Group Recap – Round 1

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We've completed the first cycle of games in the group stage at Copa Mundial and the composition of the knockout phase has already begun to take shape. A brief group-by-group rundown is presented thru Tuesday action...


We've been a little slow to pick up on the tourney hosts, as Russia has run roughshod in its first two matches and has already qualified for the KO phase. We suspect the fun stops whenever a competent foe (of which Saudi Arabia and Egypt were not) gets placed in the way, and for the moment we are chalking this quick Russian break up to incompetent opposition. But the goals have been flowing and GK Igor Akinfeev was the one acknowledged pillar of strength entering the tourney. Spain or Portugal likely await at the top of the next round, so we advise Muscovites and others in the host country to enjoy this run while they can. Too bad Mo Salah missed the opening match for the Egyptians, denied cruelly in the final minutes by a Uruguay set piece. By the time Salah was introduced for the second match vs. Russia, Hector Cuper's men had already dug themselves a ditch, and Salah could do no more than a late spot-kick to prevent a whitewash. Entering Wednesday, only a miraculous chain of events could put Egypt into the KO phase. The Uruguayans can get there with a mere point on Wednesday vs. the Saudis, but it was a desperate opener vs. Salah-less Egypt. Even with the best scorer in the group in Barcelona's Luis Suarez, Uruguay’s games often become tedious. For the South Americans to have a chance to do damage beyond the group stage will probably require someone like PSG’s Edinson Cavani providing at least some diversion to Suarez. Though Uruguay at least will be on display in the KO phase; look for the match vs. Russia on June 25 to decide this group. As for the outmanned Saudis, their only aim after the 5-0 shellacking administered by Russia in the opener is to avoid being outscored 12-0 in the group stage as was the case in 2002, when Germany put 8 in the net (did Miroslav Klose just score again?) in the opener. Recalling that Saudi nightmare from 16 years ago was not supposed to be part of the 2018 script, but here we are.


While the sporting press continues to fete Portugal and Cristiano Ronaldo for his marvelous hat-trick in the opening 3-3 draw vs. Spain, we think developments in that match suggest Espana is a greater threat to make a deep run. Why? La Furia Roja might have uncovered a much-needed target man if the brace recorded by Atletico Madrid’s Diego Costa vs. the Portuguese is any indicator of things to come. And sources suggest the dismissal of manager Julen Lopetegui on the eve of proceedings is not proving much if any distraction for a squad whose main components have been playing together for more than a decade. It helps that replacement Fernando Hierro commands great respect. The question for La Seleccion is in goal, where Man U’s David De Gea looked very uncomfy in the opener and whose howlers reminded a bit of Liverpool’s Loris Karius in the Champions League final vs. Real Madrid on May 26. Recent form in friendlies has not been too special, either. If the well-regarded De Gea can shake out of it, Spain looks ready for a deep run. Meanwhile, if Portugal can’t find more help for Cristiano, it might not have an easy time vs. the desperate Moroccans at midweek or the Iranians on June 25 at Saransk. Iran’s brief lead in group play after the first matchday is likely to be just that...brief, after the own goal that wrecked Morocco late in the opener. Expect Spain to pull out the hammer in Wednesday’s match at Kazan and take control of this group. Though De Gea must perform better for Spain to make an eventual deep foray in July.


Looking for a runner at a decent price for a variety of wagers? Check out Denmark, which survived a test on the opening matchday against a capable Peru side and might possess the best player in the entire tourney (Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi included) in Spurs midfielder Christian Eriksen, who featured in the opening win with a deft assist to Leipzig’s Yussuf Poulsen. Even not at quite his bast, Eriksen still influenced the opener, and at some point in this tourney that has already been marked by set pieces, figures to set proceedings alight with one of his vaunted free kicks. Moreover, with plenty of big targets up front, the Danes can cause some fundamental problems for various foes, and there’s a Schmeichel in goal...Leicester’s Kasper, a chip-off-the-old-block who did a pretty good impression of his dad Peter at Euro ‘92 with a series of splendid saves in the opener. We’re talking more about Denmark than France because we think the Danes will end up winning this group. France, however, figures to advance, though making hard work of gritty but limited Australia in the opener suggests Didier Deschamps has a bit more fine-tuning to do with his squad. Les Bleus nonetheless seem on a bit of a precarious perch, as this group did not have an easy time of it in the qualifiers and might still be haunted by the shock loss in the Euro 2016 finale on home soil vs. Cristiano Ronaldo-less Portugal. Peru, with lots of athleticism but little polish, could yet cause trouble in this group, and might prove a stiff test for the French on June 21. Meanwhile, the Aussies will battle and are happy to be in Russia but will be hard-pressed to get a result in a very tough quartet.


Are we really surprised that Argentina struggled to a 1-1 draw vs. Iceland in the opener? We shouldn’t be, even when considering Lionel Messi’s presence. Lio doesn’t have the midfield support for country as he does with club at Barcelona, and in fact the entire supporting cast has come under some legit criticism in Buenos Aires. Keep in mind that the Argentines had considerable trouble qualifying as manager Jorge Sampaoli continues to juggle his lineup, as he did throughout the qualifiers. The thought here is that Sevilla’s more attack-minded Ever Banaga gets the start in midfield to add more bite in attack for the June 21 match vs. Croatia, suddenly a very important clash in this group. That’s because the Croats stunned some of us with their routine 2-0 dispatch of usually-pesky Nigeria in the opener. The vaunted Nigerian pace was never really on display as the Croats, even minus capable holding midfielders, dictated tempo. Croatia also has plenty of established match-winners in Real Madrid’s Luca Modric and Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic behind Juve striker Mario Mandzukic; this trio has combined for almost 300 caps and 56 goals in their international careers, and even with each on the wrong side of 30, still look very capable. We suspect there’s a chance the Argentines don’t even get out of the group, with Iceland as resolute as it was in Euro 2016 as well as the qualifiers when topping the Croats; their matchup on June 26 at Rostov-on-Don will be a familiar affair. We also don’t think the Nigerians are going to go quietly, as they will test Iceland’s defense by sending Chelsea’s Victor Moses to attack from the flanks. If the “Ice” gets stretched enough, it might again have to rely upon Messi spot-shot stopper Hannes Halldorsson, by us the top goalie (along with Kasper Schmeichel) in the first cycle of matches.


What is wrong with Brazil? Not as much, we suspect, as the world’s media seems to believe after the somewhat unexpected 1-1 draw vs. a capable Switzerland on Sunday. Keep in mind that the Swiss aren’t chopped liver, or swiss cheese, for that matter, and optimistic followers in Geneva and Lugano believe their team, which has been ranked recently in the FIFA top ten, can at least make it the quarters. Thanks to a handful of mercenaries, it’s the most-athletic Swiss team in memory, but there is some real quality on display, too, especially Stoke’s bulldog-tough midfielder Xherdan Shaqiri. Borussia Moenchengladbach keeper Yann Sommer is also a comforting presence between the sticks. Still, many believe a healthy Brazil does better beyond the opener, but the Samba Boys might not be at 100%, especially PSG‘s Neymar, who battled late-season leg injuries before getting hacked out of the Swiss match. Brazil needs big efforts from Neymar (which we are not sure are forthcoming) if it is to make a deep run. But we’re not convinced Neymar is up to it, or Brazil is title-worthy. Also, no repeat of the 2014 run to the quarter-finals appears due Costa Rica, which ran out of goals as the tourney progressed four years ago and looks parched in attack once more, as the opening 1-0 loss to Serbia suggests. Functional and rugged, the Serbs are not going to be an easy out, but the attack lacks much flair. Can the Costa Ricans and Serbs frustrate Brazil in upcoming matches as did the Swiss?


Okay, the crisis hotline now jumps to Germany, which might be suffering from “Spain 2014 syndrome” after its limp effort in the shock opening loss to Mexico. Drill a bit deeper, however, and we find some cracks in the foundation for Die Mannschaft. There might be a reason Bayern Munich is apparently ready to let loose of Jerome Boateng (reportedly bound for Man United or Juventus) in central defense; Boateng has lost a step, as apparently has defensive partner Mats Hummels, who like Boateng has also battled injuries over the past year. There is a thought that Jogi Low is not introducing enough of a talented youth base into the senior squad. The squad looked a step slow vs. Mexico and susceptible to counter-attack. Meanwhile, questions also abound regarding GK Manuel Neuer, who missed almost the entire season with Bayern Munich, was beaten by Austria 2-1 in his comeback game a few weeks ago, and, while not looking terrible, did not seem his old self in the opener, either. As of yet, Low has not indicated he might look at Barca’s Marc-Andre Ter Steegen in goal instead. It is time, perhaps, to disregard the romp through a suspect Euro qualifying group and look more carefully at recent results that include that loss to Mexico, and also vs. Austria and Brazil in the run-up, and a series of draws since the qualifiers concluded, the lone win a labored one vs. Saudi Arabia. Something is not right in this German camp. Eyes are now on Mexico after that opening win that has temporarily made manager Juan Carlos Osorio a national hero after he had been mostly reviled at home into the Mundial. A win on June 23 vs. South Korea puts Mexico in the KO phase for the seventh straight season. Is a letdown possible? Fortunately the South Koreans have little bite, as their dour display in the 1-0 loss to Sweden suggests. It’s the Swedes who are sitting on quite the parlay, and a chance to knock the defending German champs out of this event entirely with a win at Sochi on Friday after eliminating Italy in the KO playoff last November. Rugged and functional, Sweden at least figures to make Germany work hard, as the Scandinavians do not at all seem to miss the diva-like presence of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, now off to MLS after featuring for the Swedes in all major tourneys since Euro 2004. Watch this action on Friday; it’s almost win or else for Germany against a notoriously difficult foe.


Let’s pump the brakes a bit on England, as much of the media is already jumping on the bandwagon after the late 2-1 win over Tunisia, courtesy a pair of Harry Kane goals. Yes, Kane looks the best target man for the Brits since Wayne Rooney’s heyday, but England was profligate vs. a very suspect foe, and only Kane appears capable of unlocking the gate. Tunisia, which had trouble string passes together and was guilty of some egregious giveaways, including the needless corner that preceded Kane‘s late match-winner, will be the easiest foe England faces in group play. Easier than Panama, which impressed with work rate and physicality and held Belgium scoreless into the second half on Monday in Sochi. Whatever, gifted an easy group as it was during the qualifiers, Gareth Southgate’s bunch, with its needed injection of youth, still appears bound for the KO phase. Though not likely ahead of Belgium, which revved up its engines to pull clear of Panama in the opener, 3-0. This after scoring a whopping 43 goals in the qualifiers. Romelu Lukaku opened his World Cup account with a second-half brace, and a lineup that almost completely features in the EPL intrigues greatly. Expect the Red Devils to finish top of the group and remain as everyone’s outside bet to lift the cup, but let’s see how Belgium fares vs. some of the bigger hitters in the KO phase. This bunch has never stepped up against the elite squads, though the thought in Brussels is that manager Roberto Hernandez, with plenty experience of his own in the EPL, has the team on the sort of even keel that could bode for a deep run...maybe to the finals on July 15 in Moscow. We’re not so sure, but stay tuned.


We still think it's all to play for in H, as the winners on Tuesday (Japan and Senegal) were not overly convincing. For the Japanese, it was simply proving less erratic than volatile Colombia, which gifted the match-winner for the spot due to a handball in the box. The Japan playbook is limited, there is structure and method but not much creativity, and much work still to be done before securing passage to the KO phase. As for the Senegalese, its overtly cynical play was rewarded against an unfortunate Poland, which gifted the Africans both of their goals, their second somewhat controversially when AC Milan's M'baye Niang was waved back on the pitch just as a breakaway was developing and Polish keeper Wojciech Szczesny was caught far out of the box. For most of the match, however, Senegal was allowed to play ultra-aggressively, with plenty of shoving and holding allowed by the referee, which seemed to unnerve to Poles. Let's see what happens moving forward, where it is wise to acknowledge that Poland has not featured a match with fewer than three total goals in the qualifiers and opening round ("totals" players take note!) . Bayern Munich's Robert Lewandowski, who pumped in 16 goals during the qualifiers, remains the component most likely to turn this group on its ear. We suspect Poland can still get to the KO phase; not as sure about Colombia, whose inconsistencies reared again in the opener vs. Japan. James Rodriguez, often overlooked at Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, might be a big anxious to shine in his featured role for country, but Los Cafeteros are often haphazard in build-up, and can often become disjointed if Rodriguez is marked out of a play. It says here that both the Poles and Colombians can still advance, though likely not both, as their soon-approaching June 24 clash in Kazan has the look of a "loser leaves town" matchup.