World Cup 2018 – Group by Group Predictions

The wait is over; it’s finally here. After months of anticipation, the 2018 World Cup kicks off today. Hosts Russia play Saudi Arabia in the first match at the Luzhniki stadium in Moscow in front of a massive crowd which will likely also feature Russian President Vladimir Putin. Robbie Williams will be on hand to “entertain” the crowd (and Mr Putin) in what will be one of the most eagerly anticipated yet controversial World Cups to date. Concerns about Russian hooliganism and the continue threat of terrorist activity plight the tournament before it begins. Questions are being asked about how Russia will cope as a host and what kind of World Cup this will be. On field questions are yet still to be answered too.  Can Germany lift back to back World Cups or will Brazil get their revenge for what happened four years ago. Can Iceland upset the odds again like they did at Euro 2016 and reach the quarter finals. Will Ronaldo add to his growing collection of trophies or will Lionel Messi finally put the ghost of Maradona to bed by lifting his own golden trophy? We try to answer all of these questions and more now.

Group A:

Russia enter this group with a heavy heart knowing that little is going in their favour. History suggests that Russia won’t get out of the group as has been the fate of several other host nations. Added into that an aging squad and a lack of creativity, Russia will likely struggle. However the thought of spending their years wasting away in a Siberian prison which is where Putin will likely send them all if they embarrass him, may be enough to spark some sort of Russian resurgence. Golovin will be crucial if they are to progress. What does work in their favour is the presence of Saudi Arabia in their group who have more chance of collectively being elected US president in 2020 than escaping the group. Uruguay should dominate with ease especially if Suarez and Cavani have anything to do with it but they will need to be on top form to beat a Salah inspired Egypt. The Egyptians sneaked in the back door in qualifying with a late surge by the Liverpool man to get them to Russia but their over reliance on him should be their downfall.

Qualifiers: Uruguay, Russia

Group B:

Without doubt the easiest group to predict in terms of top 1&2, the question is less about who but in what order. Spain and Portugal will be far too good for Iran and Morocco but don’t expect either to roll over without a fight. Spain, whose manager was sensationally sacked yesterday after agreeing to take charge at Real Madrid without informing the Spanish FA have so much strength throughout that they could afford to leave the Chelsea trio of Alonso, Fabregas and Morata behind. The 2010 World Champions are only taking two recognized strikers which sounds baffling until you look at their midfield. Regardless of who is in charge (Hierro looks to be in at present but that could change), Spain should have enough to get out of the group but maybe not much more given the turmoil. Portugal on the other hand will again turn to Ronaldo for inspiration and this time unlike at Euro 2016, the Real Madrid striker is rested and in peak condition. Not that necessarily they need him to be as was shown at the Euros where they shocked more than a few by triumphing. Morocco could challenge both of the Iberian sides especially if flair players like Younes Belhanda show up but the same can’t be said about Iran who will be literally bootless after Nike stuck the boot in just days before the tournament started by pulling out of its agreement to supply boots to the team following new US sanctions.

Qualifiers: Spain, Portugal

Questions over how Spain are coping following their managers sacking will be answered against Portugal (Image from tumblr)

Group C:

Australia arrive at the World Cup with 38-year-old Tim Cahill still very much part of their plans. But there is a freshness about this Aussie squad that arguably hasn’t been seen for a while. Celtics Tom Rogic is in fine form coming into the tournament and will be looked towards to provide forward momentum. However a lack of potent goal threat (Cahill aside) may be the difference between Australia progressing and exiting stage right. Peru on the other hand will be delighted just to be there. Issues surrounding captain Guerrero have been cleaned up with the 34-year-old cleared to play despite being found guilty of doping. It’s a huge relief for the country as without him, Peru offers very little. Three good performances with a chance of an upset in one of them is the best they can hope for. Denmark and France should be competing for the two qualifying spots and it may come down to that match to decide it. Denmark are youthful and pacey with Sisto and Dolberg two to watch. France led by Deschamps for now (Zidane hovers in the shadows) go into the World Cup with one of the most complete squads; such is their wealth that several key players have been left out (Lacazette, Martial and Coman). Much will be expected of Mbappe and Griezmann whilst Pogba will be hoping to leave his Manchester United troubles behind and play a starring role for his country. The issue with France is not about qualifying for the group or likely a round of 16 tie against Croatia but later in the quarters and semis where they will look to the bench for tactical influence and inspiration. Unfortunately Deschamps will be sitting there so the lack of a plan B could be their undoing. Zidane will ready if that happens.

Qualifiers: France, Denmark

Group D:

Much like Group C, this group will be decided by two teams although perhaps not as cut and dry as the other. Croatia have improved vastly in recent years and look more like a collective team rather than individuals running around aimlessly. Modric and Mandzukic will be key but look out for Kramaric to also shine. Defensively solid, Croatia might not score a lot but don’t let many in too so should progress. Argentina on the other hand are clearly coming in with the same mindset as the Real Madrid “Galaticio” era – it doesn’t matter how many we concede as long as we score one more. With a front line of Messi, Aguero, Higuian, and Dybala it’s not hard to understand why many are tipping Argentina to go one further than in 2014 and finally deliver the World Cup that Messi so desperately wants. The biggest disappointment of this front line is who was excluded including Mauro Icardi and the highly impressive Lautaro Martinez but it may be a tournament too soon for the youngster who is destined to shine at future World Cups.

Dybala, Higuian, Messi, Aguero – Argentina certainly aren’t short of firepower up front (image from Tumblr)

Nigeria will pose a threat especially with the pace of Ahmed Musa and Kelechi Iheanacho upfront. A majority of the squad is based on the UK or Turkey meaning that as a unit they are used to seeing and competing against each other regularly. The issue will be that some key players like the aforementioned pair have struggled for playing time at Leicester this season with Musa eventually engineering a loan move in January back to Moscow in order to protect his selection for the Super Eagles. Making up the group is Iceland, the smallest ever nation to qualify for the World Cup. Two years ago they lit up Euro 2016 with some remarkable performances none more so than against an arrogant England who thought they would breeze past Iceland into the quarter finals. Iceland’s journey in that tournament, which also introduced the world to the thunder-clap cemented their place in the hearts of all football fans and that love affair is likely to extend now to the World Cup where they will be the de facto side to support for all nations who didn’t qualify (USA, Holland, Italy – looking at you). However Iceland find themselves in the so-called group of death and this time they will rightly be treated with respect rather than contentment which should make the challenge of qualifying harder. What goes for them is that Iceland has team spirit in abundance and if they can channel that plus the form they showed in qualifying (where they knocked out Holland and Turkey) they could again have hearts fluttering as they race into the knock out rounds.

Qualifiers: Argentina, Croatia

The Thunder Clap will be out on display at the World Cup regardless of how Iceland perform (Image from Tumblr)

Group E:

With the humiliation of four years ago still fresh in the memory of most Brazilians, their team comes to Russia with a point to make. Winning the World Cup is the only definition of success for Neymar and his teammates and this might be the year that it happens. Manager Tite has created a well balance yet exciting Brazil that usually sets up in a fluid 4-3-3 formation with Neymar, Coutinho and Firmino as the front three. But it’s the midfield that drives the team. Casemiro, Paulinho, Fernandinho and Fred are fairly interchangeable but the setup is not – dropping back to offer cover for the defence when the opposition presses then turning over with slick passing and forward momentum. Brazil you can say have learned their lessons and look better for it. A run to the final should be on the cards unless a team can exploit a weakness (space behind the adventurous left back Marcelo perhaps) and send Brazil home again to rethink. Serbia come into the World Cup as a dark horse with few really knowing which side will show up. On their day, Serbia are a solid outfit who defend well and attack with flair and pace. But more often than not they are found wanting or sometimes not at the races at all. Their midfield is key to any success with Matic often sitting whilst the likes of Milinkovic-Savic and Zivkovic poke holes in opposition defences. Upfront they are a little light with Newcastle’s Mitrovic their main battering ram whilst Luka Jovic provides the flair. Qualifying is not out of the picture; that is if they turn up.

One of the shocks of Brazil 2014 besides the Brazil team were Costa Rica who knocked out Italy in the group stage before eventually falling to Holland on penalties (Tim Krul’s appearance as sub goalie was the killer). Four years on and having qualified again, Costa Rica are older and wiser than before; with the key word there being older. If it weren’t for the inclusion of relative youngsters Ian Smith and Ronald Matarrita, the squads average age would be north of thirty rather than just south of it. Bryan Ruiz captains the side yet again and is likely their key goal threat although Joel Campbell does offers a different option. Qualifying will be tough but wins against Serbia and/or Switzerland and the adventure could be on again. The Swiss are often known for being impartial, never ready to rock the boat. However at the World Cup they may have other plans. Having qualified through the playoffs dispatching Northern Ireland with the thanks of a dodgy penalty call, Switzerland will be hoping that they can show exactly what they have to offer. Stoke midfielder Xherdan Shaqiri may not have had the best season in the Premier League but the little midfielder is still dangerous to play against especially as he comes inside on his left foot. Watch out for Breel Embolo too who is likely to want to stamp his name on the tournament.

Qualifiers: Brazil, Serbia

Group F:

Current World Champions Germany kick off Group F with a match against Mexico on Fathers Day and it’s likely to be one of the most interesting of the tournament as it will be an early indication of how far Germany can go. Germany are on a quest to become the first team to win back to back World Cups since Brazil achieved that feat back in ’58 and then in ’62 (Italy also did it in the 30’s). With a squad riddled with talent it’s hard to look past them but this time the challenge will be much harder. Whilst there is no Miroslav Klose to fire in the goals and Mario Gotze to pop off the bench to snatch the winner, Germany do have a ready replacement in Timo Werner. Although not a carbon copy of either he has traits that suggest that Germany manufactured him in a lab using both players DNA. Quick on the ball, skillful with it at his feet and an eye for goal, Werner will be needed if Germany are to lift the trophy. Which puts a lot of pressure on such young shoulders. That however seems to be a running issue in a team of superstars; the lack of an old wise head who can burden the responsibility of German expectations for the entire team like Lahm did four years ago. Indeed despite having Kroos, Muller, Hummels and Ozil to call upon, Germany lack a Schweinsteiger or Per Mertesacker who can rally the troops when needed. It may instead take a moment of brilliance to get the team excited and that could come from Julian Brandt who’s blistering runs will be sure to have bums everywhere lifting from their seats. Qualification from the group should be a formality but progress to the final could be stopped if Germany falls silent on the pitch.

No Gotze or Klose but they have Werner (Image from Tumblr)

Their opponents on opening day are Mexico who too should be looking at escaping the group. There are a lot of familiar faces in the Mexico squad including the Dos Santos brothers, Javier Hernandez and for a record fifth time Rafael Marquez at the tender age of 39. But it’s some of the not so familiar faces that could excite the masses. Marco Fabian and Hirving Lozano are two such players that given the right tools could have an influence on Mexico’s progression. El Tri have never not managed to get past the round of 16 in their last six attempts so that has to be the goal this time around. If they can do that, then who knows what kind of party they will throw for their returning players. If their ill advised World Cup leaving party was anything to go by (30 prostitutes plus a lot of alcohol are not a good combo), then it could be one hell of a night. Standing in Mexico’s way are potential party poopers Sweden who have resisted the temptation of recalling Zlatan to the squad and are focusing on the task in hand. Unlike Swedish teams of old that had standout goal scorers like Ibrahomivic, Larsson and to a lesser extent Dahlin this current crop looks a little lightweight upfront which could be a problem. The pressure will then be placed on the midfield to create including Emil Forsberg who is coming off a tremendous season with RB Leipzig. Seb Larssen who has just returned to play in Sweden after a career stay in England with various clubs will also be needed if Sweden stands any chance of qualifying. That is of course unless Zlatan just turns up because despite FIFA rules around naming squads, Zlatan plays when Zlatan wants to play.

Rounding out the group is South Korea who are another side that rely too heavily on one player. Spurs Son Heung-min has had his best season ever in England and will be looking to transfer that form into the World Cup. South Korea favour a counter attacking style of play which suits Heung-min perfectly but unlike Spurs who have a solid defence in order to do so, South Korea do not. Added into this, South Koreas manager still flutters between a back four and a back three repeatedly making their chances of progression limited at best.

Qualifiers: Germany, Mexico

Group G:

Arguably next to France and Germany, Belgium have the most complete squad at this years tournament boasting star names in almost every position. Solid at the back with Courtois, Vertoghen, Alderwerield and Kompany, Belgium have a strong foundation in which to build a World Cup winning campaign. Going forward they aren’t sloppy either with Romelu Lukaku and Michy Batshuayi feeding off opportunities created by Dries Mertens, De Bruyne, Carrasco and Hazard. All in all Belgium should be considered as dark horses to win. Except for the fact that their manager is Roberto Martinez who doesn’t necessarily inspire confidence. The former Wigan and Everton boss has had a mixed spell in charge of Belgium. Like his predecessor, Martinez lacks the tactical ability needed to switch a game when it’s not going well. In a league you can get away with it but in knock out international football, every minute counts. If Belgium are to win it will likely be in spite of Martinez rather than due to him.

To Listen or Ignore – the dilemma for Hazard and his teammates (Image from Tumblr)

England are their toughest group opponents and under Gareth Southgate pose a viable threat to their chances. Southgate’s squad contains a good mix of youth and experience centred along a solid spine with Harry Kane as its focal point. Options are a plenty which is a good thing but can also work against you especially as consistency usually helps to win this tournament. In almost every position with the exception of striker as previously stated, Southgate could go for one of several options – Pickford or Butland, Maguire or Stones, Rose or Young, Alli or Lingard etc. This does place unnecessary pressure on the team regardless of how prepared and relaxed you are. Pressure is not something England cope with well and a majority of it comes from an over excited media who still reflect back to 1966 and England’s only World Cup triumph. In a way, that win has been a curse for the teams that followed with the media elevating expectations repeatedly higher than they should be. The team Southgate has is certainly good enough to win the World Cup but removing the pressure and finding consistency may be too big of a headache for the England boss.

Panama make their World Cup debut after watching the US fail to qualify. Few of the names in the Panama squad will be familiar to the watching fans but what they will see is an extremely passionate team who play for each other like a brotherhood. What Panama lacks in technique they make up for in grit and determination which in itself can be an extremely powerful tool. Traditionally defensive in style, Panama won’t be the most exciting to watch although Gabriel Torres may just have something different to say on that. Three good performances are likely the best they can hope for. Finally Tunisia rounds out the group. They come into the World Cup looking to build upon and improve on their last three appearances where they have failed to get out of the group stages. Unfortunately this side doesn’t look up to the task. Short on pace and lacking a real star, Tunisia will hope like Panama to compete well and hopefully spring an upset. Whabi Kazhri leads the line but it’s midfielder Ellyes Shkiri that could make the difference and in doing so put himself in the shop window. A talented 22 midfielder, Shkiri has a strong passing range and reads the game well but the lack of a supporting cast might mean his efforts are in vain.

Qualifiers: Belgium, England

Group H:

Finally group H sees Poland face Colombia, Japan and Senegal. Possibly the hardest group to call for a variety of reasons with many tipping Colombia and Poland to advance but others naming Senegal in the mix too. Japan is the side that no one really fancies in terms of proceeding and for good reason. Japan’s run up to the World Cup has been dramatic to say the least; sacking head coach Vahid Halilhodzic ten weeks before the tournament started and replacing him with the guy that sacked him, Akira Nishino is hardly the best preparation. Nishino is well liked by the older players in the squad and has a lot of coaching experience however the move has created friction in the Japan ranks which may not have died down before they kick a ball in Russia. Squad wise Japan are not the strongest. Shinji Kagawa and Keishu Honda are remnants of the Japan of old yet still pull the strings in the team. At the back Southampton’s Yoshida organizes best he can around a shaky looking defense. Qualifying would be nice but unlikely.

Halilhodzic departs as Nishino watches on (Image from Tumblr)

Colombia on the other hand should progress and could go as far as the quarters or semis given the right draw. James Rodriguez is their creator and chief architect so expect everything to go through him whilst the return of Radamel Falcao to form has been a welcome boost. At the back Mina and Sanchez are youthful additions but sometimes lack the discipline needed to perform well at international level. Goals however have been an issue of late despite Falcao’s return. The introduction of Miguel Borja might be enough to solve this but it’s unlikely. Beating Poland and finishing top would set up a clash with England in a game very difficult to call. Senegal could alter that plan. Led by former midfield enforcer Aliou Cisse, Senegal have a strong squad with Napoli’s Kalibou Koulibaly at the heart of the defence and Liverpool’s Sadio Mane leading the line. Often criticized for being too conservative in his approach, Cisse focuses on soaking up the pressure with slow painful passing movements and then releasing Mane to run at defences at pace; a strategy that has proven to work in the past. That however was against African opponents so may not work against the likes of Poland or Colombia who press with vigour.

Poland make up the group and are as always ever reliant on their striker Robert Lewandowski. The Bayern hitman is the principle reason why they are at the World Cup but to be fair he had a lot of support in the process. Piotr Zielinski has proven to be an exciting prospect who can create opportunities for Lewandowski up front. Milik and Grosicki too have stepped up with goals and assists. However the concern for Poland is not going forward but it’s at the back. Defensively Poland have been poor, so much so that the manager has switched tactics more times in the last two years than he has had hot dinners. Finally he looks to be sticking with three at the back with Glik, Pazdan and one other occupying those spots. Poland expect qualification from the group but little else which is more realistic than most nations are being.

Qualifiers: Colombia, Poland

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US Run Rampant over Japan To Lift Women’s World Cup

In a rerun of the 2011 final, the USA faced a Japanese side looking to claim back to back titles in yesterday’s 2015 World Cup final. Japan, who had knocked out England in the semi finals to advance to yet another  grudge match with the US, have not been as impressive in this tournament as they were in Germany but in a sign of a true champion have battled through each round, usually relying on a single goal for progression. The US on the other hand have grown stronger as the tournament progressed, firstly escaping from a difficult group before convincing wins against Colombia then China in the knock out rounds. But it wasnt until their semi final match with a rampant in form Germany that the US showed their real potential as contenders. The Germans had scored a remarkable nineteen goals in opening play from five matches with Celia Sasic and Anja Mittag in particularly impressive form.

Celia Sasic (13) had a fantastic World Cup  (Image from PA)

Celia Sasic (13) had a fantastic World Cup
(Image from PA)

But against a much tougher defence, Germany failed to find the space that was afforded to them in their previous matches. Unable to find  the breakthrough at one end put more pressure on a nervous looking German defence that weakened as the match went on. Eventually the pressure became too much and the German’s conceded a silly penalty. Carli Lloyd converted that spot kick to hand the US the advantage in a defining moment in the game. The US added a second late in the game to secure their passage to the final and continue the US fine record at World Cups. In the seven Wormen’s World Cups that have been playing to date, the US has finished in the top three on every occasion, including three times as winners (1991,1999 and 2015) and once as runner-up (2011).  Germany who are have won the tournament on two occasions (2003, 2007) have faltered in recent years and are in somewhat of a transition phase with half of their current squad under 25 years old. That inexperienced showed in their semi final match when they came up against an US side filled to the brim with seasoned internationals. In fact 10 of the US squad have over 100 caps whilst another 6 have more than 50 caps.

Captain Carli Lloyd is one of several experienced players in the US side (Image from Getty)

Celia Sasic (13) had a fantastic World Cup (Image from PA)

Since their defeat in 2011, the US has stuck with the same group of players making only a few additions along the way but importantly retaining a good mix of youthful exuberance with experienced professionals. Whilst captain Abby Wambach (249 caps) and defender Christie Rampone (308 Caps) may not feature as much in the starting eleven as in previous campaigns, their influence especially on the younger players in the team has been the making of this World Cup winning side. Gold at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London was a huge turning point and gave the US the confidence that they need to believe that they could become world champions. With a squad that contained Hope Solo, Alex Morgan, Carli Lloyd, Rampone and Wambach it was hard to see anyone stopping them.

Gold in London was the springboard for World Cup success  (Image from AFP)

Gold in London was the springboard for World Cup success
(Image from AFP)

Meanwhile Japan took on England who had knocked hosts Canada out in the quarter finals. England, who had never reached this far in the World Cup before, played well in a tight match and looked on course to provide yet another upset by beating the Japanese. However a late own goal deep into added time at the end of the game by Laura Bassett knocked England out and put Japan into the final. It was the confidence booster that Japan needed having once again failed to live up to their billing as one of the tournament favourites. All that stood between them and another World Cup title was ninety minutes of football against the US. As the match kicked off on a sunny night in Vancouver in front of a sell out 53,341 fans, both sides looked evenly matched but it wouldn’t take long for one side to step up a dominate the game. It’s hard to argue that US captain Carli Lloyd should be the player of the tournament after some stunning shows in the previous rounds but she saved the best for last.

Two quick goals within five minutes gave the US the lead before Lauren Holiday made it three within 15 minutes. Lloyd would add a fourth a minute later to complete her hat trick with a stunning long distant lob from the half way line over the back peddling Kaihori in the Japanese goal. Japan however did not give up and snatched a goal back eleven minutes later to make it 4-1. After the restart, Japan added a second with Julie Johnston scoring an own goal to make it 4-2. Japan saw an opportunity to get back into the match and pressed forward to find the two goals needed to send the game into extra time. But it wasn’t to be as almost immediately the US raced up the pitch and scored their fifth goal thanks to Tobin Heath. With the game won, the US could afford to make two token substitutions, bringing on Wambach and Rampone for one final swansong.  A fitting end to this historic win for the US women’s team.

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England’s Dream Still Alive As They Advance To The Semi Finals At The Women’s World Cup

England beat Canada to progress (Image from Twitter)With the pressure on the host nation, England entered Saturday’s quarter final match with Canada with optimism. Manager Mark Sampson had been surprisingly vocal about Canada’s physicality in advance of the match with the hope that referee Claudia Umpierrez of Uruguay would take note. Canada’s English born manager John Herdman refused to be drawn into playing mind games with Sampson, instead dismissing his comments and insisting that the players on the pitch would decide the match not comments before it.  In the end, the pressure on the host nation in front of a sold out 54,000 Vancouver crowd was too much with England progressing to the next round.

Canada faced England in front of a full house in Vancouver (Image from Getty)

Canada faced England in front of a full house in Vancouver
(Image from Getty)

England took a shock 2-0 lead against the run of play inside fifteen minutes of the start after exposing Canada’s early nerves. But when captain Christine Sinclair rallied her troops with an impromptu huddle just shortly after the second England goal, Canada regained its composure and went up the field on the attack. England tried in vain to hold on until half time but when Sinclair pounced on a Bardsley fumble, there was only going to be one outcome. Canada were firmly back in the match. The second half started with the same tenacity as the first ended, with Canada firmly on the attack once more. But England stood firm, defending as a unit and in turn crushing Canada’s dream. As the seconds ticked away, Canada threatened to find the equalizer they needed to send the game into extra time but it wouldn’t be as they crash out of the World Cup. Up next for England is the semi-final match against Japan on Wednesday which is ironically Canada day. The defending champions are looking to replicate Germany by becoming only the second team in history to win back to back World Cups. England have never progressed to this stage before so the experienced Japanese side should be clear favourites to win the match.

Canada captain Christine Sinclair was unable to inspire her team to get back into the match  (Image from Getty)

Canada captain Christine Sinclair was unable to inspire her team to get back into the match
(Image from Getty)

If they can reach the final, they will face either Germany or the USA who take to the field tonight in the other semi-final. For the two teams ranked 1st and 2nd in the world, it’s the match that most hoped would be the final but will now be played out at the semi-final stage. Germany’s progression through the tournament has been nothing short of routine, hammering the Ivory Coast 10-0 in their opening match, drawing with Norway and then resuming their domination of the group with a 4-0 thumping of Thailand. They routed Sweden 4-1 in the round of 16 whilst relied on penalties to dispatch a tough French side in the quarter finals to set up the mouth-watering clash with the US. The Yanks route to the semi-final has been similarly easy with wins over Australia and Nigeria sandwiched between a draw with Sweden in the group stages. They faced a difficult challenge in the last 16 against Colombia but rose to the occasion knocking the South American’s out by 2-0. Up next were China who put in a gallant performance that was only undone by a fine goal from Carli Lloyd who has been one of the US most consistent performers in the tournament so far.

Carli Lloyd strikes against China to send the US through  (Image from Getty)

Carli Lloyd strikes against China to send the US through
(Image from Getty)

It should be a fantastic match with the World Cups top scoring team going up against the tournament’s best performing goalkeeper, Hope Solo. The US no.1 has been in stunning form making eleven key saves and conceding only one in five games. The pin up star was a controversial selection for US head coach Jill Ellis after Solo’s arrest last year for domestic assault. Despite some calls for her to be omitted, leaving the world’s best goalkeeper out of their squad would have been a defining decision for Ellis and one that she was unwilling to make. The truth is that Solo is fundamental to a US World Cup win and without her in goal, the US is a much weaker side. They will need her experience and skills if they are to stop a rampant Germany side from cruising to the final on July 5th.

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Canada Gears Up For Women’s World Cup Kick Off

Canada gears up for the 2015 Women's World Cup (Image from Getty)After a week of controversy at FIFA, the return of competitive football will be a welcomed distraction to the outgoing president. Despite announcing his departure on Tuesday, Sepp Blatter has confirmed that he is still set on attending the seventh Women’s World Cup which kicks off tomorrow in Canada. The tournament runs for just under a month and features 24 teams playing across six Canadian cities – Vancouver, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Montreal and Moncton. Somewhat surprisingly no games will be played in Canada’s biggest city, Toronto but this is largely due to the fact that they will be playing host to this years Pan American Games which starts around the same time. FIFA’s decision to hand Canada the Women’s World Cup is another show of good faith towards the country, who have previously hosted other FIFA tournaments including the Under 16’s and Under 20’s men’s World Cups and the Under 19’s and Under 20’s Womens World Cup. However it is the magnitude and prestige of this tournament that has the Canadian Soccer Association so excited as they see it as a perfect way to demonstrate their capabilities to FIFA with a view to a potential bid for the men’s tournament in 2026 or 2030.

Christine Sinclair will be hoping she can inspire Canada to glory  (Image from Getty)

Christine Sinclair will be hoping she can inspire Canada to glory
(Image from Getty)

That said, Canada has not belittled the Women’s World Cup in the slightest and is rapidly turning up the heat on what is set to be a compelling competition. Current holders Japan are out to win back to back titles after winning the 2011 World Cup in Germany, beating the US in the final via a nerve jangling penalty shootout. The star of Japan’s victory four years ago was their inspiration captain Homare Sawa. At 36, Sawa is Japan’s most capped female player of all time with 197 caps and is the country’s top goalscorer with 82 goals to date. Her five goals in the 2011 World Cup bagged her the Golden Boot award and a place in women’s football growing history. She will now look to add to that legendary status with a record breaking sixth World Cup appearance and a chance for one last final swansong. Japan are in group C alongside an impressive looking Switzerland and the fairly unknown commodities that are Cameroon and Ecuador. Progression is expected at which point the real defense of their title should begin.

Unlike Germany four years ago or China four years before that, the number of competitive teams able to win the tournament has increased dramatically. Besides Japan, any one of Germany, China, Brazil, USA, England, France, Sweden or hosts Canada could lift the World Cup trophy in Vancouver on July 5th.  A victory for Canada on home turf would mean more to the side than can ever be expressed and would be as a career high for captain Christine Sinclair are her teammates. Qualifying from their group however may be tricky with China, Holland and New Zealand making the foursome. Germany and Brazil should reach the knock out stages fairly easily after being placed in substandard groups. England and France will battle it out with Colombia and Mexico in Group F but its Group D that has everyone talking of a group of death. As one of the clear favourites for the tournament, the news that the US had been grouped with Australia, Sweden and Nigeria was not welcomed widely.

US star Hope Solo selected for US women's team despite facing domestic abuse allegations (Image from Getty)

US star Hope Solo selected for US women’s team despite facing domestic abuse allegations
(Image from Getty)

With arguably the strongest and most experienced squad in the tournament, the US should be good enough to make it through at the expense of Australia and Sweden but its the challenge of Nigeria that potentially poses the biggest threat. Whilst the Nigerian team is fairly unknown with a majority of their players still playing their league football back home, it is their comfort on artificial pitches that has the US worried. In controversial circumstances and blaming the weather conditions in Canada, FIFA decided in its wisdom to play this World Cup on all artificial pitches. The decision sparked protests from the players who claimed the move was an act of discrimination against the women’s game and that FIFA would never make the men’s game play on artificial surfaces during their World Cup. They are of course right as the risk to serious injuries on these synthetic surfaces is greater than on grass. Despite calls for a change back to grass, the tournament will go ahead on artificial pitches which could hand those teams who play regularly on the surface a huge advantage. Nigeria are one such nation who play 100% of their games back home on fake pitches. Their knowledge of how the ball performs on this surface and the fact that they have spent years working with it could give them a slight competitive edge.

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Asia Awaits Its New Champions As The Asian Cup Draws To A Close

After 28 games over a period of three weeks, the final of the Asian Cup takes place tomorrow with South Korea taking on host nation Australia. Whilst not considered as one of the pinnacle International tournaments, this year’s event has showcased the talent that can be found in this region and just how far the game has progressed. Competitiveness in the region has improved dramatically over the past decade with more teams challenging for final spots in the tournament. Along with the regulars like Japan, South Korea, UAE and Australia come new pretenders like Qatar, Uzbekistan and debutantes this year, Palestine highlighting the rich diversity that this cup has.

Four years ago, Japan lifted the Cup after beating Australia in the final  Image from Getty)

Four years ago, Japan lifted the Cup after beating Australia in the final
Image from Getty)

It’s an incredible achievement for Palestine to reach the Asian Cup and one that has not gone unnoticed in the footballing community. Despite much publicized adverse conditions, the Palestine team qualified in style by winning the AFC Challenge Cup without conceding a single goal and drawing only one out of the five games. Whilst their experience in Australia was not quite what they had hoped for (three defeats, eleven goals conceded, only one goal scored) they exit the tournament with their heads held high. Similarly Uzbekistan’s remarkable resurgence continues as they put up an impressive show by finishing second in what was a difficult group Despite losing to group winners China, they secured good wins over North Korea and Saudi Arabia to progress to the quarter finals where they were eventually knocked out by South Korea.

It should be a great final between arguably two of the strongest teams in the region. The pair met in the group stages in a hotly contested battle with South Korea eventually coming out on top thanks to a goal from Jung Hyub Lee. Australia will be looking to make amends in the final in front of the home crowd at the packed ANZ stadium in Sydney.  There is extra incentive for the Aussies heading into the match given that they have never won the Asian Cup. Their best performance to date was four years ago in Qatar when they reached the final only to be beat by Japan in extra time. The memories of that day still live fresh in the mind of Australian legend Tim Cahill. The former Everton midfielder has been the heart and soul of the Australian team for over a decade and did announce his retirement from international football after last year’s World Cup, only to be persuaded to stay on for the Asian Cup. For Cahill, it was an opportunity to sign off in style – a win in the Asian Cup on home turf his final swan song. His contribution and influence to the team is unquestionable but along with it he brings goals. His three goals so far, including an impressive brace against China have propelled Australia to the final. Now one last performance is needed from their star man to rewrite history and finally put Australia’s name on the Asian Cup.

Standing in their way is two times champions South Korea. Despite having not won the trophy since 1960, South Korea have been there and thereabouts in almost every tournament since, three times finishing as runners up and four times as the third place team. After a dismal World Cup where they failed to show their true potential, picking up only one point from a possible nine in a 1-1 draw with Russia in the opening game. Changes at the top were made fairly quickly upon their return with manager Hong Myung-Bo being sacked and replaced by former West Germany midfielder turn sweeper Uli Stielike. Having spent the six years before coaching Qatar based sides Al Arabi and Al Sailiya; Stielike understood the significance of the Asian Cup and immediately started to put plans in place for an aggressive assault on the competition. He wasted little time in refreshing the squad he inherited adding Hoffenheim’s Jin Su Kim and Guangzhou’s Hyun-Soo Jang to a defense which was considered one of the worst in the World Cup. Stielike who was affectionately nicknamed “The Stopper” as a player has tightened up the defence and has encouraged the front line to close down more in order to play a high line game and relieve the pressure on the backline. So far the plan has worked with South Korea managing to get all the way to the final without conceding.  Upfront the addition of fairly unknown striker Lee Jeong-Hyeop has transformed the attack and given South Korea an edge in the matches they have played so far.

With the expectations on what South Korea should achieve at this tournament set low by the South Korean FA, Stielike and his side can look forward to the final with no pressure attached. It would be nice to complete the tournament without conceding a single goal as it would illustrate how far they have come since Brazil and in turn restore pride back into their bewildered fans but for the manager the only thing that is important is the victory. He knows that it will be a different Australia than the one they faced in the group stage and will be prepared for a hostile crowd. For the neutral it will be a match to remember with two of Asia’s best teams going at it with an intense ferocity for at least ninety minutes if not more. The victor will lift the trophy that night and earn their place in the record books whilst the loser will go back and ponder what could have been.

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Why Platini’s Tinkering Could Destroy UEFA

All smiles from the joker (Image from PA)With the application phase firmly underway, there appears to be no turning back on Platini’s revolution of the European Championships. The next event, due to be played in France in 2016, will be the last of its kind as a new format is adapted for the 2020 tournament. No longer will a single country host the entire tournament, instead 13 cities will host various games in an attempt by Platini to mix things up. His argument is that no country alone can afford to host the games on its own, with infrastructure alone being a huge cost to the host nation. Added into this falling attendances and partially filled stadiums at some of the less glamorous games highlight a need for radical change. Platini is convinced that a revitalized European Championships that encourages smaller nations to join in with by hosting games can reignite the passion and generate more money. The fans will benefit too in his eyes, with hotel chains and airlines unable to hike up their prices specifically to the host country. Instead low cost airlines will profit by ferrying passengers between the various cities where the games are being played.

13 venues across Europe will host Euro 2020  (Image from Skyscraper.com)

13 venues across Europe will host Euro 2020
(Image from Skyscraper.com)

It’s another hair brained idea by Platini which on paper looks sound but in practice makes little sense. Logistics aside (organizing a 4 week tournament across 13 countries with consideration for fans, TV broadcasters and players would be a nightmare for anyone), the idea of ripping up the framework of the world’s second biggest football tournament and starting from scratch is crazy. This isn’t the first time that Platini has been found guilty of making strange suggestions and he has many wondering if he is a football genius or a buffoon. Orange Cards, sin bins, Gulf World Cups and a newly created Nations Leagues to replace international friendlies are all straight from the Frenchman’s head whilst goal line technology which the game is crying out for is ridiculed by Platini as Playstation football. His support of the switch to the winter for the Qatar 2022 World Cup also shocked many, none more so that the leagues that play in his own organization who will see major disruptions to their domestic schedules that will take seasons to rectify. Platini appears to have too much time on his hands and too much of that time is spend on his own thinking up new ways to change football “for the better”.

Platini compared goal line technology to Playstation Football  (Image from PES)

Platini compared goal line technology to Playstation Football
(Image from PES)

Granted the European Championships needs a fresh coat of paint and some additional glamour added to it, but starting from scratch is not the solution. Yes the cost is intrusive but can limited if the country selected already has the stadiums in place. It should be pointed out that some countries in Europe have the facilities and infrastructure in place to stage a tournament tomorrow. England, France, Germany, Spain and Italy could all host with ease whilst Turkey would only require spending on infrastructure like roads and airports which is already doing. The problem sits with Platini and his inability to listen to reason or any other argument other than his own. Many saw Platini as the man to save football from the clutches of a corrupt FIFA and the eventual successor to Sepp Blatter but now many are hoping this won’t happen as given a bigger remit, his damage could be on a grander scale. Imagine a World Cup split over five continents or a new international Super league that pits Scotland against New Zealand or Chile against Japan on a frequent basis. As crazy as it may sound, it could be a possibility if Platini got his way. Like Napoleon, there is a danger that Platini believes he can conquer the world and change it for the better. His world however is football and needs to be protected. Football fans across Europe will be hoping that common sense returns to this once great man and he returns the European Championships back to its original format just in time for the 2020 tournament.

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Will Falcao be mentally ready for Brazil?

Race to be ready for Falcao (Image from Getty)Radamel Falcao has always dreamed about playing in the World Cup and looked set to do so after helping Colombia book their place in this summer’s event in Brazil by scoring nine times in qualifying. But after a clumsy foul in the Coupe de France clash against minnows Monts d’Or Azergues, Radamel Falcao’s World Cup dream lies in tatters. An ill timed tackle from behind resulted in anterior cruciate ligament damage to Falcao’s right knee and has ruled him out for the rest of the season. With the recovery time for this type of injury usually between six to nine months, Falcao’s chances of making the 2014 World Cup are slim. Surgery on his knee the day after the match has given him a slim chance of making it, but even then he might not be ready. Falcao faces an uphill battle to be ready both physically and mentally, with the latter likely to be the hardest test of all. The psychological effects of extended time on the sidelines due to injury can take its toll on any player but the fear of a reoccurrence of the injury can be even worse. Without enough time to get in some practice matches before the World Cup kicks off, Falcao could be dropped into the high octane environment that is the group stages.   

Falcao's World Cup dream in tatters following this challenge  (Image from PA)

Falcao’s World Cup dream in tatters following this challenge
(Image from PA)

Played at a hundred miles per hour with every moment made to count, the group stages of a World Cup have historically been injury laden affairs. England fans will remember the 2006 World Cup where they watch star striker Michael Owen collapse during the group stage match against Sweden after rupturing his cruciate ligament and ending his World Cup.  Having been out injured for a spell before the tournament, Owen was rushed back in order to make the squad that went to Germany as he was seen as England’s best forward option by coach Sven Goran Eriksson. He managed to play the first two games in the group stage but in truth Owen was not fully fit. As he fell to the ground in the 1st minute of the final group game against Sweden, Owen knew that it was a direct effect of not being able to rest before the tournament and fully recover. The injury Owen suffered in the 2006 World Cup was not a career ending one but he never fully recovered the form and speed that had made him famous and eventually retired after several disappointing season back in England. The fear for Falcao is that he rushes back to play and suffers a similar fate as Owen, ending what has been an electric career so far.

Falcao could risk long term problems like Owen if he plays in the World Cup  (Image from AFP)

Falcao could risk long term problems like Owen if he plays in the World Cup
(Image from AFP)

If he can make the tournament, then all eyes will fall on head coach José Pékerman and how he uses his star player. With Colombia pitted in a winnable group against Greece, Ivory Coast and Japan, they could afford to rest Falcao and slowly introduce him into the tournament, preparing him for the knock out stages instead. But if they struggle in their first match against Greece, Pekerman may be forced to turn to Falcao to ensure qualification. Failure to qualify from the group stage for Colombia is not an option and its passionate fans. Having failed to do so in the last two tournaments they competed in (1994 + 1998), Pekerman is keen to have his team progress and was building his team around Falcao. But following the Monaco frontman’s injury, Pekerman has had to put his faith in others like Teófilo Gutiérrez, Jackson Martinez, Carlos Bacca and Luis Muriel. Bacca has been in good form since his move to Sevilla in the summer and could be selected to start in Brazil in place of Falcao alongside either Martinez or Gutierrez. Given the choice though, Pekerman would choose Falcao ahead of all others as he recognizes that he is without question the best striker in the world right now.

Could Bacca replace Falcao?  (Image from Getty)

Could Bacca replace Falcao?
(Image from Getty)

Regardless of where you come from or which country you will be supporting at the World Cup, everyone is hoping that Falcao can recover in time to participate. After all, the World Cup should be about the world’s best teams and in them the world’s greatest players. With Sweden’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Wales Gareth Bale already missing out due to their respective countries failing to qualify, fans will be hoping Falcao won’t be added to this list too.

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Brazil Or Bust: The Challenges Facing Teams At The World Cup

Sepp Blatter and Fernanda Lima at the Draw (Image from Getty)Friday’s World Cup draw was anything but easy to understand. The complicated system employed by FIFA to stack rank then draw the 32 teams left many wondering what had just happened. The look on England manager Roy Hodgson’s face said it all. But now that the draw is over, each team has full clarity of the task in hand and who they will be facing next summer. For some the draw was kind whilst others will be wondering whether to go at all. Speculation over who will win the tournament has gone into overdrive with Brazil, Argentina and Spain set as early favourites based on their FIFA rankings and the groups drawn but there are other factors at play that need to be considered.

All eyes on Brazil  (Image from PA)

All eyes on Brazil
(Image from PA)

Just looking at how the groups are laid out is not enough to try and work out who will be victorious in Brazil. There are other mitigating circumstances that will come into play and will affect the overall outcome. First and foremost the location of each game and the travelling required by some nations will have an effect on the condition of the players and how tired they will be. With only a few days between games, logistics will play a huge part in the preparations. Mexico look to have profited with a draw that sees their travel restricted top only a couple of hours each time. All of their matches will be played in the northern cities of Natal, Fortaleza and Recife. In the same group, home nation Brazil will spend a majority of time travelling as they attempt to appease the fans across the country. Whilst accustom to the climate and conditions, the heavy travel schedule over a short space of time make take its toll. Portuguese chances of progressing from the group stage took a hit when the draw was made. Not only did they land in a tough group with Germany, USA and Ghana, the way the fixtures are lined up could also factor into their potential success. A tough opener in Salvador against Germany is followed six days later with a tiring match against the US in tropical Manaus before a lengthy journey to Brasilia to face Ghana four days after that. Like many teams, the strength in depth of the squad will show as rotation will be key to survive the group stage. Squads like Croatia, Iran, Greece and Japan will all struggle as their key starting eleven falter and managers are forced to replace them with lesser quality players.

Travel will play a major role in who wins the World Cup  (Image from Google)

Travel will play a major role in who wins the World Cup
(Image from Google)

The weather and climate will also play a major role. In places like Manaus, centered in the middle of the Amazon, teams will experience high temperatures and lung busting humidity. During July, heavy rain is not uncommon but the summer months fall during the countries “dry spell” so the rain is usually limited to mid afternoon showers. Still this will likely alter the playing surface, forcing teams into tactical changes and potentially player selection. It’s a world away from the cooler temperatures of the south in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro where the weather is more controlled and will suit the European teams more. Don’t be surprised to see dark horses Belgium storm through the group stages after being given a kind draw. With an easy group (Russia, Algeria and South Korea) and all their matches to be played in the south (Rio, Sao Paulo and Belo Horizonte), Belgium should be refreshed and firing on all cylinders come the knock out stages. France too should profit from having two of their three matches located in the south of the country. Travel will play a role but with a difficult game against the Swiss sandwiched nicely between ties against Honduras and Ecuador, France should progress with ease. England and Italy are both facing a difficult World Cup and will need to start strongly in their opening match against each other in Manaus on Saturday 14th June.  After the match, Italy travel east to Recife where they face Costa Rica then conclude the group with a likely winner takes all match against Uruguay in Natal. England however fly south to Sao Paulo to take on a Luis Suarez inspired Uruguay then north to play Costa Rica in Belo Horizonte. Hodgson will know that the match in Belo will be pointless if his team cannot pick up any points in the first two matches of the group. A tough challenge given the opposition, weather conditions and travel.

Belgium should benefit from an easy draw and little travel  (Image from Getty)

Belgium should benefit from an easy draw and little travel
(Image from Getty)

We are now just over six months away from the kick off of the 2014 World Cup. All 32 teams now know who they will be facing and what other challenges lie in wait for them when they reach Brazil. The toughest challenge for them all will be not necessarily the games themselves but everything around them. With transport infrastructure still an issue, hotels not complete and adverse weather conditions across the country, the winners of Brazil 2014 will have to overcome a variety of obstacles if they are to lift the famous golden trophy.

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Chelsea Ready To Lift The Cup That Means Not A Lot

Club World Cup TrophyIt’s been a crazy year for Chelsea. After AVB was dismissed after a bad start to his first season in charge, club legend Di Matteo took the reigns and turned the club around, eventually leading them to Champions League glory. Whilst it was understood by many as being the main prize that owner Roman Abramovich was gasping for, it appeared as though it wasn’t enough as Di Matteo was eventually sacked and replaced by Rafa Benetiz, much to the amusement of the clubs fans. Now as Benetiz leads Chelsea into their first ever Club World Cup final tonight against Copa Libertadores champions Corinthians, he will be desperate to get his hands on some silverware in an attempt to hold on to his job for a while longer.

Chelsea have a good chance of beating Corinthians who were less than impressive in their semi final win against Egypt’s Al-Ahly but the real question is what value this win would actual bring to Chelsea. Granted it would add some additional cash to the clubs coffers ($5million for the winner and $4million for the runner-up) but for a team bankrolled by a billionaire, is this a good reason to travel mid-season to Japan for two games? Hardly. The Club World Cup is not really about football, it’s about brand building. With only four teams competing, one from each of the six continental confederations (there is a mini tournament between the 3 lesser confederations beforehand to work out which team progresses), it’s not really a tournament as such.

Torres arrives in Japan for the tournament

Torres arrives in Japan for the tournament

Chelsea will be hopeful that history repeats itself as the past 5 winners of the final have been from Europe with Brazilian team Internacional the last team to pick up the trophy for South American in 2005. So far, the UK press has been consumed with the return of form of Fernando Torres who expertly dispatched Monterrey in the semi final, but for realists out there, it was merely Torres getting on the score sheet against a much weaker side. There in lies the fundamental problem with this supposed tournament. In the last 11 years, every final has been fought out between the Champions League and the Copa Libertadores winners, except for one occasion when African Champions League winners, TP Mazembe upset the odds to reach the final where they were eventually thrashed by Inter Milan, ironically managed by one Rafa Benetiz. As the clubs in Europe and South America grow in stature and pedigree each year, the other champions are unable to keep pace and the gap in class widens till eventually the Cup’s early games look more like Chelsea vs Barnet in the FA Cup than Chelsea playing against the CONCACAF champions.

Inter and Benetiz celebrate Cup victory

Inter and Benetiz celebrate Cup victory

To solve this problem, FIFA needs to re-examine why it holds this competition in the first place and radically change its setup. Firstly expanding the number of teams involved would make sense, even if it is just to increase it from 4 to 8, it may offer some more competition. Secondly the timing of the tournament makes not sense either as it falls in the middle of domestic leagues, causing disruption for the teams involved in the tournament and the leagues. Thirdly, the location is not ideal. Whilst it is understandable that they need to find somewhere that is geographically in the middle for the competing teams, it still results in a lot of additional travel for the teams competing, especially like Chelsea during the middle of a busy domestic campaign. Perhaps UEFA has the correct approach with its plans for EURO 2020 and beyond, with no host country and instead a variety of countries closer to home hosting games. At Chelsea’s match against Monterray in the semi finals, the stadium was half full with only 1,000 Chelsea fans making the long trip to Japan for the game. You could actually hear the players talking to each other during the game, because the crowd was so quiet.

Juan Mata scores Chelsea's 3rd goal in the Semi final

Juan Mata scores Chelsea’s 3rd goal in the Semi final

FIFA needs to step in and either change the format of this dithering tournament or axe it all together. For Benetiz, who is looking for his 2nd Club World Cup after that win with Inter, will aim to inspire his Chelsea team towards glory tonight as he knows anything less than success is rewarded with the axe. Although with Pep Guardiola finally taking off his sabbatical slippers and ready to step back into management, the result tonight might not matter, especially when Abramovich is involved. At least for Rafa, a second win will help bolster his resume as he faces the possibility of looking for yet another job.

Neymar dazzles as Europe’s elite watch with interest

Current Santos starlet Neymar is eyeing his next move. After months of speculation, Neymar looks finally set to move to Europe to ply his trade. The unanswered question is who will he be playing for? Chelsea, PSG, Manchester City and United plus Real Madrid and Barcelona have all expressed an interest but the final decision will rest with the player himself.

Neymar’s future may be uncertain but his ability is not. In a recent match for his club Santos, he scored a fantastic individual goal to put his team up 2-0. Santos would later throw the lead away, drawing the match with Atletico Mineiro 2-2, but the Santos fans were not concerned after seeing their star player at his best. Just days after scoring a brace for Brazil against Japan, the skillful Brazilian skinned two players with sublime touches, before nut megging Serginho and beating the goalkeeper from 14 yards out.

Neymar’s future looks certainly to lie away from Brazil which will disappoint the Santos fans, but for one lucky club in Europe, they are getting a genuine superstar in the making.

To watch the goal, click on this YouTube link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qrnTdLezuK0&feature=player_embedded