With the opening of the 2018 World Cup seven months away, the group draw was hosted in the Kremlin last Friday.
Putting “hand of God” jabs directed toward Diego Maradona by Gary Lineker aside, the draw itself was rather drab.
Due to FIFA changing the way the pots were organized, moving toward a straightforward ratings system, minimized potential for a “Group of Death.” Still, the tournament will see some tough groups.
Group D jumps off the page as one, if not the, most difficult group. For Americans that are jumping on a bandwagon, this group brings intrigue. Argentina will be the baptism by fire for Iceland, who are making their first World Cup appearance.
Joining Lionel Messi, Gilfy Sigurdson and Co. in Group D are Croatia and Nigeria. The Croatians were the side that denied Iceland a spot in the 2014 World Cup in a qualification playoff. The Vatreni hold a dangerous trio of Ivan Rakitic, Luka Modric and Mario Manduzuic. The young Super Eagles, have a solid Premier League core of Wilfred Ndidi, Ahmed Musa, Alex Iwobi and Kelechi Iheanacho.
The other group in consideration of the “Group of Death” moniker is Group F. Germany, Mexico, Sweden and South Korea make up the group. Defending champions Germany are favorites to top the group, leaving Confederation Cup semifinalist Mexico and Sweden to battle for second place. The trick in the cards lies with Sweden, with the potential return of Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the rumors currently.
The other firework that came with the early draw was the opening match in Group B. Portugal and Spain will trade blows in the first match in Sochi on June 15. Despite the difficult opening match, both are likely to move on with Morocco and Iran rounding out the group.
Both European giants should move out of Group G as well. Belgium and England get an easy draw with Panama and Tunisia. The Red Devils and Three Lions will meet on the final day of the group stage in Kaliningrad, likely with the top spot in the group up for grabs.
The other top seeds, France, Brazil and Poland, have few worries. The French got a nice draw of Australia, Peru and Denmark in Group C. Group E features Brazil, Switzerland, Costa Rica and Serbia. Poland is the top seed in Group H, joined by Senegal, Colombia and Japan.
Of those three groups, Group H is seemingly the trickiest. Sadio Mane will have the hopes of the African nation rested on his shoulders, while James Rodríguez will feel the same for Colombia.
As for the Russian hosts, Group A could not be easier. The opening match of the tournament will be the Russians against Saudi Arabia. Luis Suarez will go up against Mohamed Salah in the other opening group game as Uruguay and Egypt round out the group. Home-field advantage will be key for Russia to get through. The goal scoring of Suarez and Salah will be the difference if Russia fails to make the quarterfinals.
Beyond the group stage, two matches have the potential in the Round of 16. In the mess of Group F, the second-place team will likely run into Brazil. Not the opponent Mexico or Sweden would like to face, as Brazil still carry a chip from the 7-1 defeat to Germany in 2014. But, if there is a surprise and the Germans falter in the group and drop to second, the rematch would be on.
Similar circumstances occur in Group D. Second place will likely get France. For Iceland, it would be a rematch of the semifinal match that ended their run at the EUROs.