2018 FIFA World Cup: Group D
The Teams: Argentina, Croatia, Iceland, Nigeria
Group D at the 2018 FIFA World Cup consists of two-time winners Argentina, Croatia, World Cup debutants Iceland, and Nigeria. Every tournament, people like to point out which is the infamous ‘Group of Death’, and whilst Group D only has one team that’s one of the genuine favourites to win the tournament outright, it has four teams which will all fancy their chances of progressing in the competition. Iceland were outstanding in their tournament debut in Euro 2016, reaching the quarter finals, whilst Croatia have an all-star midfield that any team would be proud of. Nigeria can boast more than just the nicest kit in the tournament and Argentina have Messi. It promises to be a group filled with closely-fought matches and a high level of football.
Pre-tournament odds: 9/1
Method of qualification: CONMEBOL Round Robin Third Place
The 2014 finalists are the favourites to take top spot in Group D, having qualified third in the South American qualification standings behind Brazil and Uruguay. Their route to the finals wasn’t all that straightforward however, requiring a Lionel Messi hat-trick to defeat Ecuador in their must-win qualifier back in October. Managed by Jorge Sampaoli, Argentina boast what is probably the most impressive group of attackers in the whole tournament: Messi, Aguero, Higuain and Dybala. Inter Milan’s talismanic captain Mauro Icardi couldn’t even make the squad.
We know everything about their attacking prowess, but it is at the back where teams will look to advantage of their defensive vulnerabilities. It remains to be seen what formation Sampaoli will utilise, with 3-4-3 his preferred choice during qualifying. Having said this, he has tinkered with various four-at-the-back formations in recent friendlies. Their defence consists of a bunch of ‘solid yet unspectacular’ defenders, the only thing worth assuming is that both Federico Fazio and Nicolás Otamendi will start, whatever formation is used. To make matters worse, their number one goalkeeper, Sergio Romero, has been struck with a knee injury that has curtailed his chances of featuring in Russia.
Filled with attacking talent, this Argentina side could go all the way, and there is the feeling this Lionel Messi’s last chance to cement his legacy as the best player of all time beyond any doubt. If Messi can replicate the form from Brazil in 2014, don’t be surprised if Argentina go one better this time around.
Pre-tournament odds: 33/1
Method of qualification: UEFA Second Round Winners
Croatia needed a play-off victory over Greece under new manager Zlatko Dalic in order to qualify for the finals. Considering they are far from being considered one of the favourites to win the tournament, Croatia’s midfield is certainly one to admire, and one to be wary of. Luka Modric, Ivan Perisic, Mateo Kovacic and Ivan Rakitic are a who’s-who of some of European football’s finest midfield talent, and they have a very solid spine to their team with Mario Mandzukic up front and the much improved Dejan Lovren at the back.
This is Croatia’s best chance of improving on their surprising 3rd place finish back in 1998, and their huge experience will probably help and hinder them. Most of the starting team will be in or around their 30s, and after a long season, a World Cup is probably the last thing their legs need. However, their quality cannot be ignored: star man Luka Modric is arguably the best central midfielder in world football, generally operating as an attacking midfielder in a 4-2-3-1 system. If a game is tight, they have the players to unlock any defence in the tournament, and for that reason they cannot be underestimated. Their experienced players need little introduction, but look out for Everton youngster Nikola Vlasic to make the step-up on football’s biggest stage. One thing is for sure however, this Croatia side will fancy themselves to advance deep into the knockout stages of the tournament.
Pre-tournament odds: 250/1
Method of qualification: UEFA Group I Winners
Iceland arrived at Euro 2016 as an unknown quantity, with no prior appearances at a major tournament. They left as quarter-finalists having made a mockery of many teams, most notably England. 10% of their country’s population travelled to France to cheer on their idols back in 2016, their once-in-a-generation squad that topped their World Cup qualifying group. You can expect double that number this time around as Iceland look to announce themselves on the international stage as more than just plucky underdogs.
They are the smallest nation to ever qualify for the World Cup, and the impact their fans had on the team was clear for all to see. Having lost previous manager Lars Lagerback to Norway, previous co-manager Heimir Hallgrimsson took sole charge of Iceland, and Icelandic football journalist Vidir Sigurdsson has been greatly impressed with his tactical flexibility. The 4-4-2 system which was so effective in Euro 2016 is still used, yet it would be no surprise to see a switch to a 4-5-1 during games which is often done with excellent effect according to Sigurdsson.
Iceland’s star man, Everton midfielder Gylfi Sigurdsson, was named in their squad, despite finishing the season with a knee injury. He is expected to be fit for the tournament – a huge boost to Iceland’s chances of progressing from their group.
Pre-tournament odds: 200/1
Method of qualification: CAF Third Round Group B Winners
The Super Eagles finished top of their 2018 World Cup qualifying group with relative ease; they were the first African side to qualify for Russia. Boasting a number of underrated players, their team relies on defensive solidity and one of the most energetic midfields in the tournament. The likes of Alex Iwobi, Ogenyi Onazi, Joel Obi and Wilfred Ndiid will run themselves into the ground, and former Chelsea midfielder has the experience and tactical nous to help some of the younger members of the squad.
Nigeria’s preferred system is normally a 4-3-3 with Iwobi and Victor Moses running up and down the flanks. Manager Gernot Rohr has transformed Nigeria’s fortunes, with the African outfit losing just twice since taking over (including their recent friendly defeat at Wembley). It is worth remembering that prior to his appointment, the Super Eagles had failed to even qualify to the last two Africa Cup of Nations.
This dynamic, counter-attacking side will be looking to prove there is more to them than just a nice kit. However, if Nigeria want to equal their previous World Cup best of reaching the last 16, they will have to be at their vivacious best.
Group D is certainly a very difficult one to predict, given the quality of all four teams. However, I fancy Argentina’s unrivalled firepower up front to shine through, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the South Americans topped the group with a 100% record. The sheer quality of Messi, Aguero and Dybala as a front three is scary, and Higuain is not a bad player to come off the bench if they need a goal. Their defence is slightly more suspect however, and I would not be surprised if they shipped a few goals. Croatia are, on paper, the best of the rest. Their all-star midfield is far superior to those of Iceland and Nigeria (and, to a lesser extent, Argentina). Having said that, Iceland have proved they can be a surprise package, and actually finished above Croatia in their qualifying group. Can they repeat the feat on the biggest stage of them all? Nigeria have the ability to take points off any of the other three teams, but they will have to play to their maximum potential if they are to qualify. Whilst they could shock the odds and qualify from the group, the most realistic prediction is that they will sit at the foot of the table after their three games.