With a squad that’s the envy of the football world, could this be the tournament in which Belgium, finally, come good? Surely, with the players at their disposal, they should be doing far, far better? And, yet, they always seem to flatter to deceive at tournaments. Now, with Roberto Martinez in charge, the Belgians most definitely have a great opportunity to do justice to their potential. Kevin de Bruyne, Eden Hazard, Thibaut Courtois, Toby Alderweireld, Jan Vertonghen, Vincent Kompany, Mousa Dembele, Romelu Lukaku and Dries Mertens Wow, if this team performs as the top names in the team suggest, well, then watch out!
Really not much is expected from Panama. This is their first time ever they’ve qualified for the World Cup, and that’s probably about it. Their players aren’t well-known - most ply their trade in the American MLS - and, indications are, they will probably only be good frustration value; they’ll keep things very tight and ensure they aren’t embarrassed.
Like any north African side, Tunisia will be organised, comfortable in possession and difficult to break down. They don’t have any really big names - like Egypt’s Salah - but what they will have, in spades, is a fantastic team ethic, which has always been the foundation of Tunisia’s success. The man at the helm, Nabil Maaloul, is now into his third stint as coach, so he won’t be lacking in experience as to how to use the players under his care. It’s difficult to single out any individual in the squad, because that just isn’t the way the Tunisians play, but keep an eye on Saif-Eddine Khaoui, a quick-thinking, smooth passing midfielder.
Always much hyped when it comes to the World Cup, England consistently fail to deliver. This time, with former England defender Gareth Southgate in charge, it has to be said, they do look a lot more settled. There’s a solid look about their defensive work and they have some really smart attacking talent too. They will be deadly in their ability to hit teams on the break with the pace of Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling, and rely on deadly goal ace Harry Kane to do the business in the penalty area. Will they have enough? To get to the next round, perhaps, but after that? Can they go all the way? Unlikely.
Who will go through to the next round? Belgium and England.
Robert Lewandowski. That’s probably about all there is to talk about when it comes to Poland. Everything the Poles do at Russia 2018 will revolve the Bayern Munich striker; they’ll get him into the game as much as possible and hope that his individual genius can take them through to the next round. Now coached by Adam Nawalka, still fondly remembered for his role in Poland’s superb campaign at the 1978 tournament in Argentina, he will certainly know what it takes to engineer a successful World Cup campaign. They’re an exciting lot, this Polish squad, and, while they’ll get goals and be enterprising in attack, they’ll be just as sound at the back, where they have two top-class goalkeepers in Wojciech Szczesny and Lukasz Fabianski to call upon.
A very, very good squad - but, as always, the big question is whether Senegal can translate talent in name into action on the football pitch at Russia 2018. Sadio Mane, Kalidou Koulibaly, Cheikhou Kouyate, Idrisa Gana Gueye, Moussa Sow, Diafra Sakho and Mame Biram Diouf the names are enough to have the opposition quaking in their boots. Add to that, a fantastic coach in former player Aliou Cisse, and it’s more than obvious the Senegalese have to be respected.
Mane is a talismanic presence in attack, while Koulibaly, after a stellar season with Napoli, is developing a reputation as one of the best central defenders in world football.
If you’re a betting man, here’s another sneaky outsider for top honours. South American teams are always good value at the World Cup; they know how to perform at such high-profile events and, make no mistake, there is some quality in this Columbia squad.There’s the industry and craft of James Rodriguez and the flair and scoring boots of Radamel Falcao, a reliable goalkeeper in David Ospina and, of course, that most excellent central defender Davison Sanchez, who comes off a real break-out season at Tottenham Hotspur.
In Jose Pekerman, they have a coach who knows his way around the international game - and, while Columbia often operate under the radar, they are definitely expected to give the favourites a run for their money.
Not expected to trouble the rest of the group too much, Japan have relied on tried and trusted old hands in their squad, like Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa, Shinji Okazaki and Maya Yoshida.
But, while the quartet is the Asian country’s most recognisable talents, there’s not all that much else to write home about: they’ll scrap away and give a good account of themselves, but they’ll be lucky to get a point.
Who will go through to the next round? Columbia and Poland