Contenders and Pretenders: World Cup Edition

Tomorrow, the biggest spectacle in world football will commence in Russia. 32 teams will seek to etch their name on the most important trophy in the world: the World Cup. While each nation will go in with dreams of advancing past the group stage and eventually making it to the final, how many teams can be considered true contenders for this tournament? Below, we analyze each teams’ credibility as championship contenders, and we say what the best case scenario would be for each team.


Group A:



Despite once being the birthplace for many talented players, Russia has stagnated in recent years, largely due to the lack of Russian exports to other top European leagues. This team has been placed in the easiest group in World Cup history, and yet they still will have to benefit from an extreme change of form or fortune to advance. Playing an unorthodox 5-3-2, Russia have taken two draws and three heavy losses in their pre-tournament friendlies, although perhaps they can take some solace from having played France, Brazil, and Spain in that stretch.


Best case scenario: Russia can take points from Saudi Arabia and Egypt and sneak into the knockout phases as the second seed.


Verdict: Pretender




La Celeste finished a comfortable second in the CONMEBOL qualifying rounds, proving their grit in what is ostensibly the toughest region in the globe. They boast a truly world-class attack of Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, and that strike force is backed up by the young midfield duo of Giorgio de Arrascaeta and Lucas Torreira and the durable center-back pairing of Diego Godín and Jose Maria Gimenez. Uruguay always seem to perform in the biggest moments, bowing out of the 2014 World Cup at the hands of a James Rodriguez brace that included the eventual Puskas and Goal of the Tournament winner. Barring a catastrophe (or another Luis Suarez bite), Uruguay should comfortably cruise into the knockout rounds.


Best case scenario:

Uruguay should view anything less than progression to the quarterfinals as a disappointment, but matching their 2010 performance and making a run to the semis is certainly not out of the question.


Verdict: Contenders




Viewed as a one-man team, Egypt will fancy their chances in this weak group. With plenty of players playing at high levels of club football –Trezeguet, Ahmed Hegazi, and Ramadan Sobhi – and a bonafide Ballon d’Or contender in Mohamed Salah, the Egyptian squad has quickly evolved into a dark horse favorite for the casual fan. This team also boasts the oldest ever player in any World Cup, Essam El Hadary, a 45-year old keeper. If Mo Salah can return from injury, this team should easily be able to dispatch Saudi Arabia; if they can take one point from their other two games, they should be able to make the round of 16.


Best case scenario: The Egyptian King leads his team to two victories in the group stage and Egypt can bow out with their heads held high in the round of 16.


Verdict: Pretenders, but with a good storyline.


Saudi Arabia:

One of the few teams at this world cup without any household names, Saudi Arabia can consider themselves fortunate to be here. In their last 10 friendlies, Saudi Arabia lost six, drew once, and won thrice – against the powerhouses of Greece, Moldova, and Algeria. It would take a miracle for this side to escape from this group.


Best case scenario: Grabbing a few goals against these sides and trying to play lockdown defense, Saudi Arabia could try to eke out some draws, and eventually finish third.


Verdict: Pretenders


Group B:



Spain is a team that needs minimal introduction. This is a Spain squad still reeling from their heinous performances at the 2014 World Cup and Euro 2016, and while the appointment of Julian Lopetegui has done wonders in the build-up to the tournament, his swift sacking following his poorly timed announcement as Real Madrid manager leaves a dark cloud over the squad . New manager Fernando Hierro now has to hit the ground sprinting. The fate of this Spain squad will be determined on their ability to score: at times, the 5-man midfield of Spain has seemed more able to possess than to find that finishing touch. However, la Furia Roja are an incredibly deep team, comprised of world-class players from top to bottom (in fact, Spain have the second-highest average squad salary of any team), and this alone should propel them to at least the quarterfinals.


Best case scenario: After some trying matches in the group stage, Spain hit their stride and wind up winning the final after some tougher matches in the quarterfinals and the semis.


Verdict: Contenders



In this group, every game will be important. Portugal are no strangers to big tournaments, having won Euro 2016. However, some questions remain about their strength in defense and their ability to perform when needed; their star, Cristiano Ronaldo, is coming off of a 50-game season, and there are certainly worries about his fitness (despite what he might proclaim). However, this team can score and move the ball freely with quite a bit of flair. Assuming they can dispatch Morocco and Iran, which is no sure thing, Portugal should look to advance as either the winner or runner up from this group.


Best case scenario: Portugal sweep the group stage and make a strong run to the semifinals, and after that point it’s all about luck.


Verdict: Contenders, but weak ones.



Supremely talented attacking midfielders? Check. Youth blended with experience? Check. Manager with a defensive pedigree? Check. Morocco have allowed just 5 goals over the past 12 months, and they have not lost since June of 2017. If, and it’s certainly a big if, the Atlas Lions can take a win against Iran and take points from either Spain or Portugal, this is a team with serious dark horse potential. AFCON soccer is very rough and gritty, which is a stark contrast to the jogo bonito of their principal opponents, and the back four of Nabil Dirar, Medhi Benatia, Manuel da Costa, and Achraf Hakimi is certainly capable of shutting out a team with proven goal scoring deficiencies (like Spain). It will certainly take some luck, but this Morocco team could very well provide an upset and sneak into the knockout rounds.


Best-case scenario: Morocco proceeds to replicate the Ghana team of 2010 and becomes the latest African team to make the quarterfinals.


Verdict: Pretenders, but very appealing ones at that.



This stingy Iran team has one of the more underappreciated coaches of this tournament in Carlos Queiroz. This is a team that was only defeated by a 90th minute Lionel Messi golazo in the last World Cup, but this group is considerably more difficult than their last competition. If Alireza Jahanbakhsh can set defenses alight as he has done in the Eredivisie all season, perhaps they can make a dent, but don’t count on it.


Best-case scenario: Come away with a win and two close losses.


Verdict: Pretenders


Group C


France might be the most frightening team to face in this World Cup. Assuming they avoid the various scandals that alway appear in the French camp, Les Bleus should consider anything less than a 3rd or 4th place finish a dissapointment. Led by the lethal front line of Ousmane Dembele, Antoine Griezmann, and Kylian Mbappe (not to mention  super-sub Olivier Giroud), this team is truly world-class. They have looked rusty in some of their friendlies, drawing with a youthful USA squad 1-1 most recently, but if France can use their relatively easy group as a tune-up for the latter stages, no team will be safe.


Best-case scenario: Pogba rediscovers his form, the front three cannot stop scoring, and their defense holds tight and France bring home their first world cup in 20 years.


Verdict: Contenders, and also winners of the best non-Adidas kit of the tournament.



Despite the fact that Nicklas Bendtner will not be at this tournament, Denmark should feel confident of snagging second place in this group. With a mix world class  and solid players, Denmark will have to figure out a tactical balance between throwing bodies forward and packing bodies in. However, if Yussuf Poulsen keeps scoring absolute crackers and Eriksen plays his best, this team should have no problem making it to the knockout stages.


Best-case scenario: This team is most similar to the Belgian team from 2014, so if the Danes can make it out of their group and then squeeze their way to the quarterfinals they should be pleased.


Verdict: Pretenders with a high ceiling.



This team is a constant reminder to never drink tea unless you know exactly what’s in it, as their captain Pablo Guerrero was initially given a 6-month ban from all FIFA competitions for cocaine use. However, after constant petitioning from the team and many other prominent organizations, this ban was lifted. If this team can beat Denmark and avoid defeat in their other games, they could pull a Costa Rica and bring some South American determination into the knockout phases.


Best-case scenario: Take a victory against Australia and upset either Denmark or France, and then hold on for penalties in the round of 16.


Verdict: Pretenders



Any team (except for Mexico) that calls up a 38-year old into a World Cup squad cannot be expected to do big things, especially when that 38-year old plays for Millwall, of all clubs. If Australia can take even one point from their three matches I will be impressed. It took a late winner – against SYRIA – for them to make it to the World Cup, and they should be heading home in short order.


Best-case scenario: Someone scores another world-class goal, and the Aussies don’t get embarrassed completely.


Verdict: Pretenders


Group D


They might not play against Israel, but they most certainly will come to play come tournament time. While this is a team with plenty of attacking talent, their eventual success will come down to the work of their defense and midfield; after all, Messi can only carry a team so far. Fortunately, they will have three tough group stage games to prove themselves in, so that barring any major setbacks Messi and co. can continue their fight to finally win a major tournament.


Best-case scenario: Jorge Sampaoli figures out the best tactic for this imbalanced team and Argentina avenge their 2014 woes and take home the cup.


Verdict: Contenders, but with cracks showing.



Another dark horse, Croatia boast one of the best midfields at this competition. If they can figure out how to align their forwards – will Mario Mandzukic play as a winger? Will he start? – this team can be lethal. How they will stand up against the many different styles of play that other teams in this group play is yet to be seen, but if they can take a result in two of their games this is a side that could easily make noise in the knockout rounds.


Best case scenario: Take two wins and beat one of the favorites in the round of 16 and then pray for penalties in the quarterfinals.


Verdict: Unlikely contenders!



Unlike their performance in 2016, everyone knows what to expect from this Iceland team. Two very organized banks of four and some vintage two-striker action means Iceland might be the least tactically versatile team of this tournament. While this team does have some quality, most of their goals are scored on the break. Don’t bank on too many goals being scored from this team in Russia.


Best case scenario: Take three or four points total and head back to Iceland content.  


Verdict: Pretenders



This team has the benefit of swag. Yes, swag – they tote kits of the tournament. Comprised of young prospects like Alex Iwobi, Kelechi Iheanacho, and Wilfried Ndidi, this team can certainly prove a stern test to their opponents. Assuming they can beat Iceland, if this team can take a result against Croatia, they might be able to sneak into the round of 16.


Best-case scenario: Exactly what happens above, and then they can just do their best against what will likely be a better team.


Verdict: Very well-dressed pretenders.


Group E


Nothing less than victory will satisfy the millions of Brazilians who will tune into this tournament, nor should it: this team is absolutely electrifying. They land in Russia with the most impressive squad in this tournament, from their star-studded attack to their experienced defence. Philippe Coutinho should be able to flourish as a center midfielder with a more defensive-minded player as his partner, and Neymar should provide his standard brilliance.


Best-case scenario: Brazil avoid injuries and coast their way to the final, where they beat Germany 7-1. No, seriously.


Verdict: Contenders



The Swiss team is, as usual, comprised of players who happen to have Swiss citizenship, somehow. That said, this team has always struggled to perform at big tournaments, with last World Cup’s 5-2 rout at the hands of France an example. If Breel Embolo can recapture his pre-injury form and Granit Xhaka can remind everyone why Arsenal paid 35 million euros for his services, this team can make its way to the round of 16.


Best-case scenario: Take a surprise win and some draws, and mercifully bow out in the round of 16.


Verdict: Pretenders



Perhaps the team with the most difficult names to pronounce, this Serbia team should hope to make it out of group E alive. If Sergej Milinkovic-Savic can live up to his hype and Alexander Kolarov can organize this defence, Serbia can absolutely take two wins from this group. Don’t count out physical forward Aleksandar Mitrovic’s brutal playing style and its efficacy in the international game, as he averages a goal every 2 games for Serbia.


Best case scenario: Take two wins against Costa Rica and Switzerland and try to prove a point in the knockout rounds.


Verdict: Pretenders.


Costa Rica:

CONCACAF teams are particularly hard to predict; this team missed out on the semifinals of 2014 by virtue of a few penalties, despite having far less quality than the other three teams in their group (England, Uruguay, and Italy). However, this year’s team lacks the same mystique of old, and it will be hard for them to replicate their performances from the last tournament. Keylor Navas is superb in goal, and Joel Campbell always seems to perform for the national side. However, even if this team were to somehow progress to the knockout phases, they would likely come up against Germany.


Best case scenario: Costa Rica conjure up the same heroics as last time and then bow out to the German juggernaut.


Verdict: Pretenders


Group F


What is left to say about Germany? The defending champions are the odds-on favorites for this tournament, boasting a team so impressive they can afford to leave the reigning Premier League young player of the year , Leroy Sane, at home. This team is incredibly deep and very comfortable on the ball, although their rotated sides have struggled lately, as they fell to Austria for the first time since the Berlin Wall fell down. However, look for this side to coast through their group, and be challenged in the knockout stages. Anything less than victory will surely be disappointment for Joachim Löw.  


Best case scenario: Cruise through the group stage, vanquish European foes in the knockout rounds, and win an entertaining final to retain the title.



A true dark horse, Mexico boast a pacy attack and a young, fearless team with European pedigree. Hirving Lozano and Chicharito headline their forwards, and Diego Reyes and (somehow) Rafa Marquez anchor their defense. If Guillermo Ochoa can replicate his form from 2014, this team could be on the hunt for upsets.


Best case scenario: Sneak into the knockout rounds and try to cause some damage playing on the counter against a more-favored team (and try to avoid conceding soft penalties).


Verdict: Pretenders.



A Sweden team without Zlatan Ibrahimovic is like a Swiss bank without excessive secrecy: plain wrong. For the first time in a decade, Sweden will have to look to others to lead their line. Look for Emil Forsberg’s creativity from the wide positions to have a large influence on their attacking play, as he seeks to force a move away from up-and-coming RasenBallsport Leipzig. However, if Sweden continue to have trouble scoring, as was the case in their qualifiers, their spell in Russia will be shorter than Napoleon’s.


Best case scenario: John Guidetti remembers how to shoot, Emil Forsberg becomes the second coming of Riyad Mahrez, and Sweden make their way to the knockout rounds before getting eviscerated by a better team in the round of 16.


Verdict: Pretenders


South Korea

There’s not a whole lot to say about this team. They are one of the worst sides in this World Cup. With little-to-no continuity or flair, South Korea do not stand a chance against any side in this group barring heroics from Tottenham’s Heung-Min Son. This is a team that barely qualified over Uzbekistan, so keep that in mind.


Best case scenario: There really is no best case scenario that doesn’t involve three losses or two losses and a draw.


Verdict: Pretenders


Group G

Belgium: In what is most likely the last tournament for their so-called “golden generation,” Roberto Martinez has made the strange choice to leave one of their best midfielders behind in Radja Nainggolan. Martinez is not an astute tactician by any means, and it will be up to him to ensure that Kevin de Bruyne can operate as an attacking midfielder and not as anything else. If this side can hit their stride against largely inferior opponents, look for the Red Devils to bring some urgency into the knockout rounds. After all, this could be their last chance.


Best case scenario: Finish atop this group and look to bring out the best in their squad against possible heavyweight opponents, and finish in the top 4.


Verdict: Contenders, but for how long?



It might sound strange, but England have the best form of any squad heading into this World Cup. Playing 3 at the back has done wonders for what is usually a tactically stale side. If this team can overcome the weight of their nations’ intense hopes, look for them to avenge their poor performances over the last 8 years and make some noise. A lack of a distinct playmaker could hinder them, Dele Alli coming the closest to such a role, as reliable if underwhelming midfielders such as Jordan Henderson and Eric Dier might not have enough flare to carry this team through the knockout phase.


Best case scenario: Jamie Vardy brings his party to Russia as a super-sub, Harry Kane shows the world why he is worthy of his new 6 year contract, and the Three Lions roar all the way to the semifinals.


Verdict: Contenders, but for some reason like always they just seem like they might fail at any moment.



Look me in the eyes and tell me you remembered Tunisia were competing at the World Cup. Go on. I’ll wait. You shouldn’t as this Tunisia team could end up being more than the sum of its parts as sturdy center back Aymen Abdennour and flare midfielder Wahbi Khazri are recognizable figures among Europe’s top leagues. However, they do not have the quality that could rival the likes of Belgium and England, so a scalp draw or historic upset is what this team should be striving towards.


Best Case Scenario: Hope that England pulls a classic “England” so Tunisia come out of game one with a point or more and hope for the best from there.


Verdict: Plucky Pretenders




Unfortunately, Panama are occupying a space at this tournament that should belong to the U.S Men’s National Team, if the boys in red, white and blue had remembered how to qualify for this tournament. Alas, a different CONCACAF side who sport the tones of freedom will be competing here instead. Panama are the oldest side at this world cup and rely heavily on players from MLS. Blas Perez and Gabriel Torres are their most familiar attacking players, however based on their approach at the past two Copa America’s, they will line up as defensive as possible and seek to exploit their rivals on the counter. They open their tournament against Belgium, who just have too much firepower to handle.


Best case scenario: Not being humiliated by Belgium and maybe pulling off a scalp draw with England.


Verdict: Pretenders


Group H:




The absence of Monaco centre back Kamil Glik from potentially the first and second games of this group phase will make proceedings a bit challenging for this Polish side. They boast one of the best forwards on the planet in Robert Lewandowski and it will all be about whether or not young attacking midfielders, such as Napoli’s Zielinski and Sampdoria’s Linetty, can provide him with as many chances as he gets for Bayern Munich. If Lewandowski is firing on all cylinders, Poland are a safe bet to progress to the next round.


Best Case Scenario: Lewandowski conquers the group phase and Poland avoid a defense collapse to advance to the knockout phase.


Verdict: Contenders, but a Lewandowski injury away from being pretenders




Back for their second run in the competition, Senegal bring some electricity with them on the attacking side of the ball. Liverpool star winger Sadio Mane and Monaco’s Keita Balde provide an electric one-two punch of individual flair while Diafra Sakho, formerly of West Ham, rounds off a formidable attacking trident. Steady midfielders such as Idrissa Gana Gueye of Everton and Kouyate of West Ham will look to provide a holding platform to catapult their wingers forward, whilst towing a firm line. Finally Kalidou Koulibaly of Napoli has been one of Serie A’s most impressive centre backs all season, and Senegalese fan will hope that he can bring his dominant presence with him to Russia. Senegal have the pieces to be spectacular, the question is can they put them together for a surprisingly deep run on the grandest stage.


Best Case Scenario: Star performances from Sadio Mane and Keita Balde help Senegal through to another quarter final appearance, just like their last appearance in 2002.  


Verdict: Underdog contenders




Perhaps the team with the most continuity from the 2014 World Cup, Peckerman’s side will hope that their performance can match the heights of their last outing. The winner of the 2014 golden ball and breakout star of the tournament James Rodriguez has had an injury prone season on loan at Bayern Munich, however he has looked superb when fit. He will have the chance to link up with clinical finisher Radamel Falcao, a star who missed Colombia’s last appearance at the tournament through injury. Davison Sanchez and Yerry Mina will be new welcome additions in the heart of defense, however a lack of a strong holding midfielder could derail balance in the midfield.


Best Case Scenario: James heroism propels Colombia to another quarter final appearance, with the potential to head to the semi finals.


Verdict: Contenders




Yuya Osako of Cologne will attempt to lead the line for a Japan side lacking in individual quality. Keisuke Honda will attempt to conjure up some of his impressive form from the 2014 World Cup; however, an aging defense comprised of Southampton’s Yoshida and Galatasaray Nagatomo will be the undoing of this unspectacular team. Hopefully their raucous traveling supporters will help motivate this team to surpass expectations.


Best Case Scenario: Squeaking their way into the round of sixteen and hoping for penalties against tough opposition.


Verdict: Pretenders

Credit for the featured image to Sky Sports.


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