzerland tend to perform well on the big stage though, so I’m backing them to reach the last-16.

Sam Says: Winners – Brazil, Runners-up – Switzerland

Group F: Germany, Mexico, Sweden, Korea Republic

This fantastic group will throw up some fascinating games! Again, everyone will fancy the current World Champions Germany to finish top, and I would have to agree. Joachim Low’s side just seem to dominate every match they play. It’s then a straight race for the runner-up spot. Sweden did very well in qualifying without their retired hero Zlatan, but I’m backing Mexico to score the goals required to reach the next round ahead of the Swedes and Korea Republic.  

Sam Says: Winners – Germany,  Runners-up – Mexico

Group H: Poland, Senegal, Colombia, Japan

Another tough, tough group. Not only difficult games to predict, but also four very good teams. Every one of these fixtures could go either way. The Poles qualified with some good performances with, unsurprisingly, captain Robert Lewandowski top scored with 16 goals, the best scoring record across European qualification. Colombia will be aiming to repeat their fantastic run in 2014 and who can forget Senegal’s only World Cup appearance in 2002, where they defeated defending champions France in their opening match. 

Sam Says: Winners – Poland, Runners-up – Colombia

There’s a little bit of early World Cup fever for you. I’m sure there’ll be much more to come between now and June.

Am I being too optimistic with England? Are my other Group predictions too safe? Let us know your thoughts on next Summer’s tournament…