World Cup 2018: Group Predictions, Player Projections and Tournament Preview

Matt JonesFeatured ColumnistJune 13, 2018

TOPSHOT - Argentina's Lionel Messi celebrates after scoring his third goal against Ecuador during their 2018 World Cup qualifier football match in Quito, on October 10, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Rodrigo BUENDIA        (Photo credit should read RODRIGO BUENDIA/AFP/Getty Images)
RODRIGO BUENDIA/Getty Images

Having worked tirelessly to make it to the 2018 FIFA World Cup, all 32 teams involved in the spectacle will be dreaming big at the start of the competition.

The chance to play on this enormous stage in Russia may only come around once for many of the players set to feature in the latest edition. There'll be desperation to seize this opportunity in an event that can create legendary figures in the game.

The coronation of legends tends to come in the latter stages, but the road to glory starts in the group stages.

Here's a look at each group, how they're likely to finish up and a closer look at a couple of players with the potential to ignite this tournament.

   

World Cup Groups (In Order of Predicted Finish)

Group A

Uruguay

Egypt

Russia

Saudi Arabia

      

Group B

Spain

Portugal

Morocco

Iran

          

Group C

France

Denmark

Peru

Australia

      

Group D

Argentina

Croatia

Nigeria

Iceland

    

Group E

Brazil

Serbia

Switzerland

Costa Rica

   

Group F

Germany

Mexico

Sweden

South Korea

    

Group G

Belgium

England

Tunisia

Panama

    

Group H

Colombia

Poland

Senegal

Japan

   

Lionel Messi, Argentina

Argentina's Lionel Messi (C) celebrates after defeating Ecuador and qualifying to the 2018 World Cup football tournament, in Quito, on October 10, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Juan Ruiz        (Photo credit should read JUAN RUIZ/AFP/Getty Images)
AFP Contributor/Getty Images

In the eyes of some, for Messi to confirm his legacy as the greatest player to ever kick a football, a win in a major international tournament is required.

Now 30, this may be the final time we see the Barcelona man heading into a World Cup. Those backing the Albiceleste will be delighted that he has enjoyed an extraordinary season for his club once again.

Messi inspired the team to the La Liga title and the Copa del Rey this season. As noted by OptaJose, he's been an inspiration:

While a lot of responsibility falls on Messi at club level, arguably even more falls upon his shoulders for Argentina.

At times it has got too much for him. After the team lost to Chile in the final of the Copa America in 2016, Messi said he was going to step away from international football before eventually reversing his decision.

Argentina's forward Lionel Messi attends a training session in Madrid on March 25, 2018 ahead of an international friendly football match between Spain and Argentina. / AFP PHOTO / GABRIEL BOUYS        (Photo credit should read GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Ima
GABRIEL BOUYS/Getty Images

Argentina fans will be thankful he did, as he scored a stunning hat-trick last year in a must-win game against Ecuador to book the nation's place in Russia.

Without him, they struggled during some preparations, too, as Spain hammered a Messi-less Argentina 6-1 in a friendly, per Rob Palmer of Sky Sports:

The South American side has underperformed in recent years, with players who would typically excel at club level a long way short of their best for the national team. If they are going to repeat 2014's final appearance, they will need Messi to thrive.

Prediction: Semi-Final

      

Kevin De Bruyne, Belgium

20180327 - Brussels, Belgium / International Friendly Game : Belgium v Saudi Arabia / 'nKevin DE BRUYNE'nPicture by Vincent Van Doornick / Isosport
MB Media/Getty Images

Belgium probably still fall into the category of dark horses for this tournament despite the individual talents in Roberto Martinez's squad. If De Bruyne shines, then they are potential winners.

The Manchester City midfielder also heads into this tournament on the back of a magnificent club season, as he was the brains behind a title win and a Carabao Cup triumph. Under Pep Guardiola, he's taken his game on to new heights.

As noted by Sky Sports Statto, no player in the Premier League has been able to match his levels of creativity:

De Bruyne has also matured as a midfield player, something that will be crucial to Belgium at the World Cup.

The City man is much more comfortable playing deep at this stage in his career, and in the 3-4-3 system likely to be used by Martinez, he needs to be a little more disciplined than he may be for his club. Based on the way he's played this season, he's capable of doing that.

Earlier this year, Martinez explained how he will try to get the best from De Bruyne on Monday Night Football:

The quality in this Belgium squad is good enough to match any team in the tournament. What they've lacked at the highest level and certainly in the UEFA European Championship two years ago was a player who can knit together their excellent defenders and thrilling attackers.

De Bruyne wasn't in a position to do that job then, but he is now. If he thrives in Russia, Belgium have what's required to be a force in the latter stages.

Prediction: Semi-Final

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