Group G: Battle of the EPL stars

Group G will witness a battle between some of the biggest Premier League stars, including the likes of Kevin de Bruyne and Harry Kane.

Twenty-six-year-old Kevin de Bruyne is the fulcrum of the Belgian side, playing a crucial part in the build-ups to the rival goal in his capacity as an attacking midfielder and an able finisher.   -  AP

Of course, all 64 matches in Russia are not likely to be of the same quality. But, as one of the most balanced groups in the first stage, Group G simply stands out as the first among equals. The engagements between Belgium, England, Tunisia and newcomer Panama are certain to maintain a typically high standard befitting the occasion, and they should not be short of all the thrills and frills, though the key match should be the one between the two European sides.

Belgium

This will be the 13th finals appearance for Belgium, currently ranked third in the world. Yet, what still stands fresh in memory is the brilliance with which Jan Ceulemans and Co. made it to the semifinals at Mexico in 1986, outliving a superb hat-trick by Russian Igor Belanov in the last eight en route to a hair-raising 4-3 win.
 


The current set of players, hailed as the golden generation of the country, offers Belgium the chance to go one better, having made the grade with a string of clinical displays and scoring as many as 43 goals on the way to topping it group in the qualifiers. Managed by Roberto Martinez, the team has a wealth of talent in Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku and Vincent Kompany, each capable of turning out to be a worthy game-changer.

Key player

Kevin De Bruyne

The 26-year-old, who plies his trade with Manchester City, is the fulcrum of the Belgian side, playing a crucial part in the build-ups to the rival goal in his capacity as an attacking midfielder and an able finisher.

Squad

Goalkeepers: Thibaut Courtois, Koen Casteels, Simon Mignolet.

Defenders: Toby Alderweireld, Thomas Vermaelen, Vincent Kompany, Jan
Vertonghen, Thomas Meunier, Dedryck Boyata.

Midfielders: Axel Witsel, Kevin De Bruyne, Marouane Fellaini, Mousa Dembélé, Youri Tielemans, Yannick Carrasco, Leander Dendoncker, Nacer Chadli.

Forwards: Romelu Lukaku, Eden Hazard, Dries Mertens, Thorgan Hazard, Michy Batshuayi, Adnan Januazaj.

World Cup record

12 appearances

Fourth place in 1986

England

The originator of the game seems to have buried the disappointment of its first round exit in the 2014 World Cup in football-mad Brazil. True, the draw has been far kinder than last time and the English should be looking forward to gallop into the second stage of the tournament without much ado. Compared to the 2014 side, England has shown marked improvement in every area, with manager Gareth Southgate proving to be a tough, tactical master.

 

However, it could all boil down to the match against Belgium as the English, making their 16th appearance in the tournament, are often sluggish at the start.

Key player

Harry Kane

Though he might be reckoned as a bit of an old-fashioned centre-forward by many, the truth is vastly different as this 24-year-old Tottenham Hotspur player and English captain is an outstanding striker by any count. His great display through the qualifiers and the five goals that he scored therein should prop up the confidence of this young man to offer his best for England in Russia in the company of Raheem Sterling, Delli Alli and Jesse Lingard.

Squad

Goalkeepers: Jack Butland, Jordan Pickford, Nick Pope.

Defenders: Trent Alexander-Arnold, Gary Cahill, Fabian Delph, Phil Jones, Harry Maguire, Danny Rose, John Stones, Kieran Trippier, Kyle Walker, Ashley Young.

Midfielders: Dele Alli, Eric Dier, Jordan Henderson, Jesse Lingard, Ruben Loftus-Cheek.

Forwards: Harry Kane, Marcus Rashford, Raheem Sterling, Jamie Vardy, Danny Welbeck.

World Cup record

14 appearances

Champion in 1966

Tunisia

The African nation booked its return to the World Cup for the first time since 2006 by topping a rather straightforward Group B in the CAF qualifiers, and is seen as a solid defensive unit, playing in its favoured 4-2-3-1 formation. This will be the fifth appearance for the Tunisians on the game’s largest stage and they should be looking forward to a much more pleasant outing than in previous occasions.

 

Left-back Ali Maaloul is the most important figure in the Tunisian line-up, charged with the responsibility of ensuring there is no let-up in the defence. The team also depends a lot on its attacking midfielders Wahbi Khazri and Naim Sliti for the creativity required upfront.

Key player

Wahbi Khazri

At 27, this midfield general is at his peak. Khazri, who plays for French Ligue 1 club Rennes on loan from Sunderland, played a pivotal role in his side's progress. What marks his importance is his knack of scoring opportunistic goals, like the ones against Mauritania and Libya in the qualifiers.

Squad

Goalkeepers: Farouk Ben Mustapha, Moez Hassen, Aymen Mathlouthi.

Defenders: Rami Bedoui, Yohan Benalouane, Syam Ben Youssef, Dylan Bronn, Oussama Haddadi, Ali Maaloul, Yassine Meriah, Hamdi Nagguez.

Midfielders: Anice Badri, Mohamed Amine Ben Amor, Ghaylene Chaalali, Ahmed Khalil, Saifeddine Khaoui, Ferjani Sassi, Ellyes Skhiri, Naim Sliti, Bassem Srarfi.

Forwards: Fakhreddine Ben Youssef, Saber Khalifa, Wahbi Khazri.

World Cup record

4 appearances

Has never progressed beyond the group stage

Panama

Panama is definitely the surprise pack at the World Cup, having fought tooth and nail to get a direct spot, finishing a creditable third ahead of the USA and Honduras in the CONCACAF qualifiers. But the odds may be against this newcomer – the first since Trinidad and Tobago in 2006.

 

In fact, the Panamanians should be still celebrating the 88th minute goal of Roman Torres against Costa Rica that put their country into the path of a possible finals berth and the exemplary role played by team manager Hernan Dario Gomez, who had previously coached Colombia in 2004 and Ecuador in 2002.

Key player

Blas Perez

Capped over 100 times by Panama, Perez, 37, offers experience and should be the one to watch from among the ranks of his side in Russia.

Squad

Goalkeepers: Jose Calderon, Jaime Penedo, Alex Rodriguez.

Defenders: Felipe Baloy, Harold Cummings, Eric Davis, Fidel Escobar, Adolfo Machado, Michael Murillo, Luis Ovalle, Roman Torres.

Midfielders: Edgar Barcenas, Armando Cooper, Anibal Godoy, Gabriel Gomez, Valentin Pimentel, Alberto Quintero, Jose Luis Rodriguez.

Forwards: Abdiel Arroyo, Ismael Diaz, Blas Perez, Luis Tejada, Gabriel Torres.

World Cup record

First appearance