Two matches at the 2018 FIFA World Cup got sold out even before they went on open sale. One was the 15 July final at the Luzhniki Stadium, nothing unexpected. The other was Argentina’s opening game against Iceland on 16 June in Moscow, a bit of a surprise, considering it doesn’t involve the home team.

Lionel Messi’s involvement in the game could be one reason for the overwhelming interest, with Russia representing perhaps the last chance for the Argentina captain to add a World Cup to his overflowing trophy cabinet. For the Argentines to win their third World Cup, they will need to begin by overcoming Croatia and Nigeria after Iceland in Group D.

Argentina have a plethora of attacking options to choose from but their resources in defence run quite thin. By the evidence of the 2014 World Cup and the qualifying campaign for Russia—they managed to outscore only Bolivia in CONEMBOL—their defence manages to hold up but the attack often fails to keep their end of the bargain.

Indeed, it is a surprise how a side that can call upon the likes of Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain, Paulo Dybala, Mauro Icardi, Angel Correa, and Messi struggles to score goals. Messi is often starved of supply when playing up front, forcing him to drop deep to get the ball, and when he does so, his through balls for the forwards are seldom put to good use, putting him in a Catch-22 situation.

The central defence will likely comprise of Nicolas Otamendi and Federico Fazio, with uncertainty around Ezequiel Garay’s international future. Defensive midfield could also be a problem area for manager Jorge Sampaoli.

Lucas Biglia was never mobile and it is starting to show even more as he gets older. Javier Mascherano, the long-serving giant of Argentine football, looked a few yards off the pace in their last friendly against Spain, and his camping up in the Chinese league is not the ideal preparation for a World Cup.

Wide defensive areas are also a concern for Sampaoli with no established names to call upon. It might force him to adapt a 3-4-3 formation with makeshift wingbacks.

Argentina have an uphill battle on their hands in order to successfully make it out of their group, which is likely to pose a strong challenge.

Iceland will be the smallest nation to play at a FIFA World Cup after qualifying for the first time in their history. The nation with a population of just over 330,000 will be mighty proud with its representatives on the football pitch just for qualifying. But their performances at the 2016 Euros proved that they are an impressive side and cannot be taken lightly in Russia.

Gylfi Sigurdsson (left) will be the creative force in the Iceland midfield.
Gylfi Sigurdsson (left) will be the creative force in the Iceland midfield.

Gylfi Sigurdsson is the fulcrum of the Icelandic attack and is quality on set pieces. There will be further threat from wide areas in Burnley’s Johann Berg Gudmundsson patrolling the right wing. Kolbeinn Sigthorsson and Jon Dadi Bodvarsson will be leading the attack in manager Heimir Hallgrimsson’s favoured 4-4-2 formation, with Sigurdsson playing off them.

There is plenty of experience in midfield as well as defence with captain Aron Gunnarsson shielding the established backline of Birkir Mar Saevarsson, Ragnar Sigurdsson, Kari Arnason and Ari Freyr Skulason. Iceland will be a handful.

While Argentina’s pedigree makes them favourites in the group, Croatia have a genuinely good side capable of qualifying for the round of 16 as group winners. The midfield trio of Luka Modric, Mateo Kovacic, and Ivan Rakitic is as good as any in Russia, more so after the latter proved this season of his ability to play in defensive midfield with élan.

One of Marcelo Brozovic and Milan Badelj will play alongside Rakitic to free Modric and Kovacic to focus on attacking moves. There will be goalscoring threat and unquestionable work rate in equal measure with workhorses for forwards in Mario Mandzukic, Ivan Perisic and Andrej Kramaric. Croatia have a serviceable defence that can be trusted with their job.

Ivan Rakitic (No.7) has shown himself capable of playing different midfield roles and will be a key player for Croatia. Photo: AP
Ivan Rakitic (No.7) has shown himself capable of playing different midfield roles and will be a key player for Croatia. Photo: AP

Nigeria are top-heavy with a bevy of midfield and attacking players who are well accustomed to the top European leagues but a similar expertise is lacking in defence which could be a problem against vastly experienced teams in the group.

Unlike his Chelsea career, John Obi Mikel plays as an attacking midfielder for the national team and will continue that role as captain in Russia. Wilfred Ndidi will be shielding the defence alongside Ogenyi Onazi. Ahmed Musa and Odion Ighalo are likely to share scoring duties, while Victor Moses will be a threat on the right wing. Alex Iwobi and Kelechi Iheanacho are capable options off the bench for manager Gernot Rohr to deploy.

Group D promises to be a cauldron where no result can be taken for granted.

For analysis of the other 2018 FIFA World Cup groups, click here.

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