My first thought this week about the 2018 World Cup was – wow, where did the last four years go? It doesn’t seem two minutes since Germany belittled Brazil 7-0 in the semi-finals after being 5-0 ahead after just 29 minutes. Of course, the Germans went on to lift 2014 World Cup after winning the final with a goal in the 113th minute by Mario Gotze. Meanwhile, the Netherlands reaped further misery on Brazil with a 3-0 win in the play-off for third place.
Since then, we’ve watched Christiano Ronaldo help Real Madrid to a hat-trick of Champions League Titles and Portugal to a win in the 2016 Euros. We’ve also seen Chelsea win two Premier League Titles and Manchester City smash the previous highest points total by a Premier League winner. However, underdogs everywhere can also continue to dream the dream after Leicester City landed the 2015/16 Premier League Title at 5,000/1.
Whether an underdog will make their dreams come true at the 2018 World Cup is open to debate, but we thought we’d take a look at some of the recent international friendlies to see if they can shed any light on who might win the 2018 World Cup.
Brazil confirmed they will be tough to beat with a 2-0 win over Croatia. What was most impressive about them was their patience as it took Neymar 69 minutes to break the deadlock before Firminho finally secured the win with a goal in the 93rd minute. However, as Coach Tito is much keener on defence than many of his predecessors, he’ll have been especially pleased to limit a reasonable Croatian team to just four shots in the entire game. Brazil also enjoyed 62% of the possession.
It’s hard to know what to make of Germany’s 2-1 defeat by Austria. Firstly, Germany are rarely seen at their best in friendlies. They also rested key players like Tony Kroos and Mats Hummels. Meanwhile, their goalkeeper and captain Manuel Neuer was probably a little rusty having not played competitively since September. Austria were also maintaining their 100% record since November under new coach Franco Foda. However, Ozil did score first for Germany and Germany had 65% possession. They did little with that possession though with just eight shots, whilst Austria managed 14 shots, seven of which were on target.
Another high-profile previous World Cup winner to have enjoyed 65% possession in their most recent friendly was Spain. The Spaniards also managed 18 shots against Switzerland, though only five were on target, and only one ended up in the net. Switzerland also managed to equalise having had just five shots, with only two of those on target. It was a game that Spain should have won, but their lack of a striker with a high goals-to-games ratio has to be a worry for anyone backing them.
France are only about half the price they were immediately after the 2014 World Cup, but that’s no surprise considering the strength of their squad and their near miss at Euro 2016. They continued to impress during World Cup Qualifying and have been taking recent friendlies more seriously than some of their rivals. They strolled to an easy 2-0 win over the Republic of Ireland but stepped it up when beating Italy 3-1. The front three of Griezmann, Mbappe, and Dembele were particularly impressive and their pace and skill-levels are good enough to cause problems to any defence. However, France also looked solid in defence and, with Kante playing a similar role to the one that their manager Didier Deschamps use to be employed to do, it will be a surprise if they don’t make it to at least the semi-finals.
Argentina surely can’t be ruled-out, even if there are apparently all sorts of fallings-out in the Argentinean camp. However, I for one don’t know quite what to make of Argentina’s 4-0 win over Haiti (ranked 108th in the world). Argentina played what looked a near to full-strength side as they enjoyed 76% of the possession. That lead to 21 shots, 11 of which were on target, probably meaning that a 4-0 score-line wasn’t overly impressive. However, a Messi hat-trick and a goal for Serio Aguero again highlighted that Argentina have the players that should carry them easily to the latter stages.
Belgium have been the dark horses of world football for a few years now, a collection of potent potential that will surely combine one day to dazzling effect. Their attacking talents of Lukaku, Hazard and De Bruyne will prove a handful for anyone, whilst two clean-sheets against Portugal and Egypt also highlighted they know that defence will be equally as important at the World Cup, where many matches are often won in extra-time or even by way of a penalty shootout. However, as their two latest results were both achieved against teams without their star players, they still have something to prove in my book.
Then there’s England, who cemented their place as seventh favourites for the World Cup after winning both their recent friendlies against fellow qualifiers Nigeria and 2014 quarter-finalists Costa Rica. Both the statistics and the naked-eye suggested England had little in hand of Nigeria though and the pace of the Nigerians caused England plenty of problems. The possession was split 50/50 with both teams managing to get four of their 12 shots on target. The only difference was Harry Kane’s winner. Kane was rested for the match against Costa Rica and England enjoyed 63% of the possession. Also, though they did manage less shots, they did get six of those 10 shots on target.
Christiano Ronaldo then returned to the Portuguese side after missing their 0-0 draw against Belgium and he inspired them to a 3-0 victory over Algeria. However, he didn’t score in his 74 minutes on the pitch as Goncalo Guedes made a name for himself by bagging his second and third full-international goals. After just 10 appearances for the Portuguese first team, he could be one to watch after spending the season on loan at Valencia.
The only other team that’s priced-up at less than 33/1 to win the 2018 World Cup is Uruguay. They could also easily be a force in the latter stages as it will be a big shock if they fail to qualify for the knockout stages from a weak looking Group A. A 3-0 warm-up win over Uzbekistan may not prove much but they cruised into a 3-0 lead before their opponents grabbed a late consolation goal, and any team with Luis Suarez in it has to be respected.
In conclusion, the teams that really caught the eye in the recent friendlies were Brazil and France, with both teams looking to have well-balanced teams that are capable of scoring goals and keeping the opposition at bay. However, we all know that the 2014 World Cup Finalists Germany and Argentina are more than capable of peaking for the big occasion. Spain’s lack of a proven striker continues to be a worry, whilst Belgium, Portugal, and England probably need to step it up another notch to trouble the big-four. Meanwhile, Uruguay could possibly upset one or two of the big teams if they get their act together form what looks an easy initial group.
However, if you want to base your World Cup winners pick on the evidence of the recent international friendlies, I’d be splitting my stakes on Brazil and France.