Yes, it's true: the 2018 World Cup starts in less than 24 hours!
Since I hail from the U.S. of A., where (a) we didn't even qualify for the tournament, and (b) we think that all sports can be reduced to statistics, may I bring you the 2018 World Cup, FiveThirtyEight style:
- Uruguay Got The World Cup’s Ultimate Prize: Russia’s Group
If the opening is here for an underdog, surely that team will be Egypt. The African side has not reached the World Cup since 1990, but it now features an attacker legitimately among the best in the world in Liverpool star Mohamed Salah. He is projected to return after separating his shoulder in the Champions League final. Whether Salah will be fit to start the tournament remains up in the air, and Egypt would likely struggle without its superstar. But if he can come back, he’s as sure a thing as there is in world soccer.
- Can Morocco Squeeze Past Spain Or Portugal?
Spain, perhaps more than any other national team, has an established identity. Despite turning over nearly all of its attacking and midfield players since 2010 — only Sergio Busquets remains in the same role he played on the team that beat the Netherlands in that final — Spain has maintained the same probing, passing style. No team in the world has depended less on crosses to move the ball into the penalty area.
- France’s Group-Stage Tuneup Will Tell Us Whether It’s A Contender
At only 25 years old, Paul Pogba has already played in the finals of the UEFA European Championships and the Champions League. He won titles with Juventus, and after transferring to Manchester United for a whopping $116.4 million, he has become a fixture in the center of the midfield at Old Trafford. But no matter how much he accomplishes, there are still questions about exactly how big a superstar he is. His technical ability and range are a rare combination. Whether French manager Didier Deschamps unleashes him to get forward and contribute to the attack or keeps him chained to a more disciplined midfield role will likely influence perceptions of Pogba’s performance at this World Cup.
- Argentina Is The Team To Beat In Group D, But Can Messi (Finally) Win The Tournament?
If there is to be an upset in this group, who better than Iceland to pull it off? The tiny Scandinavian nation is going to its first World Cup after a Cinderella run in the 2016 Euros and a shockingly assured European qualifying season. Iceland will not be trying anything unusual or pretty, but what it does is effective. Iceland will look for quick-hitting counterattacks and set play situations. If neither of Croatia or Argentina can sort out a solution to their tactical problems, Iceland’s clear understanding of its own style should give them a real shot at an upset.
- Brazil Got A Lot Better Since The Last World Cup
CONMEBOL qualifying is the most difficult of all the regional qualifying tournaments, and Brazil romped through with little difficulty. The Selecao rate as the best defensive team in the world by a significant margin. But the likely back line of Danilo, Thiago Silva, Miranda and Marcelo has an average age of 31, so they’re not exactly at the peak of their careers. Rather, manager Tite has developed a tactical system that protects the back line with two of the best defensive midfielders in the world, Casemiro and Fernandinho. Both players anchor three-man midfields for their club sides, Real Madrid and Manchester City respectively, where they are largely responsible for stopping opposition attacks in midfield on their own. For Brazil, they can share the load.
- Mexico May Need To Beat Germany To Have Hope — Good Luck With That
Mexico has an intriguing attacking corps but has also struggled to score. In its three friendlies in preparation for the tournament, it scored one goal combined against Scotland, Wales and Denmark. Mainstays for the team like Chicharito Hernandez and Raul Jimenez have struggled to make an impact leading the line, and even 34-year-old Oribe Peralta is getting minutes.
- Belgium And England Headline The World Cup’s Most Lopsided Group
It should be remembered that Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola coached the best domestic teams of the past two World Cup victors — Bayern Munich of Germany in 2014 and Barcelona of Spain in 2010 — and his influence is clear on Southgate’s plans. In the friendlies leading up to the tournament, England played a midfield three inspired by Manchester City, with one purely defensive player (either Jordan Henderson or Eric Dier) supporting two attacking midfielders, Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard.
- A World Cup Sleeper May Be Lurking In Group H
Skillful wingers Keita Baldé and Mané offer Senegal’s main threat in attack, while the towering defensive presence of Kalidou Koulibaly makes the spine of the team seem stronger than its 33 percent chance of progression may suggest. Given the relative equality of the group, a strong performance from Senegal in its opener against Poland could dramatically change expectations.
And of course, because there's no such thing as too much of a good thing, two bonus links:
- How Our 2018 World Cup Predictions Work
At the heart of our forecast are FiveThirtyEight’s SPI ratings, which are our best estimate of overall team strength. In our system, every team has an offensive rating that represents the number of goals that it would be expected to score against an average team on a neutral field and a defensive rating that represents the number of goals that it would be expected to concede. These ratings, in turn, produce an overall SPI rating, which represents the percentage of points — a win is worth 3 points, a tie worth 1 point, and a loss worth 0 points — the team would be expected to take if that match were played over and over again.
Soccer Power Index (SPI) ratings and chances of advancing for every team, updating live.
For myself, I'm rooting for Iceland, Costa Rica, and South Korea, but anticipating France, Germany, and Brazil.