Sunday, 20 May 2018

World Cup Preview - Group D

Group D

Argentina (5)
Iceland (22)
Croatia (18)
Nigeria (47)

Argentina - The qualifying campaign for Argentina was a real struggle. After matchday 14 out of 18, manager Edgardo Bauza was replaced by Jorge Sampaoli with the team sitting 5th in the table. They had just been beaten 2-0 in Bolivia and needed to improve if they were to qualify. Three consecutive draws were not ideal, but they were saved by a final game hat-trick in Ecuador by Leo Messi and go to Russia as fifth favourites despite their troubles.
Despite having a number of attacking stars, only Messi scored more than 2 goals in the whole of qualifying. There is a real issue with fitting players in to the system that will also work as a defensive unit. It has become obvious that Sampaoli doesn't like to have Dybala, Messi, Higuain and Aguero all playing in the same team, it is impossible to keep everyone happy and playing where they want to. Mauro Icardi who has scored 28 goals in Serie A this year for Inter might make the squad at the expense of Dybala. It's even possible both won't be going, as Angel Di Maria can play a more advanced role.
Defensively the form of Nicolas Otamendi is a real boost who alongside Javier Mascherano have nearly 200 caps between them. They should form an experienced back four with Marcos Rojo and Gabriel Mercado.
They always go to the tournament as a contender, but this year they look vulnerable. Sampaoli has tried to strengthen them defensively and play more solid, hoping that their attacking flair can give them wins. It will be interesting to see how they lineup when they meet a well organised Iceland in game one in Moscow.

Star Man - The reliance on Lionel Messi is more evident than ever this year. Four years ago he nearly took them to World Cup glory, but just fell short in the final. The greatest player of all time now has probably his last chance to win a World Cup. He has had another season of over 40 goals, his ninth consecutive season doing so, and it will be up to him to score the goals, create the chances and be the leader for his country as they try and go one step further than they managed in Brazil.

Iceland - After qualifying for their first ever European Championships, then dispatching England in the last 16, Iceland promptly went on to qualify for their first ever World Cup. This proved that they are a country on the up and have a team worthy of competing on the biggest stage. In a competitive group containing Finland, Turkey, Ukraine, and also World Cup opponents Croatia, they came out on top thanks mainly to winning all five home games. The squad has no star names but they have proven with hard work and togetherness that they are capable of beating anybody.
Familiar names playing in England include Gylfi Sigurdsson, and Aron Gunnarsson, who are part of the midfield also including Johann Berg Gudmundsson, who has been a regular for Burnley this year and a real creative presence. The defensive unit has been playing together for the best part of 8 years for Iceland and is crucial towards their success. The likely team will include four defenders and a goalkeeper all over 30, so this might be their last tournament before the younger group comes through. A hard working team who are aggressive and dangerous from set pieces, they also have enough quality in midfield to keep the ball when required. In an open group they will be in with a chance of qualifying for the last 16, and their style of play will not be nice to play against for any opponents.

Star Man - Although Gylfi was top scorer in qualifying he has had a poor season for Everton, and it is likely that the main man upfront will be Alfred Finnbogason. He has had his best season in Augsburg so far, scoring 12 goals in just 19 games in the Bundesliga. He will be the striker in a team with 3 creative players behind him and he has to take any chances that come his way.

Croatia - After finishing second to Iceland in qualification, Croatia hammered Greece in the playoffs to book their place in Russia. Only once have they made it through the group stages, when they finished third in France 98. It would be a major surprise if they were to replicate that, despite having one of the strongest midfield pairings of Rakitic and Modric. The squad is filled with players that play in the big four leagues in Europe, but on paper it is not as strong a squad as they have had previously. Goalkeeper is a problem area as they try to choose between Subasic, who has lost his place at Monaco this season, and Gent keeper Lovre Kalinic. Kalinic has impressed since becoming the record signing for Gent, and he could well be the number one for Croatia. Defensively Dejan Lovren has now returned to the international scene, after he had fallen out with the previous manager. Corluka and Lovren will form a partnership, while Atletico Madrid right back, Sime Vrsaljko provides a good defensive option.
Along with Modric and Rakitic, Mateo Kovacic provides quality in midfield, and the transformation of Mario Mandzukic in to a defensive winger means they have goalscoring threats from wide areas. Ivan Perisic has had another good season for Inter Milan, with his pace he is a constant threat on the left wing.
Upfront the two options are players who have bounced back after tough spells in England. Nikola Kalinic was a laughing stock for Blackburn, but managed to resurrect his career at Dnipro, and after a successful spell at Fiorentina now plays at AC Milan. He is not prolific, but is likely to start up front, with Andre Kramaric, now playing at Hoffenheim after a spell at Leicester, an able back up. He has scored 13 league goals this season, and will be a threat from the bench.
One other player going to the tournament full of confidence after his game winning display in the German Cup final, is Ante Rebic. He scored two goals in a 3-1 victory over Bayern Munich and the winger will be hoping to have an impact in Russia.

Star Man - For many, Luka Modric is the best central midfielder in the world. The way he receives the ball, always moving it the right way with his first touch and never giving it away, he is a joy to watch. He is crucial to the possession football that Croatia try and play, and along with Rakitic and Kovacic, he is part of a midfield that can dominate any opponents. They might struggle for goals from their strikers, but they do not lack creativity, and Modric is the perfect link between defense and attack.

Nigeria - The Super Eagles were historically the most likely African team to go far in a World Cup, but they have only ever managed to reach the Last 16 twice, including in Brazil. It would be a surprise given the current squad if they were to advance this time beyond the groups. Long time goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama, although not great, was reliable enough and his retirement from international football means that Nigerian based keeper Ikechukwu Ezenwa is the likely replacement. This could be a major problem behind a defense that will have Kenneth Omeruo playing, who has been on Chelsea's books since 2012, and never played a game. Bursaspor teammates William Troost-Ekong and Shehu Abdullahi could well be used as well, with the latter being the more regular at his club. The Dutch born defender spent his youth career in London with Fulham and Tottenham, and standing at 6ft3in is a real presence.
Topping the qualifying group with Cameroon, Algeria and Zambia in it showed that this Nigeria team does have some quality in attacking areas. Despite playing for England youth teams, Alex Iwobi decided to play for the country of his birth and is part of a new young group of players that will be important for Nigeria. Kelechi Iheanacho and Wilfred Ndidi are teammates at Leicester, and both are 21 years old with exciting futures. Ndidi is a combative midfielder, while Iheanacho has proven himself as a goalscorer. He has found it hard to get game time this season due to the form of Jamie Vardy, but he is a calm finisher on his left foot.
Ahmed Musa is another Leicester player, although he spent last season on loan at CSKA Moscow where he only managed 16 appearances. He is inconsistent and quite poor technically. But he has a lot of speed and can cause problems on his day. Captain John Obi Mikel now plays in China, and although he isn't a creative player at all, he is an important part of the midfield as he sits deep and allows others to join the attack.

Star Man - Victor Moses has been a regular at Chelsea since the start of last season after finding himself a slot at right wing back in the Conte system. Another player that played youth for England, he decided to play for Nigeria in 2011 and has made 29 caps since, scoring 11 goals. His pace and strength from a wide area, as well as his quick feet, make him the main threat for Nigeria. He will be hugely important if they are to beat any of the other teams in the group.

Predictions - Argentina are strong favourites for the group despite not qualifying well. With their attacking players they should be able to score enough goals to win the group. It is possible they could be out fought by the others, who will likely play counter attacking football against them. For me they will just top the group, but not convincingly. Second place is up for grabs as Iceland have shown they can beat Croatia in qualifying, and Nigeria have young players who have energy for games close together. I think given the quality of midfielders, Croatia should manage to get through. It will most likely go down to the last game against Iceland on 26th June as a decider.

What to Bet on - Messi is 4/5 to score anytime in the first game against Iceland. A chance for him to get off to a good start in a game they will spend mostly attacking.

World Klutz - Time to go back to back to 2006 in Germany, a match between Croatia and Australia. Graham Poll had reached the peak of his refereeing powers with his inclusion in the World Cup refereeing team, and he was one of the potential referees for the final itself. Until...
Poll received universal ridicule that resulted in him being sent home in disgrace. He never refereed at international level again, promptly retiring after the end of the following season.

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