Get the champagne ready World Cup 2018 is hours away! Here are my picks ahead of today's kick off in Russia:
Before Spain announced yesterday morning that they were sacking manager Julen Lopetegui, they were my favorites to win the tournament. My first reaction when hearing the news was to ditch them all together, but this squad is too good to write off. They have world-class players in every area of the pitch, the best goalkeeper in the world, and maybe just maybe the sacking of Lopetegui is the kick in the arse this team probably needed after some lackluster pre World Cup friendlies. I'm sticking with them as my pick to win it all because I could see the team rallying together and putting the doubters to shame. Sacking the manager a day before the tournament starts and going on to win it? Stranger things have happened.
SEMIFINALISTS: Spain, Germany, Argentina, Brazil
Spain are my pick to win the whole thing and if they win the group should have a relatively easy run until they hit the Germans in the semis. A Messi fueled Argentina, and a Brazil team seeking revenge should overcome tricky challengers in Belgium and Uruguay to make up the other side of the draw.
TOP SCORER: Diego Costa
Likely to be both pantomime villain (alongside fellow embodiment of pure evil Sergio Ramos) and top scorer, Diego Costa is as talented a goalscorer as he is volatile in personality. He is a rare kind of striker who is both bulldog and ballerina all at once. Having had 6 months off before his transfer to Atletico Madrid from Chelsea was confirmed, he should be fresh for this World Cup. And with the likes of Isco, Iniesta, Asensio, and David Silva feeding him he will have plenty of opportunities to hit the back of the net.
PLAYER OF THE TOURNAMENT: Isco
Though he was subdued in the Champions League final for Real Madrid, Isco is a gem of a footballer. He has been Spain's best player over the last year or so (he scored a hattrick in a 6-1 demolition of Argentina in March). Though he is often in the shadow of Ronaldo et al at Real Madrid, his sublime touch and telescopic vision could very well provide the spark that Spain have been missing in their last 2 tournament appearances.
YOUNG PLAYER OF THE TOURNAMENT: Timo Werner
Europe's big boys have been sniffing around RB Leipzig's 22-year-old striker Timo Werner for the last couple of seasons. And with a chance to lead Germany's front line at this World Cup, it would be no surprise if the suitors come calling again once the tournament is over. Werner is a pacey, direct striker who is also comfortable out wide, and he will gobble up the chances that his illustrious teammates will create for him. Germany should go far in the tournament as well so it would be no surprise to see him up there challenging for the golden boot.
GOLDEN GLOVE: David De Gea
Quite simply the best. After a shaky start to his early Manchester United career, David De Gea has developed into the best goalkeeper in the world. Though his form for Spain since taking over the #1 jersey from Iker Casillas has been inconsistent, De Gea will provide the kind of stability and brilliance at the back for Spain that is necessary to go far in any tournament. With the likes of Sergio Ramos, Gerard Pique, and Cesar Azpilicueta lining up alongside him, De Gea should get even more protection for country than he does for club, making Spain a very tough team to beat.
Group A: Uruguay
Uruguay have one of the best strike forces in World Football with Suarez and Cavani, and are the best team in the weakest group of the tournament. They should win it comfortably.
Group B: Spain
Despite the turmoil, they simply have too many good players not to at least get out of the group. Whether the issue with the manager becomes a real problem for them remains to be seen, but with only Portugal approaching anywhere near their level in a lopsided group B they should qualify for the next round comfortably.
Group C: Denmark
Denmark are by no means the most talented team in group C. That is certainly France, who are blessed with seasoned European powerhouses in almost every position. But France feel more like a collection of individuals, and Denmark, behind the mesmeric Christian Eriksen, are a team. There always seems to be at least one World Cup meltdown, and the French certainly have previous of that. I have a feeling France will struggle to get out of this group, and I expect Denmark to take full advantage.
Group D: Croatia
With a central midfield of Modric, Rakitic, and Kovacic, Croatia are my dark horse for the whole tournament. Though they are in a tough group alongside Argentina, Nigeria, and Iceland, Croatia's dominance in the middle of the field, plus the goals that striker Mario Madzukic will certainly provide, should see them come out on top of this group.
Group E: Brazil
7-1. It's a scoreline that will never, ever be forgotten in Brazil. They might've had a slight redemption by winning Gold at home in the 2016 Olympics, but Brazil is a country that lives for its football and for the World Cup in particular. Neymar, Coutinho, Gabriel Jesus, and Firmino will provide plenty of spark up front, and I fully expect Brazil to redeem themselves 4 years on from the massacre of Belo Horizonte.
Group F: Germany
The reigning World Cup champions seem to have an even deeper squad than 2014. They are by far the best team in what should be a relatively straightforward group.
Group G: Belgium
Belgium have one of the strongest squads in the tournament, and have looked excellent in the build up to their opening game. But something feels a little off about this team. Perhaps it's manager Roberto Martinez. Historically his teams attack brilliantly, but are vulnerable at the back, and that can certainly be said of this Belgium team as well. Only England could potentially cause them trouble in a pretty weak group however, and they should sail through to the last 16.
Group H: Senegal
Group H is possibly the most up for grabs group of the tournament. Poland, Colombia, Japan, and Senegal are all relatively equal, and it would be no surprise to see any one of those 4 come out on top in this group. I'm going for Senegal however because of their pace up front-- Sadio Mane and Keita Balde are both electric-- and the stability in midfield and at the back provided by Idrissa Gueye and Kalidou Koulibaly. Though I don't expect them to go too far in the tournament after the group stage, they are certainly ones to watch.