Teams (world ranking in brackets): Belgium (3), Panama (55), Tunisia (21), England (12)
Belgium vs Panama, Fisht Olympic Stadium, Sochi
Tunisia vs England, Volgograd Arena, Volgograd
Belgium vs Tunisia, Otkritie Arena, Moscow
England vs Panama, Nizhny Novgorod Stadium, Nizhny Novgorod
England vs Belgium, Kaliningrad Stadium, Kaliningrad
Panama vs Tunisia, Mordovia Arena, Saransk
Head Coach: Roberto Martínez
Captain: Eden Hazard
Previous Appearances: 12 (1930, 1934, 1938, 1954, 1970, 1982, 1986, 1990, 1994, 1998, 2002, 2014)
Best Finish: Fourth Place (1986)
Qualified: UEFA, 1st Group H
Qualification Top Scorer: Romelu Lukaku (11)
Goalkeepers: 1. Thibaut Courtois (Chelsea), 12. Simon Mignolet (Liverpool), 13. Koen Casteels (Wolfsburg).
Defenders: 2. Toby Alderweireld (Tottenham Hotspur), 3. Thomas Vermaelen (Barcelona), 4. Vincent Kompany (Manchester City), 5. Jan Vertonghen (Tottenham Hotspur), 15. Thomas Meunier (Paris Saint-Germain), 20. Dedryck Boyata (Celtic).
Midfielders: 6. Axel Witsel (Tianjin Quanjian), 7. Kevin de Bruyne (Manchester City), 8. Marouane Fellaini (Manchester United), 11. Yannick Carrasco (Dalian Yifang), 16. Thorgan Hazard (Borussia Mönchengladbach), 17. Youri Tielemans (Monaco), 19. Mousa Dembélé (Tottenham Hotspur), 22. Nacer Chadli (West Bromwich Albion), 23. Leander Dendoncker (Anderlecht).
Forwards: 9. Romelu Lukaku (Manchester United), 10. Eden Hazard (Chelsea), 14. Dries Mertens (Napoli), 18. Anton Januzaj (Real Sociedad), 21. Michy Batshuayi (Borussia Dortmund).
Belgium coasted through a simple qualifying group effortlessly, barely breaking a sweat as they progressed with nine wins and a draw. Belgium’s current side, made up of their “golden generation”, is the strongest they’ve ever fielded, with plenty of quality players in every position. Thibaut Courtois is a star goalkeeper, and Toby Alderweireld, Vincent Kompany and Jan Vertonghen form a very solid defence. Midfield enforcers Axel Witsel, Mousa Dembélé, Marouane Fellaini and Leander Dendoncker will support a devastating attack that scored 43 goals in qualifying. Romelu Lukaku leads the line, and the powerful striker will receive service from three of Europe’s best in Kevin de Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Dries Mertens. De Bruyne is arguably the best playmaker in world football, and in conjunction with the silky skills of Hazard and Mertens he could wreak havoc at the World Cup. With Thomas Meunier and Yannick Carrasco providing some quality width and plenty of depth in the squad, Belgium could be a legitimate contender. If they put it all together, they will be formidable.
Romelu Lukaku (centre) fights for the ball during a qualifier against Greece. Lukaku was Belgium’s top-scorer in qualifying, and he will shoulder most of the scoring burden in Russia.
Despite their undisputed quality, the Belgians haven’t quite put it together in their most recent major tournaments, with quarter-final exits at the World Cup and the Euros a pair of disappointing results for such a talented team. New coach Roberto Martínez brings plenty of tactical nous, but questions remain about whether the players can stand up when required. Defence could be a problem for Belgium, especially with an injury to Kompany which jeopardises the former captain’s participation. The lack of a genuine left-back is also a concern, and although Martínez’s switch to a three-man defence counters that it also means Carrasco, a natural attacker, will have to play a fairly big defensive role. The non-selection of high-octane, high-impact midfielder Radja Nainggolan caused plenty of outrage in Belgium, even if only 23 people showed up to protest it (out of 9000 expected to attend). The distractions caused by this, and the impact of the loss of Nainggolan, could prove costly.
Star Player: Kevin de Bruyne
De Bruyne has always been a classy playmaker, but his work with Pep Guardiola at Manchester City has taken his game to another level. Now sitting deeper in midfield, his incredible vision and his ability to pick out an incisive pass led to a tally of 16 Premier League assists, with many more chances created. If he can work well with Hazard, Mertens and Lukaku it will cause massive headaches for opposing defences.
Kevin de Bruyne runs with the ball during Belgium’s Euro 2016 quarter-final against Wales. De Bruyne is a classy playmaker, and he has become one of the world’s best midfielders.
Key Player: Jan Vertonghen
In the last few years, Vertonghen and Alderweireld have formed a brilliant defensive partnership with Tottenham Hotspur, and the Belgians will be hoping this carries on in Russia. Vertonghen is versatile and a solid defender, and with Alderweireld missing a large chunk of the season with injuries he stepped up in a big way to lead the Spurs defence. Belgium will be looking for similar defensive steel on the vulnerable left side of defence.
One to watch: Leander Dendoncker
Dendoncker is one of the newest members of the Belgian squad, and the talented youngster could come in handy at the World Cup. He can play in both midfield and defence, and his height and strength will serve him well wherever he is required to slot in. His form with Anderlecht has been excellent, and he could make an impact if given a chance.
The Belgians are talented and have plenty of depth, and if they reach their potential they could be good enough to win it all. They won’t face too much early competition, and they will be a formidable opponent.
Likely Team (3-4-2-1): Courtois; Alderweireld, Kompany, Vertonghen; Meunier, Witsel, de Bruyne, Carrasco; Hazard, Mertens; Lukaku.
Head Coach: Hernán Dário Gómez
Captain: Felipe Baloy
Previous Appearances: None
Best Finish: N/A
Qualified: CONCACAF, 3rd
Qualification Top Scorer: Gabriel Torres (3)
Goalkeepers: 1. Jaime Penedo (Dinamo Bucureşti), 12. José Calderón (Chorrillo), 22. Álex Rodríguez (San Francisco).
Defenders: 2. Michael Amir Murillo (New York Red Bulls), 3. Harold Cummings (San Jose Earthquakes), 4. Fidel Escobar (New York Red Bulls), 5. Román Torres (Seattle Sounders), 13. Adolfo Machado (Houston Dynamo), 15. Erick Davis (Dunajská Streda), 17. Luis Ovalle (Olimpia), 23. Felipe Baloy (Municipal).
Midfielders: 6. Gabriel Gómez (Atlético Bucaramanga), 8. Édgar Bárcenas (Tapachula), 11. Armando Cooper (Universidad de Chile), 14. Valentin Pimentel (Plaza Amador), 19. Ricardo Ávila (Gent), 20. Aníbal Godoy (San Jose Earthquakes), 21. José Luis Rodríguez (Gent).
Forwards: 7. Blas Pérez (Municipal), 9. Gabriel Torres (Huachipato), 10. Ismael Díaz (Deportivo Fabril), 16. Abdiel Arroyo (Alajuelense), 18. Luis Tejada (Sport Boys).
Panama’s players and fans celebrate their World Cup qualification, which came on the back of Román Torres’ late winner. Panama had never made it to the tournament before their momentous win over Costa Rica.
Panama qualified for their first ever World Cup on the back of a bit of luck, some good results and a healthy dose of controversy. The equaliser scored by Blas Pérez in their crucial match against Honduras didn’t actually cross the line, but in the absence of video technology the “phantom goal” was allowed to stand before Román Torres stepped up to hand Panama the win. Now they’ve made it, Panama will be looking to show they’re not just making up the numbers, and they have some experienced heads within their team. Goalkeeper Jaime Penedo brings plenty of experience from a 15-year international career, while Román Torres and Felipe Baloy lead an experienced defence. In the middle, Gabriel Gómez and Aníbal Godoy form a strong partnership, with Gómez especially skilled at controlling the tempo of the game. Up front, the experience of Pérez, Gabriel Torres and Luis Tejada and the flair of Abdiel Arroyo, Ismael Díaz and José Luis Rodríguez Los Canaleros could present a challenge for opposing defences.
For all that, Panama will still struggle to make it through against opponents who are much more skilled and have more experience of high-level competition. Barely any of Panama’s squad members play their club football in Europe, with most playing in the lower-level leagues of Central America. The World Cup will be a massive jump in terms of the quality of their opponents, and their first match against Belgium could be a reality check for Hernán Dário Gómez’s side. Panama will come to the World Cup with one of the older sides at the tournament, and many of their key players are well into their thirties and past their prime. Meanwhile, their younger players are coming in with little to no experience of top-level competition, and they may find it tough to adjust to the pressure of the World Cup. The loss of Alberto Quintero to injury is also a blow, as the experienced attacking midfielder is one of their most important players going forward. With no World Cup experience, Panama’s players are facing a baptism of fire, and it’s not clear who will stand up.
Star Player: Román Torres
Torres is a centre-back, but he will forever be known as a hero of Panamanian football for his exploits in attack. It was the experienced defender who scored the late winner that sent Los Canaleros through to Russia, sending all of Panama into raucous celebrations. At the World Cup he will provide his side with solid defence and strong leadership, as well as a handy goal threat at set pieces.
Gabriel Gómez attempts to control the ball during a 2017 Copa América match with Argentina. Gómez is a quality midfielder who controls the tempo of the game and is a key part of Panama’s team.
Key Player: Gabriel Gómez
Gómez is the conductor of Panama’s team, controlling the game from central midfield and setting up their attacking play while shielding the defence. He works hard, and with over 140 caps at international level he knows how to read the game and set the tone for his side. Gómez’s ability to manage the game from the centre of the park could determine Panama’s success in Russia.
One to watch: José Luis Rodríguez
Rodríguez comes into this World Cup with almost no experience at either club or international level. He has been playing with Belgian side Gent’s second team, and the opponents he will face in Russia are a massive step up from anything he has faced before. He is Panama’s wildcard pick, and if given the opportunity he could make a name for himself.
In terms of quality, Panama are nowhere near their competition. They have no players playing in top European leagues, and they are thoroughly outmatched by their opposition in Russia. There’s always room for a fairytale, but such a fairytale seems particularly unlikely for Los Canaleros.
Likely Team (4-4-2): Penedo; Machado, Baloy, R Torres, Ovalle; Cooper, Gómez, Godoy, Bárcenas; Pérez, G Torres.
Head Coach: Nabil Maâloul
Captain: Aymen Mathlouthi
Previous Appearances: 4 (1978, 1998, 2002, 2006)
Best Finish: Group Stage (1978, 1998, 2002, 2006)
Qualified: CAF, 1st Group A
Qualification Top Scorer: Youssef Msakni (3)
Goalkeepers: 1. Farouk Ben-Mustapha (Al-Shabab), 16. Aymen Mathlouthi (Al-Batin), 22. Mouez Hassen (Châteauroux).
Defenders: 2. Syam Ben Youssef (Kasımpaşa), 3. Yohan Benalouane (Leicester City), 4. Yassine Meriah (CS Sfaxien), 5. Oussama Haddadi (Dijon), 6. Rami Bedoui (Étoile du Sahel), 11. Dylan Bronn (Gent), 12. Ali Maâloul (Al Ahly), 21. Hamdi Nagguez (Zamalek).
Midfielders: 7. Saîf-Eddine Khaoui (Troyes), 13. Ferjani Sassi (Al-Nassr), 14. Mohamed Amine Ben Amor (Al-Ahli), 17. Ellyes Skhiri (Montpellier), 20. Ghailene Chaalali (Espérance).
Forwards: 8. Fakhreddine Ben Youssef (Al-Ettifaq), 9. Anice Badri (Espérance), 10. Wahbi Khazri (Rennes), 15. Ahmed Khalil (Club Africain), 18. Bassem Srarfi (Nice), 19. Saber Khalifa (Club Africain), 23. Naïm Sliti (Dijon).
Tunisia were the beneficiaries of a fairly soft qualifying group, but it still took until the final day for Nabil Maâloul’s side to seal their spot. Drawn into a difficult group with two tough opponents, Tunisia won’t be favourites to progress, but they have some quality players and could pose a challenge. Wahbi Khazri, Anice Badri, Naïm Sliti and Fakhreddine Ben Youssef form an attack that will be a threat, and Nice young gun Bassem Srarfi could have a big impact coming off the bench. Ghailene Chaalali, Ellyes Skhiri and Ferjani Sassi are all good creators in the middle, and the recovery of defensive midfielder Mohamed Amine Ben Amor is a welcome boost. Down back, Yassine Meriah and Syam Ben Youssef are a strong central defensive pairing, and full-backs Dylan Bronn and Ali Maâloul are both capable players in defence and attack (left-back Maâloul was once the top scorer in the Tunisian league). The Eagles of Carthage are a solid side, and cannot be underestimated.
Embed from Getty Images
Mohamed Amine Ben Amor (left) battles with an opponent during an Africa Cup of Nations clash with Algeria. Ben Amor has recovered from injury in time to play a key midfield role for the Eagles of Carthage.
Unfortunately for them, a combination of an unpleasant draw and injuries to key players means their tournament may not last long. Chaalali, Ben Amor and Khazri have all recovered in time for the World Cup, but they may come in underdone. Even worse, qualification top scorer Youssef Msakni and striker Taha Yassine Khenissi will miss the tournament with their injuries, creating more pressure for Khazri and the rest of the attack. The team’s lack of quality could also come back to bite them. Many of their players have been playing in lower-tier French leagues or other lower-quality competitions, and apart from Khazri very few regularly play against the best in the world. The squad contains 15 players with under 20 international caps, and only captain Aymen Mathlouthi has over 50. This lack of experience at international level, partially borne from the fact that some players have only joined the team since their qualification, could be costly against strong opponents like Belgium and England. If Tunisia want to beat the odds and go through, they will need to fix these problems quickly.
Star Player: Wahbi Khazri
Khazri is Tunisia’s main playmaker, and his skill with the ball at his feet ensures he will be a valuable part of their attack. He is a threat in open play and from set pieces, and he has played himself into form over the course of a strong season with Ligue 1 side Rennes. He comes into the tournament under an injury cloud, but if he hits his best form the Eagles of Carthage will be a dangerous side.
Wahbi Khazri moves forward with the ball during an Africa Cup of Nations match with Senegal. Khazri is the star of Tunisia’s team, and could have an impact in Russia with his skills.
Key Player: Ghailene Chaalali
Chaalali has only been capped six times for Tunisia, but the 24-year-old has already established himself as a key cog in Nabil Maâloul’s midfield with his ability to create chances and defend solidly. The World Cup is his chance to shine on the big stage, and Tunisia will be relying on him to contribute well in both defence and attack. If he plays well, things will be a lot easier for the Tunisians.
One to watch: Bassem Srarfi
Srarfi is the youngest member of Tunisia’s squad, but he could be one of their most dangerous players. He has been an effective player off the bench for Nice, and the 20-year-old has the pace and skill to be a very potent weapon for the Eagles of Carthage. He is not likely to start, but he will be very exciting coming off the bench late in games.
Tunisia have had some unhelpful injuries which could impact their efforts in Russia, and they will struggle to progress from a tough group. They have some skilled players, but it may not be enough.
Likely Team (4-3-3): Mathlouthi; Bronn, Meriah, S Ben Youssef, Maâloul; Sassi, Ben Amor, Chaalali; Badri, Khazri, Sliti.
Head Coach: Gareth Southgate
Captain: Harry Kane
Previous Appearances: 14 (1950, 1954, 1958, 1962, 1966, 1970, 1982, 1986, 1990, 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010, 2014)
Best Finish: Champions (1966)
Qualified: UEFA, 1st Group G
Qualification Top Scorer: Harry Kane (5)
Goalkeepers: 1. Jordan Pickford (Everton), 13. Jack Butland (Stoke City), 23. Nick Pope (Burnley).
Defenders: 2. Kyle Walker (Manchester City), 3. Danny Rose (Tottenham Hotspur), 5. John Stones (Manchester City), 6. Harry Maguire (Leicester City), 12. Kieran Trippier (Tottenham Hotspur), 15. Gary Cahill (Chelsea), 16. Phil Jones (Manchester United), 17. Fabian Delph (Manchester City), 18. Ashley Young (Manchester United), 22. Trent Alexander-Arnold (Liverpool).
Midfielders: 4. Eric Dier (Tottenham Hotspur), 7. Jesse Lingard (Manchester United), 8. Jordan Henderson (Liverpool), 20. Dele Alli (Tottenham Hotspur), 21. Ruben Loftus-Cheek (Crystal Palace).
Forwards: 9. Harry Kane (Tottenham Hotspur), 10. Raheem Sterling (Manchester City), 11. Jamie Vardy (Leicester City), 14. Danny Welbeck (Arsenal), 19. Marcus Rashford (Manchester United).
Despite England’s straightforward qualification, the British press has not begun their traditional singing of the Three Lions’ praises before the World Cup. Maybe they were put off by England’s embarrassing elimination from Euro 2016 at the hands of Iceland, or realised that none of their hubristic predictions, dating back to England’s actual World Cup victory in 1966, had ever come good. Either way, the lack of fanfare could be a blessing in disguise for Gareth Southgate’s team, who do have some quality players. Harry Kane is one of the world’s best strikers, and his combination with excitement machines Dele Alli, Raheem Sterling and Jesse Lingard could be very tough to stop. Eric Dier and Jordan Henderson form an effective shield for the defence with their solid midfield play, and Southgate has an abundance of attacking full-backs who can provide width and quality. A back three of Kyle Walker, John Stones and Harry Maguire could be very hard to break down, and all three are quality ball players who can contribute to the attack.
Raheem Sterling takes on the defence during a qualifying match against Lithuania. Sterling has immense talent, but he has never found his best form in an English shirt.
They may look solid, but the English will have some issues to deal with if they want to get past the round of 16 and make real inroads at the tournament. Most significantly, they don’t have a goalkeeper. Jordan Pickford will start, but neither he nor his back-up, Jack Butland, have enjoyed brilliant seasons in the Premier League, and the squad’s three keepers have just 12 international caps between them. This inexperience is an issue throughout the squad, with non-starter Gary Cahill the only player with over 50 caps in the 23. Southgate will also need to deal with Sterling, who has attracted plenty of controversy in the lead-up and has not been able to find his devastating Manchester City form when pulling on an English shirt. There is uncertainty as to who is in England’s best team, something Southgate will need to work out. The Three Lions are still likely to progress from a relatively easy group, but these issues could hurt them in the knockouts.
Star Player: Harry Kane
Kane has developed into one of the most dangerous strikers in the world, and his tally of 105 goals in the last four Premier League seasons is a testament to his consistency. He is tall, strong and has excellent skills, and he is the kind of all-round striker England can rely on in Russia. He was appointed captain based on his brilliant performances for club and country, and if that form is on display he will be a force to be reckoned with.
Embed from Getty Images
Harry Kane celebrates after scoring in qualifying against Slovenia. Kane has been named captain for the World Cup, and he will have a chance to showcase his excellent goal-scoring ability.
Key Player: Jordan Henderson
Henderson is coming off a successful season with Liverpool, where he led the club to the final of the Champions League and played a typically influential role in central midfield. He is surrounded by more talented players, but his hard work and willingness to focus on his defensive duties allows him to hold England’s midfield together. If they are going to succeed, they will need him to play well.
One to watch: Trent Alexander-Arnold
Alexander-Arnold is just 19, but he comes into the World Cup in good form and he could make an impact if given the opportunity. Having received his chance at Liverpool after first-choice right-back Nathaniel Clyne went down injured, Alexander-Arnold showed impressive defensive skills and an ability to contribute to attacks with his excellent crosses. He is a set-piece specialist, and with his skillset he could fit in well as one of Southgate’s wing-backs.
The English should progress from a relatively simple group, even though they have been known to bomb out spectacularly in the past. In the knockouts, however, it won’t be so straightforward, and their inexperience could come to the fore.
Likely Team (3-4-1-2): Pickford; Walker, Stones, Maguire; Trippier, Henderson, Alli, Rose; Lingard; Sterling, Kane.
This group seems open-and-shut, but the English have been prone to disappointment and a failure to progress is not out of the question. Belgium’s golden generation should breeze through, and the English, despite their recent history, are good enough to join them. Against Panama and Tunisia, neither of whom come close to their opponents in terms of quality, the two big sides shouldn’t have too many problems, but their clash should be intriguing and could be important in the wider tournament. Tunisia and Panama can’t necessarily be ruled out of contention, and if either side’s defence holds together they could cause a massive upset, but the unfortunate reality for both is that their most meaningful clash is likely to be a consolation game against each other.
1. Belgium, 2. England, 3. Tunisia, 4. Panama