Golden boot, MVP and World Cup dark horses – our writers predict the stars of Russia 2018
With their reputations on the line, will our team play it safe or make a statement in their tips for stand-outs this summer?
The World Cup is almost upon us and after four years much has changed in the world of football.
Will the Germans become only the third team ever to win back-to-back titles and the first since Brazil in 1962? Is this finally England’s year? Who is going to take the individual trophies?
We asked our writers all this and more. Here are their responses.
Who will win the World Cup?
As much as it would be good to finally see a new name on the list of World Cup winners, it’s hard to look past the usual suspects. Holders Germany look the safest bet of those, despite recent losses to Austria and Brazil in friendlies. Many of this team lifted the trophy in Brazil and the new additions in the last four years, such as Timo Werner and Leon Goretzka, have arguably added to Jogi Loew’s squad. Plus, unlike Argentina, Brazil and Portugal, they are not built on one stand-out footballer but rather a team. Jonathan White
Not so much dark horses as bona fide stable leaders, the France squad is so chock full of talent that they were able to leave out a group of players that would have walked into almost every other squad in Russia. The depth of this France team is frightening, and if they can click (and group harmony can be maintained for four short weeks), I fancy they’re at least a safe bet for a run to the final this time around. Paul Ryding
Since their all-conquering heyday from 2008 to 2012, Spain have had a quiet past couple of international tournaments. It was only natural they would take their foot off the gas as one generation transitioned into another and, by the looks of their qualifying campaign, Spain are ready to reclaim the throne. There’s quality all over the park: the best goalkeeper in the world in David de Gea; a solid back four with plenty of goals in it; creativity and flair in abundance in midfield and out wide and brute strength up front in Diego Costa. Nicolas Atkin
It’s always the big names such as Brazil, Germany, Spain and France that dominate the top list. But if you are tired of the favourites, Belgium should not be a bad choice considering the performance of their star players showcasing the skills in various leagues across Europe. Kevin de Bruyne, Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku and Dries Mertens should be able to provide sufficient firepower but of course their doubtful defence would need to be firm enough to avoid making silly mistakes! Chan Kin-wa
Who will finish as Golden Boot?
Ronaldo’s eight goals in 2002 was the only time in the last 40 years that anyone has needed to score more than six to take top scorer so there’s nothing to say it will be a player whose team goes all the way in Russia. There’s no “easy” groups but Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku and England’s Harry Kane should be looking to fill their boots against Panama and Tunisia. I’d tip Lukaku, especially if Belgium finally get their act together and deliver on their undoubted potential. JW
I’m one of many who would be thrilled to see Lionel Messi blast his way to a World Cup winner’s medal this year, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if the little magician managed it. However, Brazil’s Neymar has been sparkling in the warm-up games since his return from injury and doesn’t seem to be any worse for a lengthy lay-off at club level. A fair rest might be a blessing for his chances of topping the scoring chart. PR
With Brazil up against Switzerland, Costa Rica and Serbia in group E, Neymar has a huge chance to fill his boots early on. The Paris Saint-Germain forward has just come back from a long injury lay-off but it doesn’t look like he’s missed a step, scoring two goals in two in pre-tournament friendlies. NA
Who’ll take the Golden Ball for best player?
Neymar. The world’s most expensive player is the fulcrum of its most beloved football team and he would have won this last time out but for his back injury against Colombia ending his World Cup at the quarter-final stage. The pressure is off in Russia compared to playing on home soil so this could be the tournament where he steps out of the shadows of Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo as the pre-eminent player of the game. JW
If he doesn’t manage to top the scoring chart, I think the stage is set for Messi to sparkle (again) this year. With a devastating strike force alongside him, Argentina could score big, which would only help his cause. PR
Isco has had a breakthrough couple of seasons at Real Madrid and now is the time for him to shine on the international stage. His five goals in eight qualifying matches suggest he will be one to watch in Russia.
Who’ll be Golden Gloves?
Spain’s David De Gea has often single-handedly kept his club Manchester United in games and is probably the best ‘keeper in the world. No reason why he won’t do more of the same in Russia and the Spanish have the potential to go deep into the knockouts. JW
A lot of Brazil’s success could rest on their back line holding firm while their rapid flanks pour forward. Alisson has had a fine year at club level and a couple of clean sheets as part of a Brazilian run deep into the tournament could secure him the top goalkeeper nod. PR
Alisson has conceded just three goals in 16 games since Tite took charge of Brazil in July 2016. The Roma goalkeeper is attracting strong interest from Liverpool and will be keen to show off his talent. NA
Who is a dark horse for the tournament?
Are England a dark horse? Can Uruguay match their 2010 run? Are Nigeria’s chances hyped just because of that kit? The Super Eagles’ group C rivals Croatia look a good bet as dark horses. They performed well at the last Euros and while the team is older – Luka Modric is 32 now – this could be one last hurrah for a midfield that contains the Real Madrid man alongside Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic.
They reached the finals 20 years ago at France 98. JW
Belgium have been talked about as dark horses for so long, that it’s no longer anything like an astute observation to suggest they could be the most unlikely to emerge from the pack this time around. For me, they’re hamstrung by the limitations of their manager, Roberto Martinez, but the attacking talent they have could make up for his shortcomings and at least provide the basis for a deep run. PR
England finally hit rock bottom with their last-16 defeat to Iceland at Euro 2016 under Roy Hodgson, and expectations have probably never been lower going into an international tournament. Gareth Southgate has quietly gone about his business overhauling a stale squad that was more often than not picked on reputation rather than form. He has a nucleus of young, hungry players who have nothing to lose, and plenty to offer. NA
What about a surprise package?
Peru are in an astonishing run of form and after a draw with Sweden in their final warm-up game it’s 15 games unbeaten for Ricardo Gareca’s side. Even better news is that the team’s talisman Paulo Guerrero is going to Russia after the 34-year-old striker’s doping ban was lifted. It’s 40 years since they were last at a World Cup and there is no reason the last team to qualify for Russia can’t negotiate a group containing Australia, France and Denmark. The possibility is that Argentina awaits but they managed two draws against them in qualifying. Plus those kits are snazzy. JW
Mohamed Salah has been nothing short of magnificent for Liverpool this year. With the benefit of an extra week or two’s break (as he nurses a dislocated shoulder back to full fitness) he could sparkle in the group stages and give Egypt the chance of emerging from a tricky group A, which would have to be considered an overachievement in itself. PR
Iceland shocked everyone with their run to the quarter-finals at Euro 2016 and their excellent qualification campaign suggests they are ready to throw a spanner in the works again. Getting out of a group D which contains Argentina, Croatia and Nigeria would be some feat, and is entirely plausible if they bring the same attitude they took to France two summers ago. NA
Who will be the star of the tournament?
It seems Paul Pogba is due a string of performances to match his world-class talent. Freed from the shackles of Jose Mourinho and with France having a point to prove after losing in the final of Euro 2016 at home, the star player of a much-fancied side could follow Zinedine Zidane in dragging the nation to a World Cup or pretty close. JW
Kevin De Bruyne has earned a number of plaudits for his performances in the Premier League this year, but he was beaten to the player of the year gong by the scarcely believable feats of Liverpool’s Salah. If this category aims to identify someone who could shine brightly but not for long enough to pick up the Golden Ball award, the Belgian could once again find himself unfortunate to miss out. PR
Kevin De Bruyne has been sublime for Manchester City this season and will no doubt drive Belgium on with goals and assists, but Roberto Martinez’s awful defensive tactics will probably prevent the Red Devils from going all the way. NA
Which unknown player is one to look out for?
It would be Seattle Sounders man mountain Roman Torres but can’t see Panama hanging around too long. Given that most people don’t watch an awful lot of South American football Peru’s Christian Cueva seems a good shout and the type of player that might attract the eyes of European scouts. The pint-sized playmaker is not short on talent and has shone for Sao Paolo in the No 10 role. That shirt number is perhaps the most iconic in the World Cup and the Peruvian, at 26, could shine. JW
Given the chance, Harry Maguire could show his class this year. But he may find his chance difficult to come by and it could require a dreadful performance from the ageing Gary Cahill (who has endured a difficult season with Chelsea) to provide him a break. I do hope he qualifies as an unknown. I would imagine he’s not too well known to anyone outside England (or fans of that country’s league) as he has had a fairly modest rise to the world-class bracket, having plied his trade with some of England’s smaller clubs before a move to Leicester last year. He had a strong season for The Foxes and has impressed in his limited chances with the Three Lions. PR
Sergej Milinkovic-Savic is drawing plaudits with Lazio and the 23-year-old midfielder could seal a lucrative move to the Premier League with a strong showing for Serbia. NA
And which young player to make a name for themselves?
Australia’s Daniel Arzani is the youngest player at the World Cup – a whole 15 days younger than Kylian Mbappe – and scored his first goal for the Socceroos in a recent friendly against Hungary. The Iran-born 19-year-old made it into the A-League team of the year on the back of his performances for Melbourne City and he was named Young Player of the Year too. He loves to dribble and he is young enough to be unfazed if Bert Van Marwijk calls on him. JW
England’s Trent Alexander-Arnold is a rare defensive talent. If he’s provided the opportunity to showcase his ability on this, the biggest stage in football, then he has the ability to shine for the Three Lions. He has handled matchups against some of the best wingers in world football this term, and would not be overawed by the stage. PR
Marcus Rashford was probably England’s best player at Euro 2016 despite mostly being used as a substitute, and his screamer against Costa Rica last week suggests he could have a breakthrough tournament. NA