World Cup Crystal Ball: Russia 2018’s Dark Horse, Breakout Star, Golden Boot and More

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Within every World Cup are the tales of individual stars and standouts. The competition has long been a launching pad for young players on the rise, even if they’ve already begun to carve out names for themselves on the club level. Look no further than the 2014 edition, when James Rodriguez was the catalyst for Colombia’s run to the quarterfinals, wound up winning the golden boot and earned himself a lucrative move to Real Madrid.

The golden boot winner and breakout star are just two of the components of a World Cup that we look forward to seeing play out as another tournament approaches. Others include the inevitable dark horse run (Costa Rica, 2014, anyone?), the favorites that flop, the star left home who could’ve helped, how the host nation fares and which nation is left with the most painful exit of them all. Because while the winner is what is ultimately remembered about a World Cup, it’s far from the only lasting memory we’ll take starting on July 15 and onward.

For our actual match predictions and our picks to win it all, check out our expert bracket selections here. As for the more outside-the-box and detailed picks for how we see things unfolding over the course of a month in Russia, take a look below as SI’s Avi Creditor, Luis Miguel Echegaray, Brian Straus and Grant Wahl look into the crystal ball: 

Who will win the Golden Boot?

AVI CREDITOR: Isco. Neymar would be the chalk pick, because if Brazil is going to win it all, you’d think the PSG superstar would have plenty to do with it. But Spain will go on a deep run, too, and with an unconvincing set of strikers, the scoring onus will fall on the Real Madrid attacking midfield star.

LUIS MIGUEL ECHEGARAY: Gabriel Jesus. He led Brazil in scoring during qualifiers, and that was with a healthy Neymar. I already have Brazil winning the World Cup, and much of it has to do with the Seleção’s main No. 9.

BRIAN STRAUS: Antoine Griezmann. He won the award at Euro 2016, and whether he plays off Olivier Giroud or as the centerpiece of a dynamic front three, Griezmann is a composed, prolific finisher in good form. And France will be playing until the end, by which time we’ll all be sick of his Fortnite “Take the L” Pennywise dance.

GRANT WAHL: Thomas Muller, Germany. Where have we seen this before? Muller is just 28, yet he’s tied for No. 8 all time on the World Cup goals list with 10 in just two tournaments. I have Germany going out in the semifinals to Spain, but that will only give Muller a chance for more goals in the traditionally wide open third-place game.

Who will be this World Cup’s breakout star or a rising stud poised for a big club move?

CREDITOR: Goncalo Guedes. What if I told you Portugal would make a run to the quarterfinals, and the reason behind it wasn’t Cristiano Ronaldo? (As an aside, I’d argue Leon Goretzka has already broken out after last summer’s Confederations Cup and his forthcoming move to Bayern Munich. But the 22-year-old is one to watch in Russia, too.)

ECHEGARAY: Christian Cueva. As Peru celebrates the return of Paolo Guerrero and his presence up front, watch out for the man who will be providing most of the creativity going forward. The 26-year-old-midfielder is a marvelous dribbler who can embarrass defenders in the blink of an eye.

STRAUS: Germany’s been pretty good about finding a forward who sits comfortably below the Messi-Cristiano-Ballon d’Or tier while still lighting up a World Cup. There was Miroslav Klose, then Thomas Müller. This summer it’ll be RB Leipzig’s Timo Werner, a fast, mobile 22-year-old who can stretch a defense with or without the ball. He’ll make a global name for himself as Germany scores lots of goals and makes the final, after which he’ll be legally obligated to transfer to Bayern Munich.

WAHL: Hirving Lozano, Mexico. Chucky had a terrific first season in Europe with PSV Eindhoven, but he’ll take things to a new level in this tournament and make a major club move right afterward.

Which nation is a true dark horse threat to make a deep run?

CREDITOR: Portugal, despite its, shall we say, less-than-convincing run to the Euro 2016 title (it finished third in a group with Hungary, Austria and Iceland!), still isn’t respected like a top-tier squad. But it’s a European champion, so that rules out any true “dark horse” potential. So I’ll go with the other non-upper-echelon side I’ve got in the quarterfinals, Peru. The Guerrero galvanizing factor is real, La Blanquirroja haven’t lost in 14 matches leading into their final World Cup tune-up and they survived South America’s qualifying gauntlet. You think they’re going to be intimidated by any European powerhouse?

ECHEGARAY: Peru. Let’s answer some simple questions: Can it get out of the group? Check. Is it capable of beating teams from Group D (Argentina, Croatia, Iceland, Nigeria)? Check. Is Guerrero back? Check.

My other pick is Senegal. The African nation is already in a good spot, seeing as Group H is wide open, and Aliou Cissé’s squad is ridiculously talented from back to front. From Napoli’s center back Kalidou Koulibaly to Liverpool forward Sadio Mane, I believe this nation can win its group and reach the quarterfinals at least.

STRAUS: At December’s draw, Croatia was the lowest-ranked second-pot team. And they haven’t been talked about much since, thanks in part to some checkered history and politics, and in part to being grouped with this World Cup’s best player, best story and best uniform. But this a team anchored by top-class talent accustomed to success at the highest level, led by midfielders Luka Modrić (Real Madrid) and Ivan Rakitić (Barcelona). They’re good enough to top the group and then use a favorable second-round match-up as a springboard to the quarters.

WAHL: Uruguay is good enough to win the tournament. There’s a terrific mix of veterans (Luis Suárez, Edinson Cavani, Diego Godín) and emerging young midfielders (Matías Vecino, Rodrigo Bentancur, Nahitan Nández) that could really put it together in Russia.

Which favored nation will flop?

CREDITOR: France, if for no other reason than I have Argentina falling into Les Bleus’ path in the round of 16 and coming away with the win. France (as a young U.S. will surely find out Saturday) is clearly talented enough to win the whole thing. But often in single-elimination tournament play, it’s all about timing and matchups.

ECHEGARAY: Argentina. Lionel Messi is the greatest player who has ever lived, but there are worries throughout the squad that La Pulga can’t fix by himself, especially in Sampaoli’s high-press system. Also, have you seen their group? It’s not exactly a cakewalk.

STRAUS: Brazil. They’re emerging as just about everybody’s favorite, but that spotlight hasn’t been kind in the past. Tite has done a wonderful job closing the wound of Belo Horizonte. Brazil is sturdy and balanced, and it’s hard to imagine this team getting pulled apart so drastically this summer. But there are questions concerning depth and Brazil’s reliance on Neymar—who can be fragile or temperamental—and Gabriel Jesus, who’s 21 and relatively new to all this. If the tournament plays out as expected, an experienced and imposing Belgium side will be primed for a quarterfinal upset.

WAHL: Argentina. I don’t have the Albiceleste getting out of its tough group (Croatia, Iceland, Nigeria). Even if it does, it’s hard to imagine this team suddenly cranking on all cylinders after a plodding qualifying campaign in South America.

Who will be the most regretted roster snub?

CREDITOR: There are oh, so many to choose from. Leroy Sane’s was the most stunning, and Mauro Icardi’s is the most undeserving given his co-golden-boot-winning season in Serie A. But how about Alvaro Morata?

He had a season full of missed opportunities with Chelsea, which clearly was the reasoning in leaving him out. But his strike rate with the national team is quite impressive (13 goals in 23 caps); he has rapport with the Real Madrid contingent on the team given his upbringing at the club; and he’d offer another option so Spain isn’t reliant on the hit-or-miss, suspension-in-waiting Diego Costa and relatively untested (at the international level, anyway) Iago Aspas for finishing in the final third. It’s amazing what happens to some players when they put on the national team shirt after some down form at the club level. Spain might rue not finding out with Morata.

ECHEGARAY: Sane. Listen, Joachim Low is obviously a tactical genius, and this German team is a carefully designed machine, but the Premier League’s PFA Young Player of the Year would have given the 2014 champions a different kind of threat. Sane is not your typical winger. He has great vision (17 assists in all 2017/2018 competitions) and scores goals (14 goals). Low might regret this one.

STRAUS: Can I answer, “A second midfielder against Trinidad?” Does that count?

If not, then, it’s got to be Icardi. The Inter striker dominated Serie A penalty areas to the co-leading tune of 29 goals last season. Argentina has been there, done that with center forwards who don’t finish critical chances.

WAHL: Sane. He may not have a great record with the national team, but Sane brings special qualities as a speedy, skilled winger. Jogi Low will wish he had brought him to Russia.

How will host nation Russia fare?

CREDITOR: After one day, it’ll be the best team in the World Cup, with the most points and goals. Then, when the other 30 nations begin play, the dream will fade. FIFA’s draw did Russia a solid by serving up Saudi Arabia as an appetizer, but the following two courses will be revolting. Uruguay and Egypt will go through from Group A, while Russia will join South Africa as the only hosts to sit out the knockout stage.

ECHEGARAY: Not well at all. Russia is the second-lowest ranked team in the tournament field, and even worse, it has been cursed with key injuries, most notably to striker Aleksandr Kokorin. Tough matches against Uruguay, Egypt and even a physically imposing Saudi Arabia mean the hosts will be lucky to even get a point.

STRAUS: From the host’s perspective, if every stadium is still standing at the end, and if the hooligans confine their pitched battles to the woods, the World Cup will be a success. Hoping for the home team to do well may be asking for too much. It’s hard to see Russia escaping the tournament’s weakest group if Mo Salah is fit. In fact, it’s hard to watch Russia in general.

WAHL: I have Russia advancing from the group in second place and going out to Spain in the Round of 16. The Russians aren’t a particularly good team, but they drew one of the easiest groups possible (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Uruguay) and will have plenty of crowd support. I’d also like to suggest that Egypt will be the team most likely to be screwed by the refs in this tournament (to Russia’s benefit).

Who will have the most painful exit?

CREDITOR: England. To Germany. In penalties.

ECHEGARAY: Argentina. Once again, there is tremendous pressure for Sampaoli’s team to succeed, given the fact that it carries the burden of supporting arguably the greatest ever player to have ever lived, not to mention losing to Germany in 2014 (and to Chile in Copa America finals in each of the following two summers). And I think once again La Albiceleste miss out–this summer, perhaps, even earlier than expected. 

STRAUS: Argentina, because the final World Cup of Messi’s prime will end so early, and because the wasted opportunities and missed chances of tournaments past will converge and smother him as he leaves the stage a round-of-16 loser. That’s a tough narrative to swallow. No one wants to see Messi in tears, and Messi will wind up in tears. But at least he won’t lose another final.

WAHL: Brazil goes out to Mexico on penalties in the Round of 16 when Thiago Silva—who starts crying before the shootout—can’t see clearly in Round 9 and launches his spot kick into the stratosphere.

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