2018 FIFA World Cup: England, Belgium clear favourites in Group G
England and Belgium are too strong for Tunisia and Panama in Group G, but it is unlikely they will go far in the 2018 FIFA World Cup
It has been a wild goose chase for England in World Cups since their only triumph in 1966 at home. To add another star above the Three Lions on their shirts in Russia, England first need to contend with the challenge of Belgium, Tunisia, and tournament debutantes Panama in Group G.
England, on paper at least, should qualify for the round of 16 along with Belgium, but the problem for the English supporters, however, is that their team rarely follow the script.
England lack the personnel to make a serious enough challenge for glory but they do have the team to do better than in 2014 when they crashed out from the first round. Manager Gareth Southgate has been brave with his team selection and has rightfully left out Joe Hart and Jack Wilshere.
Jack Butland is likely to pip Jordan Pickford for the No. 1 role but England lack the quality of recent years in central defence. Southgate has played with three men at the back; Gary Cahill, Harry Maguire, and Kyle Walker are likely to be the starters with John Stones and Phil Jones on the bench. Stones has lost his starting spot at Manchester City, Jones has been underwhelming while Cahill appears to be in decline.
Teams willing to have a go at the English defence will have plenty to celebrate.
Despite a soft defensive core, England have quality in full-back positions with Trent Alexander-Arnold—who is coming off the back of a hugely impressive debut season at Liverpool—Kieran Trippier, Danny Rose, and Ashley Young to choose from.
Jordan Henderson and Eric Dier will sit in front of the defence. While the former will have the license to forage forward, the latter’s main task would be to disrupt opposition attacks. Dele Alli will play in attacking midfield and Raheem Sterling will look to feed the striker and team captain Harry Kane from the right wing.
England’s biggest challenge in the group will come from Belgium’s “golden generation”. The Red Devils are well endowed in all areas of the pitch and should be serious contenders to go deep into the tournament but for serious question marks about the managerial abilities of Roberto Martinez.
The former Everton boss has inexplicably left out Radja Nainggolan from his preliminary squad, reasoning that he cannot give the midfielder the role he thrives in at Roma. It is a staggering assessment of a player whose versatility is a big asset, and was a central figure in an excellent Roma campaign last season.
Martinez was never hailed as a tactical mastermind during his managerial reign at the club level and it is widely acknowledged that Belgium could have done way better to facilitate their golden generation in their quest for international glory than to give the job to the Spaniard.
Belgium’s biggest star Kevin De Bruyne had issued a scathing assessment of his national team manager after a friendly against Mexico late last year. It is never a good sign when the team’s most influential player shows a lack of faith in the manager’s abilities, and that too, publicly.
No one expects Martinez to be the one hoisting the World Cup come mid-July but it is some achievement scoring own goals before the tournament even starts.
Thibaut Courtois will be in goal for the Red Devils and four of Toby Alderweireld, Vincent Kompany, Jan Vertonghen, Thomas Vermaelen, and Thomas Meunier are likely to fight for the defensive positions.
De Bruyne, Mousa Dembele, and Youri Tielemans are quality options in midfield, while Romelu Lukaku will be the team’s primary source of goal playing off Eden Hazard and Dries Mertens who are also deadly in front of the goal.
Despite the obvious managerial issues, Belgium should get their campaign off to a winning start against Tunisia, who will be making only their fifth appearance at the tournament.
They suffered a massive blow with a long-term injury to forward Youssef Msakni. His absence has been likened by manager Nabil Maaloum to an Argentina without Lionel Messi. Aymen Abdennour, one of the few Tunisian players with top level European experience, is a notable absentee from the squad after enduring a torrid season.
Wahbi Khazri will be the team’s hope for goals but there is a lack of quality in Tunisian ranks and their only hope of a point would be against Panama.
The Panamanians made it to Russia after an improbable final day of CONCACAF qualifying when every result that they needed in their favour came to fruition. Their first World Cup appearance is the stuff miracles are made of. But their fairytale isn’t likely to sustain beyond the group stage in Russia.
Panama’s squad comprises mostly of players based at home and those plying their trades in other American leagues. They will fancy their chances of a point against Tunisia but not much else.
England and Belgium should coast through Group G but expecting more from them will likely be an exercise in futility.
For analysis of the other 2018 FIFA World Cup groups, click here.
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