Best players, top teams and unmissable matches: Your complete guide to Russia

Stuart Thomas Columnist

By Stuart Thomas, Stuart Thomas is a Roar Expert


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    Spain's David Silva will be a key player for La Roja. (Photo by Alex Grimm/Bongarts/Getty Images)

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    Living on Mars might be your only excuse for being unaware of this particular football tournament next week. Russia will play host to the footballing world in a festival watched by billions.

    Only eight nations have held aloft the sacred golden trophy that symbolises world football supremacy. That number will most likely remain intact by the time the final is over.

    Now we await the 32 days of football nirvana that will be filled with glory, disaster, class and tragedy.

    In preparation, here is what every football fan needs to know about the upcoming competition.

    Host and defending champion

    Russia will host 64 games over 32 days in 11 different cities. Twelve venues will be used and the culmination will be the final at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow.

    The 21st incarnation of the event sees the hosts do so for the first time and Germany return as defending champion. ‘Die Mannschaft’, claimed a fourth trophy in Brazil four years ago after a desperate struggle with Argentina in the final

    The major contenders

    Brazil stands unrivalled in tournament history with five wins, yet Germany arrive in Russia with the chance to confirm their historical greatness in the world game with a fifth title.

    Both countries loom as logical contenders once again and joined by Spain, France, Argentina, Belgium and England, they form a select group of nations with serious and realistic aspirations of becoming champions of the world.

    The also-rans

    Tunisia, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Costa Rica and Panama come into the tournament unloved by oddsmakers and tipped to make first round exits.

    The achievement of qualification should never be underestimated. The experience players gain, the true international flavour of the event and a nation’s pride in seeing their kit on the biggest footballing stage is more than enough satisfaction for many nations.

    Of course, every team will have dreams of a fairytale, yet with so much at stake it is hard not to see some old foes rising to the top once again.

    The Groups

    Group A
    The opening day sees the hosts play Saudi Arabia in a ceremonial start to the competition before Egypt and Uruguay complete the first round of Group A matches the following day.

    Russia have been blessed in their draw; with three beatable nations alongside them, it should be a comfortable group stage. The same can be said for Uruguay. Egypt will need an ounce of luck to advance and progression for the lowly Saudis will be the result of a serious over-achievement.

    Crucial match
    The clash between Russia and Egypt in St Petersburg could be vital if the Egyptians intend on muscling their way past Uruguay into second spot in the group.

    The man to watch
    Egypt will look to talismanic Liverpool winger Mohamed Salah to continue his astonishing goalscoring run.

    Mohamed Salah runs.

    (Photo by Erwin Spek/Soccrates/Getty Images)

    Group B
    The Cristiano Ronaldo-led Portugal are grouped with the enigmatic Spain and loom as a dangerous side just outside the main group of pre-tournament favourites.

    Morocco, making a long-awaited return to the tournament, and Iran, the first team to qualify after cruising through qualification in Asia, would both need huge upsets to advance. Spain meet Portugal in the first match in what is a mouth-watering clash.

    Crucial match
    Three points for either Iran or Morocco from their clash will be vital if either is to sneak into the top two spots in this group.

    The men to watch
    David Silva, David de Gea and Isco could potentially star for La Roja and Ronaldo will need a masterclass if his team is to mirror Portugal’s success at Euro 2016.

    Group C
    France and Australia open hostilities in a group where all four teams could realistically qualify. French manager Didier Deschamps has quality and flair all over the park and should be able to successfully navigate the group, however Denmark, Peru and Australia will all be eyeing second spot.

    Crucial match
    Any result against France could potentially prove the difference as points in this group will be shared around. The matchup between Denmark and Peru might just determine who goes through along with the French.

    The men to watch
    There are two significant contenders for Golden Boot honours in group C in the form of Christian Eriksen (Denmark) and Antoine Griezmann (France).

    France's Antoine Griezmann runs.

    (Photo by Aurelien Meunier/Getty Images)

    Group D
    There’s a chance Lionel Messi will be making his final appearance at this wonderful tournament and Argentina would erupt if the great man could complete his dream and lead the nation to global glory. Giant killers Iceland will be looking to continue their astonishing form from the most recent European Championships and Croatia and Nigeria are in the scrap that is Group D.

    Crucial match
    Croatia’s chances of progression could rest on their clash with Iceland.

    The men to watch
    All Croatian eyes will be on Real Madrid playmaker Luka Modric. A senior brigade of Argentinians such as Sergio Aguero, Ever Banega and Messi himself will have a significant impact on the tournament.

    Group E
    Hot favourite Brazil takes on Switzerland in the opening match and Costa Rica and Serbia meet in Samara, with the former seen as rank outsiders.

    Crucial match
    Serbia look the real threat to Switzerland in this group as they grapple for second spot and the match between the two European nations looms as decisive.

    The men to watch
    Brazilian manager Tite hasn’t had long to build a well-oiled machine just yet but with raw talent such as Neymar (Paris Saint-Germain), Phillipe Coutinho (Barcelona) and Gabriel Jesus (Man City) in sync, the players might just look after that themselves.

    Group F
    In another tasty first round match-up, defending champions Germany face Mexico in the opening match of Group F. In reality, the group should be a dogfight for second between the Mexicans and the Swedish, who meet South Korea in the other game.

    In what reads as one of the weaker groups outside the seeded Germans, the cross-over matches in the Round of 16 could present someone with a very tasty opponent in the form of the second-placed team from this group.

    Crucial match
    The Mexico versus Sweden match should decide the group-stage fate of both countries.

    The man to watch
    The Germans qualified impressively and their youthful rebuild has culminated in a powerful and hungry squad. Schalke 04’s Leon Goretzka is a perfect example; a youthful midfielder and the latest star off the German production line.

    Group G
    Belgium and England appear sure things to advance in Group G with Panama and Tunisia unlikely to threaten the European powerhouses.

    Crucial match
    The result of the Belgium and England clash could be crucial if either has slipped up earlier in the group stage. If they haven’t, it will likely decide who claims top spot in their pool.

    The men to watch
    Belgium have a powerful attacking squad with Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard (from Manchester City and Chelsea respectively) and Romelu Lukaku (who plays for their cross-town rivals, Manchester United) looming as match winners. Despite their poor recent record in major tournaments, England should impress and the big question might just be how many goals Golden Boot contender Harry Kane (Tottenham) can score.

    Harry Kane Tottenham English Premier League EPL Football 2017

    (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

    Group H
    Something of a dark horse, Poland begins its campaign against Senegal and the Colombians take on Japan in Saransk.

    Colombia should fight out second spot with the Senegalese, although having watched Japan’s qualification campaign through Asia, it is clear the Samurai Blue are not without a chance. The turmoil of sacking manager Vahid Halilhodzic so close to the start of the tournament (he was fired in April) may hurt them though.

    Crucial match
    The match between Senegal and Colombia could very well decide second place in the group.

    The men to watch
    Bayern Munich frontman Robert Lewandowski will lie at the heart of Polish success, while Senegal will be hoping for big things from Sadio Mane, who continues to impress at Liverpool.

    The Round of 16, quarters and semi-finals

    The eight crossover Round of 16 matches between the top two qualifiers from each group take place across four days. Following a two-day break, the quarter-finals are to played on the 6th and 7th of July.

    That will leave four countries still in the hunt for the title of world champions.

    So who are the most likely final four?

    Past tournament successes, recent form and their overall talent levels tell us Brazil, Germany, Argentina and France are the four nations most likely to progress all the way to the semi-finals.

    The final: Who’s going to win?

    The last two teams standing will meet in Moscow at the Luzhniki Stadium in one of the most intense and viewed sporting contests on the planet.

    Enjoy the tournament! Embrace the event and when Germany hold the trophy aloft in Moscow, you’ll know where you heard it first.

    You won’t want to miss any of the memorable footballing moments in Russia this year. Catch all the action in the best way possible by coming together with your friends and family and watching it on an epic big screen Samsung QLED TV, so explore the big screen range now.

    Haven’t seen your friends lately? Send them a personal message from Tim Cahill with TIMVITE and get ready to watch the big games.

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    The Crowd Says (47)

    • June 6th 2018 @ 7:02am
      Sam said | June 6th 2018 @ 7:02am | ! Report

      Nice summary Stuart, although I think you’re being a tad generous to England in suggesting they are a legitimate contender for both the title and/or having a player win the Golden Boot haha. We’ll see what happens though!
      Excited for the big dance to kick off and will be cheering on the Aussies loudly in the early hours of the morning from here in Canada.

      • Columnist

        June 6th 2018 @ 8:58am
        Stuart Thomas said | June 6th 2018 @ 8:58am | ! Report

        Woke up, startled, in the middle of the night with visions of the English finally producing something in the World Cup. Happy to be proven wrong but I have a hunch. Quarters at least.

        • June 6th 2018 @ 10:27pm
          13th Man said | June 6th 2018 @ 10:27pm | ! Report

          I think England will do better than a lot of people think but the way I see it they meet Germany in the quarters so won’t realistically progress further than that.

      • June 6th 2018 @ 9:47am
        Fadida said | June 6th 2018 @ 9:47am | ! Report

        I’m with Sam on this. England going past the quarters would be a huge shock

        • Roar Pro

          June 6th 2018 @ 3:39pm
          Davico said | June 6th 2018 @ 3:39pm | ! Report

          And me to that.

          The players left out by other teams would make up a better side than the English. Bar Kane, maybe!

      • Roar Guru

        June 6th 2018 @ 1:20pm
        Griffo said | June 6th 2018 @ 1:20pm | ! Report

        Hard to know as England always talk up a big game.

        They have a younger squad so who knows, maybe not this tournament but Qatar 2022 could be a strong run.

    • June 6th 2018 @ 8:13am
      Buddy said | June 6th 2018 @ 8:13am | ! Report

      A good piece to kick off the day, thanks Stuart. Whilst there are teams that as you suggested, might be on their way home all too quickly, they do make a significant contribution as well as making the competition truly a world cup.
      Besides, “hope springs eternal” and we have a history of surprises, particularly in the early rounds and to be honest, I focus far more on the group stage than the knock out as I believe the most exciting and entertaining football is to be found there when the stakes, although high are nowhere near as high as in the knockout phase when nobody can afford to make mistakes.

      I am hoping to see some stronger performances from AFC qualifiers and will be cheering on Japan and South Korea as it all helps to grow and improve the game in the region and to be honest, I was bored with Brazil winning and all the somewhat sycophantic oas as long ago as Mexico 1970! I would like the curent Belgian team do really well. They have plenty of talent in the squad and now have the experience of a WC a d Euros behind them so no excuses. I have lost count of the number of times I backed Russia to do well only to watch them collapse on the world stage and truly disappoint meso I’ll ignore them this time around. As for England, well they are a similar case and prove time and time again that just because you host the world’s most popular league competition filled with millionaire stars etc it doesn’t follow that it kicks the sport along and produces quality home grown talent. However, the expectations are always there and although it has been made clear that the country is trying to develop for Qatar in 2022, I am certain that secretly they expect this new young squad to go well…….but their defence will be their undoing. They are not smart enough and not fast enough imo but they do have world diving champion Raheem Sterling in the side so they might win a gold medal at a sideshow along the way.
      One final thing – when you go around the grounds at local level you wouldn’t be able to tell that tnere is a big competition coming up. There is rarely a sign of anything and it is a missed opportunity. For my own sins, we have world cup bunting strung out with all the flags and a feee to enter competition just for a bit of fun. I even manage to get a decent size tipping comp at work and by far the majority know nothing of the game and can only talk about some event in Melbourne that takes place tonight. I sometimes feel I am still living in a footballing Wilderness.

    • June 6th 2018 @ 8:14am
      chris said | June 6th 2018 @ 8:14am | ! Report

      Sam agree with you re England. I think they are a bit too young to really threaten and maybe they will have a better chance in 4 years.

    • Roar Rookie

      June 6th 2018 @ 8:41am
      Stevo said | June 6th 2018 @ 8:41am | ! Report

      Well done Stuart but the poms? Surely? I saw Brazil player Croatia in the recent friendly and Hrvatska was doing a good job but then Neymar was brought off the bench. Game over.

      • Columnist

        June 6th 2018 @ 9:05am
        Stuart Thomas said | June 6th 2018 @ 9:05am | ! Report

        Just a hunch Stevo. Surely it is about time for the Poms to produce something of note at the World Cup?

        • June 6th 2018 @ 9:51am
          Fadida said | June 6th 2018 @ 9:51am | ! Report

          The passage of years alone doesn’t increase chances for England. They need to produce better players, and while there are a few promising shoots in the squad overall it is the worst squad I’ve ever seen them take to a tournament.

          I wouldn’t put them in a top 8 list of potential winners

    • June 6th 2018 @ 8:56am
      Buddy said | June 6th 2018 @ 8:56am | ! Report

      Btw- when did Eden Hazard get transferred to MC? It is bad enough that Chelsea just about gave away De Bruyne without doing a double and allowing the City group to potentially trample all over their cross town rivals for another season!

      • Columnist

        June 6th 2018 @ 9:04am
        Stuart Thomas said | June 6th 2018 @ 9:04am | ! Report

        Not sure what happened there Buddy. All fixed.

    • June 6th 2018 @ 9:53am
      Fadida said | June 6th 2018 @ 9:53am | ! Report

      A bit generous with our chances too Stuart. While I’m hoping for the best I’d still have is in the also rans column.

      Going for some reverse psychology!

      • Columnist

        June 6th 2018 @ 10:49am
        Stuart Thomas said | June 6th 2018 @ 10:49am | ! Report

        It was funny looking at some of the odds with the Saudi’s written off completely and not us. I thought that was interesting. Tunisia and Panama a little the same. We would be pretty evenly matched with both I would have thought.

        • Roar Guru

          June 6th 2018 @ 1:23pm
          Griffo said | June 6th 2018 @ 1:23pm | ! Report

          Although loosing all three games in Brazil, it wasn’t without trying and making it difficult for our opponents for the first two games at least.

          I’m probably happy there is at least some acknowledgement we aren’t just some rugby ring-ins stinking up the football culture of the tournament (thanks Blatter).

          • June 7th 2018 @ 9:36pm
            lunchboxexpert said | June 7th 2018 @ 9:36pm | ! Report

            Australia’s performance against the Dutch was absolutely world class in 2014. The team really stepped up and pushed the Dutch all the way to the final whistle. At one stage the Aussies were even up 2-1 but the Dutch clawed it back and eventually won the game 2-3 in a hard fought contest. What makes the result even more amaazing is it was the game after the Dutch had disposed of the number 1 team in the world, Spain in a 5-1 demolition.

            In theie last group game Australia met one of the best teams in the world who were angry and disappointed at their poor performance in the tournament so far. Spain played their first and only decent of their campaign and Australia never really stood a chance against them.