Way-too-early predictions for 2018 World Cup
With the 2018 World Cup exactly one year away, we're looking ahead, offering up some predictions for the world's greatest sporting spectacle. At this time next year, we'll revisit this and see just how wrong we were.
Tournament final (and winner)
Final: France vs. Brazil
The young talent filtering through the French pipeline right now is astounding, and has combined with some of the nation's more established stars to make the current iteration of the 1998 World Cup victor one of the most exciting teams on the planet. Brazil, meanwhile, is purring once again. Manager Tite has found the perfect combination of trademark Canarinha flair and necessary steel to make the World Cup's most successful nation a true force again.
Led by football's newest holy trinity - Paul Pogba dominating in midfield, Ousmane Dembele clowning defenders at will, and Kylian Mbappe leaving everyone in his dust and bulging the net on the regular - France is on the verge of a Spain-like dynasty. That starts next summer, when Les Bleus top the Selecao in a truly exhilarating World Cup final.
England: Perhaps it's not really a "flop" if you've let your fans down at every given opportunity for over 50 years, but with a legitimately impressive squad boasting potentially world-class talent like Dele Alli and Harry Kane - and with England's youth sides succeeding on multiple fronts of late - there seems to be some genuine excitement creeping through. That will be quashed in typical Three Lions fashion (read: penalties) next summer.
Kylian Mbappe: Likely to be the world's most expensive footballer by the time Russia 2018 begins, Mbappe's explosion onto the scene this past season will only extend into the sport's showpiece tournament. Playing on the best team in the tournament, the 18-year-old sensation will become the first Frenchman since Just Fontaine in 1958 to go home with the top-scorer award. He may not hit 13 tallies in a single tournament like his compatriot, but, incredibly, he'll still be a teenager, and barring injury should have at least three more opportunities to add to his World Cup haul. The sky's the limit.
Neymar: Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have had their time. That's not to say that the photogenic Portuguese and electric Argentine are on the decline - on the contrary, Ronaldo somehow seems to be getting more lethal with age - but Neymar, who will be 26 by the time next summer's tournament rolls around, is the prohibitive favourite to next assume the throne as the world's marquee megastar, and Russia 2018 should be the competition where he cements his claim.
Federico Bernardeschi: A tough category, considering many of the world's most notable youngsters have already "broken out" and are the subject of constant attention, making plenty of lists just like this one. Fiorentina winger Federico Bernardeschi, however, hasn't hit those heights just yet. The 23-year-old - a silky-smooth dribbler with a sweet left foot - should be the attacking star to lead Italy's burgeoning youth movement, which has the Azzurri looking well-placed to get out of the group stage of the World Cup for the first time since they won it all in 2006.
Ivory Coast: Maybe this is the year an African nation finally gets over the quarter-final hump and reaches the final four of the World Cup. Les Elephants, the 2015 AFCON champions, are loaded with talent - Eric Bailly and Serge Aurier are excellent, Franck Kessie is a powerhouse, Jean Michael Seri is a rising star, and Wilfried Zaha and Maxwel Cornet are exciting attackers. Yes, having Marc Wilmots run the show is a problem, but maybe the sheer skill can compensate for the Belgian's lack of managerial prowess.
(Photos courtesy: Action Images)