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BN Soccer's World Cup preview: The Pretenders

As host nation Russia and Saudi Arabia kick off the 2018 World Cup on Thursday, soccer fans around the globe will gleefully prepare for a month of seemingly nonstop action.

Thankfully for viewers' sake, there's no clear favorite - but a slew of contenders who, with some good fortune, breakout performances and steady play, could hoist soccer's biggest prize on July 15.

But first, let's look at three countries that BN Soccer considers pretenders, or teams that will underachieve in Russia in the face of lofty expectations.

FRANCE

Why they might be considered favorites: Simply put, the roster is stacked. Winger Kylian Mbappe is one of the most exciting young players in the world, Antoine Griezmann is a joy to watch and center backs Raphael Varane and Samuel Umtiti have the ability and club pedigree to be the best pairing in the world.

Paul Pogba, much maligned because of how good he could be, is still a nightmare to deal with in the middle of the park.

Why they'll stumble: United States soccer fans saw first-hand the troubles in French football when the Yanks' side of youngster shockingly drew Les Bleus, 1-1. Sure, France fell in the second overtime session to Portugal in the Euro 2016 finals, then breezed through World Cup qualifying; advancing from a soft group of Peru, Australia and Denmark shouldn't be a problem.

But an abundance of talent doesn't always mean it meshes well together, and national team great Didier Deschamps has his hands full organizing a team with star power at every position.

Goalkeeper Hugo Lloris conceded four goals in the final English Premier League match of the season, then conceded a soft - albeit deflected - strike by Julian Green of the U.S.

Relying on Benjamin Mendy, Manchester City's prized signing from last summer who missed much of the campaign with a tear of his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), for heavy minutes will be risky. But the spotlight is unquestionably on Pogba, the prized Manchester United center midfielder who's yet to truly dominate despite a freakish skill set. Will he wilt under the pressure of high expectations?

After the group stage, the going gets tough. Gritty Iceland is a possible upset pick in the knockout stage, with a rematch against Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal a potential quarterfinal. A likely scenario sees France lose in the semifinals, but a shock early exit in the first round of the knockout stage is entirely possible.

*****

PORTUGAL

Why they might be considered favorites: Hey, it's probably 33-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo's final World Cup, even though he keeps defying age. And, considering recent results in big tournaments - champions of Europe in 2016 and third place at the 2017 Confederations Cup - Portugal is next to Germany in sustained success. Fernando Santos' side should easily better their 2014 World Cup results, in which they didn't advance out of their group.

Why they'll stumble: We're not doubting Ronaldo, who - to us - is the best finisher in the world. We're doubting his supporting cast, which has relied heavily on Pepe, now 35 years old, center back partner Bruno Alves (36) and mercurial Ricardo Quaresma, who's 34. The two Silvas - Andre and Bernardo - shouldn't strike much fear in foes beyond the group stage, and the country is ordinary in the center of the park.

Unless Ronaldo puts the country on his back, Portugal won't make the semifinals. Regardless, their group match against Spain (2 p.m. June 15) is easily the best game of the early going.

*****

ARGENTINA

Why they're considered favorites: Lionel Messi was oh-so-close to tossing the international monkey off his back in 2014, when Argentina fell to Germany in the World Cup Final. He's fresh off another fantastic club season (45 goals) and has oodles of attacking talent around him in Sergio Aguero (Manchester City) and Juventus 'mates Paolo Dybala and Gonzalo Higuain, even if all three are riddled with health, confidence or chemistry concerns.

In the back, Nicolas Otamendi just wrapped up an exceptional campaign for Premier League winners Manchester City.

Why they'll stumble: Things are already beginning to look bleak. Creative midfielder Manuel Lanzini tore his ACL before the tournament. Center midfielder Lucas Biglia's fitness is in question, and there's no clear starting goalkeeper after Sergio Romero hurt his knee. Beyond Otamendi, there's not much talent along the back line to soothe the jitters of whoever Jorge Sampaoli chooses to protect his goal.

Argentina will face group challenges in Croatia and Iceland, two lesser talented teams who nonetheless present very different obstacles. A probable quarterfinal match-up with Spain, a side with superior balance and arguably the world's best goalkeeper, will likely be Argentina's undoing.

Email: btsujimoto@buffnews.com

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