The elite of international football will go in search of glory at the 2018 FIFA World Cup, which kicks off on Thursday as 32 teams swarm on Russia in the hopes of stripping Germany of their crown.
Die Mannschaft were crowned champions in Brazil four years ago and will defend the title for the first time since 1994, when they only made it to the quarter-final stage of the tournament.
But the Germans did win their group en route to that exit in the last eight and will hope to replicate that feat at least in Russia, with Mexico, Sweden and South Korea looking to stop their march on back-to-back World Cup wins.
Eight group winners and eight runners-up will advance to the round of 16, and those able to top their pools will find themselves in better stead to then make a further push for the top prize in football as they will play the runners-up of each pool.
We profile each 2018 World Cup group and predict who will reach the summit in those pools, with favourites and dark horses alike vying for first-place finishes in Russia.
2018 World Cup Groups
- Group A: Russia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Uruguay
- Group B: Portugal, Spain, Morocco, Iran
- Group C: France, Australia, Peru, Denmark
- Group D: Argentina, Iceland, Croatia, Nigeria
- Group E: Brazil, Switzerland, Costa Rica, Serbia
- Group F: Germany, Mexico, Sweden, Korea Republic
- Group G: Belgium, Panama, Tunisia, England
- Group H: Poland, Senegal, Colombia, Japan
It's been two decades since a host nation last won the World Cup at France 1998, and now Russia will try to break that unwanted record.
Uruguay and an Egypt side buoyed by the form of potential Ballon d'Or contender Mohamed Salah sees them as favourites ahead of Russia and Saudi Arabia—the lowest-ranked team in the tournament (63rd).
However, statistician Simon Gleave questioned if Egypt have enough substance behind Salah after they topped their pool in CAF qualification:
Egypt and Uruguay meet on June 15, the second day of the competition, and the South American squad will boast more quality and experience in major tournaments like this to prove worthy of top spot.
Predicted Winner: Uruguay
Spain have been the favourites of every group they've been in at major tournaments for the past decade, and that won't change in Russia, even if Portugal sit above them in the FIFA rankings.
Cristiano Ronaldo led Portugal to victory at Euro 2016, but he and his team-mates likely find themselves battling for runner-up in Group B. They needed until the final day of UEFA qualifying to beat Switzerland to first in their pool via goal difference.
Manager Julen Lopetegui appears to have Spain back to their old selves, having failed to suffer a loss since their shock round-of-16 exit at Euro 2016. Morocco and Iran look to be in their own battle for third place.
Predicted Winner: Spain
The young talent emerging from France has had Les Bleus painted as a 2018 World Cup title contender for some time now, and it's difficult to see past Didier Deschamps' men dominating their bunch.
Australia and Peru both qualified for the World Cup via the AFC and CONMEBOL qualifier play-offs, respectively, and they are major underdogs. Even Denmark and Werder Bremen midfielder Thomas Delaney has accepted France as the front-runners:
The Danes are ranked 12th in the world, one place behind Peru, but they look the more likely chance to surprise with a group win, although it's difficult to see past France flying to first in Group C.
Predicted Winner: France
There has been some discussion as to what this year's Group of Death should be, or whether the tournament even has one, but Group D gets this writer's nod for the tightest lot that also houses quite a bit of talent.
The inevitable headlines will ring around whether Lionel Messi, 31 this month and possibly at his last World Cup, can finally bring the biggest accolade in the sport to his nation, and it all starts in the pool phase.
In terms of prestige, they boast a big advantage over fellow group combatants Croatia, Iceland and Nigeria, but Goal's Ives Galarcep noted how close the lines are after La Albiceleste clinched only the third of four CONMEBOL automatic qualifying places:
Iceland—who enjoyed a fairytale run at Euro 2016—are in their first World Cup after beating Croatia to the top of their group in UEFA qualifying, while Nigeria have won only one game in their last three World Cups.
Argentina have an edge over their opponents in that regard and should have sufficient resolve to beat the rest in the opening round before they look to best their second-place finish of four years ago.
Predicted Winner: Argentina
It's been four years since the World Cup in Brazil, and yet the scars of their 7-1 semi-final defeat to Germany may still feel fresh to fans or players, eager to make up for their misery with a renewed challenge under Tite.
The five-time World Cup winners will likely encounter their biggest threat in Switzerland, although even then the Selecao should find their foes far from their level, and the same goes for fellow Group E inhabitants, Costa Rica and Serbia.
This Brazil team will find, as has been the case in numerous of their recent tournament outings, they are their biggest enemies, but the freedom to play alleviated of stress or scrutiny should see them blitz the pool.
Predicted Winner: Brazil
Another contender for Group of Death were it not for the presence of the reigning world champions and No. 1-ranked team on the planet, Germany, such are the narrow margins between Mexico, Sweden and South Korea.
The realists out there will likely agree manager Joachim Low is on course to lead Germany to a second successive final in Russia, although football writer Roy Nemer spotted one pattern running against those chances:
South Korea squeezed into the World Cup as runners-up in their AFC qualifying group and are favourites to finish last, while Mexico were by some distance the best team in CONCACAF and the Swedes look better without Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Still, little among that trio can compare to the quality and never-ending resources at the disposal of Germany.
Predicted Winner: Germany
Another World Cup, another opportunity for England fans to get their hopes up about what might be, only for those hopes to come crashing down in dim fashion.
All jokes aside, the Three Lions will likely fight against Belgium for the right to finish first in Group G, and David Beckham touched upon England's running theme of missed expectations back in December, via Goal:
Both they and Belgium had relatively easy runs in UEFA qualifying, with the pair topping their groups.
One defining factor, however, is Belgium scored 43 times in 10 qualifiers, drawing only once. Gareth Southgate's side drew twice and only netted 18 times, which doesn't bode well considering they've only managed to score five times across seven matches at the last two World Cups.
Panama and Tunisia look to be the whipping boys of the group, while England's lack of confidence in attack should fall second to Belgium's might.
Predicted Winner: Belgium
Group H is one of only two groups with one UEFA contender, but even a Poland led by Bayern Munich marvel Robert Lewandowski could struggle against the competition.
Poland are ranked an impressive 10th in the world and were drawn in Pot One for the World Cup, but their preparations of late have looked poor, winning just one of their last four friendlies, a 3-2 victory over South Korea.
Colombia have looked similarly rocky in recent times but showed in a 3-2 friendly win over France in March the talent they possess.
Japan and Senegal are eyeing also-ran status in Group H, which will likely come down to a clash between Colombia and Poland on June 24.
Predicted Winner: Colombia