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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.

PST’s 2018 World Cup Roundtable

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1) The World Cup is here and the United States men’s national team is guaranteed to go unbeaten. Jokes aside, how do you feel about the tournament now that it is here and absent the USMNT?

Joe Prince-Wright: It still just doesn’t feel quite right. Sure, big teams have missed out over the years but the USA have been at every World Cup since I’ve been alive. It’s tough to fathom what kind of impact this will have on soccer in the USA overall but I feel my overall mood is a begrudging acceptance that the USMNT simply weren’t good enough to be there. Nothing more. Nothing less.

Nicholas Mendola: In longish form, here. But here’s a point I didn’t hit in the piece. I largely feel sympathy for a lot of the players who I believe were put in a poor spot — and continue to be — by Bruce Arena. That’s not to excuse Jurgen Klinsmann, who put different players in similar binds, but Arena had a “We’re too big to fail” element about him that pervades into his book tour (which isn’t doing anyone favors). It occurred to me while interviewing Omar Gonzalez last week that these questions aren’t going away. Even if the USMNT were to win the 2022 World Cup, most of the 2018 qualifying bunch would face questions about how it feels to be redeemed by others.

Kyle Bonn: I’m very excited. Not only have I purged myself of the stink of T&T and am ready to move forward with a promising group of young kids in the USMNT system, but I am actually excited for a tournament without a rooting interest. This is going to be a really fun month that I can’t wait to be a part of.

Matt Reed: I’d feel better if Bruce Arena didn’t keep on opening his mouth and scorching everything in his path, but I said it throughout qualifying that I wasn’t convinced this team would qualify for Russia, and they didn’t. I’ve come to cope with the simple fact that the team out on the field in those CONCACAF WCQ matches simply wasn’t good enough. Could better, younger rosters have been put out? Sure. However, you cannot turn back time, and this is a learning experience that U.S. Soccer needed very badly if it was to ever make drastic changes to its organization.

Dan Karell: It feels weird. I feel like there is less buzz for the World Cup this year. This is the first World Cup in my lifetime that the U.S. won’t be involved in, so it’s been different, for sure.

2) So, who wins the thing?

JPW: Brazil. Looking at the players they’ll have on the bench, let alone the ones they left out of their squad, that tells you all you need to know. Plus, any team that breezes through the ridiculously tough South American World Cup qualifying like they did have to be the favorites. Also, defensively they look solid with Alisson and Ederson as goalkeepers and Fernandinho shielding the defense. The fact that Neymar is back to full fitness and looks totally refreshed after a few months off is also a huge reason why they’ll get it done.

NM: Germany. I admit that my prediction has a lot to do with wanting to be four years’ worth of correct when it comes to the Germans, though leaving Leroy Sane behind didn’t reinforce my feel. Brazil and France both have chances to challenge for the crown.

KB:  I’ve gone back and forth a bunch with this, mainly because the top teams haven’t exactly looked convincing in the run-up to the tournament, but then again, nothing matters less than Spring Training, right? Can’t look past Germany and Brazil, I just can’t. What an epic final that would be! It’s very realistic, with the winners of groups E and F on opposite sides of the bracket. I like Germany to win that one and repeat.

MR: Spain. Between it likely being Andres Iniesta’s last hurrah and the simple fact that they are really, really deep in the midfield and attack, I think La Furia Roja can take home their second World Cup in eight years.

DK: I have Brazil over Germany, in a massive revenge-fueled win in the final. 1-0. I just think Brazil is the deepest team and they have players all over the park who can create goal-scoring opportunities as well as defend them. Tite has the balance right and his team are humming along very well.

(Photo by Pedro Vilela/Getty Images)

3) How many CONCACAF teams make the knockout rounds? And who goes the furthest?

JPW: None. All three CONCACAF teams got a rough draw in the group stages and all three have been less than impressive in the warm-up games. I think Mexico will come close but expect Sweden and Germany to advance from their group. Panama will finish rock bottom in Group G. Costa Rica won’t get past Brazil, Serbia and Switzerland. A tough time for CONCACAF is coming up.

NM: All three will struggle to stay out of fourth in their respective groups. Mexico has the talent to get out of Group F, but the schedule is a nightmare. Opening with Germany could and should make the second match against South Korea a must-win. Otherwise, the third and final match against Sweden could be moot for both sides. I think Mexico finds a way, but the schedule gives me great pause.

KB: Costa Rica got a brutal draw, with Brazil, Switzerland, and Serbia. That’s a royally challenging group, and one of the most intriguing in the entire tournament. I think they get edged by Switzerland in that stacked collection. Mexico will make it out of an easier than expected Group F, but a 2nd placed finish behind Germany sees them likely matched up with Brazil, which would be a one-and-done in the knockout stage. Finally, Panama got a miserable draw as well and won’t get past England and Belgium. It will be a quick exit for the CONCACAF sides.

MR: I don’t like the way Mexico has played over the last year, but they’ll find a way out of the group stage. Costa Rica will join them, although they have been far from convincing as well. I’ll say they both get knocked out in the Round of 16.

DK: Two. I think both Mexico and Costa Rica can and will make it out of their groups.

4) Who wins the Golden Boot?

JPW: Diego Costa. Spain will put chances on a plate for him.

NM: Romelu Lukaku, as Belgium is going to feast on its group stage mates and then is unlikely to face a good defense in the Round of 16. No other strong team has as much of a goal focal point.

KB: Neymar.

MR: This past season was one of ups and downs for Romelu Lukaku, but he’s been tremendous in Belgium’s tune-up matches. The Red Devils will go as far as he takes them, and I honestly believe he could end up with over five goals this tournament.

DK: Julian Green! Kidding. I think it’s got to be Neymar. As long as he’s healthy, he definitely plays and thinks the game faster than his opponents. This should lead to at least five goals in the tournament.

5) Who will win the Golden Ball?

JPW: Neymar as Brazil power to the title.

NM: It may be hard for voters to resist Neymar, with Brazil capable of capturing the imagination of the soccer world and likely to reach the semifinals at the very least.

KB: Lionel Messi

MR: Spain is loaded with talent, but there’s something about Isco that is very special. Every time he touches the ball he’s a legitimate threat on the pass or shot, and he’s one of the reasons why I’m so confident in Spain making a run at another title.

DK:  If not Neymar, then perhaps another player on Brazil, such as Paulinho, or Germany’s Toni Kroos.

6) How about the Golden Glove?

JPW: David De Gea’s phenomenal form for Man United will carry over to the World Cup.

NM: I believe it’ll be Manuel Neuer when Germany wins it all, but I’ll go outside the box for the sake of variety and say Thibaut Courtois has a nice run for Belgium.

KB: Manuel Neuer because it often goes to the goalkeeper of the winning team even if he wasn’t truly the best.

MR: I love the way Alisson has played this season at Roma, and the fact that he can start ahead of Ederson speaks volumes about the type of player he is. Brazil should be involved in the latter stages of the tournament, so I’ll take the Brazil keeper.

DK: Keylor Navas carries his Champions League-winning form to help Costa Rica to the quarterfinals, saving a myriad of shots along the way.

7) How about the Best Young Player (21 and younger)?

JPW:  I’m going for Ismaila Sarr from Senegal. Watch out for him.

NM: Again, going for variety here because Kylian Mbappe seems an appropriate call, so I’ll swing for the fences with Uruguay and Juventus midfielder Rodrigo Betancur. Mids who rarely score don’t get plaudits, but Uruguay really could make some noise and he’ll be a big part of it in a Toni Kroos-like breakout performance. Amire Harit of Morocco could also land some attention if Morocco advances to the knockout rounds, and I also like the idea of Ndidi (Nigeria/Leicester City).

KB: It’s cruel that Josh Kimmich’s age just didn’t work out properly for this award, because he’s the best youth product in the world and has been for at least 2 years. I love Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, but simply on the basis that Serbia won’t make it out of the group stage, he will be overlooked. The easy pick is Kylian Mbappe, and I like him over countryman Ousmane Dembele or Brazil’s Gabriel Jesus. However…the winner here will be the fabulous Trent Alexander-Arnold, who will migrate his CL form to Russia and show the world what an amazing talent he is as England makes a run.

MR: Gabriel Jesus can really take his game to the next level with a strong performance in Russia.

DK: It’s gotta be Kylian Mbappe, right?

(AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

8) Tricky question: Who will have the best individual World Cup between Liverpool’s trident of Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane, or Mohamed Salah?

JPW:  I would’ve said Salah, hands down, but with his injury and Egypt probably heading out to Spain or Portugal in the last 16 if they make it out of their group, probably not. Roberto Firmino isn’t a guaranteed starter for Brazil so I’m going for Sadio Mane who had a fine finish to the 2017/18 season. Mane is the main man for Senegal and I’ll think they’ll have a deep run with the Liverpool speedster leading the way.

NM: Give me Mane, if only because I have concerns about Egypt making as long a run as Senegal.

KB: This is tough, because all their situations aren’t perfect. I’m going with Salah because, he’s carrying a team on his injured shoulders and by virtue of his weak group, will likely get a game in the knockouts to state his case (Russia stiiiiiinks). Firmino will struggle for big moments in a team full of superstars, while Mane isn’t likely to make it out of the group stage.

MR: Salah’s injury scares me a bit, even though I really want to pick him. Senegal is my biggest dark horse contender though, so I’ll ride with Sadio Mane. Their attack is going to be lethal, and he’ll be at the forefront of it. There’s a very good chance that Firmino won’t see the field much for Brazil as well, simply because of how stacked the Selecao’s attack is.

DK: Great question. I’m going to say Mane. I think, considering he’s healthy and a sure-fire starter heading into the tournament, he’s set to have the biggest impact. If Salah misses the first match, he won’t be able to play in as many games, unless Egypt goes deep in the tournament. and Firmino is second-choice behind Gabriel Jesus right now.

9) How about between Manchester United’s Romelu Lukaku, Paul Pogba, and — bonus — you get to combine the tournaments of Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford?

JPW: Romelu Lukaku. He’s been a beast for Belgium and they’ll score plenty of goals in their group. Although, I do expect Rashford and Lingard to have big impacts for England too. Paul Pogba may be feeling the pressure as France’s warm-up for the tournament was far from ideal.

NM: Lukaku is my bet for the Golden Boot, but Paul Pogba is going to be unshackled on a glorious French side with N'Golo Kante among those behind him. Pogba.

KB: Romelu Lukaku is the go-to guy for Belgium, so I like the big man to have a good tournament even if Belgium disappoints again. Pogba and France are primed for a massive letdown.

MR: Give me Lukaku. When you have Hazard, De Bruyne and Mertens as viable options in the attack, that takes a great deal of pressure of your shoulders. Lukaku only had one goal in the 2014 World Cup. I think he could easily quadruple that total in Russia.

DK: Lukaku. If the big Belgian striker can overcome his woes in front of goal in high-pressure games, he should have a massive tournament.

10) Outside the box: Which Premier League team’s players will have the best World Cup combined?

JPW: Tottenham. Belgium and England players galore as both will make the latter stages.

NM: Spurs, if they don’t all crush each other in a mammoth group stage fight.

KB: Great question! Gotta go with Manchester City. John Stones and Raheem Sterling should have breakout showings for England (hard for me to get higher on the Three Lions than I am right now), Argentina needs Sergio Aguero desperately, Benjamin Mendy will start for France, Kevin De Bruyne is a key part of Belgium’s success (even if Roberto Martinez insists on playing him in the hole *puke*), and I already mentioned Jesus could be a young star. All this, mind you, with Ederson stuck behind Alisson and Leroy Sane cruelly left out.

MR: Chelsea. Kante is the center piece in the France midfield, and he’s just a force to be reckoned with. Hazard and Courtois will do their parts with Belgium. Willian could be the spark that Brazil needs opposite Neymar, while Gary Cahill leads England to the knockout phase, and dare I say the quarterfinals.

DK: Probably Manchester United. Lukaku, Pogba and even Rashford can all have huge impacts and potentially make the quarterfinals.

11) Will there be a match or moment which causes many people to wonder if someone’s done something to purposely favor Russia?

JPW: Nope. It’s the World Cup with the entire globe watching. Those shenanigans won’t happen.

NM: Yes, because many will be looking for it. Whether it’s intentional is another story. Check back with me in a week or two.

KB: No, because they’re so awful they won’t even give anyone the opportunity. Look for them to get triple-blanked.

DK: I doubt it. As Ken Bensinger wrote in his new book, Russia has already won, just by winning the right to host the World Cup. Everything else is gravy.

(Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

12) Whose stock will rise the most — coach or player — following the tournament?

JPW: Coach — Tite as Brazil win it. Player — Antoine Griezmann who leads France on a deep run.

NM: Coach — Mladen Krstajić of Serbia could well have a “Chris Coleman of Wales at EURO 2016” moment. The 44-year-old is in his first managerial post and has a really talented side with both experience and potential. As for player, I’ll stay with Serbia: Newcastle’s Aleksandar Mitrovic is a loose cannon and that cost him the top spot in Rafa Benitez‘s pecking order, but he’s capable of scoring a handful of goals in Russia.

KB: Great question, because there are so many possibilities here, but I’m going to go with Raheem Sterling. The ruthless English media will be left with nothing left to criticize him about after his performances.

MR:  It’s no guarantee that he’ll see a lot of the field, but Gonzalo Guedes is a star-in-the-making for Portugal. He’s represented the Portuguese at basically every level possible, and he’s only 21. Achraf Hakimi from Real Madrid is another one to watch. He’s only 19 years and could be a key piece for Morocco if the African side aims to take a spot away from Spain or Portugal in Group B.

DK: Sergej Milinkovic-Savic. He’s already one of the best midfielders in Serie A but the 6’3″ center midfielder has superb skills and could show them on display for Serbia in Russia.

13) Whose will fall?

JPW: Coach — Roberto Martinez as Belgium fail to realize their potential, again. Player — James Rodriguez as Colombia don’t make it out of the group.

NM: I worry for Gareth Southgate, who could face significant grief if his back line cannot handle the speed of Senegal or Colombia in the first round. Following that logic, I remain unsold on John Stones and think he could take a hit in Russia. If Southgate deploys Jordan Henderson, I fear the same for him. The pressure will be heavy on England from the Russian crowds, too, and the Three Lions may need to follow the Liverpool attack blueprint to win.

KB: Didier Deschamps. Good luck getting another top job once a talented but disjointed France team trips over itself yet again.

DK: Paul Pogba? He’s struggled for Man United at times this season, and it’s put him out of his rhythm. He’s going to be blamed, at least in part, if France have an early exit.

14) How far does England, a.k.a. the Fighting Joe Prince-Wrights, go?

JPW: First up, that’s a solid nickname. Secondly, the quarterfinals would be a great tournament for England. I’m wary to say they could go even further but reaching the last eight is what England should be aiming for and they can easily do that given their group stage/last 16 route.

NM: See above. I worry about their first match of the knockout rounds, and getting past that means a Germany that England just might be able to upset. I wouldn’t bet on England making it out of the Round of 16, but I also wouldn’t bet against them advancing to a final.

KB: THREE LIIIIIIIIONS!!! I would love to put them all the way to the semifinals, because I think they have that talent, but the bracket sets up cruelly for them to meet Brazil in the quarters, and they won’t get past the powerhouses. It will still be a tournament to remember for England.

MR: Round of 16 seems a pretty fair bet. I think they’ll go runners’ up to Belgium in the group, before falling to Colombia in the knockout phase.

DK: As far as Joe can lead them. Haha but in all seriousness, I think it depends on how much gas is left in the tank of the backline, and if they can feel comfortable playing in a 3-4-3. Harry Kane will score goals, but can England keep other teams off the board? I think the quarterfinals is certainly possible, but they could also find a way to collapse in the group stage.

(Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)

15) How big of a role will fan violence and racism play in the story lines of the tournament?

JPW: Hopefully not a big one, but I guess it all depends on how the host nation gets on.

NM: I’m worried about (hence I posed the question). The soccer world feels unstable right now, and Russia being set to disappoint at home could set the stage for the worst kind of fireworks. Then again, when a group’s character is challenged by the actions of few, that group usually rises up. I think Russia’s supporters will do that.

KB: I think there will be plenty of racist incidents, but it will be overlooked because every single tournament, the outside noise gets overshadowed by the play on the field, right or wrong. It happened in Brazil and it will happen in Russia.

MR: Hopefully not a lot, but that’s wishful thinking. Let’s just say there isn’t a good track record of fans being on their best behavior in Russia.

DK: Someone made a good point on a radio program recently that Russia’s security will certainly be beefed up for the tournament, but with Russia expected to be bounced in the group stage, it’s possible that Putin and the nation’s security apparatus loses interest in the knockout stage, which could lead to some issues down the road.

16) Will the tournament in Russia come off well for FIFA?

JPW: Yes. These tournaments always do better than expected. I’m worried about empty seats at some venues but overall I think it will be very good.

NM: It’ll be interesting to monitor, but ultimately I think the majority of people are going to be on their best behavior in the first post-Sepp Blatter World Cup.

KB: Does it ever come off poorly for FIFA? They make a killing, what else do they care about?

MR: They really better hope so, because the Qatar World Cup is already under enough scrutiny for a number of reasons.

DK: I guess, since the story will now be the play on the field (hopefully) and not any scandals off it.

17) Who has the best tournament: Messi, Ronaldo, or Neymar?

JPW: Neymar closely followed by Ronaldo, with Messi set to retire from international play as Argentina fall again.

NM: Neymar or Messi, but that’s not a knock against CR7; I have a sneaking suspicion Morocco surprises and keeps Portugal from the knockout rounds. Messi will get a bit more individual glory, but Neymar’s Brazil will advance further, so whichever of those qualifies as the best tournament in your mind.

KB: Neymar. Portugal isn’t good enough for Ronaldo to make it deep, and Argentina can never get it together in the Messi years. No reason for that to change this year. Neymar could very well win the whole thing.

DK: I think Neymar. Messi and Ronaldo could both see early exits thanks to creaky defenses, but Neymar has a real chance to lead his team to glory.

18) How far does Argentina need to go to save Messi wild grief? Better yet, what’s more important for him: individual success with Argentina stopping short of its goal, or making another final but statistically disappointing over the tournament?

JPW: They need to win it for him to not to get a bit of stick, which is crazy. Injuries haven’t been kind to Jorge Sampaoli’s team but defensively they have real concerns, as always. For Messi it’s all about trying to drag Argentina as far as he can.

NM: Seeing that people tend to forget he led them to the final in 2014, I guess he needs to win it all. That said, Argentina making a second final would be better for him than lighting up the scoresheet but losing 4-3 to a better team in the Round of 16 or quarters.

KB: They need to win it all. Bottom line, Messi needs a trophy on the shelf to quiet the noise. He’s failed too many times in finals, and it’s a massive, gaping hole in his otherwise glittering resume. He needs that trophy, and I would absolutely love for him to get it. Sadly, I don’t think he will.

MR: If you’re strictly asking me, Messi doesn’t need to prove himself to anybody. The man has accomplished nearly everything you possibly can at both club and international level. If you’re looking for something to drastically set him apart from Ronaldo though, it’s winning a World Cup. Four years ago has to still sting for him and his teammates, so I expect Messi to show up in a big way on a team that has a lot of questions heading into the tournament.

DK: It’s going to be heartbreaking either situation, knowing this is probably Messi’s last World Cup and he’ll leave without winning a title, despite coming oh so close.

19) Can you believe Bruce Arena left Landon Donovan behind in favor of Haji Wright?

JPW: Stop. It is beyond frustrating that the USA won’t be at the World Cup. And we’ve now gone full circle in this roundtable and I’m off to watch grainy video footage of the 2002 run to the World Cup quarterfinals and wonder what could’ve been. Damn. Paul Arriola could’ve been the new Clint Mathis.

NM: It was even worse that he made the players get Lee Greenwood tattoos.

KB: NICHOLAS, STOP IT

DK: Haha. I could see that happening somehow. The future of U.S. Soccer is bright!

2018 World Cup team preview: England

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Getting to know England: It’s been 28 years since England last reached the semifinals of the World Cup, but — and stop me if you’ve heard this before — this might just be the year the Three Lions reclaim their place as one of the world’s very best.

[ LIVE: World Cup scores ]

For the first time this decade, injuries to key players aren’t a problem. For the first time this decade, the stars appear to be held to the exact same standards as everyone else on the roster. For the first time in nearly two decades, the squad is young (average age: 25.6 years old), ambitious, cohesive and full of ideas. For the first time in a very long time ever, expectations are extremely low and these Three Lions will outperform what is currently thought possible.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 


What group are they in? Group F, where they’re second favorites to finish first, with an outside shot at beating Belgium to the top spot. That England-Belgium matchup will likely determine first place on the final day of the group.

Game schedule – Group G – Full 2018 World Cup schedule, here

Monday, June 18: Tunisia vs. England, Volgograd, 2 p.m. ET
Sunday, June 24: England vs. Panama, Nizhny Novgorod, 8 a.m. ET
Thursday, June 28: England vs. Belgium, Kaliningrad, 2 p.m. ET


Projected lineup (3-5-2) – Check out the 23-man squad list in full

— Pickford —

— Walker —— Stones —— Cahill —

— Dier —

— Trippier —— Alli ——  Henderson —— Rose —

— Kane —— Sterling —


Star player: Harry Kane – 30 goals in the Premier League, plus another 11 in the Champions League and FA Cup — 2017-18 was the first time Kane surpassed the 40-goal mark in a season, but not the first time he’d come close (35 last season). Since becoming Tottenham Hotspur’s main man in the 2014-15 season — just after the last World Cup — he’s scored 135 goals in 187 appearances across all competitions (105 in 139 in the PL). Arguably the best no. 9 in the world, the next month could be Kane’s arrival to super-duper-stardom.

(Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)

Manager: Gareth Southgate – The former England defender (57 caps) has been in charge since Roy Hodgson departed post-EURO 2016, and guided the Three Lions to an unbeaten qualifying campaign, with draws away to Slovenia and Scotland. The 47-year-old has been pretty consistent in playing a back-three, affording an extra body in midfield and typically deploying a partnership up top rather than a lone figure.


Secret weapon: Raheem Sterling – It’s a bit rich to call a player who’s coming off of a 18-goal, 11-assist season (in the PL; 23 and 12 in all competitions) a “secret” weapon, but with all the attention Kane’s getting — and rightly so — it feels like Sterling’s something of a forgotten man. His versatility and ability to operate in all different areas of attack — wide right as a winger; wide left as an inside forward; through the center as a second striker off a bigger man in Kane — make him the perfect piece to shift around the field when Southgate looks to change shape.


Prediction: The round of 16 is the bare minimum expectation, and they’ll get there, at which point it’s all about the matchup in the knockout rounds. Finishing second means a likely meeting with Germany in the quarterfinals, while winning the group would likely set up a battle with Brazil for a place in the semifinals.

VIDEO: Marcus Rashford scores terrific goal vs. Costa Rica

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Marcus Rashford‘s first England goal since September was a beauty.

The Manchester United youngster took a short pass in space and belted the ball across the goal from 23 yards to put England up 1-0 against Costa Rica in the Three Lions final World Cup tune-up.

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Rashford, 20, now has three England goals heading into Russia, where he’s given manager Gareth Southgate something to think about ahead of Group G with Tunisia, Panama, and Belgium.

He scored a career-high seven Premier League goals this season for Jose Mourinho.

2018 World Cup: Breakout stars

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Each World Cup there are always players who emerge to steal the show as they become superstars not only in their homeland but across the globe.

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The tournament in Russia this summer will be no different.

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Below is a look at some of the potential “breakout stars” you should keep a close eye on throughout the tournament.


Hirving “Chucky” Lozano (Mexico and PSV Eindhoven)
The El Tri star had a stunning first season in Holland, winning the Eredivisie title and lauded for his speedy attacks out wide. Chucky scored 17 goals in 29 league games and bagged 19 in 34 games in all competitions for the Dutch giants as big clubs across Europe keep a close eye on him. Lozano has already scored seven goals in 26 games for Mexico since making his debut in 2016 and big things are expected from the 22-year-old speedster this summer.


Trent Alexander-Arnold (England and Liverpool)
At just 19 years of age the Liverpool right back has been thrust into the spotlight for club and country in recent months. At the start of the 2017/18 season TAA hadn’t even played a league game for Liverpool but Jurgen Klopp put his faith in the youngster and injuries to Nathaniel Clyne and Joe Gomez have him a chance to shine at Anfield. He grabbed that chance with both hands and played well in the UEFA Champions League final as well as being called up to the England squad for the first-time ever for the World Cup. He will battle with Kieran Trippier for the right wing-back role and his attacking talents mean he is a real threat, even though he’s a little raw defensively.


Leon Goretzka (Germany and Bayern Munich)
After a fine season for Schalke which sealed a move to Bayern Munich (official on July 1), Goretzka rode the positivity surrounding him after his fine displays in the Confederations Cup last summer for Germany. At 23 years of age he is ready to contribute for Die Mannschaft across midfield and his well-time runs from deep make him so tough to track. Goretzka has scored six goals in 15 games for Germany and is a key man for Joachim Low.


Daniel Arzani (Australia and Melbourne City)
The youngster player at the World Cup, Arzani is just 19 years old and has a bright future ahead of him. Bert van Marwijk sprung a bit of a surprise but selecting the Iranian born winger who is able to take on players easily and has something a little different compared to Australia’s other attacking options. If he gets the chance to dazzle on the big stage then Australia could have a new soccer hero to take over the reins as Tim Cahill gets set to depart the game.


Timo Werner (Germany and RB Leipzig)

SOCHI, RUSSIA – JUNE 25: Timo Werner of Germany leaves the pitch after winning the FIFA Confederations Cup Group B match between Germany and Cameroon at Fisht Olympic Stadium on June 25, 2017 in Sochi, Russia. (Photo by Lukas Schulze – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

A lethal predator in the box for Leipzig and Germany, Werner also made his name in the Confed Cup last summer and has scored seven goals in 13 games for Germany since making his debut in 2017. Werner, 22, has scored 21 goals in each of his last two seasons with Leipzig and despite a slight dip in form in 2017/18 Germany are counting on him to finish off the countless chances he will provide. When you think of Werner as a player, think Miroslav Klose but a little quicker.


Jesse Lingard (England and Manchester United)
Yes, he is a little older than most of the other entries in this list but he is pushing Dele Alli all the way to be a starter for England in midfield. He may well end up playing alongside Alli in a more attacking lineup for the Three Lions and Lingard’s penchant for popping up with big goals in big games at club level will give Gareth Southgate faith he can deliver the goods for England.


Sergej Milinkovic-Savic (Serbia and Lazio)

The 23-year-old has been linked with moves to Manchester United and Lazio and the two-way midfielder will be given the keys to Serbia’s hopes. Milinkovic-Savic can pick a pass and stride forward in attack but is also able to sit back and do his defensive work. If he has a good World Cup you expect his transfer fee to rise beyond $175 million. Lazio’s recent resurgence has been led by his displays in central midfield.


Rodrigo Betancur (Uruguay and Juventus)
In his first season at Juventus he made 27 appearances in all competitions and won a Serie A and Italian cup double after joining from Boca Juniors. Betancur, still just 20 years old, is able to play anywhere in midfield but will probably start on the left a three-man Uruguayan midfield. Betancur is calm on the ball and snaps into tackles which fits in nicely with La Celeste’s playing style.