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2018 FIFA World Cup Russia: Group G Preview

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It’s England and then some other teams. OK, it’s Belgium, Tunisia, Panama and the Three Lions.  What teams are expected to advance? (Hint: Where was the “beautiful game” invented?) Which players should be on your fantasy radar?

Three Lions - England - Group G - FIFA World Cup
Ready to roar
Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

Please allow me to be a little biased. Belgium is the group seed and comfortable favorite, but the group is all about England for this writer. However, professional approach and all, I will preview the whole group including those other three teams playing to shatter Englishmen’s dreams.

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Belgium

Fifa Rank: 3

Qualified via: Belgium won a group ahead of Greece, Bosnia, Estonia, Cyprus and Gibraltar

Manager - Roberto Martinez

2014 World Cup Result: Lost to Argentina in QF

Probable Formation: 4-2-3-1

Belgium breezed through qualification with some eye-catching statistics: 9 wins and a draw in 10 games played with 43 goals scored and only 6 conceded. Along the way they equaled Germany’s all-time record for qualification goals scored. Lukaku hit 11 of the 43 goals, finishing top goalscorer in qualification.

The squad announcement has seen Radja Nainggolan not selected. An all-round midfield player at his peak, not selecting him was a statement move by the manager. Martinez has stood firm against public support for the player.

Belgium have preferred to partner Kevin De Bruyne alongside Axel WItsel in central midfield, but KDB has been vocal about Belgium’s tactics, calling them “very defensive”. His statement was made after a 3-3 draw with Mexico last November and were based on Belgium securing only 44% of possession in the game (rather than on not committing players forward). KDB said,

“Mexico were just tactically better. Their system made our five defenders sit deep and we were swimming in midfield – it was five against seven. We are playing a system that is very defensive, but filled with many attacking players who want the ball. Then you get a bit of a problem, like on Friday against Mexico, a match in which we had very little ball possession and everyone in a system that does not really suit. We now know that something has to be changed against these teams.”

Not taking Nainggloan will limit the options to balance the midfield. A further concern is the squad weakness in depth with defensive areas. In the Mexico game, a 5-3-2 system saw Nacer Chadli and Thomas Meunier (who is a forward) play as wingbacks. Chadli will likely lose his place to Yannick Carrasco, himself a winger. The squad lacks full back and wingbacks, also reducing the tactical flexibility open to Martinez. In central areas, as in 2014 and Euro 2016, Toby Alderweireld, Vincent Kompany, Thomas Vermaelen and Jan Vertonghen remain the only quality defenders available. Injuries to any will cause problems.

It’s a team full of attacking talent with plenty of experience. But they’re under pressure, as it may be the last World Cup for a number of players. In a group made for them to prosper, they’ll be attractive in the group stages at least.

Players to consider for your fantasy teams

Thibaut Courtois

Courtois has been criticized for making mistakes, but he is the clear 1st keeper. You will be wanting back-to-back cleans sheets in the opening two games (before England run rampant on him in game three).

Jan Vertonghen

Taking the view that the Tottenham defender is the fittest, most injury resistant defender in the squad, he gets the nod. Scorer of 8 international goals, he could score well at both ends of the pitch before being hit by a HuriKane in game three.

Marouane Fellanini

Manchester United plan B is also Belgium’s plan B. Likely a sub in match one, he will get minutes in each game.

Eden Hazard

Hazard is at the stage of his career where he is ready to put himself in the running for a Ballon Dor. That may not mean leaving Chelsea (as many suggest), but a huge World Cup can be the starting point. So calm in possession, he has been made Belgium captain. 21 goals in 83 games for his country, his direct running and pace will be a nightmare for all of the group opponents.

Romelu Lukaku

The United frontman just scores goals, scoreing many of them against overmatched opposition. 33 goals in 66 games makes him Belgium’s all-time leading goal scorer. He will bully Panama and Tunisia, and it would not surprise me to see him end the group in the running for the golden boot.

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England

Fifa Rank: 13

Qualified via: England won a group ahead of Slovenia, Scotland, Slovakia and Lithuania

Manager - Gareth Southgate

2014 World Cup Result: Crashed out of Group-D with just one measly point

Probable Formation: 3-5-1-1

England’s international results have become a pattern, one not to shout about. To start, make straightforward work of their qualification group, building the home fans expectations, before ending the summer tournament in humiliation. Euro 2016 continued the pattern when England froze against a plucky Iceland and their viking war chant.

This campaign started with Sam Allardyce losing the managing job. The FA then went with the safe solution by promoting under-21 manger Gareth Southagte to the senior side. At first glance it seemed the FA had put their own man in the role. Thankfully, Southgate has already proven himself to be anything but a follow-the-rules man.

Compared to summers experienced since probably 1996, it’s a very different set of circumstances for the English national side this year. For the first time in a generation, the weight of expectation from media and fans isn’t falling on either managers’ or players’ shoulders. True enough, qualification into the round of 16 is still expected after the World Cup draw was made, but talk of winning the event is almost nonexistent. Southgate has even used the term “dark horses” when discussing his team’s chances. In previous years, he may have been ridiculed for such realistic statements.

The idea that we are not serious contenders this summer isn’t a negative thought. It’s actually the part of a plan towards medium to long-term success that follows the wonderful results of the under 17’s, under 20 ‘s and under 21’s in the last few years. These youth setups (with which Southgate has been heavily involved) have based their sides around universal systems of play with the basic principle of keeping possession. Just that simple progression of keeping possession demonstrates the realisation that the teams who tend to win competitions also tend to control possession.

As said, Southgate has shown himself to be a man able to make tough decisions. Normal business for an England manager is to pick the players based on reputation, pick them based on what they should achieve or what they have achieved years ago rather than what they are achieving now. Joe Hart and Jack Wilshere not even selected in the squad raised eyebrows. TV / radio interviews with ex-professional players were almost universal in their view that Hart must go to the World Cup as the No1 keeper. Listen to any fan phone-in, and you hear the opposite view. I really cannot remember a player that created such diverging views between the two camps.

My memory of Joe for England was as a nervous keeper who made elementary mistakes in both the 2014 World Cup and Euro 2016. At 31 years of age and 75 caps he should be in his prime at both club and international level. The warning signs were shown to him by Pep at Manchester City, and now Southgate has given an even clearer statement. The 2018/19 season showed that Hart is on a slide. Not only did he fail to hold down a 1st team place at West Ham, but he conceded 39 goals in 19 games this season. It’s a moment for Hart to contemplate, accept and correct the issues that have brought him here. It remains to be seen if he can get to acceptance.

As for Jack, after a bright start to the season and less time missed due to injury, he has dropped off in form and fitness post-Christmas.

England head into the competition with their youngest ever World Cup squad. Only three players are over 30: Gary Cahill, Jamie Vardy and Ashley Young. Big names are younger, like Dele Alli at 22, Raheem Sterling 23, and Harry Kane 24. Only 11 players from Euro 2016 have made it into the 2018 World Cup squad. Many of the squad have been involved with England’s youth setups and have played summer competitions with success. England players have looked like rabbits in headlights for too long, watching them play a competition without fear would be a nice change.

Players to consider for your fantasy teams

Kyle Walker

In the last set of friendlies, Southgate played Walker as one of the back three with positive success. Walker is a player of experience who is on an emotional high after winning the Premier League title. Walker provides the pace in defense, and with Kieran Trippier playing in the wing back role, Walker can even rotate positions during the game.

John Stones

With Southgate’s possession game intentions, the defense is being built around Stones’ potential. Still only 23, he does make mistakes, many of which are thanks to his confidence with the ball. That will improve, and he will be expected to start attacks from deep.

Raheem Sterling

He isn’t playing for England with the quality that he does weekly, but he is the one element of pace in the England attack. He seems most likely to be given a central role behind Kane, so we could see him run in behind the forward as he did at club level in 2017-18. If classed as a midfield player, his value increases.

Harry Kane

I have to include the captain and goal machine, but with a warning: England’s weakness has been with the creative side of their game. Kane will likely take the chances given him, but it remains to be seen if the national side can provide many chances against the parked buses typical of so many national sides.

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Tunisia

Fifa Rank: 14

Qualified via: Tunisia won their group ahead of DR Congo, Libya and Guinea.

Manager: Nabil Maaloul

2014 World Cup Result: Did not qualify.

Probable Formation: 4-5-1

The side have suffered the biggest possible blow with star player Youssef Msakni missing out due to injury. As important to Tunisia as Mo Salah is to Egypt, he will be a huge absence.

The side are set up to defend and take a safety-first approach, making them awkward to break down. Their high-energy midfield will look to stifle the Belgian and English sides, but it also comes with some skillful footballers who will see the final group game (against Panama) as one to be more positive with the ball.

One of the most organized African sides with a strong domestic league, Tunisia’s advancement into the round of 16 is big challenge, likely needing them to get a point or more in game one.

Players to consider for your fantasy teams

Ali Maaloul

If you fancy Tunisia to hold England to a nil nil draw in game one and beat Panama in game 3, then you may like Maaloul as a squad filler. The left back is often seen attacking from deep. Yet to score for his nation, he has 56 goals for his club.

Wahbi Khazri

A player many of you are very familiar with, the Sunderland man has 12 goals in 56 international games. He may play as a false nine, and in game one he will likely have a spark in him against England.

Taha Yassine Khenissi

The other choice to lead the line, Kenissi has 22 goals in 42 league games since 2015, 5 in 20 for Tunisia. At 26, he is coming into his prime.

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Panama

Fifa Rank: 55

Qualified Via: Panama came 3rd behind Mexico and Costa Rica, dumping the US out of the tournament

Manager Hernan: Dario Gomez

2014 World Cup Result: Did not qualify

Probable Formation: 4-5-1

An extremely experienced squad with many of their first team over 30. Style-wise, the plan is to stay organized and then launch attacks on the counter. Their lack of pace may cause them problems at both ends of the pitch.

Just making it to the World Cup is a wonderful achievement (for them, not the USA), and they really are there just to enjoy themselves, which they seem sure to do.

Players to consider for your fantasy teams

Roman Torres

A player who, by playing for the Seattle Sounders, will be familiar to those who follow the MLS. Defender Torres has 10 goals in 109 international games and scored the goal that took his country to Russia.

Michael Murillo

One more fans of the MLS will know. 22 year old right back Murillo will support the side when the get in the oppositions half. Murillo has 2 goals in 21 international games.

Blas Perez

The player who will lead the line as a solo forward, Perez has 43 goals in 116 games. Age 37, he may not last the 90 minutes.

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What may happen

Theoretically, Belgium should win the group by goal difference or with three straight wins. Lukaku is a bully who will have a much better supply line of chances for Belgium than he receives at club level, so he is a great option for the group stage. I’m not sure I would carry him into the knockout games where opposition levels ramp up. The target for Belgium will be QF minimum and take it from there.

England are very strongly fancied for second place. With 9 clean sheets in their last 11 games, and having scored only 18 goals in their 10 qualifiers (6 of those against woeful Malta), it could be their defensive players that offer the most value in the group stages.

The opening group game is critical. Tunisia are good enough to make it hard (Tunisia are unbeaten in 8 games so won’t be as easy a game-one for England as they appear). The longer England don’t lead, the tougher that game becomes. Still, we expect to make it to the round of 16, which will likely offer a 50/50 game. If we reach a QF, it will almost certainly be the end of this competition. Going beyond the QF will see Southgate become the most popular England Manager in living memory, certain to be knighted and nominated for sainthood (for the miracle, right?). The country would lose its mind and believe in glory... like maybe we could win this thing.

Stall

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What teams do you expect to advance? Which players are on your fantasy radar? Do you have any questions about this group? Please talk to us in the comments below!