As the World Cup exits its group stage, we say farewell to some very nice stories and some important fantasy assets. Sixteen teams, including reigning world champion Germany, have now gone home and have taken with them Mo Salah, Keylor Navas, Robert Lewandowski, Victor Moses, Gylfi Sigurdsson, Hakim Ziyech, Christian Cueva, Toni Kroos, Thomas Mueller, Manuel Neuer, Kalidou Koulibaly and Sadio Mane.
We thank each and every one of these teams, players and their fans for all of the wonderful memories.
There are so many ways I could have chosen to write this player picks column. By now, surely template teams are starting to form. In the end I am choosing to focus on a country-by-country approach to determine the assets with the highest likelihood of high return on investment.
On to the player picks...
URU play Portugal, and many fans who aren’t that familiar with URU will fear a goal explosion by POR’s Cristiano Ronaldo (aka CR7). Don’t let this fear deter you from picking up a defender or the goalkeeper.
URU plays as if conceding a goal will end the country’s independence. Unlike many other highly defensive teams, however, URU’s men are calm, highly experienced, and very good both technically and tactically. In other words, they won’t give away cheap fouls and penalties.
There has been some turnover because of injuries (Jose Maria Gimenez) or tactics (Guillermo Varela). If you don’t want to stress about guaranteed starts, then focus your efforts on URU’s captain Diego Godin (5.6). The other good option is Martin Caceres (5.6), who is highly experienced and always finds a place in the XI. Fernando Muslera (5.6), the keeper, is always a good decision.
In attack, both Luis Suarez (10.5) and Edinson Cavani (9.5) are a little expensive. I like “Lucho” Suarez a lot (and he takes PKs), so wouldn’t judge you if you agreed with me or, equally, if disagreed because you thought he was too expensive for an URU striker.
RUS play Spain in what will be an almost impossible match-up for the hosts. I think they will struggle defensively, so I am not recommending any defender (despite some good returns on investment in the group stages) or keeper Igor Akinfeev (5.0). Rather, I’m shopping for bargains here and I am all in on Yuri Gazinksy (4.5) as a cheap enabler.
In attack, Denis Cheryshev (5.7) and Aleksandr Golovin (6.7) are the most likely goal scorers and/or assist getters. ESP’s defense has been vulnerable, so a punt on one of these two RUS players, if they don’t break your bank, could be a fun way to pay tribute to the host team.
I expect a fairly routine win for ESP v RUS. Maybe not by clean sheet, but certainly by at least a 2-goal difference. Since even before anyone at the World Cup had kicked a ball in anger, Real Madrid winger Isco (8.5) has been on my mind. This is the stage and the opportunity he must seize to prove that he is elite. He has been spectacular so far even if he hasn’t revolutionized the scoring sheet (or fantasy earnings). I’m all in on Isco to convert.
Perhaps the biggest surprise for me in the entire tournament thus far has been Diego Costa (9.1). I never thought he would actually be able to score goals regularly for ESP. With The Master of The Dark Arts on the pitch, ESP always looked like ten men who grew up playing together plus one (Costa) who was playing by his own rules. Whatever. It’s working. Give me Costa.
The defense, on the other hand, has been disappointing. I still like Jordi Alba (6.5), the best out of the quartet of starting defenders (with Sergio Ramos, Gerard Pique and Dani Carvajal), and certainly more than the keeper David De Gea aka “DDG” (6.5). Beware of DDG, by the way: Even if you believe he could turn the corner and become dominant once again, he may not get the chance. There is increasing chatter out of the Madrid papers that Athletic Bilbao shot-stopper Kepa Arrizabalaga (4.5) could get the nod. It’s a 50/50 proposition at best, but DDG is expensive and it’s just too much risk. I’m out. There is also talk of Real Madrid Mr. Everything defender Nacho (5.5) being moved to midfield alongside Sergio Busquets. If he plays as a central midfielder, then Nacho is a must have. Again, 50/50 proposition at best.
Cristiano Ronaldo (12.1), duh, right? Right? Right? (And he takes PKs too!)
Well sure... but don’t expect a golazo fest because he’s facing the world’s staunchest defense in URU. Ronaldo will never be a bad option, but manage your expectations because Diego Godin and this URU defense are super tough to beat. And you better believe that Godin, who plays for Real Madrid arch-rival Atletico Madrid, is very familiar with Ronaldo.
With that said, POR does offer fantasy managers a few good options to fill out a roster. Most of the midfielders are reasonably priced. Of these I like William Carvalho (6.0) and Adrien Silva (5.9) as relatively affordable enablers. The defense offers good value too, and if I had to pick one, I’d go with Cedric Soares (5.5) because of his crossing ability. URU’s full backs are not that team’s strength, and erstwhile LB Martin Caceres (assuming URU play four at the back) could be exposed by Cedric, who lines up at RB. POR’s keeper, Rui Patricio (6.0) is one of the best in the business.
FRA will play Argentina in a game that features some of the world’s best attacking talent but could end up being ultra-low scoring.
While Paul Pogba (9.0) has looked good in real life, none of his play has translated to fantasy points. Instead, it is N’Golo Kante (6.0) who offers the best return on investment in France’s midfield. But I’m not jumping in excitement at the thought of adding Kante to my fantasy midfield.
I prefer to focus my efforts in attack, where Kylian Mbappe (9.0) and Antoine Griezmann (10.0) offer the hope of magic (and Griezmann also offers PKs). In defense, Lucas Hernandez (5.0) represents very good value, as does fit-again Djibril Sidibe (5.5), who looks to have displaced Benjamin Pavard as starting RB. Hugo Lloris (6.0) is a dependable goalkeeper, but I’m not recommending him because there are better options out there with more favorable matchups than a showdown with Messi possibly followed by one against Ronaldo.
DEN will play CRO in a wonderful match-up for midfield geeks like me.
One of my favorite players in both real life and fantasy is Tottenham maestro Christian Eriksen (9.1). There is something about the classy Dane, about the way he calmly stands before a dead ball as he vizualizes the best trajectory for a free kick, corner kick, or penalty kick. He offers the greatest of all fantasy gifts: the expectation of points to come.
The other Dane standout is keeper Kasper Schmeichel (5.1). Against Croatia’s potent attack, however, I’m cautiously optimistic at best. Same goes for the defense, despite some very attractive 5.0 pricing. If I were to gamble on a Dane, it would be forward Pione Sisto (6.4). Much was expected of the promising youngster, but so far the returns have been middling.
CRO have been one of the best teams in the group stages, offering positive fantasy returns across all facets of the game. They have one of the better Round of 16 match-up opponents in Denmark, a team they will be expected to compete with and ultimately defeat.
The classiest of all Croatian players is Real Madrid midfield maestro Luka Modric (9.1). Expensive? Yes. Worth it? In the form he is in, and taking PKs, the answer to that is YES!
Other good Croatian picks include goalkeeper Danijel Subasic (5.6); Liverpool defender Dejan Lovren because of his clean sheet potential and aerial prowess (5.1); and forward Ante Rebic (5.5) who is having a bigger-than-expected tournament and is being scouted by prominent teams including Tottenham.
ARG has not offered much in the way of fantasy, and I’m not sure much will change.
Defender Marcos Rojo (5.5) is the most obvious outlier, but how likely is he to score from perfect volleys with his wrong foot at the death of extremely high-pressure games? If I were to gamble on a defender, I prefer Nicolas Otamendi (5.9) because he’s more of a guarantee to start and is Argentina’s best aerial threat on set pieces.
Lionel Messi (11.9) will always be Leo Messi, but for fantasy purposes I prefer Ever Banega (6.9) because of his ability to create from midfield and author sweet assists. The only other ARG players I am considering at this stage are defender Nicolas Tagliafico (4.9) because he starts, is very affordable and finds himself in the attacking third with frequent regularity; and goalkeeper extraordinaire Franco Armani (5.0) who will save the world.
I should be writing about Germany instead, but Die Mannschaft crashed out during the group stage, so I am not. SWE and not GER won group-F and will face E2 Switzerland in the Round of 16.
As nice a story as this is, there is not that much to get excited about from a fantasy point of view — except for those of you jumping on the PK bandwagon: Defender Andreas Granqvist (5.1) takes SWE penalties, which made him the top-earner among all defenders in the group stage. Sweden’s star play-maker is midfielder Emil Forsberg (7.5), but he has not collected enough fantasy points to warrant the outlay. He’s a gamble, and maybe not a bad one. The other interesting midfield asset is Viktor Claesson (5.1).
Beyond the two midfielders you are looking at a lot of prayers and guesses. Keeper Robin Olsen (5.0) is cheap and capable.
What to make of this team? Did Mexico shock Germany only to then be figured out? Is this a side that can rise or sink to the level of any opponent? Results were increasingly less impressive as the group went on, culminating in a 3-0 shellacking vs SWE. The punishment is an immediate meeting with odds-on cup favorite BRA. Mexico’s long history of Round-of-16 exits is highly unlikely to end, despite a very promising start.
The forward trio of “Chicharito” Javier Hernandez (8.5); “Chucky” Hirving Lozano (8.0); and Carlos Vela (7.5) are all capable of big scores, especially Vela on PKs. I don’t mind having one of the trio on my fantasy team.
I’m a little less enthusiastic about picking a MEX midfielder. Miguel Layun (5.5) would probably be the one I’d pick because he’s affordable and plays mostly in attack (despite being, possibly, the worst finisher I’ve ever seen).
On defense, keeper “Memo” Guillermo Ochoa (5.1) is always capable of the impossible and is proven at this stage — he will need to be spectacular (and more) to keep BRA from shredding his net. A 5.0 rated MEX defender could enable investment in a more expensive option elsewhere... if you can live with heart-in-mouth syndrome for over 90 minutes.
BRA are slowly-but-surely rounding into shape, and everyone associated with this team will fancy their chances of advancing far beyond the Round of 16.
It is true that BRA haven’t dazzled thus far in this tournament, but that’s okay. Plenty of World Cup winning squads were decidedly meh in the group stages as they started by conserving energy and then gradually but surely gained momentum.
I am recommending a number of BRA players v MEX (and beyond). If you only have budget for one of Coutinho or Neymar, then I’d recommend Coutinho (9.1) — this BRA team looks more his than that of a certain petulant child who chose to leave Barcelona for a pile of cash (and now regrets his decision). However, Neymar (12.0) is expected to be on PK duty, so...
A slightly riskier choice is RB Fagner (5.0) who appears to have usurped Danilo (thigh injury) for a place in the XI — although doubts about who starts shall persist. But if Fagner gets the call, he has been a better fantasy producer than the far more heralded and expensive Marcelo (6.5), who is also struggling with a back muscle complaint. Another BRA defender I can get behind is Miranda (5.5), a player I don’t rate at all in real life but who does offer good value for fantasy purposes. Alisson (6.0), the standout BRA keeper, will probably play a few more games in this World Cup and will not concede too many more goals.
Finally, I don’t mind recommending Casemiro (5.5) as a cheap midfield enabler - he starts and is a world class talent who can do a bit of everything extremely well. With Douglas Costa possibly out for a few more games, the temptation might be to pick Willian (8.4) because of his seemingly guaranteed starts. I am not recommending the Chelsea winger because he’s a little expensive and hasn’t been in good form in Russia. Similar thinking can be applied to Gabriel Jesus (9.0), who also faces the threat of Roberto Firmino getting the call off the bench.
SUI will face SWE in a “sweet” match-up.
One of these two sides has “Cinderella” written all over it. Of the two, I think SUI is the more talented squad because of the brilliance of a certain Pocket-Hercules-sized attacker. All year long there were signs in the English Premier League that Stoke was a bad squad that should be relegated, but all year there were also signs that its attacking midfielder Xherdan Shaqiri (8.5) was putting it all together for perhaps the first time in his career. Massive clubs like Bayern Munich and Internazionale saw the promise but gave up on Shaqiri because he has always been inconsistent and injury prone. No more. Stoke is going down to the Championship, but Shaqiri is going places. Nice places. He’s being heavily scouted in this World Cup, and his performance in Russia — gaining momentum with each passing game — has been big-time. I’m all-in on Shaq!
Beyond Shaqiri, however, there isn’t a whole lot to recommend. Midfielders Granit Xhaka and Blerim Dzemaili are good, but at 7.0 there are better options. Defender Manuel Akanji (4.5) has had a very good tournament and is a guaranteed starter in the heart of a solid defense — I think he’ll be a very popular pick. LB Ricardo Rodriguez (5.5) is also a guaranteed starter, and he has some attacking potential, especially because he’s reported to be the Swiss PK man. He never did develop into an elite player at his position and has had a rather muted World Cup so far. Banking on an upturn against SWE is not the worst idea in the world.
BEL will play darkhorse Japan in the next round and are heavy, heavy favorites.
Lots to pick from them. I’m happy with any defender, and I’m recommending any you can get your hands on. Dedryck Boyata is the cheapest at 5.0, and he should continue to start centrally in a three-man back line alongside Spurs’ duo Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld (both tempting at 6.0, as is wingback Thomas Meunier).
Midfielder Kevin De Bruyne (10.1) is a little expensive relative to his production in the group stages but can make for a great differential (déjà vu). As the Belgians progress in the tournament, they will need to rely on the Manchester City maestro.
Up front, Romelu Lukaku (10.1) would make for a great pick, except he’s struggling with a foot injury (or is he? Share news in the comments!). This is why I am now recommending Dries Mertens (9.0). Eden Hazard (10.1) had a great group stage, and he is the probable PK man, but I prefer Mertens and investing the savings elsewhere.
The keeper Thibaut Courtois (6.0) will be very popular because he faces JPN next.
ENG will have a relatively straight-forward draw to the semifinals if they don’t suffer a shocker against what, on paper, are inferior squads. COL will offer some fight, but with James “Hammess” Rodriguez re-aggravating his injury yesterday, ENG should be expected to prevail on account of greater depth across all facets of the game. From there it will be the winner of SUI v SWE. Not a bad draw at all!
On defense, many of your competitors will opt for John Stones (5.7) who has had an unexpected attacking explosion in the group stages. I’m not sure that’s a trend that will continue, so I prefer Kieran Trippier (5.6) because he also plays further forward and is taking so many set pieces for ENG. Maguire (5.0) also had an assist, and was often in the attacking box or supplying it. However, the one thing none of England’s defenders earned was a clean sheet, not even while routing Panama.
At forward, I am strongly recommending investment in Harry Kane (11.1). Blow the bank on the Spurs stud who takes PKs and still leads the tournament in goals scored even after a day off! Yer a wizard Harry!
This is the anti-Mexico! COL is a team that started horribly but bounced back into good form. Even in their 10-man debacle versus Japan, they leveled the match before breaking. ENG is the next opponent. Watch out Lions!
Rebound is also the hope for COL’s maestro extraordinaire James (Hammess) Rodriguez (9.0) who hasn’t had nearly as influential a World Cup as he did in Brazil four years ago. I’d like to believe in James, and, normally, I would not be worried about his high price - but sadly he seems to have reaggravated an injury and we may not see the star healthy in this World Cup again. He was Colombia’s PK man too, so that’s now up in the air.
A smart option for your midfield, in he absence of James, is Juan Quintero (5.6) who has been one of COL’s best players so far. He’s talented, and I don’t think he’s just a flash in the pan.
Before the World Cup started I was very high on defender Yerry Mina (5.6) and, despite shockingly not starting the first game (which COL surprisingly dropped to JPN), he has delivered defensively and in attack. He’s one of the best aerial threats of any defender in this tournament. At striker, I continue to think that Radamel Falcao (8.5) offers elite skills at striker for a lower price than similar players like Costa or Jesus.
JPN is not a heralded team, but it does offer excellent value-for-money. What a treasure trove of players can be found on this squad to enable investment in stars like Coutinho, Kane and/or Ronaldo!
I’m confident you will find a very affordable defender to plug in on your bench or even as a starter if you are going superstar-heavy with your team. Of all the defenders I like Maya Yoshida (4.4) the best.
In midfield I will be happy with either Keisuke Honda (6.0) or Takashi Inui (4.6). Even Shinji Kagawa (6.5) could be a smart play; afterall, he is Japan’s PK man.
At forward, I don’t dislike Yuya Osako (6.5) as my third forward if I’m picking ultra-expensive strikers and need to make up the numbers. Just be careful how many JPN players you pick; none of them are expected to advance to the next stage, and we have only 3 free transfers between.
PS: Happy birthday to editor Jeff! The whole World Cup pauses today!
[Editor’s note: Thanks Santiago! BTW, I thought some of you might like to be reminded of some strategy and tactics mentioned in earlier articles and comments, so I am adding my recollections here:
Half of the teams (and players) will be eliminated in just one round, and then we will have a mere three free transfers to repair the damage. That’s why many of us have long planned to use our wildcard at that point (and earlier articles have pointed you in that direction). Not only will a wildcard ease us into the quarter-finals, but knowing it’s the plan greatly simplifies our choices right now.
If you’re not aiming your wildcard at the next transfer window, then you need to maximize survival so that those three little transfers will get you a live team going forward. Yewtee has elaborated upon the details in some comments; maybe he will weigh in again here.
I pick Spain over Russia and Belgium over Japan, but that’s it. After that, I’m done relying on favorites in this cup. This year Mexico could beat Brazil! So if you need an augury, please ask in the comments. As a wildcard proponent, I waive all responsibility.
Survival aside, you must still manage captain and subs. Therefore, even if you have a wildcard in your pocket, you should have a good captain candidate on each of the four days of play, and you should have a last-day (July 3rd) bench behind eleven starters who mostly play earlier. If you’re especially clever, you may organize a day 3-4 bench with starters playing earlier. In any case, again order your starters versus subs to maximize information and flexibility to outflank fantasy also-rans!
— Uncle Jeff]
Did we miss anyone you’re watching? Have you heard any late injury or suspension news? Have any questions regarding game rules and/or strategy? Are you playing (or planning) any chips? Can you predict the winners of this knockout stage? Care to suggest an upset? Please tell us in the comments!