Argentina are the big hitters in Group D of the 2018 World Cup but looked in grave danger of missing out on Russia for much of the qualification campaign. Neutrals will be delighted that Messi has a fourth opportunity to showcase his skills at a World Cup and, for all their struggles, will fancy the Argentines to top a group that also includes Croatia, Nigeria and the smallest nation ever to make it to football’s biggest stage, Iceland.
The group kicks off in Moscow on Saturday June the 16th. Who will make it through?
Argentina’s struggles in World Cup qualifying were well documented but many would argue that the team have underperformed for years. Lionel Messi has rarely hit the heights for La Selección that he routinely achieves for Barcelona and quit the national team in June 2016 following defeat on penalties to Chile.
Messi’s frustration at losing a fourth major international final – most painfully, Argentina lost out to a late Mario Gotze goal at the 2014 World Cup – was tangible, but all will be forgotten if he can drive his teammates to glory at Russia 2018.
His teammates should be good enough to help out a bit! Forwards Paulo Dybala and Gonzalo Higuain have justified huge transfer fees with their performances at Juventus, while Javier Mascherano, Angel Di Maria and Sergio Aguero have performed consistently well for top clubs for a decade.
The sense, with Argentina, is that they lack the balance and cohesion that has served Messi so well at Barcelona, particularly nimble, possession hungry midfielders who can dominate the ball and speedy overlapping full-backs who create space inside. Coach Jorge Sampaoli might be well advised to set his team up as similarly to Barcelona as possible. Messi in full flourish is surely their best chance of glory.
With a population of just over 300,000 Iceland will make history at Russia 2018 as the smallest nation ever to take part in the tournament. Their Euro 2016 knock-out stage win over England (population 53 million) proved pretty spectacularly that size isn’t everything and the Icelanders will hope to punch above their weight again.
Wily Swede Lars Lagerback, mastermind of the Euro 2016 campaign, has been succeeded by his assistant turned co-manager Heimir Hallgrimsson, but the team appear no worse for the change. Iceland topped a World Cup Qualifying group that included three other teams who appeared at Euro 2016, Ukraine, Turkey and Group D compatriots Croatia, and look as solid as ever.
Iceland and Croatia won their home games against each other by narrow margins, suggesting that their Russia 2018 encounter will be tight, while their success in frustrating Cristiano Ronaldo at Euro 2016 suggests they could limit space for Messi and the other Argentinian attackers, too. However, with the world now aware of what they can do, the Icelanders’ capacity to pull out surprise results may be reduced.
Croatia’s World Cup record isn’t as strong as the quality of their playing squad might lead you to suspect. While they’ve qualified for all but one World Cup since Davor Suker’s genius propelled them to third at France 1998, the Croats didn’t made it out of their group at either South Korea-Japan 2002, Germany 2006 or Brazil 2014.
A host of stars around the age of 30 emphasises that a lack of talent certainly hasn’t been the problem. Mario Mandžukić, Luka Modric, Dejan Lovren and Ivan Rakitic are all in their late-twenties or early-thirties and will be well aware that Russia 2018 probably represents their last chance to play in the knock-out stages of a World Cup.
Unrest within the squad and Croatian football as a whole has been a problem. Manager Zlatko Dalic was installed a mere two days before the crunch final qualifying game away to Ukraine. Having performed an admirable rescue act that saw the Croatian’s comfortably outplay Greece in the resulting play-off, Dalic will be hoping that complex internal divisions can be put aside for the campaign in Russia and that the usually vociferous Croatian support will get behind the team.
The Super Eagles were the first African team to qualify for Russia 2018, despite being placed in a “group of death” alongside fellow African heavyweights Cameroon and Algeria and Zambia sides that have performed well in recent years.
German manager Gernot Rohr, who cut his teeth at Bordeaux in the 1990s, has enjoyed a great run since stepping into the hotseat in August 2016 and has the team playing with a clear identity. A powerful central midfield, controlled by former Chelsea star John Obi Mikel, look to spring pacy wideman Victor Moses and emerging Arsenal star Alex Iwobi away on the counterattack.
Leicester City’s Ahmed Musa is another speedy option in the Nigerian attack, which also boasts high-calibre goalscorers: the well-travelled Odion Ighalo and 21-year-old Kelechi Iheanacho, who has eight goals in less than 15 appearances for the Super Eagles. Iwobi and Iheanacho scored in a November 2014 friendly win over Argentina that will give the Nigerians plenty of belief heading into a rematch in Russia.
Conversely, the Nigerians may be better equipped to take on Argentina and Croatia, teams that will come out and attack them, than the canny Icelanders. If they can spring a surprise on one of the “bigger” teams, the fate of the Nigerians may rest on their ability to step out of their counterattacking mould and take three points against an Icelandic side that will likely play with a deep defensive line of their own. The Nigerians may be the fourth seeds in the group but they look eminently capable of claiming one of the top two places.
Nigeria v Croatia (Saturday June 16th) on the opening day of the group is a meeting between the two teams most likely to challenge for the second qualification spot (assuming Argentina live up to their favourites tag). The Croats will likely dominate the ball but that might suit the Nigerians who can sit back and counter with their pace. A win for either team would go a long way to securing passage to the last-16.
Croatia v Argentina (Thursday June 21st) features the two most talented squads in the group and should be an attractive game to watch. If either team slips up in their first match this second match could be absolutely crucial. Can Messi truly turn it on at a World Cup?
Group D is arguably one of the most open groups at Russia 2018. Argentina have the strongest squad but fragile confidence and the other teams all look capable of frustrating them and countering efficiently. Assuming the quality of the Argentines carries them through look for Croatia or Nigeria to take the other qualifying spot. The Icelanders have punched above their weight so many times a regression to the norm has to occur at some stage.