World Cup Preview: Group G
Group G at the 2018 World Cup appears a straightforward prediction on the surface of things, with Belgium and England heavily favoured. But if Tunisia and Panama can take hope from anything, it is the unpredictability of international football and particularly the World Cup.
Panama and Tunisia were two surprise nations to make this years’ finals, and if Iceland in 2016 is anything to take inspiration from, “underdog” is merely just a word. Gregor Kerr previews.
Always a team that build up their fans only to let them down, England are often a very hard team to judge throughout qualifying and during friendlies. In 2016, the qualifying record was flawless, but the tournament result was gutless. This year they have found qualification just as simple, booking their spot in Russia with two games to spare in their group which contained Scotland, Slovenia and Slovakia.
Yet, this group has a somewhat different feel to it. It could be the youth and fresh-faced look to the squad – only Jordan Henderson has over 40 caps – or it could be the reassuring influence of Gareth Southgate, someone who looks to have been in the England structure for several years. He looks to have kept a lid on any egos developing within the camp, perhaps a weak spot in previous teams. This squad probably doesn’t have as many big name
The English media are well-known for their scathing assessments of the national side, facing trial for early exits, pub crawls or even certain tattoos, although this seems to have forged a togetherness between players and fans. Raheem Sterling’s scrutiny has been covered more than enough times, yet it has only aided the support from fans behind his back, eager for him to change the usual headlines.
Defensively is where England have seen the biggest shift under Southgate, with Joe Hart’s mid-career crisis leaving him out of the fold, a firm-choice goalkeeper isn’t clear. A newly established back-three has worked well for England, with Kyle Walker dropping from his usual full-back duties into the centre of defence.
The likely midfield partnership of Eric Dier and Jordan Henderson looks to lack creativity, although Raheem Sterling and Dele Alli further up the pitch can provide a needed spark. The former enjoyed undoubtedly his best season recently, scoring over 20 goals for the first time in his career, being deployed just behind the striker.
That striker without question will be Harry Kane, the captain of his country and the outstanding English talent alongside Sterling. His first World Cup will for his sake be nothing like his first European Championship, where he failed to score even once. His game has come on to another level since then though, with his link-up play reaching a new level and his scoring tally ever increasing, He hit the 40 goal mark for the first time in his career, no doubt not the last. Jamie Vardy has had another prolific season for Leicester meaning the Three Lions do have an option from the bench.
The Belgians seem a mirror image of their group opponents England from 12 years ago. A golden generation of talent, a star-studded squad playing at the most prestigious of clubs, yet are still to find a way in which to blend them all together into a cohesive side. Though in qualifying they were near flawless, dropping just two points on their path to Russia, there was a lack of challenge in their group however with Greece the nearest competitors.
In defence they are spoiled for choice, with Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld and Vincent Kompany all worthy of a starting spot within the team, although all three have had very different seasons. Vertonghen has been a stand-out as Tottenham once again reached the Champions League last season, whereas his partner for club and country Alderweireld became a more peripheral figure for Spurs, amongst transfer rumours and injuries, a small run of game In May could have been the influencing factor in making the squad.
Whereas Kompany captained Manchester City to his and their third Premier League title. For all of the talk of this new generation of Belgian talent, Kompany is the player that has been there long before the ‘dark horse’ label was tagged, making his debut in 2004. He serves as a reminder of where Belgium once were, and where they find themselves now.
In midfield the glaring omission is Radja Nainggolan, who found his fate outside of the final 23-man squad. The news comes as a surprise given the Roma midfielder’s experience, although under Roberto Martinez he has found international appearances sparse. He would have formed an excellent midfield with Moussa Dembele had he been selected, in what appeared to be a dream midfield of power and pace.
Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku are the two biggest names in an attack that proved ruthless in qualifying, scoring 43 times in their ten matches. The highest hopes land on the former, although this season at Chelsea he hasn’t displayed his best form.
The fear for the country’s fans will be if they fail to capitalise on this special generation of talent. Much of international football is based and luck and there are no guarantees that a similar level of talent will appear over the coming decades. They are no longer the dark horses, now they have expectations.
Alongside Iceland, they are making their World Cup debut after a dramatic qualification, which came courtesy of a late 2-1 victory over the United States. Panama has never been associated with football, which makes their participation all the more surprising. They have a professional league but attendance figures only reach into the hundreds, with the league’s top players only making around £3,500 per month. Three players within the squad play their club football in the Panamanian Football League.
The squad lacks superstars, with many of the names featuring in the MLS, possibly the biggest being Roman Torres, who recently lifted the MLS Cup with Seattle Sounders and scored the historic goal against the States.
Several members of their squad have experience within European football, with players from Genk, Dinamo Bucharest and Deportivo. They carry great experience at international level also, with six members of their squad having over 100 caps to their name; midfielder Gabriel Gomez being the standout with 144 appearances.
This could be their undoing however, with an ageing squad that could be easily exposed, so expect a conservative approach to their games.
After sealing a place in Russia, the president of Panama declared a national holiday, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see a similar outcome should they get anything from their matches against England and Belgium.
Like Panama, this isn’t a team exactly associated with the World Cup. However, they do have tournament experience, with their most recent showing coming in Germany in 2006. They also featured in three World Cups previously but failed to escape their group on every occasion.
Also like Panama, they are a very resolute team. They were undefeated in six qualifying games, conceding just four goals and topping the group. In their pre-tournament friendlies they have proved a tough nut to crack, with only Spain defeating them 1-0, along with 2-2 draws against Portugal and Turkey.
Many of their squad are based in France, with 7 representations from Ligue 1 and 2. Two names familiar to people on these shores may be Wahbi Khazri, who spent a season on the wing for Sunderland, while Yohan Benaloune has a Premier League winner’s medal for Leicester City.
They have tinkered with formations in recent mths, switching between a 4-2-3-1, 3-4-1-2 and 4-3-3 systems. Whether this is down to experimentation or keeping their opponents guessing, it is difficult to imagine the tactics that head coach Nabil Maaloul will deploy.
They have often incoroporated two holding midfielders into their system regardless of formation, perhaps wary of the strength their opponents hold, Key to this have been midfield pairing Mohamed Ben Amor and Ellyes Skhiri, both impressing in recent friendlies and looking assured of a starting spot come the opening game.
Belgium – 9 Points
England – 6 points
Tunisia – 3 points
Panama – 0 points