The 2018 World Cup looks like one of the more open tournaments in recent memory, with a deep pool of contenders and a wide array of star power. Could this be the tournament where Lionel Messi finally joins the World Cup greats? Will Neymar lead Brazil to 2014 redemption? Do France have the leadership to go with their vibrant young superstars? The lists goes on. Spain, Germany and Belgium belong in this conversation too - they have talented squads but question marks linger. One thing is for certain: there are going to be some terrific clashes in the knockout rounds.
As the month of gripping action kicks off, here are a few things to keep an eye on:
Luis Suarez, Uruguay, top goalscorer
Messi, Neymar and Cristiano Ronaldo are the favourites here, but there are some proven poachers lower down the list too. Suarez is one of them. Uruguay have a favourable draw in Group A and Suarez will have chances to pad his goal tally against Saudi Arabia, Russia and Egypt. The second round will likely mean a showdown with Portugal but that too is winnable. Even if Uruguay fail to progress beyond the quarter-finals, Suarez has every opportunity to bag four or five goals. Other interesting candidates include Romelu Lukaku (Belgium) and Harry Kane (England).
Eden Hazard, top goalscorer for Belgium
Lukaku is rightly favoured here but is coming off an end of season ankle injury. Meanwhile, Hazard will have chances in the final third, is likely to take penalties and could profit against Panama, in particular. He needs a big tournament performance if he wants to eventually join the likes of Messi and Ronaldo in the elite tier.
Egypt to be the top African team
Egypt will bring a disciplined game plan while hoping for just enough Mo Salah magic. That formula could see them sneak through in Group A. Meanwhile, Senegal (considered favourites in this category) face a tough four-way scrap in Group H and Morocco, Tunisia and Nigeria are all likely to go out in the group stage.
Brazil, France and Germany to win all their group games
All three teams are clear favourites to top their groups and have the depth to win their third and final group game even if they ring the chances. Brazil are out to prove a point and should be unstoppable in Group E (Costa Rica, Serbia and Switzerland). Likewise, France have too much firepower for Peru, Denmark and Australia in Group C. Germany are the shakiest part of this prediction, with Mexico, South Korea and Sweden all capable of battling for a point. Still, the Germans’ experience should be enough to grab nine points, especially if Timo Werner gets off to a flier.
Group H to be the highest scoring group
While Group H holds no minnows, there could be some open, frenetic games. All four teams will have to go for it from the start. Poland’s Robert Lewandowski is a clinical finisher while James Rodriguez is one of several goal threats for Colombia. Senegal and Japan will play their part in the goal action too. Look for a couple of 2-2 draws and some rollercoaster action, with the group only decided in the final moments of the last round of games.