Time to do your permutations and combinations. With the opening game between Russia and Saudi Arabia just over more than six months away, it may not be the best moment to assess the strength of the squads. But it is also unlikely that a lot will change in the coming months.
The absence of heavyweights like the Netherlands, Italy and Chile had nearly ensured that there was going to be no Group of Death. But there are a few groups which will offer banana skins for heavyweights.
Argentina, last time’s runner-up, face Iceland, Croatia and Nigeria in Group D. After the draw, Diego Maradona argued that “Argentina cannot play any worse than they are doing.” Indeed, the underwhelming qualifying campaign will not fill anyone with confidence but this is still a group in which the Albiceleste will be seen as outright favourites.
In Group F, Germany, Argentina’s conqueror in the final last time around, have been pooled with Mexico, Sweden and South Korea. Again, while none of these sides are likely to upset the defending champions, they would be no pushovers either. There was much said about Germany’s base in Brazil and the benefits it brought; the squad will reside either in Moscow or Sochi — one of their group games is in both cities.
For Spain, the campaign begins against Portugal, but the 2010 champion’s path looks fairly benign. Manager Julen Lopetegui predicted that Group B will be the “most difficult group in Russia”, but that does not seem to be the case. However, Lopetegui was keen to stress the merits of Spain’s group members. “We'll play against the current European champion, one of the best teams in the world… Morocco, who left Ivory Coast out, with a great manager in Herve Renard. And then Iran. They were the first team to qualify for the World Cup and did not concede many goals through the qualifiers, with another manager (Carlos Queiroz) with plenty of experience,” said the former Porto manager.
England and France, though, can look at the World Cup draw with hope after finding themselves in relatively easy groups. Les Bleus, particularly, will be hoping to overcome the loss of the Euro final at home last year and the company of Australia, Peru and Denmark should not trouble them. France will arguably have the strongest roster in Russia and it should be a smooth beginning to their ride.
As for England, a group with Belgium, Panama and Tunisia is not a daunting prospect. But such is the Three Lions’ history in major tournaments that one cannot harbour much optimism. While long travels in Russia will not be avoidable at some point, the greater worry for England will be to stay on their feet.
“When we have just come from two tournaments where Costa Rica knocked us out, and then Iceland, it would be folly for us not to be serious about our preparation and make sure our mentality is right. But also not being fearful of what might happen is an important balance to find,” said England manager Gareth Southgate.
Indeed, it is a caution worth noting. At the last World Cup, England, Italy and Spain failed to make it past the group stage. One should make allowances for upsets and yet not be wise to what will happen.
The absence of a ‘Group of Death’, however, has not brought an end to a group for hipsters, if there are any of them alive anymore. Group H, with Poland, Colombia, Senegal and Japan, will have plenty of interest. Although Japan and Colombia had topsy-turvy qualifying campaigns, there could be a few entertaining clashes with Robert Lewandowski, James Rodriguez, Sadio Mane and Shinji Kagawa involved.
Not to forget, Russia. The opening clash with Saudi Arabia will see the two weakest teams in the World Cup meet. But with Egypt and Uruguay the other teams, the host will be pleased with this pool. But coach Stanislav Cherchesov will have to do his homework.
Cherchesov said: "We've never played any of these teams and I've never seen them. The only thing we know is that (Liverpool forward Mohamed) Salah plays for Egypt ... and that (Edinson) Cavani and Luis (Suarez) play for Uruguay.” That is stating the obvious, really. He may need to learn more.
As the World Cup will come closer, we will be able to make better assessments of the squads. But it is rather obvious that one cannot discount Brazil, France and Germany. The talent and form possessed by both teams is not going to wane by June next year. Get your predictors out but be careful, still. Players can get injured or fall out of favour. The final stretch remains.