Courtois, Alderweireld, Vermaelen, Kompany, Vertonghen, Witsel, De Bruyne, Fellaini, Lukaku, E. Hazard (c), Carrasco, Mignolet, Casteels, Mertens, Meunier, T. Hazard, Tielemans, Januzaj, Dembele, Boyata, Batshuayi, Chadli, Dendoncker (Manager: Roberto Martinez)
PLAYER TO WATCH
Despite all the big names and the transcendent forms of Kevin De Bruyne and Dries Mertens, Eden Hazard is still the key man in the Red Devils set up. Appointed captain for Euro 2016, he has held on to the mantle and will be tasked with leading this golden generation of Belgian players to their predicted glory. Built low to the ground, Hazard’s immaculate close control and a sudden burst of acceleration enables him beat any defender, or at least draw a foul. Playing either wide left or centrally for club and country, Hazard morphed his game into that of a support striker late in the season with the arrival of a strong target man in Olivier Giroud, something he can replicate for the national team with Romelu Lukaku. Despite a disappointing season overall for Chelsea, Hazard still managed 17 goals in 51 appearances in all competitions, finishing the season with the winning goal in the FA Cup Final.
UNDER THE RADAR
The man who’s kept Roma’s Radja Nainggolan out of the squad is 23-year-old defensive midfielder Leander Dendoncker. Dendoncker is the only Belgium-based player Roberto Martinez selected in his final squad, and it was down to the impeccable form he displayed in Belgium’s First Division, appearing in 36 games for Anderlecht and displaying a calmness and power on the ball. Deployed anywhere from central defender right through to attacking midfielder in some scenarios, his long-term position appears to be as a midfield destroyer in the mould of Nainggolan. Described as a versatile key in midfield with an eye for a pass and good control in tight spaces, Dendoncker may not get much of a chance this World Cup but, with English clubs like West Ham, Crystal Palace and Watford reportedly keen, he’s definitely one to keep an eye on.
KEY MAN OUT
Well, this has come full circle hasn’t it, because the obvious name here is Radja Nainggolan, one of the most destructive and complete midfielders in the European game. Blessed with elite level stamina, pace, work rate and technique, Nainggolan has played a multitude of positions, including right fullback, defensive midfielder, traditional box-to-box midfielder, attacking midfielder, winger and even second striker. Many were bemused by his exclusion from the squad, with his banishment leading to an international retirement (his second) at the age of 30. You can read the reports of Martinez not being happy with Nainggolan’s “image” and his smoking habit, but the fact remains that he is one of the game’s elite midfielders and it’s a shame he won’t be at Russia 2018.
Belgium, deservedly or not, entered the last World Cup as the popular dark horse for a lot of pundits, with their young and exciting core making noise as a nation on the rise. Four years on, however, and the excuse of inexperience cannot be used anymore, with a squad packed full of Europe’s brightest stars. We know all about the flair they possess going forward, with a damaging attacking quartet of Hazard, De Bruyne, Mertens and Lukaku, but questions will be asked of the their defence, especially with Martinez in charge. With a horde of strong central defenders at their disposal, their biggest weakness is in the wide areas of defence. On the right, Thomas Meunier figures to be the main choice, but he‘s coming off an inconsistent season for PSG, while the left side will likely be occupied by an out of position central defender like Jan Vertonghen, Thomas Vermaelen or Dedryck Boyata. Belgium have the pace and flair to outscore anyone and the midfield to starve opponents of possession. An athletic side, the defensive midfielders will have a key role to play in helping out the defence, but they should be able to match their effort from four years ago, at minimum, and reach the quarter finals.
Thibaut Courtois - 2011-current: 154 appearances, 350 unsolicited interviews
Kevin De Bruyne - 2012-2014: 9 appearances, 0 goals
Romelu Lukaku - 2011-2014: 15 appearances, 0 goals
Eden Hazard - 2012-current: 300 appearances, 89 goals
Thorgan Hazard - 2012-2015: 0 appearances
Michy Batshuayi - 2016-current: 53 appearances, 19 goals
Belgium were drawn into a fairly comfortable UEFA Group H with Greece, Bosnia, Estonia, Cyprus and Gibraltar, and it showed, only dropping points in a surprising 1-1 home draw against Greece. There are valid concerns that Belgium were never truly tested in qualifying, but that shouldn’t be too much of an issue for a squad that expected to comfortably qualify regardless. They absolutely destroyed the lower tier of their group, defeating Gibraltar by a combined scoreline of 15-0 in the two games, while handling Estonia to the tune of 8-1 at home. Romelu Lukaku led the charge with 11 goals, Eden Hazard added 6, and Dries Mertens and Thomas Meunier chipped in with 5 apiece.
Played: 10. Won: 9. Drawn: 1. Lost: 0. Goals For: 43. Goals Against: 6. Points: 28.
Pickford, Walker, Rose, Dier, Stones, Maguire, Lingard, Henderson, Kane (c), Sterling, Vardy, Trippier, Butland, Welbeck, Cahill, Jones, Delph, Young, Rashford, Alli, Loftus-Cheek, Alexander-Arnold, Pope (Manager: Gareth Southgate)
PLAYER TO WATCH
This England squad really doesn‘t have the transcendent star of campaigns past, someone on the level of Wayne Rooney in his prime, or David Beckham, but they do have a lot of exciting talent. One of those, perhaps the brightest talent of all in the squad, is Raheem Sterling. Coming off of a brilliant domestic season with Manchester City, where he won the Premier League while scoring 18 goals in 33 appearances, Sterling is primed for a big World Cup. A modern winger with dazzling dribbling ability and blistering speed, Sterling is best deployed on the left, where he can use his agility and quickness to cut inside and shoot on his strong right foot. Small yet stable, Sterling draws a lot of fouls with his quick feet and will be key for England on the counter attack with his ability to be direct and run at defenders.
UNDER THE RADAR
Despite not being around for Leicester’s miracle run to the title back in 2016, Harry Maguire is building a reputation in his own regard. Signed from Hull following their relegation in 2017, Maguire had a stellar first season for the Foxes, appearing in every single minute of the Premier League season and chipping in with 4 assists and 2 goals. Maguire may be large (and in charge) but he is a ball playing threat who’s not averse to playing adventurous long passes or going on lumbering runs forward in the style of, say, Branislav Ivanovic. Comfortable on the ball as well as in the air both defensively and on set pieces, Maguire is still a brick wall defender as well, with his concentration and positioning earning plaudits. He may not be the first choice for Southgate, but Maguire can certainly play a role in Russia.
KEY MAN OUT
While we have no way of knowing if he would’ve been picked had he been healthy, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was certainly in the frame for Russia before suffering a serious knee injury in the Champions League semifinal against AS Roma. Never much of a goalscorer, Chamberlain’s influence comes from his hard running and workrate, with his incredible versatility allowing him to play a number of positions, including both fullback spots, on either wing, or in central midfield in both a defensive and an attacking capacity. Known for his stamina, dribbling ability and crossing, Chamberlain has the ability to beat his man and work short passing channels, while also possessing decent vision for a more intricate pass. Had he been fit, Chamberlain may well have been the engine-type workhorse this English midfield may miss in the later rounds.
England have a balanced squad all over the park, with an abundance of creative options, and that’s before we even talk about Captain Harry Kane. Probably the best striker in the Premier League right now, the Tottenham frontman is an elite level finisher capable of scoring with his feet and his head and from just about any angle. He will be the focal point of the attack — with the hard-running Dele Alli arriving late from midfield to supplement attacks — and his combinations with the likes of Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford will be critical to England’s success. I do question England’s defence, having gone with some somewhat shaky or inconsistent options in Phil Jones, Gary Cahill and Fabian Delph, while their wingback stocks aren’t much better, with Ashley Young the only serious option with experience compared with the likes of Kieran Trippier and Trent Alexander-Arnold. Kyle Walker and Danny Rose are there as well, but the defence may yet prove England’s Achilles heel.
Gary Cahill - 2012-current: 282 appearances, 25 goals
Ruben Loftus-Cheek - 2004-current: 32 appearances, 2 goals
Steve Holland - 2009-2017: youth and assistant coach
England had a fairly comfortable road to Russia, going undefeated in Group F of UEFA qualifying while winning all their home games, their only dropped points coming in away draws to Scotland and Slovenia. In fairness to the English defence, they did only concede 3 goals in qualifying, but there is the asterisk that none of the teams they faced were particularly threatening going forward. It was a fairly bland qualifying process for the Three Lions, with Harry Kane leading the way with 5 goals in a group with the worst second place team during the playoff round — Slovakia came second in the group, but once results were calculated, had the 9th seed for the playoffs and thus didn‘t even get the chance to play for a spot.
Played: 10. Won: 8. Drawn: 2. Lost: 0. Goals For: 18. Goals Against: 3. Points: 26.
Penedo, Murillo, Cummings, Escobar, R. Torres, Gomez, Perez, Barcenas, G. Torres, Diaz, Cooper, Calderon, Machado, Pimentel, Davis, Arroyo, Ovalle, Tejada, Avila, Godoy, J. L. Rodriguez, A. Rodriguez, Baloy (c). (Manager: Hernan Dario Gomez).
PLAYER TO WATCH
Panama is one of the older squads, boasting several 100-cap veterans, but one name to keep an eye on is New York Red Bulls youngster Michael Amir Murillo, with the 22-year-old establishing himself as the first choice right fullback in the Big Apple. Coming through the youth setup at San Francisco in Panama, Murillo has been described as a modern fullback with good attacking ability and crossing, with this ability key in feeding Panama’s strong frontline including Blas Perez and Luis Tejada. Tall and strong, Murillo is good in the air as well, but has trouble in ball retention, sporting just a 72% pass accuracy to start the new season in MLS. Able to be deployed in the midfield as well, Murillo could use a strong World Cup to generate interest in Europe with his athleticism and versatility.
UNDER THE RADAR
Fidel Escobar, another player from the New York Red Bulls, is a promising central defender who, at 23 years old, already has 23 international caps. A strong and well-built young defender, Escobar lacks the traditional size for a centre back, standing a shade under 6 feet tall, but is still strong in the air and is a danger from set pieces. However, his real strength lies in his reading the play, with his interceptions and shot blocking two of his more notable attributes. A regular for his country before his club, Escobar won’t be expected to contribute too much this World Cup with more experienced defenders available, but his no nonsense style and maturity for such a young player may come in handy.
KEY MAN OUT
Universitario wide midfielder Alberto Quintero was signed, sealed and delivered to Panama’s World Cup squad before a late injury saw him ruled out. A veteran of 90 caps, Quintero had been in good goalscoring form recently for his Peruvian club side, hitting 15 goals in 41 league appearances since 2017. Able to play either wing, Quintero is a good dribbler and passer, possessing good vision in seeing the play break ahead of him and threading key passes. However, he is also a two-way player, with his defensive contribution also very impressive. The diminutive winger, standing just 1.65m tall, harasses opposing players into mistakes and errant passes. A key part of Panama’s plans, he will be sorely missed from day one.
On paper, Panama actually have a very balanced squad, featuring a good, strong defence with a mixture of youth and experience, and a stable of strikers with bags of international experience. The real problem is, simply, a lack of quality throughout the squad compared to the likes of England and Belgium. Panama would be a good shout to make it out of most of the groups, with their style of play predicated on quick movement and possession, exploiting the wide areas and bringing their fullbacks into the attack. Panama, like a lot CONCACAF’s smaller teams, can be quite physical and strong and athletic, but the question will be whether they can get enough possession to create chances against the higher ranked teams. Don’t count them out, but it will be an uphill battle to make it out of this group. They really need to be efficient and ruthless with any chances they create to have a real chance.
Panama only won three games in the final round of CONCACAF qualifying, but they did play well against Mexico and Costa Rica, the other two teams to secure automatic qualification for the tournament. Bolstered by a dismal showing from the USA, Panama secured automatic qualification over Honduras via goal difference, as both teams finished on 13 points, but Panama’s -1 was comfortably better than Honduras’ -6. It came down to the final matchday to determine automatic qualification, with a Panama victory over Costa Rica ensuring Honduras’ 3-2 win over leaders Mexico didn’t matter. Gabriel and Rafael Torres each scored 2 goals during Panama’s qualification run.
Played: 10. Won: 3. Drawn: 4. Lost: 3. Goals For: 9. Goals Against: 10. Points: 13.
Mustapha, Youssef, Benalouane, Meriah, Haddadi, Bedoui, Khaoui, Ben Youssef, Badri, Khazri, Bronn, Maaloul, Sassi, Ben Amor, Khalil, Mathlouthi, Skhiri, Srarfi, Khalifa, Chaalali, Nagguez, Hassen, Sliti (Manager: Nabil Maaloul)
PLAYER TO WATCH
Wahbi Khazri is a name that might be familiar from his spell with Sunderland. Khazri has spent most of his career in France, notably with Bastia and Bordeaux, as an attacking midfielder and part time striker. Operating centrally or on the left, Khazri is known as a traditional winger, one who likes to take on his man and get crosses into the box, while also displaying some passing ability. Coming off a solid season for Rennes where he scored 9 goals in 24 Ligue 1 appearances, Khazri presents an option for Tunisia to provide a bit of flair and creativity. His discipline and offside awareness aren’t great however.
UNDER THE RADAR
Bassem Srarfi is a young player on the rise at Nice. Operating mainly as a wide attacking midfielder, the 20-year-old made 26 Ligue 1 appearances last season, scoring 3 goals. A potent dribbler and passer of the ball, he had a pass accuracy of 84%, although he is more known as a dribbler. Not one to get to the byline, Srarfi will try and cut back inside to unleash a shot — though this has led to suggestions that he’s a bit selfish. He is also not someone who is going to give much in terms of defensive contributions, but when he’s in form going forward, he can be a great point of balance for the Tunisian attack, operating on the opposite side of Wahbi Khazri. Whether he’ll play much is unsure, but he’s definitely an option if Tunisia are lacking creativity.
KEY MAN OUT
Youssef Msakni was likely to be the key striker for Tunisia at the World Cup until sustaining a serious knee injury in April. A winger/forward, Msakni is deceptively quick and eager to get a shot away, finishing second in scoring in the Qatari league with 25 goals behind teammate Youssef El-Arabi. No slouch in the link-up department either, Msakni is one of the best players available to Tunisia, and his injury is a cruel blow to their chances.
Tunisia will likely struggle to score goals. The three other defences in this group are all very strong and I don’t know how they can cope with the loss of Msakni. For Tunisia to advance, or even just to put in a decent showing, they will need to play fast and play wide, to exploit their skill players like Khazri and Srarfi, amongst others. With Msakni missing, they don’t have a truly elite striker available, so the goalscoring duties will need to be spread out and the midfield will need to chip in as well. Tunisia won’t have large periods of sustained pressure on opposition goals, so they, like Panama, will need to be highly efficient with what little chances they do create. I just don’t see them having much luck unfortunately.
Tunisia topped Group A in CAF qualifying by a single point over DR Congo, going undefeated (four wins and two draws) in a group that also featured Libya and Guinea. Tunisia struggled compared to DR Congo in attack, but their strong defence kept them in every game, including a crucial 2-1 win at home over DRC, and away wins in Libya and Guinea. Youssef Msakni, the injured striker who would have been selected, led Tunisia with 3 goals in the qualifying period.
Played: 6. Won: 4. Drawn: 2. Lost: 0. Goals Scored: 11. Goals Conceded: 4. Points: 14.
* All times shown in Moscow Standard Time (UTC + 3)
18/6/18 - 6pm - Belgium vs. Panama - Sochi
18/6/18 - 9pm - Tunisia vs. England - Volgograd
23/6/18 - 3pm - Belgium vs. Tunisia - Moscow
24/6/18 - 3pm - England vs. Panama - Nizhny Novgorod
28/6/18 - 9pm - England vs. Belgium - Kaliningrad
28/6/18 - 9pm - Panama vs. Tunisia - Saransk
There is a pretty clear and obvious top two teams here in England and Belgium, and it would likely take a meltdown of epic proportions, like France in 2010. for either one of these two to relinquish a spot in the Round of 16. The key for England will be to use their devastating speed in midfield, with powerful runners like Dele Alli linking up the play and feeding the front trio of Sterling, Kane and Rashford. England are the most athletically gifted team in this group, and if they play up-tempo football, teams won’t be able to go with them for 90 minutes. For Belgium, they will need to sort out their defensive structure and make sure that their fullbacks aren’t isolated against opposition speed-men. With the nature of the defenders they’ve picked, they’ll be good against any aerial assaults but may struggle against intricate passing movements. Axel Witsel will have a key role to play, with his defensive contributions and ability to break on the counter important in getting Hazard and De Bruyne involved. For Panama and Tunisia, it’s the same problem, and that’s chance creation due to a lack of possession. Tunisia will find it especially hard without their top striker, while Panama do have some good options, but the styles will have to be different. While Panama need to break with speed, Tunisia need to value their possession and use the wide areas. In the end, I think Belgium tops the group with England a comfortable second.