John Duggan's World Cup Diary
Day one of the World Cup is over and what a day it's been for Mother Russia. It couldn't really have gone better for the hosts, despite singer Robbie Williams' bizarre gesture at the Opening Ceremony in Moscow. Russia ended a 7 game barren spell by emphatically defeating Saudi Arabia 5-0 at the Luzhniki Stadium in Group A.
The opening game of the tournament saw substitute Denis Cheryshev score twice, the second a beautiful lob, as Alexsandr Golovin capped an impressive display by curling a free kick into the top corner at the very end. There was a carnival atmosphere around the stadium throughout the day, with many other nationalities taking the opportunity to attend the first of 64 games, before heading off and following their team. There were bands, there was colour, singing and fun. There was also an extraordinary police presence. The officers were friendly, but for those moments when one was checked through security or guided towards a certain area, they were assertive. I experienced this in Brazil reporting at the Olympics when there were military police on every corner. In ways and I may be wrong, Russia feels like the safest place on earth right now, as this international laser beam is shining a light and supporters are travelling from far flung shores such as Iceland, Australia, Peru and Tunisia to follow their heroes. In my view, from what I see in Russia, this is the 'we can show you that we can host it with the best of them' World Cup from a proud nation.
So Vladimir can smile and the Russian people can and should enjoy the moment, before Egypt and Mo Salah have to be taken care of if the last 16 is to be reached.
Most of the supporters are congregating around Red Square (below), with Argentina, Iceland, Germany and Mexico playing here by the weekend.
In terms of my outright predictions as to who will win the tournament, Argentina are the country I find the most enigmatic. Lionel Messi turns 31 during the Finals, and this is probably his last chance to lift the one major trophy which has eluded him. He is fresh after Barcelona wrapped up the title, and his playing partners Sergio Aguero and Angel Di Maria are in better condition than 4 years ago. Can Argentina's defence hold out? That's the pressing question.
Reigning champions Germany's defence is easy to defend, with Joshua Kimmich a serious talent at right back. Toni Kross can serve balls on silver platters all day, but there is a nagging doubt in my mind that the 'Mannschaft' peaked 4 years ago. One country yet to reach their potential are France, who boast Kylian Mbappe, Antoine Greizmann, Raphael Varane and N'Golo Kante in their midst. The biggest questions regarding Les Blues boss Didier Deschamps is whether he has settled on a starting 11, a team shape and if Paul Pogba can be accommodated. It may not be a foregone conclusion regarding Pogba, but Deschamps must be brave now in all of his decisions, as he was with Samuel Umtiti at Euro 2016.
One man who is either brave or foolish is the new Real Madrid coach Julen Lopetegui, sacked by Spain on the eve of the tournament. His replacement, Fernando Hierro, is a national hero and was technical director during La Roja's World Cup winning tournament of 2010, but I wonder if Spain's chances will evaporate at the knockout stage in terms of the small margins; i.e. tactics, shape, who the players are listening to, leadership. It's a fascinating road for them, beginning in Sochi on Friday night against Portugal. Ronaldo et al may not have the quality to win outright, unlike Belgium, who are blessed with sumptuous ball wizards in Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard. Add to this a rock solid goalkeeper, classy defence and an in form Romelu Lukaku and the Red Devils can win the trophy, but whether Roberto Martinez has the tactical nous to be a World Cup winning manager remains to be determined. As for Belgium's Group opponents England, it's a work in progress as regards a young team with promising signs ahead. England have finally twigged the importance of technical development in youth teams. Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling can light up any game, but a deficit of creativity and the obvious lack of a top quality goalkeeper may see the Three Lions perish at the quarter final stage.
Prediction time! The team I believe may have a date at the Luzhniki Stadium on July 15th are Brazil. They are my tip to win the tournament, to raise the World Cup for a sixth time and exorcise the demons of the 7-1 defeat to Germany on home soil 4 years ago. In Neymar they possess the most expensive player in the world who is not carrying all of the burden anymore. He is also fresh after recovering from a broken foot. Manchester City's Gabriel Jesus has solved the number 9 issue and Phillipe Coutinho can be mesmerising. In Alisson they have a top keeper, Miranda and Marquinhos are well supported by Casemiro in terms of the spine and the bench is strong. Most importantly Tite seems the right man for the job; organised and charming. Le selecao to win.
I rate France as the main dangers, with two outsiders tickling my fancy. Surprisingly they are both South American in a European World Cup - the first is Uruguay, who could have an easy path to the last 16. They can call on the brilliant Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani in attack, a solid defensive pairing in Diego Godin and Jose Gimenez, and some exciting young midfielders.
The second team which could outrun their odds are Colombia. 2014 Golden Boot winner James is returning to form, Radamel Falcao is fit again, and they have central defenders such as Yerry Mina and Davinson Sanchez with club experience at the top level. Their Group is winnable and they can give their fans, of whom I have seen more of than any other nation in Moscow so far, some precious memories. Of the others catching preview chatter, Croatia possess the quality, but perhaps lack cohesion, Mexico and Morocco may find the last 16 too much if they get there, Poland seem too reliant on Robert Lewandowski and Switzerland don't merit their ranking of number 6 in the world. So that's the preview - hopefully your pick is superior to the team you received in the office sweepstake.
Oh and I had to do the below! The hat is actually called a 'Ushanka', even though most of us would refer to it as a Bolshevik hat. I will definitely need it for the next inevitable snow saga in Ireland.