Exactly one year before the world feasts its eyes on Moscow for the opening kickoff of the Russia 2018 World Cup, we get a preview of what to expect in the former Soviet Union as the 2017 Confederations Cup kicks off on June 17th.
Lord knows Russia needs some good press after the political mess they’re involved in, hoping that their first showpiece tournament since the Sochi 2014 Olympic Games will present the best of the world’s largest country. But there are many uncertainties that need to be answered ahead of next year. Are the hosts good enough to do anything of note? How will the fans behave after concerns of hooliganism and racial abuse have long been raised? Can we trust Russia will host a corruption-free tournament? After all, they were awarded the World Cup under controversial circumstances to begin with.
We’ll leave the off-field questions for you to mull. In this preview, we look at five points of on-field intrigue that will offer more clarity about some of the teams competing, what their chances are of achieving greater things in 2018 should they get there, and the pick to win it. Let’s start with the hosts.
The Russians are coming! Or not…
Russian football is in limbo; make no mistake. In the 2000s, Russian clubs were seriously competing for and winning European trophies, churning out talents like Andrey Arshavin and Roman Pavlyuchenko who had varying levels of success in the English Premier League. The league has lost relevance in the last decade, and become a haven for wayward young talents and cash-chasing mercenaries.
Russia lost arguably its best player, Alan Dzagoev, to injury weeks before the tournament. In any case, his star has faded ever since impressing at Euro 2012. As has that of teammate, Igor Akinfeev, who’s gone from being linked to Arsenal and Manchester United once upon a time, to being an all-too-familiar feature on goalkeeping blooper reels. Add to that the country’s poor record in international tournaments, advancing past the group stage just once (Euro 2008) since its inception in 1992, and hope dwindles even further.
Relying on an all Russian cast containing five players from defending Russian Premier League champs, Spartak Moscow (who knew?), they will need as much home support as possible to overcome European champions, Portugal, and CONCACAF champions, Mexico, in their group. However, odds point to them becoming the first Confederations Cup hosts since South Korea in 2001 to be eliminated in the group stage.
Boys of Summer
The last two summers have been blissful for Chile as they won back-to-back Copa América titles, the first on home soil and the second in the United States, both times putting Argentina to the sword. While Alexis Sanchez faces a very uncertain club future, there is certainty that this man delivers for his country in major tournaments, deservedly winning player of the tournament at last year’s Copa América Centenario.
To secure a third title in as many years, Sanchez will need to continue replicating his current form in front of goal for a team that has been inconsistent under Juan Antonio Pizzi, as evidenced by a stop-start World Cup qualifying campaign. Possessing the right mix of attacking flair and steel in midfield though, Chile is capable of beating anyone. Facing a group featuring under-strength world champions, Germany, as well as Cameroon and Australia, not only is winning the group in play, the tournament is there for the taking.