I VISITED Russia in the build-up to the start of the World Cup earlier this week and it was great. St Petersburg, where I was, was an absolutely fantastic place – a real Venice of the North.
You are bit worried beforehand, but everyone was great and really helpful. My first experiences of Russia were really good. The food and restaurants were super and there was a vibe to St Petersburg in all the bars and people were very welcoming.
Although, I would take a jumper; it is not as warm as you think! And take a map if you go in a taxi..
And if you want a vodka and diet coke, it is just vodka. They don’t do mixers. So people should get used to that!
I know Moscow has been busy all week. St Petersburg was a bit quiet, but it then started to pick up with fans arriving from the likes of Peru and Morocco. I also met an Aussie couple who were in a shop buying an Australia shirt who had travelled something like 14,000 miles.
So for me, it was all very friendly and it should be a good World Cup. There will be scaremongering all the way though; it is just the way the news works. But I cannot wait to go back – should England get through the group stages.
The action is underway and I was so pleased Russia won their opening game because not too many people have fancied them.
It is now prediction time and I will start with Group A. Russia are one of the lowest ranked teams and have not got out of the group stages at any tournament since 2008. They don’t have many players you know, unless you really know your football.
But I am backing them to be second behind Uruguay. Saudi Arabia haven’t much and I’m not sure about Egypt, even though they have won the African Cup of Nations seven times.
In Group B, I fancy Spain – as I do for the whole tournament really and they are my tip still, despite conceding a late equaliser in a brilliant game against Portugal on Friday night.
I know they have sacked their manager but these things can make a team pull together and create a siege mentality. They dominated world football from 2008-12 and although they have had two poor tournaments, they still have an unbelievable line-ups and players coming through like Asensio and Vasquez.
Portugal – particularly with Ronaldo so dominant in their ranks – should finish second and there is nothing to worry about there.
France have got their golden generation along with Belgium and they should sail through Group C. For me, Varane must have an absolutely stunning tournament for them to win it. But their forwards such as Mbappe, Dembele, Lemar and Fekir are absolutely fantastic and they have quality in midfield with Pogba and Kante. But as for France winning the whole thing, it might be a step too far.
In terms of who qualifies out of the group with them, picking the side to finish second is not as easy as some would think. People are drawn to Denmark because of Eriksen scoring 11 goals in qualifying, but without him, there could be an upset. Peru are quality defensively, but it is whether they can score enough goals and you never write Australia off at any sport. But I will stick with Denmark.
I know they have sacked their manager but these things can make a team pull together and create a siege mentality.Darren Gough
For me, Group D is where I see a shock.
Argentina who were disappointing in qualifying, even though they have Messi who is the best player in the world. They seem to find a way in tournaments to get results, but I think if there is going to be one huge upset for me, it is Argentina not getting out of the group.
I am not saying they are not going to get out of it. But I will put my neck on the block.
Nigeria look strong. They have got Iwobi, Iheanacho, Moses and Mikel and I really like them.
Croatia have a lot of young players to go with the likes of Modric, Rakitic and Perisic and are a fantastic side. For me, the ‘thunderclaps’ of Iceland won’t get anywhere this time and will get blown away, but I am going to go with Nigeria and Croatia. That said, I could get egg on my face!
Look no further than Brazil and Serbia in Group E. Serbia have been doing really well in youth football and Mitrovic has been banging goals in.
If Brazil turn it on, they have a great chance. For them, it is fitting all the talents into the side. Jesus could be the surprise Golden Boot winner for me.
I look at Germany as World Cup holders and they have got such a strong spine and if they are all fit, they will do well.
They won the Confederations Cup and tasted success in Russia when Werner got the Golden Boot. It will be Germany and Mexico in Group F. Mexico have got to the round of 16 in the last six World Cups. I think England will top Group G. Surely, we have got to be better after being embarrassed by Iceland at Euro 2016. We need Kane to have a good World Cup and Sterling to start scoring. But I fancy us.
Looking at Belgium, I see some players have already questioned Roberto Martinez tactically. They have a load of great players, but they have not played many of the top teams in the past 18 months, so I cannot really judge them.
Some fancy Senegal and I remember them beating holders France in 2002. For me, Mane must have a belting World Cup or I don’t fancy them in Group H.
Colombia were quarter-finalists in Brazil and James Rodriguez got his move to Real Madrid. He has disappointed there, but is finding his dancing feet again at Bayern Munich.
Poland will be second for me behind Colombia. Robert Lewandowski was unbelievable in qualifying with 16 goals. They are a hard team to beat and organised with a goalscorer.