I think four and only four teams have a legitimate chance to win this World Cup. I rate them thus: Germany, France, Brazil, and Spain. Every other side has major weaknesses that will, I believe, at some point in the tournament be exploited. Belgium is quite weak in midfield (especially with Nainggolan out) and Argentina is topheavy with forwards — forwards who tend to be unproductive for their country in contrast to consistent club brilliance — and shockingly undermanned in defense. If De Bruyne can be the constant creator for his side, and Messi for his (Argentina have zero chance unless Messi plays largely as a creator and provider for his teammates, and they finish their chances), then maybe those teams could get to the semifinals. But I doubt it.
Among those four I have identified as having the best chance, Germany is the most complete. At first glance they might seem to be a little thin at forward, with the elderly Mario Gomez and the youthful Timo Werner being the only classic forwards on the whole squad, but Thomas Müller always Müllers his way to goals, and have you seen that midfield? Khedira, Reus, Gundogan, Brandt, Özil, Draxler, Goretzka, Rudy — there are plenty of goals in that group. I don’t see any worries there, or in defense, or in goalkeeping. It would be an unmitigated catastrophe if Germany didn’t make it at least to the semis, and I think anything less than an appearance in the finals would be a disappointment.
France has a few more worries. LLoris is a magnificently athletic keeper but also mistake-prone, something you have to worry about on a stage with lights so bright. Varane is one of the best defenders in the world, but I am not as confident in Umtiti or any other centerback. But my greatest worry for Les Bleus involves the transition from midfield to attack. They desperately need, but do not have, a principal creator — if not a metronome (there are few of those in the world of soccer today) then at least someone who can consistently receive a pass from the defense and distribute efficiently to this side’s terrifying roster of attacking talent. But who will that be? You certainly can’t count on Pogba to do anything of the kind. Could Tolisso possibly step up and handle the job? If so, this tournament could be a star-making turn for him. But I have my doubts.
Spain we know. A solid defense, especially at the fullback position, backed by the best keeper in the world; and some magnificent midfield creators (how France would love to steal just one of them). But none of their forwards has been reliable at this level. I think they’re going to struggle to score. And their central defense is aging, which also worries me a bit. I would not be surprised to see them in the semis, but I don’t favor them for the finals.
I’ve saved Brazil for last because they’re the wild card, bitches. Except for Marcelo, who despite his occasional forgetfulness of his defensive duties remains pretty much the best fullback in the world, they look just as shaky on defense as they were in their catastrophic 2014 World Cup. But … they have in front of that defense the absolute best holding midfielder in the world, Casemiro, and behind it some excellent goalkeeping in Alisson and Ederson. And with Coutinho, Fred, and the rejuvenated Paulinho leading the midfield attack, bringing the ball to … just pause for a moment and think about this collection of forwards: Douglas Costa, Willian, Firmino, Gabriel Jesus, Neymar … are you kidding me? That’s terrifying. The key question for me is this: Will they be more mentally and emotionally resilient than they were four years ago? If so, they could be the surprise winner of this World Cup. I kinda hated them in 2014; I’m kinda rooting for them in 2018.
But not really. My loyalties will be divided between England and Mexico — though if either of them made it even to the final eight I would be very, very pleased.
So, officially, I have France v. Brazil and Spain V. Germany in the semifinals, Brazil v. Germany in the finals, and yet another World Cup for the Germans.