Which country will surprise us all this summer, will Germany retain the title they won so dramatically in 2014, or will Messi get the World Cup to stop his doubters using it as an excuse for not being the greatest?
The tournament begins on 15th June in Russia, with 12 stadiums hosting 63 games over 4 weeks culminating at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, a huge 88'000 seater stadium in the Moscow Olympic Park that will host the final.
Looking back to 4 years ago, my prediction of an Argentina/Brazil final were dashed by the Germans hitting 7 past Brazil in the semis. James Rodriguez exploded on to the world stage in Brazil, who will it be this time? He finished top scorer, although it was Messi who took home to Golden Ball for dragging Argentina to the final with some outstanding performances. There will be no problems with humidity in Russia, so unlike 4 years ago there will be no drinks breaks and hopefully the football is a little faster.
Starting with group A, lets take a look at the players to look out for, teams to expect to progress, and anything interesting regarding each group.
Russia (66 in Fifa Rankings)
Saudi Arabia (70)
Russia - As World Cup groups go, group A is about as weak as they come on paper. Russia as host nation are in their worst ever Fifa ranking spot, and have won just 3 times in their last 13 games, against South Korea, New Zealand and Hungary. In last years confederations cup they were beaten by Mexico and Portugal on home soil, and it will be difficult for them to progress here again.
Only once has a home nation failed to qualify through the group stages of a World Cup(South Africa 2010), and despite Russia being as poor as they have ever been, they have been given a draw that gives them the best chance possible to keep it that way.
The first game against Saudi Arabia will be absolutely crucial, if they can give themselves a platform with 3 points, they could potentially play for a draw against Uruguay and Egypt to try and progress. The Russian squad certainly lacks real quality, with only 2 players likely to be included that play outside of Russia. Gone are the days of players like Arshavin and Pavlyuchenko playing regularly in the Premier League, now they rely on talent playing in the Russian Premier League. For years the back line included Sergei Ignashevich and the Berezutski brothers, but now they have a big problem with many defenders in their late 20's that have hardly any caps due to the longevity and, perhaps, over reliance on ageing defenders.
This year, there is a new set of twins to look out for, and perhaps Russia can look to them to make a difference now, and in the future. At 22 years old, the Miranchuk brothers, Anton and Aleksei have been playing a crucial part at Lokomotiv Moscow as they push for their first Russian title since 2004. Aleksei is a slightly more advanced midfielder than Anton and will hopefully provide a goal threat while Anton can assist from deeper. Along with Alan Dzagoev, who is now 27 years old and should be hitting his prime, they will be aiming to take Russia past the group stages, and at least give something for Putin to smile about.
Star Man - Every country needs a goalscorer, and Russia will be expecting Fyodor Smolov to be the top man for them. He has been a consistent goalscorer for Kuban Krasnodar over the last 3 seasons, with 50 goals in 66 appearances. At 28 years old he only has 30 caps for Russia, with 12 goals. But his emergence with Krasnodar the last 3 seasons means he will be going to the World Cup in his best ever form, and he has some talented creative players behind him to create chances for him.
Uruguay - The Sky Blues finished runners up to Brazil in the notoriously difficult South American qualification section despite winning only 2 games on the road(Paraguay and Bolivia). Their home form is excellent, but they recently beat Czech Republic and Wales in the China Cup to show that they can win while travelling as well. Although they will face tougher challenges in Russia, they are definitely strong favourites to progress from Group A with so many quality players at their disposal. They were well beaten in the Round of 16 four years ago by a James Rodriguez inspired Colombia, but they were missing Luis Suarez after he took a bite out of Chiellini's shoulder in the final group game. This time around they have the opportunity to go further, with the defense being organised by Diego Godin, probably playing his last tournament at 32 and the forward line of Cavani and Suarez with 92 goals between them both 31 years old, its now or never for the current generation. Cavani has 25 league goals for PSG this season, and Suarez has 23 for Barcelona. No doubt these two are the stars, but can they link up, and produce the performances that should make them the most feared partnership at the World Cup.
Egypt - The Pharaohs qualified comfortably for the World Cup, winning a group with Uganda, Congo and Ghana easily. The famous face in the dugout is former Inter and Valencia manager, Hector Cuper. His squad doesn't have a huge amount of talent to choose from, and will include several faces plying their trade in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and some more familiar faces playing in England. Ahmed Hegazi and Ali Gabr are both defenders at West Brom now, with the former being a regular this season for the Premier Leagues worst club. It's hardly a great base for the defense, and with Mohamed El Neny in front of them, they will be hoping that they can improve on a mediocre season in the league. At 21 years old, Ramadan Sobhi is one for the future at Stoke, but he has shown glimpses of quality, and is an important part of the Egypt midfield. Of the 6 games in the second phase of qualifying, only 3 players scored goals for them, which is a huge problem. They are relying heavily on Mo Salah to hit the net, he was the top scorer with 5 in qualifying, the next best was 2 for 32 year old Abdallah Said, currently playing in Finland for Kups. Last year they lost the final of the African Nations against Cameroon, so they are capable of winning matches in knockout tournaments, but this will be a step up, and they will be heavily reliant on one man.
Saudi Arabia - The lowest ranked team in the tournament, The Green Falcons qualified through the Asian section by, along with Japan, getting through a group including Australia, Iraq, UAE and Thailand. It is not difficult to see why they are the lowest ranked team, with the majority of the squad currently playing at home in the Saudi Professsional League. This will be their first appearance at the finals since Germany 2006, where they were beaten by Ukraine and Spain, earning their only point with a draw against Tunisia. Only once(Last 16, 1994) have they made it through the group stages, and with no real stars it will be difficult to emulate that. There are a few players on the books of Spanish clubs, Al-Sheri(Leganes), Al-Muwallad(Levante) and Al-Dawsari(Villareal), and despite none of them playing for the first teams, they will likely be a major part of the Saudi squad.
Predictions - Uruguay are firm favourites for this group and I think they will top it easily. They have much more quality in the full squad than the other teams. Joining them in the last 16, will be Russia. Egypt have Salah and a good team spirit, but Russia have the home crowd, and I think Salah having played so many games this season, and everything expected of him will struggle to produce the form needed. It will be tight, as all teams should beat Saudi Arabia, but Russia will just sneak through.
What to Bet on - Uruguay are 4/5 to win group A, that's printing money for me.
World Klutz - World Cuts was a popular feature of my preview 4 years ago(?), I reckon. But this time, lets have a look at an individual that has cost their team, or someone that deserves a place among World Cup history for all the wrong reasons.
For our first ever World Klutz, it's a memory from the first WC that I remember as a child. The final of 1994 World Cup in USA is one of, if not the earliest game I remember watching. But there is no doubt, that the person who left a mark on their tournament for their failure to hit the net at a crucial time, is Diana Ross. Not only the fact that she missed, but that the goals still collapsed just makes it perfect.