Impact 2018 World Cup preview: Can Belgium, England meet expectations?

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

Perhaps the most top-heavy of the groups, Group G features a tournament favorite in Belgium, a young, talented England squad and two relative unknowns in Panama and Tunisia. To make a long story short, either of those two qualifying for the knockout stage would be remarkable.

Belgium (FIFA ranking: 3)

Overview: This is the most talented team Belgium has brought to a World Cup, plain and simple. They are creative in midfield, solid in defense and have plenty of attacking options up front. Former Everton manager Roberto Martinez leads the way, and if he can get his tactics right, there should be another quarterfinal appearance on the cards with the chance to do something no Belgian team has done before.

Star player: Winger Eden Hazard, Chelsea (England)

Hazard is one of about three different options for this nomination, as Manchester City (England)’s Kevin de Bruyne and Tottenham (England)’s Jan Vertonghen could just as easily be named. Hazard is Belgium’s playmaker, whether it’s using his speed to blow by defenders or finding inch-perfect passes from the wing. A big tournament for Hazard should mean a big tournament for his nation.

Biggest question: Can Martinez set his team up correctly?

Personally speaking as an Everton supporter, Martinez was at times reckless with his tactics, especially going forward. There is a set of Belgian fans who still haven’t quite accepted Martinez after his failures in England, and while his teams have played attractive, attacking soccer in the past, teams must be perfect to win world titles. With Martinez at the helm, playing four straight perfect games in the knockout stage seems like a tough ask.

Best-case scenario: The golden generation of Belgians pushes themselves past a second-place pushover from Group H, defeats Brazil in the quarterfinals and hangs tight with France in the semifinals. A world title is not out of the question as a result.

England (FIFA ranking: 13)

Overview: Suddenly, there is optimism around the English team as well as their fabled media presence in Russia. After scandal in late 2016, Gareth Southgate has slowly dropped the interim tag from his title and is taking a squad of intriguing youth and skill to Russia. Are they good enough to win? Perhaps not. That said, English teams with bigger expectations have done less, notably in South Africa and Brazil.

Star player: Striker Harry Kane, Tottenham Hotspur (England)

Kane was recently named captain, and after 30 goals in 37 league matches this year, it’ll be Kane’s shoulders the goalscoring burden falls on. A clinical finisher with a touch of speed and solid dribbling, his link with Tottenham teammate Dele Alli and Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling might be what fires England deep into the tournament.

Biggest question: Is the defense talented enough?

Of the five options brought to Russia to play in a back three, one can argue that only two had any amount of personal success at the club level this season. There is young talent available on the wings, as Liverpool (England)’s Trent Alexander-Arnold burst onto the Premier League scene as a 19-year-old and played in the Champions League final. The back three formation Southgate wants to play hasn’t really been tested against the world’s top teams.

Best-case scenario: “Soccer is a simple game. Twenty-two men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win,” – former England striker Gary Lineker said. That was 1990, and wouldn’t you know it, the possibility of Germany-England comes around in the quarterfinals. It is difficult to expect more unless England wins the group.

Panama (FIFA ranking: 55)

Overview: Without their best player Román Torres in top form, things look bleak for the Panamanians. Torres has been injured in the lead-up to the tournament, and without him in the lineup it is difficult to predict their defense holding up against those of the European teams. Their main strength is a fighting spirit, so it would be unwise to count them out before a ball has been kicked.

Star player: Striker Luis Tejada, Sport Boys Callao (Peru)

The 36-year-old Tejada is one of nine over-30 players in the squad and will retire after the tournament. He has 43 goals in 105 international appearances, and any goal Panama scores in the tournament has a good chance of coming from him.

Biggest question: Who are these guys?

At risk of sounding crass, an overwhelming majority of the Panama squad play in South America’s lesser-known leagues or even in MLS. They lack the individual talent for major success and a place in the knockout stage would be a major story, perhaps the biggest of the tournament.

Best-case scenario: Panama scratches out a draw from either Belgium or England and hopes for mayhem elsewhere in the group.

Tunisia (FIFA ranking: 14)

Overview: An impressively-high FIFA ranking coming in leaves a touch of doubt for the European countries in the group, as they will have to play focused against the African nation in its fifth World Cup. The star players are names that very few Premier League fans may recognize, but what they lack in quality they make up for in smart defending.

Star player: Striker Wahbi Khazri, Sunderland (England)

Sunderland recently suffered a second straight relegation and will play in England’s third tier next season. This becomes relevant after knowing that Khazri was deemed surplus to requirements on Tyneside, and played the season in France. Khazri can play out wide or in the middle, and his strength and shooting make him the focal point offensively.

Biggest question: Can Khazri find enough scoring chances?

An injury to Tunisia’s most creative midfielder, Al-Duhail (Qatar)’s Youssef Msakni, leaves the Africans without much of a playmaking threat. Head coach Nabil Maâloul will have a headache trying to figure out who can get the ball forward and create chances.

Best-case scenario: The Tunisians beat up on Panama to pad their goal difference before surviving with draws against the European nations to sneak a second-place group finish.

Prediction

  1. Belgium 7 pts (ahead on goal difference)
  2. England 7 pts
  3. Tunisia 3 pts
  4. Panama 0 pts

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