Road To Russia: The Group Stage Break Down Part 1
The greatest sporting event in the world is set to take place in less than a month and whether you are a die-hard footy fan or completely unfamiliar with the beautiful game, want to get you all caught up. When the World Cup finally commences the entire globe stands still and takes notice as the best soccer players in the world seek to bring glory to their homelands. The tournament will kick off on June 14 in Russia and the first stage will see the 32 qualifying teams broken up into 8 groups of 4.
During this stage, each group competes in a round-robin tournament in which each team is scheduled for three matches against other teams in the same group. A team is awarded 3 points for a win, 1 point for a draw and 0 points for a loss. The two teams with the highest cumulative points move on to the knock out round of the World Cup.
With the US failing to qualify it may be rather difficult for the casual fan to parse through the various competitors for this year’s tournament. So we got you covered. Here’s Sensible Reason’s guide to the World Cup group stage.
Russia– The host nation is by no means a soccer superpower but they will feel encouraged by the rivals they have drawn in the group stage. With an ageing defense and a paucity of attacking talent, Russia will definitely need to rely on the home crowd to propel them. Midfielder Aleksandr Golovin star striker Fedor Smolov are the two most dangerous players for the Sbornaya. We will have to wait and see whether the hosts will have what it takes to turn heads at the tournament.
Egypt– The Pharaohs have had a fairytale qualification run and they will look to keep that going throughout the group stage. Qualifying for their first World Cup since 1991, Egypt is one of the Cinderella stories of the tournament and that is all thanks to the man they call “Egyptian Messi.” Mohammed Salah has taken the world by storm with his dazzling performances for Liverpool. After breaking the Premier Leauge’s single-season goal scoring record and getting his team to a Champions League FInal, momentum and the soccer gods will be firmly behind Egypt’s number 10.
Saudi Arabia- Returning to the World Cup for the first time since 2006, Saudi Arabia will be hoping to make some magic in Russia. With a group of players who know each other well from their domestic league meetings, the Saudi Arabian squad will be looking to make a shock run to the top of the group.
Uruguay– One of the heavy hitters from South America, Uruguay is one team that has an impressive combination of defensive grit and attacking edge. With the immensely consistent Diego Godin and his Atletico Madrid teammate Jose Maria Gimenez at the center of the defense Uruguay will be undeniably sturdy at the back. Balance that with world-class strikers Luiz Suarez and Edison Cavani at the other end and Uruguay could be a low-key contender this year.
Portugal– Riding the high of their recent Euros 2016 Championship, Portugal will be hungry to build on that success. Led by the nearly inhuman Cristiano Ronaldo, the Selecao are a team built on steely determination and veteran leadership. That same veteran leadership may be the team’s Achilles heel as the ageing defense could be a soft spot. However, Portugal is still incredibly difficult to break down, and while they won’t be any neutral’s first choice team to root for but they have the character and talent to make a deep run in Russia.
Spain– The days when Spain reigned supreme at the top of the international totem pole are long gone. In 2012 Spain produced perhaps the greatest World Cup run in the tournament’s history. With all-time greats like Xavi, Iniesta, David Villa, Iker Casillas and Xabi Alonso all past their prime, it is up to a new generation of Spanish footballers to step up. Spain championed the possession-based “tiki-taka” style of soccer from 2008-2012 but now La Roja will need to reinvent themselves. Despite a new style and focus Spain’s midfield is still their greatest strength with the triumvirate of Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta and David Silva supplying their greatest concentration of quality.
Morocco- Tough to break down and defensively stout the Atlas Lions will be a frustrating team for any opponent. Paired in a group with the likes of Spain and Portugal, however, its hard to see them going very far without a more adventurous gameplan.
Iran- Qualifying for their second straight World Cup Iran, like Morocco, are a tough defensive team but lacking the attacking depth to really make much noise in the tournament.
France– Perhaps the sexiest pick to lift the World Cup is the incredibly loaded France squad. Riddled with talent from top to bottom, Les Bleus are so deep it’s scary. I could rattle off all the superstar names for you but it’s really pointless. The only real weakness France has is cohesion. With the team’s immense number of options, finding the right formula may be the biggest roadblock for this exciting squad of ready-made stars.
Australia- The Socceroos are an exciting team to watch due to their high attacking tempo and physicality. The team from down under are an all-action side that will make them endearing to many neutral fans. With a bit of level-headedness and balance, Australia could make it into the knock out stage of the World Cup and then who knows what could happen.
Peru- National hero and team captain Paolo Guerrero was banned from the tournament due to a positive doping test. Without Guerrero’s services Peru will be severely hamstrung. However, the South American nation is fully behind their team and thats really what the event is all about.
Denmark- The Danish team is strong and full of athleticism. With star player Christian Eriksen leading the way Denmark can go toe to toe with just about anyone. Gifted technically but wit ha bit of an edge as well Denmark could make some serious noise in Russia.
Argentina– Similar to France Argentina is another team with a wealth of options specifically in attack. On top of all that they have the luxury of fielding perhaps the greatest player to ever step on a pitch in Lionel Messi. The likes of Angel Di Maria, Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain, are just a few of the attacking talents that La Albiceleste boast. However, this particular generation of players has received immense criticism from their native fans for their lack of success at the highest level. Losing in 2014 final to Germany definitely left a bad taste in the mouths of these players an led by Messi they will hope to gain redemption in Russia.
Iceland– Iceland took the soccer world by storm in the 2016 Euros with a fairytale run of their own. Knocking off perceived superpower England in the process. If you are looking for a plucky underdog to get behind then Iceland might be your pick. The team’s boundless fighting spirit and self-belief make them a darling of the tournament. Everton’s Gylfi Sigurdsson will look to lead the intrepid side to an unlikely run to glory.
Croatia- A very sneaky pick for a tournament Cinderella is Croatia. Perhaps not the prototypical underdog, Croatia isn’t truly considered one of the soccer world’s superpowers, but the country does possess some of the best players in the world. Matteo Kovacic, Ivan Perisic, Marcelo Brozovic, Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic are some of the best midfielders in the entire world. Croatia definitely has a punchers chance based on their ability alone.
Nigeria– Our pick for the team that Americans should support this summer, the Nigerian Super Eagles are yet another underdog squad full of character. A refreshing mix of youth and experience, this African side may have the mix of cohesion and talent to make some serious waves this summer. Led by the timeless John Obi Mikel, Nigeria will hope to battle their way through a difficult group in style.