Nine league titles and four European Cups, among other major titles, into his Barcelona career, there is little debating Lionel Messi’s status as one of the greatest in football. There is, however, a gaping hole in the diminutive forward’s career: the absence of a major international honour, a 2008 Olympic gold notwithstanding.
In an international career spanning over a decade with Argentina, Messi has been a losing finalist at the 2014 World Cup and the Copa America in 2007, 2015 and 2016. It could have been far worse for the Argentines in 2018 with them being on the brink of elimination ahead of their final qualifier against Ecuador. It was a Lionel Messi hat-trick that saved them from humiliation.
Faced with a difficult group stage, Argentina could face Spain in the last-eight in Russia. A slip in the group could see them face France in the Round of 16.
Ever Banega, Javier Mascherano and Angel Di Maria will be crucial to making the team tick while there is enough firepower up front to support Messi in the form of Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain and Paulo Dybala.
Croatia can cause a few surprises. One of the world’s best midfielders, captain Luka Modric is the engine and will be hoping to take his Real Madrid form to Russia. He is ably backed by the likes of Mateo Kovacic, Milan Badelj and Marcelo Brozovic. Ivan Rakitic is an invaluable option at No 10 while Ivan Perisic will be a player to watch out for on left flank. In Mario Mandzukic, Andrej Kramaric and Ante Rebic, among others, they have a variety in attack.
1978, 1986Qualifying route: 3rd in CONMEBOL qualifiers (W7 D7 L4)
(L-R) Ever Banega, Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero
GOALKEEPERS: Nahuel Guzmán, Willy Caballero, Franco ArmaniDEFENDERS: Gabriel Mercado, Nicolas Otamendi, Federico Fazio, Nicolas Tagliafico, Marcos Rojo, Marcos Acuna, Cristian Ansaldi, Eduardo SalvioMIDFIELDERS: Javier Mascherano, Angel Di Maria, Ever Banega, Lucas Biglia, Manuel Lanzini, Giovani Lo Celso, Maximiliano MezaFORWARDS: Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain, Paulo Dybala, Cristian Pavon
1998Qualifying route: UEFA Gr I runners-up (W6 D2 L2); Rd 2 – Bt Greece 4-1 on aggr
(L-R) Mario Mandzukic, Ivan Perisic, Luka Modric
GOALKEEPERS: Danijel Subasic, Lovre Kalinic, Dominik LivakovicDEFENDERS: Vedran Corluka, Domagoj Vida, Ivan Strinic, Dejan Lovren, Sime Vrsaljko, Josip Pivaric, Tin Jedvaj,Duje Caleta-CarMIDFIELDERS: Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Mateo Kovacic, Milan Badelj, Marcelo Brozovic, Filip BradaricFORWARDS: Mario Mandzukic, Ivan Perisic, Nikola Kalinic, Andrej Kramaric, Marko Pjaca, Ante Rebic
Qualifying route: UEFA Group I winners (W7 D1 L2)
(L-R) Gylfi Sigurdsson, Aron Gunnarsson, Ragnar Sigurdsson
GOALKEEPERS: Hannes Thor Halldorsson, Runar Alex Runarsson, Frederik SchramDEFENDERS: Kari Arnason, Ari Freyr Skulason, Birkir Mar Saevarsson, Sverrir Ingi Ingason, Hordur Magnusson, Holmar Orn Eyjolfsson, Ragnar SigurdssonMIDFIELDERS: Johann Berg Gudmundsson, Birkir Bjarnason, Arnor Ingvi Traustason, Emil Hallfredsson, Gylfi Sigurdsson, Olafur Ingi Skulason, Rurik Gislason, Samuel Fridjonsson, Aron GunnarssonFORWARDS: Alfred Finnbogason, Bjorn Bergmann Sigurdarson, Jon Dadi Bodvarsson, Albert Gudmundsson
1994, 1998, 2014Qualifying route: Rd 1 – bye; Rd 2 – Bt Swaziland 2-0 on aggr; Rd 3 – Gr B winners (W4 D1 L1) of African qualifiers
(L-R) Kelechi Iheanacho, Alex Iwobi, Victor Moses
GOALKEEPERS: Ikechukwu Ezenwa, Daniel Akpeyi, Francis UzohoDEFENDERS: William Troost-Ekong, Leon Balogun, Kenneth Omeruo, Bryan Idowu, Chidozie Awaziem, Abdullahi Shehu, Elderson Echiejile, Tyronne EbuehiMIDFIELDERS: John Obi Mikel, Ogenyi Onazi, John Ogu, Wilfred Ndidi, Oghenekaro Etebo, Joel ObiFORWARDS: Odion Ighalo, Ahmed Musa, Victor Moses, Alex Iwobi, Kelechi Iheanacho, Simeon Nwankwo
Photos: AFP/Reuters/GettyImages | Graphics: HITESH MATHUR
In a tough qualification group, Iceland’s top-place finish had seen Croatia having to go through the play-offs. Coached by Heimir Hallgrimsson, who spends his time away from football working as a dentist, Iceland may lack the stars but have emerged as a formidable unit.
Nigeria, on the other hand, have emerged as one of Africa’s most formidable forces in recent times and have a young squad that can cause a few ripples in Russia. Midfielders John Obi Mikel and Ogenyi Onazi are crucial to hopes while Victor Moses will hope to aid young duo Kelechi Iheanacho and Alex Iwobi in attack.
The defence lacks experience but Gernot Rohr’s side will look to replicate their qualification form where they conceded just four goals in six games.
Group D fixtures
June 16 6.30 pm (all times IST)
ARGENTINA vs ICELAND (Moscow)
June 17 12.30 am
CROATIA vs NIGERIA (Kaliningrad)
June 21 11.30 pm
ARGENTINA vs CROATIA (Novgorod)
June 22 8.30 pm
NIGERIA vs ICELAND (Volgograd)
June 26 11.30 pm
NIGERIA vs ARGENTINA (St Petersburg)
June 26 11.30 pm
ICELAND vs CROATIA (Rostov-on-Don)