Finally, the world’s best sporting event is upon us.
The attention of sporting fans across the globe will turn to Russia beginning Friday morning, as the 2018 FIFA World Cup rolls into action.
My arduous task today is to inform faithful Outside The Box readers who will win the tournament, as well as predict the major talking points to come from it.
I have even enlisted The News’ fellow column franchises — Maher’s Musings (Tyler Maher) and The Fifth Quarter (Lauren Bordin) — for their predictions, such is the magnitude of the footballing extravaganza we are about to witness.
Belgium (1-0 win v Germany in the final)
So much of the talk heading into Russia surrounds which of the ‘‘big four’’ nations — Brazil, Germany, Spain and France — will win the final, but it feels like a handful of teams are being overlooked.
Chief among them is Belgium, which boasts as much elite talent as any nation, particularly Manchester City midfield wizard Kevin De Bruyne and Chelsea architect Eden Hazard.
Defensively, though, it features Tottenham duo Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld with the experience of Manchester City’s Vincent Kompany to make it a near-impenetrable wall.
Belgium will cruise through its group, beating Panama and Tunisia before handling notorious tournament strugglers England, and either Senegal or Poland won’t present a problem in the second round.
But here is where it gets tricky — a quarter-final with Brazil.
But Brazil has shown an ability at major tournaments to be stifled by strong defences and capitulate against creative attacking play — Belgium to win 2-1.
The semis will bring France or my potential bolter Uruguay, and I believe Germany has the strength to win a ding-dong semi-final against Spain on the other side of the bracket to qualify for the decider. All of these challenges can be snuffed out though by a nation ready to win its first World Cup.
The old saying is defence wins championships and I am more than willing to back Belgium’s strong defence — in combination with a wild amount of creative attacking talent — to lift the cup.
I find it hard to separate Spain and Germany on their side of the bracket and see both making the semi-final, where you can flip a coin to decide who goes through.
A slight edge is with the defending champion, particularly given Spain’s 2014 World Cup debacle where it only took points from a rabble of an Australian side, combined with an uninspiring second-round exit at Euro 2016.
France has all the tools at its disposal — Paul Pogba, Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappe among many others — but its Euro final loss to an impotent Portugal worries me.
Brazil has attacking A-graders such as Neymar and Philippe Coutinho, but relies too heavily on the Barcelona talisman to make the final, let alone get past a robust side such as Belgium.
Australia is in a tough group and will not score a goal at the World Cup.
As this column has made clear in the past, the idea of Bert van Marwijk managing this team and not soon-to-be coach Graham Arnold is ludicrous.
Ange Postecoglou parlayed his learning experience at the 2014 World Cup into the 2015 Asian Cup title, whereas here, van Marwijk will be handing over the keys with Arnold still learning to drive the side at that same stage.
The idea of a hired gun being needed to coach this side, given its state, is pretty laughable.
France will run up the score, an underrated Denmark will do as it pleases and Peru — in what could easily be a dead rubber — has too much for the Socceroos.
Friendly form includes wins against the Czech Republic and Hungary, but excuse me if friendly wins against teams not going to the World Cup does not exactly have me dreaming of a run to the final.
The best the side can hope for — in my potentially pessimistic view — is playing time for young or improving talents such as Daniel Arzani (19 years old) and Jamie Maclaren (24).
In a tournament as rich in talent as the World Cup, the best an outsider can really hope for is a semi-final run — and Uruguay and Denmark stick out as two sides that could produce that.
Uruguay benefits from a brilliant group draw, which will see it beat Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Russia, who will become the worst host nation in history, even worse than South Africa in 2010.
A second-round clash with Portugal will be a dicey affair, but Uruguay can rely on the Atletico Madrid centre-back pairing of Diego Godin and Jose Maria Gimenez to shut out Cristiano Ronaldo and his boys and set up a date with France.
Denmark’s grand final will be a second-round clash with Argentina, but do not sleep on the Danish Lionel Messi that is Christian Eriksen, who will announce himself as one of the world’s top 10 players.
France’s Antoine Griezmann would be licking his lips at the prospect of facing Australia and Peru in the group stage, and will use those fixtures to win the award for the tournament’s leading goalscorer.
It typically takes about six goals to win it and the Atletico Madrid magician could leave the group stage close to that mark if he hits top form.
Taking France’s penalties will not hurt his chances either, with cagey games on the way to a semi-final or final potentially decided by a sole spot kick.
Other hopes include Belgian pair Romelu Lukaku or Hazard, or German prodigy Timo Werner.
Lauren Bordin’s predictions
Winner: France (4-1 in final v Belgium).
Australia: Group stage exit.
Golden Boot: Antoine Griezmann (11 goals).
Tyler Maher’s predictions
Winner: Germany (4-1 in final v Portugal).
Australia: Second round exit (5-0 loss to Argentina).
Golden Boot: Lionel Messi (12 goals).