Guide to World Cup Group D: Group of… Shocks?

Date published: Thursday 7th June 2018 7:04 - Daniel Storey

Argentina

Who are they?
It’s rare to feel pessimistic about a team featuring Lionel Messi, but here we are. Qualification was a soap opera, and the gap between the squad’s best player and its worst is gargantuan. They’ve also left out Serie A’s Mauro Icardi despite him scoring a goal every 3.48 shots this season – the best conversion rate of any striker in European football – but found room for Serie A’s Gonzalo Higuain, who scored six fewer goals in 14 more games and who has not scored an international goal since 2016. The squad is full of names you know, but when you start to look just below the surface, it pretty quickly looks underwhelming.

That qualification campaign was a mess. Three managers used, a number of players tried and quickly abandoned – some after being asked to play out of position. It came down to Messi channelling Roy Race in a final must-win away game against Ecuador to actually see Argentina home. His hat-trick, merely another chapter in the career of a colossus, said everything about his country’s reliance upon him.

After the game, his manager Jorge Sampaoli said “we must make sure everything does not depend on Leo” and he almost kept a straight face whilst saying it. The Argentinean defence is a box of ill-fitting parts, the midfield packed with quality but consistently inconsistent. If Argentina are keen to distance themselves from accusations of being a one-man team they can point to their attack being blessed with Angel di Maria, Sergio Aguero, Manuel Lanzini, Paulo Dybala and Maximiliano Meza (a player worth mentioning and tapping your nose about to those not as football obsessed as yourselves) but it really is all about one man.

So can Messi drag them to World Cup glory? There have been years where despite the personal pessimism here he might have, but not at this tournament. The four favourites – Germany, France, Spain and Brazil – are too far ahead of Argentina and in truth there is a great deal of work to do just to get out of this group.

Manager – Jorge Sampaoli
There is no doubt that Sampaoli will know where Argentina’s weaknesses are and look to outscore them. Philosophically he is attack-minded and he’ll know Croatia are primed to pick them off if they sit deep, and Nigeria will come at them and cause big problems too. Sampaoli really has only one option and an array of talent to try to pull it off, but watching Argentina is rarely a joy.

There’s always a stutter, a misstep, a forced partnership, players struggling to find their best form – it never all seems to quite fit together. We’ll see if he’s found a magic formula since that 6-1 mauling in a March friendly against Spain, but despite the soundbites, a lot of his planning will revolve around writing ‘Messi’ on a large piece of paper.

Key Man – Lionel Messi
Because he’s Lionel Messi.

(See also Portugal: Because he’s Cristiano Ronaldo and Egypt: Because he’s Mo Salah)

What should we expect?
Flashes of brilliance and at least one entry in the Goal of the Tournament round-up, but there’s a real chance of elimination at the group stage if they don’t find ways to win if Messi’s not doing Messi things. If they do qualify in second place it might be France next up. They will lose, possibly badly.

 

Iceland

Who are they?
The success of Euro 2016 and the subsequent footballing world falling in love with Iceland (Roy Hodgson and Gary Neville aside) did not come about by accident. As a country they have invested in their infrastructure, created an environment to make football available for all, and thought seriously about creating long-term development and growth. Wonder if there’s a lesson in that for others?

As the smallest country to ever take part in a World Cup by some distance it would be easy to assume this might be a bridge too far and it’s all just lovely to be here. However, hopes are higher than you might think after the heroics at the Euros and a brilliant performance to qualify in tough circumstances. Not only did they finish above the team I’m somehow still making favourites in this group, Croatia, but they won all five home games, which did nothing to quash national expectations.

The football they play is simple, direct, and reliant on no one member of the team. The work ethic is supreme, the planning always exemplary, and they consistently play way past their collective talent. Beating Argentina, Croatia (again) or Nigeria is far more realistic a chance than you might think, but they know they’re the underdogs and probably wouldn’t have it any other way. Don’t expect fireworks and rollercoasters, do expect everyone else in this group to have to work extremely hard to beat them.

Manager – Heimir Hallgrimsson
Carrying on the good work done by – and in tandem with – Lars Lagerbäck, there has been little change since the Euros. Hallgrimsson has shown himself to be slightly more flexible tactically but will want to play the 4-4-2 that has served Iceland so well in recent years. Don’t be surprised to see him try things if the game requires it but Plan A will be used against all three opponents.

Iceland don’t score loads of goals but they don’t concede many either, and that in part is down to the manager and his staff’s planning. Behind the Viking claps and teamwork is careful scouting and organisation. I can promise you two things – a) Hallgrimsson will keep them compact and difficult to break down, and b) every commentator will mention that he used to be a dentist right up until taking the Iceland job full-time.

Key Man – Gylfi Sigurdsson
It feels a bit easy to just pick Iceland’s best known player and one who plays in the Premier League as their key man, but the truth is he will be required to provide attacking impetus, set-piece delivery and goals if Iceland are to progress. All this while also having to come back from the injury that blighted the back end of his season with Everton.

To prove that I’ve done some research rather than gone route one here, I’ll also point to a couple of others who also have huge jobs ahead. Captain Aron Gunnarsson missed the end of Cardiff’s season and had to have surgery on a knee injury but has been included in the squad. He would arguably be an even bigger miss than Sigurdsson given the leadership he brings through both performance and his desire to be his manager’s voice on the pitch. A lot also rests on the shoulders of whichever two from Jon Dadi Bodvarsson, Albert Gudmundsson and Bjorn Bergmann Sigurdarson start up front. They will need to do more than just work hard up front if Iceland are to upset the odds.

What should we expect?
Energy, effort, brilliant fans, and old school football. As for qualification? A long shot. Like qualifying for this World Cup was, and qualifying for Euro 2016 was, and getting out of the group there was, and beating England was…

 

Croatia

Who are they?
It’s worth saying from the start that this is one of the hardest previews to write in one of the closest groups to call. Basically, it all comes down to a single question – which Croatia are going to show up?

The first is the Croatia that makes me think sexy football things. On paper (yes I know, football is played on grass) they have some of the most creative players at this World Cup all in one team. Luka Modric remains brilliant, Ivan Rakitic is brilliant, Marcelo Brozovic helps others be brilliant, Mateo Kovacic can be brilliant, Ante Rebic could be brilliant. Ahead of them is Mario Mandzukic, a player who feels like a contradiction – both a throwback to a type of striker that doesn’t exist anymore but yet also deceptively modern in the way he works in a front three.

In terms of attacking depth, if all of the above start then there’s a subs bench of Milan Badelj, Ivan Perisic, Andrej Kramaric, Nikola Kalinic and Filip Bradaric; that is as good as anyone’s barring the top four seeds. Defensively they’re sound rather than spectacular, not a weak link per se but understandably not quite in the same calibre as their midfield. We’ll leave all comments on Dejan Lovren to those of you below the line.

But then there’s the other Croatia. This is the side dogged with off-field problems and ongoing court cases. Lovren and Modric are dealing with the fallout of a tax-fraud trial that sees them accused of perjury. Many fans are angry about this (at Modric in particular) and the alleged corruption within Croatian football generally, something they think the national team’s players, now with most playing in Europe’s biggest leagues, are apathetic about. Many will still travel but there is a fear of protests and potentially a huge negative impact on the side. There is not much World Cup fever in Croatia.

This unrest was evident in a qualifying campaign that Croatia stumbled through, managing to look both sublime and ridiculous. Manager Ante Cacic was replaced by Zlatko Dalic just before the final (must-win) match and steered them to and through the play-off games against Greece. This is a squad packed with world-class talent capable of self-destruction, so a good start against Nigeria is essential.

Manager – Zlatko Dalic
With all the off-field nonsense going on, Dalic has tried to be a calm voice and supportive of his players, whilst also trying to be sympathetic to the fans’ various grievances. It’s a difficult position to be in and opinion is split between him basically being installed as a front for the corruption and as a clean and moral barrier to separate the national team from it. Life is never simple.

Dalic will be far more concerned with the football, and Croatia will favour a 4-2-3-1 that makes the most of their midfield gifts. He has very little experience at this level after a career spent mostly in the Gulf and a lot to handle mentally, so I’m hoping he’s up to it.

Key Man – Luka Modric
One of the dreamiest players on the planet, Modric is dealing with a large section of the fans who want him dropped from the squad altogether. As captain and spiritual leader of this generation of Croatian footballers, that was never going to happen, but this is probably his last World Cup. If he turns it on expect everyone else to follow, similar if he doesn’t. Genuinely pivotal to the entire team’s fortunes.

What should we expect?
Please, please, please be good Croatia. We’ll know more after matchday one.

 

Nigeria

Who are they?
The wildcard in a group with three other wildcards. If I believe that Croatia should finish top as long as the right team turn up, then matchday three against Argentina could effectively be Nigeria’s first knock-out game. Group D is up for grabs in a way most others aren’t and that suits Nigeria, who have often been their own worst enemy at World Cups.

This time Nigeria are quick, organised, full of goals, and are going to be a huge factor in Group D. They have variety too thanks to the quality of attacking options well-known to Premier League supporters – Kelechi Iheanacho just behind Odion Ighalo with Victor Moses and Alex Iwobi either side looks likely. They’ve lost Gent’s Moses Simon to injury, once Nigeria’s next big thing and a player who has been a huge part of qualifying, but they now have depth where once they would have struggled. Further Premier league links come from John Obi Mikel and Wilfred Ndidi in midfield, the former cover for the latter these days, and this is a first XI that shouldn’t be taken lightly.

Final qualifying was impressive and if you can ‘earn’ luck they did more than enough to deserve a better draw. They remained unbeaten in a group with Zambia, Cameroon and Algeria, and that draw had been considered the hardest possible. Nigeria’s record shows their 1-1 draw away in Algeria awarded as a 3-0 win for the home side due to the unfortunate fielding of an ineligible player, but they were dominant throughout in reality.

Nigeria will fear no one going into Group D, particularly perennial opponents Argentina, and they have the order of games that suits them – Croatia up first, then Iceland to potentially set up that knockout tie. The most interesting group’s most interesting team? Probably.

Manager – Gernot Rohr
Rohr came to the job with a wholly average CV and with the chaotic but popular reign of Sunday Oliseh to deal with. He first managed some of the simpler problems regarding various players’ travel and arrangements around international games, then looked to bring the same sense of organisation to the pitch.

Rohr was a widely derided choice upon taking over, but has slowly turned the tide through weight of results. This squad has real talent and he has instilled a method and a confidence that could take them further than many suspect. The German may not be an über-talented progressive coach but he hasn’t had to be. He probably won’t have to be in Russia, either.

Key Man – Victor Moses
Moses plays a very different role for Nigeria than at Stamford Bridge. Internationally he’s far closer to the inverted winger/wide striker hybrid football has yet to find a decent name for. He’s very much charged with being a goal threat rather than with the defensive and creative duties of Chelsea. On the right of the front three, Moses will be cutting inside to shoot or looking to play Ighalo in, and he’ll do plenty of both in all three games.

What should we expect?
Qualification ahead of Argentina? A huge chance. If they don’t, I suspect it’s because they’ve been Messi-ed in the final game rather than any self-implosion.

David Hartrick

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