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WC 2018: Game on!

WC 2018: Game on!

Predictions for World Cup 2018 are not easy. Based on data, football-mad Brazilians seem to be surging ahead. But the five-time World Cup winners are going to have to do it the hard way if they are to win a sixth title. According to data company Gracenote, Brazil is the statistical favourite to win the World Cup in Russia, but there is a 35 per cent chance that it will have to beat tournament nemesis Germany along the way. The Brazilians were spectacularly bounced out of the 2014 World Cup, losing 7-1 in the semifinals to Germany, which went on to win its fourth title. Striker Neymar was sidelined with a vertebra injury for the match which took place in front of a devastated home crowd in Belo Horizonte. But, with the Paris Saint-Germain superstar fully fit, along with the emergence of goalscorers Gabriel Jesus and Philippe Coutinho, Brazil has lost just four international matches since and only once in the past two years. Gracenote's predictions place Brazil first, giving the team a 21 per cent chance of lifting the trophy. It ranks Spain second, Germany third and Argentina fourth going into Russia. FIFA rankings, which are slightly less data-driven, have Germany ranked first, with Brazil, Belgium and Portugal ranked second, third and fourth, respectively. British oddsmakers, William Hill, tips Brazil as the favourite with 4/1 odds, Germany second at 9/2 and Spain third at 6/1. The matchup most likely for the July 15 final in Moscow is Brazil vs Spain at 3.8 per cent, with Brazil vs Germany only slightly less likely at 3.7 per cent. Group placings and the smoothness of a team's draw also weigh into a country's chances to make it to the finals. There is a 31 per cent chance that either Brazil or Germany, both heavy favourites to win their first-round groups, finish group runner-up, forcing a second-round knockout matchup between the two powers, according to Gracenote. Argentina, the 2014 runner-up and 2010 winner Spain will face each other as early as the quarterfinals if both teams win their groups. Should France top its group, however, it will not meet another winner of the previous 12 World Cups until the semifinals. Gracenote Sports' head of analytics Simon Gleave explains that injured players like Mohamed Salah of Egypt are not factored into team odds nor are players returning from suspension like Peru captain Paolo Guerrero. Gleave identifies Peru, which has qualified for the first time since 1982 as a surprise Group C challenger to France, noting that the South Americans are unbeaten in the past 14 matches. "They would be my pick as a dark horse," he says, "certainly given that the chance that we give them is somewhat better than the chance that the (oddsmakers) give them." Gracenote assigns a whopping 68 per cent chance of Peru progressing in its group which also features Denmark and Australia. It stands a 39 per cent chance of reaching the quarterfinals and a 22 per cent chance of going all the way to the semis. Gracenote's statistics are based on team ratings, which factor in match results, location and importance. A predictive algorithm is then run over one million times, producing estimates for each team's chances of advancing in the tournament. All that number crunching has some merit. Last year, Gracenote ran the same algorithm before the start of the Champions League, correctly predicting that Real Madrid had the best chance of winning at 30 per cent. Like the World Cup, the Champions League featured 32 teams at the start of the competition. However, the gulf of talent between the strongest and weakest teams in the Champions League is higher than it is in the World Cup, says Gleave. One experienced football mind who does not share Gleave's enthusiasm for Peru is Jose Mourinho. The Manchester United manager, speaking as a guest host on Russian TV broadcaster RT, chose Australia as Group C runner-up behind France, despite Gracenote assigning just a 27 per cent chance for the Socceroos to advance. Mourinho also picked two African countries as tournament surprises. He chose Nigeria to advance from group D over Iceland and Croatia, and Senegal to win Group H, despite an 18 per cent statistical chance to finish above Poland, Colombia and Japan. No African team has finished first in the group stage since Nigeria in 1998, according to Gracenote. Should an African team reach the semifinals, it would be a first. Without naming former Barcelona rival Lionel Messi, predictably, Mourinho gave Argentina a nod to advance."In group D, I think the 'little fellow' will finish first," he said.

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