REACTION to Friday’s World Cup draw will be a litmus test: do we still care about the biggest sporting competition on earth? Or, rather, do we care to the degree we once did?

Logic suggests we will. After all, once the competition begins, it will be no different to any other quadrennial footballing extravaganza. The players will be familiar. The games themselves will look much like the ones in previous years, at least via television, which is how 99.9 per cent of fans will experience them. And – at least Fifa hope – we will forget about the many hiccups surrounding Russia 2018. From the rather dubious way it was awarded, to the lack of sponsor interest (and the potential repercussions for a Fifa organisation that has promised to treble contributions to their member FAs) to the shadow of doping over Russian sport (one third of Russian medal winners at Sochi 2014 have already tested positive)… all of this will vanish.

In that sense, the draw should help. The fact it was seeded broadly ensured that the bigger nations will have a fairly smooth ride to the knockout rounds. Exceptions? Argentina could be pushed in a group that includes Croatia, Nigeria and Iceland. Group H (Poland, Colombia, Japan and Senegal) is pretty much up for grabs. And the hosts, despite an apparent soft landing (they avoided Spain and England), could yet struggle to get past two out of Egypt, Uruguay and Saudi Arabia.

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Upsets are rife in World Cup football – just ask Spain, England, Italy or Portugal, all of whom exited in the group stage last time – but it is hard to see France (with Peru, Denmark and Australia), Brazil (Switzerland, Serbia and Costa Rica) and Germany (Mexico, Sweden, South Korea) not waltzing into the Round of 16. There might be a smidgeon more uncertainty in Group B (Portugal, Spain, Iran, Morocco) and Group G (Belgium, England, Tunisia, Panama) but only in terms of who finishes first, rather than who advances, such is the gap with the rest of the group.

Nostalgic neutrals who lament the passing of that old tired cliche, the “Group of Death”, might be disappointed, though those groups were always less fun for the teams who were actually involved. But the seedings have set up potential blockbusters in the knockout phase and that is not a bad thing.

Still, while it may be easy and tempting to draw up scenarios, the fact is that how a World Cup unfolds is extremely difficult to predict. Roughly two-thirds of games at Brazil 2014 were draws or decided by a single goal, meaning the result hung in the balance for much of the match. Contrast this with league football, where teams routinely beat up the opposition and you realise just how futile predictions are at this stage.

That said, the host nation could end up providing one of the more interesting storylines. Russia may be, as Gary Lineker said, a “proper footballing country”. But this is a really poor side, the lowest ranked of any of the 32 in the competition. What’s more, they haven’t been good for a while. Since Euro 2008, when Guus Hiddink’s side burst through to the quarter-finals, Russia have won twice in major tournaments: they beat the Czech Republic at Euro 2012 and New Zealand at the Confederations Cup last summer.

Add in the fact that Vladimir Putin is not a football fan, the shortage of local sponsors (which may or may not be related to the fact Putin doesn’t seem to give two hoots about Russia 2018), the spectre of doping (though as one Russian journalist put it to me last summer at the Confederations Cup: “I don’t know about other sports, but surely we’re not doping in football; if we were, we wouldn’t be this bad”) and you wonder what this competition will be like. And that’s before you get into issues of racism and hooliganism, the favoured media bugbears.

South Africa and Brazil ought to have got us accustomed to doom and gloom predictions which invariably turn out to be wrong and in fact a World Cup is such a globally captivating event that it is hard to screw up. Thus far however, they seem to be doing a good job. And that’s before you drag politics into it.

THE joke doing the rounds after Manchester City’s last-ditch winner against Southampton was that they had reached the crucial 40-point mark, the point at which no team has been relegated in the Premier League era. We are becoming immune to City’s statistical excellence this season and the numbers are, indeed, scary.

Pep Guardiola’s side are on pace to pulverise all sorts of Premier League records. At their current pace, they will shatter the mark for points (108, to Chelsea’s 95 in 2004-05), goals (119 to Chelsea’s 103 in 2009-10) and victories (35 to the 30 record by - again - Chelsea last season).

You would expect some sort of regression to the mean, but it hasn’t happened yet. That said, in terms of performance, the last few games are telling. Against Leicester City, it took an exceptional team goal at the end of the first half to break down the opposition, before a Kevin De Bruyne wonder-strike secured the win. This was followed by a humdrum home performance against a winless Feyenoord in the Champions League, settled by Raheem Sterling in the dying minutes. Against Huddersfield, it was, again, a late, late show resolved by, again, Sterling. And in midweek against Southampton, the match looked destined to end a draw before the winner in the fifth minute of injury time from, who else?, Sterling.

You can look at this as evidence of grit and mental toughness. Or you can wonder why a side that were tearing opponents to shreds and creating plenty of clear-cut chances until a few weeks ago suddenly needs to rely on the spectacular.

Given what we know of Pep Guardiola, you would imagine he is far from happy with this situation. Few managers engage in as much self-criticism and fewer still value performance ahead of results as much as the Catalan. The fear that the recent matches foreshadow a setback is real.

It likely won’t happen today at home against David Moyes’ hapless West Ham, but watch this space. At a minimum, you expect Guardiola to get under the hood and start tinkering.