Belgium and England are the big hitters in Group G but the latter, in particular, will be wary of taking Panama and Tunisia lightly after their recent struggles at big tournaments. Belgium have had a strong squad for a number of years but, like the English a few years ago, are struggling to fulfil the promise of their “Golden Generation.”
The England-Belgium match is one of the most eye-catching encounters of all the groups. Can one of the sleeping giants of international football wake up and make a run at the title? Or will Panama or Tunisia catch them off guard?
Roberto Martinez was something of a surprise choice to succeed Marc Wilmots as the Belgian manager in 2016. The Spaniard, sacked by Everton after a couple of underwhelming seasons, is known for shaping forward-looking teams that have a propensity to neglect their defensive duties and a couple of recent results suggest Belgium may be falling into this mould, too.
Star player Kevin De Bruyne was a surprisingly vocal critic after the recent 3-3 friendly draw with Mexico. “If we don’t have a good tactical system we will have difficulties against countries like Mexico,” he said after the match. “It’s a pity that we have not found a solution yet.”
For a player to speak so openly about tactics is unusual and suggests there may be serious doubt within the Belgian dressing room about Martinez’s ability to shape them into a top side. There is undoubtedly plenty of quality within that dressing room. Thibaut Courtois, Jan Vertonghen, Thomas Vermaelen, Toby Alderweireld and Vincent Kompany will form a formidable back five if fit, albeit one bereft of attacking full-backs.
Going forwards De Bruyne, Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku and the increasingly potent Serie A pair Dries Mertens and Radja Nainggolan promise goals in abundance. It was the relatively stodgy football of Wilmots that cost him his job. Martinez’s Belgium should entertain but look certain to let more in at the other end.
Panama, like all Central American nations, have lived in the shadow of the USA for many years. However, their strong performance in the CONCACAF qualifying section, crowned by a 2-1 win over Costa Rica, saw them progress to the World Cup at the expense of their powerful northern neighbours.
Panama will make their World Cup debut in Russia and will rely heavily on the experience of their manager Hernán Darío Gómez, who managed his home nation Colombia in the 1990s and guided Ecuador to their first World Cup in 2002.
Gomez hasn’t had much success qualifying teams from World Cup groups, however. His 1998 Colombian side, led by Carlos Valderrama, were another “Golden Generation” but underperformed and failed to make the knockout stages. Perhaps Gomez can turn a negative into a positive and use his experience to thwart Belgium’s current golden crop! Qualification from the group looks a tough ask for Panama.
The majority of their players ply their trade in the Americas and lack experience of playing in Europe. England, Belgium and Tunisia should be better technically, but Panama have earned the right to have a go at them.
Tunisia boast more World Cup experience than Panama, having qualified for three successive tournaments from 1998-2006, but haven’t featured since Germany 2006.
Coach Nabil Maâloul was appointed by the not always patient Tunisian footballing authorities in 2017 (his second spell in charge) and appears to have settled on a way of playing. A solid base provided by disciplined defensive midfielders enables Tunisia’s pacy full-backs and tricky wingers freedom on the flanks.
Al Ahly’s Ali Maâloul, Rennes’ Wahbi Khazri (once of Sunderland) and Al-Duhail’s Youssef Msakni, a star in the Qatar league, are key players in this system. Against strong opposition Tunisia have tightened up even further, adding another defensive midfielder to the mix, so Belgium and England can expect to find a roadblock in the middle of the park when they seek to break the Tunisians down.
Tunisia have never qualified from the group stages of the World Cup but have an outside chance in Group G if they can successfully stifle and counter one of the big guns.
What can you say about the prospects of England at a major championships? It’s no good analysing their qualifying performance. England cruised through qualifying for Brazil 2014 unbeaten only to fall apart in the tournament, registering no wins and scoring only two goals. They qualified unbeaten for Euro 2016 then crashed out to Iceland.
The normally staid Roy Hodgson seemed frazzled at the Euros, admitting he’d chosen to take a boat tour down the Seine rather than scout Iceland and assigning the predatory Harry Kane corner-taking duties. England will be hoping that Hodgson’s roundabout successor Gareth Southgate (don’t mention Sam Allardyce to the FA) will do a better job.
Southgate makes a lot of the right noises, admitting to a mental block in English football when it comes to big tournaments, and his side has a younger, hungrier look about it. The last of the Golden Generation, Wayne Rooney, has retired from international football – perhaps a blessing in disguise.
Rather than awkwardly crowbarring a fading great into his team, as Hodgson did, Southgate can look to shape a team around Spurs’ potent Dele Alli-Kane partnership, the vastly improved Raheem Sterling and the pacy full-back pairing of Kyle Walker and Danny Rose. On paper England should cruise through the group, but if they stumble early on and find themselves under pressure anything could happen.
England v Tunisia (Monday June 18th) takes place on the opening day of the group and the pressure will be on England to deliver. That could play into Tunisian hands. If Nabil Maâloul’s team can sit deep, soak up the pressure and hurt England on the counter, as Iceland did, it could blow the group wide open.
England v Belgium (Thursday June 28th) on the final day of the group is the big one. If both teams have already qualified it will be a shootout for first place and the easier draw that usually brings. If qualification hangs in the balance for one or both teams the game could deliver serious drama and see the elimination – or salvation – of one of the bigger names in the World Cup.
Group G looks to be a two horse race. On paper, England and Belgium have much more quality and experience than Tunisia and Panama. Tunisia look to have the best chance of gatecrashing the party – and neither Belgium or England boast recent form that suggests they are immune to slip-ups – but this group should go to the form book and see the big two progress.