If many experts are correct, Brazil, France, Germany and Spain should advance to the World Cup semifinals in Russia and Brazil and Spain should play for the title.
Sure, there are at least a dozen strong contenders. EURO 2016 champion Portugal with superstar Cristiano Ronaldo, Argentina with the great Lionel Messi and Uruguay with Luis Suarez are serious threats. And nobody would be shocked if Belgium, England, Colombia, Mexico and/or Croatia took a deep run this year.
But analysts keep coming back to Neymar-led Brazil, France, 2014 champion Germany and Spain as teams to beat.
NEYMAR IS BACK, READY TO TAKE CHARGE
Brazil has everything a World Cup champion needs. This squad is loaded with attacking forwards. It is disciplined in the back end and balanced at midfield.
And it has star power with Neymar back from a foot injury that sidelined him from the end of February until mid-May. He appears healthy, rested and ready to put himself in the discussion with Cristiano Ronaldo and Messi for the world’s top player.
Neymar, 26, suffered a broken bone in his back in the 2014 World Cup and was sidelined when Brazil absorbed a 7-1 thrashing from Germany.
“I would definitely very, very much like to play that game again. With me on the pitch. I believe that the result would have been different,” Neymar told German sports online portal spox.com. “I am actually pretty certain. Unfortunately, destiny made its decision back then.”
Brazil’s squad capitulated once that match turned against it, so it would love a do-over four years later.
“We knew it would be hard,” Neymar said. “Unfortunately, it went as it did. Now we finally have the opportunity to wipe out the last World Cup. Maybe we will meet Germany again – and then hopefully we will have a real revenge.”
DECHAMPS TRIES TO PULL FRANCE TOGETHER
It appears manager Didier Deschamps has his hands full with this deep, talented but seemingly disjointed group.
France tied the United States 1-1 in a listless warm-up match, with Kylian Mbappe’s goal the lone highlight. While Antoine Griezmann appears poised for a big tournament up front, fullback Djibril Sidibe is struggling to come back from a knee injury.
And there is much doubt about this team’s cohesion, although Deschamps praised his group after its victory over Italy in a tune-up friendly.
“We have this ability to go fast and create a lot of opportunities,” he told reporters. “You have to be more efficient to get away sooner. The players demonstrated the state of mind that is needed.”
SPAIN ENTERS PLAY WITH NEW MANAGER
Spain’s national manager Julen Lopetegui opted to move on after the World Cup to manage Real Madrid. So the national team opted to let him go right before the World Cup started, moving Fernando Hierro into that post.
That gave the group little time to prepare to play Portugal in their opener under their new manager.
“We need to turn the page as soon as possible,” Spain captain Sergio Ramos told reporters Thursday. “Spain has to be above anybody. The World Cup starts tomorrow (for us) and we have a great game to play against the European champion. Hopefully we will start on the right foot.”
How disruptive might this be? Germany midfielder Toni Kroos downplayed the potential impact during a news conference.
“I really don’t think it will be much of a disadvantage for them,” Kroos said. “Sure, there are better things than losing your coach two days before your first match, but the automatisms, what you learned in training, will still be there.”
Hierro expects the team to stay its course.
“Very few things will change. There wasn’t a lot of time,” Hierro told reporters. “We are well prepared. We have been practicing intensely these past weeks and we have confidence in these players and the ideal that has been in place for the last two years.”
GERMANY LOOKS TO REPEAT
After winning the World Cup in 2014, Germany may not feel the desperation other squads feel. Brazil, for instance, is still stinging from its 7-1 loss to Germany in the ’14 semifinals after Neymar went down.
But Kroos believes his side will still find ample motivation.
“You always work toward a big goal,” said Kroos, who won the World Cup with Germany in 2014. “Once you achieved it, it’s not that easy. You need a few days. Like winning the Champions League — season over, goal achieved. The pressure drops.
“But to play at a World Cup, even more so with a great team like we have, that’s not the worst motivation. The hunger is there. Do it like in 2014. If you have won trophies, you want to do it all over again. By now, I am really looking forward to playing football again.”
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