Joey Gulino: Welcome back to the FC Yahoo Mixer everyone! We’re less than a week from kickoff in Russia, so it’s time for our crew to offer some official predictions. Instead of letting each of us ramble about what we want (we’re good at that), I’ll toss out a few categories to pick. To wit!
Golden Boot winner
Leander Schaerlaeckens: Kylian Mbappe
Doug McIntyre: Lionel Messi. You have to be a ruthless finisher AND be on a team capable of making a deep run. Messi’s a strong bet on both counts.
Ryan Bailey: Antoine Griezmann will add another zero to that lovely new Real Madrid contract.
Henry Bushnell: If I had to pick one player, no money line or odds or anything? Messi. Duh. So I guess that’s my answer. But if you want a value play a little farther down the board? Go with either of Uruguay’s strikers in that laughably weak group. Luis Suarez could get four against Saudi Arabia alone.
And finally, my deep sleeper: Iago Aspas. I don’t know if he’ll start for Spain. But he should, eventually. Or at least he’ll get significant minutes off the bench. He tallied 22 times for a mid-table La Liga team this past season. He’ll get loads more chances starting up top for Spain than he did at Celta Vigo. I’m not saying he’s going to win it. I’m just saying there’s a better chance than you probably realize.
Joey Gulino: I can’t really think of an overly credible argument against any of your picks. But then again, when has anyone ever confused me with being credible? I’m going with Neymar, because he’s got the supply, he’s got the powerhouse squad set for a deep run, and he’s been sitting on the sideline chomping at the bit to return to the pitch and showcase what he can do.
Dark horse to reach the semifinals, or better
Schaerlaeckens: Argentina. (Is last tournament’s losing finalist — in extra time time — a dark horse? It hardly feels like it. But the team around Lionel Messi is a pretty ragtag bunch. They’ll do well to get this far.)
McIntyre: Croatia. I’m not sure I even picked them to survive their group. But the more I think about it, they’re stacked. Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic and Real Madrid maestro Luka Modric run the midfield, and they boast a legit scorer in Juve’s Mario Mandzukic. With some luck, Croatia could replicate its third place finish in 1998.
Bailey: I have already made the case for Poland as my dark horse round these parts. They have one of the best strikers in the world, their squad is well balanced, they were strong at Euro 2016 and they were superb in qualification. If they can avoid Germany or Brazil at the quarterfinals, my money says they’re in the final four.
Bushnell: First of all … Leander … Argentina? The team that’s been to three straight major tournament finals and hasn’t lost a single one in 90 minutes? Semifinal dark horse? Total violation. Anything less than a semifinal will be considered a disappointment for them.
I’ll go with Uruguay, and not just as a speculative shout. I’m picking La Celeste to get to the semis. They have the youthful midfield now to boss games, and therefore boss the group. But they still have the old identity to revert back to; the ability to make games ugly and count on Suarez and Edinson Cavani to win them. That’s what they’ll be able to do against opponents like Portugal or France, or whoever else they get in the knockout rounds.
Gulino: I’m all in with Doug on this one. Croatia isn’t getting the attention of Argentina (because they’re great) and Iceland (because … Skol?) in its own group, but this talented country is long overdue for a deep World Cup run, and a group triumph could set the stage for it.
Favorite that will fall on its face
Schaerlaeckens: Germany. (Screw Germany.)
McIntyre: France. Les Bleus could have the most talented roster in Russia. But they’ve also imploded at every other World Cup, like clockwork, going back a quarter century. They’re due.
Bailey: It’s a coin flip as to whether the Good France or the Bad France will show up, but I’m with Leander on this one: Germany. When everyone expects you to make the final as a minimum, it’s very easy to fall short of expectation. Their superstar goalkeeper might not be 100%, they’ve looked a little ropey in recent outings and the hubris of leaving a talent like Leroy Sane at home might prove regrettable.
Of course, this is Germany we are talking about so they’ll probably win the darn thing without even getting out of third gear.
Bushnell: I don’t think any will fall on its face. At least not flat on its face after a head-first tumble. But there’s a real chance Germany slips up in its opener against Mexico. That would set up a Round of 16 clash with Brazil. And in that scenario, one of the two pre-tournament favorites will fall woefully short of expectations. I’d bet on it being the Germans.
Gulino: I’ve been out on Spain for a couple years now, and I still am. I know they’re loaded, I know their style is closer to the halcyon tiki-taka days than it has been, but I need to see La Furia Roja do it at a major tournament. Ever since the Confederations Cup final hammering at the hands of Brazil in 2013, it’s been a program seemingly in constant transition, and with Portugal in the same group, I’m just not confident.
Dumbest invented criticism of Lionel Messi we’ll hear or read
Schaerlaeckens: There was somebody better to play the game of soccer.
McIntyre: That his beard is too heavy and is weighing him down. Hey, at this level the smallest things make the difference.
Bailey: That he is a giant grump who holds too much power in any dressing room he enters. The old story at Barcelona is that Pep Guardiola banned the squad from drinking soda, and requested Messi obey this rule in front of the group. As an act of defiance, the Argentinean reportedly opened a can of Coca-Cola and drank the entire thing in front of his unimpressed manager. This kind of story is absolute nonsense and offensive to Messi’s legacy.
It was Pepsi, not Coke.
Bushnell: I’ll second Leander’s answer, then go with this: Surely we’ll hear the line that he’s impossible to play with, right? The reasoning being that all these stars at club level, no matter what they try, can’t jell with him in an Albiceleste shirt? Argentina looks dysfunctional, and rather than blaming Sampaoli, or simply accepting that the squad is unbalanced, people will blame Messi.
And here’s why it’s absurd: Because he’s shown this past season that he’s anything but a system player; that his brilliance doesn’t have situational explanations. The Barcelona system changed. He still won Barca a title – almost single-handedly at times. He’s evolved into new roles at least three teams throughout his career now. He’ll have poor games every now and then, but he’s not the problem. He’s never the problem.
Gulino: That he snorted cocaine before a match in which he doesn’t play well, since fans will be able to bring that stuff to the stadiums this summer. I’m actually very confident in this take.
Over/under five full-blown VAR controversies
McIntyre: Over all the way. It wouldn’t surprise me if there’s more than five major VAR controversies in the group stage alone.
Bailey: Over. Massively. My fear is that VAR takes more headlines than any player. Preventing a Frank Lampard ghost goal, a la 2010, will be great, but a system that still has so many kinks is bound to cause trouble.
Bushnell: Joey, you would not make it as a bookmaker in Vegas, man. This line is way to low. Over.
Gulino: Good thing I want to be a PR guy for a casino, then! I’m with Leander on the under. Every World Cup there’s some story we think will be big that doesn’t actually turn out big at all. This is a legitimate, interesting issue, but I don’t think it’ll rear its ugly head that often.
Who will win it all?
Gulino: Haha, you’re not getting that from us until next week.
World Cup coverage from Yahoo Sports:
• 2018 World Cup preview hub
• How Mexico is wooing another type of dual national: fans
• From Messi to Henderson, the top 100 players at the World Cup
• Group previews: A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H