With the World Cup set to begin, Star Tribune soccer experts Megan Ryan and Jon Marthaler weighed in with their predictions:
Player to watch
Ryan: My player(s) to watch have to be the big names: Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Neymar. The top-three players in the world have a lot riding on this World Cup. For Ronaldo and Messi, both in their 30s, this could be their final chance at the pinnacle of their sport. Ronaldo’s Portugal is coming off a 2016 European Championship title, while Messi still remembers Argentina losing the 2014 World Cup to Germany. Neymar also probably would like to do away with Brazil’s 7-1 drubbing by Germany in the semifinals of that tournament, which he missed because of a back injury.
Marthaler: Hirving Lozano, Mexico. El Tri has no shortage of attacking options, but Lozano might be the most talented of them all. The 22-year-old is fresh off scoring 17 goals in 29 games for Dutch champions PSV. Mexico will have to fight to get out of its group, which has Germany, Sweden, and South Korea; Lozano’s offensive efforts will be the key.
Dark horse contender
Ryan: Iceland. The smallest country to qualify for a World Cup with a population smaller than Minneapolis, Iceland is coming off an unexpected and thrilling run to the quarterfinals in the 2016 Euro. Let’s be real, it’s still incredibly unlikely this team gets anywhere near the final, but the squad has a chance to make it out of the group stage alongside Argentina. And with several popular teams not qualifying for this World Cup — looking at you, Italy, the Netherlands and the U.S. — Iceland would be a delightful underdog to support.
Marthaler: Uruguay has replaced its midfield, formerly consisting of hockey enforcers, with actual talent. The country has the easiest group in the tournament and is likely to make the quarterfinals. If forward Luis Suarez can stay calm for the entire tourney (reminder: last time, he was suspended for biting a defender), then Uruguay has a chance.
Who will win it all?
Ryan: There are a ton of talented squads, but it’s between France, Spain and Germany for me. I think it’s Germany’s to lose. The Germans could become just the third team to repeat a title while also tying Brazil for the most trophies at five.
Marthaler: France is always an extremely unsafe pick, given that at any moment half the team might get in a fight with the other half, leading to another group-stage exit. That said, the team is insanely talented, and how many times can you pick Germany or Brazil or Spain before you die of boredom? I say France beats Germany 2-1 in the final.