Road to Russia: World Cup 2018 – Group D Preview
It’s less than a month until the first game of the 2018 World Cup in Russia kicks off and the excitement here is growing. With the opening day fast approaching, we’re picking up speed with our Road to Russia series, continuing this week with a preview of Group D.
Group D is perhaps this tournament’s group of death. Argentina are without doubt the strongest team in the group and favourites to go through, but their opponents will be well aware of their difficulties in qualifying. Iceland have grown into a tough team to beat after a fantastic performance at EURO 2016, while Croatia and Nigeria are both very strong teams and viewed by many as dark horses. It’s conceivable that any two teams from this group could go through and the pressure on each match will be immense.
The Icelandic thunderclap is brought to the world stage this summer with Iceland’s first appearance at a World Cup. It has been a meteoric rise from a country with a population of just over 300,000, who staked their claim at this level after reaching the quarter-finals at the 2016 EUROs.
Iceland proved that wasn’t a fluke by topping Group I in qualifying. Interestingly, Iceland finished ahead of Croatia, who are also in this group, so the two teams will go head to head once again.
The team are managed by Heimir Halllgrimsson, whose organised and disciplined approach makes Iceland incredibly hard to beat for anyone. This will be put to the test immediately, with Iceland facing group favourites Argentina in the group’s first match on 16 June. The result of that one could go a long way to determining Iceland’s competition.
The lack of any world class players perhaps plays to Iceland’s strengths a little bit, as the team derive their strength from a team approach.
Nevertheless, Gylfi Sigurdsson is most famous name and was the top scorer in qualifying with four goals. However, he has been out injured for some time with a knee injury and it remains to be seen whether he will be fully fit and playing to his full potential.
Johan Gudmundsson is another name that will be familiar to Premier League fans. The midfielder has had a tremendous season with Burnley and helped steer them to a Europa League spot.
The most dangerous team in the group of death, Argentina have been the nearly men of recent times, being runners up at this competition in 2014 and then at two consecutive Copa-America finals.
Currently ranked fourth in the FIFA rankings, Argentina’s squad boasts a wealth of attacking talent. Higuain, Dybala, Icardi and of course Lionel Messi are just some of the names available for coach Jorge Sampaoli, though it’s fair to say that defensively the options are far fewer.
However, Argentina may not have it their own way. The team almost missed out on these finals and the nightmare that was qualifying played out on the world stage, as Argentina went through three managers in just over a year, and required a win in their final qualification game to make it to the finals.
Furthermore, they were recently convincingly beaten 6-1 by Spain, which means that despite the obvious potential, Argentina really are a question mark coming into this tournament.
The wealth of talent up-front will be key if Argentina go far in the competition. Obviously, the star man is of course Lionel Messi. It’s impossible to understate both his talent and his importance to this team. The only thing missing from his trophy cabinet is an international medal and while he has performed well on the big stage, he carries this Argentina team and must carry the pressure that comes with that.
Joining him in attack are Juventus stars Gonzalo Higuaín and Paulo Dybala. Inter Milan’s Mauro Icardi, Manchester City’s Sergio Agüero and PSG’s Angel Di Maria are also attacking options and show the fire-power that Argentina have.
But Argentina can’t always rely on out-scoring opponents. That means their defence will be called upon, but they have been famously weak at the back. Nevertheless, they have decent players available, such as Nicolás Otamendi, who has been much improved this season, or the experienced Javier Mascherano.
Croatia are rightly recognised as a great team, but, after coming third in their first World Cup in 1998, they haven’t made it out of the group stage since. However, they are still thought of as dark horses not just for the group, but perhaps the whole competition as well.
Croatia finished second in qualifying behind fellow Group D team Iceland. But, each team won once in the two head to head games, meaning that fixture will be a tasty clash. Despite being unconvincing in the group, Croatia comfortably beat Greece 4-1 on aggregate to make it through.
But, going through via the play-offs meant Croatia have been drawn in this group of death. Nevertheless, many will fancy them to make it through alongside Argentina. With one of the most talented midfields in the game, Croatia have the ability to dictate any game in this group and should have enough to see off Iceland and Nigeria. Croatia face Nigeria in their first match on 16 June.
The Croatian midfield is simply world class and the source of their strength. Luka Modric captains the team and is the biggest name in the squad. The Real Madrid midfielder has done it all at club level and is the source of much of Croatia’s success.
But he’s not alone in the midfield. Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic and Inter’s Ivan Perisic are two other world-class midfielders that make the Croatian midfield intimidating for any opponent.
They will service Mario Mandzukic up front. The striker is the second highest scorer with 30 goals for his country. He is supported Nikola Kalinic and Andrej Mramaric providing additional firepower if required.
Nigeria topped Group B in the African qualifiers with four wins, a loss and a draw. The team were runners up of the last African Cup of Nations and are without doubt an upcoming team on the international stage.
With a young and energetic team, Nigeria are another that could be dark horses. It’s unfortunate that they have been drawn in such a tough group, but having been placed in pot four of the selections, it was never going to be easy.
It’s a young squad that is without doubt talented, but perhaps the team needs a little more experience and a few more years to reach their peak. However, they are sure to provide entertainment and a challenge. Interestingly, Nigeria beat Argentina 4-2 in a friendly last year.
Alex Iwobi has featured more often for Arsenal this season, but he has been a mainstay for his country, where his performances have been elevated. Though only 21, he has already scored important goals for his country.
Kelechi Iheanacho is another name familiar to Premier League fans. The striker hasn’t featured too much for Leicester since moving from Manchester City, but it’s clear that he has talent and an eye for goal. Former Leicester teammate Ahmed Musa will anchor the midfield alongside ex-Chelsea man John Obi Mikel.
Which teams will qualify?
Argentina seem certain to go through, but this group is as tough for them as it is for the other three teams. After almost missing out on the competition altogether, Argentina have lost to Nigeria within the last year, as well as getting a recent demolition by Spain.
Those who dare to bet against Argentina going through can get odds of up to 9/2. But, just like in qualifying, we’re sure they will at least find a way to make it through.
That leaves one more spot and we find it hard to see Croatia not making it through. Iceland face Argentina first and defeat there could set the tone for their campaign, while Croatia will be eyeing up victory in their first match against Nigeria.
You can get Croatia to qualify at 1/2.