Guzman, Mercado, Tagliafico, Ansaldi, Biglia, Fazio, Banega, Acuna, Higuain, Messi (c), Di Maria, Armani, Meza, Mascherano, Perez, Rojo, Otamendi, Salvio, Aguero, Lo Celso, Dybala, Pavon, Caballero (Manager: Jorge Sampaoli)
PLAYER TO WATCH
Lionel Messi is, at worst, the second best player of all time, and after a somewhat shocking international retirement in June 2016 following Argentina’s loss in the final of the Copa America Centenario to Chile on penalties, a decision it took him all of a week to reverse, he will once again be the man tasked with leading La Albiceleste to glory. Messi is third all-time in appearances for Argentina with 124, behind only Javier Mascherano and Javier Zanetti, while he is comfortably the nation’s leading goal scorer with 64. Despite a strong supporting cast including the likes of Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain, Angel Di Maria and Paulo Dybala, the 30-year-old will be the focus of rival defences because, for better or worse as far as tournament play goes, Argentina go as Messi goes.
UNDER THE RADAR
One player to keep an eye on is 22-year-old central midfielder Giovani Lo Celso from PSG in the French capital. Lo Celso was an integral part to the Parisians’ title aspirations last season, as he made 47 appearances in all competitions over a long season, including 32 league appearances, scoring 4 goals. A creative midfielder, there might not be a big chance this World Cup for him, but with the likes of Lucas Biglia, Ever Banega and Javier Mascherano all aging and likely in their last World Cup campaigns, the time is right for Lo Celso to take up the mantle. The fact that Lo Celso has established himself in one of the best club sides in world football, in a midfield that includes international stars like Blaise Matuidi, Adrien Rabiot and Marco Verratti bodes well for his international future. With a wide range of passing and an eye for goal, Lo Celso is one to look out for.
KEY MEN OUT
Mauro Icardi might be a controversial figure due to some off the field incidents, but there’s no denying the man’s talent on the pitch. Still only 25 years old, the striker has already racked up 100 league goals for Internazionale in Serie A, in only 159 appearances, including 29 goals in 34 games last season. It says a lot about the embarrassment of riches that Argentina possess that a man of Icardi’s quality can be left at home.
Another player I have to include here is Manuel Lanzini, because he was initially going to be my player to watch, and I had a whole write up on him prepared before he was replaced by Enzo Perez due to injury a few days ago. The diminutive attacker made 27 league appearances for West Ham last term, scoring 5 goals in a solid third season in East London. His 2016-17 was even more impressive though, notching 8 goals in 35 Premier League games en route to being named the runner up for both West Ham’s Player of the Year and Player’s Player of the Year awards (both were won by Michail Antonio).
Argentina have historically been one of the strongest footballing nations, winning the World Cup twice, in 1978 and 1986. However, this current squad, despite a 5th place ranking in the FIFA Index, doesn’t quite have that same unbeatable aura that those teams of yesteryear possessed. The defence has been spoken about at great length due to the armoury of potent attacking skill that the nation possess, but for Argentina to have sustained success in Russia, their dangerous attacking triumvirate of Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Aguero and Lionel Messi will have to show up and be counted at a major international tournament. Argentina haven’t won a major international tournament since the 1993 Copa America, a statistic that seems almost impossible given their wealth of footballing riches.
Sergio Aguero — The player we should’ve signed instead of Fernando Torres
Willy Caballero — 2017-current: 13 appearances, 0 goals
Argentina could only manage 19 goals during the 18 game South American qualification process, with a sturdy defence conceding only 16 goals en route to a 3rd place finish in the region. Argentina’s 19 goals scored were equal for the second lowest mark in the entire CONMEBOL (tied with Paraguay, who finished 7th, and last placed Venezuela), besting only 9th placed Bolivia’s 16-goal mark. Argentina made the process hard for themselves, suffering home losses against Ecuador and Paraguay, while only managing a draw against Venezuela. Things were shaky heading into the last matchday, an away tie versus Ecuador, but a 3-1 victory inspired by a Messi hat trick catapulted them to safety. Just as well, because Romario Ibarra opened the scoring for the Ecuadorians within a minute of kickoff. Messi led the team in qualifying with 7 goals, but Higuain could only manage one, while Sergio Aguero was scoreless.
Played: 18. Won: 7. Drawn: 7. Lost: 4. Goals For: 19. Goals Against: 16. Points: 28.
Livakovic, Vrsaljko, Strinic, Perisic, Corluka, Lovren, Rakitic, Kovacic, Kramaric, Modric (c), Brozovic, L. Kalinic, Jedvaj, Bradaric, Caleta-Car, N. Kalinic, Mandzukic, Rebic, Badelj, Pjaca, Vida, Pivaric, Subasic (Manager: Zlatko Dalic)
PLAYER TO WATCH
Luka Modric is one of the most cultured and classy midfielders of his generation, and the obvious focal point and captain of the Croatian team. Any and all attacks will go through Modric and his partner in crime, Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic, with the duo forming one of the elite central midfield pairings at the World Cup. Modric, though, also possesses the defence-splitting pass in his arsenal that is needed to unlock the sides that will sit deeper, content to allow meaningless possession. Deadly from a set piece as well, Modric is the link between the defence and attack, and his supply will be important to the likes of Mario Mandzukic and Andrej Kramaric up front. Modric simply makes everyone around him better.
UNDER THE RADAR
When Real Madrid bought him in 2015 from Internazionale, many thought it was a luxury impulse buy, but Mateo Kovacic has established himself as an important piece in the Los Blancos midfield. A versatile player, Kovacic has been deployed as a number-10, out wide, and as a deep lying playmaker, which is where he’ll likely be used in the Croatia setup to allow the likes of Modric and Rakitic to push forward. Not a noted goalscorer, he went the entire 2017-18 campaign, all 36 of his appearances in all competitions, without a goal. Capable of picking up the ball deep and driving forward, it is Kovacic’s game-breaking ability and willingness to push the play that puts defences in two minds, thus creating space for runners.
KEY MAN OUT
Chelsea’s Mario Pasalic is a victim of Croatia’s midfield glut of talent, but Napoli’s Marko Rog is the bigger exclusion here. A key part of the Napoli engine room, Rog made 28 Serie A appearances last season, scoring a solitary goal. Still only 22 yet with 12 caps already, Rog was a prolific goal scorer in his youth career in Croatia before transitioning into more of a playmaking type, forming a good partnership with Jorginho in the Napoli midfield. Rog was a regular member of the Croatian qualifying campaign, but lost out to bigger names when the final selection was made.
Croatia have one of the better collection of midfield talents in world football, with Modric, Rakitic, Perisic and Kovacic all well known names. However, this is the last chance for this talented group to make a real run at anything, with the first three names all nearing or over 30 years old (Perisic 29, Rakitic 30, Modric 32). For Croatia to advance out of the group, they’ll need to rely on their strengths: their passing game, their ability to keep possession, and create chances from midfield. The defence is a suspect area, with Dejan Lovren known to be inconsistent and the likes of Vedran Corluka and Ivan Strinic getting up there in years. They are taking two promising young defenders in Tin Jedvaj and Duje Caleta-Car — an infusion of youth and integration, who’ll be better for the experience but regular contributors only in the future.
Croatia finished second in Group I in UEFA qualifying, behind fellow Group D participants Iceland. Croatia possessed the best defence in the group, only conceding four goals total, and went undefeated at home, even while playing in front of empty stadiums as part of a FIFA ban. In the end, Croatia’s group wasn’t particularly dangerous, as they handled the likes of Turkey, Ukraine, Finland and Kosovo with relative ease. Croatian fans were allowed back in for their playoff matches, where they were drawn against Greece. A 4-1 home win in the first leg set up a comfortable away trip, where Croatia held Greece to a scoreless draw to book their ticket to Russia.
Played: 10. Won: 6. Drawn: 2. Lost: 2. Goals For: 15. Goals Against: 4. Points: 20.
Halldórsson, Sævarsson, Friðjónsson, Guðmundsson, Ingason, R. Sigurðsson, Guðmundsson, Bjarnason, Sigurðarson, G. Sigurðsson, Finnbogason, Schram, Rúnarsson, Árnason, Eyjólfsson, Skúlason, Gunnarsson (c), Magnússon, Gislason, Hallfreðsson, Traustason, Böðvarsson, Skúlason (Manager: Heimir Hallgrímsson)
PLAYER TO WATCH
Iceland have come out of relative obscurity into international football relevance in the last 3-4 years, and the man at the centre of the revolution is Everton attacking midfielder Gylfi Sigurðsson. Much like his Scandinavian rival Christian Eriksen, the former Swansea man is lethal in space and is equally adept with either foot. A set piece maestro, he isn’t going to beat anyone with athleticism or raw pace, but he is one of the most dangerous players in world football when hanging around the top of the 18 yard box, waiting to unleash a strike given a modicum of room. Basically, any attack that Iceland can muster will most likely contain a heavy dose of Sigurðsson.
UNDER THE RADAR
It isn’t often that the captain of a nation enters the World Cup under the radar, but that’s the case with Aron Gunnarsson, leader of the Icelandic pack. The Cardiff City midfielder has had a relatively unhappy 2017-18 season, only making 20 appearances in the Championship, down from the 40 appearances he made the season prior, as he struggled to cement a consistent spot in the side. Much of this was due to injuries. He was still offered a new contract, but he rejected it. A powerful central midfielder, what Gunnarsson lacks in technical skill, he makes up for in industry and tackling, and his role will be vital in winning possession for the likes of Sigurðsson to be effective.
KEY MAN OUT
Kolbeinn Sigþórsson has proven himself many times. With 44 caps and 22 goals for his country, the 28-year-old is Iceland’s second highest goal scorer of all time, behind only former Chelsea striker Eiður Guðjohnsen. However, Sigþórsson has had an unhappy last couple of years since leaving Ajax, where he was an established regular, and he has struggled to find game time as a result of a serious knee injury sustained in 2016 while on international duty. Only returning to match action through the Nantes reserve team in March of this year, he was well underdone, otherwise he would’ve been a sure selection for the squad. His goalscoring record would have provided a nice focal point for an Icelandic attack that could use a diversion from Sigurðsson.
Iceland have done well to climb to 22nd in the FIFA rankings considering the population of the country, as they’ve focused on creating a system that highlights the strength of their midfield players, allowing creative flow. Iceland play a very attractive brand of football spearheaded by Sigurðsson, but will be at odds to contain the firepower of Argentina. Croatia will be a more interesting test of Iceland’s abilities, with Croatia’s defensive insecurities (despite their qualifying record) providing a tantalising chance for Sigurðsson & Co to make their mark.
As mentioned above with Croatia, Iceland were the winners of Group I in UEFA qualifying and thus granted safe passage directly to the group stage of Russia 2018. Iceland won all 5 of their home fixtures at their famous picturesque national stadium in Reykjavik, scene of many Viking claps. Their away form is what threatened to derail their qualification campaign, with losses away to Croatia and Finland opening the door for the former, but their overwhelming home form was enough to get them over the line. Gylfi Sigurðsson was their leading scorer in qualifying with 4, while Alfreð Finnbogason added 3 goals.
Played: 10. Won: 7. Drawn: 1. Lost: 2. Goals For: 16. Goals Against: 7. Points: 22.
Ezenwa, Idowu, Echiéjilé, Ndidi, Troost-Ekong, Balogun, Musa, Etebo, Ighalo, Mikel (c), Moses, Abdullahi, Nwankwo, Iheanacho, Obi, Akpeyi, Onazi, Iwobi, Ogu, Awaziem, Ebuehi, Omeruo, Uzoho (Manager: Gernot Rohr)
PLAYER TO WATCH
Ahmed Musa already has 72 appearances for the Super Eagles, despite still being only 25 years old. It helps that he made his debut way back in 2010, at the age of 17, and by all reports, he would’ve been in their 2010 World Cup squad if not for an ankle injury. The CSKA Moscow man, on loan from Leicester City, has 13 goals in his 72 caps, and is known for his devastating pace and ability on the ball, usually from a wide area but sometimes as a central striker. Musa is a star in the Russian league, where he has racked up 61 goals in 180 appearances in all competitions for CSKA, mostly during his first stint. His time in Leicester so far has been uneven, but he is still Nigeria’s most dangerous option going forward and definitely someone to look out for if Nigeria make a deep run.
UNDER THE RADAR
Another Leicester City man, Wilfred Ndidi has drawn a lot of admirers for his style of play during his year and a half for the Foxes, with his versatility allowing him to play in the back line and, preferably, in holding midfield. Blessed with raw power and an engine that runs for days, Ndidi was brought in by Leicester to fill the Kante-role and has made a fair fist of it. Comfortable on the ball, he has the strength to act as a powerful presence in the midfield and, partnered with John Obi Mikel, who likes to venture forward when on international duty, Ndidi will be a formidable opponent to try and get past. I predict he’ll be a busy man though, with the likes of Sigurðsson, Kovacic, Modric, Messi and Dybala running at him.
KEY MAN OUT
Nigeria are lucky in that they’ve been able to select a fairly full strength side for this World Cup, which means leaving out some talent, the unluckiest of whom is 22-year-old Gent winger Moses Simon. Simon uses his low centre of gravity to wriggle past opponents and draw fouls, plus he possesses a quick first step and plenty of skill on the ball. With 21 caps already at 22 years of age, Simon loses out to some of the other wingers already in the squad, like Musa and Chelsea’s Victor Moses. Simon has played consistent football in Belgium, capping off a solid few seasons with 6 goals in 33 games in 2017-18.
Nigeria have always been in the upper echelon of African football, and this year’s team is no exception. The Super Eagles will look to play fast and ruin opponents on the counter by utilising the raw speed of Ahmed Musa and Victor Moses, and that’s before we even mention the likes of Kelechi Iheanacho, Alex Iwobi and Odion Ighalo. Nigeria have a strong midfield as well, but have picked a largely inexperienced defence, with Kenneth Omeruo being one of the more senior custodians in the group at only 24 years of age. If Nigeria want to make it deep into the tournament, they will need to feed early balls to their dangerous wide men and attackers and let them run, because their midfield isn’t the type to create a lot of chances through guile and intricate passing movements.
Mikel John Obi - 2006-2016: 374 appearances, 6 goals
Victor Moses - 2012-current: 122 appearances, 18 goals
Kenneth Omeruo - 2012-current: 0 appearances, 5 loans
Nigeria had a relatively comfortable path to qualification, finishing first in Group B of the final round of CAF qualifying, beating out Zambia, Cameroon and Algeria, with the latter two putting up disappointing showings. Nigeria only lost one game in the final round, a 3-0 reverse in Algeria, but still finished 5 points clear at the top of the group, winning all three of their home games. Victor Moses led the way with 3 goals for Nigeria, while Mikel, Iheanacho and Iwobi all chipped in with 2 each.
Played: 6. Won: 4. Drawn: 1. Lost: 1. Goals For: 11. Goals Against: 6. Points: 13.
* All times in Moscow Standard Time (UTC + 3)
16/6/18 - 4pm - Argentina vs. Iceland - Moscow
16/6/18 - 10pm - Croatia vs. Nigeria - Kaliningrad
21/6/18 - 9pm - Argentina vs. Croatia - Nizhny Novgorod
22/6/18 - 6pm - Nigeria vs. Iceland - Volgograd
26/6/18 - 9pm - Nigeria vs. Argentina - Saint Petersburg
26/6/18 - 9pm - Iceland vs. Croatia - Rostov-on-Don
Argentina are the clear favourite in this group, and much like the pattern we’ve seen developing over the first few groups, the other three teams all have a realistic chance to advance. Croatia are perhaps favourites for that second spot thanks to the strength and quality of their midfield, and their vast level of international experience across the park. For Iceland to advance, there needs to be a secondary option when Sigurðsson is inevitably man-marked, so they will need to rely on a wide approach as well in order to work some space and get balls into the box. For Nigeria, they need to exploit all the speed they have out wide and up front. Ndidi and Mikel need to quickly counter and feed the ball to the likes of Musa, Moses, Iwobi and Iheanacho, because playing fast is what this team is good at.