Those wondering what a 48-team World Cup might look like in 2026 are advised to take a long glance at the Saudis, Moroccans, Tunisians, Panamanians, and South Koreans that will remain active in this 2018 Copa Mundial as long as group play continues. That’s because it will mostly be sides such as these that will be added to the expanded field in 2026. With 16 more sides, figure on at least two more from CONCACAF (Honduras and Trinidad & Tobago, you can make it!), and several more from Africa and Asia qualifying. CONMEBOL (South America) and UEFA (Europe) might justify extra bids, but when it comes to the latter in qualifying, potential knockout rounds might involve an Albania vs. Hungary, or a Slovenia vs. Bulgaria. Not sure that’s a lot to look forward to for the futbol world. Bottom line is that bigger is not necessarily better. So enjoy these 32-team World Cups here in 2018 and four years hence in Qatar. Come 2026, we might be wishing for the good ‘ol days of 32-team tourneys.
Before any more digressing, however, time to review what has gone on through Monday in Russia. All but Group H have already been featured, so we have a better idea of how things might proceed as group play cycles through its second and third days. A brief group-by-group rundown (sans Group H) is thus presented in alphabetical order.
A Mo Salah-less Egypt makes this one of the leastcompelling groups we can ever recall in Copa Mundial. Of course, should the EPL’s leading scorer this past term feature for “Egipto” things might get a bit more interesting. Still need to be sold on the hosts from Russia, whose 5-0 blitz of the Saudis in the opener can be attributed almost solely to Saudi incompetence. The match reminded more than a bit of Germany’s 8-0 romp at Sapporo in 2002, when the Saudis would go on to be outscored a whopping 12-0 in the group phase. (By the way, did Miroslav Klose just score again vs. the Saudis?) Moving forward, any side that doesn’t get max points vs. the Saudis will be kicking itself. With a healthy Salah, Egypt should be able to handle matters on June 25 in Vologograd, though both could be eliminated by the final group matchday. Uruguay failed to convince in its desperate opener vs. Salah-less Egypt, but still has Barcelona’s irrepressible Luis Suarez. Even with the best scorer in the group, Uruguay’s games often become tedious. For the Uruguayans 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.
While the sporting press continues to fete Portugal and Cristiano Ronaldo for his marvelous hattrick 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 best, 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 chipoff- 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 10, 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 quarterfinals 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?
OK, 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. Ruggedly 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 stringing 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.