World Cup Preview Group D
FIFA World Ranking: 22nd FIFA World Cup Appearances: N/A Best Place: N/A Possible XI: (4-4-2) Halldorsson (GK), Magnusson (LB), Arnason (CB), R.Sigurdsson (CB), Saevarron (RB), Bjarnason (LM), Sigurdsson (CM), Gunnarsson (CM), J. B. Gudmundsson (RM), A. Finnbogason (ST), J.D Bodvarsson (ST).
Heimir Hallgrimsson (ICE) Age 50 A former dentist who worked alongside Lars Lagerback at Euro 2016, the Icelander takes the smallest nation at this year’s World Cup into their first tournament and confidence is high after a successful qualifying campaign. Having finished top of a group that consisted of Croatia, Turkey and the Ukraine what Hallgrimsson has done is nothing short of spectacular. Continuing from the work put in during the last Euros where they lost in the quarter-finals to host nation France they stormed into the World Cup losing twice in 10 games and finishing with 16 goals, the most in the group. The team’s style of play hasn’t changed and they play to their strengths and play easy football. Hallgrimsson is known for adapting to a match situation and has a plan B, C and D to surprise their opponents if need be. Recent friendly matches since qualifying haven’t been good with losses to Mexico, Peru Norway and a 2-2 with Ghana, they need to improve especially against the non-European sides if they want to progress in Russia.
Gylfi Sigurdsson (55 caps /18 goals) Iceland’s main man and is at the centre of everything they do. Regardless of the strategy he is always accommodated and without him they are definitely a weaker team. Since the Euros he was the star player at Swansea where he excelled scoring 9 goals and providing 13 assists in the Premier League. He has however had a difficult season at Everton since his £42m move last summer, loss of form and an injures which kept him out of the last 8 games of the season will be a worry for the manager as the squad lacks any world class individuals. He starred for Swansea and usually used in a centre attacking mould he is also adapt to play as a winger if needed although speed isn’t one of his strong points, but, pin point passes and his knack for taking a good set-piece is where opportunities are likely to come for Iceland, if Sigurdsson isn’t at his best, Iceland will suffer, he’s that important to them.
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Albert Gudmundsson (4 caps / 3 goals) Seen as Iceland’s next big star, he is loaded with football genes. He is named after his great-grandfather, the first ever Icelandic professional player and his parents both played for the national teams (the father being Gummi Ben is famous for his enthusiastic commentating at Euro 2016). The 20-year-old captain of Iceland’s U21s has been fighting for a spot in the World Cup squad, having only played four friendlies, but a return of three goals in those was impressive even if all three were scored against an Indonesia XI, they all count. He left KR in Iceland and signed for Heerenveen at the age of 16, and then Dutch champions PSV in 2015, where he has mostly played reserve football in the Jupiter League scoring 9 goals in 15 games providing the team with 8 assists.
Iceland will of course play to their strengths and keep things simple on the field. They do play with a lot more flexibility than at Euro 2016 and will rely heavily on Gylfi Sigurdsson to provide some attacking magic as goals are hard to come by. The best scoring striker is Augsburg’s Alfred Finnbogason with 11 goals in 45 caps, with only 3 of those goals coming in qualification so Iceland may use Gudmunsson as a surprise package if coming off the bench. They have struggled in recent friendlies but if they can avoid defeat against Argentina anything is possible for this organised side. Realistically however I see them just miss out on the last 16.
Hannes Thor Halldorsson (Randers FC), Runar Runarsson (FC Nordsjælland), Frederik Schram (FC Roskilde).
Kari Arnason (Vikingur), Ari Skulason (Lokeren), Birkir Saevarsson (Valur), Sverrir Ingason (FC Rostov), Hordur Magnusson (Bristol City), Holmar Eyjolfsson (Levski Sofia), Ragnar Sigurdsson (FC Rostov).
Johann Gudmundsson (Burnley), Birkir Bjarnason (Aston Villa), Arnor Traustason (Malmo FF), Emil Hallfredsson (Udinese), Gylfi Sigurdsson (Everton), Olafur Skulason (Kardemir Karabukspor), Rurik Gislason (SV Sandhausen), Samuel Fridjonsson (Valerenga), Aron Gunnarsson (Cardiff City).
Alfred Finnbogason (Augsburg), Bjorn Sigurdarson (FC Rostov), Jon Dadi Bodvarsson (Reading), Albert Gudmundsson (PSV Eindhoven).
ARGENTINA FIFA World Ranking: 5th
FIFA World Cup Appearances:16 Best Place: Winners in 1978 & 1986. Possible XI: (4-4-2) Armani (GK), Rojo (LB), Mercado (CB), Fazio (CB), Mercado (RB), Biglia (CM), Mascherano (CM), Di Maria (CM), Messi (CAM), Aguero (ST), Higuain (ST).
Jorge Sampaoli (CHI) Age 58 The trials and tribulations of Argentinian football involving corruption and an under-performing national side in recent years have been clear to see and there came a point during World Cup qualifying where it looked Argentina may struggle to make it to Russia. Sampaoli is Argentina’s third manager for since the 2014 World Cup, his style of high pressing and quick play is a trademark of his with success’ at club level for Universidad de Chile (three league titles) as well as lifting the Copa America for Chile in 2015 after defeating, none other, than Argentina. His time as Argentina coach hasn’t been smooth as problems within the AFA were rife and his habit of constantly changing the squad and its tactical set up has seen performances dip. He has used 43 players since his arrival, despite all the talent they have in the quad, had it not been for Lionel Messi, Russia might have only been a dream. Sampaoli’s attacking intent is let down by defensive frailty and his customary way of playing is suffering. Defeats in friendlies to Nigeria (4-2) and a 6-1 drubbing to Spain haven’t helped matters and he will have to be at his best to get the most from his players in training and in a match.
Lionel Messi (123 caps / 61 goals) It wouldn't be a shock if i told you that without Lionel Messi Argentina may not have reached the heights of three international finals in three years. Despite this positive record Argentina have found themselves on the back of 3 final defeats and ended all without even scoring a goal. While this isn’t of course all down to the diminutive Argentinian it has to be noted that he did struggle , as did the rest of the steam, and a new approach is needed if they want success this summer. Sampaoli’s changing of tactics does not mean this has hindered Messi. During qualifying he scored 7 goals, the joint 2nd highest, but as a team Argentina could only muster 19 goals in 18 games. Messi’s presence as the captain and the talisman of the team is important; he is the key behind their push to become world champions. At the age of 30 you would not expect Messi to have continued his extraordinary scoring run but season on season he defies the odds and in La Liga last season he netted 34 goals in 36 games. Many consider him to be the best player of all time, but others won’t give him that title unless he lifts that golden trophy before he hangs his boots.
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Cristian Pavon (4 caps /0 goals)
A late comer to the squad but the 22 year old winger has certainly caught the eye during his performances a Boca Juniors over the last 18 months. Despite being right footed he can be used out on the left wing and established himself into Boca at the start of the 2016 season, since then he has contributed with 15 league goals and 5 in the Copa Libertadores. He made his debut against Russia in November 2017 coming on as a substitute and started in the 4-2 defeat against Nigeria, a game where he was positioned as right wing back such is the confusion of Sampaoli’s vision at times. Pavon is very quick, has an excellent eye for a pass while his low centre of gravity helps him ride some of the toughest challenges, he is seen as one of Argentina’s brightest young prospects and has been tipped to be one of the breakthrough stars at the World Cup. As he has only earned 4 caps and is so new to the team he may not be a certain starter but if given the chance he can certainly be the key to unlock any stubborn defence.
Nothing but lifting the World Cup in Russia will do for the fans and the players for that matter. They were so close to doing that in Brazil four years ago until Germany broke their hearts in extra time. Argentina have looked good since having reached two more finals, Copa America’s 2015 and 2016, but both ended in failure without a goal to their name. Argentina’s do have arguably the greatest player of a generation in Lionel Messi and would want the best player for La Albiceleste since Maradona to carry their side, just like Diego did in 1986. Their weakness is in a very fragile defence and with Sampaoli not able to decide on a three or four man back line, this could cause confusion during the tournament. Add to that an injury to Oscar Romero means either Franco Armani or Willy Caballero will be between the sticks, if the former is picked then no doubt an error is on the cards for the Chelsea goalkeeper. There is no reason why they cannot do that and a semi-finals place at least isn’t unrealistic, whether they have that extra oomph needed to get them over the line.
Willy Caballero (Chelsea), Franco Armani (River Plate), Nahuel Guzman (Tigres).
Gabriel Mercado (Sevilla), Federico Fazio (Roma), Nicolas Otamendi (Manchester City), Marcos Rojo (Manchester United), Nicolas Taglafico (Ajax), Javier Mascherano (Hebei Fortune), Marcos Acuna (Sporting Lisbon), Cristian Ansaldi (Torino).
Ever Banega (Sevilla), Lucas Biglia (AC Milan), Angel Di María, Giovani Lo Celso (both Paris St-Germain), Manuel Lanzini (West Ham), Cristian Pavon (Boca Juniors), Maximiliano Meza (Independiente), Eduardo Salvio (Benfica).
Lionel Messi (Barcelona), Gonzalo Higuain, Paulo Dybala (both Juventus), Sergio Aguero (Manchester City).
FIFA World Ranking: 48th
FIFA World Cup Appearances: 5 Best Place: Last 16 1994, 98, 2014.
Possible XI: (4-3-3) Ezenwa (GK) Abdullahi (RB) Troost-Ekong (CB), Balogun (CB) Echiejile (LB) Onazi (CM) Mikel (CM) Ndidi (CM) Moses (RW) Simon (LW) Ighalo (ST)
Gernot Rohr (GER) Age 64
German born and former Bordeaux coach who took them to a UEFA Cup final in 1996 only for them to lose to Bayern over two legs, Rohr takes a youthful Nigeria team to Russia with some positive recent results. In qualifying Nigeria overcame a strong group containing Algeria and African Nations Cup winners Cameroon winning 4 matches and drawing one, and Rohr demonstrated what danger they can pose on the counter attack with a magnificent display to come back, from 2-0 down, in a friendly against a Messi-less Argentina to win 4-2. The inclusion of youth defies what this current crop of Nigerian talent are best at which is catching the slower defences out, transition between defence to attack is seamless and fast, getting up the field at pace. Traditionally, once they are there they can stumble; games in which they have dominated slip out of reach due to their own misfortunes and failings something which Rohr has to find a resolution to. One sticking point to the selection is who will play in goal, Carl Ikeme was diagnosed with leukaemia so cant make the finals so 19-year old Francis Uzoho was called into the squad although he has only featured twice in La Liga for relegated Deportivo La Coruna, and home-based Ikechukwu Ezenwa is 29 and never played outside his home and at club level.
Victor Moses (32 caps / 11 goals)
Arguably the most high profile player in the squad, Moses remains essential to all good things Nigeria have done in recent years with the one bad point being his red card against Morocco in the African Cup of Nations where they lost 4-0. He plays further forward, his preferred position as a winger than at Chelsea where he is seen as more of a right back and a key player in attack expected to create chances higher up the pitch. He began his career at Crystal Palace where he had settled in London after arriving as an asylum seeker following the murders of his parents during religious clashes in Nigeria aged 11. He made his debut in south London as a 16 year old and even represented England at Under 21 level before he committed to his homeland, he not only has an array of skills and trickery in his locker but since his change of roles with Chelsea he has become a lot stronger in defence adding to hi repertoire and skill set to help his team in Russia. He has won the African Cup of Nations in 2013 and the FA Cup and Premier League title while at Chelsea.
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Tyronne Ebuehi (4 caps / 0 goals)
Ebuehi began his professional career at ADO Den Haag and scored once in 82 appearances spending over 5 year’s at The Hague. He was born in the Netherlands to a Dutch mother and Nigerian father and was eligible to play for the country of his birth but opted to play for Nigeria, making his debut against Togo in June 2017. He is quick and is not afraid to carry the ball forwards in attacking spacing on the right wing, using that pace of his to get past opposition players with ease but he can be guilty for leaving space behind or making the wrong decision. He has a knack of getting into the right place at the right time with goal line clearances and using his speed to make that last ditch tackles. He may not be certain for the starting XI as Rohr may prefer Abdullahi, who normally plays as a defensive midfielder for his club side, Bursaspor, but has been viewed by Gernot Rohr as their first choice Nigeria’s right-back.
This is Nigeria’s third World Cup in succession and will feel that this side is capable of matching the best African achievement of a quarter-finals place (Cameroon 1990, Senegal 2002, and Ghana 2010). The introduction of younger players plays a pivotal part in their style of play, both good and bad. They are quick, there is no doubting that, getting into the final thirds of the field isn’t hard for them, it’s just capitalising while in these positions that are letting them down. Likewise in defence, the goalkeeper position is an issue and goals they have conceded is usually down to their own intrigue and ineptitude to hold onto clean sheets. Since African qualifying ended in November 2017 Nigeria have kept clean 4 sheets against Sudan, Libya, Rwanda and Poland (friendly) from 12 games and their recent friendly results have not been favourable either losing to Serbia, England and the Czech Republic. They have to get a win with Iceland or Croatia being their most likely chances of doing so, Argentina faces Nigeria for the fifth time in six World Cups in the group stage, Nigeria have lost all previous encounters.
Francis Uzoho (Deportivo La Coruna), Ikechukwu Ezenwa (Enyimba), Daniel Akpeyi (Chippa United).
William Troost-Ekong, Abdullahi Shehu (both Bursaspor), Tyronne Ebuehi (Benfica), Elderson Echiejile (Cercle Brugge), Brian Idowu (Amkar Perm), Chidozie Awaziem (Porto), Leon Balogun (Brighton), Kenneth Omeruo (Chelsea).
John Mikel Obi (Tianjin Teda), Ogenyi Onazi (Trabzonspor), Wilfred Ndidi (Leicester), Oghenekaro Etebo (CD Feirense), John Ogu (Hapoel Be'er Sheva), Joel Obi (Torino, Italy).
Ahmed Musa, Kelechi Iheanacho (both Leicester), Victor Moses (Chelsea), Odion Ighalo (Changchun Yatai), Alex Iwobi (Arsenal), Simeon Nwankwo (Crotone).
CROATIA FIFA World Ranking: 20th
FIFA World Cup Appearances: 4 Best Place: 3rd place in France 1998 Possible XI: (4-2-3-1) Subasic (GK) Vrsalijko (RB) Corluka (CB) Vida (CB) Strinic (LB) Badelj (CM) Rakitic (CM) Mandzukic (RW) Modric (CAM) Perisic (LW) Kramaric (ST)
Zlatko Dalic (CRO) Age 51
There can be no doubt that the current crop of Croatian players is one of the best squads they have ever had, arguably the talent in this team, on paper ate least, looks miles ahead of their most successful team from the 1998 world cup in France where they finished 4th. Zlatko Dalic knows this, and has seen many of his squad grow with him as former Under-21 manager. Whilst the array of talent is there results haven’t been so great. Qualifying for Russia started under the management of Ante Cacic but poor results such as the 1-0 defeat to Iceland and the scraping of a 1-0 to Kosovo at home was enough for the Croatian FA to replace him with Dalic. Dalic led UAE side Al Ain to the AFC Champions League finals and now has the job of bringing together this Croatia side in the hope of a better showing than in recent tournaments, the first round exit in Brazil 2014 and the last 16 defeat in the Euro 2016 were big blows for a team which promise so much.
Luka Modric (104 caps / 12 goals) Part of a side that as a collective have been together for a long time, Luka Modric has proved himself to not only be one of the best Croatian midfielders we’ve ever seen but also in football as a whole. Standing at only 5’8 ft. Modric has the ability to control games from the centre of the park with ease and class and his range of passing, both long and short, has been invaluable to the teams he has represented. At Tottenham as well as Real Madrid he has proven himself to be an assured midfielder dictating tempo and opportunity’s , his abilities have been integral to a Real Madrid team that have accumulated a staggering 4 Champions League trophies in last 5 years, three in a row. He is normally deployed in a deeper midfield role but Dalic has him playing further forward, with positive results, and a role as a centre attacking forward has benefited him in the past few performances. Despite all this talent and success he has never seen it come to fruition with Croatia, with Brazil 2014 and Euro 2016 particularly disappointing and Russia 2018 will most likely be his last foray in the World Cup which is a sad thing considering how he lights up a football pitch with his performances, if he and the likes of Rakitic and Mandzukic are on form, they could produce something special this summer.
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Mateo Kovacic (39 caps / 1 goal)
Once the darling of Milan while he wore the 'nerazzurri' of Internazionale, he now plays his club football at arguably the biggest club in world football, Real Madrid. During his time there he has only played a part role in their successes and unfortunately for him it was always going to be difficult to break into a midfield that consists of Modric and Casemiro playing in similar roles but remains an important cog in the mechanics of the Croatian XI. He is skilfully gifted and adaptive in midfield playing both a defensive and attacking role with an excellent range of passing that dictates the play almost as much as Luka Modric.
Apart from a difficult set of group game to manoeuvre there is also the battle the team have with the fans. The Croatian FA have for years been accused of corruption and in particular towards Dinamo Zagreb mogul Zdravko Mamic. There has also been accusation that former striker Davor Suker was elected to his post as President illegally, and the case of Luka Modric and Dejan Lovren up in court for perjury, accused of giving false testimony in Mamic’s tax-fraud trial. Getting away from this negativity will be key for Dalic who will want to have the football do the talking and a positive score line against Nigeria will help a go a long way to focusing the attention on the field. I have had them down as semi-finalists in the last world cup and the euros. I again feel that they do have that in their locker but something inside tells n this again will be a disappointing world cup for them and we could well be seeing the last of Modric, Rakitic, and Mandzukic etc. Quarter-finalists is possible and maybe even a semi-final appearance for me, but a lack of consistency could come back to haunt them as the tournaments progresses.
Danijel Subasic (Monaco), Lovre Kalinic (Gent), Dominik Livakovic (Dinamo Zagreb).
Vedran Corluka (Lokomotiv Moscow), Domagoj Vida (Besiktas), Ivan Strinic (Milan), Dejan Lovren (Liverpool), Sime Vrsaljko (Atletico Madrid), Josip Pivaric (Dynamo Kiev), Tin Jedvaj (Bayer Leverkusen), Duje Caleta-Car (Red Bull Salzburg).
Luka Modric (Real Madrid), Ivan Rakitic (Barcelona), Mateo Kovacic (Real Madrid), Milan Badelj (Fiorentina), Marcelo Brozovic (Inter Milan), Filip Bradaric (Rijeka).
Mario Mandzukic (Juventus), Ivan Perisic (Inter Milan), Nikola Kalinic (AC Milan), Andrej Kramaric (Hoffenheim), Marko Pjaca (Juventus), Ante Rebic (Fiorentina).