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Who will win the World Cup? Will the United States advance from their group? Our Inquirer writers predict.

The World Cup countdown clock has dropped to single digits and fans have set their working hours and/or covert TV options to ensure they don’t miss any important games, so all that’s left for our Inquirer football writers to do is ponder the big questions.

Two big ones to answer: who wins it all and will the US come out of their group?

Jonathan Tannenwald: I begin by doing something unjournalistic: admitting that I have a fundamental interest. I want Argentina to win because I want to see Lionel Messi win a World Cup. He’s the best player I’ve ever seen.

Admittedly, almost the whole planet wants Messi to win. Perhaps the only people who don’t are die-hard Cristiano Ronaldo fans and die-hard Brazil fans. So anyone in the media saying Argentina should win the cup isn’t really bothering.

It’s not a far-fetched dream either. Argentina’s squad is well-placed and ready to help Messi succeed. Ángel Di María is still going strong at 34, Lautaro Martínez is a great finisher and Julián Álvarez is a 22-year-old phenomenon. They have the right amount of steel behind them in midfielders Rodrigo De Paul and Leandro Paredes and defenders Cristian Romero and Lisandro Martínez.

Ah, the Albiceleste have broken the hearts of the world too many times over the years for me to choose. Instead, I go with their biggest rivals: Brazil. It’s been 20 years since the most successful team in men’s World Cup history won their fifth star and it’s about time the drought ended.

Brazil have an absurd amount of attacking talent. Neymar is the big star but I think electric newcomers Vinícius Jr. and Rodrygo are poised to become stars. At club level, they are already on the right track with Real Madrid. And those three could keep good players like Gabriel Jesus and Raphinha off the field.

But it’s the players behind them who will really make the difference: Casemiro, Fabinho, Bruno Guimarães, Marquinhos and Éder Militão. There are pianists and pianists, as the old saying goes, and Brazil has enough of both to play a symphony. Get the right harmony and it might be time for a new take on the best football TV commercial of all time.

» READ MORE: Lionel Messi and Vinícius are among the stars to watch at this World Cup

As for the US, I don’t think they’re coming out a group that is statistically the most difficult at this World Cup. They certainly can, but they need to beat a Welsh team that’s better than many people think – and will likely play a back five that will thwart a hyped US attack.

Then comes an England team who are as talented and mentally strong as I can remember. I just think they’re too good to give up a loss there, but I see a draw when things are going really well for USA

That means it depends on Iran. Do you really want this game to be a must? I don’t I would feel better if it was first and Wales last. Instead, buckle up for what may be the second most politically charged game in World Cup history after these teams met in 1998. I don’t think the Americans are benefiting from this and I think it could be the end of their run in Qatar.

Andrea Canales: I pick Argentina Winning it all because it feels like Messi finally has a supporting cast that can do stuff instead of watching him try to shoulder all the work – it’s more the Beatles and less the Beach Boys, really.

Also, Messi has finally come full circle with the team. I think even leaving Barcelona helped him because he didn’t get used to certain players that aren’t available to him in the Argentina squad. He has such great vision as a facilitator and with PSG he’s had to adapt his skillset to a whole new cast of teammates and system. He always seemed a bit frustrated with Argentina, like forcing things that happened so easily and naturally with Barcelona. He’s had to deal with PSG and now in the game against Argentina he’s acting like he’s coming home and his national team is finally where he’s comfortable.

A big part of that has to be the expectations raised by Messi when Argentina won the Copa America and he finally had a big trophy in his hands. That’s what Argentina did to Brazil in Brazil, that’s what I use as a metaphor for this World Cup. Sure Brazil have the talent, they’re an incredibly gifted team, but at the moment Messi is rolling in as the sage of a squad with a bunch of young guys who are also fantastically skilled and ready to play for the team in any game, and they’re a national hero who is responsible for she has become like a big brother.

However, apart from these two countries, I like Spain as an unsung spoiler because it seems that nobody doubts their quality but does not choose them to win everything. Why not? Gavi is fantastic and this tournament really could be his star in the spotlight.

» READ MORE: In Search of Gold: The World Cup Trophies Explained

With regard to USA, I hope that a team of young players who are looking forward to returning to the tournament go into the group games feeling that there is no upper limit to their ability and that this is all just gravy. It’s a juxtaposition, but this attitude will allow them both to be resilient and reactive to the opportunities that the game offers and to overcome the inexplicable injustices that always come in one form or another.

I’m optimistic about the team’s chances, not because I don’t respect Wales, Iran and England, all very difficult teams, but because during qualifying it looked like the American players had built up a strong esprit de corps that managed to lift each other up and fend off a lot of outside noise. Players like Weston McKennie, Antonee “Jedi” Robinson, Sergiño Dest, and Yunus Musah not only had fun playing the game they loved, they did it together. They all seemed to do better as a result.

However, I worry that Christian Pulisic will get sad and think about things. Gio Reyna sometimes plays as if the game is his escape, where he’s finally relaxed and can vent constructively by destroying defenders. If a jump or two goes in the right direction early, the USMNT could catch fire.

Conversely, if the impact is ferocious, they could ignite badly and all the noise and fury they previously shut out will bury them. So yes, promotion isn’t won or lost in the first game, but with a team as inexperienced as this US team, a wake-up call loss to Wales could end the USMNT tournament psychologically.

» READ MORE: Philadelphia has strong ties to US team players and staff at past World Cups

Gus Elvin: Who will be world champion? It just feels like it BrazilTime when manager Tite is blessed with an absolute embarrassment of wealth from an offensive standpoint. Led by an in-form and more mature Neymar, Brazil have the best squad in the 32-nation field and their players know full well that just winning the World Cup will be enough.

With tricky wingers like Vinícius, Rodrygo and Antony, as well as Gabriel Jesus and Richarlison as options up the middle, Brazil no longer have to rely on Neymar to go it alone this time. Casemiro is a rock in midfield, while the timeless Thiago Silva (38) and the towering Marquinhos combine to form one of the strongest centre-back partnerships of the tournament. Even on the rare occasions when things go haywire, Brazil have two A-plus goalkeepers in Alisson and Ederson to bail them out. For all these reasons, Brazil is the team to beat in Qatar.

Sure, Brazil have had great teams before who stumbled into the knockout rounds at the World Cup, but I think this team is better and learned from the 2014 and 2018 defeats. Neymar knows this is his best chance at the World Cup and after previous defeats with that Selection, He’s finally delivering a world title, joining the likes of Pele, Romário, Ronaldo and Ronaldinho.

While I really like Belgium making another run with their golden generation under the leadership of Kevin De Bruyne – as long as Romelu Lukaku’s fitness lasts – and I believe that France, Portugal and Argentina will all play a role, Brazil will make it and ended his 20-year dry spell without a World Cup.

Can the US make it out of the group? damn yes — although I’m a bit biased considering I have a US soccer tattoo. Bias aside, I think this young and hungry team is doing just enough to get out of a group with England, Wales and Iran.

With England likely to win the group and Iran progressing as underdogs, especially with all the turmoil in their camp at the moment, the USA and Wales end up in second place. While I don’t see too much of a division between the two sides, I’ll stick with the USA who have more players around the world playing at the highest level. While forwards and central defenders are issues that worry me with the US team, I love the energy and steel of the midfield featuring Tyler Adams, Yunus Musah and Weston McKennie. Further up the road, Christian Pulisic and Gio Reyna are not in the best form at club level but both have the potential to break the game and will be eager to show their skills on the World Cup stage for the first time.

While Wales is now more than just Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey’s show, they still lean heavily on their two veteran stars. Even at 33, Bale is capable of something spectacular, but given he hasn’t played a ton in the run-up to the World Cup with LAFC, and his long and well-documented injury history, it’s hard to imagine him playing another Euro in 2016. The young legs are the biggest difference between these two teams in my opinion as I think the USA overall have the team speed to cause some problems for the Welsh defence. Watch as USA get a result in the opener against a proud Wales, stay close against England and eventually beat Iran to end the group stage. It could come down to tiebreaks and permutations, but I think the US will ultimately just come through.

» READ MORE: What to watch out for: 50 things about the World Cup

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