FC Yahoo Mixer: Our writers debate their 2018 World Cup power rankings

Henry Bushnell: Friends! Welcome to The Mixer, a new twice-a-week forum here at FC Yahoo where our writers will engage in (hopefully) lively, (possibly) civil and (sometimes) reasoned discussion and debate on a variety of subjects leading into and throughout the 2018 World Cup.

Today’s topic? Well, we kicked off a full month of World Cup preview content Monday with staff-wide power rankings. And Leander’s are really, really bad.

In fact, there are a lot of differences of opinion. So we’re going to try to settle them. But before I bash anybody else, I’ll cede the floor to one of y’all. Who sees something on our fancy rankings spreadsheet that they strongly disagree with?

Leander Schaerlaeckens: Young Hank, first of all: what’s with the “y’all?” You’re from Philadelphia and you live in Chicago. That’s just not OK.

Second, and less importantly, I know that we live in the age of the hot take and that you’re trying to stand out. But how in the world do you not have Germany as the top team in your power rankings? I understand the argument for Spain, certainly. That’s a deep and insanely experienced team, with enough young talent to complement some of the veterans who have already won this thing in 2010.

But I just don’t see how you look past Die Mannschaft. They’re so deep that even their reserves could well make the semifinals. (Remember when their reserves won the Confederations Cup last year? For whatever that’s worth, which, historically, has been very little.) And they, too, blend a wealth of experience with youth and energy.

Germany and Spain both looked like 2018 World Cup contenders in a high-quality March friendly. (Getty)
Germany and Spain both looked like 2018 World Cup contenders in a high-quality March friendly. (Getty)

Henry Bushnell: Spain has a top-five player at his respective position across its back line, not to mention the very best goalkeeper on the planet. Its midfield is actually deeper than Germany’s. Let’s not put too much stock in 2014. Four years is a loooooong time.

I’m willing to entertain a Germany-over-Spain argument, though. What I think we should all be able to agree on is that those two are part of a definitive three-team top tier, along with Brazil. Apparently, however, we don’t all agree on that …

Joseph, Douglas, please explain yourselves.

Joey Gulino: I don’t think anything is definitive about this iteration of Spain, other than they’re not the ultra-patient, death-by-a-thousand-paper-cuts side that dominated the world at the turn of the decade. They’re ridiculously talented, but they watched their Tiki-Taka era flame out at the last two major tournaments before the quarterfinals. They won’t strangle possession. They don’t have an overly reliable goal-scorer. What exactly are they? Do they even know?

Here’s where I tip-toe out on an increasingly shaky limb: I’m bullish on France. After they topped arguably the toughest UEFA qualifying group, I actually waffled about putting them at No. 2 ahead of Brazil. You think Spain is talented? Look at what the French will have in the squad. The players they’ll leave out could make the World Cup quarterfinals by themselves. They have goals galore in their striker contingent. And the weakest link, the defense, is still pretty sturdy. This génération dorée is just waiting to finally break through and win a major tournament. Gee, that sounds an awful lot like Germany in 2014. That’s Germany, the consensus best team in the world that was taken out in the Euro 2016 semis by … France.

Henry Bushnell: So talented they managed to nick a 0-0 draw off Luxembourg in qualifying. Gotcha. I understand.

But seriously, I actually do understand, even if I’ll take talent AND results over pure talent any day. The top tier could maybe accomodate a fourth team. But that fourth team – *cough* Doug *cough* – is definitely not this incoherent, underperforming dumpster fire called Argentina.

Doug McIntyre: Look, I realize that without the magic of Lionel Messi the Albiceleste may not have even qualified. I also realize that on paper, Argentina, even with the best player ever to play the game, probably isn’t the planet’s third-best team. But these aren’t the FIFA rankings — not that they’re accurate either. This is all about the World Cup.

More to the point, to me at least, our power rankings are about which teams have the best odds of hoisting that gorgeous solid gold trophy in Moscow on July 15. It’s hard to bet against the defending champion Germany. Or five-time winners Brazil. On current form, Spain is another great shout. But here’s the thing: World Cups almost never go the way we think they will. So go ahead and crumple up that paper and throw it out the window right now, you litterbugs. (Seriously guys, please recycle.)

For all the pomp and circumstance, the World Cup is, at its core, a glorified knockout competition, or at least it should be for the perennial title contenders. Upsets will happen. I look at the intangibles Argentina brings to the table. This is a team that reached the final of a major tourney in 2014, ‘15 and ‘16, losing by a tiny margin each time. Had things gone a bit differently, we might regard them as one of the greatest teams in history. Players like Sergio Aguero, Javier Mascherano and yes, Messi, are proven winners at club level. They have to know this is their last, best chance. And they have to want to win that Cup for Messi while he’s still in his prime. That doesn’t mean they’ll do it, of course. I just think they might be due. At the very least, nobody should be quick to write them off.

Henry Bushnell: Fair enough. Not sure how much I can trust a guy who also has Portugal fifth, though – probably for similarly flakey reasons.

But let’s move on. I have some other qualms. I’m realizing Leander’s rankings aren’t all that bad.

Leander Schaerlaeckens: Th… thanks?

Henry Bushnell: But only because everybody else’s are. England is absolutely a top-10 team, but only Doug and I have them as such. And can we chill a bit with the Iceland love? I get that it’s a great story. It’s not, however, a great soccer team. It’s easily the least talented of the 14 European participants.

I’m actually embarrassed that we have Iceland ahead of Serbia. Only Joey is on board with me here. This Serbian side is awesome. Especially the midfield. Nemanja Matic, Luka Milivojevic and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic? That’s seductive. I know those three have never played together. But I couldn’t care less. I’m all in.

And one last thing: Why the heck have we convinced ourselves that Egypt is head and shoulders above Russia in Group A, when betting markets vehemently disagree? I’m legitimately curious. Somebody give me a case for Egypt that’s more substantive than “Mohamed Salah is really good.”

Joey Gulino: I’m well aware this might be my own diet version of Doug’s Messi/Argentina take, but you really only need one or two great players to make a dent at the World Cup. Salah is that player, a guy who can win matches by himself, and while Egypt isn’t replete with the talent of other nations, he’s hardly alone. Mohamed Elneny is a decent midfielder for Arsenal, but he’ll be standout-level among his World Cup peers. The anchors of the defense, fullback Ahmed Fathy and goalkeeper Essam El-Hadary, are a combined 78 years old with 280 caps between them, and both will be eager to shine on the biggest stage for the first time. Egypt won Ghana’s group in qualifying, and only lost the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations final on a goal in the 88th minute.

Bookmark this for when the Pharaohs advance out of a tepid Group A. Or to laugh at me when they don’t.

Leander Schaerlaeckens: I just realized that my 17th ranking for Morocco and 31st for Russia have really dragged those two teams up, and down, respectively. But I stand by that. Because Morocco has a fun team full of creativity that will surprise people. And Russia is better at meddling with foreign elections than at soccer.

Henry Bushnell: On that note …

Think that’s all the time/space we have! A reminder to go check out the power ranks – the first of many World Cup preview items from us – to see what all the fuss is about.

We’ll be back on Thursday with the most coherent, reasoned Messi vs. Ronaldo debate you’ve ever read. And The Mixer will return every week, once on Monday or Tuesday, again on Thursday or Friday, to kick around topics ranging from VAR to the U.S. men’s national team to Russia 2018 rooting guides.

Oh, and feel free to join the conversation. I’m @HenryBushnell. The others are @ByDougMcIntyre, @LeanderAlphabet and @JGulinoYahoo. Get in touch. If you’re take is good enough, we may just feature it somewhere down the line.

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