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Top 2018 World Cup storylines

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One more rest. One more sleep. One more moon.

Then the 2018 World Cup is upon us.

So what are we looking for? What are the storylines that will shape how we view the play on the field? There will surely be plenty to come that we cannot prepare for, but there’s also plenty to think about entering the tournament’s opening match. Here’s a quick rundown of what people are talking about.

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1) Spain’s coaching upheaval

[ MORE: Spain fires Lopetegui | Hire Hierro | How will it affect them? ]

Struggling countries changing coaches with the World Cup in the horizon has plenty of prior precedence. World powers changing managers with the World Cup staring them in the face does not.

Spain sacked Julen Lopetegui just a day before the opening match of the tournament after it leaked before planned that he would take over the Real Madrid job after the month-long event. Lopetegui angered the Spanish heirarchy by not consulting them before talks with Madrid, so he got the boot. Will Spain rally around the adversity, or will they crumble under the distraction? All eyes will be on the 2010 World Cup winners as they progress through the tournament…or don’t.

2) Mohamed Salah‘s health and impact for Egypt

[ MORE: Salah returns to training, could be ready ]

The electric Liverpool star was cruelly injured by Spanish defender Sergio Ramos in the Champions League final, leaving many with fears that he could miss the tournament and leave Egypt toothless. Thankfully for all neutral fans, it appears Salah’s shoulder will not keep him off the field much, if at all.

So how far can he take Egypt? The African nation appears dangerous with him on the field, but it will be difficult for the country to support their superstar and keep teams from keying on him. Group A does remain wide open, and Egypt will have a good chance of making the knockout round, leaving fans with plenty of chances to catch Salah on the field.

3) Can Lionel Messi plug the gaping hole in his resume?

[ MORE: Messi hints at retirement ]

The Argentinian megastar is widely thought of as one of the best players to ever take the field – if not *the* best, depending on who you ask. However, by the simple fact that he is Argentinian, he will forever be compared to Diego Maradona, and his lack of major trophies on the national stage is a glaring weakness in his otherwise glittering CV.

Argentina is an annual powerhouse, but based on their weak qualifying performance, they are not one of the top favorites to win this tournament. Can Messi will his side to a World Cup win and ward away the haters with (his second) potential retirement on the horizon? Nobody has more to lose in this tournament than the Barcelona legend.

4) Will Germany buck the trend and repeat?

[ MORE: Germany World Cup team preview | Nobody has repeated in 50 years ]

23-year-old Josh Kimmich is arguably Germany’s most valuable player (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images).

History is against the 2014 World Cup winners coming into Russia – nobody has repeated as World Cup champions since Brazil in 1962. Nonetheless, Joachim Low’s squad is unquestionably the deepest in the world on paper, and that has them as the clear favorite alongside the Brazilians.

Josh Kimmich has blossomed as one of the world’s most valuable and versatile players, Thomas Muller loves him a World Cup, and Manuel Neuer is healthy and ready to lead the defending champions.

5) Will France, Belgium, and Poland get over the hump?

[ MORE: France team preview | Belgium | Switzerland ]

There are a host of European teams that have glittering rosters on paper, yet have failed to live up to the expectations of the “Golden Generation” of talent. No team is a better example of that than Belgium. The Red Devils have only made it past a World Cup quarterfinal once in history, and 2014’s near-defeat to the United States followed by their quarterfinal loss to Argentina saw Belgium’s disappointment become a reality. In Euro 2016 the story was the same, with a quarterfinal defeat to Gareth Bale‘s Welsh bunch leaving supporters wanting more.

France is no different. The 1998 World Cup winners have struggled to rediscover that success, and while a loss to eventual champions Germany is nothing to slouch at, their 2014 quarterfinal exit was still disappointing in name. In Euro 2016, they came oh so close to a trophy, but losing in the final to Portugal left them with a bad taste in their mouth on home soil. Didier Deschamps has a roster busting with insane amounts of talent, but their recent warm-up friendlies have unearthed more questions than answers.

Finally, Poland is a team that many have tabbed as overrated by the FIFA rankings. Listed as the 8th-best team on the planet according to the world governing body, Poland has yet to do anything of note with its lofty ranking. The squeaked by Switzerland in the opening round of the Euro 2016 knockout round before falling to Portugal, and thry weren’t even present in Brazil in 2014. Robert Lewandowski is a household name but has done just as much losing as winning in big games for both club and country.

Bonus: Include Switzerland in this group as well if you’d like. Ranked 6th by the FIFA metrics, are they truly all that dangerous?

6) Can England live up to the hype?

[ MORE: Walker wants England to be more blue-collar ]

Can Harry Kane prove England is truly among the elites? (Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

England has been the butt of plenty of jokes over the last decade or two, known more for finding new and creative ways to lose before they should. This year looks to be the year that changes.

The Three Lions are well-coached under Gareth Southgate, and their pramatism is balanced out by a truly dangerous attacking intent. Harry Kane is one of the world’s most dangerous strikers, but the entire team still needs to prove it belongs among the upper echelon of world powers. They’ll likely get that chance barring massive disappointment, with a knockout stage match against either Germany or Brazil likely on the cards. Can the Three Lions take its talent on paper and translate it to the field?

7) Can Brazil exorcise the demons of 2014?

[ MORE: Brazil team preview | Neymar scores in warmup ]

Brazil is one of the tournament favorites, there is no denying that. And yet, it still feels like a dark cloud looms over the Selecao. All one needs to do is mention the numbers “7-1” and it immediately harkens back to one of the deepest pits of despair in Brazilian soccer history.

Their brutal pounding at the hands of Germany on home soil remains an open wound for Brazil, and they would love nothing more than to take care of those demons in the very next World Cup. Should both teams win their groups, Germany and Brazil would end up on opposite sides of the bracket, leaving fans salivating at a possible revenge match in the World Cup final.

Venting and lamenting the USMNT’s World Cup absence

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Maybe it’s the fact that the night’s already surreal, with the American and North Korean leaders holding a historic meeting and the common bond being a 57-year-old nicknamed “The Worm” who is known for being an excellent rebounder and starring in a movie with Jean-Claude Van Damme, but the dawn of this summer’s World Cup feels exceptionally dreamlike.

Let’s get some things out of the way: Even with the United States men’s national team failing to make the tournament, I’m still very excited about the World Cup. I’m leaning toward hitching my wagon to Serbia’s dark horse status, but also want to be four years’ worth of correct when it comes to Germany.

I’ve also learned you can navigate the sports version of the grieving process — acceptance is tough, but the hope part is easier — and still ride pretty high on the anger and frustration part of it all.

[ MORE: Sporting Lisbon drama increases ]

Anything can happen in a World Cup. We saw that with the USMNT escaping its Group of Death in 2014 and Costa Rica doing the same, but I can’t help look at this tournament as a chance lost for both CONCACAF and the U.S.

This is subjective, and please feel free to disagree, but the domestic buzz feels minimal compared to a tournament with the United States in the field. In terms of the average sports fan, you can scream Messi or Ronaldo all you want, but the tournament is being sold here like an El Clasico with flags.

We’ve reached the point in the World Cup cycle where I worry how many kids, both fans and players, in that pivotal age bracket of 8-12 are going to potentially miss out on their formative Dos A Cero in Jeonju, or Landon Donovan versus Algeria moment.

The beauty of being a sports fan is the images and characters created by your team or nation on the biggest stages.

For Americans of my generation, we’ve seen our country in every World Cup since we were in grade school. Even tournaments where the USMNT didn’t really ring a bell, like 1994, the World Cup drew us into side stories. I remember sitting in my Uncle Jim’s living room, hoping against hope that Italy would top Brazil, and being fairly bummed when Roberto Baggio sent his effort over the bar

I also often feel compelled to point out that Baggio was the third Italian to miss, and that Italy goes out in the Round of 16 if he doesn’t equalize in the 88th minute and complete his brace against Nigeria in extra time, then scoring the winner against Spain in the quarters, and both goals against Bulgaria in the semis.

And here’s the thing: I barely cared about soccer in 1994. I didn’t start playing until high school, and didn’t fall in love with the USMNT program until qualifying for the 2002 tournament.

There’s a vivid American memory from every World Cup after ’94 for me, often in the form of a question.

1998: “Did we really just lose to Iran?”

2002: “How did the ref miss that %^&%^& handball on Frings?”

2006: “Brian McBride is really bloody”

2010: “AND DONOVAN’S SCORED, OH CAN YOU BELIEVE THIS?”

2014:

2018 is gonna be anger and disbelief, a generation deprived of its World Cup from perhaps the easiest qualification format by a defiant coach, his haughty replacement, and a group of players who showed enough effort to get the job done on average once every other game.

Frankly, this probably sounds absurd to some European and South American nations considering some of the World Cup droughts, some still active. Ryan Giggs never played in one. Alfredo Di Stefano, George Weah, and Ian Rush were shut out. Even in the expanded format, current big names like Darren Fletcher, Arda Turan, and Henrikh Mkhitaryan.

Christian Pulisic missed his first World Cup? Boo-hoo, say Austria and Wales. David Alaba will be 28 the next time he gets to attempt qualification for his first. Gareth Bale will be 31 and Aaron Ramsey 30.

Robbie Keane got one World Cup. Marcus Hahnemann went to two.

So, yeah, American soccer fans have had it pretty good. I don’t want this to read like, “my tap water in Western New York could be better” when in reality I’d welcome a full-time job of delivering fresh water to the half-globe or more where it is needed by real, true human beings (including Michigan). Rooting for Serbia because the U.S. or Wakanda didn’t qualify is an acceptable enough outcome.

The 2026 World Cup could be coming back to the United States for the second time in 32 years despite this country still just figuring out the sport’s allure. We’re fortunate in so many ways. And, frankly, there’s a very good argument to be made that the country’s federation could use the second swift kick that would come from failing to make a World Cup then blowing a World Cup hosting bid despite overwhelming stores of influence and money.

But for now, all I can think about is what we won’t have this weekend. Very few, if any, city blocks shut down for outdoor viewing party. A similar amount of beer-soaked phone videos of bar celebrations. No John Brooks canceling out Andre Ayew’s late equalizer. No Jermaine Jones rocket against Portugal. Not even a hope-giving moment from substitute Julian Green versus Belgium (Silly dual nationals).

Don’t forget: Some said dual nationals like John Brooks didn’t “care” enough (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images).

No first World Cup for Pulisic. Maybe no World Cup ever for Eric Lichaj, Bobby Wood, Tim Ream, Danny Williams, and Darlington Nagbe.

I mean, shoot, at least when the USWNT took its step back it was just a missed medal at the Olympics, not an entire month of sadness.

The whys are myriad: A national program that got high on its own FIFA rankings supply. A divide between proponents of players playing at the highest level and those who refused to push players there because of the money it made them or their domestic clubs. No one knows if Matt Besler would’ve become the best defender in USMNT history with a move to West Ham — and we do love him for his one-club heart — but there sure is some “What if?” there.

But it’s not about the whys here. It’s about the “What ifs?”

What if the U.S. was drawn in Panama’s place, needing to get past Belgium or England, let alone Tunisia, to make another knockout round? I’m genuinely happy for Panama, even with their ghost goal being the difference, but CONCACAF would likely rather see the Yanks’ buttressing their World Cup host bid with Pulisic as poster boy.

What if the U.S. was drawn in Mexico’s place, a veritable Group of Death for Arena and his proponents to measure himself against Klinsmann and his?

Or what about Costa Rica’s spot, with Neymar’s Brazil joining underachieving Switzerland and dark horse Serbia on the docket?

What if that kid who’s choosing whether to dedicate himself to high school football, basketball, lacrosse, or soccer, doesn’t bother to get misty-eyed for the red, white, and blue because he’s going to opt to go to the Orioles because Croatia-Argentina doesn’t have any significance to him?

$%^$.

Hospital: Karius suffered concussion in Champions League Final

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Was Loris Karius‘ infamous performance in the UEFA Champions League Final down to an unseen head injury?

[ MORE: Latest transfer news ] 

Karius allowed two rough goals in Liverpool’s 3-1 loss to Real Madrid, throwing one ball off Karim Benzema and allowing a Gareth Bale rip to slip through his gloves.

Massachussetts General Hospital has released, with permission of the Liverpool keeper, a statement detailing its diagnosis of a concussion suffered by Karius.

At the time of our evaluation, Mr. Karius’s principal residual symptoms and objective signs suggested that visual spatial dysfunction existed and likely occurred immediately following the event. Additional symptomatic and objectively noted areas of dysfunction also persisted. It could be possible that such deficits would affect performance.

Karius issued a formal apology after the game, one which could’ve only been more troublesome to pen given the concussion. Head injuries are scary stuff, and we hope the full recovery expected by Mass Gen comes quickly to the German keeper.

Sergio Ramos should probably avoid Merseyside for a while.

WATCH: ‘Lego’ recreation of Champions League Final

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It may be “too soon” for Liverpool supporters, but for everyone else it’s well-worth reliving the UEFA Champions League Final via Legos.

I personally love that the title of the video includes the classic searchers’ tool “All goals.”

[ MORE: Zlatan displeased with LA effort ]

We won’t go as far as to venture that even Loris Karius will find the Karim Benzema goal footage humorous, but we sure do.

Another highlight is Gareth Bale‘s ponytail.

Zinedine Zidane leaves Real Madrid

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Zinedine Zidane has left Real Madrid just five days after delivering a third-straight UEFA Champions League title.

Talk about going out while you’re on top…

[ MORE: Wenger, Conte in at Real?

Zidane, 45, called a press conference in the Spanish capital on Thursday where he announced that he would be stepping down as head coach of the team he led to a 13th European title.

In just three campaigns in charge at Real Madrid he won the biggest prize in club soccer three times, plus added two FIFA Club World Cups, two UEFA Super Cups, one La Liga title and and the Spanish Super Cup.

[ MORE: Real Madrid win UCL title, again

Speaking in the announcement Zidane had the following to say as he sat alongside Real’s president Florentino Perez.

“It had to be done for everyone. This team has to continue winning and needs a change. After three years they [the players] need a new voice and possibly another way of working,” Zidane said. “I love this club and I love this president who has given me the chance to come as a player, and a manager, and I am eternally grateful to him. Today, for me and for everybody, we have to change and that is why I have taken this decision.”

Perez revealed that Zidane told him on Wednesday at his house that he wanted to step down and the Real president said it would be impossible for him to change Zizou’s mind.

The legendary French playmaker, who won the Champions League with Real as a player, has had three superb seasons in charge at the Santiago Bernabeu after being promoted from his role as assistant coach in Carlo Ancelotti’s coaching staff in the season where Real won the Champions League title in 2013/14.

Zidane’s side finished third in the Spanish top-flight this season as they switched their full attention to a Champions League three-peat after a poor start to the domestic campaign.

Now the focus switches as to who will take over from Zidane as Real Madrid seemed stunned by Zidane’s decision to step down.

With both Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo talking about potentially leaving Real this summer, Zidane has paved the way for both to potentially stay under a new manager, with Arsene Wenger the bookmakers favorite, plus the likes of Mauricio Pochettino and Joachim Low are also high up on the list.

The future for Zidane seems quite clear: he will chill and have a cigar for the next 6-12 months and then maybe he can think about taking over the French national team in the future.