2018 World Cup Preview
(Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

The world’s greatest sporting event is 24 hours away, and it is time to get excited. Here is everything you need to know about the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

The 2018 FIFA World Cup kicks off at 11 a.m. ET on Thursday, as hosts Russia play Saudi Arabia in the first match of Group A. What will follow is a month of almost non-stop soccer, ending on July 15 with the World Cup Final.

Who will win the World Cup? Who are the best players? Who will be the breakout stars and the surprise teams?

Let’s take a quick look at who you should be keeping an eye on this summer.

The Teams

I’ve ranked the teams into tiers: the “No Shot” tier; the “Potential Cinderella” tier; the “Outside Chance” tier; and the “Contenders”.

Your “No Shot” tier consists of teams that have little to no chance to advance out of the group stage.

These teams include Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Panama, Iran, Australia, Japan, and South Korea. It would be quite the shock if any advanced to the last 16.

Whether it’s due to lack of talent, difficult groups, or both, don’t expect too much from these teams.

Your “Potential Cinderella” tier are teams that aren’t expected to make it out of the group stage, but if they do, could make a wonderful run to the quarterfinals. Think Costa Rica back in 2014, who surprised by winning a group featuring England, Italy, and Uruguay, and making it all the way to the last 8.

These teams include: Russia, who make it simply because they are the host nation; Iceland, because they were the cinderella in Euro 2016; Senegal, because of their blistering attack and a wide open group; Switzerland, because of their European experience; Nigeria, because of their bevy of attacking talent and AWESOME jerseys; Peru, because their star striker Paolo Guerreiro is no longer suspended for the tournament; Costa Rica, because history can repeat itself; and Sweden, who will look a more organized and cohesive side with the absence of their egotistical star man Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

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Next are your outside contenders– it would be a true shock if any of these teams won it, but I would be remiss to not give them at least a chance. All of these teams could realistically make the semifinals with a stroke of luck here and a great performance there.

Those teams include: Serbia, who have several high pedigree European stalwarts; Egypt, because they have perhaps the most in form player in Europe in Mohamed Salah; Denmark, because Christian Eriksen is just sublime; Poland, who have arguably the worlds best striker in Robert Lewandowski; Croatia, whose midfield is as strong as anyones in the tournament; England, who are young, hungry, and for once, without monumental expectations; Colombia, who almost rode James to the semifinals in 2014; Uruguay, who have two of the five best strikers in the tournament; and Portugal, who are the reigning European champions and have one of the worlds two best players in Cristiano Ronaldo.

And finally, we have the Contenders, the teams that are expected to reach the semifinals and compete for the title.

Belgium, who have been the “dark horses” of the last two major tournaments, is so talented and well known at this point that it seems redundant to call them dark horses. Kevin de Bruyne, who just wrapped up a staggeringly good domestic campaign for Manchester City, is only one of the glittering stars that manager Roberto Martinez has at his disposal. But Belgium has fallen in the quarterfinals in both 2014 and Euro 2016, and to make it to the semifinals, they’ll most likely have to beat Brazil or Germany to get there.

Argentina has the worlds best player in Lionel Messi, along with three to four other superstar forwards. However, their defense is, frankly, bad, and their midfield relies on a 34-year-old Javier Mascherano to play the same role he did when he was 30 and played for Barcelona (he now plays in China, against far worse competition). It will be interesting to see how far Messi takes Argentina in what could be his final World Cup.

France has the deepest and most talented squad. They also seemingly lack cohesion and, to put it bluntly, the cojones to win a major tournament. We saw that in the final of Euro 2016, when they lost at home to Portugal, despite Portugal’s best player, Cristiano Ronaldo, missing nearly 80% of the match due to injury. France is led by stars such as Antoine Griezmann, Kylian Mbappe, and Paul Pogba, but whether or not they can be a team or a collection of individual talent will be the task for much-maligned manager Didier Deschamps.

Spain, winners in 2010, flopped at the World Cup in 2014. Julien Lopetegui is in his first World Cup as Spain’s manager and has done a nice job infusing youth into the core that won the tournament in 2010. Isco, Thiago, Marco Asensio, David de Gea, Koke, and Saul are all young, exciting additions to a core featuring Sergio Ramos, Andres Iniesta, and Sergio Busquets. Spain has the talent to win it, but will they be able to change their pass-heavy philosophy if it is unsuccessful against teams who defend resolutely? We shall see.

Brazil, the great failure of the 2014 World Cup, has revenge on their mind. They famously lost in the semifinals of their own World Cup four years ago, being utterly humiliated 7-1 by Germany. It was one of the worst days in Brazil’s history. Yet, here they are again, with a different look. Neymar is loads better now than he was in 2014, and the team has a whole offers more attacking verve and defensive stability. Brazil’s 2014 squad was poor and only was favored because they were at home. This time around, Brazil is absolutely loaded, and have to be among the favorites to win it all.

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Germany are the defending champions and for good reason. As Men in Blazers’ Roger Bennet described it, Germany takes what is beautiful about football, which is it’s unpredictability, and nullify it. Germany is predictably terrific in every tournament, with a cohesive unit of mercenaries who are always technically and tactically above the rest. While much of the old guard that won the 2014 tournament is still intact (Thomas Muller, Mesut Ozil, Toni Kroos, Manuel Neuer, etc), this team has a collection of young, exciting prospects that could make waves.

The Best Players

There are a handful of elite players you should keep an eye on. They are: Lionel Messi (Argentina), Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal), Neymar (Brazil), Antoine Griezmann (France), Kevin de Bruyne (Belgium), Luis Suarez (Uruguay), Harry Kane (England), Eden Hazard (Belgium), Luka Modric (Croatia), and Robert Lewandowski (Poland).

Germany and Spain have at least five players each who could be on this list, but the ones that stand out: their goalkeepers (Neuer and de Gea), their midfield generals (Kroos and Iniesta), and dynamic playmakers with a nose for goal (Isco and Muller).

Breakout Candidates

In every World Cup, there are a handful of young players who break out, and one that takes the tournament by storm. In 2014, it was James Rodriguez, who scored six goals in five matches.

Contenders in this tournament: Leon Goretzka (Germany), Marco Asensio (Spain), Thomas Lemar (France), Ruben Loftus-Cheek (England), Hirving Lozano (Mexico), and Lucas Toreira (Uruguay).

Who will Advance to the Knockout Stages?

My quick picks:

  • Group A: Uruguay, Egypt
  • Group B: Spain, Portugal
  • Group C: France, Denmark
  • Group D: Argentina, Croatia
  • Group E: Brazil, Serbia
  • Group F: Germany, Mexico
  • Group G: Belgium, England
  • Group H: Colombia, Poland

My quarterfinalists are Brazil, Belgium, France, Portugal, England, Germany, Spain, and Argentina.

My semifinalists are Brazil, France, Germany, and Spain.

And I have Brazil over Germany in the Final.

Golden Ball (best player of the tournament) will go to Neymar; Golden Boot (top goal scorer) will go to Brazil’s Gabriel Jesus; Golden Glove (best goalkeeper) to Germany’s Manuel Neuer; best young player to Germany’s Leon Goretzka, and the breakout star of the tournament will be Marco Asensio of Spain.

That’s it for me. Sit back, enjoy the football, and watch with the world as we see who will be crowned champions of World Cup 2018.

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Staff Writer at Elite Sports New York. Lead Writer at New York Sports Hub and My Weekly Sports. Twitter, instagram: @skylardarel. Avid fan of the Yankees, Knicks, Giants, New York City FC, FC Barcelona, and Arsenal FC. Sophomore at the College of New Jersey, studying Communication. Aspiring play-by-play commentator. Grew up in Manhattan, and proud to know how to work the Subway system.