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2018 World Cup preview: Group D

Argentina

Squad

Manager: Jorge Sampaoli

Goalkeepers: Wilfredo Caballero (Chelsea), Franco Armani (River Plate), Nahuel Guzman (Tigres)

Argentina finished as the runner-up in the 2014 World Cup (Image: FIFA)

Defenders: Gabriel Mercado (Sevilla), Cristian Ansaldi (Torino), Eduardo Salvio (Benfica), Javier Mascherano (Hebei China Fortune), Nicolas Otamendi (Manchester City), Federica Fazio (Roma), Marcos Rojo (Manchester United), Nicolas Tagliafico (Ajax), Marcos Acuna (Sporting CP)

Midfielders: Enzo Perez (River Plate), Maximiliano Meza (Independiente), Lucas Biglia (Milan), Ever Banega (Sevilla), Giovani Lo Celso (Paris Saint-Germain), Angel Di Maria (Paris Saint-Germain), Cristian Pavon (Boca Juniors)

Forwards: Paulo Dybala (Juventus), Lionel Messi (Barcelona), Sergio Aguero (Manchester City), Gonzalo Higuain (Juventus)

FIFA Ranking: 5

Odds to win: 10/1

Preview

Argentina, one of the most decorated international teams in the world, will be making their 17th World Cup appearance. They have previously won the tournament twice with their last title coming in 1986. Recently, in the 2014 World Cup, Argentina finished as runners-up to Germany. Argentina is one of five South American teams at the World Cup after finishing third in CONMEBOL qualifying.

The biggest storylines around Argentina will always surround their star player, Lionel Messi. Despite having won nearly every trophy possible with his club Barcelona, international silverware has eluded Messi. He has fallen just short in multiple tournaments and has yet to win either a World Cup or a Copa America. Nevertheless, Messi did lead his country to the World Cup by scoring a hattrick in the final qualification match against Ecuador in order to ensure Argentina’s place in the World Cup. Messi is the best player in the world and arguably the best player ever. However, the lack of international success with Argentina is certainly the one thing missing on his otherwise exemplary resume.

The other interesting thing surrounding Argentina’s squad is their central midfield pairing. Manager, Jorge Sampaoli, generally likes playing two holding midfielders. Javier Mascherano, a veteran in the squad, is probably too old to start in the midfield. Thus, this leaves Ever Banega and Lucas Bigilia as the most probable midfield pairing. Banega has a great work rate but is less defensive than Mascherano. However, Banega should thrive in the role of sitting deep and helping transition the ball to Argentina’s incredibly talented attack. He plays this role to perfection for his club Sevilla.

Iceland

Squad

Manager: Heimir Hallgrímsson

Goalkeepers: Hannes Halldorsson (Randers), Runar Runarsson (Nordsjaelland), Frederik Schram (Roskilde)

Iceland are the smallest team ever to qualify for a World Cup (Image: FIFA)

Defenders: Kari Arnason (Aberdeen), Holmar Eyjolfsson (Levski Sofia), Rurik Gislason (Sandhausen), Sverrir Ingason (Rostov), Hordur Magnusson (Bristol City), Birkir Saevarsson (Valur), Ragnar Sigurdsson (Rostov), Ari Skulason (Lokeren)

Midfielders: Birkir Bjarnason (Aston Villa), Samuel Fridjonsson (Valerenga), Johann Gudmundsson (Burnley), Aron Gunnarsson (Cardiff City), Emil Hallfredsson (Udinese), Gylfi Sigurdsson (Everton), Olafur Skulason (Karabukspor), Arnor Traustason (Malmo)

Forwards: Jon Bodvarsson (Reading), Alfred Finnbogason (Augsburg), Albert Gudmundsson (PSV), Bjorn Sigurdarson (Rostov)

FIFA Ranking: 22

Odds to win: 250/1

Preview

Iceland is one of two teams making their first appearance ever at a World Cup in 2018. They qualified for the World Cup by topping Group I in UEFA qualifying and are the smallest team by population to ever qualify. Coincidentally, the team that finished second in Group I, Croatia, will also be in Iceland’s group at the World Cup. In qualifying, they lost their first match against Croatia 2-0 but won their second match against them 1-0. Overall, Iceland is known for their surprising run at the 2016 Euro Cup, their first major tournament ever. In the 2016 Euros, Iceland made a run to the quarterfinals, beating England 2-1 in the process.

Iceland play very defensively and seek to limit their mistakes. They are very disciplined and play together as a cohesive unit. This makes them incredibly difficult to break down. Moreover, in front of that defense, they have a skillful set of midfielders and forwards. They will attempt to hit the opposition on counterattacks and take advantage of any set piece opportunities they are given.

The key to Iceland’s tournament success rests on the fitness of their number 10, Gylfi Sigurdsson. He is integral to Iceland’s attack as he plays a free-roaming role going forward and is their most creative presence. He is also lethal from set-pieces. If Iceland is to advance out of this group, expect them to thrive in dead ball situations and Sigurdsson will be the main catalyst of that. However, he is currently heading to Russia lacking match fitness. In March, he injured his knee playing for his club, Everton, and went three months without playing in a competitive game. However, Sigurdsson scored in a recent friendly against Norway and looks to be regaining his fitness at the right time.

Croatia

Squad

Manager: Zlatko Dalić

Goalkeepers: Danijel Subasic (Monaco), Lovre Kalinic (Gent), Dominik Livakovic (Dinamo)

Croatia have arguably the best midfield at the World Cup (Image: FIFA)

Defenders: Vedran Corluka (Lokomotiv Moscow), Domagoj Vida (Besiktas), Ivan Strinic (Sampdoria), Dejan Lovren (Liverpool), Sime Vrsaljko (Atletico Madrid), Josip Pivaric (Dynamo Kiev), Tin Jedvaj (Bayer Leverkusen), Duje Caleta-Car (Red Bull Salzburg)

Midfielders: Luka Modric (Real Madrid), Ivan Rakitic (Barcelona), Mateo Kovacic (Real Madrid), Milan Badelj (Fiorentina), Marcelo Brozovic (Inter), Filip Bradaric (Rijeka)

Forwards: Mario Mandzukic (Juventus), Ivan Perisic (Inter), Nikola Kalinic (Milan), Andrej Kramaric (Hoffenheim), Marko Pjaca (Schalke), Ante Rebic (Eintracht)

FIFA Ranking: 20

Odds to win: 35/1

Preview

Croatia will be making their fifth appearance at a World Cup. They had their best finish in 1998 when they finished third. But since 1998, Croatia has never advanced to the knockout stages. In the first round of UEFA qualifying, Croatia finished second in Group I, behind Iceland. As second-placed finishers, they then advanced to the second round of qualifying where they played Greece over two legs. They topped Greece 4-1 on aggregate and qualified for the World Cup.

In short, Croatia will advance as far as its midfield can carry them. Luka Modric, one of the best midfielders in the world, has helped lead his club, Real Madrid, to three straight Champions League titles. He does absolutely everything for Croatia. The captain and leader of the team, Modric plays in a fairly advanced role. Nearly every Croatian attack runs through him. In addition, he does a great job of tracking back and fulfilling the defensive duties his manager expects of him. Alongside him, Ivan Rakitic is also a brilliant playmaker. Rakitic often plays a slightly more defensive role than Modric but still possesses the ability to break down the opposition’s defense with just one pass. He should provide some defensive stability for Croatia while still possessing an attacking threat going forward.

The third central midfield spot is up for grabs. Dalić could start Milan Badelj who is the most defensive midfielder in the squad and would balance out some of the attacking tendencies of Modric and Rakitic. He also could start Marcelo Brozovic who is very effective in the holding midfield role for his club Inter Milan. Finally, Dalić could start Mateo Kovacic who has improved his defensive capabilities after being called upon to play a more defensive role in recent seasons for Real Madrid.

Nigeria

Squad

Manager: Gernot Rohr

Goalkeepers: Ikechukwu Ezenwa (Enyimba), Francis Uzoho (Deportivo La Coruna), Daniel Akpeyi (Chippa United)

Nigeria will look to improve upon their performance in the 2014 World Cup where they lost in the round of 16 (Image: FIFA)

Defenders: Abdullahi Shehu (Bursaspor), Tyronne Ebuehi (Den Haag), Elderson Echiejile (Brugge), Bryan Idowu (Amkar Perm), Chidozie Awaziem (Nantes), William Troost-Ekong (Bursaspor), Leon Balogun (Brighton), Kenneth Omeruo (Kasimpasa)

Midfielders: John Obi Mikel (Tianjin TEDA), Ogenyi Onazi (Trabzonspor), Wilfred Ndidi (Leicester), Oghenekaro Etebo (Las Palmas), John Ogu (Hapoel Be’er Sheva), Joel Obi (Torino)

Forwards: Ahmed Musa (Leicester), Kelechi Iheanacho (Leicester), Victor Moses (Chelsea), Odion Ighalo (Changchun Yatai), Alex Iwobi (Arsenal), Simeon Nwankwo (Crotone)

FIFA Ranking: 48

Odds to win: 300/1

Preview

Nigeria will be making its sixth World Cup appearance in their history. They have been relatively successful in their appearances, making the round of sixteen three times. However, they have yet to advance beyond that. In CAF qualifying, Nigeria topped Group B with thirteen points and thus earned their spot in the 2018 World Cup. However, this team is somewhat inexperienced when it comes to international play. Although they did qualify for the 2014 World Cup, Nigeria have failed to qualify for the last two African Cup of Nations. Missing those tournaments has let vital experience fall through the cracks for many of Nigeria’s young talent.

If Nigeria are to be successful, John Obi Mikel must have a good tournament. Mikel is Nigeria’s most prolific playmaker in the central midfield. He is integral for recycling possession and transitioning the ball from the defense to the attack. When he is off his game, Nigeria’s squad visibly struggles. They cannot retain possession and often look toothless going forward.

Wilfred Ndidi will provide the defensive support which will enable Mikel the ability to drift forward into an attacking role. Ndidi, a defensive midfielder who seemingly never loses a tackle, was signed by Leicester City to replace N’Golo Kante in 2017. Since signing for the Premier League side, he has thrived. Like Kante, Ndidi never tires and is able to run for a full ninety minutes shielding the defense. His incredible stamina is one of his best traits. Although Ndidi did injure his hamstring late in the Premier League season, he has appeared to regain fitness. He played all ninety minutes against the Czech Republic in Nigeria’s final friendly before the World Cup.

Prediction

Group D is certainly one of the most wide-open groups in the tournament. Each team has the quality to advance to the knockout stages and it would certainly not be surprising to see any of them do so. Croatia, in a bit of a surprise, will finish first in Group D behind the strength of their midfield. Their midfield will prove key in the deciding game against Argentina. Modric and Rakitic should be able to control the game as no one in Argentina’s midfield has the ability to stop them. Despite this, Argentina will finish second after beating Iceland and Nigeria in two hard-fought matches. Finally, Nigeria will finish third with Iceland behind them in fourth.

 

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