Group D really has it all: the world’s greatest player, a strong team whose players have frequently fought with each other and have pressed the self-destruct button in the past, and a cool first-timer – Iceland – that believes that it can slay any team that crosses its path.
READ: Group A: Straightforward for Uruguay, toss-up for second
Imagine the World Cup without the planet’s best player. That appeared to be a strong possibility last October as Lionel Messi’s Argentina was in danger of missing the World Cup after a goalless draw against Peru in the qualifiers. But Messi’s hat-trick against Ecuador, just as the doors were shutting down, ensured that the two-time champion made it to the finals in Russia.
Strangely, despite being a five-time FIFA World Player of the Year, Messi has never won the World Cup, though Argentina came painfully close in the last edition in 2014, losing the final by a lone goal to Germany in Rio.
Two more painful final losses followed, in the Copa America in 2015 and 2016, and many have been left wondering why the Messi magic is not in full flow when he wears the national colours on the big stage. Argentina may not start as one of the favourites in Russia, but when Messi is on song, nothing is impossible.
Unlike systematic Germany or brilliant Spain, Argentina appears to have quite a few chinks in its armour. And with Sergio Romero, its main goalkeeper, forced to miss the World Cup with a knee injury, the worry lines have only grown bigger. The team is strong in attack and also has stars like Manchester City forward Sergio Aguero and Paris Saint-Germain’s creative midfielder Giovani Lo Celso, but an ageing backline could be its undoing.
Messi makes the extraordinary look simple and has elevated football to an art form. But while he has won everything in club football with Barcelona, the fact that he is yet to win a World Cup often ends the argument on whether he is the greatest of all time. Diego Maradona single-handedly won the World Cup for Argentina in 1986 and that, feel many, probably makes him the greatest. Russia will offer the 30-year-old Messi perhaps the last chance to win a World Cup.
Goalkeepers: Nahuel Guzman, Wilfredo Caballero, Franco Armani.
Defenders: Gabriel Mercado, Cristian Ansaldi, Javier Mascherano, Nicolas Otamendi, Federico Fazio, Marcos Rojo, Nicolas Tagliafico, Marcos Acuna.
Midfielders: Enzo Perez, Maximiliano Meza, Lucas Biglia, Ever Banega, Giovani Lo Celso, Angel Di Maria, Cristian Pavon, Eduardo Salvio.
Forwards: Paulo Dybala, Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain.
World Cup record
Champion in 1978, 1986
When captain Mikel John Obi opened up about the happenings in his team at the last World Cup, one could understand why Nigeria is frequently inconsistent. “There were a lot of problems in the camp which a lot of people didn’t see…we kind of hid it under the table,” Mikel, a former Chelsea midfielder, said recently. “The relationship between players was not good, there was no discipline... Players wanted to do their own thing and they didn’t think about the team.” The players had a pay dispute with the national federation and there were even threats to boycott training sessions at the 2014 World Cup. Things were not very different at the 2010 edition, too.
The team now has a German head coach in Gernot Rohr, a strict disciplinarian, and he has made the players that the only way forward was by backing each other. Nigeria is a young and inexperienced side but now, they are together and ready to fight for each other.
The Super Eagles finished on top of a tough qualifying group, which included Cameroon, Algeria and Zambia, with a game to spare. It team also showed what it was capable of in the recent friendly against England, which it lost 1-2, with 21-year-old Arsenal midfielder Alex Iwobi scoring the lone goal.
Chelsea winger Victor Moses and Leicester City’s young midfielder Wilfred Ndidi, striker Kelechi Iheanacho and fast forward Ahmed Musa are some of the prominent faces in Rohr’s squad that would be aiming to take the second spot in the group and qualify for the next stage.
Iwobi is a young and creative midfielder, but he can be can be good in front of the goal, too, as he showed in Nigeria’s recent friendly against England, where he scored in the 1-2 loss. Despite being just 21, Iwobi is a fearless player and enjoys being on the big stage and that should give Nigeria a big boost.
Goalkeepers: Ikechukwu Ezenwa, Francis Uzoho, Daniel Akpeyi.
Defenders: Abdullahi Shehu, Tyronne Ebuehi, Elderson Echiejile, Brian Idowu, Chidozie Awaziem, William Ekong, Leon Balogun, Kenneth Omeruo.
Midfielders: Mikel John Obi, Ogenyi Onazi, Wilfred Ndidi, Oghenekaro Etebo, John Ogu, Joel Obi.
Forwards: Ahmed Musa, Kelechi Iheanacho, Victor Moses, Odion Ighalo, Alex Iwobi, Nwankwo Simeon.
World Cup record
Round of 16 in 1994, 1998, 2014
For a side that made a spectacular World Cup debut in 1998 – finishing third – Croatia has never been able to come anywhere close to that performance again. It has not gone beyond the group stages in its last three appearances, in 2002, 2006 and 2014. But this time, with stars like Real Madrid’s Luka Modric and Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic – both midfielders – and Juventus forward Mario Mandzukic, Croatia appears to have lined up its best World Cup team in the last 20 years.
However, with Argentina a big favourite to top the group, Croatia will face a tough battle from Nigeria and Iceland for second spot. Incidentally, with its starting 11 having an average of nearly 30, Croatia will be one of the oldest teams in Russia.
A few years ago, weeks into his debut season with Real Madrid, Modric was voted as the worst big-money buy in La Liga. Real had paid nearly $40 million to move the diminutive midfielder from Tottenham, and when Modric struggled to settle down, he was voted as the worst signing in a poll conducted by a Spanish newspaper. Modric has now bloomed into one of the world’s best midfielders and recently won his fourth Champions League winners trophy.
Goalkeepers: Danijel Subasic, Lovre Kalinic, Dominik Livakovic.
Defenders: Vedran Corluka, Domagoj Vida, Ivan Strinic, Dejan Lovren, Sime Vrsaljko, Josip Pivaric, Tin Jedvaj, Duje Caleta-Car.
Midfielders: Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Mateo Kovacic, Milan Badelj, Marcelo Brozovic, Filip Bradaric.
Forwards: Mario Mandzukic, Ivan Perisic, Nikola Kalinic, Andrej Kramaric, Marko Pjaca, Ante Rebic.
World Cup record
12 appearances (8 as Yugoslavia, 4 as Croatia)
Third place in 1930, 1998
READ: Group B: Another two-horse race
For a country that is ranked 180th in the world based on its population (340,000), Iceland’s rise in football has been rather stunning. But the country is crazy about the sport, which is mostly played in heated indoor halls on artificial turf and has around 600 qualified coaches with over 400 holding a UEFA ‘B’ licence.
Two years ago, Iceland shocked England 2-1 at EURO 2016 and now it is playing its maiden World Cup – becoming the smallest nation ever to do so. That’s an impressive climb for a country that was ranked 133th some six years ago and which is currently on the 22nd rung in the FIFA world rankings.
However, despite being its first World Cup, the Iceland team – coached by Heimir Hallgrimsson, a dentist – has plenty of experience and topped its qualifying group after wins over Croatia, Turkey and Ukraine.
There had been some worry over Everton midfielder Gylfi Sigurdsson’s injury but he has been included in the 23-member squad.
With the sort of wins under its belt, Iceland could pull off a surprise or two and make a memorable debut. The Icelanders are strong in defence, are a bunch of sturdy runners and have players like Augsburg’s Alfred Finnbogason, one of the best goalscorers in the Bundesliga, and winger Johann Berg Gudmundsson.
Johann Berg Gudmundsson
Gudmundsson was one of the players who caught the eye in Iceland’s historic EURO 2016 victory over England and he was rewarded with an offer to play for Burnley in the English Premier League. The versatile attacking midfielder was very impressive for Burnley and his Premier League experience will be very crucial for Iceland in Russia.
Goalkeepers: Hannes Thor Halldorsson, Runar Alex Runarsson, Frederik Schram.
Defenders: Kari Arnason, Ari Freyr Skulason, Birkir Mar Saevarsson, Sverrir Ingi Ingason, Hordur Magnusson, Holmar Orn Eyjolfsson, Ragnar Sigurdsson.
Midfielders: Johann Berg Gudmundsson, Birkir Bjarnason, Arnor Ingvi Traustason, Emil Hallfredsson, Gylfi Sigurdsson, Olafur Ingi Skulason, Rurik Gislason, Samuel Fridjonsson, Aron Gunnarsson.
Forwards: Alfred Finnbogason, Bjorn Bergmann Sigurdarson, Jon Dadi Bodvarsson, Albert Gudmundsson.