football

World Cup Preview: Group G

June 12, 2018

- Grant Whittington

As we continue our 2018 World Cup preview, we come to a fascinating Group G that includes Gareth Southgate’s England and an exceptionally talented Belgium side. This is likely to be a keenly contested group, with Tunisia and Panama also hoping to upset the odds and reach the knockout stages.

Below, we’ll look at each side’s prospects and ask who’s likely to qualify for the second round.

England
The Three Lions will be appearing at their sixth consecutive World Cup finals this summer, although they’ve failed to progress beyond the last 16 since 2006.

This perpetuates the idea that England have underperformed on the global stage, having won the World Cup only once in 1966 and appeared in the semi-finals on one other occasion in 1990.

However, there’s no doubt that England have a talented side, while they also qualified in typically impressive fashion this time around. They won eight and drew two of their 10 matches in Group F, winning the section by a whopping eight points from Slovakia.

England’s campaign will start against Tunisia on June 18th in Volgograd before they take on Panama on June 24th in Nizhny Novgorod. Then comes a crunch encounter with Belgium in Kaliningrad on June 28th, with the winners of this game likely to top the group.

England’s squad is young and dynamic, although it’s arguably a little one-dimensional and denies Southgate the opportunity to alter his preferred 3-4-3 system. Still, captain Harry Kane will serve as England’s target man in Russia, as he looks to add to his tally of 13 goals in 24 caps. He may well be joined by the precocious Marcus Rashford in attack, with the Manchester United forward having shone in a recent friendly against Costa Rica.

Our Verdict: England should expect to beat both Tunisia and Panama, although the lack of a playmaker like Newcastle’s Jonjo Shelvey could leave them a little bereft of creativity in these games. Still, we’d expect them to escape the group, with the result against Belgium likely to determine whether they finish first or second.

Belgium
Belgium are priced at around 7/1 to win the World Cup, as their self-proclaimed golden generation reaches it peak. The quality of this squad was certainly evident during qualifying, when Belgium won nine of their 10 group matches (they only dropped points in a 1-1 draw against Greece) and scored a staggering 43 goals in the process.

This will be Belgium’s 13th appearance at the World Cup finals, with their best result coming in 1986 when they finished fourth. They’ve improved on the international stage during the last few years, reaching the quarter-finals of both the last World Cup and Euro 2016 in France.

Belgium are the front-runners to top the group, particularly as their first two matches will take place against Panama and Tunisia on 18th and 23rd June respectively. Then comes the clash with England, where both sides will hope that victory helps them to top Group G.

The EPL is well-represented in Belgium’s squad, with the dazzling pairing of Eden Hazard (Chelsea) and Kevin de Bruyne (Manchester City) central to a nation’s hopes. The same can be said for Manchester United forward Romelu Lukaku, who scored 11 goals during qualifying and fired Belgium to Russia.

With Thibaut Courtois (Chelsea) and Toby Alderweireld (Spurs) also forming part of a strong and solid defence, Belgian boast quality at both ends of the pitch and are a true force to be reckoned with.

Our Verdict: While there remain doubts about Belgium’s ability to win at the very highest level, they have enough quality to justify their status among the favourites. We’re also backing them to top the group, although this will be tight and could even come down to goal difference.

Panama
Next up is Panama, who have the distinction of competing at their first ever World Cup this summer.

The 2009 Copa Centoramerica champions qualified for the tournament on the final matchday of the CONCACAF section, edging out Honduras and the much-fancied USA in the process. This was despite scoring just nine goals in 10 matches during this time, with a relatively solid defence enabling them to book their place in Russia.

After their games with Belgium and England, Panama will hope to take on Tunisia in Saransk on 28th June with something other than pride to play for. They’ll need to take something from at least one their opening matches for this to be the case, however, and we expect them to line up with a defensive formation.

Most of the squad play in the MLS, including key performer Roman Torres, who also scored the vital goal in qualification. Elsewhere, seasoned stopper Jaime Penedo will add to his 130 caps in Russia, while forward Gabriel Torres tied with his namesake Roman by scoring two goals during qualification.

Our Verdict: Panama are rank outsiders in Group G, and it would take a minor miracle for them to qualify. In fact, they’d need to play at their best to beat Tunisia and claim third place in the group, but it’s an impressive achievement just to have qualified for the showpiece.

Tunisia
The 2004 AFCON winners will be appearing at their fifth World Cup finals, and their first since 2006. In four previous attempts, however, they’ve never progressed beyond the group stages, and this is a trend that we expect to continue in Russia.

Tunisia qualified in impressive enough fashion, however, topping Group A while scoring 11 goals in six games and remaining unbeaten throughout. Much of this was down to the work of former player Nabil Maâloul, who earned 74 caps for Tunisia and incredibly has lost just 26 games in his entire managerial career.

Tunisia’s key players operate in France, including former Sunderland star and current Rennes midfielder Wahbi Khazr. Al-Duhail’s Youssef Msakni will also be central to Tunisian hopes, as he remains the nation’s current top scorer with 14 goals.

Our Verdict: Ultimately, Tunisia are unlikely to qualify, but we expect them to score and remain competitive across their three matches. We also reckon that they’ll nick third place ahead of Panama, which would at give their passionate fans something to cheer.

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