On December 1st, we bore witness to the unveiling of Diego Maradona’s pristine gold bowtie that would put Matt Smith to shame. Oh yes, sorry, completely forgot that we had a World Cup draw. Back on topic. As we watched legends from Carles Puyol to Gary Lineker (!) continue the time-honoured tradition of struggling to open miniature plastic soccer balls, the 2018 World Cup in Russia is finally set in stone. At first glance, each group is surprisingly well-balanced with no clear-cut Group of Death, though there are plenty close to Near-Resuscitation. Brazil may consider themselves lucky that they avoided red card aficionado Sergio Ramos while Portugal is tasked with dealing with the effervescent Atlas Lions and defensively-strong Iran. Let’s take a closer look at those who should consider themselves lucky, who may struggle, and which Arsenal players can rise to the peak of the Ural Mountains.
The 2018 “Hello Knockout Stages” Team: Uruguay
Uruguay (21) should start to punch their ticket into the knockout stages and who would blame them. When you are paired with the two lowest ranked teams in this iteration of the World Cup – Russia (65) and Saudi Arabia (63) – the group stages should be smooth sailing. They hold the most exciting attacking duo in the group with Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani and bolster an experienced defensive line headed by Diego Godin. Midfield has been a sore spot for La Celeste since the 2014 World Cup with players like Edgar Arevalo Rios a fitting sign of their malaise. Such concerns should be easily mitigated with the emergence of Matias Vecino, who splits duties in one of the best midfields in Serie A for Internazionale Milan, and Juventus youngster Rodrigo Bentancur. Giorgian De Arrascaeta, the star of the 2014 Copa Libertadores, should give Oscar Tabarez plenty of room to experiment with his turn-of-pace and strong passing vision can give their attackers more room to exploit anxious defences. With only Egypt (31) as the other strong team in Group A, Uruguay should have no problems topping the group.
The 2018 “Why Me?” Team: Argentina
If this was the 1930 World Cup, Argentina (4) would be considered favourites as they bolster an attacking force with at least six world-class talents. Since the midfield and defence matters in today’s game, however, they should be worried. Ever Banega hasn’t discovered any discernible form for Sevilla and milk-carton candidate Matias Kranevitter has struggled since he left River Plate in 2015. That they are still reliant on 33-year-old Javier Mascherano to form a duo with Otamendi does not emit success, especially when they’ll face high-flying Nigeria (50) and a Croatian (17) side bolstered by the emergent Ivan Perisic. Some of these concerns can be mitigated if Jorge Sampaoli is bold and gives Leandro Paredes and Emanuel Mammana, who have been impressive for Russian giants Zenit St. Petersburg, spots in the first 11. To reach the depths of this World Cup, though, Argentina will need to find goals outside of Messi’s brilliance. During CONMEBOL qualifications, Messi nearly scored the same amount of goals (7) that the rest of team did (8) in the same amount of games. They will need Dybala (who still hasn’t scored an international goal), living goal-machine Mauro Icardi, Sergio Aguero, and Gonzalo Higuain to find their international form if they want to reach the finals again.
Arsenal Player to Shine: Alex Iwobi
While Ozil and Giroud are the sensible picks, there is something to the way Gernot Rohr has utilised Alex Iwobi that suggests this could be a breakout World Cup in the same way 2014 was for James Rodriguez. The German manager has infused the Super Eagles with youth and Iwobi has been one of the benefactors. Alongside Victor Moses as the two attacking wingers in a 4-3-3, Iwobi scored two goals in CAF qualification including the crucial winner against Zambia that sent Nigeria to the World Cup. Both Wenger and Rohr sense the quality within the 21-year-old. His ability to transition the midfield into attack alongside his technical assurance and speed-of-play has made him a strong candidate to start. His lack of end product can be worrying and Nigeria will surely need goals from him as Kelechi Iheanacho has barely registered for Leicester City. Playing with an experienced figurehead like John Obi Mikel should help as well as knowing midfield terriers Wilfred Ndidi and Ogenyi Onazi provide a solid defensive base behind him. If his two goals in a November 14th friendly against Argentina mean anything, then we should expect a good World Cup campaign from the Arsenal forward.
Arsenal Player to Struggle: David Ospina
With rumors swirling around the Columbian goalkeeper as to whether he would make a summer move, few fans begrudged his thinking. Struggling to unseat Petr Cech as Arsenal’s no. 1 goalkeeper, Ospina made only 14 appearances during the entirety of Arsenal’s 2016-2017 campaign. A nagging groin problem kept him on the sidelines for several weeks where he lost precious minutes to Matt Macey. Even in the matches he started, he has hardly look assured with a howler against 1. FC Koln the most notable. He’s going to need every minute of game time possible if he wishes to survive Columbia’s (13) difficult Group H. Poland’s (7) attacking force of Robert Lewandowski and Arkadiusz Milik won’t be considerate of him. Neither will Senegal (23), who wields a fluid attacking trio of Sadio Mane, M’baye Niang, and Keita Balde. Even Japan (55) can be dangerous as Vahid Halilhodzic has set them up to be a counterattacking force with Yuya Osako and Arsenal’s own Takuma Asano up top. With the diversity of attack in front of him, expect Ospina to have some hairy moments.
Most Likely Arsenal Player(s) to Win the World Cup: Mesut Ozil/Shkodran Mustafi
The 2014 World Cup winners breezed through UEFA qualification, scoring 43 goals and only conceding 4. While France (9) and Brazil (2) are trendy contenders to knock Germany (1) off the perch as world’s best, it’s hard to not treat them as strong favourites to repeat. While Mustafi isn’t a guaranteed starter in the back line, Ozil is the creative heartbeat in Germany’s attack. Knowing that he has a solid defense behind him, Ozil is given more creative freedom to find pockets of space and act as a multi-dimensional option in attack. Joachim Low has gone so far as to experiment playing Ozil deeper in their free-flowing 4-2-3-1, though expect him to play further forward as a no. 10 with Toni Kroos and Sami Khedira preferred as the midfield duo. Don’t pencil him in as an automatic starter though. WIth Low’s penchant to rotate his squad and with Germany’s unrivalled depth in every position, Ozil will no doubt see limited playing time in the group stages with his opportunities to rise in the knockout round. If we don’t see Germany playing deep into July, it would be considered a colossal failure.