B/R Expert Predictions for the World Cup
One day. Just one more day and it all begins.
Thursday will see host Russia and Saudi Arabia kick off the 2018 FIFA World Cup, and just hours removed from that highly anticipated moment at 4 p.m. BST (11 a.m. ET), the world is reaching fever pitch.
B/R is continuing its buildup to the tournament by delivering its expert predictions on six important categories: winner, top scorer, Golden Ball winner, flop, surprise package and emerging star.
All six are traditional pre-tournament staples and almost every football fan selects a team or player for each one, but if you're still undecided or can't pick between a select few candidates, allow us to tempt you with our picks.
Supplying those picks are resident B/R writers Sam Tighe and Dean Jones, plus regulars Richard Fitzpatrick, Tom Williams and Marcus Alves. Let us know if you agree (or disagree!) with them in the comments below.
Winner and Final 4
Top four: Germany, Spain, Brazil, France
Originally my pick was Spain, who looked cohesive, strong, stacked with quality and in possession of game-changers from the bench.
But then manager Julen Lopetegui accepted the Real Madrid job on the eve of the tournament, and it's sent La Furia Roja's preparations spiralling, as The Independent's Miguel Delaney noted.
With that in mind, the pick becomes Germany. Reigning champions don't always fare too well—see Spain in 2014 for details—but this team is loaded with quality and has a winning mentality.
Top four: France, Brazil, Germany, Spain
What a dream scenario this would be: the four best teams living up to their potential and battling for glory.
Picking France to come out on top is based on the fact they have such depth and balance in the squad. Granted, they bear the scars of losing to Portugal in the final of Euro 2016. But since then, the likes of Benjamin Mendy, Corentin Tolisso and Ousmane Dembele have emerged to add more dynamism.
If their star names can come close to their best level—I'm looking at you, Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezmann!—France will be formidable champions.
Top four: France, Spain, Brazil, Germany
Spain has unrivalled midfield talents and recent wins against Italy (3-0) and Argentina (6-1) testify to their strength, but an inability to settle on a proven No. 9 might mean they come up just short.
Germany are the pass-masters at World Cup finals, having won the tournament four times as well as reaching three other finals. Given the strength of their squad, no one will fancy meeting Joachim Low's men.
Brazil has recovered impressively from its humiliating 7-1 semi-final defeat to Germany in the last World Cup on home soil. They arrive in Russia as most people's favourites but face stiff competition thousands of miles from home this time.
My winner is France. The enviable spine to this team—including centre-back pairing Raphael Varane and Samuel Umtiti, voracious midfield screen N'Golo Kante and Antoine Griezmann up front—could propel them to their first World Cup win since 1998.
Top four: Spain, France, Brazil, Germany
It's impossible to predict what will happen at a World Cup, but these four are the strongest teams on paper and should manage to keep out of each other's way until the semi-finals.
France have got an incredibly deep talent pool, and there are signs that Didier Deschamps now knows his best team. Germany are the reigning champions (and could even afford to leave out Leroy Sane). Brazil look much more cohesive than they did in 2014. Spain have got an exceptional lineup, a successful style of play and options on the bench, which make them my favourites.
Top four: Spain, Belgium, Brazil, France
Spain's ball circulation and the movement of their midfielders is something else. David Silva, Isco and Co. turn each action into a dance. And their confidence is back.
After the humiliating failure of 2014, they will go on a deep run, beat Belgium's golden generation in the semi-finals and reach their second World Cup final in three cycles. Brazil will fight them for the title after rediscovering their mojo and thrashing France en route.
Diego Costa, who was snubbed by Brazil manager Luiz Felipe Scolari before the last tournament, will then become the country's new villain. He will get Neymar red-carded and score the winner.
Sam Tighe: Timo Werner
There's no real art to picking out a tournament top scorer. You can methodise all you like, but the chaotic, random nature of football directly influences this.
It's wise to pick a player who starts for a team that you expect to progress far into the tournament. It seems prudent to choose one who enjoyed a good season and seems well settled into his team.
For those reasons I've chosen Timo Werner of Germany, but if the 2014 World Cup is anything to go by, don't be surprised if an attacking midfielder hits form early and scoops this prize (James Rodriguez scored six in Brazil!).
Dean Jones: Olivier Giroud
Most people will go for Antoine Griezmann when selecting a France player as the top scorer, but it's very much worth considering Giroud's credentials.
All signs point to him playing a central attacking role for Didier Deschamps, and he will prowl the box looking for cutbacks, loose balls and aerial opportunities from set pieces. Giroud is his country's fourth-highest scorer of all time, and in a free-flowing French side, he could fill his boots.
Richard Fitzpatrick: Antoine Griezmann
Despite some distracting transfer gossip—will he or won't he leave Atletico Madrid for Barcelona this summer?—Griezmann is in the sweet spot of his career.
He had a patchy first half of the season, which wasn't helped by a tetchy relationship with Atletico's fans, but he's hit his stride at just the right moment. With an impressive outing at the Euro 2016 to call on as well as a crack team of supporting French players to assist him, expect Griezmann, aged 27, to cause havoc for opposing defences as France march towards a possible third World Cup final in their history.
Tom Williams: Antoine Griezmann
Griezmann was the top scorer at Euro 2016, and in an even more attacking France team, I think he can repeat the trick in Russia. France have lots of options up front, and Griezmann is central to all of them.
Whether it's Olivier Giroud's physical presence and precise layoffs or the pace and trickery of Kylian Mbappe and Ousmane Dembele, France have all sorts of ways of pulling apart opposing defences, and I expect Griezmann to be the chief beneficiary.
What's more, he goes into the tournament after a strong end to the season with Atletico Madrid, culminating in that match-winning double against Marseille in the Europa League final.
Marcus Alves: Gabriel Jesus
The fans adore him. He's never had any off-field issues. In a few words, Gabriel Jesus is the guy you'd want to marry your daughter. Or, preferably, when it comes to the World Cup, to wear the No. 9 shirt of your national team.
He's the striker Brazil have missed since Adriano. For almost a decade, centre-forward had been an issue for them. The drama is now over. The 21-year-old has gone from painting the streets of Sao Paulo in 2014 to scoring 10 goals in 17 matches for the country.
The speed of his rise has been remarkable. Right foot, left foot, in the air with a header—no one can stop him.
Golden Ball (Best Player)
Sam Tighe: Neymar
The sharpness and form Neymar has shown since returning from his ankle injury are borderline baffling. How does a player find his rhythm that quickly, that ruthlessly, having missed three months of football? He's superhuman.
Eye-popping goals against Croatia and Austria this month suggest he's more than ready to take on the world in Russia. In a good Brazil side where he is no longer the sole focus, there's a chance he simply catches fire and rips the sides off all comers.
Dean Jones: Isco
Spain are going to be very easy on the eye at this tournament, and it will be refreshing to see Isco given licence to roam. For Spain he has more freedom than he is ever allowed at Real Madrid.
It means he can dictate play from deep positions at times as well as pushing on to create goalscoring opportunities further forward. If Spain fulfil their potential, then it is likely Isco will be producing the form of his life—and that will deserve a reward.
Richard Fitzpatrick: Philippe Coutinho
Philippe Coutinho may well outshine his illustrious teammate Neymar at this summer's tournament. Having arrived midseason at Barcelona from Liverpool for a bloated transfer fee, he hit the ground running unlike another player brought in at the club on a huge transfer fee—Ousmane Dembele.
Coutinho contributed some crucial assists and a couple of wondergoals as Lionel Messi and Co. romped to a domestic double. More of that sorcery may be on display in Russia. He has the guile to create some unforgettable individual World Cup memories.
Tom Williams: Neymar
Neymar has unfinished business at the World Cup, and I think this could be the moment when he finally eclipses Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
There was too much pressure on Neymar in 2014. He was the golden boy for the host nation, and prior to his injury, it felt like the entire country expected him to win the World Cup on his own. Brazil are a much more coherent team under Tite, and there are in-form attacking players like Gabriel Jesus, Philippe Coutinho, Roberto Firmino and Willian who can share the creative burden.
Neymar's foot injury enabled him to get a good period of rest ahead of the tournament, so he should be firing on all cylinders.
Marcus Alves: Isco
Zinedine Zidane, who knows a bit about this, once said of Isco to Marca that "he can do things very few players can do." And watch out—judging from how much game time Zidane gave him at Real Madrid this season, he's not even among his biggest fans.
That must tell us something about Isco's credentials. The 26-year-old has scored eight goals in his last 10 matches for Spain and is a guaranteed starter in midfield.
He's pure class, the heartbeat of the team, the man who makes it all tick. Playing for his country extracts an extra level from him and could set him en route to the Golden Ball in Russia.
Sam Tighe: Portugal
I say this in full acknowledgment that Portugal, the reigning European champions, are one of the strongest teams heading to Russia. Measuring their squad against others, they trump most and boast an elite forward in Cristiano Ronaldo.
But I can't shake this feeling Morocco are going to pip them to the second spot in Group B, thus sending them out of the tournament at the earliest possible stage.
You might think that's unlikely, but this is the same team who barely scraped out of the group at Euro 2016 (before gaining momentum) and were bested at this stage in 2014.
Dean Jones: Argentina
This is possibly Lionel Messi's last chance to win the World Cup, and if he is to do so, he will have to drag the team to glory single-handedly judging by their qualification form.
Argentina don't quite have the fear factor of past years, and it is unclear exactly how Jorge Sampaoli plans to get the best from his brilliant attackers. We will gauge much from their first match against Iceland, who will camp out in their own box and attempt to earn a shock draw.
If Argentina fail to break them down, it's already the beginning of the end of them at this tournament.
Richard Fitzpatrick: Russia
Russia are on a hiding to nothing. As hosts, the country's football team is weighed under with expectations, but it ventures into the competition with an inexperienced defence, minus its best defensive midfielder, Igor Denisov—who has been on the outs with team coach Stanislav Cherchesov since 2015—and without its star striker, Aleksandr Kokorin.
True, they got a soft draw, but they're one of the lowest-ranking teams in the tournament and ominously finished last in their group at the Euro 2016 finals. An ignominious early exit could be on the cards if Uruguay and Egypt grab the qualifying berths from Group A.
Tom Williams: Portugal
Portugal are the reigning European champions, but they didn't exactly sparkle on their way to glory at Euro 2016 and I think there's a possibility that they could come up short in Russia.
They're notoriously slow starters at major tournaments, only scraping through the group phase at Euro 2016 and falling at the first hurdle at the last World Cup. With obdurate opponents like Morocco and Iran competing with them for second place in Group B, that could prove costly.
Marcus Alves: Argentina
It's a pity that this is perhaps Lionel Messi's last World Cup, as he stands a better chance of winning Brazil's presidential elections in October than the title in Russia in July.
Argentina have one of the strongest front lines in the tournament. Messi is backed up by players such as Paolo Dybala, Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Aguero, Angel Di Maria and Giovani Lo Celso. What an array of talent at their disposal.
However, coach Jorge Sampaoli has not been able to find a formation and extract the best out of them. Not to mention the goalkeeper dilemma after Sergio Romero's injury blow!
Sam Tighe: Morocco
This pick naturally has to be Morocco, as I've tipped them to clamber out of Group B at the expense of Portugal. Should that happen, it would send shockwaves across the globe.
The Atlas Lions haven't lost a game in over a year thanks to a remarkable stubborn streak in defence and have clever playmakers further forward who can operate on the counter. It's the perfect formula for tournament football.
Dean Jones: Serbia
In the brilliant Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, Serbia have a player who can have a similar impact to James Rodriguez from the 2014 World Cup. But he's not the only man worth getting excited about, as this side are ready to ride a wave of optimism into Russia.
Star striker Aleksandar Mitrovic enjoyed a great second half of the season at Fulham and carried his good form into the warm-up matches. He will be well supported by Premier League players Dusan Tadic, Nemanja Matic and Luka Milivojevic in helping this side believe they can push into the knockout stages.
Richard Fitzpatrick: Peru
Peru qualified via the scenic route for their first World Cup finals since 1982, following a 2-0 aggregate win over New Zealand in the play-offs.
Now that they have their captain and all-time top scorer, Paolo Guerrero, back in harness after the lifting of a ban for drug-taking, they could trouble a lot of teams, including Argentina in a possible round-of-16 tie.
They're on a 15-game unbeaten streak and have one of the tournament's coolest jerseys. Their performance in the opening fixture against Denmark will confirm if it has the mettle to turn into the story of this summer’s World Cup.
Tom Williams: Morocco
Morocco looked very impressive in qualifying, going six games without conceding a goal in the final round of qualifying. In Herve Renard, who has led both Zambia and Ivory Coast to glory at the Africa Cup of Nations, they have a coach who knows how to succeed at major tournaments.
Their defence, marshalled by the commanding Medhi Benatia, is rock-solid, and in attack, they have sparkling talents like Younes Belhanda and Hakim Ziyech. I think they could pip Portugal to second place in Group B and might even run Uruguay close (provided Uruguay win Group A) in the last 16.
Marcus Alves: Peru
Answer these three questions about the Peruvian side:
- Is Paolo Guerrero back? Once and for all.
- Is mental strength still a concern for them? Definitely not.
- Could you see them making the last eight? They certainly can get out of a group in which France are favourites and beat whoever comes next. So be aware, Spain—they'll be waiting for you in the quarter-finals!
Peru is experiencing a confidence boom that indicates how well coach Ricardo Gareca has done to guide them through to their first World Cup since 1982. Pisco sours for everyone in Russia!
Sam Tighe: Giorgian De Arrascaeta (Uruguay)
The Uruguay you see at this World Cup will be rather different to the one you're accustomed to. Whereas before they were all brute strength, defensive nous and punts forward to their talented strikers, now they're a more varied, technical side.
Leading that mini-stylistic revolution in Oscar Tabarez's midfield is De Arrascaeta, a gifted playmaker who will feature either as the No. 10 in an attack-minded diamond or from the flank in a 4-4-2. He's La Celeste's trump card and the man who can make the difference in tight spaces, and he will be given a chance to impress right from the off against Egypt.
Dean Jones: Alireza Jahanbakhsh (Iran)
Iran have a daunting group but are hoping to show they are a team capable of more than just defensive discipline. Many will look towards Sardar Azmoun as the man to give them hope of a surprise, but many Iranians feel Jahanbaksh is more likely to be their hero at this tournament.
The attacker heads into the tournament on the back of a hugely impressive campaign with Dutch side AZ Alkmaar and will aim to make a difference in their opener against Morocco.
Richard Fitzpatrick: Goncalo Guedes (Portugal)
Portuguese winger Goncalo Guedes is definitely a young player to keep your eyes on. The 21-year-old tore up La Liga this past season while on loan from Paris Saint-Germain, helping lift Valencia back into the Champions League places after a couple of seasons languishing mid-table.
He's a tyro and reminiscent of his compatriot Luis Figo in the way he hungers for the ball and excels at "running vertically," as they say in Spain, toward goal. And he can score eye-catching goals.
Tom Williams: Sergej Milinkovic-Savic (Serbia)
He's been tipped to shine in Russia by lots of observers—and with good reason. Milinkovic-Savic possesses a rare combination of height, strength and technical finesse and has had a superb season at Lazio, scoring 15 goals in all competitions.
He fell out with Serbia's previous coach, Slavoljub Muslin, who wanted to play him as a holding midfielder, but current coach Mladen Krstajic is expected to field him in his preferred No. 10 role. I'm tipping Serbia to get out of their group, and I think Milinkovic-Savic will be one of their key players.
Marcus Alves: Timo Werner (Germany)
Russia will be the first World Cup not to include Miroslav Klose since 1998. Sounds odd for a second or two, but then you realize Germany has already replaced him with a man who is ready to make his mark.
Timo Werner has scored eight goals in 14 games and is ridiculously talented. The RB Leipzig striker is a proven finisher and absolutely deadly in one-on-one situations. He's so brilliant that his own teammates say he'll dominate the attack for the next 10 years.
Not bad, right? Sweden, Mexico and South Korea have serious reasons for concern as Werner wants to make a global name for himself this summer.