World Cup 2018 Preview: Winner, Group Odds, and Top Scorer

  • Russia 2018 kicks off on June 14th, marking the 21st FIFA World Cup
  • Germany are the defending champions while Brazil open as the favorites
  • There are few surprises when it comes to the front-runners, but there are a few dark horses capable of a huge upset

The greatest sporting event in the world is almost upon us. 32 nations from five confederations. 64 matches over 31 days. One World Cup!

Who are the favorites heading to Russia and which is the value pick? How do the groups stack up and are any due for an upset? And of all the star strikers dreaming of World Cup glory, who will claim the Golden Boot? Here’s a primer to get you up to date.

Odds to win the 2018 World Cup

The Favorites

  • Brazil: 4/1
  • Germany: 9/2
  • Spain: 6/1
  • France: 13/2
  • Argentina: 9/1

It’s the usual suspects.

Brazil are once again the bookmakers’ favorite to win outright, and it’s not hard to understand why. Just take a look at some of their world-class talent heading to Russia: Neymar, Firmino, Coutinho, Willian, Marcelo — the list goes on! It’s a huge improvement from the 2014 squad that was humiliated in the 7-1 drubbing against Germany.

But even with all the improvements, do they deserve to be ranked higher than Germany? After all, the Germans are the reigning champs and recently won the 2017 Confederations Cup with their B-side squad. The German National Team isn’t lined with as many eye-popping names, but they’re sending the most balanced and consistent line-up of any nation.

When it comes to the Spanish line-up, just take a look at the players that didn’t make the squad. Three Chelsea players — Pedro, Alvaro Morata and Marcos Alonso — along with Man United’s Ander Herrera, all failed to make the cut. There have been quite a few changes from the 2014 side, but there’s a very familiar feel. It’s a squad with a stacked midfield and sturdy backline, perfect for their brand of creative, possession-based football. Their early exits from the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Euro are cause for concern, but their form during the 2018 World Cup qualifiers may be a sign that those dark days are behind them.

France manager Didier Deschamps summed up his squad perfectly: “Less experience, more ambition.” He’s selected a national team bursting at the seams with potential and promise, but also severely lacking in tangible results at an international level. Young and untested, it’s unclear whether it’s possible to mold the star-studded roster into a cohesive team.

Rounding out the last of the favorites is Argentina. It’s a side rich in attacking firepower — Gonzalo Higuaín, Sergio Agüero, Paulo Dybala, and, of course, Lionel Messi — but their midfield is seriously lacking in depth and their backline leaves a lot to be desired.

Granted, this has been the case for some time and the Argentinians managed to reach the finals last time round. But I’m always hesitant to pick a side that pins so much on a single player.

The Field

  • Belgium: 11/1
  • England: 18/1
  • Portugal: 25/1
  • Croatia: 33/1
  • Uruguay: 33/1
  • Colombia: 40/1

Now for the ragtag underdogs.

First, the perennial dark horses: Belgium. This is supposedly the best ever Belgian side, with the likes of Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, and Romelu Lukaku among the ranks. But this so-called Golden Generation, who are currently ranked third in the world by FIFA, have never been able to live up to their promise.

Speaking of falling short of expectations: England! The difference here is that not even the English are much from their national team. It’s a solid but mostly unremarkable roster. It’s a squad that should reach the knockout stages, but will probably struggle to advance much further.

As we’ve come to expect, Portugal’s hopes are pinned solely on one man. This will be Cristiano Ronaldo’s last chance to win a World Cup, and once again it’ll be up to him to do all the heavy lifting. Portugal somehow won the European Championship in 2016 with a series of patchy victories, but hey, a win’s a win.

Croatia is strange case to consider. Ivan Rakitić and Luka Modrić are two of the most creative playmakers in the sport, while Ivan Perišić and Mario Mandžukić are two of the most underrated attacking players around. But alongside them is a flurry of players who may be ill-equipped for the World Cup. The Croatians have plenty of world-class talent, but they also lack adequate players for a few key positions.

Picks: France (13/2) and Croatia (33/1)

I usually like to make two picks when it comes to the World Cup, one from the favorites and one with longer odds. My two picks — France (13/2) and Croatia (33/1) — have quite a bit in common. They’re both squads that carry a lot of talent but also a lot of uncertainty.

For France, the uncertainty comes from their dearth of experience. They’re sending a young, inexperienced squad that has spent very little time playing as a unit. That’s why they’re currently ranked below Brazil, Germany, and Spain by the bookmakers. However, if the ambitious French side can keep their composure on the world stage, I really believe they can go all the way.

For Croatia, the uncertainty stems from their lack of balance. They have some of the best players in the world, but also a handful of very mediocre players. That would spell certain disaster if this were club football, but there’s a lot more leeway when it comes to the World Cup. Of all the countries hoping to stage a dramatic upset, Croatia has the best shot.

Once again, the hopes of a nation rests on Neymar's shoulders. The Brazilians are the favorites in 2018, but the ghosts of 2014 still haunt them. (Photo credit: copa2014.gov.br <a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0">CC License</a>)
Once again, the hopes of a nation rests on Neymar’s shoulders. The Brazilians are the favorites in 2018, but the ghosts of 2014 still haunt them. (Photo credit: copa2014.gov.br CC License)

World Cup Group Odds

Group A

  • Uruguay: 11/10
  • Russia: 15/8
  • Egypt: 15/2
  • Saudi Arabia: 50/1

Pick: Uruguay (11/10)

This is an incredibly weak group that Uruguay should comfortably win. The host nation often performs better than expected, but the home advantage shouldn’t be enough to propel Russia above the Uruguayans.

Group B

  • Spain: 8/15
  • Portugal: 9/4
  • Morocco: 20/1
  • Iran: 35/1

Pick: Spain (8/15)

Look no further than the Iberian Peninsula: this one is going to either Spain or Portugal. Spain has depth, balance, and a long history of World Cup success. Portugal has Cristiano Ronaldo. Especially now that he’s nearing his mid-thirties, the entire weight of a nation may just be too much to haul on his own.

Group C

  • France: 4/9
  • Denmark: 11/2
  • Peru: 12/1
  • Australia: 22/1

Pick: France (4/9)

France have a clear path to the knockout stages. Australia and Peru shouldn’t pose much of a threat, and Denmark really only have Christian Eriksen. If France encounter problems at the group stages, it will come from within.

Group D

  • Argentina: 8/11
  • Croatia: 13/5
  • Nigeria: 11/1
  • Iceland: 16/1

Pick: Croatia (13/5)

There’s value in picking Croatia here. A Messi-less Argentina recently lost 6-1 to Spain, which should tell you everything you need to know about Argentina’s strengths and weaknesses. Croatia have their issues as well, but losing a single player wouldn’t cause them to immediately implode.

Group E

  • Brazil: 2/5
  • Switzerland: 13/2
  • Serbia: 9/1
  • Costa Rica: 22/1

Pick: Brazil (2/5)

Not much to say here. Brazil should top their group with ease. It’s in the knockout stages where they’ll be tested.

Group F

  • Germany: 4/9
  • Mexico: 6/1
  • Sweden: 8/1
  • South Korea: 20/1

Pick: Germany (4/9)

Likewise, Germany should top their group without much trouble. At their best, Mexico is surprisingly tough to beat. But at these odds, Germany is the sensible pick.

Group G

  • Belgium: 5/6
  • England: 11/8
  • Tunisia: 20/1
  • Panama: 50/1

Pick: Belgium (5/6)

This is a battle between two underachievers. It wouldn’t be that surprising to see England top the group, but Belgium is still the better side on paper. There’s a good case to be made for either nation finishing atop Group G, but I believe there’s slightly better value in Belgium at 5/6.

Group H

  • Colombia: 7/4
  • Poland: 2/1
  • Senegal: 5/1
  • Japan: 38/5

Pick: Senegal (5/1)

This is where a true upset could happen. Colombia is the favorite to win the group but they’ve been extremely inconsistent lately. Poland is also capable of winning the group, but they rely way too heavily on Robert Lewandowski, who hasn’t been at his best this year.

That puts Senegal in an interesting position. With attacking players like Sadio Mané, Mame Biram Diouf, and Moussa Sow, they could capitalize on the weak group and plausibly finish on top.

Top Goalscorer

  • Lionel Messi (Argentina): 9/1
  • Neymar (Brazil): 10/1
  • Antoine Griezmann (France): 12/1
  • Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal): 14/1
  • Gabriel Jesus (Brazil): 16/1
  • Harry Kane (England): 16/1
  • Timo Werner (Germany): 16/1
  • Romelu Lukaku (Belgium): 18/1

Pick: Timo Werner (16/1)

First, I would hold off on picking any Brazilian or French players. Both sides are stacked with so much attacking talent that it’ll hard for any one player to top the tally. Players like Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, and, to a lesser extent, Harry Kane, are expected to pick up the vast majority of their nations’ goals, so there’s reason to pick any one of those three.

However, I’m going to pick Germany’s Timo Werner. The young striker has already netted seven international goals in just 12 international caps, and is set to be Germany’s main target man for Russia 2018.

He’s being overlooked at 16/1 odds, probably because of his youth and relative inexperience. But if Germany are among the favorites to win the World Cup and Werner is expected to be their leading striker, then there’s a strong chance he’ll end the tournament as the top goalscorer.