The greatest tournament in the world begins on Thursday in Moscow with host Russia squaring off with Saudi Arabia. There’s no way to deny that the United States failing to qualify will stunt enthusiasm for this event for most in the country, but the opportunity to profit guarantees you’ll still be paying attention.
Many games are going to be breakfast treats, so the opportunity to cash first thing in the morning should entice the early birds. Here’s a group-by-group look, with odds to win the group courtesy of the Westgate Superbook.
Group A: Egypt (11/2), Russia (11/5), Saudi Arabia (40/1), Uruguay (5/8)
Analysis, Projected winner- Despite a huge edge in hosting the tournament and a likely three points to get started with since it should handle business in the opener, Russia isn’t favored to win this group. It’s the weakest of all eight, so Vladimir Putin is right to expect to see the team make the playoffs, but a veteran Uruguay side is rightfully chalk. The favored teams don’t play until the final group date on June 25, so it’s conceivable they’ll be playing for the right to finish first after each coming in with six points. If there’s a surprise, it could be Egypt, but that depends on whether star striker Mo Salah’s injured shoulder can heal up after it cost him most of the Champions League final. Uruguay’s combination of Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani up front is going to be a problem. Uruguay will claim Group A.
Group B: Iran (40/1), Morocco (16/1), Portugal (2/1), Spain (4/9)
Analysis, Projected winner- Two countries that know one another very well will advance out of this group since neither the Asian nor African reps will be able to hang with the quality of two of the event’s top eight favorites. Cristiano Ronaldo has help up front with winger Goncalo Guedes and Andre Silva coming on strong and midfielder Bernardo Silva emerging. Although Spain is favored and features household names, it wouldn’t be too surprising to see the Portuguese rise up when the teams open group play in Sochi. The fact they play one another first could mean we see the teams play cautiously and settle for a draw, so hopefully there’s an early goal to loosen things up. The African “Lions of the Atlas” haven’t lost in years and will be favored over “Team Melli,” so they’re under pressure to win immediately before taking their shots at the two Iberian powers. Morocco defender Mehdi Benatia is world-class. Backing Portugal to double up is the way to go here.
Group C: Australia (20/1), Denmark (9/2), France (2/7), Peru (9/1)
Analysis, Projected winner- The French are heavily favored but come off a home draw against a young U.S. side in their final warmup, which is either a sign of things to come or a wake-up call. Although France benefits from facing the Aussies first, a slow start could create a situation where panic sets in and the team flames out in group play as it did in ’02 and ’10. Vets like Franck Ribery and Karim Benzema aren’t taking part, leaving Paul Pogba, Antoine Greizmann and Olivier Giroud to lead. We’ll see if teenager Kylian Mbappe can rise up since he’s considered a top candidate to one day be the best player in the world, but he suffered an injury in practice on Tuesday. It wouldn’t be surprising to see an impressive Danish team or upstart Peru persevere and win this group. Denmark is faster than its ever been and is my choice to prevail in C, while the Peruvians got a huge boost when Paolo Guerrero was reinstated following a doping ban. He’s special and will help the South Americans at least put a scare into France.
Group D: Argentina (5/9), Croatia (11/5), Iceland (12/1), Nigeria (12/1)
Analysis, Projected winner- Although there are other candidates, this is the one I’m expecting to emerge as the “Group of Death,” the pairing which will wind up the most difficult to navigate. Lionel Messi (15/2) is the favorite to win the Golden Boot, handed to the event’s most impressive performer, so I recommend staying away from him in that prop because there’s a possibility the favorite doesn’t get out to the quarterfinals. Iceland has a special group making its World Cup debut but hasn’t beaten anyone of significance since last October, so they may bring up the rear here. Nigeria looks like the class of the African teams but may be vulnerable in the back, so my choice here would be Croatia, which features a star-studded midfield and a reliable goal scorer up front in Mario Mandzukic.
Group E: Brazil (2/9), Costa Rica (16/1), Serbia (8/1), Switzerland (15/2)
Analysis, Projected winner- Brazil is incredibly deep. Marcelo is the world’s best left back, Neymar is still a monster and 21-year-old striker Gabriel Jesus has a real shot at becoming a household name. At 16/1 to win the Golden Boot, I’d ride the Manchester City man who has a great shot at being the World Cup’s top goal scorer. Neymar is at 10/1, second behind Messi. The other three teams will all have a chance to finish second in the group, which will likely hinge on who finds a dependable goal scorer to break out since they’re all technically sound and defensive-minded. If Haris Seferovic and Xherdan Shaqiri can make the most of opportunities Granit Xhaka is sure to create, the Swiss could join Brazil in the quarters. A lot will hinge on how it handles coming off the opening game against South America’s juggernaut, which most pencil in as a likely loss. Costa Rica won the “Group of Death” at the last World Cup and shouldn’t be dismissed. They’ve got one of the world’s top goalkeepers minding net in Real Madrid’s Keylor Navas. Expect Brazil to roll and second place to come down to goal differential.
Group F: Germany (1/4), Mexico (6/1), South Korea (20/1), Sweden (15/2)
Analysis, Projected winner- The World Cup favorite, defending champion Germany will have no problem here, so if you can afford it, this is a bigger lock than Brazil winning its group despite similar odds. The Germans have made it to the semifinals in four straight tournaments and won’t get much resistance here, which will put it in a favorable spot once the field is trimmed to 16. Keep in mind that coach Joachim Low’s team has won only one of their last six matches, losing twice and finishing tied the other three times, but they should be able to hit their stride against the Mexicans in the opener on June 17. South Korea will go as far as Son Heung-min will take it, but both it and Sweden could be vulnerable if Mexico proves resilient after its opener. Goalie Memo Ochoa arrives in excellent form, while vets Andres Guardado, Chicharito and Giovani dos Santos know it’s now or never for them.
Group G: Belgium (20/27), England (23/20), Panama (50/1), Tunisia (20/1)
Analysis, Projected winner- Panama is making its World Cup debut after sneaking in when the Americans collapsed in Trinidad & Tobago and is the biggest longshot. Tunisia has hung tough with Portugal, Spain and Turkey in friendlies over the last few weeks but isn’t likely to pull an upset of the top teams in this group, which means the June 28 clash between Belgium and England should decide things. That game has a chance to be one of the tournament’s top matchups until we get to the knockout stage, especially since both teams will want to win the group and clinch the more favorable matchup. Belgium is loaded and hasn’t lost since a friendly back in September of 2016, while the Brits last lost in June of 2017. I’d stay away from this future and just bet the game winner once a clearer picture of who is available emerges since suspensions or injuries could factor in heavily.
Group H: Colombia (6/5), Japan (8/1), Poland (9/5), Senegal (9/2)
Analysis, Projected winner- No one is quite sure what to make of this group, so oddsmakers haven’t really taken a stand. Japan has a chance to make a special run, but have come up with one draw and four losses in its last five matches. “Samurai Blue” is loaded with guys who play in the world’s top leagues, so they shouldn’t be intimidated as they take the pitch for an opening date with Colombia. James Rodriguez won the Golden Boot in the ’14 World Cup and has plenty of help with goal scorer Radamel Falcao healthy and world-class talent across the board. Poland is led by elite scorer Robert Lewadowski, who will command so much attention that fellow striker Arkadiusz Milik could greatly benefit. It would be surprising not to see a few competitive, high-scoring matchps out of this group, which could feature an African winner if Senegal plays to its potential. Liverpool’s Sadio Mane has an opportunity to carve out a place among the world’s best, while the entire midfield is comprised of guys who toil in England’s Premier League. If forced to pick a winner, my expectation is that Colombia will top the group, followed by the Senegalese.
Follow Tony Mejia on Twitter at @TonyMejiaNBA