It’s been called the ‘Group of Death’ but we’re hoping it kickstarts the World Cup into life.
Yes, it seems every World Cup has a standout group. In 2014, England, Italy, Uruguay and Costa Rica made up a formidable foursome while, in 2010, North Korea had Brazil, Portugal and the Ivory Coast for company.
This year, it’s Group D, which contains Argentina, Iceland, Croatia and Nigeria. Historically, Argentina and Croatia would be favourites to progress but a litany of factors, including the South Americans’ suspect form and the fact Iceland finished ahead of Croatia in qualifying, combine to make this group one of the most fascinating and difficult to predict.
Oh, and just for good measure, Nigeria stunned Argentina with a 4-2 friendly win in November.
Here, we preview Group D, giving you the lowdown on each team before predicting how we believe the final standings will look.
Jorge Sampaoli certainly paints a picture. This week, the Argentina head coach made headlines when he said the following with regards to the suffocating pressure on Lionel Messi to deliver World Cup glory for his country.
“Messi has a revolver put to his head called the World Cup and if he doesn’t win it, he’s shot and killed,” Sampaoli said.
Now, the situation is not quite as Tarantino as that but, make no mistake, much of Argentina’s hopes for a first World Cup in 32 years lie at the Barcelona forward’s majestic, twinkling feet.
That is because, for all of Argentina’s quality in attack, they found themselves relying on Messi to qualify for Russia. In their final qualifying game, La Albiceleste trailed Ecuador in Quito. With their World Cup hopes dwindling, Messi dragged his country over the finish line with a superb hat-trick, burnishing his legacy as one of the game’s greatest.
Now, having got them there, he is expected to keep them there. Having failed to shine in 2010, the five-times Ballon d’Or winner scored four times to help his nation reach the final, only to be outdone by Germany.
Nearly 31, with his international career having entered its winter months (let’s not forget that Messi temporarily retired after Argentina lost the 2017 Copa América), he is determined to go one better.
Along for the ride is a star-studded supporting cast, featuring Sergio Agüero, Gonzalo Higuaín, Paulo Dybala and Ángel Di María in an enviable attacking cohort. Whether Nicolás Otamendi and Federico Fazio are a defensive partnership upon which a World Cup-winning side can be built, however, remains unclear.
The reliance on Messi is highlighted by Argentina’s goalscorers during qualifying. After Messi, on seven, only Di María, Gabriel Mercado and Lucas Pratto managed more than one, the latter ultimately not making the final squad.
But the lack goals throughout the side was not for a lack of trying. They hit the second most shots in the CONMEBOL with 13.11 per game and also conceded the second fewest, with 9.27. Brazil were the best in both categories.
Argentina created 1.38 big chances too, second only to Brazil, with Messi creating eight on his own.
La Albiceleste only mustered a goal difference of +3 in qualifying, but they may have been slightly unfortunate on this front.
They scored just eight per cent of their shots, a lower rate than the general average of 10-11 per cent and far below what you would expect an elite side like Argentina to muster.
A World Cup is a good time to revert to the mean.
Shocker: it’s Messi. Despite his notoriously fractious relationship with Argentina fans, the 30-year-old has averaged just better than a goal every two games during his international career, with 64 in 124 appearances.
While it’s true Argentina are reliant on Messi, is it really such a shame to look upon possibly the most gifted footballer to ever grace the planet for inspiration?
Four years ago, during Argentina’s run to the final, Diego Maradona bemoaned the current side’s over-reliance on the Barcelona legend. Then again, it’s perhaps delusory to expect anything else when a player like Messi is in the side.
Hipster favourites and international football’s charming overachievers, Iceland are the smallest nation to compete at a World Cup, with a tiny population of less than 350,000 (to contextualise, host nation Russia boasts a population of nearly 145 million).
But size doesn’t matter. Uruguay, twice winners, have proven that, and Iceland are more than adequately equipped to upset a few of their geographically superior counterparts.
Lars Lagerbäck and Heimir Hallgrímsson took joint charge in 2013, the former having been the manager since 2011, and engineered a remarkable transformation in fortunes. They narrowly missed out on the 2014 World Cup after losing their play-off to Croatia before securing their spot at Euro 2016, stunning England during their run to the quarter-finals.
Although Lagerback left, Hallgrímsson has admirably maintained his legacy and Iceland were not to be denied their place at the World Cup this time, finishing top of their qualifying group, two points ahead of Croatia.
Iceland’s shape, tactics and personnel are largely unchanged from the European Championship in France. They tend to switch from a 4-4-2 to a 4-5-1, with both systems aimed at keeping things compact at the back and allowing Gylfi Sigurðsson to express himself higher up the pitch. It worked in qualifying, with the Everton midfielder bagging four goals.
They lack a prolific goalscorer up front but, with Sigurðsson’s creativity and dead-eye from set-pieces, Hallgrímsson and his players will be confident of continuing Iceland’s golden age and progressing to the last-16.
Iceland are solid in possession but hard-working off it. They ranked fifth in ball recoveries among European nations in qualifying with 59.4 per game and fourth in possession won in the defensive third (21.5).
They also scored five goals from set-pieces, bettered only by Germany and Sweden and were tuned-in when it came to defending them, too, averaging 12.2 headed clearances per game.
Furthermore, Iceland are not a side who are likely to press the opposition. They had the second-least intense press of the 31 teams who went through qualifying, allowing more than 16 pass attempts for every tackle or interception that they made.
Playing up to their stereotype, nearly a whole third of the goals they scored during qualification came from set pieces (five of 16).
Cardiff City’s Aron Gunnarsson, the captain, is hugely important, but Sigurðsson will be the man to provide the razzmatazz. Not only did he lead Iceland in goals and assists, he had more touches (568) and shots (33) than any of his teammates.
The 28-year-old endured a disappointing, injury-hit first season with Everton and Hallgrímsson will be hoping that he has regained his fitness and confidence to the point where he will have no problem unpicking the defences of Argentina, Croatia and Nigeria.
Six wins, two draws and two defeats were good enough only to finish second behind Iceland, but considering their managerial upheaval, with Ante Čačić getting sacked two days before Croatia’s decisive qualifier against Ukraine.
Zlatko Dalić stepped in and clinched second place before negotiating a play-off against Finland to secure qualification.
Having been held to a frustrating 1-1 draw at home to Finland in their penultimate qualifying game, Croatia needed to beat Ukraine to ensure they finished second.
Dalić has found moderate success by making one key change: moving Luka Modrić further forward.
Deployed just behind Mario Mandžukić, Modrić has impressed and, importantly, the side has retained its balance with Milan Badelj and Marcelo Brozović coming in to co-anchor the midfield with Ivan Rakitić.
There are high hopes for Andrej Kramarić, too, following his two goals against Ukraine in the qualifiers while, in 23-year-old winger Marko Pjaca, they have a potential breakout star.
The backline could be an issue, however, with most of us wondering how on earth Vedran Ćorluka is only 32. Anyone who watched Liverpool regularly during the 2017/18 season will tell you to watch Dejan Lovren with your hands half-covering your eyes.
Croatia won possession in the attacking third 3.33 times per 90 during qualifying. They are not the most ardent pressers but relish the battle in midfield, having averaged 27.75 per 90 in possession won in the middle third.
They are not the most shot-happy nation either, averaging just 12.91 efforts on goal per game. Of the European countries to have qualified, only Serbia and Sweden averaged less.
Croatia also averaged 25.16 crosses per 90 minutes, illustrating how Čačić’s set-up had emphasised attacking down the flanks.
Now 32, there is a strong possibility that this will be Modrić’s World Cup swansong. He has remained crucial to Croatia’s chances throughout their journey to Russia, having completed more accurate passes (556), won possession more times (67) and took more touches (855) than any of his compatriots.
His switch to a more advanced role means he will see less of the ball in the tournament but the hope is that Modrić’s vision combined with Kramarić’s movement will prove devastating.
Nigeria must be sick of Argentina. This is now the fourth consecutive World Cup in which they have competed that has seen them grouped with the two-time champions.
In 2014, an Ahmed Musa brace was not enough in a 3-2 defeat and were edged by a Gabriel Heinze goal in 2010. Gabriel Batistuta scored the only goal when Argentina won 1-0 in 2002.
Nigeria’s 4-2 friendly win over Argentina in November, however, will provide cause for optimism.
The Super Eagles have never advanced past the last-16 at the World Cup and that is unlikely to change in Russia. However, with exciting attacking options in the shape of Alex Iwobi, Musa, Victor Moses, Odion Ighalo and Kelechi Iheanacho, they have not come to make up the numbers, as evidenced in their spirited display at Wembley recently when they went down 2-1 to England.
Gernot Rohr, the 64-year-old head coach, has never managed at a World Cup but has drilled discipline and cohesion into his Nigeria side, who were the first African nation to qualify for this summer’s tournament.
Statistically, Nigeria aren’t quite as strong as the other African nations. They are ranked lowest out of the five qualified nations in scoring attempts per 90 (10.6), possession won in the attacking third (2.66) and ball recoveries (52.5).
In a team of few standouts, there is nobody more important to the balance, spirit and togetherness of this Nigeria crop than John Obi Mikel, the former Chelsea midfielder now playing his club football for Tianjin TEDA in China.
The 31-year-old has been a mainstay in the Super Eagles team since making his debut in 2006 and is a voice of authority in the dressing room. Mikel will be expected to both help Wilfred Ndidi and Ogenyi Onazi with protecting the defence and acting as the link to the more advanced players such as Moses, Iwobi and Ighalo.
Argentina will be worth watching in each of their games but Croatia and Iceland definitely have the closest thing to a rivalry in Group D.
Having played each other four times since 2012, they know each other well and one suspects that first and second won’t be tied up by the time they meet in the final round of group fixtures on June 26.