Plus, even for the groups and pairings without a Liverpool rooting interest, it’s the World Cup. It’s almost here. And it’s time to get yourself properly ready for it. Who are the group favourites and which pairings offer the most potential entertainment value? Which overlooked countries have some dark horse potential and which giants could be set to tumble?
Without further ado, the groups—with the countries listed in predicted finishing order—follow.
URUGUAY | EGYPT | RUSSIA | SAUDI ARABIA
Liverpool rooting interest: Mohamed Salah & Egypt
Mohamed Salah is expected to be fit for Egypt from the very start, which gives Egypt a solid chance of advancing in the weakest group of this World Cup. Uruguay, in large part thanks to former Liverpool striker Luis Suarez, have to be narrow favourites, but they’re living off a past that’s brighter than the present—their showing at the 2010 World Cup and then their 2011 Copa America triumph were high points they’ve since failed to live up to.
Russia and Egypt, meanwhile, would be expected to finish third in most other groups—and Russia, if they hadn’t been hosts, would have been touch-and-go to qualify. Here, one will finish second, and Egypt are the ones with the world’s in-form attacker. Any of the three, though—Uruguay, Egypt, or Russia—could finish first, second, or third and it wouldn’t be a massive shock. If Saudi Arabia don’t finish last it will be.
SPAIN | PORTUGAL | IRAN | MOROCCO
Liverpool rooting interest: none
There’s no Liverpool rooting interest here, and on the surface at least there doesn’t seem to be much of a question when it comes to who will advance. Everyone just about will have a resurgent Spain marked down to finish first with Portugal, in what’s likely to be Cristiano Ronaldo’s last World Cup, penciled in to finish second.
Iran, though, are a strong shout for group stage—and maybe even tournament—dark horses after a strong qualifying campaign that saw them go undefeated in a group including South Korea, Syria, and Uzbekistan while conceding just two goals in ten games. While Japan, Australia, and even South Korea will have more name recognition for many casual fans, it’s Iran that are the best AFC nation at this World Cup.
FRANCE | DENMARK | PERU | AUSTRALIA
Liverpool rooting interest: none
With Nabil Fekir’s Liverpool deal seeming to have fallen through—though some will hope for a revival post-World Cup—there isn’t much of a rooting interest in a group that should see France romp to fist. They’re rightly one of the pre-tournament favourites and anything less than an easy go of it here will have people asking questions.
After that, it’s fair to say neither Peru nor Denmark had an especially strong qualification run—aforementioned Group B dark horses Iran would have much rather been fighting them than Portugal for second—but both on their day can do some damage. Denmark gets a very slight edge for a stronger end to their qualification, but it’s a close-run thing. Australia, for their part, are very, very bad this time around and by far the least impressive of the Asian qualifiers. The highlight of the tournament for them will be the inflatable kangaroo one of their fans will inevitably spend a lot of time waving around.
ARGENTINA | CROATIA | NIGERIA | ICELAND
Liverpool rooting interest: Dejan Lovren & Croatia
One of the two strongest groups of the tournament, Group D has a touch of Liverpool interest by way of Croatia, who thumped Greece in their qualifying playoff to get to Russia and have looked strong playing an aggressive game that will remind many of the Reds. They look to be fighting it out with a solid Nigeria side for second, and both nations will believe they can qualify for the knockout rounds.
Meanwhile, Argentina will be the favourites, but behind the name of a football superpower is a soft underbelly—they had a shaky qualification campaign and have put in some less than impressive showings over the past year. The talent is still there, as of course is Lionel Messi, but there’s serious upset potential in Group D for neutral fans—and some serious heartbreak potential for Argentinian supporters. Iceland, at the other end of it, are better than most fourth sides but mostly just happy to be at the World Cup clapping and stomping and making volcano noises.
BRAZIL | SERBIA | SWITZERLAND | COSTA RICA
Liverpool rooting interest: Roberto Firmino & Brazil | Marko Grujic & Serbia
Liverpool fans will be hoping to see Roberto Firmino get the reward his hard work and quality club play deserves by way of a little recognition and success with the national team in Russia, but whether he does or not this is Brazil’s group to lose and a bit like for France in Group C, it’s not even close.
Behind Brazil, though, there’s a three-way fight for second. Serbia—who have Marko Gujic in the squad—get top billing for winning their UEFA qualifying group over Ireland, Wales, and Austria. Switzerland, though, were level on points with Portugal in their group and played the Iberians level across two games, only heading to the qualification playoffs due to goal differential. Costa Rica will be tough, too—probably tougher as a projected fourth than Iceland—but they simply aren’t as good as their opponents from Europe and South America.
GERMANY | MEXICO | SWEDEN | SOUTH KOREA
Liverpool rooting interest: none
In the World Cup’s other strongest group, Germany should finish first and Mexico should finish second, but Sweden have some dark horse potential to them—they beat Italy in the qualification playoffs to get here and were the sixth top scoring side in group play amongst all UEFA sides while finishing second in a group with France and Netherlands. Zlatan may be gone, but if anything Sweden look a better side for it. As for South Korea, well, at least they look likely to go out swinging, and that should make Group F the most consistently entertaining of the tournament.
ENGLAND | TUNISIA | BELGIUM | PANAMA
Liverpool rooting interest: Jordan Henderson, Trent Alexander-Arnold, & England | Simon Mignolet & Belgium
England—with Jordan Henderson likely to start and Trent Alexander-Arnold likely to be on the bench—should have enough to top Group G with a young squad with some potential excitement to it and hopes for the national team as low as they may have ever been. Even if they aren’t going to win it all, England could actually exceed expectations this time around rather than falling short of them. On the other end of it, Panama are arguably the worst side at the World Cup.
Between those two, Tunisia and Belgium—who will have Simon Mignolet on the bench—offer the option of unheralded upstart versus consistently underwhelming known quantity. Belgium have been the side that’s supposed to be really, really good and then fails to deliver for some time now—a bit like England during their golden generation years, even. Tunisia, on the other hand, went undefeated in qualifying and could catch people by surprise.
SENEGAL | POLAND | COLOMBIA | JAPAN
Liverpool rooting interest: Sadio Mané & Senegal
Which brings us to Group H, which in a lot of ways looks like Group A—three countries you’d expect to battle for second in most groups and an afterthought, even if that afterthought has some name value and a history of great kits.
Senegal, though, looked most impressive in qualifying, and though they don’t always look like a functional team, at this stage and against these opponents they should have enough star power to take first place. Plus they have Sadio Mané to provide a rooting interest for Liverpool fans. Colombia, meanwhile, were a bit of a muddle in CONMEBOL qualification and aren’t as good as most would expect given they’re, you know, Colombia. That should give the edge to Poland, who were solid if unspectacular in their qualifying run, but it wouldn’t be a major shock to see any of the top three top the group—or fail to advance. And Japan will have a great kit.