World Cup group-by-group analysis: Key battles, predictions
The World Cup draw was made in Russia on Friday. We break down the groups and look at how they could be decided.
Teams: Russia, Uruguay, Egypt, Saudi Arabia
Russia and Saudi Arabia open the tournament, in what is one of the most uninspiring opening matches in World Cup history. They are the two lowest ranked teams at the event (Russia are 65th and their opponents are 63rd) and, as well as being a dire spectacle it is only likely to have bearing on who finishes third. Uruguay and Egypt at least have some world-class players between them, with Barcelona’s Luis Suarez and PSG’s Edinson Cavani a threat to any team, while Mo Salah has been in prodigious form for Liverpool this season.
June 14: Russia v Saudi Arabia, Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow (3pm)
June 15: Egypt v Uruguay, Ekaterinburg (12pm)
June 19: Russia v Egypt, St Petersburg (6pm)
June 20: Uruguay v Saudi Arabia, Rostov-on-Don (3pm)
June 25: Uruguay v Russia, Samara (2pm); Saudi Arabia v Egypt, Volgograd (2pm)
Key battle: Mohamed Salah v Martin Caceres
So much rests on Salah. It was his injury-time penalty that handed his country a place in the World Cup for the first time since 1990. If he can get the better of Caceres on the flank, and Mohamed Elneny can keep Luis Suarez out of the game, Egypt could snatch a draw, or even a win against Uruguay.
Mohamed Salah - Egypt 2017Getty Images
Prediction: Uruguay to beat Egypt to top spot, Russia to win snore-fest of an opener and end up third, ahead of Saudi Arabia.
Teams: Portugal, Spain, Morocco, Iran
Serious spice in this group, with Spain taking on Portugal, the 2010 winners against the reigning European champions, Cristiano Ronaldo against half of his Real Madrid team-mates. Undoubtedly, this is the clash of the group, but Morocco might just have a say if Spain win the grudge game, and Portugal are nervous and lose heart. Especially if Ronaldo continues his currently underwhelming form at club level.
Portugal's forward Cristiano Ronaldo (L) celebrates with Portugal's defender Pepe after scoring a penalty during the 2017 Confederations Cup group A football match between New Zealand and Portugal at the Saint Petersburg Stadium in Saint Petersburg on JuGetty Images
June 15: Morocco v Iran, St Petersburg (3pm); June 19: Portugal v Spain, Sochi (6pm)
June 20: Portugal v Morocco, Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow (12pm); Iran v Spain, Kazan (6pm)
June 25: Iran v Portugal, Saransk (6pm); Spain v Morocco, Kaliningrad (6pm)
Key battle: Cristiano Ronaldo v Sergio Ramos. Tasty.
Real Madrid's forward from Portugal Cristiano Ronaldo (L) celebrates scoring with Real Madrid's defender from Spain Sergio Ramos during the UEFA Champions League Group H football match BVB Borussia Dortmund v Real Madrid in Dortmund, western Germany on SeGetty Images
If Portugal deploy Ronaldo as a striker, he will encounter his Real Madrid team-mate and captain Ramos. So much relies on both players for the countries, though the forward's burden is greater given his sack of Ballon d'Ors and a slightly inferior team behind him.
Prediction: Spain to edge the match against Portugal and then win the group comfortably, Portugal to qualify behind them after a couple of Ronaldo sulks when things get tough. Morocco third, Iran fourth.
Teams: France, Australia, Peru, Denmark
A dream draw for France. They should canter through to the knockout stage and might even be able to rotate their deeply talented squad for the final group match against Denmark – who had a patchy qualifying campaign before they hammered the Republic of Ireland in the play-offs. In fact, they are a place behind Peru in the rankings at the moment so a lot will depend on the form of Christian Eriksen.
Denmark's midfielder Christian Eriksen celebrates with Thomas Delaney (L)Getty Images
June 16: France v Australia, Kazan (10pm); Peru v Denmark, Saransk (4pm)
June 21: France v Peru, Ekaterinburg (12pm); Denmark v Australia, Samara (3pm)
June 26: Denmark v France, Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow (2pm); Australia v Peru, Sochi (2pm)
Key battle: Denmark v Peru
Australia have little hope in this group, so the battle for second will be tight. Peru are back at the World Cup for the first time in 36 years and have a young cluster of improving players. They also have Jefferson Farfán, who plays for Lokomotiv Moscow, who could be a game changer.
Prediction: Three wins for France, Denmark to edge into second ahead of Peru, possibly on goal difference.
Teams: Argentina, Iceland, Croatia, Nigeria
If the cliche hunters must insist on finding a 'Group of Death', this would probably be it. However, unless Argentina fail miserably, there will be no powerhouse of world football missing out on the group stages. Croatia have a clutch of talented players, Iceland are an incredibly tough collective to face and Nigeria are growing in confidence under Gernot Rohr and have some Premier League talent at their disposal, with the likes of Alex Iwobi and Victor Moses.
Argentina's Lionel Messi during an international friendly football match between Russia and Argentina at the Luzhniki stadium in MoscowGetty Images
June 16: Argentina v Iceland, Spartak Stadium, Moscow (1pm); Croatia v Nigeria, Kaliningrad (7pm)
June 21: Argentina v Croatia, Nizhny Novgorod (6pm)
June 22: Nigeria v Iceland, Volgograd (3pm)
June 26: Nigeria v Argentina, St Petersburg (6pm); Iceland v Croatia, Rostov-on-Don (6pm)
Key battle: Every match. This group will almost certainly go to the wire.
Although Argentina are the standout name, they came very close to not qualifying. Croatia and Iceland will commence battle again after their qualifying campaigns ended in a win each. And Nigeria really cannot be discounted, even if they were in Pot 4 for the draw. If they play to their potential, they stand a good chance of reaching the knockout stages.
Prediction: Argentina to go through, with Croatia, who'll just pip Nigeria with their experienced star players.
Teams: Brazil, Switzerland, Costa Rica, Serbia
Five-time winners Brazil have little to fear in this draw. Switzerland are ranked eighth in the world but in truth they are a functional side at best. Costa Rica caused a big upset in 2014, as Brazil’s plans went horribly awry, but under coach Tite, the country most romantically associated with the World Cup will expect to cruise past the Central Americans as well as Serbia.
June 17: Costa Rica v Serbia, Samara (1pm); June 17: Brazil v Switzerland, Rostov-on-Don (7pm)
June 22: Brazil v Costa Rica, St Petersburg (1pm); Serbia v Switzerland, Kaliningrad (7pm)
Steven Davis of Northern Ireland and Granit Xhaka of Switzerland in action during the FIFA 2018 World Cup Qualifier Play-Off: First Leg between Northern Ireland and Switzerland at Windsor Park on November 9, 2017 in Belfast, Northern Ireland.Getty Images
June 27: Serbia v Brazil, Spartak Stadium, Moscow (7pm); Switzerland v Costa Rica, Nizhny Novgorod (7pm)
Key battle: Granit Xhaka v Philippe Coutinho
He might be the figure of some mirth in the Premier League at times, but Xhaka is highly regarded in his native Switzerland, where he is thought to be one of their most talented players of modern times. A deep-lying playmaker, he will likely share space with Coutinho, who is growing into a player of real stature for Brazil. Both players like to channel play.
Prediction: Brazil followed by Switzerland. Nice and easy.
Reigning champions and the current top-ranked team in the world, Germany will view this as a favourable draw, although they will be very wary of slipping up given Brazil could await in the last-16. Sweden have shown they are a capable side and Mexico came through comfortably in qualifying. South Korea are not the force they once were and could struggle badly. But it would be a huge shock if Germany were lopped off top spot here.
June 17: Germany v Mexico, Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow (4pm)
June 18: Sweden v South Korea, Nizhny Novgorod (1pm)
Germany celebrate their World Cup win in the MaracanaReuters
June 23: Germany v Sweden, Sochi (4pm)
June 23: South Korea v Mexico, Rostov-on-Don (7pm)
June 27: South Korea v Germany, Kazan (3pm)
June 27: Mexico v Sweden, Ekaterinburg (3pm)
Forsberg stars as a winger for RB Leipzig so Kimmich, the right-back for Germany for Bayern Munich, will be well aware of his quality. Keep Forsberg quiet and Germany should have a much easier passage into the knockouts.
Prediction: Germany might look in a potentially tricky spot with four points from two games, but they should beat South Korea comfortably in their third match to go through.
Teams: Belgium, England, Tunisia, Panama
Aside from the group with host nation Russia, this is the group which has the lowest cumulative FIFA world ranking, with an average of almost 26. Panama are the potential whipping boys and World Cup debutants, while Tunisia are no great shakes either. Really, this looks like coming down to a shoot-out between Belgium and England, who meet on the final day of the group: June 28, in Kaliningrad. That will be one of the highlights of the group stages.
June 18: Belgium v Panama, Sochi (4pm); Tunisia v England, Volgograd (7pm)
June 23: Belgium v Tunisia, Spartak Stadium, Moscow (1pm)
June 24: England v Panama, Nizhny Novgorod (1pm)
June 28: England v Belgium, Kaliningrad (7pm); Panama v Tunisia, Saransk (7pm)
Key battle: Premier League v Premier League
There are 19 Belgians currently playing in the English top flight and the match between the two teams will surely have the feel of a Premier League encounter, especially with Roberto Martinez facing up against Gareth Southgate. It could be a chunk of high-intensity football which stands out.
Prediction: England to nick top spot on the final group match, Belgium a comfortable second.
Teams: Poland, Colombia, Senegal, Japan
A pleasing continental spread with a team from Europe, South America, Africa and Asia. That should ensure a real contrast in styles and some absorbing matches. Poland are the top ranked team in the FIFA rankings at seventh in the world but were the weakest top seeds other than Russia and hardly look unassailable. Colombia were one of the surprise packages in 2014 and will be confident of progressing out of this fairly well balanced group.
Poland's forward Robert Lewandowski celebrates during the FIFA World Cup 2018 qualification football match between Armenia and Poland in Yerevan on October 5, 2017.Getty Images
June 19: Poland v Senegal, Spartak Stadium, Moscow (1pm); June 19: Colombia v Japan, Saransk (4pm)
June 24: Japan v Senegal, Ekaterinburg (4pm); Poland v Colombia, Kazan (7pm)
June 28: Japan v Poland, Volgograd (3pm); June 28: Senegal v Colombia, Samara (3pm)
Key battle: Robert Lewandowski v James Rodriguez
The two Bayern Munich team-mates will be the best known players in the group, along with Liverpool’s Sadio Mane, and are the fulcrums of their teams. James took the 2014 World Cup by storm while Lewandowski’s 16 goals in qualifying was a European record.
Prediction: Colombia to top the group, Poland in second.
Tom Adams and Kevin Coulson