2018 FIFA World Cup: Group G
The Teams: Belgium, England, Panama, Tunisia
The make-up of Group G tells many stories. On one side; two huge footballing nations are expected to run rampant in the group (well, expected if you’re an optimistic England supporter with Three Lions on your shirt and a St George’s cross painted on your face). The other half; two gallant underdogs bringing passionate and eclectic fans to Russia who seem just happy to be there. Whilst there are two nations who, in many people’s eyes, look set to qualify to the knockout stages, this is the World Cup and nothing is ever that simple.
Odds to win the competition – 10/1 (Sky Bet)
Method of qualification – UEFA Group H Winners
The Belgian national side certainly are abundant in quality and seem to have emerged to the forefront of international football over the last decade – continuing to become such a formidable force in major international competitions. This was exhibited throughout Belgium’s qualifying campaign where Roberto Martinez’ ensemble of footballing superstars scored a record breaking 43 goals in World Cup qualifying and were the first team, by some margin, to secure their place at the tournament in Russia.
An amplitude of Belgium’s goals seemed to come from expert delivery or rather extraordinary strikes from outside the area. The astonishing playmaking qualities of Kevin De Bruyne continued to penetrate defensive weaknesses whilst his crosses seemed to continue to meet the head of Romelu Lukaku – who’s pace, strength and power earned him 11 goals in qualifying. If the ball isn’t entering the box it is being struck from outside of it, with 31-year-old Dries Mertens playing exceptionally for his country and regularly finding the top corner of the goal seemingly with ease. If the ambitious shot doesn’t fly in it is almost certainly turned in by Belgium’s suffocating attack who position themselves perfectly to get on the end of keepers’ parries. Whilst it must be said that Belgium’s goals came in quite a lacklustre qualifying group, Roberto Martinez’ 3-4-3 formation decimated defences and acquired Belgium with a simple route to Russia.
Ahead of the world cup, Roberto Martinez spoke exclusively to 90MAAT to discuss the upcoming tournament and gave quite an insight on the Belgian team:
“Even if you qualify well you earn the right to play three games – that’s the only thing that you get. Now it’s a case of what we’re going to do with those three games. It’s important that we grow into those games and how we can become a team – we all know that Belgium has fantastic individuals… but at modern day international level players very much play for the individuals and not for the team. I think now is our opportunity to work hard for each other and understand what it takes to become a winning team, but I’m very much looking forward to those three games.
“Belgium is a country with a population of 11 million and the number of players who are playing big roles in top clubs in European football and even in the Chinese league and the MLS – it shows how it is easy for the Belgian player to travel and accommodate with their teammates and the capacity for them to become important players has been really, really interesting. Belgium is a small country in terms of numbers but a huge country in terms of the individuals that they have produced in the last 10 years.”
Whilst Belgium’s quality squad certainly is intimidating, it’s important to highlight something that Martinez mentioned, “international level players very much play for the individuals and not for the team.” There has been considerable discontent in the Belgium camp as of late due to Martinez’ omission of defensive midfielder Radja Nainggolan for Leander Dendocker to take his space on the plane to Russia. Whilst it is predicted that Belgium should most likely top the group with some level of ease, a lack of comradery behind the curtain may hinder Belgium’s chances of getting far in the tournament.
Odds to win the competition – 16/1 (Sky Bet)
Method of qualification – UEFA Group F Winners
It has been 52 years of hurt since the last time England hoisted an international trophy and, in all honesty, it is most likely that the closest the Three Lions will get to silverware in 2018 is through the Socceraid charity match. Whilst the blasting of England World Cup anthems from the past may make punters optimistic that “this is our year”, the England side hasn’t emitted the kind of quality that other large footballing nations have pre-World Cup and it doesn’t look promising. Cue Gareth Southgate to leave me with egg on my face.
The statistics, however, do instil some confidence ahead of the tournament. Southgate’s men (as well as a cameo role from Sam Allardyce) only conceded three goals across ten qualifying matches and topped the group comfortably – finishing 8 points ahead of second place Slovakia and not losing a single game. Whilst England’s 18 qualifying goals is far short of Belgium’s 43, it does indicate the ability to grind out results against harder opponents than Belgium faced; a trait that would bode well in a major competition.
Additionally, the flock of players that Southgate has selected have all had impressive seasons. Harry Kane astounded many with his 30 goals this season, being especially clinical by placing his shots in the corner of the goal with power, and individuals such as Raheem Sterling can be vital if he produces the form he has shown for Manchester City this season. Sterling’s impressive form could make him a key part of England’s team come Russia, especially as Southgate likes to utilise the flanks which has resulted in many of England’s goals during qualifying and friendlies. Even the likes of Jordan Pickford who, in a somewhat languishing Everton side, produced some phenomenal performances between the sticks and rightly earned his space as England’s number one.
However, Southgate’s preferred formation of 3-1-4-2 has the capacity to produce just as negative football as it does positive, especially with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain missing out due to injury who could have produced somewhat of a creative spark in the midfield. The use of defensive-minded holding midfielders, which Southgate has used before, have the useful ability to kill the momentum of a game but can also prove costly if England are caught out and not able to attack back – a real possibility with the likes of Phil Jones who has exhibited defensive errors as recently as the FA Cup final. The England team has always been a divisive topic of discussion in this country and time will tell whether the doubters of this current crop of players will be producing tears of joy or anger when the World Cup in Russia has finished.
Odds to win the competition – 1000/1 (Sky Bet)
Method of qualification – CONCACAF Fifth Round Third Place
As plucky underdog stories go, Panama may be the pluckiest of all the underdogs in World Cup history. The small Central American nation had never qualified for a World Cup until 2018 and did so in dramatic, and rather controversial, style. After the heartbreak of their 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign where the USA scored two quick goals in stoppage time in the last qualifying game to beat Panama 3-2; preventing Los Canaleros (The Canal Men) from going to Brazil by the skin of their teeth, controversial Colombian coach Hernán Darío Gómez acquired redemption for the Panamanians and led them to qualification in 2018. A hectic and emotional qualification campaign, plagued with the murder of Panamanian midfielder Amilcar Henriquez, culminated with a 2-1 comeback against Costa Rica where a goal was given that clearly had not crossed the line and centre back Román Torres barrelled forward in the 88th minute and rifled in the winning goal that many strikers would be proud of. Panama had qualified for their first ever World Cup and the country’s president issued a national holiday to celebrate – football is a magical old game isn’t it.
Their eventful final qualifying match somewhat represents Panama’s entire style of football: passionate and ambitious. Gómez aggressive 4-4-2 formation and all-or-nothing philosophy has led to many late goals for Panama, something that has the potential to surprise their World Cup opposition. The nation’s captain; Seattle Sounders’ Román Torres, is the side’s key player but the World Cup is the perfect stage for unknown faces to pop up and be national heroes – something exhibited at the last World Cup by Panama’s neighbours Costa Rica.
The country’s World Cup preparations aren’t going as planned with Los Canaleros losing 6-0 to Switzerland in a friendly, even whilst experimenting with five in defence. I doubt many Panamanians mind, however, and just seem happy to finally be apart of the world’s largest footballing stage. Whilst Panama aren’t expected to do anything special at this year’s World Cup, the ultimate plucky underdogs could cause some upsets in Group G.
Odds to win the competition – 1000/1 (Sky Bet)
Method of qualification – CAF Third Round Group A Winners
Tunisia are slowly developing an encouraging national side and football is becoming centric in Tunisian society with the country’s Ligue Professionnelle 1 the highest quality football league in Africa. The nation has some World Cup legacy behind them, being the first ever African country to win a game at the tournament; beating Mexico 3-1 in 1978, and qualified for three World Cups consecutively in 1998, 2002 and 2006. Twelve years on and the Eagles of Carthage are back at the beautiful game’s biggest event in an attempt to finally make it out of the group stages.
Tunisia scraped qualification to the World Cup by one solitary point in their four-nation African group. Whilst some glimpses of quality and intuition was on display, many of Tunisia’s qualifying goals came at the exploitation of the uninspiring opposition of DR Congo, Libya and Guinea by piling men forward on the attack against the countries’ weak defences. The influx of men forward on the attack leaves a scarce number of players back to defend, perfect for the likes of Belgium’s extremely quick attack and fast players in England and Panama’s squad to abuse on the counter attack. Manager Nabil Maaloul regularly plays a 4-3-3 formation which shifts to a 4-1-4-1 at times when two midfielders push forward and the wingers drop back into the midfield line, showing Tunisia’s ambition to play down the wing where many of their qualifying goals came from.
Unfortunately, Tunisia’s top players are fraught with injury and they seem to be left with a rather unsubstantial squad going into the tournament. Marseille’s solid central defender Aymen Abdennour is a doubt with a hamstring injury whilst forward Youssef Msanki, hailed by the country’s supporters as Tunisia’s best player, has suffered a serious knee injury and is out for the tournament. Msanki brought creativity into the side and was a real danger from free kicks, qualities that Tunisia will surely suffer without. Wahbi Khazri is seemingly the only notable player left in the side for the World Cup and his shoulders are not strong enough to carry the entire Tunisian side, perhaps suggesting that the Eagles of Carthage are ill-fated to languish at the bottom of the group.
I think it’s hard to look past Belgium to top the group with the immense quality at Roberto Martinez’ disposal. Whilst England don’t look too promising, to realistically suggest that the Three Lions might succumb to Panama and Tunisia may be over-reacting quite substantially. As for the underdogs, I see Panama gaining their first World Cup victory in their first appearance at the tournament as I don’t see Tunisia performing whatsoever with such a weakened side – especially with the omission of their best player Msanki. Group G may seem rather set in stone as to who qualifies for the knockout stages and who doesn’t, yet as highlighted this is the World Cup and nothing is ever that simple.