The 2018 World Cup is almost here, with 32 of the world's best teams set to battle it out in Russia. Despite calls to change the format in 2022, the first stage of this World Cup will feature eight groups of four teams, with each team set to play the other three teams in their group. With only two teams progressing to the knockout stages from each of these groups, the pressure will be on from the very start.
Group A sees hosts Russia take on Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Uruguay. This is hardly a group of death, with each team having a reasonable chance to progress if they manage to find form. Group A has the lowest cumulative world rankings, which is great news for Russian fans. While Saudi Arabia will have the toughest tests in front of them, the other three teams are all in with a good shot. Even though Russia are the lowest ranked of all 32 teams, the home ground advantage can never be underestimated when it comes to the World Cup. Saying that, however, Mohamed Salah's Egypt and Luis Suarez's Uruguay should progress to the next stage without too much difficulty.
Group B includes Portugal, Spain, Morocco, and Iran. Interestingly, three of these four teams are close neighbours, with the two Iberian teams set to clash in the tournament's first heavyweight clash. While most of the money will be on Spain and Portugal to progress, Morocco did not concede a single goal during the African qualifying matches and were one of the more impressive teams. While Morocco could pull off an upset, Iran are unlikely to surprise either of the European giants. Big game form should play a key role here, with Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal as the reigning European champions and reinvigorated Spain being the 2010 World Cup winners.
Group C will see Australia take on France, Peru and Denmark. The Socceroos have landed in a pretty favourable group, although make no mistake, progressing to the next stage will be extremely difficult. While France are the strong favourites, the second team is much harder to pin down. Even though Peru are the least fancied of the South American teams, they are full of talent and Coach Ricardo Gareca has them well organised. Denmark are probably the safest bet in terms of progression; they won the last 11 games. If key playmaker Christian Eriksen manages to find form, Denmark will almost certainly join France in the Round of 16. All hope is not lost for Australia, however, with the young and optimistic squad being capable of surprising everyone on the big stage.
Group D is strong but open, with South American giants Argentina facing Iceland, Croatia, and Nigeria. While Argentina struggled in qualifying matches and only just made the cut, the Grand Finalists from 2014 will be the favourites to progress from this group. If Lionel Messi can lead his team to victory, few will be able to argue that he's the greatest player of all time. The second qualifying team is likely to come down to either Croatia or Nigeria, with Luka Modric's Croatia always tough to beat and Nigeria in great form as the leading African qualifiers.
Group E will see favourites Brazil take on Switzerland, Costa Rica, and Serbia. Only the very brave would bet against Brazil, who have been in top form leading up to Russia. The second qualifying place will be fought between the other three teams, with both the Swiss and Serbians featuring skilful young squads and Costa Rica being always hard to predict. While Serbia cruised through their qualifying group, they lack stability with Slavoljub Muslin recently removed as coach. If Real Madrid's goalkeeper Keylor Navas can find form for his native Costa Rica, perhaps they can make the most of their fifth World Cup appearance – pretty amazing for a country with a population under 5 million.
This group is a tough one, with favourites and 2014 winners Germany up against Mexico, Sweden, and South Korea. The reigning champions are almost assured of progressing here, with Mexico also looking very hard to beat. The Mexicans have played in the last six World Cups, and on each occasion they were knocked out in the round of 16. Reaching the quarter finals or better would be seen as a success in Mexico, with anything less seen as a dismal failure. While Sweden or South Korea are unlikely to progress over Germany or Mexico, both teams are capable of pulling off surprises on a good day.
Group G features Belgium, Panama, Tunisia, and England. The star studded Belgium team will be looking to finally deliver in a big tournament, with Spanish coach Roberto Martinez enlisted to get the best out of stars like Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne. When you consider that Romelu Lukaku and Thibaut Courtois are also in the team, it's hard to see them not going through. While England should take out the second spot in the group, their embarrassing performances in recent tournaments has given birth to realistic expectations for the other teams. Tunisia could be the team to break English hearts once again after being unbeaten in their qualifying campaign.
The final group is possibly the weakest, and certainly one of the most open. Group H sees the talented Colombians play Poland, Senegal, and Japan, with any of these teams able to progress if they can find solid form. Despite the lack of a standout in Group H, all four of these teams feature top class talent. Robert Lewandowski will have the weight of Poland on his shoulders, with Sadio Mane expected to perform for Senegal, and the dynamic Colombian duo of James Rodriguez and Radamel Falcao capable of tearing any team apart on a good day. While the Japanese squad lacks the star power of other teams in the group, the Samurai Blue are reliable and can be dangerous.