The World Cup is almost here! The tournament looks as wide open as I can remember it ever being, as there are tons of talented teams, but no truly flawless juggernauts; every team has its significant “but”. Even so, there’s order to be found within the madness, so let’s take a stab at bracketing out this tournament!
Group Stage Qualification
Group A: Qatar, Ecuador, Senegal, Netherlands
This one is fairly straightforward for me, even with Sadio Mané likely to miss the entire group stage. In fact, if anything, the absence of the Bayern star makes things even simpler; with him on the pitch and in form, I may have considered his country to upset the Netherlands and top the group, but that’s not worth considering now.
Projection: Netherlands to win, Senegal to qualify
Group B: England, Iran, USA, Wales
England have the firepower to top this group, probably comfortably. Iran are significantly behind the rest of the pack. So it all comes down to that second spot; USA vs. Wales. As a Liverpool fan who was alive and conscious in 2018, I’ll never underestimate Gareth Bale in a big game, but I think the Americans have more depth, and will come through this interesting group.
Projection: England to win, USA to qualify.
Group C: Argentina, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Poland
Argentina, one of the favorites to win the whole World Cup, are pretty clearly projected to top this group. Many sportsbooks are listing Mexico and Poland as essentially equally likely to advance through that second spot, but I’m pretty convinced that El Tri will come out on top, with Poland fielding a fairly uneven lineup.
Projection: Argentina to win, Mexico to qualify
Group D: France, Australia, Denmark, Tunisia
There really isn’t that much to say about this one. France are clearly a class above the rest in this group. There’s a small chance their new midfield takes a game or two to settle in and they drop points against Denmark, but realistically Les Bleus should go 3-0, and Denmark should roll past Australia and Tunisia.
Projection: France to win, Denmark to qualify
Group E: Spain, Costa Rica, Germany, Japan
This is one of the better groups in the tournament. Spain and Germany are among the World’s best, and Costa Rica and Japan are far from easy outs in any given match. It’s just about a coin toss between Spain and Germany in this one, and I’ll take Spain- I love the German talent, more on that later, but I think they might take a game or two to settle in under a new boss, and I could see them dropping points early.
Projection: Spain to win, Germany to advance
Group F: Belgium, Canada, Morocco, Croatia
Oh man, I love this group. Belgium are the clear favorites, but age, injuries, and general dip in form from some of their key contributors leave the Red Devils more vulnerable than they’ve often been in this “golden generation.” I don’t mean to disrespect Croatia’s remarkable run in 2018, but it’s left this version of the team- a very different group- remarkably overrated; they’re not the locks to advance that some view them as. Canada were dominant in North American qualifiers to reach just their second-ever World Cup, and Morocco are one of Africa’s best sides; I’m actually picking between those two to qualify, with Croatia being my pick to finish last in an incredibly tight race.
Projection: Belgium to win, Morocco to qualify
Group G: Brazil, Serbia, Switzerland, Cameroon
This is another fun group, similar to Group F with the exception that there’s no way anyone takes points off of Brazil. Switzerland were excellent in qualifiers and last year’s Euro, and they’ve also picked up some huge recent Nations League wins. Serbia and Cameroon have more attacking power than anyone would imagine, though; look for the Swiss defense to be overwhelmed more often than usual in this group.
Projection: Brazil to win, Serbia to qualify
Group H: Portugal, Ghana, Uruguay, South Korea
This one’s pretty chalky, unfortunately. Ghana are not the side they were in the early part of last decade, and South Korea simply do not have the depth to keep up at this level. Uruguay are certainly a bit overrated, and won’t test Portugal, but they’ll qualify without breaking too much of a sweat.
Projection: Portugal to win, Uruguay to Qualify
Round of 16:
With the qualifying sorted out and thus the bracket set, let’s take a look at the potential first round of knockout matches.
Netherlands vs. USA
Qualifying is an excellent step for football (or soccer, as many of us say) in the United States. However, that’s as far as we get in this one, as the vaunted Dutch defense makes it impossible for the American attack to gain any traction, and the Oranje win a low-scoring affair.
Projection: Netherlands 2-0
Argentina vs. Denmark
The Danes were the Cinderellas of Euro 2020, truly giving us a football story for the ages. Unfortunately, in Messi’s last stand, I do not see that happening again; Argentina will be beyond motivated to move on, and they’re just more talented. A tough draw for a solid Danish squad, who may have been an upset candidate against a different opponent.
Projection: Argentina 4-2
Spain vs. Morocco
If Denmark aren’t going to live a fairytale, someone else has to- it’s the World Cup after all! Spain are a bit vulnerable in the sense that they don’t have their best back line in recent years, and there could be some confusion up top in terms of finding a primary goalscorer. After surprising some by qualifying from a tough group, Morocco look like a new team with Ziyech back in the fold, and they keep it rolling in an upset win over Spain.
Projection: Morocco 2-1
Brazil vs. Uruguay
It’s a South American clash, although not the one that will have the whole World holding its breath- just wait for that. This one isn’t quite as competitive; Uruguay do not remotely have the defensive or midfield capabilities to slow down Brazil’s high-flying attack.
Projection: Brazil 3-1
England vs. Senegal
Again, this is a spot where with a healthy Mané, I might be talking upset. He’s crushed most of England’s defenders 10 times over in the Prem, so it’s not hard to imagine him finding a moment of brilliance, and Mendy and Koulibaly pulling a massive clean sheet out of nowhere- they’ve both done it before for club and country. But with his health in question, it’s not really worth thinking about in any serious capacity.
Projection: England 2-0
France vs. Mexico
This could be a really fun one; let’s not forget that every four years, Guillermo Ochoa comes out of the woodwork and shows us what it means to be a superstar goalkeeper and a national hero. I could certainly see him frustrating the star-studded French attack- but I don’t see it being the clean sheet his nation would need to actually win this one. I have it being too close for France’s liking, but a win for the defending champs nonetheless.
Projection: France 2-1
Belgium vs. Germany
Some might consider this an upset pick; I really do not. Belgium have been one of the best sides in World football for about a decade, but it’s pretty plain to see that outside of Kevin de Bruyne, who is legitimately magical, most of their stars are in various stages of decline. Germany on the other hand have both star veterans and high-talent youth players, as well as some of the best depth and coaching in the tournament. Give me Germany in a game that is not as close as the final score might indicate.
Projection: Germany 3-2
Portugal vs. Serbia
It was a cool run out of the group stage for the Balkan nation, and if they do achieve that, it’s plenty to be proud of. But it’s over here, Portugal cruise here, as their relentless attack fires several past the Serbian defense, and they advance to the next round without facing too much resistance.
Projection: Portugal 4-1
This could be where it gets fun, but it could also be where the favorites really assert themselves. Let’s get into the last 8 of football’s biggest competition.
Netherlands vs Argentina
It’s the losers of two memorable, instant-classic, and very similar World Cup finals in 2010 and 2014. One of these sides will inch closer to exorcising those demons, while the other will stay haunted. The Dutch defense and possession game will be different from the South American sides Argentina dominated in their Copa America triumph, but the overall talent gap is pretty significant, and I’m frankly not sure where the Netherlands hope to consistently find end product against top sides.
Projection: Argentina 2-1 (a.e.t.)
Brazil vs Morocco
Cinderella doesn’t quite get all the way to putting on that glass slipper, as a campaign to remember for Morocco comes to an unceremonious end against the tournament favorites. Brazil would most likely thoroughly outclass Morocco in this scenario, and feel fortunate to have advanced to the semifinals relatively unscathed.
Projection: Brazil 4-0
England vs France
The first excellent rivalry match of this knockout stage, this would be one of the most intensely-contested games of the whole tournament, both between fans and players. In addition to literal centuries of history between the nations, there’s also tons of talent on both sides, arguably the two best in the tournament on paper. However, France has quite literally every non-talent angle of the game on their side; they have a ton of players who have played together for years, while the English team is an ever-changing mishmosh. Many of these players are defending champions; England’s team was viciously picked apart after a narrow finale loss at the Euro. And of course, France are not managed by an utter dullard, while England are stuck with just that in Gareth Southgate, who has consistently displayed his absolute lack of ability to properly manage a football team.
Projection: France 3-2 (a.e.t.)
Germany vs Portugal
If this isn’t strength vs strength, I don’t know what is- these will be two of the most attacking-minded sides in the tournament. Simply put, I like Germany’s attacking talent much more, and they’re also far less deficient in defense and goalkeeping. This one should be extremely fun, but not all that close when it really comes down to it.
Projection: Germany 4-2
Semifinals and Finals:
Only three matches to go; this is where nice efforts are separated from immortal performances. Let’s finish strong with some massive rivalry matches, and then a final for the ages.
Brazil vs Argentina
This was a Copa America final not long ago, and the energy was unbelievable. This time, it’s on an even bigger stage, with even higher stakes- the legacies of some all-time greats are at stake in this tournament. The storyline of a clash between longtime teammates Neymar and Messi will be at the forefront of lots of the coverage, but the rivalry between the nations themselves is ultimately more meaningful. Both sides feature extreme attacking talent, solid midfield play, an thinner back line and a superstar keeper- it’s a really even matchup, as it tends to be between these two nations. To me, there’s absolutely no way this gets settled in regular time. In fact, I’m not even sure an extra half hour gets it done- this is going to be my only pick of the whole tournament to go to penalties. Messi might exorcise his Copa America demons and bury his, but Alisson has too much experience in the huge moments, and Brazil has more clinical finishers to get them through the shootout- the advance from this instant classic, but only just.
Projection: Brazil 2-2 (penalties)
Germany vs France
Two European giants, and the two most recent World Champions, square off in what would be a thrilling, offense-heavy semifinal. It’s been a long time since a defending champ has had a solid run, and France have already defied the odds in that sense, but this is where it ends. Germany’s attack is able to break down a quietly-vulnerable French defensive group, which I think will be seriously missing Kimpembe and Varane’s 2018 form, and would have really benefited from Maignan’s presence if he were healthy. France’s talented but ultimately inexperienced midfield could also really stumble against a side that has endless championship pedigree when it comes to game-changing players like Joshua Kimmich, Thomas Müller and Ilkay Gündogan. This would be the equivalent of something we’re familiar to in American football- a shootout, like the ones we see between Big 12 squads most Saturdays, and on weeknight MACtion. I think this match could really get out of hand; the chances created would be plentiful, and the defenses would not be up to the task of really shutting down their opponent. I trust Germany, namely Neuer, to get the necessary stops, and finally come away with the win in what would be a wild one.
Projection: Germany 5-3
Final: Germany vs. Brazil
History buffs- anyone remember the last time Germany and Brazil matched up in a competitive context? You guessed it- the infamous 2014 semifinal, where eventual champions Germany absolutely shocked the World by thrashing hosts Brazil by an unforgettable score of 7-1. No Brazilian player- or citizen, for that matter- will have forgotten that, and they’ll be out for vengeance in a final between two juggernaut sides. This would be an absolute treat of a game to watch between arguably the two greatest all-time footballing nations on Earth. These sides play some of the most fluid, beautiful, and effective styles of football you can possibly find in today’s international game, and there’s absolutely no lack of superstars. Neymar and Müller, Alisson and Neuer, Casemiro and Kimmich, and so many more; for each legend on one side, there’s one on the other. If there’s a weakness for either side, it’s the defense in each case, but I love Brazil’s veteran leadership and I think they’ll be able to see it through in a close one. Neymar finally gets his big trophy, and Brazil pull farther ahead of the pack- including Germany with four World Cups- with their sixth triumph on the biggest stage in sports.
Projection: Brazil 3-2 (a.e.t.)