2018 FIFA World Cup Preview: Group G
We now find ourselves talking about Group G, which is basically a two-team race between Belgium and England. Both of them will be fighting for first place while Tunisia and Panama will likely be playing for pride in this tournament.
In terms of talent, Belgium is easily the top of this group. Filled with world class players all over the pitch, can this Belgium squad get it together and become real World Cup contenders?
The Belgians rolled through UEFA qualifying unbeaten, racking up 28 points. It was a relatively easy group as Belgium beat teams like Gibraltar and Estonia quite easily, winning by the likes of 9-0, 6-0, and 8-1 respectively. Other than a 1-1 draw against Greece and a 4-3 win over Bosnia and Herzegovina, Belgium wasn’t really challenged in their qualifying group and honestly might not be in this group either outside of England.
Belgium's attack will be set as manager Roberto Martinez has numerous options in the squad who can put the ball in the back of the net. Romelu Lukaku will likely be the man up top for them and will look to pounce and through balls from the playmakers such as Kevin De Bruyne. KDB was one of the best players in the world this season and can take Belgium far if he continues the form he was in while playing for Manchester City. Eden Hazard is a shoe-in on the left wing and is more than capable of taking on defenders by himself. Dries Mertens, who played all of this season at striker for Napoli, can also play out on the wing or in a CAM/CF role. Martinez has a lot of options he can tinker with and can move around some versatile offensive players. The backups aren’t bad either with Yannick Carrasco and Michy Batshuayi being solid attacking options off the bench.
One of the more controversial snubs of the World Cup was Belgium leaving Roma midfielder Radja Nainggolan at home, a surprising omission given how much the midfielder played for his country in the 2016 Euros, even scored the opening goal in that semi-final against Wales. The 30-year-old could have still been a solid presence for this team. He’s a solid box to box midfielder who isn’t afraid to make a tackle along with providing a blast from outside the penalty area with his right foot.
Without their best central midfielder, Belgium will rely on the likes of Moussa Dembele, Axel Witsel, and the ever talked about Marouane Fellaini. Youri Tielemans is also on the 23-man roster but given he’s only 21 and the players in front of him Same goes for Thorgan Hazard (Eden’s younger brother) and Adnan Januzaj, who can play out in the wings. Dembele is the most skilled out of the trio and had an amazing season for Tottenham in England. He controlled play whenever he got on the ball and really shined in European competition against the likes of Juventus and Real Madrid. Making sure he can be the main carrier in the midfield will be crucial for Belgium.
Martinez installed a back three for Belgium on the road to Russia, a pretty smart tactic considering how long we as a soccer community have been pointing out the lack of solid fullbacks in the Belgium team. The Tottenham duo of Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld are expected to start along with Barcelona’s Thomas Vermaelen. PSG’s Thomas Meunier is the only real fullback/wingback Martinez can deploy and could be played on the right wing. Thibaut Courtois is the obvious favorite to start in goal.
Belgium is the most talented team in the group and on paper, they look like a team destined to top it. But you never know with this Belgium squad. It’s always up and down with them. But given the opponents they are facing, they should be fine.
This is a historic World Cup for Panama as they are embarking on their first ever trip to this tournament. They finished runners-up in the 4th round of CONCACAF qualifying, and then shocked the world by finishing 3rd in the 5th round, gaining automatic qualification to Russia thanks to a 2-1 win over Costa Rica on the final matchday and USA’s loss to Trinidad and Tobago.
While this is their first go-around at the WC, Panama has a number of players who have played numerous games together. They have six players on their roster who have logged over 100 caps for their country and 10 players with 70 or more caps. You can’t really call it experience but there is solidarity among this team.
Now we all mostly know what is going to happen when Panama takes the field, they are going to sit deep and try to break teams with a counter attack. Panama really isn’t an attacking side as they showed in qualifying. They scored nine goals in the Hex qualifying (CONCACAF 5th round), the second-lowest total in the group. Behind the defensive duo of Roman Torres and captain Felipe Baloy, Panama will try to soak up as much pressure as possible to make the game as boring as possible. Panama can’t allow themselves to get opened up and lose their defensive shape. Otherwise, they will be picked apart by the two top teams in this group. If they do win possession, they will look to blast it forward towards either Blas Perez or Luis Tejada. Both are Panama’s top goal scorers with 43 goals each for their country. Torres is also a threat towards goal on set pieces.
This is a tough first introduction for Panama. They will be really pushed to their limits defensively against England and Belgium. Hopefully, for them, a game against Tunisia offers them a chance to win a game at the World Cup.
Like Panama, Tunisia had to go through two rounds of qualifying to make the World Cup. They started in the second round of AFCON qualifying and advanced to the third round by beating Mauritania 4-2 over the course of two legs. Both games ended in 2-1 wins for Tunisia as they headed into the group stage of qualifying. There they topped Group A, beating the likes of Libya, Guinea, and Congo. Thanks to a 0-0 draw against Libya, Tunisia with 14 points were able to barely edge out Congo who had 13 after beating Guinea 3-1 that same day. In the end, Tunisia went undefeated in the 2nd and 3rd round of AFCON qualifying to get to Russia.
Tunisia really doesn’t have that experienced of a squad as no player on the team have played more than 70 caps for their team. For them, it really is more about the experience and the takeaways they can learn from the World Cup.
Against the big guns, Tunisia will also sit back and try to limit the amount of pressure which will come their way. Defenders Ali Maaloul and Syam Ben Youssef are the most veteran on the backline with both having more than 40 caps to their name. An interesting prospect to look out for is Gent’s Dylan Bronn but who knows if he will see the pitch in Russia.
The main man to look out is forward Wahbi Khazri. The Rennes striker is the main man for Tunisia and everything will channel through him offensively. Having scored 12 goals for his country, Khazri is the most lethal attacker that his side has. He’s one of the only players on this team who have experience playing in Europe. Khazri has played in both England (Sunderland) and France (Rennes). He will try to use some of the experience in those moments to help.
There’s not much else to say about this Tunisia team other than to hope they can withstand the pressure from England and Belgium while looking forward to the Panama game for some reconciliation in terms of points
Similar to their European counterparts in Belgium, England also had a very solid UEFA qualifying campaign. They went undefeated and bested the likes of Slovakia, Scotland, and Slovenia to top the group. It seems Gareth Southgate has got this team clicking on all cylinders and when it was all said and done, they were eight points ahead of second place.
We all know this but England’s attack will rely heavily on the right foot of Harry Kane. He scored five goals in qualifying and with no other England player scoring more than one, all the pressure is onto Kane to make his presence known in Russia. But it’s not like he won’t have some help though. Raheem Sterling will look to continue his great run in form and will likely play behind Kane while also being able to be deployed on the wings. Sterling’s ability to play all over the place offensively can really help England in terms of their offensive creativity and how they can generate chances. Sterling’s pace will help attract defenders and could open up spaces for Kane to exploit. It could even open up spaces for Kane to take some time and fire a cannon into the top corner.
Dele Alli will also be deployed in the midfield to help out in attack. Jesse Lingard and Ruben Loftus-Cheek are hard workers in the midfield as well. Both are great at tracking back and helping press or break up plays when needed. With solid defensive awareness and work ethic, both can be used in Southgate’s system but also can’t be counted out when it comes to being a goal threat.
One thing which has been talked about a lot when it comes to England has been their switch to a back three. Southgate has used the likes of Harry Maguire, John Stones, and Kyle Walker at the back to protect the net. It has worked to some degree and it has a little bit of everything. Stones can provide some passing from out the back while Walker gives you some speed on that right-hand side. Maguire is a big physical defender who can get up and challenge on aerial crosses. The back three hasn’t been exposed too much since Southgate has deployed it and it honestly won’t be until they play Belgium. They have done a good job at remaining in shape and not getting caught out with silly mistakes. Particularly with Stones, who has shown the ability to try and do too much while playing in the Premier League. Too many times for either Manchester City or Everton we saw Stones be cheeky and it costed his team goals at times. But not with England, he has seemed a lot more composed and with him being the main CB in the back three, he needs to be as solid as ever.
England has gone under a lot of changes since their last time in Brazil and even the Euros. Out is the old guard and there is new life in this team. They will be trying to forget the embarrassing loss to Iceland in the Euros and focus on what’s ahead. England has a solid chance to finish first in this group with finishing second being almost a guarantee. It will all come down to how they do against Belgium.
This is a two-team group between the two European giants. Like I’ve said earlier, the winner of this group will come down to the England - Belgium game. England has been fun to watch but this Belgium team is way too talented.
Belgium, England, Panama, Tunisia