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2018 FIFA World Cup Russia: Group D Preview

2014 finalist Argentina is joined in Group D by Croatia, Iceland and Nigeria. What teams will be expected to advance, and which players should be on your fantasy radar?

Lionel Messi - Argentina - FIFA World Cup
Messi is the greatest of all time. Can he win the World Cup and quiet the dissenters?
Photo by Oleg Nikishin/Epsilon/Getty Images

The official 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Fantasy portal has not opened yet, but with the competition less than a month away, it’s never too early to start previewing the groups. When the game does start, we will set up a Never Manage Alone “Beat the Bloggers” group. Don’t miss it!

Let us now delve into Group D — one that promises to feature a range of sought-after fantasy studs, fantasy smart picks, and A LOT of real-life eye candy. Argentina will feature its usual array of attacking super-duper stars, and Croatia will feature a dreamy midfield. Iceland will be the hipsters’ favorite squad, featuring my 2017-18 EPL fantasy favorite, the Icelandic Gudmunsson. Last but not least, Nigeria will give us the gift of some of the most exciting young wingers and wide attackers in world futbol. Let’s gooooooo!



FIFA Rank: #5

Betting odds to win: 8-1 (Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook)

Qualified via: Finished third in CONMEBOL (28 points) behind leader Brazil (41 points) and runner-up Uruguay (38 points). Argentina struggled throughout qualification and only guaranteed its World Cup spot by beating Ecuador 3-1 on the last day of CONMEBOL qualifiers.

Manager: Jorge Sampaoli

2014 World Cup Result: Runner up; lost to 1-0 to Germany in the Finals

Probable Formation: Unclear, could be 4-2-3-1 or 3 at the back with attacking wing backs, or a carbon-copy of Barcelona

As a native of Argentina, I am still heartbroken. First we lost the 1990 finals, then we suffered through a barren stretch (despite the many talents of Gabriel Batistuta), and then we lost the 2014 finals (no, I will not share a single video of any of the finals. None. Stop asking!). As much as I hate losing the finals, I’d settle for that this time round. Yes, Argentina feature an embarrassment of riches in attack. Yes, Argentina feature the world’s best player and, unarguably, the Greatest Of All Time (GOAT) in Lionel Messi. But, but, but: the midfield is a mess, and the defense is very vulnerable. If you follow Argentina, you’ve doubtless heard the refrain that this is a team of Messi and a bunch of individuals. The takeaway? It’s that this is a team that can be punished by coherent and clinical opponents such as Germany, Spain, or possibly Brazil. But if somehow the individuals gel into a team that plays like Barcelona, then a repeat visit to the finals cannot be ruled out.

With the list of 23 now confirmed, let’s take a quick look at Argentina by position:

Goalkeepers: [writer looks at the final list of keepers]...[writer feels the instant pangs of onset indigestion]...[writer excuses himself and takes a few moments to gather himself, once his composure is regained, he begins to type] ...the goalkeeping position for Argentina is not a cornerstone of strength in the foundation of this house. The list originally featured two EPL backups in Sergio Romero and Willy Caballero, plus Franco Armani, a player who has spent most his career in South America (albeit in very good form). Romero, who has just been ruled out of Russia due to a recurring knee injury, was the starter in 2010 and 2014. He will be replaced on the roster by Nahuel Guzman, a solid starter for Mexican giant Tigres UANL. While there is no consensus starter in Romero’s absence, it is possible that Armani, who does carry some eery Sergio-Goycochea-circa-1990 vibes, could get the nod ahead of a (very) rusty Caballero. None of these keepers shall ever be mistaken for David De Gea - but neither are they to be confused for Loris Karius!

Defenders: Slightly better than the keepers, where Nicolas Otamendi, who did well as a consistent starter for Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, is the “star”. He will likely start alongside Federico Fazio, whom Tottenham supporters will not remember fondly, but who did a good job for Roma this season. Beyond these two, pickings are slim. Ajax youngster Nicolas Tagliafico, Manchester United bench warmer Marcos Rojo, and Sevilla JAG (just another guy) Gabriel Mercado are vying for playing time. If Otamendi and Fazio gel and play solid defense, then Argentina could have a passable defensive record in the tournament. But if nerves creep in and they struggle for pace and vertical game, then we could see a horrible 6-1 or 7-1 elimination against ruthless opposition somewhere in the quarters or semis.

Midfielders: About as inspiring as the defenders. The Buenos Aires papers are saying that the three starters will be Lucas Biglia in the Sergio Busquets role, with PSG’s Giovani LoCelso and West Ham’s Manuel Lanzini in the Andres Iniesta and Ivan Rakitic roles. The alternatives are the walking dead figure of Javier Mascherano and the decidedly meh Ever Banega of Sevilla. The attacking thrust off the bench will be provided by the likes of Benfica’s Eduardo “Toto” Salvio, Sporting’s Marcos Acuna (both of whom can play wing back if needed) and Independiente’s relatively unknown Maximiliano Meza. All of this adds up to “good but not great”.



And there’s also Sergio Aguero (“El Kun”), Angel DiMaria (“El Fideo”), Gonzalo Higuain (“El Pipita”), Paulo Dybala (“La Joyita”) and, um, er, um Cristian Pavon?

Yep, Cristian Pavon — a kid who could start if you believe the Buenos Aires sports pages.

This is good. This is very good.

Argentina Players to Consider for Your Fantasy Teams

Messi the GOAT, duh. If he’s healthy, El Kun is a better, more complete player than he was in the last World Cup (please stop trolling Pep!) and FPL fans know how good he can be across fantasy formats. If you are looking for a sleeper pick, I submit for your consideration Manuel Lanzini. The experts in Buenos Aires seem to think his role will be huge for La Albiceleste — that of a puppet master pulling the play-maker strings for the stacked forward line. This will, in theory, keep Messi fresher as he will not need to backtrack to central midfield to recover the ball and initiate attacks. We’ll see, but we have definitely seen that Lanzini can be a fantasy asset for a West Ham team that does not feature anything like Messi, Kun, Fideo, Joyita or Pipita.

If you want to gamble on a defender, then Nicolas Otamendi is a proven FPL pick and should play an even more active role for Argentina — he’s also got a knack for scoring goals off set pieces, and Argentina will have Messi serving up those.



FIFA Rank: #18

Betting odds to win: 30-1 (Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook)

Qualified via: Play-off against Greece; finished second in its UEFA qualifier group behind World Cup group mate Iceland.

Manager: Zlatko Dalic

2014 World Cup Result: Group stage (1-0-2)

Probable Formation: 4-3-3 to take advantage of a sweet midfield; Mario Mandzukic is expected to lead the line.

No doubt about it, Croatia features a roster full of players who are key cogs in major clubs like Real Madrid, Barcelona, Internazionale and Juventus. This group, led by a nucleus of Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Ivan Perisic, Mario Mandzukic and Marcelo Brozovic is very, very good (some even refer to them as a golden generation). But, but, but: There is drama surrounding the team, and superstar Luka Modric is in the thick of it. It’s a long and convoluted story that I won’t get into, but you’re welcome to Google it to learn why Modric is not exactly embraced by many Croatian supporters despite being a world-class manimal for Real Madrid.

This Croatia team (aka “The Blazers”), by the way, is also rather unbalanced. The defense is okay, but it will have to rely on (Liverpool fans be forewarned)... (Liverpool fans please brace for impact)... Dejan Lovren. There is some talent on the defensive line that could trouble teams, mainly Atletico’s Sime Vrsaljko. But on the whole, the strength of the team is very much in midfield (hint: two of the three starters are key men for Real Madrid and Barcelona, and the third will likely be a star for Fiorentina). The attack is not the most balanced, with an aging (but still very, very good) Ivan Perisic flanking Juventus’ Mario Mandzukic. Wide players with pace is not something Croatia is blessed with, and it is very possible that Everton castoff Nikola Vlasic could get a good run in the XI if Dalic is serious about starting Mandzukic as the central striker.

In summary, The Blazers boast a plethora of world-class talent, but they have a history of underperforming and being less than the sum of their parts.

Croatia Players to Consider for Your Fantasy Teams

Rakitic and Modric are the main men, and they do have a history of scoring golazos for the national team (Rakitic has 14 in 90 caps, Modric 12 in 104). But if you are looking for goals, you need look no further than Super Mario Mandzukic (30 in 82). I am also a big fan of Perisic (17 in 64). If he starts, I also would not be disgusted at the thought of picking Dejan Lovren (sorry Liverpool supporters!), who has scored goals for both Liverpool and the national team.

For now, please enjoy the following presentation, featuring the genius of Luka Modric, the theatrics of Super Mario and the class of Perisic (he can cut a mean defense)!



FIFA Rank: #22

Betting odds to win: 200-1 (Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook)

Qualified via: Topped its group ahead of Croatia, Ukraine and Turkey

Manager: Heimir Hallgrimsson

2014 World Cup Result: Did not qualify

Probable Formation: 4-2-3-1

Congratulations to all 335,000 Icelanders for qualifying for your first ever World Cup. Welcome to the party. Can we get a Viking thunderclap please?

The Icelandic futbol story is a great one. In a nutshell, the entire country committed itself to greatness, beginning at the youth level, and this team is the inspiring result of that national effort. I highly recommend you check out their story in greater detail!

If you do not believe that Iceland (aka “Our Boys”) are a legitimately dangerous and tricky squad, just ask any England fan you know and love (Hint: our own Stall) about how successful England were against Iceland in Euro 2016 (Hint: not very). Out of respect for my friends in England, I will not show found footage of the massacre.

I think the Boys will definitely attract a lot of hipster attention. They are tall, strong, physical, and they play as a unit. They’re almost, kind of, like the futbol version of the Spartans from the 300 movie. But, but, but: They will not be that much fun to watch because they will play very organized and will look to park the bus against high-flying opponents. Unfortunately for Iceland, they drew a World Cup group that is chock-full of high-flying opponents.

Fortunately for them, however, they will enjoy a MASSIVE height advantage, and will play against A LOT of defenders who are suspect in the air (ahem, Nicolas Otamendi). With two set piece maestros (see the section below), they will score at least one goal where someone bullies a defender off a corner or free kick. Mark my words.

Iceland Players to Consider for Your Fantasy Teams

Premier League fantasy veteran managers will be very familiar with Iceland’s two best players: Everton midfield maestro Gylfi Sigurdsson and Burnley talisman Johann Berg Gudmunsson.

For our hipster friends who’ve adopted Iceland as their World Cup nation, here is all the evidence you need to become insufferably pedantic at your local craft brewery as you tell everyone how you’ve been Gettin’ Siggy Wit It for years:

And, my dear hipster “Icelandic” fanboys, here is some footage of my personal favorite fantasy footballer for 2017-18, Burnley’s Icelandic Gudmunsson:

Yup, he’s very good.

If I were to pick one, I’d side with the Icelandic Gudmunsson because The Artist Once Known as Siggy was injured for most of the second half of the Premier League season.

If it is a rugged defender you covet, then Ragnar Sigurdsson of Russian club Rostov is arguably your best bet. But back a fantasy defender against Argentina, Croatia and Nigeria at your own risk!



FIFA Rank: #47

Betting odds to win: 200-1 (Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook)

Qualified via: Topped its group ahead of Zambia, Cameroon and Algeria

Manager: Gernot Rohr

2014 World Cup Result: Lost to France in the Round of 16

Probable Formation: 4-3-3 to take advantage of a strong corps of wide attackers

A recurring nightmare for futbol managers the world over must be getting stung on a counter attack. Nigeria can be the boogeyman to make those nightmares come true. This youthful team is 100% built to shred teams on the counter — and they will make teams pay. Just take a look at what they did to Argentina in a 2017 “friendly” (amigos Argentinos, cierren los ojos por favor! Please close your eyes if you support Argentina, especially from the third minute onward!)

So, yeah, Nigeria’s Super Eagles can score. But, but, but: They cannot defend. More than most teams, they rely on two central defensive midfielders (think of the Sergio Busquets and N’Golo Kantes of the world, only not so good) to shield a nervy and young defense and a very inexperienced goalkeeping corps. The ageless John Obi Mikel will be tasked with linking the defense to the attackers, and this team relies heavily on Leicester’s Wilfred Ndidi to shield the defense. Unfortunately, Ndidi may or may not be healthy in time for the World Cup. Without him, Nigeria will suffer defensively. One thing is for sure, when you watch Nigeria you know there will be goals.

Nigeria Players to Consider for Your Fantasy Teams

This is all about the attacking talent, particularly wide attackers like Chelsea’s Victor Moses and Gunner Alex Iwobi. This team also features a young goals machine, Leicester and ex-Manchester City forward Kelechi Iheanacho. Premier League fans will also remember Watford’s goal-scoring sensation from 2015-16, Odion Ighalo, as well as Leicester reject Ahmed Musa, who is nevertheless fast and capable of shocking defenders.

If I were to pick from these Super Eagles, I really like Iwobi, Moses and Iheanacho if I’m looking to save money on attacking midfielders or forwards because I’ve spent all my funds on Messi.

In case you’ve forgotten about Iheanacho’s Manchester City days, he scored 12 goals in 47 (mostly substitute) appearances from 2015-17. Don’t believe me? Here’s proof!

And here is some evidence of just how scary Arsenal’s Iwobi can be on a good day:

Yup, when Nigeria plays, there will be goals!



Argentina should top this group, followed by Croatia. Or that’s what conventional wisdom tells us. Regular readers will know that I struggle with trusting conventional wisdom.

This Argentina team makes me very, very, very nervous. It’s one of the oldest teams in the tournament, with something like two-thirds of the roster over the age of 30. It is also an injured group with Biglia (bad back), Kun (bad knee), Mercado (bad back muscle), and Mascherano (walking dead) among the big names affected. I don’t know what to think or what to expect. I think it could be a disaster similar to Spain in 2014 when the old and new generations didn’t mesh, and things imploded. Or, Messi proves 100% he’s the GOAT and Argentina win it all.

Croatia is in a similar position. The names are all golden, but the squad is unbalanced, and there are some internal politics that could badly affect play.

The Argentina vs Croatia match will feature a ton of world stars from all of the super clubs — definitely the pick of the round if you’re only watching one game from this group.

Iceland could surprise the way they did in the Euros and squeak past one of Argentina or Croatia.

And last but not least, Nigeria is a team that can win any game 5-3.

The Iceland — Nigeria match will be fascinating for globalization nerds: with 195 million, Nigeria’s population is 577 times greater than Iceland’s (!!!!).

All in all, methinks this group has potential to be the Group of Death in Russia 2018. It is Group D after all! D for Death!

Final, final verdict (until I change my mind again): 1. Argentina; 2. Croatia; 3. Nigeria; 4. Iceland

How do you expect this group to turn out? Are there any players from Group D you are planning to put in your fantasy teams? Is there anybody else you have your eye on aside from those mentioned above? Let us know in the comments!