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It's that time again. The people who regularly dampen your soccer-watching experience with such profound questions as "why are there so many leagues?" and "why are they called Chelsea if they play in London?" and "why does Luis Suárez keep biting everyone?" now declare a love for, and deep knowledge of, the beautiful game. They stick those adorable miniature flags on their cars and gather at the local watering hole to cheer wildly for their favourite teams.

To help you prepare for a month of Lionel Messi hot takes and awkward yet fairly convincing Russian propaganda, our crack team of soccer experts have predicted the outcome for group stage play at the 2018 FIFA World Cup for your reading enjoyment.

Group A

With a striking pair of Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani, the Uruguayans are hell-bent on dominating an otherwise lackluster group. The host Russians are one of the lowest ranked teams in the tournament but should be helped by a buoyant homefield advantage and, presumably, inspiring Vlad Putin speeches in the dressing room before matches. The Saudis are led by Mohammed Al-Sahlawi, who netted 16 goals in qualifying. 

The only real question mark in Group A is the health of Mo Salah. If it wasn't for supervillain He Who Shall Not Be Named (Sergio Ramos), the "Egyptian King" would be heading into Russia with full health. But with uncertainty surrounding the condition of Salah's shoulder, Egypt could be hardpressed to escape the group stage for the first time in history.

1. Uruguay

2. Egypt

3. Russia

4. Saudi Arabia

Group B

The obvious two will move on here, despite question marks surrounding both teams. Spain sacked manager Julen Lopetegui two days before the start of the tournament, while Portugal has been unable to match their Euro success at the World Cup. However, Iran and Morocco provide little resistance to the two old-guard European powers. Look for an iconic Cristiano Ronaldo bicycle kick to be the highlight of Group B.

1. Spain

2. Portugal

3. Morocco

4. Iran

Group C

With three of the top 12 teams in the world set to battle for two berths in the knockout round, the footy is set to be delightful in this group. While the Socceroos from Down Under lack the world-class quality to escape the group stage, France, Denmark and Peru all boast the credentials to make noise in the tournament. Antoine Griezmann, Paul Pogba, Kylian Mbappe and co. make France one of the preeminent World Cup contenders. While Peruvian captain Paolo Guerrero has been cleared of a drug ban and brings with him two Copa America golden boots and 34 national team goals into the tournament, it will be Spurs star midfielder Christian Eriksen and the Danes who will move on to the knockout stage.

1. France

2. Denmark

3. Peru

4. Australia

Group D

The two best kits in the tournament, plus the man who has everything to prove in his "last hoorah," will make for an exciting Group D. Nigeria might not win the tournament, but they'll take home the title of "Most Stylish," while Luka Modrić and the iconic checkered shirt headline the Croatian national team. And then there's Messi, one of greatest players of all time looking to exorcise his World Cup demons. The Albiceleste should snag first place in the group, while the Super Eagles of Nigeria inch past Croatia.

1. Argentina

2. Nigeria

3. Croatia

4. Iceland

Group E

Five-time World Cup champion Brazil will leave the rest of the group in the dust. The Swiss are the highest ranked of the group's also-rans, while the Serbs bring a young and exciting team to Russia in the mould of those 80s and 90s Yugoslavian teams. But it will be impossible to rule out the nimble Costa Ricans, who made a miracle run to the quarterfinals in 2014. The difference-maker will be Aleksandar Mitrović, the 23-year old Serbian striker who scored 12 goals in 17 appearances for Fulham this season.

1. Brazil

2. Serbia

3. Switzerland

4. Costa Rica

Group F

This group will see a dogfight for second place between the Zlatan-less Swedes and the ever-talented yet always-underachieving Mexicans. The Germans, looking to defend their 2014 World Cup title, are safe bets to claim first place, while the South Koreans lack the class on defence to escape the group. While Sweden proved their worth in a playoff qualifier win over Italy, their inexperience could be detrimental. Look for Rafael Marquez and Javier Hernandez to lead El Tri to the knockout stage.

1. Germany

2. Mexico

3. Sweden

4. South Korea

Group G

Group G boasts two of the most underachieving national sides in recent memory. Big egos and tabloid controversy often seem to be the downfall of an always-talented England team, while the Belgians have yet to take advantage of their golden generation. International minnows Tunisia and Panama will attempt to play spoilers. Harry Kane needs to galvanize teammates Raheem Sterling and Deli Alli for England to score enough to escape the group. And while Belgium has as much star power as anyone in the tournament, Romelu Lukaku will need to be firing on all cylinders if the Belgians hope to reach their potential.

1. Belgium

2. England

3. Tunisia

4. Panama

Group H

This group is remarkably balanced, with all four sides making a solid case to move out of the group stage into the knockout round. Colombia should be the betting favourite, with 2014 Golden Boot winner James Rodriguez and Falcao headlining a strong squad. Poland is the group's dark horse, as their inexperience could outweigh the star power that Robert Lewandowski brings to the table. Senegal boasts Liverpool standout Sadio Mane on the wing, while Mbaye Niang and Keita Balde Diao offer young, intriguing options up front. Japan is as experienced as any side in the tournament. Predict this group at your own peril.

1. Colombia

2. Poland

3. Senegal

4. Japan


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