Confederations Cup predictions: Chile to edge Portugal in the final?
The 2016-17 football season has come to an end, but the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup is already upon us to fill the gap. Nick Ames reviews the eight teams involved and predicts their progress in the tournament.
Russian football could do with an injection of positivity after such a disastrous European Championship last summer, both on and off the pitch, and with next year's World Cup on the horizon. Two respectable friendly results -- a 3-0 friendly win in Hungary and 1-1 draw with Chile in Moscow -- have raised hopes that Stanislav Cherchesov's team are moving in a better direction, although it is only eight months since they suffered successive defeats to Costa Rica and Qatar.
The tools available to Cherchesov remain more workmanlike than inspiring, and he has been dealt a bad hand with several key injuries. Striker Artem Dzyuba, playmaker Alan Dzagoev and midfielder Roman Zobnin are particularly important absentees. All the players on Russia's roster play professionally in Russia, and the side looks short of attacking thrust to trouble the best.
Prediction: Russia's best hope may be the backing of patriotic crowds on their home turf, but whether or not that surfaces, it won't be enough to carry them out of the group.
The moderate opposition New Zealand tend to face in Oceania can make them hard to judge, but they are a solid outfit and should perform respectably enough. Englishman Anthony Hudson, 36, is the manager, and they have a backbone of good Premier League and Championship quality in the form of West Ham's Winston Reid, Ipswich defender Tommy Smith and Leeds centre-forward Chris Wood.
New Zealand lost to Mexico 2-1 in an October friendly, and that was followed by an impressive 1-1 draw with the United States. The All Whites hope to go one better this time, although the last time they faced the Mexicans competitively, they fell 9-3 on aggregate in a qualification playoff for the 2014 World Cup.
Prediction: They aren't pushovers and may achieve a draw or two, but New Zealand will not seriously threaten to pass through the group stage for the first time in their fourth Confederations Cup.
The European champions roll in with a well-stocked squad, but without their hero from last summer, Eder, who didn't make the cut after a patchy season with Lille. Bayern Munich's Renato Sanches has also been left out, but Cristiano Ronaldo, Pepe and new Manchester City signee Bernardo Silva will travel.
Portugal have won seven matches from nine since that memorable night when they won the Euro final at Stade de France, although their two defeats came against Switzerland and Sweden, the strongest opponents they have faced. Manager Fernando Santos is phasing in a talented new generation, and if Portugal can keep their momentum from last summer, they will be serious challengers for their first Confederations Cup title.
Prediction: Ronaldo & Co. will win the group and should have too much for Germany in the last four, but Chile will trip up Portugal in the final.
El Tri qualified for the Confederations Cup by winning a playoff against the U.S. in 2015 and are a staple of this tournament, having appeared in six of its previous nine editions. They won it on home turf in 1999, and a repeat is not out of the question this summer, even if a better send-off than a 1-1 World Cup qualifying draw at home against their bitter American rivals would have been preferred.
Javier Hernandez and an in-form Carlos Vela provide an attacking threat few will be able to rival; with only one defeat in their last 13 outings, Juan Carlos Osorio's side look in decent shape all over the pitch, and a semifinal finish will be their minimum target.
Prediction: Second place in the group will bring a semifinal reunion with Chile, who trounced Mexico 7-0 at the Copa America Centenario. They will play much closer this time but won't do enough to reach the final.
Manager Hugo Broos and his team were the surprising winners of the Africa Cup of Nations in January, playing a refreshing brand of assertive, high-tempo football despite missing a clutch of their better-known players. It will be fascinating to see how another relatively young squad performs in Russia. They will remain something of an unknown quantity despite their recent success and will hope that players like Christian Bassogog, who shone at AFCON and earned a move to Chinese side Henan Jianye, step up once more. Vincent Aboubakar, who scored a magical winner in the final against Egypt, remains in the squad too, and his experience may be important again.
Prediction: This time a lack of top-level nous will cost Cameroon, and while they should win friends, they will exit at the group stage.
Chile are a mouthwatering prospect at their best, and the Copa America champions will be loaded in Russia. Despite the inevitable circus of transfer speculation, Alexis Sanchez will be expected to shine, and Arturo Vidal also features in a strong squad. Under manager Juan Antonio Pizzi, they followed up their continental success in 2015 by winning last summer's Copa America Centenario, while their faltering World Cup qualifying campaign looks back on track despite a defeat in Argentina (whom they beat on penalties in both of those Copa finals) three months ago.
They are steeped in tournament know-how, and it would be little surprise to see them add the Confederations Cup to their growing collection of gongs.
Prediction: Chile will win Group B and, after overcoming Mexico in the last four, will edge a tiring Portugal in the final and win their first Confederations Cup.
An Asian Cup final win in 2015, when they beat South Korea in Sydney, guaranteed Australia their Confederations Cup place. They have been here three times before, reaching the final in 1997 but receiving a 6-0 thrashing from Brazil. Manager Ange Postecoglou's team are unbeaten in eight games in World Cup qualifying and have improved since the turn of the year.
FC Luzern striker Tomi Juric, who scored twice against Saudi Arabia last week, will be looked to for goals, while Tom Rogic and Mathew Leckie are threats and 37-year-old Tim Cahill is still around. Aaron Mooy, so impressive in Huddersfield's promotion to the Premier League, should feature in midfield.
Prediction: If they can surprise a callow Germany side in the opening game, things may open up for Australia, but it is more likely that they will fall just short of a last-four place.
On paper, Germany's name might be enough to make them favourites, but the World Cup holders have sent an experimental squad to Russia, and as a result their fate is hard to predict. Leroy Sane pulled out late due to injury, but keep an eye on Timo Werner, who was exceptional at RB Leipzig last season. Meanwhile, Julian Draxler, Emre Can, Joshua Kimmich and Shkodran Mustafi are Russia-bound.
Of the travelling party, only Draxler and Cologne's Jonas Hector have won more than 20 caps, but there is still plenty of top-level quality. Manager Joachim Low will have more than one eye on who looks likely to stake a claim for a place at the main event next summer.
Prediction: You can never bet against the Germans, and they should still have enough to pass through the group in second place -- but Portugal will prove a step too far in the last four.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.