Our World Cup group-by-group preview turns to Groud D, featuring Nigeria, Croatia, Iceland and 2014 finalists Argentina.
This looks to be one of the harder groups to call, as the two favourites have major faults to detract from their strengths, while the two underdogs might prove to be that bit too limited.
FIFA Ranking (June 2018): 5th
Best World Cup Finish: Winners (1978, 1986)
World Cup 2014 Finish: Runners-up
One to Watch – Giovani Lo Celso: The midfielder has been slowly but surely cementing his place in the PSG starting lineup, starting 18 Ligue 1 matches and making a handful of Champions League appearances.
His movement, on the ball, composure and technique are vital components in a midfield that can sometimes be neglected by more attack-minded players, while Lo Celso’s defensive contribution will be a major asset in the wake of Javier Mascherano’s decline. In a team in desperate need of coordination and definite shape, Lo Celso can be the catalyst for that.
Verdict: For a squad so brimming with attacking talent to be so reliant on Lionel Messi is borderline negligence. Without the Barcelona forward, a team containing the likes of Angel Di Maria, Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Aguero and Paulo Dybala would somehow have failed to make the finals (as shown in the near-disastrous qualification campaign) and that should be a huge red flag for the tournament itself.
A brilliant attack that is wholly reliant on one player, a relatively poor defence beholden to the ravages of age and inconsistency, and a manager in Jorge Sampaoli who doesn’t seem to know his best system despite being in the job for a year. Make no mistake, this World Cup could turn out to be an absolute disaster for Argentina – they should do enough to get out of the group (as the other three teams will take more points from each other), but they won’t go much further than that.
FIFA Ranking (June 2018): 20th
Best World Cup Finish: Third Place (1998)
World Cup 2014 Finish: Group Stage
One to Watch – Marko Pjaca: A standout performer for Croatia at Euro 2016, injuries have since been a blight on the young forward’s development. His displays in France earned him a €23m move to Juventus, but Pjaca made just 14 Serie A appearances before moving to Schalke on loan in January after a serious ACL injury.
A wonderful dribbler with tremendous speed and imposing physicality, Pjaca will likely wait to wait for his chance with Ivan Perisic and Andrej Kramaric on the wings and Mario Mandzukic up front. Nonetheless, if he gets his chance – and if he is fit enough – he will provide youthful balance to an older squad
Verdict: Croatia are another side who have replaced their manager within the last twelve months, though the dismissal of Ante Cacic and appointment of Zlatko Dalic has been a huge positive for the national team. Victory over Ukraine and a play-off win against Greece saved their campaign and saw them book their place in Russia.
In Luka Modric, Mateo Kovacic, Ivan Rakitic and Ivan Perisic, Croatia have some of the finest technical midfield players in Europe, and if Dalic can get them on song and able to supply killer balls to Mario Mandzukic they should see plenty of goalscoring opportunities created. On the flip-side, this is not a young squad and the defensive pairing of Dejan Lovren and Domagoj Vida doesn’t look to be a particularly strong one. The result against Nigeria will go a long way to determining their overall group prospects.
FIFA Ranking (June 2018): 48th
Best World Cup Finish: Round of 16 (1994, 1998, 2014)
World Cup 2014 Finish: Round of 16
One to Watch – Kelechi Iheanacho: Despite enduring a frustrating season in the Premier League with Leicester, hopes are high that Iheanacho can finally start living up to his enormous promise this summer. The 22-year-old has a solid international record, with eight goals in 17 caps, and the former Man City man will be desperate to add to that tally in Russia.
However, he is not a guaranteed starter so he will have to bide his time. Despite the decent return with the national side, there is a sense that he is still not quite there yet in terms of his performances with Nigeria. He is still a tremendous finisher, however, when given the opportunity.
Verdict: Nigeria are a bright, hard-working side with a mix of experience and potential, and of technique and discipline. Many of their bigger players, including the likes of the aforementioned Iheanacho, Alex Iwobi, Victor Moses and John Obi Mikel, will be well known to Premier League audiences so on some level they will know what to expect from this team.
The central midfield is a key area, while Moses and Iwobi will be expected to provide with and creativity on the flanks and get the ball into Odion Ighalo as quickly and often as possible. The defence could be an issue, as could the relatively inexperienced goalkeeper pool, but it would not be a surprise at all to see Nigeria book their place in the round of 16.
FIFA Ranking (June 2018): 20th
Best World Cup Finish: First Time Qualifying
World Cup 2014 Finish: Did Not Qualify
One to Watch – Albert Gudmundsson: Iceland’s fruitful production line has been hailed the world over as key to their recent success, and in Gudmundsson, they might have found another star. The 20-year-old forward made a late push to be in the 23-man squad after only a handful of friendly appearances – and now that he’s there, he’ll want to prove himself on the world stage.
Gudmundsson comes from a rich Icelandic footballing history; both of his parents are former internationals (his father, incidentally, is also the commentator made famous for this moment at Euro 2016), as was his grandfather, while his great-grandfather was the country’s first professional footballer. Quite the lineage to live up to, but hopes are high that the young striker can make a big impression in Russia.
Verdict: Surprise quarter-finalists at Euro 2016, Iceland are back in another major finals to prove that the achievements of two years ago were no fluke. Having finished above Croatia in qualifying, Heimir Hallgrimsson’s men will fancy their chances of doing so again.
An organised, defensively-disciplined side but with a licence to counter-attack, Iceland are a dangerous threat on the break and can catch opponents on the hop. If star man Gylfi Sigurdsson is on form and Johann Berg Gudmundsson can stay under the radar long enough to cause serious damage before the opposition have had the chance to figure him out, then they have every chance of qualifying for the last 16.
Prediction: Argentina and Croatia are two very talented squads suffering from behind-the-scenes turmoil, while Nigeria and Iceland are two less talented squads but with an altogether more harmonious setup. In that regard, any two of these four teams could legitimately qualify for the last 16 and it wouldn’t be a massive surprise regardless.
The opening fixtures will be key here. If Argentina fail to defeat Iceland in their first match then they will be immediate and severe pressure, while the victor of Nigeria v Croatia (assuming there is one) will be in a strong position to reach the second round. One gets the sense that Messi will drag Argentina into the next round single-handedly, but this group will be a tight and unpredictable one.