Monday, 4 June 2018

World Cup Preview - Group G

Group G

England (13)
Belgium (3)
Tunisia (14)
Panama (55)

England - Qualification was relatively straightforward for England as they only dropped points away at Scotland and Slovenia, drawing both. They didn't convincingly win all their games, with a 4-0 win in Malta and 3-0 at home to Scotland their only wins by more than two goals but topping the group was never really in doubt.

Despite continuous high expectations, England have failed to get past the quarter final of a World Cup since a 4th place finish in 1990.

Gareth Southgate will be looking forward to his first major tournament as a manager, and he has gone with a squad that has an average age of just 26.

The big talking point all season was whether Joe Hart would still be number one as he has been since 2012. However his poor form has resulted in him not even being selected, meaning Jack Butland and Jordan Pickford will battle it out for the starting role. The position has been an issue at tournaments for a while with England, and now with less than ten caps between all three goalkeepers, it could be a problem area.

Defensively they resorted to a back three, but strangely it seems to be including Kyle Walker. Walker has been outstanding for Manchester City this year as an attacking full back, but defensively he has been vulnerable at times. On the right of a back three seems to take away his strengths and force him to defend more. Beside him there is a choice of Stones, out of favour at City, Cahill who was a long time out of the team at Chelsea, Jones who is an accident waiting to happen and Maguire, who I am not convinced is a good defender. He is comfortable on the ball, but I think he could be in trouble when up against a top opposition.

In the midfield it seems that Eric Dier will be used in the holding role he plays for Spurs. He was moved there mainly because he isn't a good enough defender. For me he isn't a top level passer and isn't what England need to keep the ball when games are tight. Henderson had a strong season with Liverpool taking them to the Champions League final. He is busier and more aggressive than Dier, and tries more forward passes. He isn't world class either, but might be a better option. It is possible both are playing against stronger teams.

The strength of the England team is in the forward four players. Harry Kane has proved he is one of the best strikers in the world. He scores goals and links the play well and is always hungry to get in the box. One slight worry is it looked like he wasn't fully fit towards the end of the season, so it will be interesting to see how he gets on. Teammate Dele Alli is also a great goalscorer. He doesn't have incredible pace or skill, but he has an instinct for goals and I think his movement in the box is outstanding. He will score goals at this tournament for sure, but he has to make sure he doesn't get sent off because teams will try to wind him up.

Another weapon they have is pace from the bench from Vardy, Rashford, Lingard and Welbeck. Pace at the end of games when defenders are tiring can be a real bonus, and they could all have crucial roles to play.

Star Man - Raheem Sterling has been regularly criticised throughout his career, but since Guardiola joined Manchester City his game has gone to new levels. His confidence is sky high and he has added goals to his game, especially this season. His final product was always the issue, but now he has looked more composed in the final third and set up goals as well as scored goals all season. His pace, quick feet and change of direction make him an important player as England look to unlock defenses and advance deep into the knockout stages.

Belgium - Belgium are nearing the end of their so called golden generation and it hasn't produced what was expected. Now with Roberto Martinez in charge, it seems like nobody is expecting them to challenge for the trophy this time around. He made a strange decision not including Roma midfielder Nainngolan, despite him having a great season for the Champions League semi finalists.

Benteke was a surprise inclusion despite an awful season of just three goals with Crystal Palace in the initial squad, but he has not been included in the 23. It was perhaps as a backup given that Michy Batshuayi picked up an ankle injury late in the season after really impressing on his loan move in Dortmund. He must be fit, so they won't only be relying on Romelu Lukaku to score the goals from upfront. He is one player that has probably gained confidence under Mourinho, as he is constantly talked up in the press and starts every time he is fit. He lost his place at the 2014 World Cup to Divock Origi, but I'd be surprised if that happens again. He won't win the golden boot, but he can be the important link man to get Belgium up the pitch and help get their star players on the ball in the final third.

One of those stars is Kevin De Bruyne, probably the best passer in the Premier League. He is so clever at finding space and recognising when to pass the ball and where to pass it. He has license to roam as Axel Witsel and possibly Marouane Fellaini sit deeper and protect the defense.

Dries Mertens has had his best two seasons as a footballer the last two years at Napoli. Now 31 he has taken on a goalscoring responsibility, and has managed 56 over the last two seasons. He goes to the World Cup after a great season with Napoli and with his pace and running off the ball, will add another dimension from Lukaku, De Bruyne and Hazard.

Despite the reputation of the manager struggling with defense in the past, he is lucky to have inherited such a strong one here. It looks like Kompany might have injured himself, so it could help as Vertonghen and Alderweireld get to link up as a partnership. When they play together at Spurs they are the best partnership in the league, and should be strong for Belgium. Thomas Meunier has played a number of games at right back for PSG this season, and Vermaelen can fit in at left back, despite not being a regular at Barcelona. With Courtois behind them this is a team that shouldn't concede many goals, and is very dangerous on the attack.

Star Man - No doubt that Eden Hazard has had inconsistent form with Chelsea the last few years, but he is such an exciting player to watch. His close control is as good as anyone and when he dribbles with the ball his change of direction and acceleration from a standing start are almost impossible to defend. He can win a game on his own and also has great composure infront of goal. He is likely to be top scorer for Belgium, and with defenses likely to have to watch Mertens, De Bruyne and Lukaku as well, he should get opportunities to run 1v1 at defenders, and there will only be one winner in that scenario.

Tunisia - Surprisingly the highest ranked team in Africa now, Tunisia qualified by winning a group with DR Congo, Libya and Guinea. They were unbeaten and will compete for the first time at the World Cup since 2006. They have never advanced past the groups, and in fact only ever won one game, a 3-1 defeat of Mexico in 1978.

Top scorer in qualifying Youssef Msakni is unfortunately going to miss out on the tournament due to an injury he picked up in April. The second top scorer in the Qatari League, with 25 goals in 22 games was the main goal threat for the country. Now they will be relying on home based players, Anice Bedri and Saber Khalifa, or Saudi based Ben Youssef to find the net. Between them they have 15 goals for their country, but it will be a huge step up from the leagues the play in.

Recent friendly draws against Turkey and Portugal will have given them confidence going in to the tournament, but they are up against it in this group.

Most of the players play in Asia or African leagues, with a handful playing in France. 31 year old Leicester City defender, Yohan Benalouane has only three caps for Tunisia after rejecting call ups previously hoping to earn his way in to the France squad. Born in France he finally accepted a call up for Tunisia this year, and some will not be happy with his inclusion. He is a strong defender however, and is likely to be starting games in central defense.

Only 33 year old goalkeeper Aymen Mathlouthi has more than 50 caps in the squad, and having made his debut in 2007, it means that every member of the squad will be going to their first ever World Cup.

Star Man - He showed only glimpses of quality at Sunderland, but having scored 11 goals for Rennes this season Wahbi Khazri is the most likely star for Tunisia. He has 12 goals for his country, including a recent winner against Costa Rica in a friendly. His delivery from set pieces will be vital for Tunisia, and he will be relied upon to create chances in open play. This Tunisia team is lacking any real stars, and playing England and Belgium in their first two games, they could be out before they get a chance to beat Panama.

Panama - A national holiday was declared when Panama qualified for their first ever World Cup at the expense of the USA. An 88th minute winner at home to Costa Rica in the final game from 110 times capped defender, Roman Torres gave them third position and a place in Russia. He is one of five players in the squad with more than 100 caps, full of players based in Central and North America.

A lot of the defenders in the squad have struggled for game time at their clubs this season, but one regular has been Adolfo Machado at Houston Dynamo. The 33 year old defender served a two year doping ban from 2012, but with 65 caps for his country he has been a strong central defender in qualifying and in the the MLS.

Only one player in the squad plays in a top level domestic league in Europe, and that is left back Erick Davis. He plays in Slovakia with Dunajska Streda, who finished third in the league this season. With many not being regulars at their clubs, or playing in second tiers, this is for me the poorest squad at the tournament, perhaps along with Saudi Arabia.

They won three out of ten games in qualifying which was enough to see them through, scoring only nine goals, conceding ten. It's an incredibly poor record for a team that qualified automatically and shows how poor the CONCACAF qualifying is.

It will be a great party for them in Russia and their supporters, but they are nowhere near good enough and will be lucky to get a point from their three games.

Star Man - Gabriel Torres is the main striker for Panama, and has had a solid journeyman careers so far. Nine goals in 15 games so far for Huachipato in Chile this season, he has totalled 15 international goals as well. He once had a trial at Manchester United in 2007, but his career has been played on the other side of the Atlantic. He was top scorer at the Gold Cup in 2013, and will be hoping to add to his tally in Russia.

Predictions - This group is probably the easiest to predict given the strengths of England and Belgium over Tunisia and Panama. Also given England meet Belgium last, they both should already have qualified by then. Panama are likely to finish bottom as Tunisia should beat them to claim third spot.

Depending on whether players are rested in the third game, I can see Belgium just having too much for England with the attacking options they have.

What to Bet on - Panama are 15/2 to be the lowest scoring team that the tournament. I don't think they will score any.

World Klutz - In 2010 it was a big chance for Rob Green to earn himself the right to be England goalkeeper for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately in game one versus USA, it didn't quite work out...

This goal resulted in a 1-1 draw for England, who would eventually go out to Germany in the Last 16. Rob Green was subsequently dropped for the following game, and only played one more time for England, two years later. A shocking piece of goalkeeping, one that England will be hoping doesn't happen to whoever is chosen as first choice this year.

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