Without countries like Italy, the Netherlands, Chile, Ivory Coast and the United States in the field of participants, the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia has the potential to be a strange one, and the group stage draw, held Friday at the Kremlin in Moscow, only confirmed that notion.
The field of 32 teams has been broken down into eight groups that will battle in the opening stage of the World Cup in June. But unlike most World Cup years, there isn't a clear "Group of Death" or "Group of Life." A new method of drawing groups provided more parity and assured that no group is too top-heavy. But that doesn't mean some groups don't appear to be markedly more difficult to traverse than the others.
With the draw completed, the final countdown to the 2018 FIFA World Cup has officially begun. Although we're still 195 days from kickoff in Russia, it's never too early to start previewing the action. Here's a look at each of the World Cup groups, ranked from easiest to most difficult.
8. Group A: Russia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Uruguay
Let the conspiracy theories begin. Russia hasn't made the knockout stage in its four World Cups since 1994. (The Soviet Union made the knockout stage in 1986.) Now that it has hosting duties, it just happens to draw the easiest group in the tournament.
Russia should be able to get out of the group, but it might not win it. Uruguay is always game for the World Cup and will be favored to come out of Group A on top. Egypt has a chance to make some noise if it's in top form, but on paper it's third. Saudi Arabia should just be happy to be there and celebrate if it gets a point or two.
7. Group G: Belgium, Panama, Tunisia, England
Belgium-England is a fantastic matchup. The problem is, by the time it's played on the final match day of the group stage, both the Red Devils and Three Lions should be well on their way to the knockout round. If they both beat Panama and Tunisia, as expected, they'll rest their best players against one another. But if either Tunisia or Panama can manage even a point against England or Belgium, the final match day game between Belgium and England will be huge.
6. Group C: France, Australia, Peru, Denmark
France will consider itself lucky after this draw. Considering their competition in Group C, Les Bleus already have one foot in the door of the knockout round, as they should be able to dispatch each of the other three teams. Australia is the weakest of the bunch here and should finish third or fourth. The tricky part is figuring out who finishes second, Peru or Denmark. Both are middling sides that have shown an ability to win in big spots by getting into the World Cup through playoffs
5. Group B: Portugal, Spain, Morocco, Iran
This summer will be a tense time on the Iberian Peninsula, as Spain and Portugal will meet in the first match of Group B. And as if that wasn't intriguing enough, their African neighbor to the south, Morocco, will also compete in Group B.
When Portugal and Spain were drawn as the top two teams in this group, it appeared destined to be the "Group of Death." But Morocco and Iran shouldn't provide much of a challenge for either of the Iberian giants, who should make it into the knockout round without much of a problem. But the Portugal-Spain opener will be pivotal. As long as the match doesn't end in a draw, one of the sides will be an upset away from not advancing. I don't know if Spain could take that again.
4. Group H: Poland, Senegal, Colombia, Japan
Group H -- the only group without a former World Cup champion -- might be the most balanced and up-for-grabs group in the tournament, but it doesn't have enough quality to make it the "Group of Death." Poland is really good and will be considered the favorite to advance to the next round. After that, who knows. None of the other three teams in the group are more or less talented than the others, so the determining factor will be who comes to Russia in better form than the others.
3. Group E: Brazil, Switzerland, Costa Rica, Serbia
Brazil is the heavy favorite here. It'll win the group and advance to the knockout round, so let's just get that out of the way. After that, things get more complicated. Serbia proved itself by winning its qualification group. Costa Rica will be overlooked, but don't forget the run the Ticos made to the quarterfinals in 2014. They'll be geared up for a repeat performance. Switzerland is the dark horse here. The Swiss don't have any quality that would make me favor them to advance, but they do have a tremendous collection of talent. Although I wouldn't predict it, I wouldn't be surprised to see Switzerland advance alongside Brazil.
2. Group F: Germany, Mexico, Sweden, South Korea
Group F is very interesting. Reigning World Cup champion Germany is not only the favorite to advance from Group F, it's the favorite to win the entire tournament. But behind Germany are three teams with the potential to advance, as well. Mexico just finished off one of its best World Cup qualifying runs ever with a team that looks lik3 the most talented in its history. There will never be a better time than now for El Tri to make a deep run. Sweden has found it's identity post-Zlatan Ibrahimovic and will be looking to prove it was always more than a one-man team. South Korea is one of the most consistently overlooked teams in the world. It's made every World Cup since 1986 and finished fourth in 2002. Germany is a given, and each other team has a solid chance to advance. That's about all you can ask for in a group.
1. Group D: Argentina, Iceland, Croatia, Nigeria
Finally, we reach our "Group of Death," which is not as tough as it has been in the past. Even so, Group F is packed with plenty of intrigue and uncertainty. There is no doubt Argentina is the favorite to advance from the first-place spot, but the Albiceleste have had their struggles over the past four years, dating back to the loss to Germany in the last World Cup final. Croatia and Nigeria are both immensely talented teams. Not only does each have the potential to advance to the knockout, each has the potential to beat Argentina. Regardless of who advances here, it'll be a fight until the end. And who can forget Iceland, which has proved to be more than a plucky underdog. Iceland proved at Euro 2016 and in World Cup qualification that it knows how to win. Considering the stacked slate of teams it must face, I don't fancy it to advance, but that doesn't mean it can't.
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Cy Brown writes about football, golf, soccer and other stuff for Sports on Earth. Follow him on Twitter @CEPBrown.