Tag Archives: 2018

World Cup 2018: My Prediction For The Final, And Third-Place Playoff Too

Final

I know most of my picks for the Group Stage panned out while some didn’t. I know I was very good at predicting the Round Of 16 and QuarterFinals but was off a bit. Also I know I got both SemiFinals wrong. Nevertheless I’m not worried. If the BBC’s Mark ‘Lawro’ Lawrenson can have a 52% success rate and still keep his job, I’m pretty comfortable right now.

Anyways the last two big matches will be contested this weekend. Here are my reviews of the two big matches:

The 3rd-Place Match for the bronze medal will be contested Saturday the 14th in Krestovsky Stadium in Saint Petersburg. The Final for the Cup will take place at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow.

THIRD-PLACE PLAYOFF REVIEW:

The 3rd-Place Match for the bronze medal will be contested Saturday the 14th in Krestovsky Stadium in Saint Petersburg. Often you wonder who normally wins the 3rd-Place Match? The team who most feels they have one last thing to prove? Or the team that’s the least disheartened? Whatever the situation, it should make for an interesting match. Especially since both teams met in the Group Stage in Group G. Here’s my review of both teams.

Past Head-To-Head Results: England and Belgium have squared off 22 times before. England won 15 times and Belgium won only three times including here in Russia 1-0 in group play. They drew four times in the past. As for World Cup play, their other two games were a 1990 Round-of-16 win for England and a 4-4 draw in 1954.

BelgiumBelgium: The Red Devils should be admired. They are a collection of marvelously talented players in their own right coming together to give Belgium one of their best World Cup performances ever, if not the best. They proved to be a top challenger for the final, but the goal from France’s Unmiti in the 51st minute ended their World Cup dreams. Nevertheless the Belgian team here have the chance to give Belgium it’s best-ever World Cup finish. Belgium’s best finish ever was 4th in 1986. Here’s the chance for them to win a 3rd-place match. An excellent chance to revive the #RedTogether spirit.

They have the advantage since they met England in group play and won 1-0. They can do it again. However they did show vulnerability in their game against Japan when they trailed 2-0 with 25 minutes to go. They did do an excellent job of coming back to win. However their luck ran out when they faced France. Their top players are still in excellent form in this ‘marathon’ of a competition, but they have to function together if they want to win this.

England fixedEngland: They came in 2018 with a new team and a new determination based on past humiliations. They came with a fairly young coach with experience playing in a World Cup. They came from the various teams of the Premier League with a lot of established talents and a lot of young rising talents. They came with the hope of winning England’s first World Cup since 1966. They delivered one of their best group stage showings in years. They delivered England’s first-ever win of a World Cup game on penalties after losing the previous three. They came with their fans chanting It’s Coming Home (in reference to the Euro 1996 theme song). Then it ended in the semifinal against Croatia. They began strong with a goal from Kieran Trippier in the 5th minute. However they were losing it after Ivan Perisic equalized in the 68th minute. It was Mandzukic in the 108th minute that took the match for Croatia and brought an end to the #ItsComingHome phenomenon.

However the 3rd-Place Match can give England one last thing to prove. This is only England’s third time to the Top 4 of the World Cup. The team has done an excellent job of putting their Premier League differences aside and play as one unified team. Gareth Southgate has done an excellent job of coaching and has successfully help Team England overcome many past adversaries and many weaknesses the team had for a long time. That gives England an advantage leading into the match. However England hasn’t fully overcome their habit of choking at big events. Sure their finish here will be their biggest since 1990, but they can blow it if the team don’t come together and deliver the same play they delivered over this past month. This was no ordinary Three Lions here in Russia 2018. This was a new Team England that had a lot to prove and did prove a lot.

My Final Verdict: I know Belgium beat England in the group stage, but this is a new match. The game will go to the team that has the best team tactics and functions as one. I’ll say it will be Belgium winning 2-0.

THE FINAL

Whos Next

Which team will be next?

I know for my review, you will see me repeating a lot of what I wrote for my SemiFinal review. There’s a purpose. Because all they went through will be coming to this moment. Making it to the final is no easy journey. It’s also not just about having a great team of assembled talent. It’s about having your team together, it’s about them delivering each and every time, it’s the ability to protect from racked up injuries to players, it’s the ability to endure mentally… basically it’s a month-long marathon. A game of survivor.

The World Cup has all these games to basically narrow it down to the very two to play in the Final to decide the Cup.  Of the two teams that made it, one made it to the Final twice before and won 20 years ago, while the other is playing in the Final for the first time ever. So without further ado, my review of the World Cup Final:

Past Head-To-Head Results: Croatia and France have played each other five times in the past. Both teams drew twice. France has won the other three games, including the 1998 World Cup semifinal 2-1.

FranceFrance: France is a nation whose football greatness really only started to take off in the early 1980’s. It was in Mexico 1986 that France got its first-ever Top 3 finish. They would fail to qualify for the next two World Cups, but would host in 1998 and would go on to win. Some say France’s team of 1998 was the best World Cup team since Brazil in 1970.

They’ve had a lot of ups and downs since. In 2002, they suffered the ‘curse of the defending champion‘ and not only failed to advance past the group stage, but failed to even score a single goal. They would come back in 2006 and appeared to be on their way to a second World Cup, but Zidane’s head-butt to an Italian player and subsequent red card in extra time in the Final marked the end of their chances right there. Then the disastrous 2010 which I talked about in my Semifinal write-up.

However it was the 2014 World Cup that showed a ray of hope for the French team. They were out in the quarterfinals to eventual champions Germany, but the team showed a big improvement and promise for the future with young players like Pogba and Griezmann. France played host to Euro 2016. There they delivered the best showing of all teams en route to the Final for the Cup. Unfortunately they lost to Portugal 1-0 in added extra time.

Here in Russia, Les Bleus has delivered the best showing of all teams.  They may have had the only 0-0 game of the World Cup so far, but all their other games were wins including all their knockout games, and all in regulation time. The #FiersDetreBleus phenomenon has taken them this far. France appears to have the best chances with players like Pogba, Griezmann, Giroud, Payet, young gun Mbappe and their goaltender Hugo Lloris who claims the loss at Euro 2016 really changed him. They look like the team that best has what it takes to win. However they could easily just let it go the same way they did in Euro 2016. If you remember their Round-Of-16 game against Argentina, they conceded three goals. They’re lucky they scored four to win. They all have to be together as a unified unit ready to play hard if they want to win the biggest match of their lives.

CROATIA footballCroatia:

“Everybody cheers for David. Nobody cheers for Goliath.”

-Wilt Chamberlain

Croatia comes to the World Cup final as the underdogs. They also come as the first country with a population of under 5 million to qualify for a World Cup final since Uruguay back in 1950. They come as the biggest underdog story in decades. Already the hashtages of #Vatreni , #FlamingPride and #BudiPonosan have been big hits. However it was very hard and with a lot of heartache. It started with a 3rd-place finish in their first World Cup back in 1998. It was finally a chance for Croatian football to define their identity now that they were free from Yugoslavia. However it was a struggle since. The next four World Cups were cases of a failure to qualify in 2010 and out in the Group Stage the other three times. After the 2010 World Cup failure, Croatian football was about to make a comeback. They may have been out in the Group Stage in 2014, but there was promise shown by players like Ivan Perisic, Ivan Rakitic, Luka Modric and Mario Mandzukic.

Croatian football unfortunately was also given a big black eye in the last few years thanks to the irreverence of certain fans. Certain Croatian fans were known to shout racist slurs, wear Nazi symbols, and cause violent incidents during matches. The most noticeable was during the Euro 2016 match against the Czech Republic where flares were thrown onto the field. The Federation HNS and the National Team paid the biggest price by facing sanctions and fines from both FIFA and UEFA including having to play ‘closed’ matches. However after Euro 2016, Croatia has made strides to get tougher with fan behavior.

Here in Russia, The Blazers, or Vatreni, were brilliant in group play as they won all three of their games. Their biggest luck came in the Round of 16 against Denmark and the QuarterFinals against hosts Russia as they drew 1-1 and 2-2 respectively, only to win both in the penalty shoot outs. Then came their semifinal against England. The game went into 1-1 in regulation only for Mandzukic to deliver the game-winner in added extra time. There have been calls from many for Croatia to be disqualified since that match, but the alleged controversies have been proven false.

And to think Yugoslavia never qualified for a World Cup final ever in its existence! Croatia comes with the least star-studded team here in this stage of the World Cup. The key to Croatia’s success is for players like Modric, Perisic, Rakitic, Lovren, Mandzukic and Danijel Subasic to play as one functioning team. Many can easily dismiss Croatia’s success because of luck in the knockout rounds, but truly it is the team unity of the players that have got them this far. Croatia however has shown weakness of their own. The fact that they won two of their knockout matches in penalty shootouts shows they can come short on delivery. Whatever they’ve been holding back or just not delivering on in past games, it won’t work against a team like France. Croatia has a strong midfiled, but France’s midfield has proven more this Cup. Croatia’s team will have to play a lot harder if they want to win the Cup. If they do win the Cup, they will do it through their first-ever victory over France, at the very least.

My Final Verdict: Both teams have been performing well and with a great sense of team unity, but I have to pick France to win 3-1. It’s not just in terms of past performance, but also because of the brilliance of the players individually as well. Plus the fact the referee for the match will be an Argentinean won’t help Croatia too much.

And there you go. My look at the teams playing for both the match for the bronze medal and the Final to win the World Cup. Let’s sit back and watch history be crowned.

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World Cup 2018: Semifinals Predictions

WC2018 Final Four

Hard to believe a little more than three weeks ago, the action was just starting. Now it’s winding down with the biggest action of all getting closer and closer. But before we can have the final on Sunday the 15th, we need the semifinals to decide the two that qualify. In both of the semifinals we’ll have won team that won a World Cup in the past and another team whose best result ever was making it to a past semifinal. All four teams are from European countries and and four never made it past the quarterfinals at the last World Cup. This will be the first World Cup since 1966 that will have a completely different Top 4 from the last.

Here I will do my review of the teams and also make my predictions. I hope I do better here than when I predicted in 2014. And to think I thought Brazil would win over Germany in 2014! After Germany delivered their ‘7-up,’ I sure felt dumb!

Without further ado, here’s a look at the four teams that will be in the semifinals and my prediction for each one:

SEMIFINAL #1 – FRANCE vs. BELGIUM

Head-To-Head Stuff:

France and Belgium have played each other 73 times. France won 24 times, Belgium won 30 times, and 19 were draws. At the World Cup, France faced Belgium only twice in a 1938  match and 1986 in the match for 3rd place, and France won both times.

Team By Team Analysis:

FranceFrance: The current French team is an example of a team that arose from the ‘ruins’ of football. Some of you may remember the 2010 World Cup. If it was not France’s worst-ever performance, it was France’s hardest World Cup trip ever. The trip started on controversy as they had qualified thanks to a fist-aided goal from Thierry Henry in their qualifying playoff match against Ireland. Then at the World Cup 2010, striker Nicolas Anelka was fired from the team after an obscenity-laden dispute with manager Raymond Domenech. A boycott of training from players in response and a lecture from the French sports minister paved the way for France’s eventual loss in their last game. The team returned home in disgrace and the president of the FFF resigned, as did coach Domenech. It would be another six years for Domenech to accept another coaching job.

What happened after would be quite the rebound. They would continue to have difficulty at Euro 2012 by going out in the quarterfinals to Spain 2-0. Then Dider Deschamps, who was part of France’s World Cup-winning team of 1998, assumed the position of head coach and would give France quite the turn-around. The turnaround however was not an overnight success, but more of steady progression. It started at the 2014 world Cup where France bowed out at the quarterfinals after losing 1-0 to Germany, but promise was noticed. The team gave an improved showing of play and Paul Pogba was named Top Young Player of the Cup. Then came Euro 2016 which France was host nation. Until France lost in the final to Portugal 1-0 in extra time, France had delivered the best show of teamwork during the tournament and had the top scorer with Antoine Griezman scoring 6 goals. Olivier Giroud and Dimitri Payet also scored 3 goals of their own.

Excellence has continued for Les Bleus here at the World Cup and they look as one of the teams that can best win the Cup. Kylian Mbappe and Griezmann have three goals each. On top of that, they only conceded four goals. They’ve reached the Last 4 for only their sixth time. France has shown a lot of strength and a lot of team unity. There’s even talk Mbappe may win the Young Player award. It’s hard to pinpoint a mistake this last while. However they were rather conservative in the group stage. They did come alive in a big way in the knockout round but they did concede three goals against Argentina. They were lucky they delivered four. They will be facing a Belgian team that has become one of the more exciting teams of the Cup and will need to deliver.

BelgiumBelgium: Belgium is another example of a team that took a long time to develop. This is only Belgium’s 13th World Cup but many are already calling this team the best Red Devils ever.

In the past, Belgium would only go as far as the group Stage or 1st round at the World Cup. Success for Belgium would come starting in the 1980’s when they made it past the opening stage for the first time in 1982 and then to the semifinals for the first time ever in 1986. Their 4th place finish in 1986 ranks currently as Belgium’s best World Cup finish ever. However they would struggle to repeat as they would find themselves out in the Round of 16 or the Group Stage during the next four World Cups. Then would come failure to qualify for the World Cups of 2006 and 2010, even after they recruited famed Dutch coach Dick Advocaat. They would even face a rock-bottom 66th ranking on FIFA list in 2009. They would miss qualifying for Euro 2012.

Red Devils 2002

In 2002, a Belgian magazine published an article about young rising footballers. Count the number of Red Devils here in Russia!

Then came coach Marc Wilmots who himself played for team Belgium at four World Cups. He brought a new sense to the team. He found talent in players like Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku to name a few and was able to get them to perform well as a team function. They’d go through straight wins in World Cup qualifying and would find themselves ranked 11th on FIFA’s list and a heavy favorite to go well at the World Cup. At the 2014 World Cup, they finished in the quarterfinals which was their second-best result ever. 2015 was their breakthrough year as they hit #1 for the first time ever on FIFA’s rankings. However they would face difficulties as they’d only make the quarterfinals at Euro 2016 losing to Wales 3-1. That’s when they then hired Spanish coach Roberto Martinez. The Belgian team has not lost a game since September 2016 and have come to Russia delivering straight wins to the semifinal.

No doubt they have a lot to win their semifinal against France. Their straight wins have shown for it. However they did show weakness during this World Cup. If you remember their Round-Of-16 match against Japan, they were trailing 2-0 into the 2nd half. It wasn’t until the 69th minute Belgium scored and then go on to win 3-2. That was quite a comeback. And a close call. However Belgium can’t afford to pull stunts like those any longer as they’re getting closer and closer to the Cup. They’re en route to becoming the best Belgian team ever and they need to stay en garde.

My Final Verdict:

Okay, you will now want me to make a prediction for this match. I think it will be a case of the match drawing 2-2 with Belgium taking it in a penalty shoot out.

SEMIFINAL #2 – ENGLAND vs. CROATIA

Head-To-Head Stuff: England and Croatia have squared off seven times before. England won four times, Croatia won twice and one was a draw. This will be the first time England and Croatia will play each other in a World Cup game.

Team By Team Analysis:

EnglandEngland: England has always been a subject of frustration. The Three Lions have only won a single World Cup: back in 1966 when they hosted. They have had difficulties whenever they’ve made it to the knockout rounds as they’d frequently expire in the quarterfinals or face elimination when the game ends up in penalty kicks. In fact England has been 0 for 3 at the World Cup for penalty kick matches. Then there are the embarrassments at the two most recent World Cups by expiring to Germany in a highly controversial 4-1 in the Round Of 16 and then failing to advance past the group stage in 2014. It always seemed like the case where the team is full of talent but they just couldn’t play well as a united team. Possibly they didn’t leave their Premier League rivalry at the door?

Southgate

England coach Gareth Southgate consoles Colombia’s Mateus Uribe after he missed his penalty shot (right). Southgate knows what it’s like to miss a crucial penalty (left; during Euro 1996).

In 2016, right after they lost to Iceland 2-1 in the Round Of 16, they hired a new coach in Gareth Southgate who played for team England at the 1998 and 2002 World Cups. They put in a lot of investment into young rising talent like John Stones and Harry Kane and goaltender Jordan Pickford. The work paid off as England qualified for the World Cup top of their group. Here in Russia, the Three Lions gave their fans a lot of relief as they won two games in group play and qualified for the knockout round. This marked the first time since 2010 they qualified for the knockout round and the first World Cup since 2010 that they won a game. Then came the big test against Columbia. They drew 1-1 against a team that was missing their star James Rodriguez and had to go to penalty kicks. Gulp! Instead they won the shootout 4-3 and their penalty kick curse was finally lifted. This marked their first win of a World Cup knockout match since 2006. The irony being Southgate missed a critical penalty against Germany in the Euro 1996 semifinals, when England was host! Then their quarterfinal against Sweden turned up a win of 2-0. This would mark only the third time England would reach the Top 4 of a World Cup and the first since 1990.

England bring to the semifinals a lot of top players and a better sense of team unity. Some say they may actually have what it takes to win the Cup. However they could also have what it takes to give it away too. Before their 1-1 draw to Colombia, they lost to Belgium 1-0. They will have to play right and not try to give anything away. Especially since they have a lot of rising talent to work with. A second World Cup has never been so close in a long time.

CROATIA footballCroatia: Croatia is another case of a team whose struggle is also paying off here in Russia. Croatia came to be in the early 1990’s after the nation of Yugoslavia fell apart in a brutal civil war. Soon after Croatia declared independence in 1991, they fielded their own national team. However they would have to wait until after the 1994 World Cup for them to play internationally. They played their first World Cup in 1998 and surprised everybody by finishing third, beating out big names like The Netherlands and Germany in the process.

One thing about Croatia’s success in 1998 was that much of it was due to players who used to play for Yugoslavia. After 1998, Croatia worked to develop their own football identity and struggled along the way. They found themselves out in the group stages of 2002 and 2006. Then they’d fail to qualify for 2010. Between 2010 and 2014, they’d undergo two coaching changes. However 2014 showed signs of improvement for Croatian football with the development of talents like Luka Modric, Vedran Corluka, Ivan Rakitic, Mario Mandzukic and Ivan Perisic. The talent was there and they were back on the World Cup scene, but they still had to struggle as they again failed to advance past the group stage in 2014. Further difficulty came when Croatia lost in the Round of 16 at Euro 2016.

Croatia’s struggles were not just on the football field, but in the stands as well. In the past ten years, Croatian fans developed a reputation of being some of the most obnoxious in Europe with incidents like shouting racist taunts, showing off swastikas and throwing flares. The most notable being the game against the Czech Republic during Euro 2016 when flares were thrown onto the field. Sanctions against the Croatian team have come from UEFA and FIFA in the result of the team being fined money, the team losing game points in qualification play, and even the team having to play ‘closed-door’ games for a period of time.

Things have improved greatly for the Croatian team. There has not been a major incident of ‘hooliganism’ since Euro 2016. The team has also played like a strong team unit here in Russia by winning all their group stage games and qualifying for the knockout stage for the first time since their golden year of 1998. In knockout play, the Croatian team have won all their matches in penalty shootouts. This makes it the second time Croatia has made the Top 4 at the World Cup. Croatia has played very well. Especially with a surprise win over Argentina. However they have shown some weak spots in their knockout games. Unique how they’re a team with the least ‘stars’ but have beaten out teams with big names. Their team unity has taken them this far, but they will need it more than ever here in the semis and they have to be on guard if they want to win.

My Final Verdict:

Sure, Croatia has changed a lot since their last game against England in 2009. But England has changed a lot too. The careless mistakes we commonly see from England in major international play are not as present here. I don’t want to rely on sabermetrics completely, but I think England will win 3-1.

And there you have it. My look at the upcoming semifinals and my predictions. We’ll see who the real winners are on Tuesday and Wednesday.

World Cup 2018 Preview Links

Russia 2018

So how about that? The 2018 World Cup begins today. Opening ceremony takes place at 16:00 MSK and the opening game of Russia vs. Saudi Arabia takes place at 18:00. I know I’ve been delivering previews to each of the World Cup groups. This is just simply a post with hyperlinks to all my group analyses. I will also post the two countries from each group I think will qualify for the knockout round. So here are the links:

Group A: Russia and Uruguay

Group B: Spain and Portugal

Group C: France and Peru

Group D: Argentina and Croatia

Group E: Brazil and Switzerland

Group F:  Germany and Mexico

Group G: Belgium and England

Group H: Poland and Colombia

For the record, I’m not listing my predictions as who will finish first and second. I’m listing in group order. Anyways best of luck to all teams and let’s have some fun!

World Cup 2018 Preview: Group E

With the World Cup getting ever so closer, it’s time for another group review, along with another stadium review. Also this blog will give you an added bonus feature. Anyways lots to anticipate. Lots to focus on here.

Brazil-Brazil (2)- I’m not going to bring up the humiliation Brazil went through during the 2014 World Cup. I will say it has been an interesting four years since. The first two years were the hardest, but also very hopeful. Dunga had assumed the role as head coach and things looked promising, until the 2015 Copa America. There, they were ousted in the quarterfinals. For the next year, they struggled in international play and were even ranked low in World Cup qualifying. Then at the 2016 Copa America, another early ouster: in group play. With the Olympics coming soon, they changed to coach Tita, who was most experience in play and coaching with Brazil’s Campeopnato Brasiliero league. The change has worked to success. Brazil won gold at the 2016 Olympics and won every World Cup qualifying game since. Brazil would become the first team to qualify for this World Cup.

The  Seleção’s success continues. It has not lost a game since the 2016 Copa America and even won a friendly against Germany 1-0. Brazil is one team coming to Russia not simply for victory, but redemption as well.

Switzerland-Switzerland (6)- Switzerland is one team that’s been waiting long and hard for their big breakthrough. They have a lot to prove, but have often come up short. The last time they won a knockout game was back in 1938. Their best ever result is the quarterfinals which was last achieved in 1954 which they hosted. They’ve grown in talent and prowess in recent years. At the last World Cup, Xherdan Shaqiri delivered a hat trick en route to qualifying to the Round Of 16, but their trip to the Cup was ended by Argentina.

The Swiss team has had its strongest years in this past while. This is the fourth straight World Cup they’ve qualified for. The team features defender Stephan Lichtsteiner, midfielders Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka and striker Haris Seferovic. The team is coached by Bosnian Vladimir Petkovic. The Swiss team come to Russia with a good track record in this past year with wins against Hungary and Greece and a 1-1 draw against Spain. However they also had to endure a 2-0 loss to Portugal. Switzerland comes to Russia with a lot to prove.

Costa Rica-Costa Rica (25)- Costa Rica is a team that will surprise you when you least expect it. At the last World Cup, the team wound up in Group D where they would have to play Italy, Uruguay and England. Just about everybody, including myself, thought Coast Rica would be the team least likely to qualify. Instead they topped the Group with wins against Italy and Uruguay and drew against England. A win against Greece on penalties in the Round of 16 took them to the quarterfinals for the first-time ever. Despite losing to the Netherlands on penalties, Costa Rica defied all expectations and set a new standard for the team.

This year’s team features a new coach in Oscar Ramirez. Their star striker Bryan Ruiz from Sporting CP is back. Many of the team’s top players play for MLS. In the past year, Costa Rica has had good wins against Northern Ireland, Scotland and the US. However it’s had to endure losses to Hungary, Spain (5-0) and Tunisia. Who knows? 2018 could be another Cinderella story like 2014.

Serbia-Serbia (35)- Serbia is a national team that’s rather young: only 12 years old. Its national team may not have the experience as most of the teams present in Russia. However they’re a team of surprises. If you remember the 2010 World Cup, they won against Germany 1-0. The team of the former Yugoslavia has had way better success in the past; even going as far as fourth. Serbia hopes one day to emulate the past success. The team does show promise as they won the under-20 World Cup in 2015.

Possibly as a result of their win in 2015, seven players of the Serbian team were born in 1995 or later. The team also features top veterans like defenseman Branislav Ivanovic and goalkeeper Vladimir Stojkovic. In the past year, they’ve acquired notable wins against China, Ireland and Nigeria. However they’ve had notable losses to Morocco and Chile. Don’t rule Serbia out for 2018.

And there’s my rundown of the teams from Group E. As for who will qualify for the Round of 16, I believe it will be Brazil and Switzerland.

STADIUM SPOTLIGHT

Moscow: Spartak Stadium (Okritie Arena)Otkritie

Year Opened: 2014

Capacity: 45,360

World Cup Groups Hosting: D, E, G, H

Additional World Cup Matches Contested: Round of 16

Spartak Stadium is one of two venues in Moscow that will be hosting matches for this World Cup. Its current name is Okritie Arena after the Russian Okritie Bank, but will be known as Spartak Stadium during the World Cup.

The stadium cost $430 million to build. Actually the second Moscow stadium that was planned for the World Cup was VTB Arena, which was to combine a soccer stadium and ice hockey rink all in one. Instead Spartak Stadium was build first and won the right to be an official venue. It was even one of the four venues that played host to last year’s Confederations Cup. After the World Cup, the stadium will be the host venue for FC Spartak Moscow and the Russian national team.

BONUS FEATURE

Stadiums aren’t the only thing I will be focusing on in this World Cup. I will also focus on other things unique to the World Cup. For this first bonus, I will be focusing on the official World Cup Ball.

Official Match Ball: Telstar 18Telstar 18

It’s a given that with each world Cup, Adidas delivers a match ball that is designed to take football technology to a new level. Some like 2014’s Brazuca are welcomed well. Some like 2010’s Jabulani hit a sour note with the players. For 2018, Adidas launches Telstar 18.

The ball was unveiled by Adidas on at its official presentation in Moscow on November 9, 2017 and it was Lionel Messi that announced the name. Telstar 18 plays tribute to the original Telstar ball (from 1970) which was Adidas’ first ever official World Cup ball. This Telstar ball features six textured panels that aren’t sewn together, but seamlessly glued together. The ball has an embedded near-field communication chip which allows the consumer to access information personalized from the ball and including interactivity themed on the upcoming World Cup.

And there you have it. That’s my review of the Group E teams. Only three more groups to go! Time sure does pass fast! Stay tuned!

World Cup 2018 Preview: Group D

The funniest thing about Group D is that Argentina and Nigeria are paired up again! Of the six times Nigeria has qualified for the World Cup, 1998 remains the only time they never had to face Argentina in the group stage! However it was Croatia that was with Argentina in that group stage. So much ridiculous trivia here! Actually one other legitimate piece of trivia is Group D features one of two teams making their World Cup debut. So for more on Group D, here I go:

argentina-Argentina (5)- Argentina is one team at this year’s World Cup with the most accolades. Two World Cups, five World Cup finals appearances, fourteen Copa Americas, and legendary players like Mario Kempes, Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi. La Albiceleste however has garnered a reputation in the last few years of being a team of near-misses. They lost in the finals of the 2014 World Cup and four of the last five Copa America finals. This is especially biting for Lionel Messi. He’s had a career full of feats and achievements. However ever since he became part of the national team since 2005 at the age of 18, a major international trophy has been the one thing he’s never been able to win.

Argentina have been in struggle since the last World Cup. They’ve gone through three coaching changes and almost missed qualifying for the World Cup. It was nothing less than a win needed for their eighteenth-and-last qualifier match against Ecuador to get them in, and they did: 3-1. As for their World Cup chances, they look quite iffy. They have the talent with the likes of Messi, Javier Mascherano (who has more international caps than Messi), Angel Di Maria and Sergio Aguero. However they lack a strong defense. Their flaws have been exposed in the last two years upon losses to Spain 6-1 and Group D opponents Nigeria 4-2. However Argentina has delivered good wins like 1-0 against Russia, 1-0 against Brazil and 2-0 against Italy. World Cup 2018 is another test for the Argentinian team. Also Russia could be the place where Messi will either become the ‘best ever’ or the ‘best never.’

Iceland-Iceland (22)- Iceland is the team that keeps on surprising the world. Two years ago, they became the first team from a country with a population under 1 million to qualify for a European Championships, and they made it to the quarterfinals, beating England in the process! This time they become not only the first team from a country with a population under 1 million to qualify for a World Cup, but the first from a country under 500,000!

Iceland surprised everybody not just by qualifying for the World Cup, but topping their qualifying group in the process. Iceland proved the fire is still there after Euro 2016. However it appears the fire may have faded since the World Cup qualifying. Iceland’s only wins since have been against two Indonesian teams. They’ve since had to endure losses to Mexico, Peru, Norway and the Czech Republic. Chances are Icelandic fire can come back once they start play in Russia.

Croatia ficed-Croatia (18)- Croatia is a team that has had a lot of hard luck over the past few years. There is less news copy about the playing prowess of the team and more copy about the team’s fans’ obnoxious behavior. And don’t get me started about the Euro 2016 game against the Czechs! Mind you, Vatreni is a team loaded with talent worth noticing.

The Blazers are coached by Zlatko Dalic who has come off of coaching mostly club teams in Croatia and the Arabian Peninsula. The team boasts of top players like midfielder Luka Modric, striker Mario Mandzukic and defenseman Vedran Corluka. Croatia has done well playing against European teams and even won against Mexico 1-0. However they’ve also lost to Peru 2-0  and Brazil 2-0 just recently. Croatia have what it takes to once again move to the knockout round and hopefully go far. World Cup 2018 could be the place where they’re finally back.

Nigeria-Nigeria (47)- Nigeria may not be one of the three African teams that have gone as far as the quarterfinals at a World Cup. However the Super Eagles the only African team that has made it past the group stage in three World Cups. That’s a feat in itself along with three Africa Cup of Nations wins and four more Cup finals appearances.

The current team is coached by German Gernot Rohr who has been coaching African teams for the past eight years and features a wealth of talent young and old. Seven of the teams’ players play for teams in the Premier League. The team features forward Ahmed Musa (who plays for CSKA Moscow), midfielder John Obi Mikel and defenseman Elderson Echiejile. Sure, Russia 2018 may become the fifth time out of Nigeria’s six World Cup runs where they have to face Argentina in the group stage, but they have an advantage; they won in a friendly against the Argentines back in November: 4-2. However they’ve had some noticeable losses this year against Morocco 4-0, Serbia 2-0, and England 2-1. However they could all come together in Russia 2018 and go further than they ever had.

Now that I’m done summing up the teams, it’s time for me to predict the two I think will advance to the Round of 16. It’s a tough challenge, especially since all four have noticeable strengths and weaknesses, but I predict it will be Argentina and Nigeria. However don’t be surprised if it ends up the second qualifier is Iceland. Remember they beat Croatia in World Cup qualifying.

STADIUM SPOTLIGHT

These past three reviews, I’ve reviewed two stadiums at once. I’ve already reviewed six out of the twelve so I’ll save my next double-review for Group H as I will review the stadiums staging the finals and semis. Save the best for last, right? So here’s my first solo stadium review for this World Cup:

VOLGOGRAD: Volgograd Arenavolgograd

Year Opened: 2018

Capacity: 45, 568

World Cup Groups Hosting: A, D, G, H

Volgograd Arena may be one of the stadiums that’s brand-spanking new for Russia 2018, but it’s on familiar ground. The Arena’s ground is on what used to be the ground for Central Stadium which was opened back in 1962. It was the age of the stadium, FIFA demands and the ability to change capacities that led to the new Volgograd Arena. Its original expense was to be 10 billion Russian Rubles, but ended up being 17 billion Rubles, or $275 million US, in the end.

It has a unique shape where it’s shaped like an overhead truncated cone. The large roof, which rests over a cable frame, resembles a bicycle-wheel pattern through steel-wire cables. The stadium will have many features available to fans like navigation and information support, information, a storage room, and audio visual commentary for those with sight impairment. After the World Cup, the stadium is to be the host venue for local team FC Rotor Volgograd and host a fitness centre.

And there you have it again. Another World Cup group review. And another stadium review. More to come in the ten days leading up.

 

World Cup 2018 Preview: Group C

Group C may prove to be one of the groups that’s hardest to predict. Some may appear to be clear favorites or likely to be eliminated at the end, but don’t be so quick to judge. Don’t forget nobody expected Costa Rica to top Group D at the last World Cup. So without further ado, here’s my review of Group C:

France fixed-France (7)- Les Bleus has had a reputation of being an all-or-nothing team. France is never short on talent. The 2014 World Cup saw a lot of young French talent on the rise like Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezman. This World Cup’s team promises a big mix of the old and the new. The team is still coached by legend Didier Deschamps and are poised to perform very well, especially after the strength of making it to the finals of Euro 2016. France’s play since Euro 2016 has been consistent with wins against England and the Netherlands, but they have also lost to Sweden 2-1 and Columbia 3-2. 2018 is an opportunity for France to win their second World Cup. It’s a matter of them all being there and delivering.

Australia-Australia (40)- When Australia made it to the Round of 16 at the 2066 World Cup, people were expecting more to come from the Socceroos. However they haven’t done as well as originally hoped. In fact they’re coming back from three straight losses in 2014. Not everything is down for Australia. They did win the 2015 AFC Asian Cup. Their play is still struggling to show. The only win against a team outside of Asia was against Honduras in a World Cup playoff.

Australia is coached by Bert van Marwijk who coached the Netherlands to the World Cup final. The team consists mostly of players from the Premier League and Australia’s A-League. 38 year-old Tim Cahill leads the team in what will be his fourth World Cup. The team has a good mix of young and old. Australia can provide another surprise again.

Peru-Peru (11)- Ten of this year’s teams at this year’s World Cup had to wait longer than four years to return to the World Cup stage. Peru has had the longest wait of all: 36 years to be exact. Things have changed ever since they’ve been coached by Argentine Ricardo Gareca who was part of Argentina’s World Cup-winning team. The team consists of players whom play mostly for teams in North and South America. The players are a good mix of youth and experience with defenseman Alberto Rodriguez leading. Peru may have the most experience playing against South American teams, but they’ve had three wins this year against European teams like Croatia, Iceland and Scotland. Peru could be the surprise of the Cup.

Denmark fixed-Denmark (12)- The last time the Danish Dynamite made it to the World Cup was back in 2010. There they didn’t advance past the group stage. Since then, they’re recently acquired Norwegian coach Åge Hareide. The team was able to qualify for the 2016 Olympics and finished in the quarterfinals. They’ve done very well having not lost a game since 2016. They’ve had some notable wins against teams like Ireland and Poland and even drew against Germany last year. Denmark’s current lineup consists of players mostly from the Premier League and Spain’s La Liga. Denmark looks poised to be one of the teams from Group C to advance. Russia will be their big test.

Now my prediction for the two that will advance. It’s a toughie but I believe it will be France and Peru that will advance.

STADIUM SPOTLIGHT

Two more stadiums. Both in focus are at least five years old. Both were also built to host major events before this World Cup.

-KAZAN : Kazan ArenaKazan Arena

Year Opened: 2013

World Cup Capacity: 45,379

World Cup Groups Hosting: B, C, F, H

Additional World Cup Matches Contested: Round of 16 & a quarterfinal

Kazan Arena was first build to host the 2013 World University Games. Kazan Arena has also hosted the 2015 World Aquatics Championships. The stadium has the largest outside screen in Europe and the largest LED installed on a football stadium in the World.

After the World Cup, Kazan Arena will be the home venue of team FC Rubin Kazan, replacing the 25,000-seat Central Stadium.

-SOCHI : Fisht Olympic StadiumSochi Fisht

Year Opened: 2013

World Cup Capacity: 41,220

World Cup Groups Hosting: B, C, F, G

Additional World Cup Matches Contested: Round of 16 (A1 vs. B2) & A quarterfinal

If you remember the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, you will remember this stadium very well. This is where the opening and closing ceremonies took place. You may also remember the hefty price tag of the Sochi Olympics. This stadium cost $779 million to build!

Names after Mount Fisht, the stadium was originally built to be an enclosed stadium, but has stayed an open-air stadium since 2016 in order to conform with FIFA rules. The stadium complex now serves as a training centre and match venue for the Russia national football team.

And there you have it. The four teams of Group C and two more stadiums. Less than two weeks to go!

World Cup 2018 Preview: Group A

It’s a given. Whenever there’s a Euro or a World Cup, I do a rundown of the teams that will be competing. Those of you who remember I did it for the 2014 World Cup, I’m back. As I did for 2014, I will again do a separate blog for each of the eight Group Stage groups. Once again, I will give a preview of the twelve stadiums that will be the stages for this event and save the stadium for the Grand Final for last. Now let’s start with Group A. For the record, my summary of the teams will be done in their drawn World Cup order rather than their FIFA ranking of May 2018. FIFA ranking of that month will appear in brackets.

GROUP A:

Russia Fixed-Russia (66)- Russia had its glory days on the World Cup scene back during the days of the USSR. Since the USSR dissolved in 1992, Russia has qualified for three World Cups but always ended its trip in the group stage. It’s been a frustration. They went through two top ranked Dutch coaches Guss Hiddink and Dick Advocaat and Italian coach Fabio Capello, but would always come up short. Just before Euro 2016, they went back to a Russian coach, Leonid Slutsky, but again fell out in the group stage. Since Euro 2016, they’ve stuck to having a Russian coach. This time it’s Stanislav Cherchesov whose managed Dynamo Moscow and Legia Warsaw in the past.

The Russian team still remain an enigma. Only three of the team’s players play for teams outside Russia. Their recent game results also come into question. They’ve played six games since the Confederations Cup, but only won one: against South Korea 4-2. They’ve since had to deal with losses to big-name teams like Argentina, Brazil and France. The world Cup draw is made so that the host nation doesn’t have that hard of a time to make it past the group stage. Russia’s chances look comfortable as Uruguay appears to be its only tough rival. How far Russia goes is up for the world to see.

Saudi flag-Saudi Arabia (67)- The Saudi team looked like it was heading to better times after they made it past the Round of 16 at World Cup 1994. However the big reluctance to export players to the bigger European clubs has always proved to be the biggest obstacle. The Saudi team would face an exit at the Group Stage during the next three World Cups.

Russia 2018 marks the first World Cup since 2006 with the presence of the Saudi team. All but three of their team members play for Saudi teams. The other three play for La Liga teams from Spain. As for play, Saudi Arabia does not have a very consistent record for the past year. Their biggest win this past year came through Greece. However they’ve also had to endure losses to Belgium, Iraq and Portugal. However anything’s possible in football and the Saudi’s could surprise in Russia.

Egypt-Egypt (46)- This is only the second time Egypt has been to the World Cup. The only other time is in 1990. However Egypt is ready to play well. They’ve hired Argentine coach Hector Cuper to coach the team. The team’s players play for various team in Egypt, Europe and the US. However many consider the heart and soul of the team to be led by 26 year-old Mohamed Salah who as a striker for Liverpool won 2017 CAF footballer of the year. Many see Salah as an emerging great and could boost team Egypt in the future.

Their record leading up to World Cup 2018 is very much in question. Their only wins this past year have come against African teams. Their last win against a team from outside Africa was Bosnia-Hercegovina back in 2014. This year they’ve faced losses to Portugal and Greece. Russia is another proving point for ‘The Pharoahs.’ They may be out in the group stage or they may surprise everyone.

Uruguay-Uruguay (17)- This is the team from Group A that has the most clout. For a long time, Uruguay was seen as a team that was a blast from the past. Their biggest glory days came with World Cup wins in 1930 and 1950 and Olympic gold medals in 1924 and 1928. However a resurgence of Uruguay on the world scene starting with World Cup 2010 has catapulted the team back to the top of the world elite. It started with Diego Forlan and has now transferred to Luis Suarez. Uruguay’s stint at the 2014 ended in disgrace after Suarez was banned from nine games following a biting incident on an Italian player. And to think Chewy Louie was the player that infamously blocked a potential goal from Ghana at 2010.

Since the incident, Suarez has kept his promise of not ever biting another opponent. He has matured a lot as a player since and serves as Uruguay’s top star. However Uruguay is not just Suarez. The team also boasts another top striker in Edinson Cavani, midfielder Cristian Rodriguez and top defencemen Diego Godin and Maxi Pereira. Uruguay can prove themselves to be a top force to be reckoned with here in Russia.

So there’s my review of the first World Cup group. As for predictions, I’ll just settle for predicting the two countries that will advance past the Group Stage right now, and I predict it will be Russia and Uruguay.

STADIUM SPOTLIGHT

Once again, I get to focus on the various stadia that are hosting the World Cup. I figure the arenas are worth talking about. Russia will have has twelve stadia that will facilitate for the World Cup including two in Moscow. Only three are older than ten years old. All are situated in the European cluster of Russia. Just like Brazil in 2014, Russia all twelve of the stadiums will hold four Group Stage matches but they will be matches for four different groups. Also just like in Brazil 2014, all six of the Group Stage games for each individual group will again be played in six different stadiums, and not all will be that close by. Once again, a lot of traveling around for the 32 teams in a huge cluster of a country. One of which, they will have to cross the border of Lithuania to play in.

It’s confusing, but no less confusing than Brazil 2014. Here I’ll give you my first taste of my Stadium Spotlight of 2018. Note that each stadium I show in my Stadium Spotlight feature will be a stadium that will contest Group Stage matches for each respective group. These two I will focus on will host Group Stage matches in Group A. So without further ado, here are the two stadiums in focus:

-YEKATERINBURG: Central Stadiumyekaterinburg-world-cup-stadium-1024x576

Year Opened: 1957

World Cup Capacity: 35,696

World Cup Groups Hosting: A, C, F, H

Central Stadium is one of only two stadiums at this World Cup that was built in the 20th Century. Though there’s no doubt they’ve had to undergo extensive renovations over the years including preparations for this year’s World Cup. Actually the arena was a stadium for speed skating. The shift to football and other sports have been the focus since the downfall of the USSR.

The stadium will have 12,000 temporary seats for the World Cup. After the World Cup, it will be the host venue for team FC Ural Yekaterinburg. In addition, there are plans to add a fitness centre and a Valeological centre.

-SAMARA: Cosmos ArenaCosmos Samara

Year Opened: 2018

World Cup Capacity: 42,374

World Cup Groups Hosting: A, C, E, H

Additional World Cup Matches Contested: Round of 16 (E1 vs. F2) & a quarter-final

Cosmos is one of many stadiums built fresh for this World Cup. It came at a cost of $320 million. The building of the stadium was first meant to be built on an island close to the city, but the intended construction of a bridge, and the public’s uproar over its total expense, led it to be built in the north area of the city.

After the World Cup, it will be the host venue of team FC Krylia Sovetov Samara.

And there you go. My first preview of the World Cup teams and stadiums. Seven more groups and ten more stadiums to review before World Cup 2018 starts. Stay tuned for more.

PyeongChang 2018: Ten To Watch

Olympic Flame

After thirty years, the Olympics are returning to South Korea. After 20 years, the Winter Olympics return to an Asian country. The region of PyeongChang will be ready to host the 2018 Winter Olympics. There are expected to be over 2000 athletes from 92 nations competing. From February 9th to the 25th, medals are to be awarded in 102 events in 15 sports. Here are ten athletes and teams expected to catch your eye during the Games.

Marcel Hirscher/Austria – Alpine Skiing: Much the same way the Dutch always shell out new greats in speed skating, Austria always seems to create a new great in alpine skiing. Seeking to be the next Austrian great is Marcel Hirscher. Hirscher has been the Overall World Cup winner for the past six years and has won gold at the world Championships six times. The one title that eludes him is an Olympic gold. His one and only Olympic medal is a slalom silver at the Sochi Games of 2014.

He currently leads the World Cup standings in slalom, giant slalom and overall. He’s expected to win slalom, giant slalom and combined here in PyeongChang. He will face rivalry from Norway’s Kjetil Jansrut and France’s Alexis Pinturault. PyeongChang will be the scene where he could become a ‘best ever’ or a ‘best never.’

Mikaela Shiffrin/United States – Alpine Skiing: Back at the Sochi Olympics when Shiffrin was 18, people were already anticipating her to be the next great. She was already world Cup slalom winner and World Champion in the slalom the year before. Her gold medal in the slalom in Sochi would set in stone that she was one to watch.

Since Sochi, Shiffrin has won the World Cup in slalom every year except 2016 and finally won the World Cup overall title last year. She is expected to win slalom, giant slalom and the combined here in PyeongChang, but she will face challenges from France’s Tessa Worley, Italy’s Sofia Goggia and Liechtenstein’s Tina Weirather. PyeongChang is her chance to crown herself a great.

Martina Sablikova/Czech Republic – Long-Track Speed Skating: There have only been two long-track speed skaters that have won the same event twice: American Bonnie Blair in the 500m from 1988 to 1994, and German Claudia Pechstein in the 5000m from 1994 to 2002. One of two seeking to be the third is Czech Martina Sablikova in the 5000m.

Sablikova has won three of the Czech Republic’s seven gold medals at the Winter Olympics. Before Sablikova, no Czech speed skater has won a medal. At the Turin Games of 2006, an 18 year-old Sablikova missed a medal in the 5000m by a second. The following year, Sablikova set the first of her world records in the 5000m. Her Olympic coming-of-age came in Vancovuer 2010 as she won two gold and a bronze. Success continued for her in Sochi as she repeat at 5000m champ and won silver in the 3000m. She serves message she’s prepared to threepeat in the 5000m and return to gold in the 3000m, but she faces rivalry from Canadian Ivanie Blondin and two Dutch skaters: veteran Ireen Wust and newcomer Antoinette de Jong. Whatever happens, Sablikova has already solidified her greatness in the sport.

Johannes Thingnes Bø/Norway – Biathlon: Norway has always fielded greats in the Nordic skiing events. The sport of biathlon is no exception with greats like Magnar Solberg and Ole Einar Bjorndalen. This year with Bjorndalen failing to make the Olympic team, Norway’s future rest with their latest protege Johannes Thingnes Bø.

Bø is actually the youngest brother of Tarjei Bø who won Olympic gold in the biathlon relay in 2010. Johannes Bø first competed at the Sochi Olympics in 2014 at the age of 20, but did not win a medal. However talent was yet to come as he finished third in the overall category in that year’s World Cup. He first burst onto the scene at the world Championship the following year when he won gold in the Sprint and two additional relay medals. The following year, he won the Mass Start event and a relay gold. At last year’s worlds, he won silver in Sprint, Pursuit and Mass Start. He hasn’t won a World Cup title yet, but he has eight World Cup victories this season. Sports Illustrated predicts him to win three gold medals, but he will face rivalry from his own brother Tarjei, Slovenian Jakov Fak and Frenchman Martin Fourcade, who leads Bø in the World Cup overall this season. PyeongChang should make for an exciting showdown.

Martins Dukurs/Latvia – Skeleton: Latvia has never won a winter Olympic gold medal. In the past 15 years, Latvia has sent top contenders in the sledding sports. Latvian lugers, bobsledders and skeleton sledders have won a total of seven medals in the sledding sports since the Turin Games of 2006. Poised to win Latvia’s first ever winter Olympic gold is skeleton sledder Martins Dukurs. Martins and his brother Tomass have become two of the top skeleton sledders in recent years. Both are tndrained by their father Dainis who was a former bobsledder.

Dukurs has had the Olympic misfortune of being the silver medalist to sledders from the host nations: Canada’s Jon Montgomery in 2010 and Russia’s Aleksandr Tretyakov in 2014. The last one is biting because Tretyakov is one of many Russian athletes in which the IOC had on a lifetime ban for their part in their systematic doping for the Sochi Olympics, which I will talk about later. Their stripping of their Sochi medals, including Tretyakov’s gold, was overturned by the Court of Arbitration of Sports just on February 1st. It’s also biting for Tomass as he finished fourth in 2014 and would have been elevated to the bronze medalist.

Dukurs serves notice he is finally ready to claim the elusive gold medal. He has won every World and European skeleton title since Sochi. However he is ranked fourth in the World Cup standings this season with South Korea’s Yun Sung-bin leading, German Axel Jungk second and his brother Tomass third. PyeongChang could be his last chance to seize Olympic gold.

Marit Bjorgen/Norway – Nordic Skiing: Some of you may remember from my Sochi Olympic preview blog that I anticipated more greatness for Marit Bjorgen. I was right as she added three more gold to her legacy. She’s one of only three females with ten winter Olympic medals and one of three with six Winter Olympic golds. She continued her legacy at last year’s world Championships where she won three individual events and the relay.

Leading up to the Olympics this year, Bjorgen’s success has been lackluster, compared to previous seasons. This season she’s only had two World Cup victories and a second-place: her lowest ever. On top of that, young talent like Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla, American Sadie Bjornsen and her own teammates Ingvild Østberg and Heidi Weng are seeking to overtake her supremacy. PyeongChang looks like to be her last Olympics. However even without a gold medal, she can still add to her legacy. She’s just needs to win a single medal of any color to become the first woman with eleven winter Olympic medals and even just one gold away from being the first woman with seven golds. Keep in mind the men’s records are eight for golds and thirteen for total medals. Both records are owned by Norwegians. These Olympics are the place for Bjorgen to send the message that she’s not done yet. There’s still more to win.

Felix Loch/Germany – Luge: The nation of Germany pretty much owns luge. German lugers have won 32 of the 44 Olympic gold medals awarded. Felix Loch ranks as one of their greats. When he won at the Vancouver Games of 2010 he became the youngest male winner ever at the age of twenty. He has won almost every World Championships he has been in since 2008, only finishing second in 2011 and 2015. He also won gold again in Sochi both in individual and as part of the inaugural mixed relay.

However he has had his difficulties. He was too injured to compete at last year’s world Championships. In addition, he finished second at this year’s European Championships held just last week. Semen Pavlichenko of Russia who won will be there to block Loch’s path to a third straight gold medal, as well as Austria’s Wolfgang Kindl who won the Worlds last year. 2018 should prove to be an interesting challenge for Loch, but he definitely intends to rise to the occasion in PyeongChang.

Team Of Olympic Athletes From Russia: It all started at the Sochi Olympics where Russian athletes won the most gold medals. Then the secrets were unraveled before the Rio Olympics of 2016 of systematic doping of Russian athletes. They were told to accept the doping or be dropped from the team; reminiscent of the East German Olympic teams of the 1970’s and 1980’s. It was the IAAF, the governing body of Athletics, that was the first whistleblower. The International Olympic Committee responded by banning all Russian athletes from the athletics events and allowing Russian athletes to compete in the other sports, as long as the sports’ governing bodies can prove then clean through consistent testing results.

The doping even extended as far back as the Sochi Olympics. The IOC made the move to have athletes on the list face lifetime suspensions and even be stripped of their gold medals. This involved 28 athletes who had won ten medals including three gold in Sochi. However the moves to have the athletes banned and their medals stripped were overturned by the Court of Arbitration of Sport on February 1st because of lack of evidence. Not only are their bans overturned, including those banned for life, but they are allowed to keep their medals from Sochi.

Now PyeongChang. The IOC faced pressure to ban Russian athletes because of past controversies and also because there’s no evidence to suggest the doping system has ceased since Rio. In December, the IOC rules that athletes under the Russian Olympic Committee were banned from the Olympics in all sports. The IOC also ruled that like Rio, Russian athletes who have passed all doping tests and have been cleared by their respective sports federation and even the IOC’s own accreditation commission would be allowed to compete in PyeongChang. However they will compete under the label ‘Olympic Athletes From Russia.’ They will complete under the Olympic flag and if any of them win a gold medal, the Olympic hymn will be played.

As for the team, the team currently stands at 168 athletes across all fifteen sports. There have been restrictions as Russia originally qualified eleven biathletes, but only four are allowed to compete. Luge has also seen their entries reduced from 10 qualifications to eight invited and skeleton go from five qualified to two competing. Only one athlete in Nordic Combined is invited. The level of competition has gone down–Sports Illustrated predicts Russian athletes to take 11 medals including two gold– however some events will remain unscathed. Russian figure skaters are ones who are still expected to contend well and the men’s hockey team is still expected to win a medal. Russian athletes’ results should prove to be interesting and get one thinking about their future if they want to compete any further.

AND FROM THE HOST COUNTRY:

Lee Sang-hwa – Long-Track Speed Skating: Martina Sablikova isn’t the only long-track speed skater seeking a threepeat. South Korea’s Lee Sang-hwa is seeking to do that in the 500m. She first competed at the Turin Games of 2006 at the age of 16 and finished fifth in the 500. She would grow in world supremacy over the years as she would win the event in Vancouver 2010 and Sochi 2014 as well as win the event at the World Championships three times.

She is anticipated by the home country to win again, but she will face challenges from China’s Yu Jing, who finished third at last years’ Worlds, and two Japanese skaters: newcomer Arisa Go and 2017 World Champion Nao Kodaira. Whatever the situation, she will celebrate her 29th birthday on the day of the closing ceremonies!

Choi Min-jeong – Short Track Speed Skating: If there’s one Winter Olympic sport South Korea dominates, it’s short-track speed skating. Ever since short-track speed skating became an official Olympic event in 1992, South Korea has won 21 of the 48 golds warded in the sport. All but five of South Korea’s Winter Olympic golds and all but eleven of South Korea’s total Winter Olympic medals have been won in short track.

Their latest great is expected to be Choi Min-Jeong. She was too young to compete at Sochi in 2014, but she has come a long way since. She first burst onto the scene at the 2015 World Championships when she took home three gold and a bronze at the tender age of 16 including winning the Overall title. She would repeat her success the following year by repeating as Overall champ and winning two more gold and a silver. However 2017 was a bad year as she left those Worlds empty-handed. She has served notice that she will be on fire in PyeongChang, but she will face rivalry from last years’ Overall World Champion Elisa Christie of Great Britain, last year’s Overall runner-up Marianne St. Gelais of Canada, and even her own teammates Shim Suk-hee and Kim Ji-yoo. Her chance to prove herself a national hero on home-turf awaits.

One More From The Host Country (Added After Publishing):

Yun Sung-bin – Skeleton: Here’s a bit of trivia. All of South Korea’s 53 Winter Olympic medals, including 26 golds, have been won on skates. Short-track speed skaters account for 42 medals including 21 gold. Long-track speed skaters won a total of nine medals including four gold. The remaining gold and silver were won by figure skater Kim Yu-na. That could all change thanks to 23 year-old skeleton sledder Yun Sung-bin. Back at the Sochi Games in 2014, the 19 year-old Yun didn’t seem like muck of a future threat as he came in 16th. A lot can change in four years. Since then, he won this year’s World Cup season and finished second in the previous two. He even won a silver at the 2016 World Championships. In fact many anticipate he’s the one person most likely to block Martins Dukurs from winning the elusive gold medal. We’ll wait and see.

And those are ten athletes to watch for in PyeongChang. My blog of Canadians to look for in PyeongChang was published Thursday.