World Cup 2018 team-by-team guide

    The 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia starts next week and we’ve run the rule over the 32 teams taking part, analysis includes a top trend plus a form rating for each side.
  • Friday 08 June 2018
  • Tipsters

Welcome to ATR's World Cup 2018 team-by-team Guide, offering a lowdown as to which teams will be lining-up in Russia for what promises to be the most memorable month of the year.

A wealth of talent will be on show for footy fans and punters alike, including the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Neymar. As for who might come out on top, then the following insights may provide a few clues as to who’ll be lifting the famous trophy aloft come July 15.

Included in the insights into each nation contesting the famous trophy are some handy “Form Ratings”, which indicate the teams who earned the strongest victories during the last two years.

The points awarded to each team are allocated as follows:

2pts for beating a Top 20 ranked country
1pt for drawing with a Top 20 country
1pt for beating a non-Top 20 country
0pts for drawing with a non-Top 20 country
-1pt for losing to a Top 20 ranked country
-2pts for losing to a non-Top 20 country

Group A

EGYPT

Seeding: 30

Tournament odds: 250-1

Star player: Mohammed Salah

Group fixtures:
15 Jun: Uruguay
19 Jun: Russia
25 Jun: Saudi Arabia

World Cup finishes:
1998-2014: Not qualify

Best World Cup finish:
Group stage (1990)

Qualifying route:
Group winners (ahead of Uganda)
W4 D1 L1 GD +4

2018 form:
06 June: Belgium 3 Egypt 0
01 June: Egypt 0 Colombia 0
25 May: Kuwait 1 Egypt 1
27 Mar: Egypt 0 Greece 1
23 Mar: Portugal 2 Egypt 1

Record against Top 20 ranked nations (since 2016): W0 D1 L2 (0% win rate)
Record against lower ranked nations (since 2016): W15 D6 L5 (58% win rate)

Form rating: +4

Top trend: 23 of Egypt’s last 29 matches produced 2.5 goals or less.

Egypt will be making their first appearance in the World Cup since 1990, and there are reasons for their fanatical fans to arrive in Russia optimistic. First, their star striker, Mohammad Salah, could be ready in time to face Uruguay for their opener, and his impact could prove huge. The Premier League’s leading scorer last season almost led them to victory against Portugal in March but for two late Ronaldo strikes, and that fact combined with their tight defence and expected large vocal support suggest the Pharaohs can make themselves heard.

Verdict: Could squeeze past Saudi Arabia and Russia into the last 16.

RUSSIA

Seeding: Hosts (65)

Tournament odds: 50-1

Star Player: Fedor Smolov

Group fixtures:
14 Jun: Saudi Arabia
19 Jun: Egypt
25 Jun: Uruguay

World Cup finishes:
2014: Group stage
2010: Not qualify
2006: Not qualify
2002: Group stage
1998: Not qualify

Best World Cup finish: Semi-final (1966)

Qualifying route:
Hosts

2018 form:
05 June: Russia 1 Turkey 1
30 May: Austria 1 Russia 0
27 May: Russia 1 France 3
23 Mar: Russia 0 Brazil 3

Record against Top 20 ranked nations (since 2016): W0 D4 L6 (0% win rate)
Record against lower ranked nations (since 2016): W6 D4 L6 (37% win rate)

Form rating: -8

Top trend: Russia conceded in each of their last 10 games.

Much will be expected from the host nation during the next four weeks, but with just one victory during their last 12 outings, the lowest ranked team in the competition could see home fans could lose interest in the tournament from an early stage. True, host nations can up their game on home soil, but The Sbornaya will need significant improvement – especially in defence – if getting anywhere near repeating their Euro 2008 semi-final appearance.

Verdict: Home soil may not be enough to prevent crashing out at the first hurdle.

SAUDI ARABIA

Seeding: 63

Tournament odds: 1000-1

Star player: Mohammed Al-Sahlawi

Group fixtures:
14 Jun: Russia
20 Jun: Uruguay
25 Jun: Egypt

World Cup finishes:
2014: Not qualify
2010: Not qualify
2006: Group stage
2002: Group stage
1998: Group stage

Best World Cup finish:
Last 16 (1994)

Qualifying route: Group runners-up (behind Japan)
W6 D1 L3 GD+7

2018 form:
08 Jun: Germany v Saudi Arabia
03 Jun: Saudi Arabia 0 Peru 3
28 May: Italy 2 Saudi Arabia 1
15 May: Saudi Arabia 2 Greece 0
09 May: Saudi Arabia 2 Algeria 0
27 Mar: Belgium 4 Saudi Arabia 0

Record against Top 20 ranked nations (since 2016): W0 D0 L4 (0% win rate)
Record against lower ranked nations (since 2016): W14 D7 L7 (50% win rate)

Form Rating: -4

Top trend: Saudi Arabia produced just one goalless stalemate in 18 games.

While swept aside by Portugal (3-0) and Belgium (4-0) since November, victories against both Greece and Algeria last month gave Saudi Arabia hope that they can taste victory against Russia in the opener. However, the ageing Green Falcons will need their influential hitman, Mohammed Al-Sahlawi – joint-top scorer with Robert Lewandowski in qualification with 16 goals – to be at his very best if making any impact for a side playing under their third coach since September.

Verdict: Chances of making the last 16 look slim.

URUGUAY

Seeding: 17

Tournament odds: 28-1

Star player: Luis Suarez

Group fixtures:
15 Jun: Egypt
20 Jun: Saudi Arabia
25 Jun: Russia

World Cup finishes:
2014: Last 16
2010: Semi-final
2006: Not qualify
2002: Group stage
1998: Not qualify

Best World Cup finish:
Winners (1950, 1930)

Qualifying route: Group runners-up (behind Brazil)
W9 D4 L5 GD+12

2018 form:
08 June: Uruguay v Uzbekistan
26 Mar: Wales 0 Uruguay 1
23 Mar: Uruguay 2 Czech Rep 0

Record against Top 20 ranked nations (since 2016): W1 D3 L6 (10% win rate)
Record against lower ranked nations (since 2016): W9 D2 L3 (64% win rate)

Form rating: +2

Top trend: Uruguay won just one of their 10 games against Top 20 ranked opposition since 2016.

Having finished ahead of both Argentina and Colombia in qualification, Uruguay have been kept fairly fresh for this competition where they’ll hope to go deep. The Sky Blue haven’t been set a difficult task in Group A, which could allow the world-class, Luis Suarez, to get into the groove, along with partner, Edinson Cavani (scored more than Suarez in qualification). The only concern if making the knockout stages is their failure to beat the big boys, notching just one win from 10 against Top 20 ranked teams.

Verdict: Early momentum could trigger a big tournament.

GROUP A VERDICT : URUGUAY standout as the class act and can utilize their goal power in landing top spot.

Group B

IRAN

Seeding: 34

Tournament odds: 750-1

Star Player: Sardar Azmoun

Group fixtures:
15 Jun: Morocco
20 Jun: Spain
25 Jun: Portugal

World Cup finishes:
2014: Group stage
2010: Not qualify
2006: Group stage
2002: Not qualify
1998: Group stage

Best World Cup finish:
Group stage (2014, 2006, 1998, 1978)

Qualifying route: Group winners (ahead of South Korea)
W6 D4 L0 GD +8

2018 form:
08 June: Iran v Lithuania
28 May: Turkey 2 Iran 1
19 May: Iran 1 Uzbekistan 0
27 Mar: Iran 2 Algeria 1
23 Mar: Tunisia 1 Iran 0
17 Mar: Iran 4 Sierra Leona 0

Record against Top 20 ranked nations (since 2016): W0 D0 L0 (0% win rate)
Record against lower ranked nations (since 2016): W17 D5 L3 (68% win rate)

Form rating: +3

Top trend: Iran’s tight defence leaked more than once just twice in 33 games.

It would be a major achievement if Iran can get beyond the group stages for the first time following four failed attempts, but they’ll need to do it the hard way with both Portugal and Spain standing in the way. The fact Team Melli lack experience against the major nations – they haven’t played a top 20 side since beating Chile 2-0 in 2015 – suggests they could be out their depth, but thoughts of them being rolled over 3-0 and 4-0 could prove unwise.

Verdict: No chance of winning it, but no pushovers either.

MOROCCO

Seeding: 48

Tournament odds: 500-1

Star Player: Hakim Ziyech

Group fixtures:
15 Jun: Iran
20 Jun: Portugal
25 Jun: Spain

World Cup finishes:
2002-2014: Not qualify
1998: Group stage

Best World Cup finish:
Last 16 (1986)

Qualifying route: Group winners (ahead of Ivory Coast)
W3 D3 L0 GD+11

2018 form:
09 Jun: Estonia v Morocco
04 Jun: Morocco 2 Slovakia 1
31 May: Morocco 0 Ukraine 0
27 Mar: Morocco 2 Uzbekistan 0
23 Mar: Serbia 1 Morocco 2

Record against Top 20 ranked nations (since 2016): W0 D0 L1 (0% win rate)
Record against lower ranked nations (since 2016): W18 D6 L4 (64% win rate)

Form rating: +9

Top trend: The only team that put more than two goals past Morocco during the last three years is Holland.

Having players from the leading clubs in Europe (Real Madrid, Juventus and Ajax) is a sign that Morocco could make both Portugal and Spain sweat. The likes of Juventus’s, Hakim Ziyech, will not be out of place against Ronaldo and Iniesta, and along with a stingy defence that gives away little, the Atlas Lions could make their presence felt following a 20-year absence from the competition.

Verdict: Could win a game but unlikely to make last 16.

PORTUGAL

Seeding: 3

Tournament odds: 25-1

Star player: Cristiano Ronaldo

Group fixtures:
15 Jun: Spain
20 Jun: Morocco
25 Jun: Iran

World Cup finishes:
2014: Group stage
2010: Last 16
2006: Semi-final
2002: Group stage
1998: Not qualify

Best World Cup finish:
Semi-final (2006, 1966)

Qualifying route: Group winners (from Switzerland)
W9 D0 L1 GD+28

2018 form:
07 June: Portugal 3 Algeria 0
02 June: Belgium 0 Portugal 0
28 May Portugal 2 Tunisia 2
26 Mar: Portugal 0 Holland 3
23 Mar: Portugal 2 Egypt 1

Record against Top 20 ranked nations (since Euro 2016): W1 D5 L2 (12% win rate)
Record against lower ranked nations (since Euro 2016): W15 D1 L1 (88% win rate)

Form rating: +18

Top trend: Cristiano Ronaldo and Andre Silva scored 21 of Portugal’s last 41 goals.

The reigning European champions line-up with high hopes of adding the world title, and with Cristiano Ronaldo leading from the front, who could disagree? The Madrid hitman shows no signs of letting up having just finished top scorer in the Champions League, and with the mainstay of the Euro 2016 side still in tact, the Navigators may well navigate themselves to the business end of a major tournament once more.

Verdict: The European champions continue in good form and 25-1 looks a huge price.

SPAIN

Seeding: 8

Tournament odds: 6-1

Star player: Isco

Group fixtures:
15 Jun: Portugal
20 Jun: Iran
25 Jun: Morocco

World Cup finishes:
2014: Group stage
2010: Winners
2006: Last 16
2002: Quarter-final
1998: Group stage

Best World Cup finish:
Winners (2010)

Qualifying route: Group winners (from Italy)
W9 D1 L0 GD+33

2018 form:
09 Jun: Tunisia v Spain
03 Jun: Spain 1 Switzerland 1
27 Mar: Spain 6 Argentina 1
23 Mar: Germany 1 Spain 1

Record against Top 20 ranked nations (since Euro 2016): W4 D5 L0 (44% win rate)
Record against lower ranked nations (since Euro 2016): W9 D1 L0 (90% win rate)

Form rating: +22

Top trend: Spain haven’t lost since being knocked out of Euro 2016.

Having fallen from their World Cup 2010 and Euro 2012 peak, Spain are back on track under the guidance of Julen Lopetugui. Indeed, The Red Fury not only boast an excellent record against the major nations, but have avoided defeat in any of their last 19 matches since Euro 2016. That record also includes going unbeaten in nine matches against top 20 ranked sides, including a 6-1 win over Argentina. With the likes of Iniesta, Isco, and Asenio on hand, Spain look sure to enjoy a good tournament.

Verdict: Back on an upward curve and will take some stopping.

GROUP B VERDICT: In what could prove a tougher group than it appears, SPAIN can maintain their unbeaten run in holding off Portugal for top spot.

Group C

AUSTRALIA

Seeding: 43

Tournament odds: 750-1

Star player: Mile Jedinak

Group fixtures:
16 Jun: France
21 Jun: Denmark
26 Jun: Peru

World Cup finishes:
2014: Group stage
2010: Group stage
2006: Last 16
2002: Not qualify
1998: Not qualify

Best World Cup finish:
Last 16 (2006)

Qualifying route: Play-offs (third in Group behind Japan and Saudi Arabia)
W5 D4 L1 GD+5

2018 form:
09 June: Hungary v Australia
01 June: Australia 4 Czech Rep 0
27 Mar: Colombia 0 Australia 0
23 Mar: Norway 4 Australia 1

Record against Top 20 ranked nations (since 2016): W0 D2 L3 (0% win rate)
Record against lower ranked nations (since 2016): W10 D8 L3 (48% win rate)

Form rating: +3

Top trend: Australia won just one of their last 12 games on the road.

Australia arrive in Russia for their fourth consecutive World Cup – albeit without a manager. While a new coach is needed ahead of their tough opener against France, the Socceroos will rely on some experienced faces to take on the French, including Tim Cahill, Mile Jedinak and Mark Milligan, but it’s hard to see this ageing unit going far, having scrapped through the play-offs to just get here.

Verdict: Old legs may tire in a very tough group.

DENMARK

Seeding: 19

Tournament odds: 100-1

Star player: Christian Eriksen

Group fixtures:
16 Jun: Peru
21 Jun: Australia
26 Jun: France

World Cup finishes:
2014: Not qualify
2010: Group stage
2006: Not qualify
2002: Last 16
1998: Quarter-final

Best World Cup finish:
1998 (Quarter-final)

Qualifying route: Play-offs (Group runners-up to Poland)
W6 D2 L2 GD+12

2018 form:
09 Jun: Denmark v Mexico
02 Jun: Sweden 0 Denmark 0
27 Mar: Denmark 0 Chile 0
22 Mar: Denmark 1 Panama 0

Record against Top 20 ranked nations (since 2016): W1 D2 L1 (25% win rate)
Record against lower ranked nations (since 2016): W10 D6 L2 (55% win rate)

Form rating: +8

Top trend: Denmark conceded more than one goal just once in 18 games.

Having experienced a lull in recent decades, there is a feeling Denmark can achieve something above-par this summer. The Danish Dynamite certainly have players who can trouble the big sides – lost just one of their four games against a Top 20 country since 2016 – including the highly influential, Christian Eriksen, who enjoyed a superb season with Tottenham. The only negative is that Denmark would need to be the first play-off qualifiers to lift the trophy, although they did win Euro 92 after being let through the back door.

Verdict: A difficult side to beat and capable of going far.

FRANCE

Seeding: 7

Tournament odds: 13-2

Star player: Paul Pogba

Group fixtures:
16 Jun: Australia
21 Jun: Peru
26 Jun: Denmark

World Cup finishes:
2014: Quarter-final
2010: Group stage
2006: Runners-up
2002: Group stage
1998: Winners

Best World Cup finish:
Winners (1998)

Qualifying route: Group winners (from Sweden)
W7 D2 L1 GD+12

2018 form:
09 Jun: France v USA
01 Jun: France 3 Italy 1
28 May: France 2 Ireland 0
27 Mar: Russia 1 France 3
23 Mar: France 2 Colombia 3

Record against Top 20 ranked nations (since Euro 2016): W5 D1 L2 (62% win rate)
Record against lower ranked nations (since Euro 2016): W9 D3 L1 (69% win rate)

Form rating: +16

Top trend: France scored at least twice during their last seven games.

Impressive, most impressive – that’s the best way of describing France’s build-up to Russia. Having been viewed as a young progressive side four years ago in Brazil, Les Bleus built on that promise in making the Euro 2016 final when narrowly pipped by Portugal. Since, the likes of N’Golo Kante have improved significantly, and their form also caught the eye in losing just three of their last 21 games, while winning five of their eight clashes with Top 20 countries – they also drew 2-2 in Germany. A kind opener against Australia awaits, and everything looks in place for France to peak in Russia.

Verdict: Tick all the right boxes and capable of lifting the trophy.

PERU

Seeding: 10

Tournament odds: 250-1

Star player: Paolo Guerrero

Group fixtures:
16 Jun: Denmark
21 Jun: France
26 Jun: Australia

World Cup finishes:
1998-2014: Not qualify

Best World Cup finish:
Quarter-final (1970)

Qualifying route: Play-offs (fifth in Group to Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina & Colombia)
W7 D5 L6 GD+1

2018 form:
09 Jun: Sweden v Peru
03 Jun: Saudi Arabia 0 Peru 3
30 May: Peru 2 Scotland 0
28 Mar: Iceland 1 Peru 3
24 Mar: Peru 2 Croatia 0

Record against Top 20 ranked nations (since 2016): W3 D4 L3 (30% win rate)
Record against lower ranked nations (since 2016): W15 D3 L0 (83% win rate)

Form rating: +22

Top trend: Peru conceded just eight goals in 14 games.

Peru return to the big stage for the first time since 1982, and their progress in recent years saw them rise up the rankings to No.10 in the world. Peru also did well against big teams, including a victory over Brazil, and have winning momentum going to Russia – the famous White and Red remained unbeaten in 18 games against rivals ranked outside the Top 20. Delivering the goods in Europe will prove a different matter, while a lack of recent experience in big tournaments is a concern, but odds of 250-1 for a country ranked 10th in the world looks big.

Verdict: An improving side who will need to be 100% if troubling France and Denmark.

GROUP C VERDICT: A tough group in which FRANCE and Denmark look the strongest – preference is for the former.

Group D

ARGENTINA

Seeding: 4

Tournament odds: 10-1

Star player: Lionel Messi

Group fixtures:
16 Jun: Iceland
21 Jun: Croatia
26 Jun: Nigeria

World Cup finishes:
2014: Runners-up
2010: Quarter-final
2006: Quarter-final
2002: Group stage
1998: Quarter-final

Best World Cup finish:
Winners (1986, 1978)

Qualifying route: Group third (behind Brazil & Uruguay)
W7 D7 L4 GD+3

2018 form:
30 May: Argentina 4 Haiti 0
27 Mar: Spain 6 Argentina 1
23 Mar: Argentina 2 Italy 0

Record against Top 20 ranked nations (since 2016): W7 D4 L2 (54% win rate)
Record against lower ranked nations (since 2016): W10 D2 L3 (67% win rate)

Form rating: +20

Top trend: Argentina lost just two of their 13 matches against a top 20 ranked side since 2016.

You can’t help but feel Argentina underachieved in recent decades, including the current one in when blessed with Lionel Messi, who almost dragged them over the line in Brazil four years ago. Things haven’t really gone right since for The Albiceleste having narrowly qualified for Russia, though they remain capable of beating the big boys – beat Brazil 1-0 last summer – they came up short when this tournament was staged in Europe previously; three of their four final appearances came in South America. A tough group doesn’t aid their chances.

Verdict: Respected, but may have missed their chance back in South America four years ago.

CROATIA

Seeding: 18

Tournament odds: 33-1

Star player: Luka Modric

Group fixtures:
16 Jun: Nigeria
21 Jun: Argentina
26 Jun: Iceland

World Cup finishes:
2014: Group stage
2010: Not qualify
2006: Group stage
2002: Group stage
1998: Semi-final

Best World Cup finish:
Semi-final (1998)

Qualifying route: Group runner-up (behind Iceland)
W6 D2 L2 GD+11

2018 form:
08 Jun: Croatia v Senegal
03 Jun: Brazil 2 Croatia 0
28 Mar: Mexico 0 Croatia 1
24 Mar: Peru 2 Croatia 0

Record against Top 20 ranked nations (since 2016): W2 D1 L2 (40% win rate)
Record against lower ranked nations (since 2016): W8 D4 L3 (53% win rate)

Form rating: +5

Top trend: Nine of Croatia’s last 10 games produced 2.5 goals or less.

Croatia have promised to deliver for some time, but possess a habit of fluffing their lines. That was the case at Euro 2016 having played well to beat Spain before getting knocked out by Portugal, and time may be running out for the likes of Ivan Rakitic, Luka Modric and Mario Mandzukic to deliver on the big stage – they only made it here via the play-offs. Their quality cannot be denied, and The Blazers remain capable of beating the major teams, it’s just a question of whether they can tick under coach, Zlatko Dalic, who took the reins in October.

Verdict: Experience of escaping group stages could prove vital.

ICELAND

Seeding: 21

Tournament odds: 250-1

Star player: Gylfi Sigurdsson

Group fixtures:
16 Jun: Argentina
22 Jun: Nigeria
26 Jun: Iceland

World Cup finishes:
1998-2014: Not qualify

Best World Cup finish:
Debut (2018)

Qualifying route: Group winners (from Croatia)
W7 D1 L2 +9

2018 form:
07 Jun: Iceland 2 Ghana 2
02 Jun: Iceland 2 Norway 3
28 Mar: Iceland 1 Peru 3
24 Mar: Mexico 3 Iceland 0
14 Jan: Indonesia 1 Iceland 4

Record against Top 20 ranked nations (since 2016): W1 D0 L5 (17% win rate)
Record against lower ranked nations (since 2016): W10 D2 L3 (67% win rate)

Form rating: +1

Top trend: Iceland’s last five games produced at least three goals.

These are indeed exciting times for Iceland, who went some way to proving their surprise achievements at Euro 2016 were no fluke by winning their qualification group for the World Cup – in the process handing them a debut appearance at the tournament. Our Boys will be more experienced on the bigger stage this time around, though they will need to improve upon their recent form poor, along with their below-par efforts against the big teams – they lost five of their six games against Top 20 opposition since Euro 2016.

Verdict: Fun to have around, but a big effort needed to escape the Group of Death.

NIGERIA

Seeding: 41

Tournament odds: 250-1

Star player: John Obi Mikel

Group fixtures:
16 Jun: Nigeria
22 Jun: Iceland
26 Jun: Argentina

World Cup finishes:
2014: Last 16
2010: Group stage
2006: Not qualify
2002: Group stage
1998: Last 16

Best World Cup finish:
Last 16 (2014, 1998, 1994)

Qualifying route: Group winners (from Zambia)
W4 D1 L1 GD+5

2018 form:
06 Jun: Nigeria 0 Czech Rep 1
02 Jun: England 2 Nigeria 1
28 May: Nigeria 1 DR Congo 1
27 Mar: Nigeria 0 Serbia 2
23 Mar Poland 0 Nigeria 1

Record against Top 20 ranked nations (since 2016): W2 D0 L1 (67% win rate)
Record against lower ranked nations (since 2016): W11 D6 L6 (48% win rate)

Top trend: Nigeria conceded in seven of their last eight games.

Numerous managerial changes haven’t prevented Nigeria making the World Cup for the fifth time in six attempts, and they could cause a few surprises. The Green Eagles boast a young, speedy unit that were capable of beating Argentina 4-2 in Russia six months ago, where the potent strike-force of Iwobi and Ihenacho were on the scoresheet. The likes of experienced midfielders, Victor Moses and John Obi Mikel add further substance.

Verdict: Every chance of making the last 16 again in an open group.

GROUP D VERDICT: A Group of Death that could make life difficult for Argentina, though CROATIA have enough quality to progress.

Group E

BRAZIL

Seeding: 2

Tournament odds: 9-2

Star Player: Neymar Jr

Group fixtures:
17 Jun: Switzerland
22 Jun: Costa Rica
27 Jun: Serbia

World Cup finishes:
2014: Semi-final
2010: Quarter-final
2006: Quarter-final
2002: Winners
1998: Runners-up

Best World Cup finish:
Winners (2002, 1994, 1970, 1962, 1958)

Qualifying route: Group winner (from Uruguay)
W12 D5 L1 GD+30

2018 form:
10 Jun: Austria v Brazil
03 Jun: Brazil 2 Croatia 0
27 Mar: Germany 0 Brazil 1
23 Mar: Russia 0 Brazil 3

Record against Top 20 ranked nations (since 2016): W8 D3 L2 (61% win rate)
Record against lower ranked nations (since 2016): W10 D3 L0 (77% win rate)

Form rating: +27

Top trend: Brazil lost just one of their last 20 games.

Having been knocked sideways by their humiliating 7-1 semi-final against Germany in the last World Cup, Brazil seem to have healed well. The manner in which they topped their qualifying group under the guidance of Tite – losing just one of their 18 matches – bodes well, while their 1-0 win in Germany three months ago went some way to banishing the fiasco of 2014. The list of talent is endless, including Neymar, Jesus, Firmino and Coutinho, and while four of Brazil’s five World Cup successes came away from Europe, it will be an even bigger shock than their 7-1 loss if The Green And Yellow fail to make the quarter-finals at least.

Verdict: Excellent recent form and hard to find any chinks in their armour. Worthy favourites.

COSTA RICA

Seeding: 22

Tournament odds: 750-1

Star player: Keylor Navas

Group fixtures:
17 Jun: Serbia
22 Jun: Brazil
27 Jun: Switzerland

World Cup finishes:
2014: Quarter-final
2010: Not qualify
2006: Group stage
2002: Group stage
1998: Not qualify

Best World Cup finish:
Quarter-final (2014)

Qualifying route: Group runners-up (behind Mexico)
W4 D4 L2 GD+6

2018 form:
11 Jun: Belgium v Costa Rica
07 Jun: England 2 Costa Rica 0
03 Jun: Costa Rica 3 N Ireland 0
27 Mar: Tunisia 1 Costa Rica 0
23 Mar: Scotland 0 Costa Rica 1

Record against Top 20 ranked nations (since 2016): W0 D1 L4 (0% win rate)
Record against lower ranked nations (since 2016): W17 D9 L6 (53% win rate)

Form rating: +1

Top trend: Their last nine games resulted in one team “winning to nil”.

Following their shock success in topping the group at the 2014 World Cup, Costa Rica will be keen to crack on and prove that was no fluke. Since that performance, The Costa Ricans made it to Russia by finishing second to Mexico in the qualifiers, though it will need another Herculean effort to see them out of the group away from their home continent – Costa Rica were walloped 5-0 by Spain and then 1-0 by Hungary on European soil seven months ago, before a recent 2-0 loss in England.

Verdict: Struggled to beat major nations and may not repeat 2014 heroics.

SERBIA

Seeding: 38

Tournament odds: 200-1

Star player: Nemanja Matic

Group fixtures:
17 Jun: Costa Rica
22 Jun: Switzerland
27 Jun: Brazil

World Cup finishes:
2014: Not qualify
2010: Group stage
2006: Group stage (Serbia & Montenegro)

Best World Cup finish:
Group stage (2010, 2006)

Qualifying route: Group winners (from Republic of Ireland)
W6 D3 L1 GD+10

2018 form:
09 Jun: Serbia v Bolivia
04 Jun: Serbia 0 Chile 1
27 Mar: Nigeria 0 Serbia 2
23 Mar: Serbia 1 Morocco 2

Record against Top 20 ranked nations (since 2016): W0 D0 L2 (0% win rate)
Record against lower ranked nations (since 2016): W11 D6 L4 (52% win rate)

Form rating: +1

Top trend: Aleksandar Mitrovic scored six of Serbia’s last 17 goals.

Serbia were all about goals in winning their group that consisted of the Republic of Ireland, Wales and Austria – a commendable effort which sees them back in the World Cup after missing out four years ago. Despite topping their group, however, The White Eagles replaced their coach, who will need to get the very best out of his squad if getting past Brazil and Switzerland – the latter are ranked 27 places higher. Overall, a tough unit to break down, but may lack the class required against better teams.

Verdict: Qualified from a tough group and capable of making the last 16, but no gold medal.

SWITZERLAND

Seeding: 11

Tournament odds: 150-1

Star Player: Granit Xhaka

Group fixtures:
17 Jun: Brazil
22 Jun: Serbia
27 Jun: Costa Rica

World Cup finishes:
2014: Last 16
2010: Group stage
2006: Last 16
2002: Not qualify
1998: Not qualify

Best World Cup finish:
Quarter-final (1954, 1938, 1934)

Qualifying route: Play-offs (Group runners-up)
W9 D0 L1 GD+28

2018 form:
08 June: Switzerland v Japan
03 Jun: Spain 1 Switzerland 1
27 Mar: Switzerland 6 Panama 0
23 Mar: Greece 0 Switzerland 1

Record against Top 20 ranked nations (since 2016): W1 D1 L1 (33% win rate)
Record against lower ranked nations (since 2016): W12 D1 L0 (92% win rate)

Form rating: +14

Top trend: Switzerland lost just one of their last 16 games.

Having lost just once since being knocked out of Euro 2016 by Poland on penalties, Switzerland have risen up the rankings to become one of the best sides in Europe. That was evident when pushing Portugal all the way in qualification to finish joint-top on points, before coming through against Northern Ireland in the play-offs – although the play-offs traditionally proved a bad omen for lifting the trophy.

Verdict: Could ruffle a few feathers, but quarter-finals are the most they can expect.

GROUP VERDICT: BRAZIL can boss the group, with Switzerland possibly chinning Serbia to grab second spot.

Group F

GERMANY

Seeding: 1

Tournament odds: 5-1

Star Player: Thomas Muller

Group fixtures:
17 Jun: Mexico
23 Jun: Sweden
27 Jun: South Korea

World Cup finishes:
2014: Winners
2010: Semi-final
2006: Semi-final
2002: Runners-up
1998: Quarter-final

Best World Cup finish:
Winners (2014, 1990, 1974, 1954)

Qualifying route: Group winners (from Northern Ireland)
W10 D0 L0 GD+39

2018 form:
08 Jun: Germany v Saudi Arabia
02 Jun: Austria 2 Germany 1
27 Mar: Germany 0 Brazil 1
23 Mar: Germany 1 Spain 1

Record against Top 20 ranked nations (since 2016): W3 D6 L1 (30% win rate)
Record against lower ranked nations (since 2016): W13 D0 L1 (93% win rate)

Form rating: +21

Top trend: Germany reached the last eight in each World Cup since 1954.

It’s a familiar pattern for the reigning world champions: qualify for the World Cup, take the foot off the gas for several friendlies, and then hit full throttle for the tournament. Joachim Low’s men struck almost 40 goals in winning all 10 games in their qualifying group, before losing to Brazil and Austria in March, but they’ll be as ready as ever for their opener against Mexico. The difference is they line-up as champions, meaning they’ll have to become only the second country to retain the trophy after Brazil in 1962, though the usual experienced battalion featuring Kroos, Muller and Gomez will be on hand to steer the ship.

Verdict: Tough as always, but defending the trophy is no easy task.

MEXICO

Seeding: 16

Tournament odds: 100-1

Star Player: Javier Hernandez

Group fixtures:
17 Jun: Germany
23 Jun: South Korea
27 Jun: Sweden

World Cup finishes:
2014: Last 16
2010: Last 16
2006: Last 16
2002: Last 16
1998: Last 16

Best World Cup finish:
Quarter-final (1986, 1970)

Qualifying route: Group winners (from Costa Rica)
W6 D3 L1 GD+9

2018 form:
09 Jun: Denmark v Mexico
03 Jun: Mexico 1 Scotland 0
29 May: Mexico 0 Wales 0
28 Mar: Mexico 0 Croatia 1
24 Mar: Mexico 3 Iceland 0
01 Feb: Mexico 1 Bosnia 0

Record against Top 20 ranked nations (since 2016): W3 D3 L4 (30% win rate)
Record against lower ranked nations (since 2016): W26 D7 L2 (74% win rate)

Form rating: +27

Top trend: Mexico kept eight clean sheets in 11 games.

There can be no faulting Mexico’s efforts since March 2016, during which time they’ve played over 40 matches, winning almost 30. That winning habit will put them in good stead for Russia, where they will want to improve on a sequence that saw them make the last 16 during the last five world cups – though their two quarter-final appearances both came on home soil in 1970 and 1986. A lot will rest on Javier Hernandez’s shoulders, but even if he fires, it’s hard to see El Tri going all the way.

Verdict: In the winning groove, but a last 16 slot could be their limit once more.

SOUTH KOREA

Seeding: 62

Tournament odds: 750-1

Star player: Son Heung-Min

Group fixtures:
18 Jun: Sweden
23 Jun: Mexico
27 Jun: Germany

World Cup finishes:
2014: Group stage
2010: Last 16
2006: Group stage
2002: Semi-final
1998: Group stage

Best World Cup finish:
Semi-final (2002)

Qualifying route: Group runner-up (behind Iran)
W4 D3 L3 GD+1

2018 form:
11 Jun: Senegal v South Korea
07 Jun: South Korea 0 Bolivia 0
01 Jun: South Korea 1 Bosnia 3
28 May: South Korea 2 Honduras 0
27 Mar: Poland 3 South Korea 2
24 Mar: N Ireland 2 South Korea 1
03 Feb: South Korea 1 Latvia 0

Record against Top 20 ranked nations (since 2016): W1 D0 L1 (50% win rate)
Record against lower ranked nations (since 2016): W6 D4 L4 (43% win rate)

Form rating: -1

Top trend: South Korea scored in 14 of their last 16 matches.

South Korea have kept themselves busy ahead of Russia and should be congratulated for making their ninth consecutive finals, the highlight being a semi-final on home soil in 2002. The Red Devils failed to hit those heights since, however, and even Tottenham’s Son Heung-Min may not be enough to see them get past Germany and Mexico in the group.

Verdict: Another exit at the group stages looks likely.

SWEDEN

Seeding: 25

Tournament odds: 150-1

Star player: Emil Forsberg

Group fixtures:
18 Jun: South Korea
23 Jun: Germany
27 Jun: Mexico

World Cup finishes:
2014: Not qualify
2010: Not qualify
2006: Last 16
2002: Last 16
1998: Not qualify

Best World Cup finish:
Runners-up (1958)

Qualifying route: Play-offs (Group runners-up to France)
W6 D1 L3 GD+17

2018 form:
09 Jun: Sweden v Peru
02 Jun: Sweden 0 Denmark 0
27 Mar: Romania 1 Sweden 0
24 Mar: Sweden 1 Chile 2

Record against Top 20 ranked nations (since 2016): W3 D3 L4 (30% win rate)
Record against lower ranked nations (since 2016): W7 D1 L2 (70% win rate)

Form rating: +8

Top trend: Sweden scored just twice in their last six games.

Despite the retirement from international football of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Sweden still qualified via the play-offs against Italy. The fact Sweden also beat France in the group stages suggests they are capable of mixing it with anyone, even without Ibrahimovic, but they’ll need to start scoring again if pipping Germany and Mexico to the post for a last 16 place – the Blue-Yellow netted just three times in five games following October’s 8-0 victory against Luxembourg.

Verdict: Slim chance of the quarter-finals, but no further.

GROUP VERDICT: GERMANY should prove too strong for Mexico, who can beat Sweden into second.

Group G

BELGIUM

Seeding: 5

Tournament odds: 11-1

Star player: Eden Hazard

Group fixtures:
18 Jun: Panama
23 Jun: Tunisia
28 Jun: England

World Cup finishes:
2014: Quarter-final
2010: Not qualify
2006: Not qualify
2002: Last 16
1998: Group stage

Best World Cup finish:
Semi-final (1986)

Qualifying route: Group winners (from Greece)
W9 D1 L0 GD+37

2018 form:
06 Jun: Belgium 3 Egypt 0
02 Jun: Belgium 0 Portugal 0
27 Mar: Belgium 4 Saudi Arabia 0

Record against Top 20 ranked nations (since 2016): W0 D3 L1 (0% win rate)
Record against lower ranked nations (since 2016): W13 D2 L0 (87% win rate)

Form rating: +9

Top trend: Belgium are unbeaten since losing 2-0 to Spain 19 games ago.

Like England, Belgium boast numerous Premier League stars to accompany an impressive qualification campaign, but there appears little bite at the business end when getting to a tournament itself. Roberto Martinez’s side came into the 2014 World Cup with a similar profile when ousted by Argentina in the quarters before losing at the same stage to Wales in Euro 2016. They have the likes of Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard, but the Belgians need to defend better if going all the way – something they have yet to do in a tournament. A highly talented squad, but can they convert promise into winning their first trophy?

Verdict: Could go deep in the tournament, but may lack the knowhow to win a major tournament.

ENGLAND

Seeding: 12

Tournament odds: 16-1

Star player: Harry Kane

Group fixtures:
18 Jun: Tunisia
24 Jun: Panama
28 Jun: Belgium

World Cup finishes:
2014: Group stage
2010: Last 16
2006: Quarter-final
2002: Quarter-final
1998: Last 16

Best World Cup finish:
Winners (1966)

Qualifying route: Group winners (from Slovakia)
W8 D2 L0 GD+15

2018 form:
07 Jun: England 2 Costa Rica 0
02 Jun: England 2 Nigeria 1
27 Mar: England 1 Italy 1
23 Mar: Holland 0 England 1

Record against Top 20 ranked nations (since 2016): W1 D4 L2 (14% win rate)
Record against lower ranked nations (since 2016): W10 D2 L0 (83% win rate)

Form rating: +14

Top trend: Seven of England’s last eight games produced 2.5 goals or fewer.

It will be interesting to see England come face-to-face with Belgium in the group’s final game on June 28, as it brings together two nations who have promised so much but delivered little when it matters. The Three Lions remain a young, improving side who could run free if hitting the ground running against Tunisia in their opener, though whether they’ll have the knowhow in the latter stages is another matter. Should they click early and Harry Kane gets going, then a quarter/semi-final is possible.

Verdict: Impressed once more in qualification, but have a habit of disappointing in major tournaments.

PANAMA

Seeding: 49

Tournament odds: 1000-1

Star player: Luis Tejada

Group fixtures:
18 Jun: Belgium
24 Jun: England
28 Jun: Tunisia

World Cup finishes:
1998-2014: Not qualify

Best World Cup finish:
Debut (2018)

Qualifying route: Group third (behind Mexico & Costa Rica)
W3 D4 L3 GD-1

2018 form:
06 Jun: Norway 1 Panama 0
30 May: Panama 0 N Ireland 0
18 Apr: Trinidad 0 Panama 1
27 Mar: Switzerland 6 Panama 0
22 Mar: Denmark 1 Panama 0

Record against Top 20 ranked nations (since 2016): W0 D1 L7 (0% win rate)
Record against lower ranked nations (since 2016): W15 D10 L8 (45% win rate)

Form rating: -7

Top trend: Panama scored just once in five games against European opposition since November.

Panama will be hoping to emulate their victims from the qualifiers, Costa Rica, who proved a surprise package at the 2014 World Cup. The Canal Men will very much be in the “unknown” category, but their overall results suggest they’ll be exposed against classier rivals – they failed to net during two European defeats in Denmark and Switzerland in March. In fact, Hernan Gomez’s side lost seven of their eight encounters with Top 20 ranked rivals.

Verdict: Panama’s odds of 12-1 about making the knockouts seem realistic.

TUNISIA

Seeding: 28

Tournament odds: 2000-1

Star Player: Wahbi Khazri

Group fixtures:
18 Jun: England
23 Jun: Belgium
28 Jun: Panama

World Cup finishes:
2014: Not qualify
2010: Not qualify
2006: Group stage
2002: Group stage
1998: Group stage

Best World Cup finish:
Group stage (2006, 2002, 1998, 1978)

Qualifying route: Group winners (ahead of DR Congo)
W4 D2 L0 GD+7

2018 form:
09 Jun: Tunisia v Spain
01 Jun: Tunisia 2 Turkey 2
28 May: Portugal 2 Tunisia 2
27 Mar: Tunisia 1 Costa Rica 0
23 Mar: Tunisia 1 Iran 0

Record against Top 20 ranked nations (since 2016): W0 D1 L0 (0% win rate)
Record against lower ranked nations (since 2016): W14 D6 L6 (54% win rate)

Form rating: +3

Top trend: Tunisia netted in eight of their last nine games.

The group stages are where Tunisia exited in four previous World Cup appearances, and a repeat could be on the cards unless the 2000-1 shots can produce something special in Russia. Qualification against the likes of Congo, Libya and Guinea will be a far cry of what’s required in Group G, though recent results offer encouragement for The Eagles of Carthage, including a 2-2 draw with Portugal last month.

Verdict: Consistent, but beating Panama could be their limit.

GROUP G VERDICT: ENGLAND and Belgium are the two big guns, and there may not be much between them at the top of the table.

Group H

COLOMBIA

Seeding: 13

Tournament odds: 40-1

Star player: James Rodriguez

Group fixtures:
19 Jun: Japan
24 Jun: Poland
28 Jun: Senegal

World Cup finishes:
2014: Quarter-final
2010: Not qualify
2006: Not qualify
2002: Not qualify
1998: Group stage

Best World Cup finish:
Quarter-final (2014)

Qualifying route: Group fourth (behind Brazil, Uruguay & Argentina)
W7 D6 L5 +2

2018 form:
01 Jun: Egypt 0 Colombia 0
27 Mar: Colombia 0 Australia 0
23 Mar: France 2 Colombia 3

Record against Top 20 ranked nations (since 2016): W1 D6 L4 (9% win rate)
Record against lower ranked nations (since 2016): W12 D2 L3 (70% win rate)

Form rating: +10

Top trend: Colombia won just one of their last 11 games against a Top 20 ranked country.

Colombia will be making their second consecutive appearance at the finals having recorded a career-best quarter-final appearance at the 2014 World Cup – albeit in South America. They only just made it to Russia having scraped fourth place in the group and will line-up relatively fresh having played just three times in 2018. While winning the tournament has to be considered a long shot, the likes of James Rodriguez along with a good defence should see The Coffee Growers grind their way out of the group.

Verdict: Should have enough quality to reach the knockouts from one of the softest groups.

JAPAN

Seeding: 44

Tournament odds: 300-1

Star Player: Shinji Kagawa

Group fixtures:
19 Jun: Colombia
24 Jun: Senegal
28 Jun: Poland

World Cup finishes:
2014: Group stage
2010: Last 16
2006: Group stage
2002: Last 16
1998: Group stage

Best World Cup finish:
Last 16 (2010, 2002)

Qualifying route: Group winners (ahead of Saudi Arabia & Australia)
W6 D2 L2 GD+10

2018 form:
12 Jun: Paraguay v Japan
08 Jun: Switzerland v Japan
30 May: Japan 0 Ghana 2
27 Mar: Japan 1 Ukraine 2
23 Mar: Japan 1 Mali 1

Record against Top 20 ranked nations (since 2016): W0 D0 L2 (0% win rate)
Record against lower ranked nations (since 2016): W7 D5 L5 (41% win rate)

Form rating: -5

Top trend: Japan conceded in 11 of their last 12 games.

Consistency and experienced are two ways of describing a Japan side that will want to get to the quarter-finals for the first time, and their coach, Vahid Halilhodzic, could be the man to do it having taken Algeria to the last 16 for the first time four years ago. The Blue Samurai also have some reliable players from European clubs, including Leicester’s, Shinji Okazaki, though their lack of ability in beating the major nations may anchor them once more.

Verdict: Improvement needed to get beyond the group stages.

POLAND

Seeding: 6

Tournament odds: 66-1

Star Player: Robert Lewandowski

Group fixtures:
19 Jun: Senegal
24 Jun: Colombia
28 Jun: Japan

World Cup finishes:
2014: Not qualify
2010: Not qualify
2006: Group stage
2002: Group stage
1998: Not qualify

Best World Cup finish:
Semi-final (1982, 1974)

Qualifying route: Group winners (ahead of Denmark & Montenegro)
W8 D1 L1 GD +14

2018 form:
12 Jun: Poland v Lithuania
08 Jun: Poland v Chile
27 Mar: Poland 3 South Korea 2
23 Mar: Poland 0 Nigeria 1

Record against Top 20 ranked nations (since 2016): W2 D1 L2 (40% win rate)
Record against lower ranked nations (since 2016): W7 D2 L1 (70% win rate)

Form rating: +8

Top trend: Robert Lewandowski scored six of Poland’s last 16 goals.

Poland have rocketed up the rankings in recent years, progress that sees them make the finals for the first time since 2006. Their improvement was also evident at Euro 2016 when taking eventual winners, Portugal, all the way on penalties, and with the majority of that side heading to Russia they could go far. One of those players is the country’s leading scorer, Robert Lewandowski, whose aerial presence will again be a threat. The concern is whether The White and Reds have a Plan B should the classier defences stop Lewandowski, a fact that may just hinder Poland later in the tournament.

Verdict: Likely to go well but a first trophy may have to wait.

SENEGAL

Seeding: 32

Tournament odds: 200-1

Star player: Sadio Mane

Group fixtures:
19 Jun: Poland
24 Jun: Japan
28 Jun: Colombia

World Cup finishes:
2014: Not qualify
2010: Not qualify
2006: Not qualify
2002: Quarter-final
1998: Not qualify

Best World Cup finish:
Quarter-final (2002)

Qualifying route: Group winners (ahead of Burkina Faso & Cape Verde)
W4 D2 L0 GD+7

2018 form:
11 Jun: Senegal v South Korea
08 Jun: Croatia v Senegal
31 May: Luxembourg 0 Senegal 0
27 May: Senegal 0 Bosnia 0
23 Mar: Senegal 1 Uzbekistan 1

Record against Top 20 ranked nations (since 2016): W0 D0 L1 (0% win rate)
Record against lower ranked nations (since 2016): W18 D10 L2 (60% win rate)

Form rating: +13

Top trend: Senegal played just one game against a Top 20 nation since 2016, losing 2-0 to Mexico.

If Senegal manage to repeat their 2002 World Cup achievements from South Korea, then Group H need to prepare. On that occasion 16 years ago, The Lions of Teranga beat France before making the quarter-finals, and while they would have to play out of their skins to match that feat, they do boast the likes of Liverpool’s, Sadio Mane. Being something of an unknown package could see them provide a shock in the group, but they may get found out by the better sides ranked in the Top 20, as they lack experience against such rivals having been kept to competing at a lower level.

Verdict: A lack of recent goals may prevent Sengal repeating their 2002 quarter-final appearance.

GROUP VERDICT: POLAND remain a hard side to beat and they look set to land top spot from Colombia.

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