Lionel Messi’s quest to deliver World Cup glory for Argentina could pit the two-time champions against a handful of familiar faces in a potential quarter-final showdown with Spain.
But neither 2010 World Cup winners Spain, who finished above Italy in qualifying, nor Argentina, indebted to a Messi hat-trick in the thin air of Quito as they scraped through the South American section, will have it easy in the group stage in Russia.
Consigned to pot two for Friday’s draw, Spain must overcome Cristiano Ronaldo and European champions Portugal, their opening opponents in Sochi on June 15, in order to top Group B.
Uruguay’s delight at finding themselves in a seemingly soft Group A might have been tempered by the realisation that if they do repeat their feats of the last two World Cups and advance to the knockout rounds they will, in all probability face either Spain or Portugal.
The two Iberian powers, for their part, will know that the prize for winning their group will be a second-round game against the runners-up in Group A, which, barring a Uruguayan slip, will be Egypt, Saudi Arabia or hosts Russia, the lowest-ranked team in the competition.
Messi and 2014 finalists Argentina were placed alongside a Croatia featuring Barcelona team-mate Ivan Rakitic and Real Madrid’s Luka Modric, with Nigeria and debutants Iceland rounding out a competitive Group D.
Argentina, who play Nigeria in their last match after Group C has finished, might have the luxury of choosing whether they prefer the first or second-place team from France’s quartet.
The options could include Peru, ranked 10th in the world, or No. 19 Denmark who, after a shaky start to qualifying, surged to the finals with an unbeaten run of nine matches ending in a five-goal mauling of Ireland.
– Costly slip-up? –
If Argentina progress as group winners as expected, and Spain edge Portugal to top spot, the two nations could collide in Sochi for a place in the semi-finals, with holders Germany then the most likely obstacle between the winner and the final.
Brazil’s path to a sixth World Cup title is unlikely to encounter much resistance from a group featuring Switzerland, Serbia and Costa Rica, but any misstep would probably set up a last-16 showdown with Germany.
Should Tite’s side win the group a meeting with Mexico or Sweden looks on the cards, and England or Belgium could then await them in the quarter-finals.
A repeat of their 2014 run to the last four, and the chance to move on from their humiliating 7-1 loss in Belo Horizonte, could leave Brazil facing France for a shot at glory.
Joachim Loew’s Germany will expect to top a section featuring Mexico, Sweden and South Korea, and would be heavy favourites in the knockout phase against the runners-up of Group E — assuming it is not Neymar’s Brazil.
A subsequent match-up with the winners from Group H, a pool including neighbours Poland and Colombia, or England or Belgium as the runners-up from Group G, would prove a taller hurdle, with Argentina, Spain or Portugal potential semi-final foes.
Irrespective of whether England advance from their pool, Gareth Southgate’s team will almost certainly come up against the might of Brazil or Germany if they get as far as the quarter-finals.