Dominant Mbappé sends Argentina packing

When Argentina’s round of 16 clash with France was confirmed a few days ago, there was plenty of excitement. Neither side had quite hit their peak in the group stage, but the idea of two international powerhouses going toe-to-toe was an enticing one. The match delivered, in every way. There were goals. Seven of them, to be exact, with a couple of classic strikes thrown into the mix. There was tension and late drama, and, sealing the deal, there was an individual performance from a number 10 which broke the game open and delivered a stunning victory. Unfortunately for Argentina, it wasn’t their number 10 who did the damage.

Lionel Messi, Argentina’s number 10 wearing star player, captain and talismanic goal scorer, was the man Argentina needed to step up if they were to beat the French. They were relying on him to take the game by the scruff of the neck and deliver an Argentinian victory. Much like a young and talented Messi, Kylian Mbappé went into the game with a reputation as a precocious talent. Blessed with pace, skill and an eye for goal, the 19-year-old was playing his first knockout game in his first World Cup, and he stole the show. In two stunning blitzes, Mbappé created three of France’s four goals, and announced himself as the real deal (if there was any doubt before) with a devastating performance.

Mbappé started the game strongly, with an blitz that threatened to knock Argentina out before they had a chance to get into the game. It was his pace that did the trick. Whenever he got the ball, he didn’t bother controlling it. He just knocked the ball forward and ran, making the Argentinian defenders look pedestrian as he hit top speed. Early on, he won a free-kick just outside the box with a dangerous run, and France nearly scored as Antoine Griezmann struck his shot straight into the bar. It was a sign of things to come.

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Ángel Di María celebrates after equalising with an incredible long shot. The 30-yard effort took France by surprise, and heralded Argentina’s best period of the match.

The goal followed soon after, as Mbappé picked off a lazy pass in his own half and took off. Argentina couldn’t catch him. He left their defenders for dead as he burst through the middle of the field at tremendous speed, running at them like a one man battering ram. Marcos Rojo, whose late goal allowed Argentina to qualify for the round of 16, barred his way. Mbappé just smashed the ball out in front of him, relying on his momentum and stunning pace to win the ball back in the box. He never got that far as Rojo brutally halted his progress, sending him crashing to the turf and giving France a penalty. Griezmann made no mistake from the spot. A few minutes later, Mbappé was at it again, latching on to a quickly-taken free-kick from Paul Pogba and winning another foul, this time just outside the box. He seemed unstoppable.

Then, just before half time, Argentina equalised out of nowhere. They had worked their way back into the game after Mbappé’s early surge, but the French hadn’t looked troubled by any of their attacks and they were holding them off calmly. They didn’t look like scoring when Ángel Di María, not Messi, turned the game on its head with one moment of pure brilliance. He received the ball 30 yards out from goal, in a bit of space. He decided to have a shot from the improbable position, presumably deciding to try his luck with no defenders there to close him down. Then, with his left boot, he unleashed a curling strike into the top corner. Hugo Lloris dived desperately, but the French keeper had no chance against Di María’s perfectly-placed shot. Suddenly, Argentina found themselves right back in the contest. Minutes after half time, they were ahead.

The second goal was fortuitous. Messi started it, attempting an off-balance shot from the edge of the area after Pogba deflected it straight to him. It wouldn’t have caused any problems for Lloris had Gabriel Mercado not been standing in its path. The Argentinian right-back, through a stroke of good luck, intercepted Messi’s shot and diverted it into the bottom corner, sparking rapturous celebrations. The French keeper never stood a chance. Suddenly, France found themselves needing to chase the game, and were left wondering where it all went wrong.

They equalised soon after in stunning circumstances. It was coming. Griezmann nearly scored after a horrendous miscommunication between half-time entrant Federico Fazio and Argentinian goalkeeper Franco Armani, and France were beginning to exert some pressure on their opponents. They scored a couple of minutes after Griezmann’s near miss, with a strike which rivalled Di María’s earlier effort. It started with Lucas Hernández’s cross, which was cleared to apparent safety by Nicolás Tagliafico. Argentina didn’t reckon with Benjamin Pavard. The curly-haired French right-back had pushed forward, and upon reaching the ball on the edge of the area he attempted a first-time shot, and nailed it. With the side of his foot he drove the ball into the top corner, leaving Armani with no chance and putting France back on level terms. The enthralling contest was hanging in the balance, waiting for someone to seize the momentum.

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Kylian Mbappé (right) celebrates with Lucas Hernández after scoring France’s fourth goal. The goal all but sealed France’s win and their passage to the quarter-finals.

It wasn’t Messi who stepped up. It was Mbappé. Shortly after Pavard’s leveller, he put France ahead with an excellent goal. Hernández started it once again, finding Blaise Matuidi in the box. Matuidi’s shot was blocked, and the ball found Mbappé in the congested situation. He was good enough to make something happen. The young star somehow burst into space with one touch, and with Argentina’s defence scrambling to keep up he rammed home his advantage. Armani got a hand on it, but he couldn’t stop the close-range effort. Then, before Argentina could process what had happened, he struck again.

The goal started from the back, with N’Golo Kanté playing a nice pass to Griezmann, whose delightful touch found a running Matuidi, whose pass found Olivier Giroud in a dangerous position. Within seconds, they had picked their way through Argentina’s press (if such a press existed), and they found themselves on the edge of the box with Argentina’s defence in disarray. Mbappé was storming through on the right, and once Giroud played him through he was never going to be caught. He slammed the ball past Armani for the second time in minutes, and sparked rapturous celebrations. It didn’t look like Argentina would be able to respond.

Argentina pushed, but the French defence held firm. Messi created something out of nothing deep into injury time, allowing Sergio Agüero to score with a nice header, but it was too little, too late. When Nicolás Otamendi sparked a mass brawl in the dying moments, it was clear that Argentina’s tournament was over. After an underwhelming showing in Russia, the international careers of some of Argentina’s key players may be over too. For France, a powerful display under pressure has reinforced their credentials as potential World Cup winners. If Mbappé keeps his form up, he could take them to the title himself.

Kazan – Kazan Arena
France 4 (Griezmann 13 pen, Pavard 57, Mbappé 64, 68)
Argentina 2 (Di María 41, Mercado 48, Agüero 90+3)
Referee: Alireza Faghani (Irn)
France (4-2-3-1): Lloris – Pavard, Varane, Umtiti, Hernández; Kanté, Pogba; Mbappé (Thauvin 89), Griezmann (Fekir 83), Matuidi (Tolisso 75); Giroud.
Argentina (4-3-3): Armani – Mercado, Otamendi, Rojo (Fazio 46), Tagliafico; Pérez (Agüero 66), Mascherano, Banega; Pavón (Meza 75), Messi, Di María.

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Kylian Mbappé celebrates after scoring his second goal. Mbappé took Argentina apart with a dominant performance, and he looks in ominous form heading into the last eight.

Top 5
1. Kylian Mbappé (France)
Mbappé won France the game, plain and simple. In the first 20 minutes, he drove a wedge through the Argentinian defence and put them on the back foot with his devastating forward runs, and he backed it up with two second-half goals. With the game on the line, it was Mbappé who delivered with a dominant performance, and it’s scary what he can do at the rest of his World Cup.
2. Antoine Griezmann (France)
Griezmann was in excellent form, slipping into dangerous pockets of space, finding himself a goal with a coolly taken penalty and creating plenty of opportunities. His ability to put Argentina under pressure with the ball at his feet contributed to France’s very dangerous attacking play.
3. Ángel Di María (Argentina)
Di María dragged Argentina back into the game with one moment of supreme quality, and he continued to shine for the rest of the match. His 30-yard strike was one of the goals of the tournament, and he stood up in a big way when his team needed him.
4. Lionel Messi (Argentina)
Messi may have played his last World Cup game, and he was not to blame for Argentina’s defeat. He picked out some brilliant passes, including a perfect cross for Agüero with Argentina desperately pushing for a goal against a packed defence. He looked dangerous, and if this was his last World Cup match he went out with a strong performance.
5. Paul Pogba (France)
Pogba played some beautiful passes and made some very strong runs through the middle, and he was an imposing presence for the French. He used his physical strength to control the midfield, and his solid pairing with Kanté functioned well once again. He looks to have found some form, and could be very dangerous.

Argentina prevail under fire to leave Nigeria heartbroken

Argentina came into their final group match under immense pressure. Two terrible performances had left them teetering on the brink of elimination heading into their match with Nigeria, and everyone involved was under the pump. Lionel Messi had been poor, and, such is Argentina’s reliance upon his brilliance, Argentina had been poor as well. Coach Jorge Sampaoli hadn’t managed to overcome his team’s reliance on its star player, and a group stage exit would have almost certainly spelt the end of his tenure with the Argentinian national side. Now, if anyone was going to reverse the slide, it was Messi. He dragged them into the World Cup almost single-handedly. Now, it was his responsibility to single-handedly drag them out of the group stage. No-one else was going to do it.

The first half started promisingly for Messi, and, by extension, for his team. He found himself on the ball a couple of times, once collecting it in space and drawing a foul from John Obi Mikel as he weaved through the midfield and once finding space in the box but having his cross blocked. For their part, Nigeria looked solid enough. On a couple of occasions Argentina were nearly the architects of their own downfall, with Kelechi Iheanacho and Ahmed Musa both picking off passes intended for Argentinian defenders. Neither chance came to anything for the Super Eagles. Then, nearly 15 minutes in, Argentina took the lead via a familiar source.

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Lionel Messi celebrates after scoring his first goal of the tournament to give Argentina the lead. Messi had been under immense pressure going into the match, and he delivered by finding the back of the net.

The goal came from a beautiful pass, lifted effortlessly over the Nigerian defence by Éver Banega. It landed straight on Messi’s chest, and the captain didn’t really need to do too much to find the back of the net. It was just a couple of touches to control the cross-field pass, and a finish on a slightly tight angle (with Kenneth Omeruo closing in on him and Francis Uzoho attempting to rush at him to make a save). With his weaker foot. After making a tough finish look like child’s play, Messi ran away in celebration, and all of Argentina breathed a sigh of relief. With Argentina relying on Messi and the little maestro delivering, life was back to normal.

There were signs of Messi’s resurgence as the first half continued. From a standing start, he threaded the ball through the Nigerian defence, just eluding Oghenekaro Etebo’s desperate lunge and leaving Gonzalo Higuaín one-on-one with Uzoho. Uzoho just got there first, and received a kick in the face for his troubles. A few minutes later, Messi had a tailor-made opportunity to bag the second when Ángel Di María burst into space and was fouled by Leon Balogun on the edge of the box. Messi’s free-kick was barely saved by Uzoho, whose fingertips diverted the ball into the post and out. Argentina looked fluent, they had a one-goal lead, and all seemed to be well.

Then they started the second half, and Argentina began to fall apart. It started with a long throw-in. Musa heaved the ball into the box, and picked out three Argentinian defenders. Somehow, the three uncontested players conspired to knock the ball out for a corner, without an opponent in sight. It got worse when Etebo swung the corner into the box, and Javier Mascherano brought Balogun down. Cüneyt Çakır promptly pointed to the spot and booked the offending player, and Nigeria suddenly had a chance to get back into the contest. There was a significant delay before the penalty could be taken, as players jostled for position on the edge of the box and began to butt heads with each other. Victor Moses waited, a slight smile on his face, as the chaos was sorted out, looking completely at ease with his duties as penalty taker. When he finally got his cue, he made no error, bounding up to the ball and stroking it nonchalantly past debutant goalkeeper Franco Armani. There have been plenty of penalties taken at this tournament, but few have been converted with such ease.

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Victor Moses athletically celebrates after scoring the equaliser from the penalty spot. Moses’ penalty was very coolly taken, and put the pressure back on Argentina.

Argentina’s old issues resurfaced as they looked to get the goal they needed to win and progress. Messi was suddenly dropping deep into midfield to collect the ball, leaving him unable to worry the Nigerian defence. At one point, Messi, Banega and Di María attempted a crafty corner routine. It proved too clever by half as Di María’s pass split the Nigerian defence, only to find that no-one had run into position to receive it. We may never know who the intended recipient was. Mascherano, meanwhile, had blood clearly running down his face. Somehow, nobody seemed to notice. Nigeria had collected a few chances, with Musa and Odion Ighalo looking dangerous when given space. Marcos Rojo headed the ball into his arm, and was lucky that a VAR review concluded that no penalty should be awarded. It was a close-run thing.

Then Argentina scored. It was Rojo, so nearly responsible for giving Nigeria their second penalty of the match a few minutes earlier, who scored it. Gabriel Mercado pushed forward from defence to put in a cross from the right, hoping someone could get on the end of it. Rojo, one of his partners in defence, had pressed forward himself, and he was in a perfect spot to volley the ball into the bottom corner. Argentina had controlled the ball, but Rojo’s excellent goal still seemed to come out of nowhere, and it all but sealed their victory and their passage. It sparked elation from the Argentinians, with the entire substitute bench seeming to jump on top of Rojo in celebration. For Nigeria, with their World Cup dream snatched from them in the cruellest possible circumstances, it will be a tough road to recovery from a demoralising defeat.

Saint Petersburg – Krestovsky Stadium
Nigeria 1 (Moses 51 pen)
Argentina 2 (Messi 14, Rojo 86)
Referee: Cüneyt Çakır (Tur)
Nigeria (3-5-2): Uzoho – Balogun, Troost-Ekong, Omeruo (Iwobi 90); Moses, Etebo, Mikel, Ndidi, Idowu; Musa (Nwankwo 90+2), Iheanacho (Ighalo 46).
Argentina (4-4-2): Armani – Mercado, Otamendi, Rojo, Tagliafico (Agüero 80); Pérez (Pavón 61), Mascherano, Banega, Di María (Meza 72); Messi, Higuaín.

Top 5
1. Ángel Di María (Argentina)
Di María came into the side after being dropped for the catastrophic loss to Croatia, and he challenged the Nigerian defence early with some brilliant runs down the left wing. He showed all of his skills, and he put in a very solid performance in a crucial Argentinian victory.
2. Lionel Messi (Argentina)
Finally, after a pair of underwhelming performances, Messi delivered. He scored the goal Argentina were crying out for, and he was at the centre of almost all of their good work. With the good service he was given throughout, he looked much more dangerous and was able to test the defence with his runs in behind.
3. Oghenekaro Etebo (Nigeria)
Etebo’s seemingly boundless energy was on full display as he contributed in both attack and defence. He even had a strong stint as the designated set piece specialist for the Super Eagles, providing the delivery which led to Nigeria’s penalty and nearly scoring himself with a well-struck free-kick.
4. Éver Banega (Argentina)
Banega added some much needed class in the centre of Argentina’s midfield, and he allowed Messi to push further forward than he had in previous games with his vision and ability to put the ball into dangerous positions. His assist for the first goal was incredible, and his skills were on full display.
5. Victor Moses (Nigeria)
Moses capped off a stunning tournament with another excellent performance, making some key challenges as one of Nigeria’s wing-backs and finishing with a goal after taking a nerveless penalty. He fought hard right to the end, and despite the disappointment of elimination he should take pride in his efforts.

Dismal Argentina picked apart by ruthless Croatians

The game was all but over. A listless Argentinian team had been destroyed by a clinical Croatian side, and they were waiting to be put out of their misery by the final blast of referee Ravshan Irmatov’s whistle. Talismanic captain Lionel Messi had done nothing. In goal, Willy Caballero had been woeful. Now, in the dying moments, Croatia ran forward on the counter-attack. Three men broke forward against a stretched Argentinian defence, and the ball reached Ivan Rakitić in the centre. Rakitić fired a shot at Caballero, who dived to make the save but couldn’t tip it out of harm’s way. Instead, it fell to late substitute Mateo Kovačić. One-on-one with the goalkeeper, he could have easily scored then and there. He decided not to, playing a pass into Rakitić, who brought the ball to a complete stop before disdainfully stroking it past Marcos Acuña into the back of the net. Croatia’s previous two goals were bad enough. This one was so contemptuous, and showed so little respect for Argentina’s proud footballing history, that it was much worse. Before Rakitić’s goal, Croatia had beaten Argentina. After Rakitić scored, the defeat became a humiliation.

It hadn’t started that poorly for Argentina. They won their fair share of possession in the early stages, and managed to find a few little openings against the Croatian defence. Croatia had most of the clear-cut chances, like when Ivan Perišić tore into space and drilled a shot at Caballero, and when Mario Mandžukić couldn’t quite connect with an open header from close range, but they weren’t dominating. Then, Argentina blew their best opportunity of the match. It started on the wing, where Acuña cut inside right-back Šime Vrsaljko and caught Dejan Lovren out of position. When Domagoj Vida deflected the resulting cross straight to Enzo Pérez on the edge of the box, the midfielder was faced with a defence in disarray and an open net. Somehow, he missed.

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Jorge Sampaoli (front) looks on as Croatia put the finishing touches on their victory. Sampaoli came into the match under a lot of pressure, and the crushing defeat didn’t help his cause.

As the stalemate continued to linger, Argentinian coach Jorge Sampaoli was nervous. After Argentina’s first-up draw with Iceland he was under pressure, and it showed. When Maximiliano Meza’s attempt at a cross inadvertently hit the bar, he threw his arms up in the air. When Ante Rebić, right in front of the Argentinian bench, fouled Eduardo Salvio, Sampaoli raged at the referee, calling for a red card and trying to find someone – anyone – with whom he could air his concerns. Occasionally, he summoned a mysterious-looking long-haired assistant, and, with their mouths covered in case Croatia had a lip reader handy, they engaged in tactical discussions. Mostly, though, the bald-headed coach just paced around his technical area, wearing a black jacket, a black shirt and a concerned demeanour. He walked at a disconcertingly fast pace, as though he was running late for an important appointment. As the contest became increasingly physical, Sampaoli became increasingly tense.

Then, shortly after the break, Croatia took the lead in embarrassing circumstances. The goal was a gift. Argentina intercepted Croatia’s long heave forward, and Gabriel Mercado played it back to his goalkeeper. He shouldn’t have. When Caballero got the ball, he looked to pass it back to Mercado. Even with Rebić standing vaguely in between them, it shouldn’t have been a hard task. After all, Rebić’s press was more a token gesture than a serious attempt to win the ball back. Then Caballero tried a chip pass, mishit it and ballooned it in the direction of Rebić, who made no mistake with the volley. It was a farcical piece of play, and it left Argentina chasing the game against a strong Croatian team.

At one point, Gonzalo Higuaín nearly created an equaliser with a nice cut-back for Meza, but Danijel Subašić made a fine reflex save and Rakitić desperately slid in to prevent Messi from getting himself a goal. Argentina’s star, hero and occasional one-man team had been completely shut down, and his teammates couldn’t cope. As the game went on, Messi showed signs of frustration. On the touchline, Sampaoli had ditched the jacket, and was now pacing around in a slightly-too-tight black t-shirt which clearly showed his heavily tattooed arms. He was frantic, and the removal of the jacket only made him look more nervous. His substitutions had been made, and it was out of his hands. Then Luka Modrić scored.

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Luka Modrić (right) celebrates after doubling Croatia’s lead late in the game. Modrić’s goal from long range capped off a brilliant performance in midfield.

Modrić, as ever, had been excellent in midfield. Now, with 10 minutes of normal time left to play, he received the ball on the edge of the box, with Nicolás Otamendi barring his way. He took a touch to the right, then the left, before going right again. Then he unleashed a shot at the Argentinian goal. Otamendi was there, but his outstretched right leg couldn’t impede the ball’s progress. Caballero dived full length, but he could only get his fingertips to the ball and couldn’t stop it as it lodged itself in the bottom corner. It was a great goal, and it sealed Argentina’s fate. Sampaoli’s team were in no mood to attempt a miraculous comeback.

Tempers flared late, with Otamendi nearly starting a brawl by lashing out at Rakitić and two other players receiving yellow cards as the match drew to a close. Argentina tried to manufacture something in attack, relying on the immensely talented players on the pitch to see them through, but there was no real structure and Croatia rebuffed them with contemptuous ease. After Rakitić’s goal, and with the game drawing to a close, Sampaoli could only stand in the dugout and stare into the distance. Argentina still have a chance to progress, but that chance is as slim as ever. Their talents have failed, Sampaoli’s time as coach is almost certainly coming to a disappointing end, and it would take a miracle for Messi to get his World Cup title. In Argentina, football is so revered that it’s not too much of an exaggeration to call this defeat a national crisis. There’s no way of knowing how big the fallout of this crushing defeat – against brilliant opposition, it must be said – will prove to be.

Nizhny Novgorod – Nizhny Novgorod Stadium
Argentina 0
Croatia 3 (Rebić 53, Modrić 80, Rakitić 90+1)
Referee: Ravshan Irmatov (Uzb)
Argentina (3-4-3): Caballero – Mercado, Otamendi, Tagliafico; Salvio (Pavón 56), Pérez (Dybala 68), Mascherano, Acuña; Messi, Agüero (Higuaín 54), Meza.
Croatia (4-2-3-1): Subašić – Vrsaljko, Lovren, Vida, Strinić; Rakitić, Brozović; Perišić (Kovačić 82), Modrić, Rebić (Kramarić 57); Mandžukić (Ćorluka 90+3).

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Ivan Rakitić finishes off Croatia’s win with a goal into an open net. Rakitić put in a brilliant midfield performance, and the late goal was just reward for his efforts.

Top 5
1. Ivan Rakitić (Croatia)
Rakitić finished off a simple chance in injury time to cap off a brilliant individual game with a deserved goal. He fought hard all day, and his block to deny Messi from close range was a perfect example of how hard he worked defensively. In attack, he combined well with Modrić and started to get into dangerous positions, and his all-round performance bodes well for the rest of the tournament.
2. Luka Modrić (Croatia)
Modrić was at his best directing traffic in the middle of the park. He was always on hand to pick out a key pass, make a dangerous little run or find some other way to trouble Argentina’s defence, and he capped it off with a brilliant goal from long range. With him pulling the strings in the middle there is very little Croatia can’t do.
3. Ante Rebić (Croatia)
Rebić went off injured less than an hour into the game, but he left a mark with his incredibly vigorous attack on the ball. He was rewarded for his hard running with a goal when he intercepted Caballero’s horrendous pass and made a tough volley look deceptively easy, and Croatia will hope he is fit to take the field for their final group stage game.
4. Mario Mandžukić (Croatia)
Mandžukić is still yet to score a goal at this tournament, but he has looked so good leading the line that he is sure to find the scoresheet some time soon. He used his physical power and excellent positioning to intimidate the Argentinian defence, and he could have bagged a couple of goals with headers that only just missed the target.
5. Marcos Acuña (Argentina)
Coming into the team after Argentina’s disappointing display against Iceland, Acuña was one of few bright spots to come out of the loss. He fought hard until the end, and showed some promise shuffling up and down the left wing. His crosses were about the most dangerous aspect of Argentina’s play.

Halldórsson the hero as Iceland match Argentina

Compare the pair. On the one hand, Hannes Þór Halldórsson, goalkeeper for Iceland and Randers FC (second bottom in the Danish Superliga) and amateur filmmaker. On the other, Lionel Messi, arguably the best footballer in the world and star for Argentina and Spanish champions Barcelona. The disparity in their career CVs is so ridiculous that you wouldn’t foresee the two players ever meeting on a football field. In Moscow, at the World Cup, that meeting took place, and 64 minutes into Iceland’s maiden tournament appearance Messi stood at the penalty spot with only Halldórsson standing in his way. Iceland had fought hard, but it was inevitable that Messi would score to put Argentina ahead 2-1. Messi drilled his penalty to the left, into an almost unstoppable position. Halldórsson followed, flinging himself across goal to parry the ball out and keep the scores level. They remained level for the rest of the game.

It’s not like the South American giants were short of time on the ball, as their opponents invited them to knock the ball around in attack. Iceland’s team, made up of players from lower-level European clubs and coached by a part-time dentist, didn’t seem to care when they conceded a ridiculous amount of possession, or when Argentina played five times as many passes as they did. All they cared about was structure: their rigid 4-4-2 formation was held together with extraordinary discipline, and Argentinian attackers were flooded by defenders if they got into a position deemed too dangerous. Then they hit Argentina on the break, and looked infinitely more threatening against a spread out and structureless defensive unit. When Birkir Bjarnason received – and missed – a golden chance after one such break, it should have served as a warning to the South Americans.

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Hannes Þór Halldórsson saves Lionel Messi’s penalty at a key moment in the match. Halldórsson made a string of brilliant saves in a best-on-ground performance that allowed Iceland to get a draw.

Even still, Iceland’s attack wasn’t quite frequent enough to trouble their opposition, and when Argentina hit the front less than 20 minutes in, they could have been forgiven for thinking the hard work was done. It was Sergio Agüero who provided the goal with a classy turn and an unstoppable left foot shot into the top corner, showing the elegance, class and skill Iceland sorely lacked in comparison to their more highly-rated opposition. Yet anyone writing off Iceland missed one crucial detail: the Icelanders know how to fight, and fight they did.

The goal came less than five minutes later, courtesy of Alfreð Finnbogason. It was Iceland’s one true star, Gylfi Sigurðsson, who started it, gliding into the box and firing a powerful shot at Willy Caballero. That may have been all, had it not been for Bjarnason. With his long golden hair flapping around behind him, the physically imposing winger poked a foot in, and under duress the Argentinian keeper could only parry it out. It only went as far as Finnbogason, who had no problems stroking the ball into an open goal to send Iceland into raucous celebrations. With the deficit wiped out, Iceland could go back to their massed defence, and they continued their cycle of repelling all Argentina had to throw at them. The Argentinians had a lot to throw.

Ángel Di María attempted to bamboozle unspectacular right-back Birkir Már Sævarsson on the left wing. Sævarsson knew exactly where he needed to be, and remained completely unbamboozled. The rest of the defence was similarly solid. Open shooters were closed down, and referee Szymon Marciniak repeatedly turned down Argentinian appeals for penalties as Iceland’s defenders imposed themselves physically. With a different referee, Messi may well have had five or six chances from the spot. With Marciniak, he just had the one, emanating from a Horður Björgvin Magnússon shove on Maximiliano Meza.

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Lionel Messi shows his frustration during his poor individual performance. Messi had a penalty saved, and couldn’t find enough space to present a real danger.

Messi’s frustrating day came to represent the plight his teammates were in. He couldn’t get himself into dangerous positions, especially when eight or nine defenders seemed to be in the immediate vicinity every time he got near the box. Shots went slightly wide, and three free-kicks from scoring range failed to make their mark as Messi hit them either too high or too low. In the end, Messi had 11 shots. None of them made their way past Halldórsson, who was playing the game of his life.

By the end, Iceland’s counter-attacking threat was non-existent as their tired players did all they could to keep Argentina out. It didn’t make a difference, as Argentina’s one-dimensional attack couldn’t break through the mass of bodies blocking their path at every turn. Only Cristian Pavón was smart enough to use the space offered on the flanks, but his 20-minute cameo wasn’t enough. Fittingly, the last kick of the game went to Messi, who had a free kick in scoring range. He blasted the gettable free-kick straight into the Icelandic wall, before booting the ball into the air in frustration as the final whistle sounded. It was just that kind of day.

Moscow – Otkritie Arena
Argentina 1 (Agüero 19)
Iceland 1 (Finnbogason 23)
Referee: Szymon Marciniak (Pol)
Argentina (4-2-3-1): Caballero – Salvio, Otamendi, Rojo, Tagliafico; Mascherano, Biglia (Banega 54); Meza (Higuaín 84), Messi, Di María (Pavón 75); Agüero.
Iceland (4-5-1): Halldórsson – Sævarsson, Árnason, R Sigurðsson, Magnússon; Guðmundsson (Gíslason 63), Gunnarson (A Skúlason 76), G Sigurðsson, Hallfreðsson, Bjarnason; Finnbogason (Sigurðarson 89).

Top 5
1. Hannes Þór Halldórsson (Iceland)
When Messi stepped up to take a second-half penalty, Iceland seemed destined to go behind. It was not to be thanks to the brilliance of Halldórsson, who threw himself the right way and parried the penalty away harmlessly. It was undoubtedly the biggest save of his career, and was one of many memorable stops in a stunning World Cup debut.
2. Emil Hallfreðsson (Iceland)
Hallfreðsson was on top of his game in the middle of the park, cutting off plenty of attacks and working as hard as anyone on the field. He was one of the key players in curbing Messi’s impact on the game, and his fierce attack on the ball ensured he was a handy person to have around as Argentina looked to play their way through. His defensive performance was brilliant.
3. Sergio Agüero (Argentina)
Agüero managed to work his way into dangerous positions throughout, and his finish to give Argentina an early lead was top class. He made the tough left foot shot seem like child’s play, and he continued to be his side’s most dangerous attacker for the rest of the game. Like Messi, he found it tough against Iceland’s stoic defence, but he deserves credit for getting himself on the scoreboard.
4. Birkir Már Sævarsson (Iceland)
Sævarsson had a tough job marking Ángel Di María on Argentina’s left wing, but he performed so well that Di María was substituted so someone else could have a go. He never got beaten on the dribble, and his ability to stay between his opponent and the goals thwarted a large part of Di María’s game and ensured Iceland weren’t caught out.
5. Cristian Pavón (Argentina)
Pavón only spent 20 minutes on the field, but he had a massive impact nonetheless. He was the only Argentinian player who could use the spaces Iceland didn’t really defend to his advantage, finding lots of open space on the wing and wreaking havoc when he had the ball at his feet. He could have easily won a late penalty, and a shot from outside the box gave Halldórsson some serious trouble.

2018 FIFA World Cup Preview – Final Prediction

Who will win the World Cup? As ever, it’s a complicated question, and much of the fascination of the tournament is watching the drama play out. When assessing the 32 teams’ respective chances to take home the ultimate prize, it becomes clear that these sides can be grouped based on their levels of ambition. At the top, the main contenders are set to be the ones battling it out at the end. They are the teams who historically win the tournament, and will set victory as their goal coming in. Then there’s the second-tier, or the dark horses who have a legitimate chance of winning if things fall their way. They are more consistent performers, with quality to match anyone. The wildcards are the teams that could make it as far as the semi-finals and are capable of pulling off a big upset, while the knockout hopefuls are the largely unspectacular sides setting their sights on the round of 16. The early exiters round out the competition, being the teams with no realistic chance of winning and slim hopes of progressing past the second round. This preview will touch on all of these groups, before eventually predicting the winner of the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

The Contenders

Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany, Spain
Thanks to the non-qualification of Italy, and a number of other factors, the usual suspects may be a bit thin on the ground in Russia. Germany will always be there at the end, as will Brazil, and both sides should be considered the top favourites going into the tournament. France are the third of the contenders with a very good chance of taking home the trophy, and their quality is undeniable. Then there’s Argentina and Spain, both of whom may struggle at the tournament after distracted preparations. Argentina’s decision to cancel a pre-tournament friendly against Israel not only left them underdone but also created a diplomatic incident. Meanwhile, Spain’s decision to sack their coach two days out from the tournament is certain to impact their results, and they will now do well to escape from a tough group.

The Dark Horses

Belgium, Poland, Portugal, Uruguay
With so few of the main contenders still primed for a deep run, the door may be open for one of these sides to sneak in and buck the trend. Belgium and Poland are strong, but their runs may be hindered by the draw. If one doesn’t win their group, they may find themselves facing off in the second round. Even if Belgium, as expected, win Group G and the Poles take out Group H, quarter-final dates with Brazil (for Belgium) and Germany (for Poland) would probably finish them off. Uruguay and Portugal are probably best placed to take advantage of Spain’s woes, and both are consistent teams who are capable of going a long way.

The Wildcards

Colombia, Croatia, Egypt, England, Iceland, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal
Three of these wildcards are in Group D, where a vulnerable Argentina means that Croatia, Iceland and Nigeria are not a bad chance of taking them out. Of the three, the Croatians are probably the most damaging. They are as good, if not better than, the Argentinians, and could easily pry them out of top spot. Of course, everything could fall in a heap as well, especially with their off-field concerns, but a semi-final run is not out of the question. Nigeria and Senegal are both in tough groups where they will either thrive or crash out, while Egypt could also make a splash if they can overcome Mohamed Salah’s injury issues. The turmoil surrounding Spain leaves Morocco with a chance of edging them out, and they may be a tough opponent in the knockouts. The same can be said for Iceland, and the English are unpredictable – and dangerous.

The Knockout Hopefuls

Denmark, Mexico, Peru, Serbia, Sweden, Switzerland
These teams come from just three groups, and are in competition with each other. As a general rule, they shouldn’t make too much of a splash. The Swiss are the best of the teams in terms of ranking and consistency, but they may face stiff competition if Serbia are on their game. In Group C, Denmark and Peru will be an intriguing early match-up, while Mexico and Sweden are likely to fight it out for second place in Group F. None of these teams have much of a chance of winning it all, but they should be looking at the round of 16 as a realistic goal.

The Early Exiters

Australia, Costa Rica, Iran, Japan, Panama, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Tunisia
To put it bluntly, these teams have no hope of winning the World Cup, and they will probably be out by the round of 16. Iran are the most talented of them, but their position in a tough group with Spain, Portugal and Morocco means progress is unlikely. Of course, Spain’s issues may leave the door open, but Morocco seem better suited to take the opportunity. The Russians are hosting the event, and of these teams they are most likely to go through. They just aren’t a very good team, however, and they’d do well to get to the second round. Australia and South Korea may just slip past their opposition and take a berth in the knockout stages, while Saudi Arabia could give their campaign a big boost with an opening game win over Russia. Costa Rica will struggle to repeat their quarter-final run of 2014, especially after declining in quality, and Tunisia’s placement alongside Belgium and England is likely to cut short their participation. Japan have plenty of off-field issues, and they will struggle in a tough group. Bringing up the rear is Panama, who are clearly the least-talented team at this tournament and will do well to bring home a point.

Looking through the draw based on my predicted outcomes for each group (with Group B changed to reflect the likelihood of Portugal finishing above Spain), the second round will consist of matches between Uruguay and Spain, Portugal and Egypt, France and Argentina, Croatia and Denmark, Brazil and Mexico, Germany and Switzerland, Belgium and Colombia and Poland and England. With these clashes in mind, Portugal, Croatia, Brazil and Germany should win fairly comfortably. Poland are too good for England, and Belgium should beat Colombia (although a match between the two would be great to watch). France are too good for Argentina, and Uruguay should be too good for Spain, if La Furia Roja even make it that far. According to these results, the quarter-finals will see Uruguay play France, Portugal take on Croatia, Brazil go up against Belgium and Germany face Poland. Once again, Brazil and Germany should be too strong, as should the French. The last match-up is an intriguing one. Croatia are probably more talented than the Portuguese, and would start as favourites, but it would be a close-run affair. In the semis, the Germans would be likely to defeat the Croatians fairly comfortably, although a mouth-watering match-up between France and Brazil shapes as one of the games of the tournament. In the end, I think France’s talent will win out in the end, and I think that Les Bleus will take out the World Cup over the Germans. One thing’s for sure: with the World Cup, you just never know. Right now, with the fun beginning in a little over 12 hours, the whole tournament is a complete mystery. Let’s hope it stays pretty mysterious right to the end.

Predictions

Champions: France
Runners-up: Germany
Third Place: Brazil
Fourth Place: Croatia
Quarter-finals: Belgium, Poland, Portugal, Uruguay
Round of 16: Argentina, Colombia, Denmark, Egypt, England, Mexico, Spain, Switzerland
Top scorer: Antoine Griezmann (France)
Golden Ball: Neymar (Brazil)

2018 FIFA World Cup Preview – Group D

Group D

Teams (world ranking in brackets): Argentina (5), Iceland (22), Croatia (20), Nigeria (48)
Fixtures:
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

Argentina

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)

Squad

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).

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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.

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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.

Verdict

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.

Iceland

Head Coach: Heimir Hallgrimsson
Captain: Aron Gunnarsson
Previous Appearances: None
Best Finish: N/A
Qualified: UEFA, 1st Group I
Qualification Top Scorer: Gylfi Sigurðsson

Squad

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.

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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.

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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.

Verdict

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.

Croatia

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)

Squad

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.

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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.

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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.

Verdict

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.

Nigeria

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)

Squad

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.

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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.

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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.

Verdict

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.

Prediction

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

World Cup Preview – Group F

Group F

Teams (world ranking in brackets): Argentina (3), Bosnia and Herzegovina (21), Iran (45), Nigeria (31)
Fixtures:
Argentina vs Bosnia and Herzegovina, Rio de Janeiro
Iran vs Nigeria, Curitiba
Argentina vs Iran, Belo Horizonte
Nigeria vs Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cuiaba
Nigeria vs Argentina, Porto Alegre
Bosnia and Herzegovina vs Iran, Salvador

Argentina

Coach: Alejandro Sabella
Captain: Lionel Messi
World Cup Appearances: 15 (1930, 1934, 1958, 1962, 1966, 1974, 1978, 1982,1986, 1990, 1994, 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010)
Best Result: Champions (1978, 1986)
Qualified: 1st in CONMEBOL qualifying
Qualification Top Scorer: Lionel Messi (10)

Form Guide


Argentina cruised to qualification for the world cup, finishing at the top of the CONMEBOL section with only 2 losses (one of which came in the last game against Uruguay after qualification had been sealed). The team has played in every world cup since 1974 and have been in the top 10 of the world for quite a long time.

Strengths

The Argentinian attack, led by Barcelona star Lionel Messi, is arguably the best in the world. The fact that Alejandro Sabella did not select in-form Juventus star Carlos Tevez speaks volumes about the strength of an attack which contains players such as Gonzalo Higuain and Sergio Aguero. These players complement Messi, a 4-time Ballon d’Or winner, and the attack will be ably supported by wingers Ezequiel Lavezzi and Angel Di Maria. Javier Mascherano brings experience and versatility to the team and he will be helped by players like Fernando Gago, Lucas Biglia and Ever Banega to control the centre of midfield.

Weaknesses


The Argentinian team may be one of the strongest when it comes to attack, but they may struggle in defence. First-choice goalkeepers Sergio Romero and Mariano Andujar have not had much game time at Monaco and Catania respectively, and this is worrying if they are looking to have some match practice going into the world cup. The defence is reasonable but not extremely experienced at this level, with the most experienced, Martin Demichelis, facing a struggle to make the first team against younger centre-backs such as Ezequiel Garay and Federico Fernandez, as well as Hugo Campagnaro.

Bosnia and Herzegovina

Coach: Safet Susic
Captain: Emir Spahic
World Cup Appearances: None
Best Result: N/A
Qualified: 1st Group G
Qualification Top Scorer: Edin Dzeko (10)

Form Guide

Bosnia and Herzegovina qualified for their first major tournament in style, blitzing Group G to finish first with an astonishing 30 goals scored at an average of 3 a game. The campaign included some massive victories, including an 8-1 away win over Liechtenstein, as well as a 5-0 drubbing of Latvia as well as 4-1 home wins against both.

Strengths


As one would expect from such a prolific goal scoring team, the Bosnians are extremely strong in attack. Led by Edin Dzeko and Vedad Ibisevic, who contributed 18 goals between them over qualification, the Bosnians scored the fourth most goals of any side during UEFA qualification. The midfield is also strong, and players like Zvjezdan Misimovic and Miralem Pjanic contribute well to the scoreboard. The defence is also strong, led by Leverkusen centre-back Emir Spahic and Stoke City goakeeper Asmir Begovic.

Weaknesses

While the first team line-up is strong, the side lacks depth. This means that if any injuries were to occur the side would struggle to fill the void. While in their respective top divisions many players play at slightly weaker clubs, with Manchester City star Dzeko the main exception. Apart from Spahic the defence is lacking experience, with the other 8 defenders named averaging just 9 caps each, and 5 players falling below this average. This inexperience may also affect the midfield, which also struggles to strike the right balance between experience and youth.

Iran

Coach: Carlos Queiroz
Captain: Javad Nekounam
World Cup Appearances: 3 (1978, 1998, 2006)
Best Result: Group Stage (1978, 1998, 2006)
Qualified: 1st Group A
Qualification Top Scorer: Javad Nekounam (6)

Form Guide

Iran cruised through the second round of AFC qualifying, beating the Maldives 4-0 and 1-0 to progress easily. The Iranians only lost three more times in 14 games to qualify comfortably enough. Both qualification and first place were achieved in the final match against Korea Republic in Ulsan.

Strengths

The Iranians are very experienced, with players such as Javad Nekounam, Jalal Hosseini, Andranik Teymourian and Mohammad Reza Khalatbari having represented their country on numerous occasions. The side also has some good young players coming up, however, with Ashkan Dejagah, Alireza Jahanbakhsh and Reza Ghoochannejhad all young and starting to get opportunities in Europe, as with Braunschweig goalkeeper Daniel Davari. In defence Ehsan Hajsafi has 60 caps at the age of 24, and he has a bright future ahead of him.

Weaknesses

A majority of the Iranian players play in the relatively weak Iranian league, and this means they will struggle when faced up with sides like Argentina who are of the highest order. No members of the squad will have had much experience facing up against such opposition, and this is also a concern. The side also lacks a striker who can score goals. Karim Ansarifad, who has been the first-choice for a while, averages 1 goal every 5 games. On this form he would struggle to score during the tournament, and this is a major concern for a side drawn into a tough group.

Nigeria

Coach: Stephen Keshi
Captain: Vincent Enyeama
World Cup Appearances: 4 (1994, 1998, 2002, 2010)
Best Result: Round of 16 (1994, 1998)
Qualified: 1st Group F, went on to defeat Ethiopia in play-off
Qualification Top Scorer: Emmanuel Emenike (3)

Form Guide

Nigeria were drawn into an easy group containing Mali, Kenya and Namibia, and progressed without losing a game. For the play-offs they were drawn against Ethiopia, and two goals from Emmanuel Emenike gave them a 2-1 away victory and the upper hand. They then won 2-0 at home to gain qualification.

Strengths

The Nigerian side is first rate, with Premier League star John Obi Mikel leading the charge. Victor Moses has been given more chances while on loan at Liverpool and he will form an effective partnership on the wings with Ahmed Musa. Players like Peter Odemwingie, Victor Obinna and Emmanuel Emenike will form a great attack, and Joseph Yobo will provide experience and solidity in defence. He will be ably assisted by players such as Elderson and Efe Ambrose, while captain and goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama is in great form with Lille and will provide support.

Weaknesses

While the midfield in the first-team will be quite strong, the rest of the midfield will be quite inexperienced. Apart from Mikel, who has 57 caps, the next most experienced midfielder is Sunday Mba with 21. Another issue with the side is balance between experience and youth, with a lot of young players and quite a few old players. There are a few players such as Elderson, Ambrose or Mikel who fit this bracket, but I don’t think that there are enough of those players in the side.

My Predictions

This will be a good group to watch, but Argentina should win easily. I would expect Nigeria and Bosnia and Herzegovina to challenge for the second spot. Look out for the game between Argentina and Nigeria, as the two have faced off in three of Nigeria’s four world cups.
1. Argentina, 2. Nigeria, 3. Bosnia and Herzegovina, 4. Iran
Next: I look at Group G, which will be one of the most exciting groups in the tournament.