On The Spot: Who’s favored in Russia?

The short answer, despite the usual media hype in England, is: No, not the Three Lions.

We’re slightly less than two months out from the opening game of the 2018 FIFA World Cup, when hosts Russia play Saudi Arabia on June 14 in Moscow.

Ultimately, you’d expect most of the usual suspects to make it out of their groups, but the potential clashes may be intriguing. While Argentina should make it through its group, only one of Croatia, African powerhouse Nigeria and giant-killers Iceland will join them. In Group H, Polish striker Robert Lewandowski and Colombian superstar James Rodríguez, teammates at Bayern Munich, will face challenges from well-coached teams in Senegal and Japan.

Should they make it out of their group, defending champions Germany are favorites to lift the trophy in Moscow on July 15. Germany won the Confederations Cup last year with its reserve team, and in Joachim Löw Die Mannschaft has one of the most tactically astute coaches. While Germany’s shortage of strikers — as revealed in its Euro 2016 semifinal defeat to France — is a concern, you can still expect the team to be in contention.

Germany will potentially face Belgium or their old enemy England in the quarterfinals, both of whom I do think they’d defeat; neither Gareth Southgate nor Roberto Martínez have the coaching knowledge or enough game-changers to pose a significant threat. The challenge comes in the semis, where Germany may face Portugal, Argentina or Spain. I think the Germans should be able to see off the challenge of the first two — the Portuguese won Euro 2016 via a complete fluke of the rules, while the Argentinians, despite a deadly front-line, were completely embarrassed by the Spanish last month. It is Spain, who possess an embarrassment of riches in midfield and quality in defense, that poses a challenge for the No. 1 team in the world — their draw in March was an interesting prelude to this potential Final Four clash.

Should Germany make it all the way, it would potentially face their biggest challenge in France or Brazil. The Brazilians have improved with the appointment of Tite as coach. However, I’m not convinced by their defense, never mind what people tell me about Thiago Silva and Marquinhos. And they’re sweating on the fitness of their star player, Neymar. While the 2014 World Cup hosts defeated the Germans in a recent friendly, I expect the world champions to step it up come tournament time.

It is in the French that the Germans could face their biggest threat. One wonders who Didier Deschamps will start. Up front, Antoine Griezmann’s name will be penciled in immediately, but what about from Thomas Lemar, Kylian Mbappé, Karim Benzema, Olivier Giroud and Kingsley Coman to name a few others? It gets even scarier when you think about the quality they have at all other positions.

Ultimately, I’m confident the Germans will make it to Moscow but believe they’ll fall one hurdle short of a record-equaling fifth World Cup.

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