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Top scorer? Surprise package? Biggest flop? Our writers' World Cup predictions

The42′s journalists look ahead to Russia 2018.

World Cup 2018: Team Brazil Fans Brazil memorabilia. Source: Cris Faga

Gavan Casey

1. What’s your earliest World Cup memory?

A VHS cassette tape of the ’98 final, which my dad had recorded and labelled ‘France v Brazil – do not tape over’ but never watched, and which remained in a cupboard gathering dust until Ireland finally embraced the advent of DVDs some years later.

My first memory of actually watching the World Cup was the opening fixture of 2002: I’d gotten France in the sweepstakes in my dad’s office and rather fittingly, it was Papa Boupa Diop who laid waste to my dreams of becoming a hundredaire. I was in third class, though, so only found out France had made a hames of it when news reached us via our teacher, Mr Diarmuid Murphy.

I actually got out of school three weeks early to go on holidays — to France — with my family, and aside from my confusion as to why hundreds of English people celebrated Robbie Keane’s equaliser against Germany where, mere days prior, I had subtly low-fived my dad as well as some fella from Derry when Niclas Alexandersson drew Sweden level with the English, my defining memory from that World Cup is one of an elderly French woman who, upon spotting the Irish flags on our car as we drove through somewhere in Brittany, gestured for my dad to roll down the window of our Opel Zafira.

France were out at this point having gone down 2-0 to the Danes, and the woman made her feelings clear: my dad understood ‘merde’ at the very least, duly translating for me much to my mum’s horror. Even I, however, understood the woman’s gummy cries of ‘Allez l’Irlande! Allez l’Irlande!’ as she flailed wildly at our car while my dad attempted to launch a staunch defence of Roy Keane in broken French.

2. Who’s going to win it all? And name second, third and fourth also.

It’s probably Brazil’s time. On a basic level their squad depth is probably rivalled only by that of France, and having seen a small bit of them in qualifying, there’s a definite unity to them under Tite. They actually remind me a small bit of Brazil’s 2002 World Cup-winning side (Cafu; Roberto Carlos; Rivaldo; Ronaldo with a beard on his head; Kleberson, somehow) in that they’re far from extraordinary but are both sufficiently functional and sprinkled with pizzazz to see off all comers.

It’s only right that Brazil will see off the Germans in the final after the seismic shock that was their 2014 semi-final; the Neymar-led redemption story writes itself, but setting aside that lazy narrative, I find it hard to see Germany bowing out before the final given their prospective opposition when they inevitably top their group. I can only really see Croatia/Argentina, Colombia or Spain — the latter now at a push — having a proper cut off them. Argentina excluded, perhaps, it’s nearly impossible to imagine them losing any of those games.

I can see one of Croatia or Denmark — probably the former — making one of ‘those’ runs to the semis, but I’m finding it hard to care who wins their third-place play-off with the Argies.

3. Who’s going to be the surprise package of the tournament?

I’ve a grá for Colombia since the last one. Manager José Pékerman gets his sides playing lovely ball: he was the tactical force behind that Esteban Cambiasso goal at the 2006 WC before admittedly bottling his substitutions in Argentina’s quarter-final defeat to Germany on penalties, and — for our Leeds fans — had been the mastermind behind Marcelo Bielsa’s appointment to the Argentina hot seat eight years prior.

With a Davinson Sánchez-imbued defence and ‘El Tigre’ Radamel Falcao involved this time around, I’d like to think the Colombians will give it a right go again. I’d fancy them against England in the last 16 – a result which, while it wouldn’t be especially surprising, would certainly leave its mark before an inevitable, gallant exit to Germany.

4. Who will be top scorer?

You’d be a fool to bet against Neymar, and I’m a huge fool. With Brazil not being quite as dependant upon him this year, though, as well as Tite’s ethos of complete selflessness, I can see the new crop of more talented peripheral figures getting in on the act more so than their predecessors four years ago. Jesus, remember Fred?

With that in mind, I’m going to push the boat out and say Lionel Messi, who will surely be slightly less burdened this year by the fact that nobody in Argentina thinks they’ll come within an ass’s roar, and less fatigued given he’s essentially been on holiday with Barcelona since early April.

5. Which big team are you expecting to underperform or flop?

European champions Portugal have a group-exit written all over them. We’ll most certainly see Cristiano Ronaldo produce his unique ‘crying with his smile’ look when the otherwise capable players around him turn into feckless idiots and Morocco roll them over in the group stage. But would it be a shock?

A word on France who I don’t believe will ‘underperform’, per se, but might head home earlier than most would expect: I just feel they’ve developed a taste for self-sabotage under Didier Deschamps. You’d be dead right to marvel at their squad, but their Benzema-shaped hole up top restricts their approach to the point that they could struggle to adapt if things go south. Not a particularly wild call, but I think either Croatia or Argentina will catch them cold in the last 16.

6. RTÉ, BBC, or ITV?

RTÉ, baby. But all three, realistically.

7. Sum up the 2018 World Cup in one sentence…

North Korea have retained the Fifa World Cup with an 8-0 final win over the mentally-deranged US dotards.

Russia Soccer WCup Spain Spain's new coach Fernando Hierro. Source: Manu Fernandez

Aaron Gallagher

1. What’s your earliest World Cup memory?

There are two: competitively collecting Panini stickers with my brother during the 2002 World Cup and five-year-old Aaron trying to replicate Matt Holland’s long-range beauty against Cameroon any chance he got. For some reason, I always thought it was a 50-yard thunderbolt that flew into the top corner.

Oh, and Ronaldo’s two goals against the Germans. The best striker in the world trumps the best goalkeeper — you’re not so scary when you’re picking the ball out of the back of your net, Oliver Kahn. Twice.

2. Who’s going to win it all? And name second, third and fourth also.

Germany are going to become just the third team in history to win back-to-back World Cups and the first since Brazil in 1962 to do so.

Ahead of picking his final 23-man squad, Joachim Löw had such an array of talent at his disposal he could easily have fielded two, if not three different starting XI’s that could make the semi-finals in Russia.

The old guard of Lahm, Schweinsteiger and Klose are gone, but in their place comes a new generation of superstars like Joshua Kimmich, Leon Goretzka and Timo Werner.

This team has some of the world’s greatest players dotted throughout defence, midfield and attack, and it is a squad with so much depth in the final third it can afford to leave PFA Young Player of the Year Leroy Sane at home.

Some important players like Mats Hummels, Thomas Muller, Marco Reus, Mesut Ozil and Mauel Neuer did not enjoy stellar seasons in 2017/18 and will come into the competition not in the best of form. But added together this team has the depth, clinical talent and goals needed to make history.

Spain have a very good chance to win it, but unfortunately are on the same side of the draw as Germany and will therefore exit in the semi-finals. They will be finishing with bronze after beating France in the third-place play-off.

Runners-up will be Brazil, who will suffer yet another soul-crushing defeat at the hands of Die Mannschaft. Twenty-two men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win.

3. Who’s going to be the surprise package of the tournament?

The 2014 World Cup was so enjoyable because it brought us teams like Costa Rica, Chile and Colombia who defied expectations and stole our hearts en route to the latter stages (Costa Rica were a penalty shoot-out away from the semi-finals!)

This summer, it’s sadly a lot harder to predict any major upsets, solely because so many of the top sides vying for a place in the quarter-finals pick themselves — Germany, Spain, Brazil, Argentina, France, Belgium, Portugal, Uruguay.

Outside of the heavy hitters, I would love to see Egypt cause an upset and go far. But without a fully-fit Mohamed Salah and the prospect of facing either Spain or Portugal in the knockout stages, their tournament could be over pretty quickly.

The collective adoration shown towards Iceland at the Euros in 2016 has not been replicated this year, but it cannot be understated just how massive a deal it is for this tiny nation to make their first-ever World Cup. They don’t have many big names, but what they do have is the team ethos and defensive solidity to make it out of their group. Like Egypt, however, they will likely be dumped out in the knockout stages (by France).

It is my unpatriotic and shameful duty to say England have the potential to do well. They have a lot of quality, young talented players at their disposal and with forwards like Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling and Jamie Vardy they could do serious damage against shoddy, slow defences. But they won’t, because England always find a way to mess it up.

The surprise package could be Poland this year. They have always been labelled outsiders to do well and with a straightforward Group H featuring Senegal, Japan and Columbia they could set up a knockout stage meeting with Belgium, managed by the very likeable but extremely unconvincing Roberto Martinez.

Roberto Lewandowki to fire Poland to the last eight, you heard it here first.

4. Who will be top scorer?

Lionel Messi will undoubtedly carry Argentina throughout this tournament, but he may not be around long enough to claim the Golden Boot, likewise with Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal.

You have to look at the tournament favourites and their forwards when it comes to choosing the top scorer at any World Cup. In 1998, it was Davor Suker, 2002 it was Ronaldo, 2006 it was Klose, 2010 it was Muller and in 2014 it was James Rodríguez — all but one of those names made it to the semi-finals.

The favourites for the Golden Boot are straightforward: Neymar, Griezmann and Messi. I believe Timo Werner will lead Germany to victory at the World Cup, but after seeing Griezmann swagger in the Europa League final with a brilliant brace, as well as slotting in six goals at the Euros two years ago, it’s hard to look beyond the silky Frenchmen, even if France don’t win it.

5. Which big team are you expecting to underperform or flop?

For a team to underperform, there has to be an expectation heading into the tournament that they will do well. England have the players, the calming build-up and the easy group to do well at this World Cup. But there’s very little expectation on them, so they don’t count.

This is arguably Lionel Messi’s last chance to claim a World Cup while he is still at his peak, therefore there is immense pressure piled on his and Argentina’s shoulders to go far. The only issue is that this Argentina team have done all they can to prevent their side even getting to Russia — I imagine an early and deflating exit for the two-time winners.

I predict Belgium to underperform this year, because they have that rare combination of expectation to do well, but also back-to-back international tournaments of failure which only adds more pressure.

Add to that Roberto Martinez in charge and it could be a deadly concoction, which leaves in its wake another premature quarter-final exit. You can only be called dark horses so many times before you have to act on it.

6. RTÉ, BBC, or ITV?

Sadly, it’s the first World Cup without the warming presence of the great Bill O’Herlihy, but I’ve got to stick with RTÉ.

Darragh Maloney is an excellent presenter and it’s the only place you can expect honest, uniquely-Irish analysis, which goes missing on the dusty, immensely professional broadcasts of their English counterparts.

Eamon Dunphy cursing on air thinking they weren’t live? Damien Duff’s wonderful bluntness? The genuinely insightful and illuminating punditry of Richie Sadlier? Come on, where else would you get it.

Still not sure? I’ve four words for you — Brian Kerr on commentary.

There’s no other show in town.

7. Sum up the 2018 World Cup in one sentence…

This is the last World Cup being played during the summer until 2026.

Russia Soccer WCup Egypt In this photo taken on Sunday, June 10, 2018, Egyptian national soccer team player and Liverpool's star striker Mohammed Salah, right, and Chechen regional leader Ramzan Kadyrov, greets soccer fans as they arrive to attend the Egypt national soccer team training session in Grozny Source: AP/PA Images

Paul Fennessy

1. What’s your earliest World Cup memory?

Watching Germany-Bolivia (both of whom had lost to Ireland in warm-up matches earlier that year) and going to the bathroom for the game’s sole exciting bit (Klinsmann’s goal). My first properly memorable moment was the sheer joy of watching Ireland beat Italy and John Giles saying “we should consider ourselves one of the major forces in Europe”. It was still only the second most memorable moment of that week, however, after my sister being born.

2. Who’s going to win it all? And name second, third and fourth also.

I’m on the record already as tipping Spain, albeit that was prior to the Julen Lopetegui debacle. I’m going to stick to my guns, however, but am not backing them with any great conviction. Brazil will make the final, with France pipping Germany to third.

3. Who’s going to be the surprise package of the tournament?

I think Denmark could do very well. It might seem like recency bias/an over-reaction to their hammering of Ireland, but that result was part of a pattern of considerable improvement since Age Hareide. One outstanding individual can get you very far in international football, as we saw with Wales at the Euros and even Portugal in that competition as well to an extent. The Danes have a solid team throughout and in Christian Eriksen, they have one of the best attacking players in the competition who is coming off an excellent individual season in which he made the PFA Team of the Year.

4. Who will be top scorer?

I’m backing Antoine Griezmann to emulate his Golden Boot-winning performance at the Euros. At 27, he is approaching the peak of his career, he will almost certainly start most matches and he is in one of the best teams in the competition. I’m not convinced Spain and Germany have a striker with the potential to be as prolific, while Neymar may take a while to properly get going after coming back from injury.

5. Which big team are you expecting to underperform or flop?

I have a feeling Argentina might perform worse than expected. They have a tricky-looking group and though they have the best player in the world in their team, without him, they recently lost 6-1 in Spain, they also only scraped through qualification, losing to Ecuador, Paraguay, Bolivia and Brazil, while only winning seven of their 18 matches overall.

6. RTÉ, BBC, or ITV?

RTÉ is consistently the most entertaining to watch, while the left-field inclusion of former USA Women’s goalkeeper Hope Solo is another reason to tune in, as is the often hilarious Aprés Match. ITV come a close second, with Roy Keane, Martin O’Neill and Gary Neville likely to provide some fascinating moments.

7. Sum up the 2018 World Cup in one sentence…

At the moment, I’m reading Ken Bensinger’s brilliant ‘Red Card: FIFA and the Fall of the Most Powerful Men in Sports,’ and with that at the forefront of my mind, the word that unfortunately springs to mind is ‘greed,’ given the egregious behaviour of an astonishingly high number footballing officials, many of whom ultimately helped make Russia 2018 a reality.

15,000 World Cup figurines on a Beetle.

Fintan O’Toole

1. What’s your earliest World Cup memory?

Ray Houghton’s goal in the Giants Stadium in 1994. Didn’t think Ireland would be gone at last-16 stage after that and Italy would still be around in the final.

2. Who’s going to win it all? And name second, third and fourth also.

The talent and strength of Spain’s squad can help them to overcome the fact they’ve to get used to a different boss in the dressing-room, 48 hours before they face Portugal in their opener. Think they’ll beat Brazil in the final with Germany to win third-fourth place play-off against France.

3. Who’s going to be the surprise package of the tournament?

Colombia to match their feat in 2014 of reaching the last eight. James Rodriguez is in better form since the move to Munich and Radamel Falco can make his mark after missing out through injury four years ago.

4. Who will be top scorer?

Antoine Griezmann – France have a favourable group and can make the last four. Griezmann finished the season strongly with Atletico and could reprise his achievement of being top goalscorer at Euro 2016.

5. Which big team are you expecting to under-perform or flop?

Not sure if Messi will get his fairytale international ending and carry Argentina beyond the last eight.

6. RTÉ, BBC, or ITV?

ITV for Roy Keane and Gary Neville in action.

7. Sum up the 2018 World Cup in one sentence…

Overheard in the office – ‘Fancy the Iranians to surprise a few people with their counter-attacking style’.

Imago 20180321 Source: Imago/PA Images

Sean Farrell

1. What’s your earliest World Cup memory?

My abiding memory of the 1990 World Cup is, unfortunately, not Packie Bonner, Schillachi or Sheedy, but Ireland’s post-script – which was presumably while the tournament was still on – and RTÉ homecoming montage with Celtic jerseys lining the streets of O’Connell Street, atop phone boxes and hanging out of lamp-posts to the tune of ”I’ve had the time of my life’.

2. Who’s going to win it all? And name second, third and fourth also.

I just don’t buy the Brazil favourites tag yet, though they’re jam-packed with talent and will probably get better and better as the tournament wears on. Despite their late drama, I think Spain have an identity and core senior group of players that make then uniquely set up to ride out the loss of manager, so even if they don’t beat Portugal first up, they can go all the way again.

On the subject of Portugal, they have a European Chamionship under their belt and Cristiano Ronaldo is well used to hoisting this team on his shoulders. so I’m picking them as fourth-place team with Brazil and Germany the other semi-finalists.

3. Who’s going to be the surprise package of the tournament?

Portugal are eighth favourite according to the bookies, so I guess nobody agrees with my take that they can reach the final four, so that would be a surprise package (but a mouthwatering prospect of a quarter-final with Argentina and Messi could await us).

It will be no surprise to Irish fans, but I think Denmark will win a lot of admirers, even if they don’t make it beyond the last 16.

4. Who will be top scorer?

Gabriel Jesus.

5. Which big team are you expecting to underperform or flop?

I may have alluded to this above, but I can see Argentina having difficult enough time. It’s conceivable that Denmark cause them trouble before a possible battle with Portugal in the quarters.

6. RTÉ, BBC, or ITV?

Whoever has the nicest Russian vista behind their studio.

7. Sum up the 2018 World Cup in one sentence…

Fraught.

Soccer - World Cup USA 94 - Group E - Ireland v Italy Ray Houghton of Ireland (left) celebrates his winning goal with teammate Terry Phelan (right) against Italy in 1994. Source: EMPICS Sport

Gavin Quinn

1. What’s your earliest World Cup memory?

My earliest World Cup memory is probably from 2006. I got my hands on a counterfeit Italy jersey with Buffon on the back while on holidays in Lanzarote as a kid. Obviously, with Ireland not being there, I adopted a team to support and I picked the Italians. Needless to say, I was pretty happy with how the tournament turned out.

2. Who’s going to win it all? And name second, third and fourth also.

I think Germany will retain. They’ve improved since the last tournament and have quality in every area. Timo Werner is also a star in the making. I feel France will finish as runners-up, they may well walk it to a semi-final at the very least, but I think Germany will outlast them in a final. My two other semi-finalists are England and Spain.

The Spanish have a great squad, a good blend of youth and experience while England, and I hope I don’t come to regret this, don’t look too bad. Coming into this tournament completely under the radar, in good spirits and with a nice lack of expectation within England. If they get off to a good start and get a couple of goals in the group stage, then I think confidence can grow. Spain to win a third-placed play-off.

3. Who’s going to be the surprise package of the tournament?

Poland could go very well. If they top their group, they’re in line to meet the Germans at the quarter-final stage and I wouldn’t be surprised if they give them a fierce scare; if their recent meetings are anything to go by. Croatia, Mexico and Denmark could also enjoy reasonably successful tournaments.

4. Who will be top scorer?

Timo Werner could run riot this summer, his rise echoes a certain Thomas Müller of 2010. Ronaldo and Messi are obvious, while Neymar and Harry Kane are also contenders, but Müller himself and Robert Lewandowski are my dark horses.

5. Which big team are you expecting to underperform or flop?

Belgium, I think it’s fair to classify them as a big team at this stage. With the talent pool at their disposal, they’ve under performed greatly in recent tournaments and I can’t see much different this summer. There’s massive pressure on their big players, while Nainggolan’s omission and the aftermath has left a negative atmosphere among the squad. I can’t see them getting over any of the top four or five teams in the tournament.

6. RTÉ, BBC, or ITV?

I don’t necessarily have a favourite, but it will be very much depend on the specific pundits at certain times. Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane will be great on ITV. Hope Solo will be one that I’d be interested in hearing from during the tournament on RTÉ. BBC though may just have won me over with Cesc Fabregas, Didier Drogba and Jurgen Klinsmann.

7. Sum up the 2018 World Cup in one sentence…

The tournament that this Germany team become one of the greatest ever.

Russia Soccer WCup Cat Predictor Source: Dmitri Lovetsky

Adrian Russell

1. What’s your earliest World Cup memory?

I’ve a snapshot memory of the Hand of God goal in ’86 but nothing else of that tournament.

2. Who’s going to win it all? And name second, third and fourth also.

Brazil are absolutely nailed on to win it if you ask me, with Germany to come close to retaining their title and let’s say Spain to beat France in the third-fourth place playoff.

3. Who’s going to be the surprise package of the tournament?

It won’t surprise those of us who saw Christian Eriksen score three in Dublin 4 in November, but Denmark could go on a nice run.

4. Who will be top scorer?

Griezmann might do some damage.

5. Which big team are you expecting to underperform or flop?

Argentina could well have one of their once-in-a-decade implosions, despite this being Messi’s last shot at the trophy potentially.

6. RTÉ, BBC, or ITV?

I’ll be searching through the Sky box other channels to witness the reunion of Keane, Giggs and Neville over on ITV, but generally speaking RTÉ all the way.

7. Sum up the 2018 World Cup in one sentence…

The last World Cup of the Messi era and hopefully not the last World Cup ever.

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