football

World Cup Preview: Group D

June 11, 2018

- Grant Whittington

In every World Cup draw, there are always at least one or two groups that are especially difficult to call. Group D certainly fits this description, with the four participating teams boasting exceptional quality and capable of competing for one of the two qualification spots.

But how will the group unfold, and who will ultimately prevail? Let’s take a look.

Argentina
Let’s start with a basic assertion, Argentina is one of the most decorated and successful sides in the history of world football.

Having won the World Cup twice in their history and finished as runners-up on three occasions (most recently in Brazil last time around), Jorge Sampaoli’s men are perennial contenders on the international stage and certainly boast the quality of players to go deep into the tournament.

However, they struggled manfully during qualification, only securing their place in Russia after Lionel Messi’s hat-trick against Ecuador sealed a crucial 3-1 win. They’ve also struggled with a porous defence during the last 18 months, with this failing highlighted ruthlessly during a 6-1 defeat against Spain in Madrid at the end of March.

La Albiceleste will kick-off their campaign against Iceland at the Spartak Stadium on June 16th, before a crunch meeting with Croatia in Nizhny Novgorod on June 21st. Then comes a final clash with Nigeria in St. Petersburg on 26th June, which completes a tricky sequence of fixtures by anyone’s standards.

The talismanic Messi will undoubtedly lead Argentina’s brilliant attack, with the side likely to adopt an attacking philosophy that makes the most of the players at their disposal. Along with Sergio Aguero and PSG’s flying winger Angel Di Maria, Argentina certainly boast a front three that would trouble any side in the world.

Our Verdict: Currently fifth favourites to win the tournament at 9/1, there’s no doubt that Argentina have the firepower and pedigree to justify such faith. Given this, we’re backing them to edge out their rivals at the top of Group D, although their vulnerable defence could well struggle as the tournament progresses.

Iceland
While some may describe Iceland as outsiders, there’s no doubt that they have grown in stature on the international stage during the last three years.

Iceland qualified for their first ever major tournament at Euro 2016, defying their status as underdogs by eliminating England in the second round and ultimately reaching the quarter-finals.

They followed this up by qualifying to participate in their first World Cup this summer, edging out Group D rivals Croatia by winning seven of their 10 matches.

Interestingly, nine players scored for Iceland during qualification, and this betrays the strong team ethic and unity that defines Heimir Hallgrímsson’s side.

One thing’s for sure, Iceland will relish their status as underdogs, particularly when they meet Argentina in their opening game on 16th June. They’ll then take on Nigeria in Volgograd on the 22nd, before completing their group stage campaign against Croatia at the Rostov Arena four days later.

Despite being a team renowned for its collective strength rather than its individual brilliance, Iceland still possess a couple of household names who are familiar to British fans. Everton’s stylish midfielder Gylfi Sigurdsson certainly stands out as something of a talisman for the side, while FC Ausberg’s striker Alfred Finnbogason (who scored three goals on the way to Russia) offers genuine presence and threat in attack.

Kolbeinn Sigborsson will also appear as his country’s top scorer, having averaged a goal every other game since his debut.

Our Verdict: Iceland is enjoying a golden generation in its footballing history, and it retains an excellent chance of qualifying from Group D. The game against Croatia on 26th June may well prove crucial, with Iceland arguably holding a slight edge having qualified ahead of the side last autumn.

Croatia
The Croatians will start as the narrow favourites to qualify alongside Argentina from Group D, although this has much to do with the quality of the individuals in their squad rather than the nation’s recent form or achievements.

Having gained independence from Yugoslavia in 1990, Croatia crowned their first appearance at a major tournament by reaching the quarter-finals at Euro ’96. Two years later, they marked their World Cup debut by finishing third in France, and despite qualifying for four of the five subsequent iterations they’ve failed to progress from the group stages during this time.

As we’ve already said, Croatia finished two points behind Iceland during qualification for the World Cup, only securing their place at the finals with a 4-1 aggregate win over a poor Greece side in the play-offs.

The Croats will play Nigeria on matchday one in Kaliningrad, before their crucial clash with Argentina on June 21st. This will set up a showdown with rivals Iceland four days later, with this game likely to be as cagey as it is important.

Croatia’s strength undoubtedly rests with their midfield, with the brilliant Luke Modric joined by his formidable talents including his Real Madrid clubmate Mateo Kovacic, Barca’s Ivan Rakitic and Marcelo Brozovic of Inter Milan.

Inter’s Ivan Perisic is also a prominent attacking threat, while Liverpool’s much-maligned but improved centre back Dejan Lovren will marshal the nation’s backline.

Our Verdict: On paper, Croatia look the most likely to challenge Argentina and claim a coveted qualification place. The gap between the sides in Group D is deceptively small, however, and Croatia will have to perform at their best to see of the challenge of Iceland and Nigeria.

Nigeria
One of Africa’s pioneering football nations, Nigeria will bring a young and energetic squad to Russia that has the ability to upset the odds in Group D.

The Super Eagles sealed their qualification for Russia back in October, when Alex Iwobi’s winner against Zambia sent them six points clear at the top of Group B. This sealed Nigeria’s sixth appearance at the World Cup finals, with the three-time AFCON winners having first qualified in 1994.

2014 also saw them qualify for the round of 16 for only the second time, so they’ll look to build on this in Russia.

The Nigerians, who’ll close their group stage campaign against Argentina in St. Petersburg, also beat La Albiceleste 4-2 in a friendly back in November, when two Iwobi goals put the South Americans to the sword. This is an interesting aside, and one that should see Nigeria arrive in Russia in confident moods.

Arsenal’s talented Iwobi is certainly one of Nigeria’s key men, along with the pacey CSKA Moscow striker Ahmed Musa. Chelsea midfielder Victor Moses is also an experienced and talented presence in the squad, while he emerged as the nation’s top scorer during qualifying with three goals.

Our Verdict: Nigeria are slight outsiders in Group D, while they’ve struggled during recent friendly defeats against England and the Czech Republic. Their recent, 4-2 thumping of Argentina highlights their immense potential, however, while the quick and strong nature of their attack makes them a genuine candidate for qualification.

 

 

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