With the World Cup set to kick off in Russia June 14, The Spectrum soccer guys sat down and chatted about what to expect over the course of the tournament.
First things first, who are you supporting during the tournament?
Thomas Evanella (Sports Writer): I’ll be throwing my support behind Argentina this summer for one reason: Lionel Messi. Messi has been a delight to watch throughout his career, but a major national trophy has painstakingly eluded him. Messi has featured for Argentina’s senior squad since 2005 and has twice reached the quarterfinals in the World Cup and was runner-up in 2014. After his fourth runner-up finish in the Copa América, Messi dabbled with retirement, but thankfully he has returned. He and Argentina deserve a major trophy.
Taylor Schloemer (Sports Editor): I got on the train before the Euros in 2016, and I am still on the hype train. Thunderclap and all, I am going with Iceland. There is something about a country with less than half the population of Vermont continually crashing the party of Europe’s elite footballing nations. It is a team built less on individual skill and more on team belief. I still see them as a plucky underdog, though I am not sure if the name still fits.
While there is no “Group of Death,” which group is the hardest to get out of?
TS: It has to be Iceland’s Group D. The group features Iceland, Argentina, Croatia and Nigeria. The star of the group is undoubtedly Messi, but he is just a part of a very good Argentinian side. It is fully expected for the Albicelestes to top the group. The race for the second spot will be tight between the other three. The midfield trio of Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Ivan Perisic is a force to be reckoned with for Croatia. Gylfi Sigurdsson and Co. will be stretching to reach the knockout stages while Nigeria could just sneak in.
TE: Group D will definitely present the greatest challenge to come out of, but other groups will feature tight races. Both Group E and F could see surprise teams emerge. Brazil should finish first in Group E, but Switzerland and Costa Rica will jockey for second place with Serbia attempting to play spoiler. In Group F, the scenario will be the same with Germany racing away in front and Mexico and Sweden battling for second.
What will be the surprise of the group stage?
TE: Peru made it to Russia by a hair, edging New Zealand in the playoff for the 32nd spot in the field. La Blanquirroja drew Group C with France, Australia and Denmark and continue their Cinderella run, placing second in the group, which could set up an intriguing continental battle with Argentina in the knockout round. The hungry Peruvians have not made the World Cup since 1982, and the young squad relishes the opportunity to restore hope to their nation. Casual fans couldn’t name a single Peruvian as only five feature in European leagues, but the roster is deep with South American talent. The underdogs will immediately become the darlings of the tournament if they reach the knockout stage.
TS: My initial thought after the group stage draw was something along the line of, “How much did Russia pay to get such an easy group?” Uruguay is the strong favorite to lead Group A, leaving the hosts to fend off Saudi Arabia and Egypt for second place. But a weak group allows for the possibility for a single player to carry their team through the group, and that player plays for Egypt. It can be argued that Mohamed Salah is the best player in the world currently. The Liverpool man won the Premier League Golden Boot handily and has shown to be a man for the big occasion. Just ask his former club Roma after the Champions League semifinal where Salah scored a brace and assisted two more in the first leg against his former club.
Of the group stage games, which is the match to watch?
TS: Regional rivalries are always nice, and the biggest one comes on the second day of the tournament: Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal against Spain. What is interesting about this game is it may buck a trend in the World Cup. Teams that lose their opening game nearly 90 percent of the time fail to advance. But with a group that holds Morocco and Iran, neither European giant should be in danger. Sure, a loss will mean that country needs to sweat out the next two games, but it shouldn’t be too bad. It also pits one of the best forward-goalkeeper matchups of the tournament with Ronaldo trying to score on David de Gea.
TE: The last matchup in Group G will see England and Belgium do battle, and it very well may determine the top team out of the group. The Belgians feature a great deal of firepower with Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku, Kevin De Bruyne and Michy Batshuayi. England counters with Harry Kane, one of the Premier League’s top scorers the past three seasons. The match will be critical in determining the seeding for the knockout stage, as it will in all likelihood mean the difference between facing Colombia or Poland.
Who is the team not being talked about that will make a deep run in the knockout rounds?
TE: France took a heart-wrenching loss in extra time in the 2016 Euros on their own soil. Neither Kylian Mbappé nor Ousmane Dembélé featured on that squad, and the French will look to the two starlets to aid in their ascent to the top. Mainstays Antoine Griezmann, Blaise Matuidi and — yes, Paul Pogba has been around long enough to count as a mainstay — return for another deep tournament run. The midfield, with Dembélé, Matuidi, Mbappé, Pogba and N’Golo Kanté may be the deepest and most talented in the world. Add in Hugo Lloris in the back and Les Bleus have the makings of a squad prepared for a deep run.
TS: I actually had to draw out a bracket in order to see the potential matchups, and there was one team that jumped off the page. Coming out of Group H will be Poland and Colombia, and the latter could sneak into the later rounds. Group H is paired with Group G in the round of 16, and Group G will likely see Belgium and England advance. The South Americans have a solid attacking pair of James Rodriguez and Radamel Falcao and a solid goalkeeper in David Ospina. The two European teams they could face in the knockout stage both have had troubles in big tournaments lately (or in England’s case, for a while). Avoiding either Germany or Brazil in the second round would be even better for Colombia.
End of the tournament, who is lifting the trophy?
TS: I know who Thomas is going to say, and I don’t want to agree with him. I have a Germany-Brazil final, but I can’t help think the rematch of the 7-1 semifinal from 2014 could not carry the same result. The key for Brazil taking the tournament is the health of Neymar. The Paris-Saint Germain man had surgery on his foot and is getting closer to being cleared to play for the French club. But without a fully fit Neymar, the mountain to the final is too much for Brazil. But with him, an attacking duo of Neymar and Gabriel Jesus can lead the team to the top.
TE: You’re right Taylor, I’m going with Germany. Die Mannschaft is hands down the top team on the planet and is dripping with World Cup experience. With all the talent in the federation, Joachim Löw is loaded with options for his roster. Timo Werner, Joshua Kimmich and Leon Goretzka highlight the young guns who’ll feature for Germany. The possible pitfall for Germany will be the health of goalie Manuel Neuer, but Marc Andre ter Stegen and Bernd Leno aren’t too shabby backing him up. The Germans play such a tactically sound and flawless game, two characteristics which will lead them to hoist the trophy again.
And one last word on the United States’ World Cup efforts…
TE: I just look forward to the old guard of Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard and Michael Bradley leading the U.S. to another shocking run. Maybe Landon Donovan will even return. Wait, this isn’t 2010.
TS: My mom taught me if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. But did I mention Iceland has half the population of Vermont? They made it to the World Cup.