The 2018 World Cup is nearing.
Here are the key questions about the tournament.
Q: Where and when is it?
A: After all the controversy of the 2018/2022 joint bidding process which saw Russia and Qatar awarded the tournaments, the first of those is upon us. The 2018 World Cup takes place from June 14 to July 15 in Russia.
Matches take place in 11 cities in the world’s largest country (by geographical area), from Kalingrad in the west to Ekaterinburg in the east, Sochi in the south, to St Petersburg in the north. Ekaterinburg has a population of 1.4 million and is located on the geographical border of Europe and Asia, at the foot of the Ural Mountains.
Q: Who will win?
A: Brazil lead the early betting from Germany, Spain, France and Argentina, closely followed by Belgium in what is an open tournament with no clear favourites.
This could be the last realistic chance for Lionel Messi, 31 on June 24, to lead Argentina to the trophy.
Q: Who won’t win?
A: Italy, champions in 2006, 2010 runners-up Holland and Chile, who won the Copa America in 2015 and 2016, have all failed to qualify. So too have Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, Scotland and Wales, plus the United States.
Q: Are there any days without football?
A: Seven of the 31 days feature no match action: June 29 (the day after the group stage), July 4 and 5 (between the last 16 and quarter-finals), July 8 and 9 (between the quarter-finals and the semi-finals), and, July 12 and 13 (between the semi-finals and the third-placed play-off).
Q: Will there be any technology used to support officials?
A: Since Frank Lampard’s disallowed goal in England’s 2010 World Cup loss to Germany, FIFA has embraced technology. Goal-line technology was used in 2014 and the 2018 tournament will include Video Assistant Referees.
VARs have not been universally embraced and there have been teething problems, but the system has been passed. Replays of incidents under VAR review will be shown on big screens inside Stadia.
Q: Is it going to be a good tournament?
A: Almost certainly. For those travelling, there are reasons to be apprehensive, particularly if you are from a minority group, given Russia’s recent history. But the vastness of the country means it is also diverse and there will be plenty to see and experience (hopefully mostly good).
For those watching from the comfort of their own sofa or the pub the tournament will really get going in the knockout stages. And there are individuals and teams who will light up the tournament.
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France are the clear favourites to top Group C, but they will need to be wary of the danger posed by Denmark.
Australia and Peru are expected to battle for second place against Denmark, with the Socceroos hoping that the ageing Tim Cahill can pass on his experience to the younger generation of players.
Peru have already been dealt a huge blow prior to the tournament as influential captain and all-time top goal scorer Paolo Guerrero’s doping ban was extended by FIFA, meaning he will miss next month’s tournament.
However, this is Peru’s first World Cup appearance since 1982, meaning this is a once in a lifetime opportunity for these players, so they will play with pride, determination and heart.
1) Australia – Matthew Leckie
The Hertha Berlin man can operate anywhere along the frontline and has the pace to get in behind any defence.
Leckie has been a regular starter in the Bundesliga this season and helped his side to 10th place in the table, while also netting in the Europa League. The 27-year-old’s trickery will be crucial for Australia, who have an ageing squad.
Also keep an eye on Celtic playmaker Tom Rogic, whose eye for a long-range strike could be decisive.
2) Denmark – Christian Eriksen
The Tottenham Hotspur playmaker was the one who inspired Denmark to qualification after bagging a sensational hat-trick in the play-off second-leg against Republic of Ireland.
His club form has been impressive, scoring ten and assisting ten in the Premier League this season to help Spurs qualify for the Champions league.
Denmark will look to Eriksen to unlock some of the world’s best defences and if he continues his club form for his country, then the other teams in the group could be in for some trouble.
3) France – Kylian Mbappe
The 19-year-old has comfortably settled into a starting position at one of Europe’s biggest clubs and has relished the challenge of performing on the big stage.
He scored 21 times for Paris Saint-Germain last season and has won back-to-back Ligue 1 young player of the year awards.
His pace, skill and lethal finishing bring back memories of a certain Thierry Henry and next month is his chance to write himself into the France history books.
4) Peru – Jefferson Farfan
The Lokomotiv Moscow winger has been in good form in the Russian top flight this season, scoring ten times to help his side win the title for the first time in 14 years.
Farfan is one of the most experienced members of the Peru squad, so they will be looking to him to provide the magic in what is a tough group for the South American side.
The 33-year-old netted four times in the Europa League this season, so is going into the tournament filled with confidence.