Sergi Roberto may have been the name that were on Cules’ lips when the World Cup rosters were released due to his omission from the Spain squad, but Spain is still stock full of FC Barcelona jugadores. Lucas Digne met the same fate with France. Meanwhile, Andre Gomes and Nelson Semedo were left off Portugal’s roster, denying Nelsoninho his first major tournament for at least another two years. Yet, the majority of Blaugrana first team players will be suiting up for their countries to keep an eye on.
All dates are based on EST.
Spain – Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets, Jordi Alba, *Andres Iniesta
While Vissel Kobe’s most famous player no longer plays for Barcelona, Cules will certainly be rooting for Don Andres in his last World Cup. This may be the last hooray for Gerard Pique in a major tournament as well, for entirely different reasons of course, but the good news is that all four are starters for Julen Lopetegui and will get plenty of burn. The contest against Portugal on the second day of the tournament is the first highly anticipated match-up, and since it pits the most recent European Trophy winner against a team with a core that has won two World Cups and an Euro themselves, it may just be the highest profile match of the group stage.
Group Stage Matches: June 15 v. Portugal, June 20 v. Iran, June 25 v. Morocco
Argentina – Lionel Messi, *Javier Mascherano
Spain may have the most Barcelona players, but Argentina is the team that Cules seem to have a soft spot for this time around. Messi’s trophy cabinet is full to the brim with club trophies, but the major international prize still eludes him. It’s no secret that La Albiceleste doesn’t have the same depth of talent that the tournament favorites have, but they do have Messi. If Jorge Sampaoli can figure out how to make it all mesh in time and get enough out of his goalkeeping after the loss of Sergio Romero, not to mention Manuel Lanzini in the midfield, Messi may have a chance to put an exclamation point on a near-perfect career.
Group Stage Matches: June 16 v. Iceland, June 21 v. Croatia, June 26 v. Nigeria
Brazil – Philippe Coutinho, Paulinho
A favorite to win due to a world-renowned playing style and a depth in world-class talent that their South American neighbors to the south just can’t boast. Paulinho and Coutinho are both likely starters for the Seleção, particularly since Brazil turned around their World Cup qualifying campaign under Tite. A date with Switzerland in their first match should be the most difficult of the group stage. Cules may be divided on their rooting interest in Brazil due to PSG’s Neymar patrolling the left wing, but as has been the case since he made his debut, the men in yellow go as their number ten goes.
Group Stage Matches: June 17 v. Switzerland, June 22 v. Costa Rica, June 27 v. Serbia
France – Ousmane Dembele, Samuel Umtiti
Group Stage Matches: June 16 v. Australia, June 21 v. Peru, June 26 v. Denmark
France’s inconsistent form at recent tournaments puts this squad narrowly behind some others as tournament favorites, but there may not be another team in the competition that can boast 23 more individually talented players than Les Blues. Having found scintillating form in the tune-up friendlies, Dembele should see time in all three group games, albeit off the bench if Didier Deschamps chooses to play Antoine Griezmann on the left wing and Olivier Giroud as the lone forward with Kylian Mbappe on the right. Meanwhile, Samuel Umtiti is the unquestioned centre-back on the left, pairing with Raphael Varane. For all of France’s attacking weapons, it may actually be the defense that can take them deep in the competition.
Germany – Marc-Andre ter Stegen
One of the biggest storylines heading into the World Cup involves Marc-Andre ter Stegen, or more specifically, the health of Manuel Neuer and Joachim Low’s insistence on starting him if he was deemed able to go to Russia. It appears that this is indeed the case, and ter Stegen has acknowledged his disappointment with not starting while stating his support of teammate Neuer. That said, the strength of the German national team could mean that the group is wrapped up in time for the final group stage match against South Korea, so Barcelona’s keeper should get at least one game in net at the tournament if Neuer is healthy enough for the rest of the World Cup.
Group Stage Matches: June 17 v. Mexico, June 23 v. Sweden, June 27 v. South Korea
Uruguay – Luis Suarez
Lionel Messi’s dear friend has a certain reputation at club level that can be generalized as a nuisance, but his reputation in international competition is nothing short of hot-blooded villain. His incident with Giorgio Chiellini and goalkeeping skills against Ghana may make referees quick on the trigger to curb any dissent. Nevertheless, if Suarez is able to keep his wits about him, he will join the most talented Uruguay squad he’s ever had at a major tournament and coupled with an objectively weak group, he could have a big showing in Russia.
Group Stage Matches: June 15 v. Egypt, June 20 v. Saudi Arabia, June 25 v. Russia
Croatia – Ivan Rakitic
Luka Modric is the name that pundits the world over mention first for Croatia due to his role as the number ten, but just as he does for Barcelona, Rakitic’s hard work and support are a major piece of what make Croatia dangerous and difficult to play against for the full 90 minutes. Unlike Luis Suarez in Group A, Group D could be the most wide-open of the bunch and it may not come as a surprise if Croatia finishes first or last.
Group Stage Matches: June 16 v. Nigeria, June 21 v. Argentina, June 26 v. Iceland
Colombia – Yerry Mina
While he may not be heading into the competition in sparkling form after a tough few months trying to integrate himself into the first team, Yerry Mina is the undisputed starter for Colombia alongside Tottenham’s Davinson Sanchez. The duo may be the most athletic and one of the youngest center pairings at the competition and Mina’s three goals in ten appearances for Los Cafeteros are a good indication of his willingness to get forward on set pieces. A good tournament could factor in whether or not Ernesto Valverde gives him an honest opportunity to win a place with the first team for next season.
Group Stage Matches: June 19 v. Japan, June 24 v. Poland, June 28 v. Senegal
Belgium – Thomas Vermaelen
When healthy, the 32-year-old did have decent form for Barcelona this season, and he has proven to showcase similar fine form for Belgium. Unfortunately both he and longtime partner Vincent Kompany are currently dealing with injuries. If one or both are able to recover, it is a big question mark if Roberto Martinez will trust them in place of Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld or Laurent Ciman. Fortunately for the injured veterans, the most important game of their group stage should be England, and games against Panama and Tunisia could be the perfect opportunity for Martinez to give Vermaelen his spot back.
Group Stage Matches: June 18 v. Panama, June 23 v. Tunisia, June 28 v. England
The World Cup kicks off on June 14 with Russia against Saudi Arabia.