The dark horse, the perennial underachievers, the new comers and an inspired African side constitute World Cup 2018’s Group G. The first two –Belgium and England — are certainly favoured to make the round of 16 as opposed to Panama and Tunisia, but the manner in which they do it, if they can do it, could catalyse or curtail their eventual progress.
For Belgium’s golden generation, boasting the Premier League’s finest talent among others, Russia 2018 may be the last shot at realising their potential. Their qualifying campaign saw them score 43 goals, win nine of their 10 games and Romelu Lukaku become the country’s all-time leading scorer with 34 goals.
But their last few friendlies, a 3-3 draw against Mexico last year and a barren stalemate against a Cristiano Ronaldo-less Portugal, will be a reality check.
1966Qualifying route: Winners of Group F in UEFA qualifiers (W8D2L0)
(L-R) Dele Alli, Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling
GOALKEEPERS: Jack Butland, Jordan Pickford, Nick PopeDEFENDERS: Kyle Walker, John Stones, Harry Maguire, Kieran Trippier, Danny Rose, Ashley Young, Phil Jones, Gary Cahill, Trent Alexander-ArnoldMIDFIELDERS: Eric Dier, Dele Alli, Jesse Lingard, Jordan Henderson, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Fabian DelphFORWARDS: Jamie Vardy, Marcus Rashford, Raheem Sterling, Harry Kane, Danny Welbeck
1986Qualifying route: Winners of Group H in UEFA qualifiers (W9D1L0)
(L-R) Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku
GOALKEEPERS: Koen Casteels, Thibaut Courtois, Simon MignoletDEFENDERS: Toby Alderweireld, Dedryck Boyata, Laurent Ciman (to replace Kompany if unfit), Leander Dendoncker, Vincent Kompany, Thomas Vermaelen, Jan VertonghenMIDFIELDERS: Yannick Carrasco, Nacer Chadli, Kevin De Bruyne, Mousa Dembele, Marouane Fellaini, Adnan Januzaj, Youri Tielemans, Axel Witsel, Thomas MeunierFORWARDS: Michy Batshuayi, Eden Hazard, Thorgan Hazard, Romelu Lukaku, Dries Mertens
Best: Group stage
1978, 1998,2002, 2006Qualifying route: Rd 1 bye, Rd 2 Bt Mauritania 4-2 on aggr; Rd 3 1st Gr A (W4D2L0)
(L-R) Fakhreddine Ben, Ali Maaloul, Naim Sliti
GOALKEEPERS: Aymen Mathlouthi, Farouk Ben Mustapha, Mouez HassenDEFENDERS: Hamdi Nagguez, Dylan Bronn, Rami Bedoui, Yohan Benalouane, Syam Ben Youssef, Yassine Meriah, Oussama Haddadi, Ali MaaloulMIDFIELDERS: Ellyes Skhiri, Mohamed Amine Ben Amor, Ghaylene Chalali, Ferjani Sassi, Ahmed Khalil, Saifeddine El KhaouiFORWARDS: Fakhreddine Ben Youssef, Anice Badri, Bassem Srarfi, Wahbi Khazri, Naim Sliti, Saber Khalifa
Qualifying route: Bye to Rd 4; 2nd in CONCACAF Rd 4 (W3D1L2); 3rd in Rd 5 (W3D4L3)
HERNAN DARIO GOMEZ
(L-R) Gabriel Gomez, Jaime Penedo, Roman Torres
GOALKEEPERS: Jaime Penedo, Jose Calderon, Alex RodriguezDEFENDERS: Felipe Baloy, Harold Cummings, Eric Davis, Fidel Escobar, Adolfo Machado, Michael Amir Murillo, Luis Ovalle, Roman TorresMIDFIELDERS: Edgar Barcenas, Armando Cooper, Anibal Godoy, Gabriel Gomez, Valentin Pimentel, Jose Luis Rodriguez, Ricardo AvilaFORWARDS: Abdiel Arroyo, Ismael Diaz, Blas Perez, Luis Tejada, Gabriel Torres
Photos: AFP/Reuters/GettyImages | Graphics: HITESH MATHUR
Kevin De Bruyne, the Premiership’s top creator and a champion, seems to have taken up an unassuming leader’s role. Belgium’s major issues though, remain in the defence. And despite the likes of Vincent Kompany — now injured — Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld playing, coach Martinez’s inability to organise the backline could lead to their downfall.
Under Gareth Southgate’s tutelage, England have lost only two of their World Cup preliminaries. Playing in a more experimental 3-4-2-1 formation, they boast of a new-look and youthful squad. Their most experienced players come in the form of Gary Cahill (32), Manchester United’s Ashley Young (32) and Leicester City’s Jamie Vardy (31). But eventually, all hopes will rest on Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Raheem Sterling.
For Panama, their first World Cup campaign is likely to be a learning experience. But if the Central Americans are to cause a stir, they will look to midfielder Gabriel Gomez for creativity.
Tunisia make a return to the World Cup after a 12-year absence. A turbulent start to their qualification campaign saw coach Nabil Maaloul take over in April last year. For a country looking to register its second victory in the World Cup, it fits to have a coach whose philosophy stresses on attack. But with important players such as Youssef Msakni and Taha Yassine Khenissi missing out due to injury, it will be an uphill task.