Teams (world ranking in brackets): Argentina (5), Iceland (22), Croatia (20), Nigeria (48)
Argentina vs Iceland, Otkritie Arena, Moscow
Croatia vs Nigeria, Kaliningrad Stadium, Kaliningrad
Argentina vs Croatia, Nizhny Novgorod Stadium, Nizhny Novgorod
Nigeria vs Iceland, Volgograd Arena, Volgograd
Nigeria vs Argentina, Krestovsky Stadium, Saint Petersburg
Iceland vs Croatia, Rostov Arena, Rostov-on-Don
Head Coach: Jorge Sampaoli
Captain: Lionel Messi
Previous Appearances: 16 (1930, 1934, 1958, 1962, 1966, 1974, 1978, 1982, 1986, 1990, 1994, 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010, 2014)
Best Finish: Champions (1978, 1986)
Qualified: CONMEBOL, 3rd
Qualification Top Scorer: Lionel Messi (7)
Goalkeepers: 1. Nahuel Guzmán (UANL), 12. Franco Armani (River Plate), 23. Willy Caballero (Chelsea).
Defenders: 2. Gabriel Mercado (Sevilla), 3. Nicolás Tagliafico (Ajax), 4. Christian Ansaldi (Torino), 6. Federico Fazio (Roma), 8. Marcos Acuña (Sporting), 14. Javier Mascherano (Hebei China Fortune), 16. Marcos Rojo (Manchester United), 17. Nicolás Otamendi (Manchester City).
Midfielders: 5. Lucas Biglia (Milan), 7. Éver Banega (Sevilla), 11. Ángel Di María (Paris Saint-Germain), 13. Maximiliano Meza (Independiente), 15. Manuel Lanzini (West Ham United), 18. Eduardo Salvio (Benfica), 20. Giovani Lo Celso (Paris Saint-Germain), 22. Cristian Pavón (Boca Juniors).
Forwards: 9. Gonzalo Higuaín (Juventus), 10. Lionel Messi (Barcelona), 19. Sergio Agüero (Manchester City), 21. Paulo Dybala (Juventus).
Lionel Messi celebrates after sealing Argentina’s World Cup berth with a hat-trick against Ecuador. Messi is Argentina’s star, and plays a big role in all their success.
Argentina just did enough to make it through a hotly-contested South American qualifying group, with a final day Lionel Messi hat-trick eventually sealing a spot in Russia for Jorge Sampaoli’s team. Now they’re here, they will be a formidable opponent. The brilliant Messi leads what could be the most potent attack in the tournament, with Manchester City’s Sergio Agüero and Juventus stars Gonzalo Higuaín and Paulo Dybala all excellent goal-scorers in their own right. Ángel Di María is a skilful presence in midfield, and he will receive support from quality playmakers like Giovani Lo Celso, Cristian Pavón and Manuel Lanzini. Lucas Biglia and Éver Banega are solid players in central midfield, and the combination of a quality midfield and dynamic attack should be a fruitful one in Russia. Defensively, Nicolás Otamendi is coming off an excellent season in the Premier League, and he should combine well with Federico Fazio, Gabriel Mercado, Marcos Rojo and the experienced Javier Mascherano. The Argentinians have plenty of quality, and they will be a very tough team to beat.
There are, however, a few issues that Jorge Sampaoli will need to fix. The team has been overly reliant on Messi, and their qualifying campaign was riddled with inconsistency. Aside from Messi, no Argentinian scored more than two goals in qualifying, with neither Dybala nor Agüero scoring any goals at all. This lack of quality support for the captain was reflected in Argentina’s poor returns, with their haul of 19 goals in 18 games the equal second-worst in qualifying (tied with Paraguay and last-placed Venezuela). Considering the abundance of attacking options at Sampaoli’s disposal, this marks a concerning trend that will need to be turned around. The defence may be a more pressing concern, with Argentina still lacking quality full-backs and displaying a concerning tendency for defensive breakdowns. These issues will be exacerbated by an injury to first-choice goalkeeper Sergio Romero, and they could derail Argentina’s campaign if not fixed.
Star Player: Lionel Messi
Messi is the undisputed star of Argentina’s side, and he is at the centre of almost all of their success. He has scored more goals for the national team than any other player, and his scoring output for La Albiceleste has remarkably increased in the last few years. He has pace and incredible technical ability, and he is almost certain to perform well on the big stage.Embed from Getty Images
Nicolás Otamendi controls the ball during a pre-tournament friendly against Haiti. Otamendi has become Argentina’s best defender, and will need to perform if they are to make a deep run in Russia.
Key Player: Nicolás Otamendi
Argentina have had defensive issues for some time, and Otamendi will play a key role in ensuring these problems do not plague their tournament. Since his non-selection for the last World Cup the experienced central defender has improved and was a key part of the Manchester City side that won the Premier League this season. If he can maintain that form, Argentina will be able to thrive.
One to watch: Cristian Pavón
Pavón is one of just three members of Sampaoli’s squad under the age of 25, and the 22-year-old has the potential to make an impact in Russia. He has good skills and plenty of pace, and his ability to play on either wing should allow him to be a handy option off the bench. He is still relatively unknown outside of Argentina, and this World Cup could be a chance to announce himself on the world stage.
Argentina are not perfect, but if their attack is on song it is good enough to paper over the rest of the cracks. They aren’t guaranteed to progress from a competitive group, but with Messi on their side they should be alright.
Likely Team (4-2-3-1): Caballero; Mercado, Fazio, Otamendi, Tagliafico; Biglia, Lo Celso; Dybala, Messi, Di María; Agüero.
Head Coach: Heimir Hallgrimsson
Captain: Aron Gunnarsson
Previous Appearances: None
Best Finish: N/A
Qualified: UEFA, 1st Group I
Qualification Top Scorer: Gylfi Sigurðsson
Goalkeepers: 1. Hannes þór Halldórsson (Randers), 12. Frederik Schram (Roskilde), 13. Rúnar Alex Rúnarsson (Nordsjælland).
Defenders: 2. Birkir Már Sævarsson (Valur), 3. Samúel Friðjónsson (Vålerenga), 5. Sverrir Ingi Ingason (Rostov), 6. Ragnar Sigurðsson (Rostov), 14. Kári Árnason (Aberdeen), 15. Hólmar Örn Eyjólfsson (Levski Sofia), 18. Hörður Björgvin Magnússon (Bristol City), 23. Ari Freyr Skúlason (Lokeren).
Midfielders: 4. Albert Guðmundsson (PSV Eindhoven), 7. Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson (Burnley), 8. Birkir Bjarnason (Aston Villa), 10. Gylfi Sigurðsson (Everton), 16. Ólafur Ingi Skúlason (Kardemir Karabükspor), 17. Aron Gunnarsson (Cardiff City), 19. Rúrik Gíslason (Sandhausen), 20. Emil Hallfreðsson (Udinese), 21. Arnór Ingvi Traustason (Malmö).
Forwards: 9. Björn Bergmann Sigurðarson (Rostov), 11. Alfreð Finnbogason (Augsburg), 22. Jón Daði Böðvarsson (Reading).
Iceland were the fairytale story of Euro 2016, and they will be looking to make a similar run in their first appearance at the World Cup. The tiny North Atlantic island (with a population of just 350 thousand) progressed from a tough qualifying group to become the smallest nation to qualify for the World Cup finals, and they shouldn’t be underestimated. Their dream run at the Euros, including a stunning second round knockout of England, was built around excellent discipline and a very strong defensive structure. Ragnar Sigurðsson and Kári Árnason are solid centre-backs, and goalkeeper Hannes þór Halldórsson played the tournament of his life at the Euros and is an experienced player. Aside from providing an unlikely attacking threat with his monstrous throw-ins, captain Aron Gunnarsson is a solid presence in midfield, and wingers Birkir Bjarnason and Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson are dangerous in attack. With Gylfi Sigurðsson providing some class in midfield and Alfreð Finnbogason providing a dangerous scoring option, Iceland are a well-oiled unit who may just have what it takes to get through.
Captain Aron Gunnarsson (centre) leads Iceland players in celebration after their Euro 2016 win over England. Iceland made it to the quarter-finals of the Euros with their dogged defence, and they have excellent team spirit.
The World Cup, however, is a tougher ask than the Euros. They have been battling injury issues in the lead-up to the tournament, with main striker Kolbeinn Sigþórsson missing with a knee injury and key players Gunnarsson, Finnbogason and Gylfi Sigurðsson all battling various complaints. Their eventual elimination from the Euros, coming in the form of an emphatic 5-2 defeat to hosts France, shows that they will struggle against stronger opponents in spite of their discipline, and their natural style of conceding possession and sitting back could leave them vulnerable. Iceland’s depth is not great, and while they have some quality players they are generally less skilled than their group stage opponents, something which could become an issue in big moments. They can be trusted to fight hard, and Heimir Hallgrimsson’s structure is very sound, but their lack of quality across the park is likely to prove their undoing in the end.
Star Player: Gylfi Sigurðsson
Sigurðsson is Iceland’s only truly world-class player, attracting a club-record fee when he moved from Swansea City to Everton at the start of the season. He is a hard-working midfielder who fits Iceland’s system well, and his ability to pop up with goals and assists in big moments will be invaluable in Russia. He is a quality player, and Iceland desperately need him to be fit and firing.Embed from Getty Images
Gylfi Sigurðsson (front), Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson (centre) and Birkir Bjarnason celebrate Guðmundsson’s qualifying goal against Kosovo. Sigurðsson is the team’s star, but wingers Bjarnason and Guðmundsson will also play a key role.
Key Player: Aron Gunnarsson
Gunnarsson is the other half of Iceland’s central midfield pairing, and while he is not as skilled as Sigurðsson he will be just as important. Gunnarsson has plenty of experience, and his physical play in the middle forms a key part of the Icelandic game plan. His long throw-ins, which tripped up the English during the Euros, allow Iceland extra attacking opportunities, something which could come in handy in tough games.
One to watch: Albert Guðmundsson
Guðmundsson comes from impressive footballing pedigree. He is a fourth generation Icelandic international, and his great-grandfather was Iceland’s first professional footballer. Now, the 20-year-old can forge his own reputation, and the PSV youth product has the talent to make an impact on the world stage. He is likely to be used off the bench, but he can find the back of the net and will be a good option for Hallgrimsson.
The odds are stacked against Iceland making it through to the second round, but the same could have been said before the Euros. They are a disciplined group and shouldn’t be written off.
Likely Team (4-4-2): Halldórsson; Sævarsson, R Sigurðsson, Árnason, Magnússon; J Guðmundsson, Gunnarsson, G Sigurðsson, Bjarnason; Finnbogason, Boðvarsson.
Head Coach: Zlatko Dalić
Captain: Luka Modrić
Previous Appearances: 4 (1998, 2002, 2006, 2014)
Best Finish: Third Place (1998)
Qualified: UEFA, 2nd Group I (beat Greece in play-offs)
Qualification Top Scorer: Mario Mandžukić (5)
Goalkeepers: 1. Dominik Livaković (Dinamo Zagreb), 12. Lovre Kalinić (Gent), 23. Danijel Subašić (Monaco).
Defenders: 2. Šime Vrsaljko (Atlético Madrid), 3. Ivan Strinić (Sampdoria), 5. Vedran Ćorluka (Lokomotiv Moscow), 6. Dejan Lovren (Liverpool), 13. Tin Jedvaj (Bayer Leverkusen), 15. Duje Ćaleta-Car (Red Bull Salzburg), 21. Domagoj Vida (Beşiktaş), 22. Josip Pivarić (Dynamo Kyiv).
Midfielders: 4. Ivan Perišić (Internazionale), 7. Ivan Rakitić (Barcelona), 8. Mateo Kovačić (Real Madrid), 10. Luka Modrić (Real Madrid), 11. Marcelo Brozović (Internazionale), 14. Filip Bradarić (Rijeka), 19. Milan Badelj (Fiorentina).
Forwards: 9. Andrej Kramarić (Hoffenheim), 16. Nikola Kalinić (Milan), 17. Mario Mandžukić (Juventus), 18. Ante Rebić (Eintracht Frankfurt), 20. Marko Pjaca (Schalke).
Croatia didn’t take a particularly smooth road to Russia, with Group D opponents Iceland edging them out and forcing them into a play-off to Greece. To their credit, they went on to blow their opponents away in Zagreb, a 4-1 win in the first leg all but sealing their passage. The Croats have players from the biggest clubs in Europe all over the park, especially through the middle. Real Madrid star Luka Modrić is a genius with the ball at his feet, and the diminutive playmaker will be complemented well by Ivan Rakitić, Mateo Kovačić, Milan Badelj and Marcelo Brozović. Ivan Perišić is always a dangerous player on the wing, and Juventus youngster Marko Pjaca has the pace and skill to make an impact. Mario Mandžukić leads the line with support from Nikola Kalinić and Andrej Kramarić, meaning there should be no shortage of goals. They only conceded four goals in qualifying, and with experienced centre-back Dejan Lovren and goalkeeper Danijel Subašić leading the defence they should be a hard team to break down.
Ivan Perišić chases the ball during a qualifying match against Ukraine. Perišić is a dangerous winger who knows how to find the back of the net, and he adds an extra edge to Croatia’s attack.
Unfortunately for Zlatko Dalić and Croatia, the quality on the park doesn’t guarantee success. Their failure to qualify automatically was a disappointment, and Ante Čačić was removed as coach days before a crucial clash with Ukraine after a home draw with Finland jeopardised their campaign. Čačić was unpopular in the dressing room and with the fans, and it’s not clear whether his hurried replacement can avoid a similar fate and get the best out of the players. If he can’t, the results could be disastrous. Their defence could prove a weakness in Russia, and centre-backs Lovren and Domagoj Vida have been prone to defensive lapses in the past. A repeat of such errors in a competitive group could prove incredibly costly for Dalić’s side. For all their attacking quality, they only managed 15 goals in their qualifying group, another sign that all may not be well within the Croatian team. If they reach their potential, they are good enough to go a long way, but its not clear which Croatia will show up.
Star Player: Luka Modrić
Modrić is as influential as any midfielder in the world at the moment, and the diminutive playmaker will be a crucial part of Croatia’s World Cup campaign. He is the kind of player who has it all: he is calm under pressure, rarely makes a mistake in possession and never avoids his defensive duties. His exploits have been an underrated part of Real Madrid’s three consecutive Champions League titles, and Croatia will rely on his brilliance in Russia.Embed from Getty Images
Luka Modrić celebrates after scoring in Croatia’s play-off clash with Greece. Modrić has won four Champions League titles with Real Madrid, and is the main cog in the Croatian midfield.
Key Player: Dejan Lovren
Lovren has been a key part of Liverpool’s defence for the last four seasons, and it is remarkable that he has only managed 37 caps in a 10-year career with the national team. Although non-selections such as his omission for Euro 2016 were driven by a poor relationship with Čačić, he has not always been the consistent defender Croatia wanted him to be. In Russia, he has a chance to change that, and if he plays well they will be hard to beat.
One to watch: Marko Pjaca
Pjaca has gone from strength to strength since getting a chance with the national team at Euro 2016. A brilliant performance against Spain earned him a move to Juventus, and his ability to beat opponents allows him to create plenty of chances from either wing. In a settled Croatian side he is unlikely to start despite his versatility, but he could be a handful as an impact player off the bench.
Croatia have plenty of quality, and stars like Modrić are certain to perform, but has Dalić got what it takes to bring the best out of his squad? We’ll see, but Croatia definitely have what it takes to survive – and potentially thrive – in a tough group.
Likely Team (4-2-3-1): Subašić; Vrsaljko, Lovren, Vida, Strinić; Rakitić, Badelj; Kramarić, Modrić, Perišić; Mandžukić.
Head Coach: Gernot Rohr
Captain: John Obi Mikel
Previous Appearances: 5 (1994, 1998, 2002, 2010, 2014)
Best Finish: Round of 16 (1994, 1998, 2014)
Qualified: CAF, 1st Group B
Qualification Top Scorer: Victor Moses (3)
Goalkeepers: 1. Ikechukwu Ezenwa (Enyimba), 16. Daniel Akpeyi (Chippa United), 23. Francis Uzoho (Deportivo La Coruña).
Defenders: 2. Brian Idowu (Amkar Perm), 3. Elderson Echiéjilé (Cercle Brugge), 5. William Troost-Ekong (Bursaspor), 6. Leon Balogun (Mainz), 12. Shehu Abdullahi (Bursaspor), 20. Chidozie Awaziem (Nantes), 21. Tyronne Ebuehi (ADO Den Haag), 22. Kenneth Omeruo (Kasımpaşa).
Midfielders: 4. Wilfred Ndidi (Leicester City), 8. Oghenekaro Etebo (Las Palmas), 10. John Obi Mikel (Tianjin TEDA), 11. Victor Moses (Chelsea), 15. Joel Obi (Torino), 17. Ogenyi Onazi (Trabzonspor), 18. Alex Iwobi (Arsenal), 19. John Ogu (Hapoel Be’er Sheva).
Forwards: 7. Ahmed Musa (CSKA Moscow), 9. Odion Ighalo (Changchun Yatai), 13. Simeon Nwankwo (Crotone), 14. Kelechi Iheanacho (Leicester City).
When the qualifying draw pitted Nigeria against Algeria, Cameroon and Zambia, it looked like Gernot Rohr’s men were in for a tough fight. Instead, the Nigerians cruised through to book their spot in Russia, with their only “loss” coming when they fielded an ineligible player. They will face a harder task at the World Cup, having drawn Argentina once again (the sides also faced off in 1994, 2002, 2010 and 2014). Rohr has, however, put together a side that can take it up to the world’s best. Odion Ighalo, Kelechi Iheanacho and Ahmed Musa are all quick and dangerous strikers, and Premier League duo Alex Iwobi and Victor Moses will be dangerous on the wings. John Obi Mikel has plenty of top-level experience, including 11 seasons with Chelsea, and the captain will combine well with Wilfred Ndidi, Oghenekaro Etebo and Ogenyi Onazi. Down back, Leon Balogun is a quality central defender, and he marshals a strong defence which conceded just four times in qualifying against some quality attacking players.
John Obi Mikel (centre) chases the ball in Nigeria’s clash with Argentina at the 2014 World Cup. Nigeria have been drawn against Argentina in all but one of their World Cups, in 1998.
Nigeria may be a strong side and a very tough opponent in Russia, but they are not without issues, especially on the defensive end. The Super Eagles have major issues in goal, where the international retirement of Vincent Enyeama has left a hole that is still yet to be filled. First-choice Ikechukwu Ezenwa has fallen out of favour with Rohr and 19-year-old Francis Uzoho is likely to take the gloves in Russia. Uzoho is currently playing in Deportivo La Coruña’s second team, and it is not clear how he will perform under pressure at the World Cup, and the uncertainty around the position could come back to bite them during the tournament. Aside from centre-backs Balogun and William Troost-Ekong it is not clear who is in Rohr’s best back four, another issue that will need to be sorted out if the Super Eagles are to fly. If they can fix their problems they will be a formidable opponent, but a tough group means there is no time to warm into the campaign.
Star Player: Alex Iwobi
It’s hard to pinpoint one player as the best on this Nigerian team, but Iwobi’s goals against big opponents suggest he could be the hero at this World Cup. The 22-year-old has been getting regular game time with Arsenal, and in recent times he scored a brace against group stage opponents Argentina and a goal at Wembley against the English. He is a quality player on the wing, and could have a big impact in Russia.
Alex Iwobi (left) battles for the ball during Nigeria’s friendly with England. Iwobi is a dangerous winger who can pierce defences and will play a big role for the Super Eagles in Russia.
Key Player: Leon Balogun
Balogun, along with Troost-Ekong, has been one of the only constant elements in Rohr’s defence, and Nigeria will need the physically imposing centre-back to stand up if they are to progress in this tournament. He has plenty of experience at the highest level, and the Super Eagles will hope that experience shines through on the big stage.
One to watch: Oghenekaro Etebo
Etebo was named CAF young player of the year in 2015, but the 22-year-old is still yet to fulfil his immense potential. He hasn’t quite pinned down one position as his best yet, but he mixes attacking talent with defensive work ethic and can play anywhere from attacking midfield to right-back. In Russia, he could be the midfielder the Super Eagles are looking for, and he has the chance to announce himself as a future star.
Nigeria are a strong side, with plenty of exciting talents and quality players. Questions remain about their defence, however, and they may just get edged out by stronger opponents. They will be interesting to watch.
Likely Team (4-3-3): Uzoho; Idowu, Balogun, Troost-Ekong, Abdullahi; Etebo, Mikel, Ndidi; Moses, Ighalo, Iwobi.
Will Iceland be able to repeat their Euro 2016 heroics? Will Argentina’s reliance on Lionel Messi cost them in the end? Can Zlatko Dalić get the best out of an extremely talented Croatian side? What will Nigeria bring to the table? These are just some of the many questions raised by this extremely tight group, where a slip by any one of the four sides could prove costly. On talent, Argentina and Croatia should progress, but both have lingering doubts surrounding their sides that could impact their performance. As for the others, Nigeria beat the Argentinians a few months ago, and Iceland did finish ahead of Croatia in their qualifying group. If Argentina were to miss out it would be surprising, but not entirely unprecedented. With all these unanswered questions, one thing’s for sure: Group D will be fascinating to watch.
1. Croatia, 2. Argentina, 3. Nigeria, 4. Iceland