Our 2018 World Cup group-by-group preview takes us to Group G, featuring Belgium, England, Tunisia and Panama.
England and Belgium come into this tournament with varying degrees of supporter expectation (which could work for or against them) but with a common demand for progression to the next round, while Tunisia and Panama are the group outsiders aiming to cause an upset.
FIFA Ranking (June 2018): 3rd
Best World Cup Finish: Fourth Place (1986)
World Cup 2014 Finish: Quarter Finals
One to Watch – Youri Tielemans: One of the biggest prospects in European football, this could be the tournament where Tielemans finally makes the transition from the top of the Football Manager database to a household name in the real world.
the 21-year-old earned a €25m move to Monaco last summer, and fared well as the Ligue 1 side adapted to a multitude of departures. The playmaker is adept at pulling the strings from a deep position – which makes finding a place for him in the same team as Kevin De Bruyne a major challenge – but could play a key role in the closing stages of games from the bench.
Verdict: On paper, Belgium have one of the strongest squads in the competition, and the front three of Eden Hazard, Dries Mertens and Romelu Lukaku is pretty much as good a forward line as any other nation can boast. Kevin De Bruyne is a creative force in central midfield, while Thomas Meunier has been fantastic at wing-back.
The Belgian ‘Golden Generation’ is still ticking along, but sooner or later it will have to deliver. The pressure on Roberto Martinez and his men and another frustrating tournament simply isn’t an option. They have wilted under pressure in the last two finals – it’s now up to Martinez to ensure that Belgium finally start playing like a team – and not a collective of talented individuals – when it comes to the business end. Almost certain to progress from the group but the quarter-finals could be their limit again.
FIFA Ranking (June 2018): 12th
Best World Cup Finish: Winners (1966)
World Cup 2014 Finish: Group Stage
One to Watch – Ruben Loftus-Cheek: The young Chelsea midfielder has looked very strong for England recently, to the point where Gareth Southgate might be looking at how best to fit him into the team.
Loftus-Cheek is an effortlessly classy midfielder with tremendous ball control and fthe ability to glide past opponents. His passing statistics in the recent friendlies against Nigeria and Costa Rica show that the 22-year-old playmaker could be a vital asset for England in playing the ball along the ground. He is due to return to Chelsea this summer from his loan spell at Crystal Palace – and if the Blues decide they don’t want him, there will be a queue of clubs that do.
Verdict: It’s not so much “England expects” this time around, more “England is vaguely optimistic.” In truth, the Three Lions are not expected to make many waves in Russia, and the lack of the usual circus that usually haunts England at major finals will suit them perfectly.
The lowering of expectation should not distract from the fact that England have some of the best players in Europe at their disposal – Dele Alli, Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford to name a few – while Harry Kane is one of the best strikers in the world. The switch to a 3-5-2 formation seems to be paying dividends, and if Southgate can put together the right tactical setup for this group, the tools are there to fare much better than many will have foreseen.
FIFA Ranking (June 2018): 21st
Best World Cup Finish: Group Stage (1978, 1998, 2002, 2006)
World Cup 2014 Finish: Quarter Finals
One to Watch – Bassem Srarfi: The 20-year-old has been in and out of the side at Nice this year, but will be relied upon by teammates and fans to be a strong creative force in Russia as they adapt to the loss of star player Youssef Msakni.
Srarfi is a strong passer of the ball and his versatility allows him to play in attacking midfield or as a wide forward, and is a strong weapon to bring from the bench if and when the African side are chasing a game. He won’t be overawed by the occasion either, with Ligue 1 and Europa League experience under his belt despite his young age.
Verdict: Any hopes that Tunisia might be an attacking force in this tournament were shot down with the loss of Msakni – leaving an organised, yet very limited, squad to compete in Russia.
Srarfi and former Sunderland man Wahbi Khazri will be relied upon to supply the attacking threat, but the defensive midfield pairing – likely Ferjani Sassi and Mohamed Ben Amor – will be more important as manager Nabil Maaloul looks to stifle the opposition. They will probably lose to Belgium, but will take three points from Panama. That singles out the clash against England as a key game – should they get a draw from that, they will start to dream of securing a last 16 place at the fifth attempt.
FIFA Ranking (June 2018): 55th
Best World Cup Finish: First Time Qualifying
World Cup 2014 Finish: Did Not Qualify
One to Watch – Fidel Escobar: The Panama defence will be busy, which makes it all the handier that they have a defender like Escobar in their ranks.
His composure and alertness are beyond the level expected of a 23-year-old centre-half, and the start he has made to his MLS career with the New York Red Bulls this year has shown that he can go a long way in the game. Having played a big role in the qualificaiton campaign, Escobar looks set to carry the hopes of many on his young shoulders.
Verdict: Panama have done brilliantly to get this far, particularly ahead of the United States, but one gets the sense that the more adventurous this side are, the more vulnerable they leave themselves to the possibility of a more comprehensive defeat.
Manager Hernan Dario Gomez has alternated between formations in recent friendlies as he looks to cement a system to deal with the likes of England and Belgium, and seems to have settled on five at the back in order to flood the box and stifle the more creative opponents. It may work to some degree, but it’s Panama are likely to be going home early.
Prediction: That Belgium and England play each other last is interesting, as both would be expected to have amassed six points each ahead of a showdown to determine the winner. Don’t bet against either (or both) dropping points against a dogged Tunisia, however, to add that little bit of pressure at the last.
That said, the overall draw has been kind to the two European sides so expect them to come through with relative ease, with Tunisia keeping it competitive and Panama offering much less resistance.