World Cup Top Eight Contenders For Russia 2018

The bookies top eight contenders for the 2018 World Cup in Russia
Football fans across the planet are counting the days until June 14 and the start of the 2018 World Cup in Russia. It’s the most wide open tournament in years, and leading sportsbooks have already selected their eight favorites, but which of those has a genuine a shot and which are also-rans? 

Like the Olympic Games, football’s World Cup comes around every four years, and like the Olympics, it captures the imagination of sports fans and neutrals alike. The World Cup has its very own magic, and that magic transcends all of the politics and controversy that inevitably follows the event. Stadiums will be packed with fans from all over the world enjoying themselves, and that creates the atmosphere that the billions watching on TV or via the web will themselves buy into. 

For football fans, and fans of football betting, it doesn’t get any better than the World Cup, especially if you have a team in the tournament. will of course be covering the World Cup in depth, but in the meantime, here is a look at the bookies’ eight favored teams, and how they’ll do in Russia 2018. 

Brazil   FIFA Ranking: 2

World Cups: 5
Copa Americas: 8
Positions in the last five World Cups: 2nd 1998 – 1st 2002 – 5th 2006 – 6th 2010 – 4th 2014
Key Player: Neymar
Manager: Tite

Brazil coach Adenor Leonardo Bacchi – better known as Tite – has taken less than two years to dramatically change the form and mindset of a team left traumatized after their home World Cup humiliation in 2014, losing 7-1 to eventual champions Germany in the semifinals. What seemed like an impossible task was first placed in the hands of Dunga in his second spell in the Brazil hot-seat, but by an early exit from the 2016 Copa America led to his sacking and Tite’s recruitment.
Under Tite brazil won nine of ten qualification games in the notoriously tough South American group and were the first team to book their place in Russia. Can they become the first non-European team to win the cup in Europe since they won in Sweden in 1958? With most of the current squad playing their football in Europe – Russia in particular – they would seem to have an excellent chance. 

However good as Brazil are, they aren’t yet the fine-tuned machines that Germany and Spain are, and this could be one World Cup to early. Brazil will come close, but won’t win the trophy.  

Likely Finish: Semifinals 

Germany  FIFA Ranking: 1

World Cups: 4
European Championships: 3
Positions in the last five World Cups: 7th 1998 – 2nd 2002 – 3rd 2006 – 3rd 2010 – 1st 2014
Key Player: 
Manager: Joachim Loew

In 2014, Germany’s 7-1 win over the Brazilians in the semifinals of their own World Cup became the single most famous – some might say infamous - scoreline in football history. It looked as if the Germans had reinvented football and were playing at a level previously unseen. The reality was that while the Germans were truly lethal that day, Brazil were for their part equally inept. Germany peaked that night, and they were brought back to earth in the final, barely beating Argentina 1-0 in extra time. 

When two year later Germany lost to France at Euro 2016, many experts predicted that it was the end of manager Joachim Loew’s decade as first assistant and then manager. However Loew has proved himself the best man for the job once again by galvanizing his team, which reached the 2018 World Cup with ten wins in ten games, scoring a record 43 goals. Germany remain unbeaten since that 2-0 semifinal defeat to France at Euro 2016, and the fact that they won the Confederations Cup last year with was in essence their reserve team displays their strength in depth. However, if Germany can be contained and their attacking game blunted, they are beatable. In a final between Germany and Spain with both at their best, Spain, with their control of the ball, wins. 

Likely Finish: Runners Up 

France  FIFA Ranking: 7

World Cup Wins: 1
European Championships: 2
Positions in the last five World Cups: 1st 1998 – 28th 2002 – 2nd 2006 – 29th 2010 – 7th 2014
Key Player: Paul Pogba
Manager: Didier Deschamps

The establishment in 1988 of their Clairefontaine football academy was key to France’s incredible success in winning the World Cup in 1998 and following that up with victory at Euro 2000. Those factors proved to be the catalyst in a footballing renaissance in a country previously dominated by rugby. 

Ligue 1 is rapidly making inroads on Europe’s top leagues, PSG are the richest football club in the world, and in terms of the amount of talented players they produce year upon year, France are the Brazil of Europe. Few teams in this World Cup will have a squad of players as strong as Les Bleus. However, despite boasting an attacking lineup that features Antoine Griezmann, Kylian Mbappe, Ousmane Dembele, Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante France manager Didier Deschamps is quick to say: 

“We are not at the same level as Germany, Spain and Brazil – yet. We may not control all our games with the same authority but still, we have a strong and competitive team with a great potential.” 

France should have won their home Euro 2016 but fell at the final hurdle to a well-drilled Portugal, and haven’t looked like world beaters since. They looked less than impressive in qualifying, winning their group but drawing with Belarus and Luxembourg and losing to Sweden. With so much talent and yet such average results, they should have looked into replacing coach Deschamps, who looks to be the weakest link in the team and hardly likely to inspire this side to big things in Russia. 

Likely Finish: Quarterfinals

Spain   FIFA Ranking: 8

World Cup Wins: 1
European Championships: 3
Positions in the last five World Cups: 17th 1998 – 5th 2002 – 9th 2006 – 1st 2010 – 23rd 2014
Key Player: Andres Iniesta
Manager: Julen Lopetegui

After their period of complete dominance between 2008 and 2012 where statically they were the greatest national team of all time, Spain were brought down to earth with a bang when the 2010 champions crashed out at the group stage in Brazil 2014. La Roja then meekly surrendered their eight-year European reign in France 2016, a performance blamed largely on aging coach Vincente Del Bosque.  

Step forward Julen Lopetegui, a man of limited league management experience, but the mastermind behind Spain’s Under 19 and Under 21 teams’ European Championship wins in 2012 and 2013 respectively. From the off, the more experienced players like David De Gea, Gerard Pique, Sergio Ramos, Jordi Alba, Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta, David Silva and Alvaro Morata have bought into Lopetegui’s methods, while younger players that he coached in the youth setup like Isco, Gerard Deulofeu, Marco Asensio and Saul are already believers. 

This combination of youth and experience and a focus on once again playing their much-vaunted high possession football has seen Spain remain unbeaten under Lopetegui, and has seen Spain look like the best team in the world again. 

Likely Finish: Champions 

Argentina   FIFA Ranking: 4

World Cup Wins: 2
Copa Americas: 14

Positions in the last five World Cups: 5 1998 - 18 2002 - 6 2006 - 5 2010 - 2 2014
Key Player: Lionel Messi
Manager: Jorge Sampaoli

Although twice World Cup winners in 1978 and 1990, a team as consistently stocked with talent as Argentina should probably have won at least one more trophy. They came close in 2014, only losing in the final against Germany 1-0. Time is running out for Lionel Messi to cap his illustrious career with a World Cup winners medal, and he will turn 31 during Russia 2018.
Messi won’t be the only the only veteran in the squad coach Jorge Sampaoli takes to Russia. Sergio Romero, Angel Di Maria, Sergio Agüero, Gonzalo Higuaín, Lucas Biglia and Ever Banega are all in their late-20s, Gabriel Mercado is 30 while Javier Mascherano is 33. While the career of a footballer is getting longer and all of these players including Mascherano could be in contention for Qatar 2022, they will never be as physically capable as they all are now. 

Messi is still scoring at will in La Liga for Barcelona, Agüero and Higuain are doing the same in the Premier League and Serie A for Man City and Juventus respectively, although Gonzo has some serious competition at Juve from 24-year old countryman Paulo Dybala, so Sampaoli will be spoilt for choice up front. Argentina is similarly strong in midfield with Di Maria, Mascherano, Lavezzi, Pastore and Biglia but were suspect in defense during the qualifiers. Sampaoli must get the best out of a bunch that includes stars like Rojo, Otamendi, Zabaleta and Garay, and if he can get them playing like a unit Argentina will be a genuine threat to go all the way. 

Likely Finish: Quarterfinals 

Belgium  FIFA Ranking: 5

World Cup Wins: 0
European Championships: 0
Positions in the last five World Cups: 19th 1998 – 14th 2002 - FTQ 2006 - FTQ 2010 – 6th 2014
Key Player: Kevin de Bruyne
Manager: Roberto Martinez 

Like Spain and France, Belgium are one of the teams in Russia blessed with a squad of players which is strong in every position, from towering keeper Thibaut Courtois to powerhouse forward Romelu Lukaku. Roberto Martinez might have seemed a bizarre choice of coach back in 2016, and when he promptly lost his first game in charge 2-0 at home to his home country of Spain the omens weren’t great. 

However, Martinez has been a revelation. His Belgium team were the first European side to qualify for Russia, breaking a string of records along the way, taking 28 points from 10 games, scoring 43 goals, with Lukaku becoming the all-time top scorer in World Cup qualifiers. 

That said, like all Martinez teams, they look amazing going forward, but less so defensively. They were recently exposed in a 3-3 friendly draw with Mexico, which caused Kevin de Bruyne to break ranks and comment:

“Mexico were tactically superior. Their system made our defense vulnerable and in the center of the field it was five against seven. If we do not have good tactics we will have problems against teams like Mexico. It is a pity that we have not yet found a solution. We play with a system that in principle is very defensive, but with some players of offensive profile who want the ball.” 

Belgium’s key defenders Jan Vertinghen, Toby Alderweireld and Vincent Kompany were absent from the game against Mexico, but there is a genuine fear among the players that after two years of working with the Roberto Martinez the Belgian team still lacks a sense of identity in defense as they head into the biggest competition of them all. 

Likely Finish: Quarterfinals 

Portugal   FIFA Ranking: 3 

World Cups: 0
European Championships: 1
Positions in the last five World Cups: FTQ 1998 – 21st 2002 – 4th 2006 – 11th 2010 – 18th 2014
Key Player: Cristiano Ronaldo
Manager: Fernando Santos

Portugal finally broke their major international tournament duck when they defeated France 1-0 in Paris in the final of Euro 2016. Unlike Portuguese team of the past, this side looked almost dour at times, but were defensively sound, solid across the midfield, and with the constant threat presented by Ronaldo up front. 

Manager Fernando Santos has strengthened his team even further, adding Man City midfielder Bernardo Silva and AC Milan striker André Silva, although it has been tough to replace his ageing defense of Pepe, Jose Fonte and Bruno Alves, who are all in their mid-30s. 

Santos is cautiously optimistic as to his side’s chances in Russia, stating:

“Brazil, Argentina, Spain, Germany and France are the favorites to win the World Cup. Then we have other candidates, who want to get as far as possible, and win the tournament if possible, and Portugal are in this second group.”

Portugal topped their qualifying group ahead of Switzerland, and like Spain and Germany are a team who know how to win a major tournament, and that factor will take them far in Russia. 

Likely Finish: Semifinals 

England  FIFA Ranking: 12

World Cup Wins: 1
European Championships: 0
Positions in the last five World Cups: 9th 1998 – 6th 2002 – 7th 2006 – 13th 2010 – 26th 2014
Key Player: Harry Kane                                                                           
Manager: Gareth Southgate 

Still one of the youngest teams in Russia, England are also remarkably consistent, at least when it comes to qualifying for major events. They haven’t lost a qualifier since October 2009, a run of 39 games. Of course, it’s been a different story in the competitions themselves, and a new low was reached in Euro 2016 when England were eliminated in the Round of 16 by Iceland 2-1. 
At Brazil 2014 England couldn’t get out of their group, losing to Italy and Uruguay, although in fairness they did play well, especially against the Italians, and expectations were low of a very young team. However after the debacle against Iceland, this team must stand up and be counted. 

The truth is, there were flashes of brilliance in 2016, and if a team that contains such exciting and potentially world-class attacking players as Harry Kane, Marcus Rashford, Dele Alli, Raheem Sterling, plus stalwarts like Michael Carrick, Gary Cahill and Joe Hart could hit a hot streak, they could be a force. Realistically, after their failures in Brazil and France, a quarterfinal in Russia would be a solid achievement for this team. 
Likely Finish: Quarterfinals 

Freetips staff 06 February 2018

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