- The World Cup draw favours France and Brazil
- Russia have little chance of going beyond the last 16
- Spain and Germany look likely, but not probable, semi finalists
Predicting World Cup winners can be difficult. However, in 2018, it’s not unreasonable to think the eventual champions will come from a group of four who seem to be a level above everybody else. If you assume that the quartet of France, Brazil, Spain, and Germany contains the likely winners, then it’s worth examining the format of the tournament to see which of these nations has the least fraught path to glory.
The “top half” of the knockout stage draw will contain the winners of groups A, C, E, and G. If the seeds win their groups – which, of course, is far from guaranteed – then that would mean Russia, France, Brazil, and Belgium. France and Brazil are likely – but not sure – winners of their groups. Belgium probably have enough firepower to stay ahead of England in Group G, but it’ll surely come down to their match in Kaliningrad to determine the group winner. Russia are, for my money, unlikely to top Group A, where Uruguay look a better bet. So, let’s substitute Uruguay for Russia and see who else qualifies for the top half of the bracket.
To do this, let’s first select our predictions for the other groups. The winners of groups B, D, F, and H will go into the bottom half. Spain, Argentina, Germany, and Poland are the seeds. Spain will likely top their group, assuming they avoid defeat to Portugal, of course, and Germany are clear favourites to win a tough Group F. Anything could happen in Argentina’s group, and Colombia will fancy their chances of topping Group H. So, really, only Spain and Germany look likely bets here.
Uruguay, France, Brazil, and Belgium, the group winners in our model, will be joined by the runners up of groups B, D, F, and H. Portugal are likely to join this half. While Nigeria, Croatia, Sweden, Mexico, Colombia, or Poland could complicate things as all of these countries can cause an upset on the day, only the Portuguese would be considered a real threat to the top seeds. In our model, they are scheduled to play the Uruguayans in the last 16. That would be a toss up.
Whoever wins that are scheduled to meet the winners of the game between first in Group C and second in Group D. That should be France versus Argentina, Nigeria, or Croatia. The French will be favourites against any of these teams, but the possibility of a Ronaldo versus Messi quarter final is tantalising. Taking the French to progress from this eighth of the draw, one assumes they might prefer to meet Uruguay rather than Portugal in the quarter final after what happened in Paris two years ago. Whatever their feelings, France look the best team in this quarter and I take them to make the last four.
Who will be waiting for them? Based on our shaky assumptions, the second quarter of the bracket will feature Brazil and Belgium, with Mexico or Sweden facing the South Americans, and Poland or Colombia facing Belgium. Whatever the eventual combinations, it’s hard to see anybody other than Brazil winning this section and progressing to Saint Petersburg for a showdown with France.
In the bottom half of the draw, Spain could face the hosts, Russia, in the second round. Russia might have landed a relatively soft draw – and they need it – but it seems hugely unlikely they can go much farther than the round of 16 as surely only Iberians await in the form of Spain or Portugal. If nefarious influence was to be brought to bear in this tournament, watch for contentious VAR decisions in Group B to benefit Morocco and Iran in the short term and Russia in the medium.
Should Spain progress, they’ll likely play any one of Argentina, Nigeria, Iceland, Croatia, Peru, or Denmark. These teams, it seems, are really only playing for the right of losing in the last eight. If Spain, therefore, make the semi finals, then Germany look to be the obvious opposition.
The holders must win their group to, in all likelihood, avoid an early rematch with Brazil. Taking both the Brazilians and Germans to top their groups, the champions would then meet Switzerland or Serbia in the last 16. The Serbs have a good record against the Germans in recent World Cups (winning in 2010, drawing as part of Yugoslavia in 1998), but will probably come up short here. England could be the threat to Germany in the last eight, but that assumes they finish second to Belgium and see off one of Poland, Colombia, Japan, or Senegal in the second round. Maybe the Colombians could upset the Germans? They seem complacent. England shouldn’t be completely ruled out either and their hunger could be a factor, but the betting man would back the champions to see off all-comers here.
Therefore, with multiple assumptions and caveats, we find ourselves with France playing Brazil and Spain playing Germany for the right to contest the World Cup final. Football is becoming more predictable in many ways, but the likelihood of these “obvious” pairings in the last four coming to pass isn’t that great in reality. If one of the main seeds fails to win its group – but still progresses – all bets are off. But for now, a France versus Germany final would be my tip.