Germany to win World Cup, Neymar to break world record again & 18 thoughts for 2018

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From the World Cup to the Champions League, from the Ballon d'Or to the Golden Boot, it's going to be an epic year in the world of football

  1. Germany to become world champions... again

    International football can be tough to predict because teams are generally hostage to whatever talent is available to their managers. Plus, World Cup final tournaments are so short that luck can make all the difference.

    But if Germany were to win it all in Russia it would be the logical culmination of their work since winning it in 2014.

    Their shadow squad won the Confederations Cup with the first team on holiday last summer and their under-21s are also continental champions. They are so stacked with options and Joachim Low so canny and at ease with his system that Germany are a long, long way ahead of the chasing pack. 

  2. Napoli to end Juve's winning run

    This season Marek Hamsik became the only player to score more goals for Napoli than Diego Maradona. And later on in 2018 the captain could lead them to their first title since the glory days of the late 1980s.

    Serie A is the only title race worth watching given the gaps in the other elite European leagues and Napoli are looking to hold off challenges from six-time consecutive champions Juventus, Inter and Roma.

    Their football under Maurizio Sarri has been bountiful and there is no reason to think that this couldn’t be the year the hoodoo ends. 

  3. Get ready for Pep's Quad Squad

    The records are already tumbling for Pep Guardiola and Manchester City. They’ve long since eclipsed the record for the best-ever start to a Premier League season and, with their draw against Crystal Palace, they have equalled the biggest-ever lead at the end of a calendar year in a season.

    City have won 20 of their 22 league matches thus far and vanquished all of their top-six opponents along the way. It’s impossible to see where City are going to slip up. You would assume that they might be forced into a bad result on a day when they’re not at their best but under Pep there is no chance of that.

    Add to that their form in domestic cups. It’s no exaggeration to say that Pep – who has tamed the Premier League – could well be the first man to coach a team to a domestic treble and maybe even a quadruple overall.

    It is shaping up to be a surprisingly open field for the Champions League. There is no one outstanding candidate to take the title with most of the top teams suffering some stuttering form at one time or another.

    Barcelona – despite their imperious form – might well be more vulnerable than they were in their peak years while defending champions Real Madrid are facing a tricky two-legged tie against Paris St-Germain.

    Bayern Munich meanwhile are undergoing a season of transition. It all means that – perhaps – a new name could be etched on the trophy. Neymar, Kylian Mbappe and Edinson Cavani are powerful in the PSG frontline but Pep’s City loom over the lot.

    He has got their identity clear both at home and in Europe and there doesn’t appear to be a better-equipped side for the ultimately glory.

  4. Could we see a new name on the Ballon d'Or?

    Let’s leave Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo to one side for a second and pretend there is another player in the running for the Ballon d’Or.

    It’s a World Cup year and therefore the possibility of one of the top players in the winning team being crowned the best player in the world grows.

    If Germany do indeed go all the way then maybe Toni Kroos might be rewarded for his consistency. Joshua Kimmich might cap his dizzying rise with the top individual honour.

    It would be a long shot for any Manchester City player to go all the way even if they end up dominating the lot but depending on Belgium’s performance in Russia then Kevin De Bruyne could be an outside shot.

    Neymar will also be up there while Harry Kane’s relentless consistency will be hard to ignore if he matches his 2017 output this year. 

  5. Neymar could break his own transfer record

    Neymar’s reported to be regretting his move to PSG, Cristiano Ronaldo’s Real Madrid future remains in doubt and Florentino Perez remarked that it would be easier for the Brazilian to win the Ballon d’Or if he was playing at the Bernabeu.

    Therefore it is entirely possible that Neymar could break his own €222m world transfer record by moving from Paris to Madrid and becoming the new landmark signing at the world’s most famous club. 

  6. Zidane to pay for Real failures

    A Clasico defeat like the one suffered by Real Madrid and Zinedine Zidane two days before Christmas might well have ended the managerial reign of a man of lesser standing.

    But the two Champions League titles have stood the Frenchman in good stead and, for now, Florentino Perez, might be willing to overlook his underperformance in La Liga.

    But if he is unable to rouse the troops for a third consecutive European title then his days will be very much numbered – even if he won five titles in 2017. 

  7. Mourinho to throw in the towel

    Are Jose Mourinho’s recent words about Manchester City’s spending power an admission of defeat?

    Does he no longer believe that Manchester United are capable of becoming champions of England in the face of such financial and coaching might?

    Does he still have the stomach for a fight – especially one in which he has such an uneven squad?

    Mourinho has about six months to counteract those assertions otherwise he might well cut his losses and depart for pastures new. 

  8. Big changes on the bench in Paris... again

    The attractions of coaching PSG are manifold; untold riches and the opportunity to work with some of the world’s best attacking talent chief among them. But that comes with intense pressure.

    Unai Emery will have to come up with the Champions League to satisfy the demands of Qatar but will run into a roadblock in the shape of Real Madrid.

    Combine that with Neymar’s supposed unhappiness with the Spaniard’s methods and it has all the ingredients of yet another change in the hotseat.

    Jose Mourinho, Diego Simeone and Andre Villas-Boas have all been linked. 

  9. Conte may quit Chelsea... could Hazard go too?

    Winning the Premier League was a good achievement for Chelsea and Antonio Conte but their attempts at following that up have been a washout. They are nowhere near the pace set by Manchester City and their runners-up spot in their Champions League group condemned them to a tie with Barcelona in the last-16.

    Conte did not get the reinforcements he needed in summer and his frustrations at the situation have been well-documented this season. He will not last beyond the summer and could be joined at the exit door by Eden Hazard, who admires Real Madrid. 

  10. Simeone's Atleti run at an end

    Diego Simeone has brought success to Atletico Madrid unprecedented in the modern era but the sparkle might well have gone out of his regime.

    He has overseen the transition to the Wanda Metropolitano but his team have also gone out of the Champions League.

    He previously reduced the terms of his Atletico contract extension in order to bail out early and, perhaps, Stamford Bridge or Paris might prove an attractive next destination. 

  11. Changes all round at Bayern

    Jupp Heynckes is steadying the ship and may even oversee another title, a double or even a treble. But this summer will mean massive changes at Bayern Munich regardless.

    Veteran stars like Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben are unlikely be around much longer with their contracts expiring, meaning spots will open for new stars to emerge.

    The playing staff is indeed requiring adjustments with major leaders like Manuel Neuer and Arturo Vidal now over 30 and Mats Hummels, Jerome Boateng, Javi Martinez and Robert Lewandowski approaching that landmark in 2018. 

  12. Muller to cement all-time World Cup legend status

    Thomas Muller comes alive at World Cups. He has scored 10 tournament goals in only 13 matches across two tournaments – in 2010 and 2014.

    With Germany among the favourites again and with – potentially – another seven matches to play in Russia there is a chance that Muller will break Miroslav Klose’s record of 16 World Cup goals this summer.

    He will need a good headwind and maybe a hat-trick in the group stages. But Mexico, Sweden and South Korea should be easily dispatched. After that, if the Germans can match expectations then Muller should be among the goals.

  13. Restrictions could further choke China

    For a spell, it appeared all roads led east with the Chinese Super League snaffling talent from under the noses of Europe’s top clubs. No more.

    A 100 per cent import tax on foreign signings has severely cut into Chinese spending power while new regulations for 2018 will neuter the CSL further.

    The number of foreign players named to any matchday team will have to be matched with the same number of local under-23s.

    The power of China is not what it used to be only a year on from threatening to take the likes of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Diego Costa from Europe. 

  14. Milan heading for oblivion

    Though they may be seven-time champions of Europe, Gennaro Gattuso’s side are foundering on and off the pitch. New signings like Leonardo Bonucci and Hakan Calhanoglu have been duds, the fate of Gianluigi Donnarumma remains undecided while the threat of financial implosion hangs in the air.

    Uefa declared their “uncertainties” over the club’s new Chinese owners and declined to approve their request for a “voluntary agreement” in relation to Financial Fair Play.

    In the distance loom loans to be paid back to a US venture capital firm by October which, currently, Milan would appear to be unable to satisfy. 

  15. Arthur or Coutinho to replace Iniesta

    Father Time is catching up with one of the centerpieces of Barca’s successes for more than a decade. Iniesta has yet to play 90 minutes in La Liga this season, being used sparingly by coach Ernesto Valverde.

    Barca need a permanent replacement for this homegrown superstar with Gremio’s Arthur and Philippe Coutinho the prime candidates to take over. 

  16. Super Mario will get back on top

    Mario Balotelli has scored 33 goals in just 49 games in all competitions for Nice and is currently in the form of his life. His personal restoration plan on France’s south coast could not have gone any better and he is already answering questions about a return to the top level.

    The 27-year-old is in the prime of his career and may well have proved to any doubters within top clubs that he has the application and attitude to succeed. 

  17. Sterling to be crowned Players' Player of the Year

    Raheem Sterling is the most consistent forward in the best team the Premier League has seen in many a year and so will be treated accordingly by his peers by claiming the PFA Players' Player of the Year award.

    Long derided by sections of local English support, Sterling has shut them up with the quality of his performances this year. 

  18. Messi and Barca to reign supreme in Spain

    What a difference just a few short months make. Back in the summer Barcelona were reeling from the loss of Neymar to PSG, playing second fiddle to Real Madrid - both in Europe and on the domestic front - while Lionel Messi was stalling on a contract extension.

    Now however things are in total harmony at Camp Nou. Ernesto Valverde has the team flying at the top of the table with Messi leading the scoring charts and in sublime form.

    2018 is shaping up to be his year yet again. Barca are surpassing expectations on both fronts and Messi – finally playing under his new mega deal – is by far the world’s best player.

    Who would bet against Barca claiming title at home and in Europe and Messi taking home a sixth Ballon d’Or?