Impact 2018 World Cup preview: A wide-open Group D

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Impact Sports continues its 2018 World Cup preview with a look at Group D. A preview of Group C can be found here.

From top to bottom there are not many other groups as good as Group D. The group has the potential to be the best in the tournament. Argentina headline the group, but Croatia, Iceland and Nigeria are great teams in their own rights. Croatia’s team has an elite midfield that will want to make up for their poor showing in 2014. Iceland will try to replicate the phenomenal run they had in the 2016 Euros. Finally, and quite possibly the dark horse of the group, Nigeria has a young, electric attack that should scare the three other teams in this group.  

Argentina (FIFA ranking: 5)

Overview: 2014’s runner-up brings another exciting squad to Russia. Led by Lionel Messi, Argentina have a lot of talent going forward. Sergio Aguero, Paulo Dybala and Gonzalo Higuain all join Messi in the attack. Meanwhile the midfield is led by Javier Mascherano, who plays a more defensive role and allows Argentina’s plethora of attackers to influence the game. Even with all this talent, this is Messi’s World Cup.

At 31 years old, this is what many people see as Messi’s last legitimate chance to win the World Cup. However, this does not mean that the rest of the 23-man roster should defer to Messi at all points in the match. Messi will always runs the show, but other players have to pull the weight if La Albiceleste want to win their third World Cup.     

Star non-Messi player: Midfielder Angel Di Maria, PSG (France)

Angel Di Maria normally plays as a forward, or as a wide midfielder for PSG. But, because of Argentina’s wealth of great attacking players, Di Maria plays more as a center midfielder. He is a direct player who loves to push the attack forward and pass in between the lines. He also chips in with a few goals and is an expert at delivering corners and free kicks. If Messi is not on the ball for Argentina, then it should be Di Maria, because he is too good to just be standing around. Di Maria should be using his talent to be setting up the likes of Messi and Aguero.  

Biggest question: Can Sergio Romero replicate his 2014 World Cup heroics?

Sergio Romero went from an unknown back-up to national hero after a man-of-the-match performance in the 2014 semifinals. Romero’s heroics in the 2014 World Cup earned him a transfer to Manchester United. However, Romero has spent his time in Manchester as the back-up, racking up few appearances since his move. It is important for goalkeepers to start consecutive games, which is what Romero has not been doing. For this World Cup, Argentina have not brought the strongest defense, and Romero must replicate his 2014 tournament if Argentina want to win in 2018.   

Best-case scenario: Messi solidifies god-status as he leads Argentina to become the first South American team to win the World Cup in Europe.  

Croatia (FIFA ranking: 20)

Overview: Croatia have had talented squads for the last two major international tournaments. However they failed to make it out of the group stages in the 2014 World Cup and were eliminated by Portugal in the quarterfinals of the 2016 Euros. Croatia’s biggest strength is their midfield. Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Martin Brozovic and Mateo Kovacic are all options for coach Zlatko Dalic to choose from. The attack even has a mix of experience and youth. Striker Mario Mandzukic is joined by international regular Ivan Perisic and 23-year-old Marko Pjaca, who announced himself to the world at the 2016 Euros.

Star player: Midfielder Luka Modric, Real Madrid (Spain)

Whatever team Modric plays for, he is a vital cog in how that team plays. Whether he is in the center midfield for Real Madrid, or representing his national team in the same position. Modric is a midfield master and plays much like a great quarterback. His ball-distribution to his teammates is what gets Croatia’s attack going. If necessary he can join the attack and thread a pass through to Mandzukic or Perisic.

Also, his dribbling is unparalleled on the team. He can dribble out of any unfavorable situation the opposition might put him under. Modric dictates the pace at which Croatia plays which is why he is so much more important than any of his teammates.

Biggest question: Who plays at left back?

In Croatia’s recent friendly against Brazil, Domagoj Vida played left-back for Croatia. The 29-year-old Vida is a centerback. He is a good defender, but lacks pace. This should concern Croatia, especially with the group they are in. Nigeria have a lot of pace in their attack and against Argentina, Vida would be defending Messi. Now Croatia do have a solution to Vida, and that is natural left-back Ivan Strinic. Croatia have until June 16 in their opening match against Nigeria to solve this problem.  

Best-case scenario: Croatia’s fantastic midfield core brings the Eastern European nation to the semifinals.

Iceland (FIFA ranking: 22)

Overview: The darlings of the 2016 Euros will try to become the darlings of the 2018 World Cup. With around 335,000 people, Iceland are the smallest nation, population-wise, to qualify for the World Cup. That alone is a story in itself. However Iceland have talent to make it out of the group stage. There is nothing flashy about Iceland. They have incredible team comradery and are defensively solid. In 2016 Iceland used set-pieces and patient build-up play to score goals. This likely will be the game plan for this year’s World Cup. Iceland is a team that makes few mistakes. So the opposition has to rely on their own ability to beat Iceland.  

Star player: Midfielder Gylfi Sigurdsson, Everton (England)

Really the only well-known player for Iceland, Gylfi Sigurdsson will have to be the star man and more for Iceland. A dead-ball specialist, Sigurdsson can play in the center of midfield, or right behind the striker in a more advanced position. In either of those positions he will have a much greater influence on the game.

But it is what Sigurdsson does off the ball that makes him so important to Iceland. Sigurdsson does not mind tracking back and defending with his team. Since Iceland do not play with a lot of ball-possession, Sigurdsson will have to put as much effort into defending as he does attacking.   

Biggest question: Will Iceland overachieve again after an eye-opening 2016 Euros?

In the 2016 Euros, Iceland made it out of a group with eventual champions Portugal, and a dark-horse team in Austria. In the round of 16, they shocked England. They would eventually lose to host nation France, but Iceland had already announced themself to the world as an up-and-coming football nation.

Now in 2018, Iceland are no longer an unknown team. They are likely not going to surprise anyone. So it will be interesting to see how Iceland perform now that they have had one good tournament run. They could use 2016’s run to springboard them towards another good tournament, or they could fold under the pressure and not make it out of the group stages.      

Best-case scenario: Iceland viking-clap their way to back-to-back quarterfinals at major international tournaments.  

Nigeria (FIFA ranking: 48)

Overview: The Super Eagles (great nickname by the way) will feel a little hard done by that they have Argentina in their group for a third consecutive World Cup. However they should feel confident that they can take the two other teams in the group. Nigeria have a young, direct attack that relies on its pace and physicality to beat opponents.

There is plenty of Premier League experience on this team with forwards Victor Moses, Kelechi Iheanacho, Alex Iwobi and midfielder Wilfred Ndidi all currently playing in England. Most teams are hesitant to attack in big tournaments like the World Cup because there is the fear of being caught out in defense. This should not be the case for Nigeria, who will attack at every opportunity.  

Star player: Midfielder John Obi Mikel, Tianjin TEDA (China)

The 31-year-old John Obi Mikel is the leader in the midfield and for Nigeria. Mikel normally plays as a defensive midfielder, acting as a shield for the defense He also has the most experience. That is a very important role for Nigeria since they do not have the strongest defense. Mikel also won a Champions League and multiple Premier League titles with Chelsea. He has big-match experience. If Nigeria want to make it out of the group stages for only the second time then Mikel must use his experience to lead.  

Biggest question: Can Nigeria’s attack score enough goals to mask their poor defense?

Nigeria’s weakness is their defense. Mikel will do his best to stop the opposition from reaching the defence, but Nigeria will still likely give up scoring chances. That means Nigeria might have to outscore opponents to win matches. Iwobi, Iheanacho, Moses and Ahmed Musa might have to score three or four if Nigeria want to advance to the knockout stages.     

Best-case scenario: Nigeria’s young attack surprised Iceland and Croatia as they reach their second consecutive round of 16

Prediction

  1. Argentina 9 pts
  2. Iceland 4 pts (advances on goal difference)
  3. Croatia 4 pts
  4. Nigeria 0 pts

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