Victor R. Caivano/Associated Press
A festival of football is nearly upon us, with the FIFA World Cup in Russia poised to get under way on Thursday.
The hosts take on Saudi Arabia in the tournament opener, triggering a month of action on the biggest stage in the sport.
The group stage of the competition, where the games come thick and fast, gives fans the chance to indulge.
And there’s always drama at this point in the World Cup—whether that be in the form of underperforming favourites, overachieving minnows or just enthralling matches.
Here’s a prediction for each group, the tournament odds and a closer look at a couple of standout pools.
World Cup Groups (In Order of Predicted Finish)
World Cup Outright Odds
Tournament odds available in full courtesy of OddsShark
In the United States, the action will be streamed via Fox Soccer 2GO.
Fernando Vergara/Associated Press
Having only just scraped into the tournament, there will be a lot of focus on Argentina and particularly Lionel Messi.
The Barcelona man has been criticised for his performances for La Albiceleste in recent years, as they’ve lost three major finals in recent summers: twice at the Copa America and in the 2014 World Cup. Without him, though, Argentina might not have even been involved in the finals.
In a must-win qualifying game, Messi netted a hat-trick in Ecuador to book Argentina’s place in Russia.
Per Rafael Hernandez of Grup14, the 30-year-old is capable of dragging any side to big results:
Rafael Hernández @RafaelH117
If Messi causes this effect of being on pitch and making the entire team better on Argentina, they might have a small shot at the World Cup.
La Albiceleste will be favourites to win Group D, although the three other sides involved have the potential to cause problems for them.
Croatia have talent in abundance, especially in midfield, where Mateo Kovacic, Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic can all boss matches. However, they’ve underwhelmed at the World Cup since finishing third in 1998.
As noted by Philip Blundell of The Anfield Wrap, Croatia always seem to be tipped to do well:
Philip Blundell @PhilBlundell
Just heard the first ‘I fancy Croatia for the World Cup’ of the Summer. https://t.co/r7artJkBCc
Nigeria and Iceland will be hoping to capitalise if either of the big names fails to perform. And they each have reason to believe they can progress.
The Super Eagles have plenty of attacking talent to call upon, and they beat Argentina 4-2 in a November friendly, with Alex Iwobi netting twice.
Meanwhile, Iceland showed at the 2016 European Championship they can upset the odds, after knocking out England in the last 16.
Andre Penner/Associated Press
One of the highlights of any World Cup is watching Brazil.
The nation will feel this team owes them, too, after they were embarrassed as the host nation four years ago. The 7-1 semi-final loss to Germany will live long in the memory, and those representing the Selecao will be doing their utmost to banish that nightmare.
The potential is there for them to do so. Unsurprisingly, this Brazil team is packed with wonderful attacking talent. Per the Selecao Brasileira Twitter account, manager Tite has several excellent options up top:
Seleção Brasileira @BrazilStat
On the bright side, Brazil has to many attacking options for 2018: Coutinho, Willian, Douglas Costa, Neymar JR, Roberto Firmino and Gabriel Jesus will all be part of the squad. And every single one of them has something that makes him special. TITE, we count on you!
As noted by journalist Joe Crann, the Selecao have a tradition for excelling on the grandest stage:
Joe Crann @YesWeCrann
Most World Cup wins: Brazil – 70 Germany – 66 Italy – 45 Argentina – 42 Spain – 29 France – 28 Netherlands – 27 England – 26 Uruguay – 20 Serbia/Russia – 17
They are the clear favourites to win the group, but the battle for the second qualifying spot should be fascinating. Serbia and Switzerland appear evenly matched on paper, and both fall comfortably into the dark-horse category.
Costa Rica shouldn’t be dismissed, either. In terms of individuals, they are the weakest side in the group; four years ago, though, they were outstanding and surprised plenty with a run to the quarter-finals.