Upcoming Match-ups

2018 FIFA World Cup: The Stars and Stats You Need to Know

Neymar's Brazil are favorites to win the World Cup while he is also a top contender for the Golden Boot. Photo by: (Wiki Commons) [CC License]
  • Compare the stars in each group for the World Cup’s top contenders
  • How will these players impact their team’s chances of success?
  • Are there any upsets brewing in this year’s groups?

The 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia will get underway Thursday, June 14th at 11:00 a.m. EST. But before Saudi Arabia takes on host Russia in the opening game, take a few minutes to learn about the brightest stars who will be taking the pitch in the tournament.

Group A

Luis Suarez & Edinson Cavani vs Mohamed Salah

Luis Suarez, Edinson Cavani, and Mohamed Salah.
Luis Suarez, Edinson Cavani, and Mohamed Salah. Photos by Jimmy Baikovicius, Liondartois, and Дмитрий Голубович (Wikimedia Commons) [CC License].

Some of the lustre has been taken off this matchup, since Salah went down with a shoulder injury during the Champions League final. Salah was the main target man for Liverpool and his 32 Premier League goals were a new record for the league in a 38-game season.

Salah is expected to return in time for the tournament with Egypt but surely will not be 100-percent.

Suarez leads an impressive group from Uruguay who will be favorites to claim first place in this group. Suarez scored 25 goals for the La Liga winning Barcelona this season. He also scored five during CONMEBOL qualifying with Uruguay. As impressive a year as he’s had, he was a whole five goals behind Edinson Cavani, who had ten goals during Uruguay’s qualifiers.

Suarez scored 25 goals for the La Liga winning Barcelona this season while adding five during CONMEBOL qualifying with Uruguay.

If basing it solely off star power, Uruguay and Egypt would be the favorites to advance from Group A. But with Salah not fully fit and Russia having home field advantage, the Russians are actually priced as second favorites to win the group.

Online sportsbooks are clearly putting a lot of weight in Russia being the host, as they are ranked 66th in the world, which is only one place above Saudi Arabia.

No one is expecting much from the Saudis. This means the most important match in Group A could come in the second round of the Group Stage on June 19th. Here, the match between Russia and Egypt will likely decide who finishes second in Group A. And Egypt will need a big contribution from Mohamed Salah to get the win.

Head-to-Head Stats

Saurez Cavani Salah
Caps: 97 Caps: 100 Caps: 57
La Liga goals: 25 Ligue 1 goals: 28 EPL Goals: 32
Qualifying goals: 5 Qualifying goals: 10 Goals from all competitions: 44

Group B

Cristiano Ronaldo vs Sergio Ramos

Cristiano Ronaldo and Sergio Ramos.
Cristiano Ronaldo and Sergio Ramos. Photos by Кирилл Венедиктов and Ruben Ortega (Wikimedia Commons) [CC License].

Two countries ranked inside the FIFA Top 10 Word Rankings headline Group B with Portugal (4th) and Spain (8th). The Portuguese will be lead by superstar striker Cristiano Ronaldo, who is fresh off a third consecutive Champions League title.

In Champions League play, he scored a tournament-high 15 goals throughout the competition. Though he started the La Liga season off slow with Real Madrid, he still finished with 26 goals in 27 games. Ronaldo always shows up in the big games and at 33 years old, this will likely be his last serious shot at leading Portugal to their first World Cup.

Portugal’s opportunistic style of play led them all the way to becoming European Champions in 2016. From there, they rode that momentum to a first place finish in Group B of their European qualifier group. They scored 32 goals while only allowing four, good for fourth-best among all European nations during qualification.

Portugal scored 32 goals while only allowing four, good for a plus-28 goal differential. This was fourth-best amongst all European nations during qualification.

Their biggest challenge in this Group will come early on in their first match against group favorites Spain. Spain also topped their qualifier group going undefeated in ten games at 9-1-0 with a plus-33 goal differential. The Spaniards suffered a similar fate to Portugal, failing to progress out of the group stages in World Cup 2014. However they have been on a roll over the past two years having not lost a single match in any competition since falling 2-0 to Italy in the Euros back in June 2016.

Tasked with shutting down Ronaldo, will be his Real Madrid teammate, defender Sergio Ramos. The captain of Spain, Ramos will play centrally or as a right back and is known for his fiery competitiveness. Always a threat to lose his cool and be carded, Ramos also brings strong leadership and experience as Spain’s most capped player on the squad. Ramos is also a skilled passer, ranking 14th in La Liga this year in passes.

Head-to-Head Stats

Ronaldo Ramos
Caps: 149 Caps: 151
La Liga goals: 26 14th in passes in La Liga
Ballon d’Or awards: 5 La Liga goals: 4

Group C

Antoine Griezmann vs Christian Eriksen vs Paolo Guerrero

Antoine Griezmann, Christian Eriksen, and Paolo Guerrero.
Antoine Griezmann, Christian Eriksen, and Paolo Guerrero. Photos by Biser Todorov, Дмитрий Голубович, and Agencia de Noticias ANDES (Wikimedia Commons) [CC License].

It would be hard to make an argument for anyone other than France finishing atop Group C. The French have one of the most talented rosters and could arguably make up a very competitive squad just from the players who didn’t make the cut. Of the seven strikers selected for their roster, they have a combined 123 goals across all competitions last year.

Atletico Madrid’s Griezmann has 30 of those goals and led France through qualifying with four in ten games. Griezmann was the key man for France during the 2016 Euros as he claimed the Golden Boot honor.

The Danes will come and go as Tottenham’s Christian Eriksen does. With 11 goals in 12 during qualifiers he will need to be his best for Denmark to have a chance at progressing. Outside of Poland’s Robert Lewandowski and Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo, Eriksen was the joint third highest scorer in all of Europe in qualification. With Tottenham, Eriksen was always dangerous, recording ten goals and ten assists in the English Premier League.

Denmark reached the tournament via a second-place finish in Group E of UEFA qualifying with a 6-2-2 record. They then advanced past the Republic of Ireland in a two-legged playoff to qualify.

Though big underdogs to win this group, Peru present an intriguing possible upset team. Peru are making their first appearance in the World Cup since 1982 and have not lost a game since the end of 2016. With a fifth place runner-up finish in CONMEBOL, Peru advanced to the tournament via an intercontinental playoff victory over New Zealand of the Oceania conference. There were plenty of goals in Peru’s games during qualification as they averaged 2.94 goals/game.

Peru are making their first appearance in the World Cup since 1982 and have not lost a game since the end of 2016.

Peru are captained by their all-time scorer Paolo Guerrero who was originally going to be held out of the competition due to testing positive for a banned substance. The ban was recently lifted, meaning the Peruvians will have their leading goal scorer through qualifying in the lineup when Peru take on Denmark on June 16th.

Head-to-Head Stats

Griezmann Eriksen Guerrero
Caps: 53 Caps: 77 Caps: 87
La Liga goals: 19 EPL goals: 10 Brazil Serie A goals: 5
2016 Euros Golden Boot winner Qualifying goals: 11 Qualifying goals: 5

Group D

Lionel Messi vs Luka Modrić

Lionel Messi and Luka Modrić.
Lionel Messi and Luka Modrić. Photos by Дмитрий Садовников and Fanny Schertzer (Wikimedia Commons) [CC License].

A World Cup without the great Lionel Messi was very nearly a reality. Argentina needed the last game of qualifying to secure their place. In that game Messi netted a hat-trick in a 3-1 win over Ecuador to finish third in CONMEBOL. During this year’s La Liga campaign he totalled 34 goals which was tops overall.

As runners-up in the 2014 World Cup to Germany, and with a roster loaded with stars such as Messi (Barcelona), Sergio Aguero and Nicolás Otamendi (Man City), Ángel Di Maria (PSG), and Paula Dybala and Gonzalo Higuain (Juventus), they certainly don’t lack the talent to make it back to the final. But will they put it all together? Argentina has too much talent not to advance from the group and Messi can take over any game. However their 7-7-4 record, while only scoring 19 goals through qualifying leaves much to be desired.

Midfielder Luka Modrić anchors what is the strongest unit of the Croatian squad. Modrić wears the captain’s band and has featured 105 times for the national team. The Croatian midfield with Modrić, Ivan Perisic and Ivan Rakitic can control games and set up chances for target man Mario Mandzukic. Modrić is also fresh off a Champions League title with Real Madrid. Rakitic was all over the field for Barcelona this season ranking fifth in La Liga in total touches and first in total passes.

Croatia finished second in their qualifying group with 20 points. From there they progressed via a playoff with Greece to claim their World Cup place.

In terms of upsets, while Iceland is priced at much longer odds to win this group compared to Croatia, they actually competed in the same group as Croatia during qualifying and finished first with direct qualification.

For Iceland, this is the nation’s first ever World Cup appearacne. With a population of only 330,000, they are officially the smallest country to ever do so.

These two nations each had reasonable success in the 2016 Euros, with Iceland going out in the Quarter-Finals and Croatia in the Round of 16. For Iceland, this is the nation’s first ever World Cup appearance. With a population of only 330,000, they are officially the smallest country to ever do so.

Head-to-Head Stats

Messi Modrić
Caps: 124 Caps: 105
La Liga goals: 34 La Liga assists: 6
Ballon d’Or awards: 5 Pass success % in both La Liga /Champions League: 89.9

Group E

Neymar vs Gabriel Jesus vs Roberto Firmino

Neymar, Gabriel Jesus, and Roberto Firmino.
Neymar, Gabriel Jesus, and Roberto Firmino. Photos by Antoine Dellenbach, Roberto Sabino, and Дмитрий Садовников (Wikimedia Commons) [CC License].

All Brazilians? Yes. The Seleção have too many stars to list who are all playing on some of the top teams across the world. Neymar leads the list as the biggest name and captain of the squad, though his maturity is often called into question to lead a team. He totalled six goals for Brazil during qualifying which was one less than the seven scored by Jesus. We’re listing Firmino here as well based off his 15 goals with Liverpool this season, but nine of his Brazilian teammates had more goals than him during qualifying.

Their midfield is stacked with the likes of Paulinho, Philippe Coutinho, Casemiro and Fernandinho, while also boasting an experienced defense headlined by Real Madrid’s Marcelo. They will feel the loss of defender Dani Alves, a veteran of 107 international appearances who recently underwent knee surgery.

Brazil will feel the loss of defender Dani Alves, a veteran of 107 international appearances who recently underwent knee surgery.

The Brazilians are essentially listed as co-favorites with Germany to win the World Cup. They got off to a poor start losing their first game 2-0 in CONMEBOL qualifying against Chile way back in October 2015. But afterwards reeled off an undefeated 12-5-0 record with 41 goals for and only nine allowed.

There simply are not comparable stars throughout the rest of this grouping to what Brazil can offer. Some key players for each team’s chances could be Haris Seferović (four goals in qualifying) and Granit Xhaka (most passes completed in Europe through qualifying)—both for Switzerland. From Serbia, Aleksandar Mitrović (six goals in qualifying) and Bryan Ruiz of Costa Rica (three goals in qualifying) will also be key figures for their teams. Ruiz is a player with 109 caps and who is the Ticos’ most important and inspirational player.

Head-to-Head Stats

Neymar Jesus Firmino
Caps: 84 Caps: 16 Caps: 20
Ligue 1 goals: 19 EPL goals: 13 EPL goals: 15
Qualifying goals: 6 Qualifying goals: 7  Qualifying goals: 1

Group F

Timo Werner vs Javier Hernández

Timo Werner and Javier Hernández.
Timo Werner and Javier Hernández. Photos by Эдгар Брещанов and Ed Schipul (Wikimedia Commons) [CC License].

Making any argument for a team other than Germany to top this group would be tough. The defending World Cup Champions and world number ranked team cruised through qualifying, going 10-0-0 with 43 goals for and only four allowed. Their closest competition is Mexico, but even with a mostly reserve lineup the Germans smashed Mexico 4-1 in their last match in the Confederations Cup.

The Germans have so many ways to hurt you and so many different players to turn to, but RB Leipzig’s Timo Werner could be one of the first choice attackers for coach Joachim Löw. Werner scored 13 times for Leipzig this year, while also adding seven more in Europa and Champions League play. Werner is the youngest player ever to appear in 100 Bunesliga matches, an accomplishment he reached before his 21st birthday.

But Werner is just the tip of the iceberg for Germany. Thomas Müller and Mario Gomez will also feature in attack. They’ll play in front of a spectacular midfield including Sami Khedira, Julian Draxler, Toni Kroos, Marco Reus and Mesut Özil to name a few. Their defense is experienced with Joshua Kimmich, Mats Hummels and Jérôme Boateng. Finally, even if first-choice selection Manuel Neuer is not fully recovered from injury to start between the sticks, Barcelona’s Marc-André ter Stegen is a more than capable backup.

Mexico only lost once and finished first in the final qualifying round in CONCACAF. El Tri have never come close to winning the World Cup, but are always competitive having progressed out of the Group Stage in each of the past six World Cups.

Major League Soccer fans will recognize LAFC’s Carlos Vela and the Dos Santos brothers from LA Galaxy, Giovanni and Jonathan on Mexico’s roster.

Major League Soccer fans will recognize LAFC’s Carlos Vela and the Dos Santos brothers from LA Galaxy: Giovanni and Jonathan. The nation’s top all-time top scorer Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez (West Ham), Hirving “Chucky” Lozano (PSV), Hector Herrera (Porto) and Captain Andres Guardado (Real Betis) give El Tri plenty of talent to work with.

Chicharito is a veteran of 101 caps and will be in his third World Cup with El Tri. He has scored in each previous tournament and will be hoping to continue the streak this year. Fans will recognize him from his time in Manchester United, Real Madrid, Bayern Leverkusen and most recently with West Ham United.

Head-to-Head Stats

Werner Hernandez
Caps: 13 Caps: 101
Bundesliga goals: 13 All-time international goals: 49
Bundesliga assists: 7 EPL goals: 8

Group G

Kevin De Bruyne vs Harry Kane

Kevin De Bruyne and Harry Kane.
Kevin De Bruyne and Harry Kane. Photos by Erik Drost and Catherine Kortsmik (Wikimedia Commons) [CC License].

No other Group features such a gulf in class between the top two teams and the bottom two teams than Group G.

Belgium completely steamrolled their competition through qualifying posting a 9-1-0 record with 43 goals for and only six allowed. Of those 43, Romelu Lukaku topped the charts with 11. Lukaku is one of many attacking threats for The Red Devils. One of their most influential players though will be Manchester City star midfielder Kevin De Bruyne. De Bruyne is adept at free kicks and setting up his teammates. His 16 assists (league high) in the Premier League this year were key to City’s EPL championship title.

De Bruyne is adept at free kicks and setting up his teammates. His his 16 assists (league high) in the Premier League this year were key to City’s EPL championship title.

England’s Harry Kane is very familiar with competing against De Bruyne as the main striker with Tottenham. Kane just narrowly missed out on top overall scoring honors in the EPL this year. He came up two goals shy of Salah’s 32 in the race for the Golden Boot. Still, 30 goals was a new career-high for Kane and he’ll always be a threat to score in this tournament.

The captain of The Three Lions, Kane scored five of England’s 18 goals in qualifying. Kane should continue to be productive and will benefit from playing with Spurs teammate Deli Alli. Though England often underwhelms in major tournaments there is no reason they should not easily progress out of this group. During qualifying they went undefeated with a 8-2-0 record with 18 goals scored and only three conceded.

Head-to-Head Stats

Kane De Bruyne
Caps: 24 Caps: 57
Total international goals: 13 EPl goals: 8
EPL goals: 30 EPL assists: 16

Group H

James Rodriguez vs Robert Lewandowski vs Sadio Mané

James Rodriguez, Robert Lewandowski, and Sadio Mané.
James Rodriguez, Robert Lewandowski, and Sadio Mané. Photos by Copa2014.gov.br, Rufus46, and Дмитрий Садовников (Wikimedia Commons) [CC License].

James Rodriguez broke onto the world scene during the 2014 World Cup for Colombia. He leads the attack for Los Cafeteros and was their leading scorer throughout qualifying with six goals. Monaco’s Radamel Falcao will also be key to their attack with 18 Ligue 1 goals this year.

Colombia reached the tournament via a fourth-place finish in CONMEBOL. However, they limped towards the finish line going 0-3-1 for three points over their last four qualifiers. Colombia also struggled versus some of their tougher competitors. They failed to register a win against any of Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, or Chile.

Of Poland’s 28 goals through qualifying, Lewandowski had 16 of them.

The Poles did not participate in World Cup 2014. However they made it to the Quarter-Finals in the 2016 Euros where they fell on penalties to Portugal. Robert Lewandowski of Bayern Munich is the most accomplished striker in this Group and will be key to Poland’s success. Of Poland’s 28 goals through qualifying, Lewandowski had 16 of them. Poland’s games could have a chance of being high scoring. They scored the fifth-most amongst European nations in qualifying, but actually allowed the most (14) of any team that qualified in Europe.

“Lewy” will be Poland’s Captain and is the nation’s leading all-time scorer. Those 16 qualifying goals were also a new all-time high recorded during a European World Cup qualifying campaign.

Mané will garner much of the attention in Senegal after a ten-goal campaign with Liverpool this year. He also added another ten during Champions League play. Senegal will be making their first World Cup appearance since 2002. Throughout qualifying they were impressive during the last round, going 4-2-0 with ten goals for, and only three allowed.

Head-to-Head Stats

Rodriguez Lewandowski Mané
Caps: 63 Caps: 93 Caps: 51
2014 World Cup Golden Ball winner Total international goals: 52 EPL goals: 10
Qualifying goals: 6 Qualifying goals: 16 Champions League goals: 10


*All domestic and Champions League stats from most recent season.

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Ryan is SBD's resident soccer pro, though his repertoire is by no means limited to a single sport. His articles have been published by the Canadian Hockey League (CHL), Ontario Hockey League (OHL), and the Kitchener Rangers, and outlets like SportsXpress and Shredthespread.com