World Cup Seven: The 7 big questions ahead of World Cup 2018
32 nations are making their final preparations ahead of Thursday’s big kick off in Russia, with plenty of debate over Southgate’s selection dilemmas and just who will be lifting the biggest prize in world football in Moscow on 15th July.
Here are seven questions that still need answering before it all begins…
Will the feel-good factor carry England through?
Realism may just be England’s best friend this summer as they head to a tournament with a genuine feel-good factor for the first time in years. With expectations tempered by over 50 years of hurt, many fans have been impressed by Southgate’s willingness to blood young, inexperienced players and his work in building a level-headed, close-knit 23.
England have the least capped squad of any nation heading to Russia, and with very few players in the squad tarnished by past failures, a sense of fearlessness could be a blessing in disguise for Southgate’s young charges this summer.
Should Southgate go bold in his selection choices?
Whilst England may lack genuine superstars compared to past generations, they have plenty of interchangeable players that will give Southgate options to freshen up the pack should England go deep into the tournament. Solid performances from the likes of Maguire, Loftus Cheek and Rashford in the warm-up friendlies will give the England manager plenty to think about as he boards the plane.
Can Russia spring a surprise?
The hosts aren’t expected to mount much of a challenge on home soil after some lacklustre friendly results building up to the tournament, but any World Cup benefits from the home nation performing above expectations.
Escaping Group A isn’t beyond the realms of possibility for the Russians if they can get off to a good start against Saudi Arabia and take advantage of an Egypt side that could struggle if Mo Salah fails to overcome his shoulder injury.
Will Group D deliver the goods?
It’s been touted as this year’s Group of Death, and on the face of it, Group D looks to have one of the most evenly-matched quartet of teams, particularly if Argentina get off to a sluggish start against a spirited Iceland side.
Croatia are tipped by many to be a leftfield danger at this tournament and could well take top spot if they hit the ground running. Nigeria look to be the weak link, but they are capable when the mood suits and their chances of sneaking through can’t be dismissed entirely.
Expect a fascinating state-of-play going into the final set of group games.
Can Brazil make amends for 2014?
Nostalgia means the Samba Kings will always be heavily fancied amongst neutrals, but the Brazilians will be desperate to end a barren run by their high standards as they look for a first World Cup triumph since 2002.
After spurning a golden opportunity in 2014 to win on home soil, and the national humiliation of losing 7-1 to Germany, the Brazilians will be hoping the pragmatic Tite can guide them to a sixth title. A generous group should help them build momentum.
Will Messi or Ronaldo meet the moment?
After capping his trophy-laden career with a Euro 2016 winner’s medal, Cristiano Ronaldo will be fired up to drag a limited Portuguese side all the way through to the Luzhniki Stadium in July and complete a clean sweep of major titles. With the Real Madrid ace recently bragging about playing until 41, it would be foolish to write off his chances of appearing at another World Cup completely, but this is surely a make-or-break tournament for the ageing genius.
One opponent who could stand in his way is arch-nemesis Lionel Messi, who has occasionally cut a forlorn figure in an Argentina shirt but will be only too aware that the clock is also ticking down on his elite level career. Messi will be desperate to emulate his great rival in achieving international recognition but might need his teammates to find another gear if he is to join Maradona and Pelé as greats at international level.
Is Deschamps good enough to guide France to glory?
In terms of squad depth, France look one of the most formidable teams going in to this World Cup, but they have one major red flag hanging over their chances – a manager who many feel is out-of-depth at the very top level.
Deschamps frustrated many French fans with some of his selection choices and tactical switches during Euro 2016 – particularly in the final. The 49-year-old failed to make any meaningful interventions as his slipped to a disappointing 1-0 loss to a Portugal side without their star man for more than two-thirds of the game. He kept his job, but his bosses might not be so lenient if he fails to get the best from a squad packed with pedigree this time out in Russia.