Four years after narrowly missing out on football’s grandest prize, Argentina superstar Lionel Messi returns for what is likely his last shot at lifting the World Cup.

A turbulent qualifying campaign was rescued by a Messi hat-trick in the thin air of Quito, but there is little margin for error in a challenging group featuring Croatia, Nigeria and tournament debutants Iceland.

Despite an array of world-class talent up front, only Bolivia scored fewer goals than Argentina in South American qualifying and the importance of Messi cannot be overstated. Jorge Sampaoli’s men won just once in eight qualifiers without him and lost to both Nigeria (4-2) and Spain (6-1) in pre-tournament friendlies with the Barcelona forward sidelined.

Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic spearhead a Croatian side that finished runners-up in qualifying behind Iceland – the two sides split their head-to-head meetings – before overpowering Greece in the play-offs to seal a fifth finals appearance in six attempts.

Juventus striker Mario Mandzukic is the team’s primary goalscoring threat and will have a key role to play if Croatia are to advance beyond the group stage for the first time since finishing third at the 1998 World Cup.

After successive failures to qualify for the Africa Cup of Nations, a youthful Nigeria outfit – featuring the likes of Premier League trio Alex Iwobi, Kelechi Iheanacho and Wilfred Ndidi – reinvigorated under the experienced Gernot Rohr, punched their ticket to Russia with a game to spare.

Group D: Argentina, Iceland, Croatia, Nigeria

Croatia

Croatia are appearing at the World Cup for the fifth time. The Croatia squad is led by international stars Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Mario Mandzukic. They finished second in Uefa qualifying group, then beat Greece in the play-off (4-1 on aggregate).

Despite scraping through to the tournament, the Croats are expected to have a safe passage to the next stage. Modric is fresh from becoming a four-time Champions League winner. The drawback could be that Croatia might be too dependent on the aforementioned attacking trio to deliver the goods. However, the progress of Mateo Kovacic and winger Ivan Perisic means that Croatia have a mouthwatering forward line. In recent years, though, they have failed to match the heights that they scaled in their first World Cup – the 1998 World Cup where they finished third.

Key Player: Luca Modric

Image credit: Croatia Football Federation
Image credit: Croatia Football Federation

Modric was a revelation during the qualifiers and has evolved into one of the world’s best in recent years, forging an outstanding midfield triumvirate alongside Casemerio and Toni Kroos at Real Madrid.

Playing alongside Barcelona’s Rakitic,and Kovacic and Perisic, Croatia can form a midfield that can terrorise opponents. But Modric, the magician, will be the at forefront of it all.

World Cup record:

This is the side’s fifth World Cup. Davor Suker and Co’s feats from 1998 are talked about to this day. It will come as a big surprise if this team can match that.

Prediction:

A bold call. Croatia will top their group, pipping Argentina. Their luck might run out in the round of 16, though.

Argentina

Lionel Messi’s Argentina must quickly refocus after finding themselves at the centre of an Israel-Palestinian spat over the cancellation of a World Cup warm-up match following an unconvincing qualifying campaign.

The game against Israel, planned in Jerusalem, was called off after a campaign by the Palestinians following its relocation from the northern city of Haifa. Argentina’s preparations for Russia 2018 – which could be 30-year-old Messi’s last World Cup – have also been disrupted by a serious injury that has ruled out West Ham midfielder Manuel Lanzini.

Despite the troubled build-up, Argentina team official Omar Souto talked up the training base in Bronnitsy, 50 kilometres (30 miles) southeast of Moscow, after their arrival on Saturday. Argentina suffered the crushing disappointment of losing to Germany in the 2014 World Cup final in Brazil and had painful losses, both times to Chile, in back-to-back Copa America finals in 2015 and 2016.

Their troubled World Cup qualifying campaign resulted in the departure of coach Edgardo Bauza, with Jorge Sampaoli drafted in as an emergency replacement in May last year.

Key player: Lionel Messi

Image credit: AFP
Image credit: AFP

The Argentina captain said his international future will be determined by his country’s performance at the World Cup in Russia. “It will depend on how far we go, how we’re going to finish” at the finals, Messi said in an interview with Spanish daily Sport. “We’ve just lost three finals in a row, which has led to us going through some difficult moments with the press,” added the Barcelona forward. Messi, who will turn 31 during the World Cup, believes Spain, Brazil, Germany, France and Belgium are the leading contenders for the title.

World Cup history:

Argentina were World Cup winners in 1978 and 1986 and were beaten finalists on three occasions. They are 14-time winners of Copa America. This is the 17th time they are participating in the event.

Prediction:

Argentina should get past their group but they how far they will go in the tournament will be decided by their talisman, Messi. They will struggle to recreate the heights of the last edition, as recent form suggests. But don’t rule them out from making it to the semi-finals. The Albiceleste, after all, have reached the finals in three multi-nation tournaments on the bounce.

Iceland

It could be argued that Iceland are the fastest rising football nation in the world, bundling England out in the Euros to reach the quarter-finals. If cynics branded that as a fluke, Iceland went one better and finished on top of their group in the qualifying table.

The Euro 2016 darlings topped a qualifying section that included Croatia, Ukraine and Turkey to become the smallest nation to compete at a World Cup. That shows that this side can’t be ruled out, even if Group D is dubbed as the ‘Group of Death’. Don’t we all want to see the Viking clap once again?

Star player: Gylfi Sigurdsson

Image credit: Reuters
Image credit: Reuters

The 28-year-old is known as Iceland’s gem and became Everton’s club record signing last year, when he was signed on for £45 million. The former Reading and Tottenham Hotspur midfielder was instrumental in Swansea City surviving the Premier League drop zone. That, of course, changed when he left Wales. Sigurdsson’s first season at Merseyside was erratic at best. But the classy No 10 seldom lets his country down. His form will be the key if Iceland have to continue their giant-killing spree.

World Cup history: This is Iceland’s first World Cup. Their first Euros saw them take to big tournaments in style.

Prediction: Iceland will narrowly lose out on a spot in the knockout stages but it won’t come as a surprise if they progress too.

Nigeria

Nigeria can surpass expectations at the World Cup finals by demonstrating the same fighting spirit and teamwork that got them to Russia, captain Mikel John Obi said on Friday.

The Super Eagles are currently 47th in the Fifa world rankings – the lowest of their opponents in Group D, Argentina (5th), Croatia (18th) and Iceland (22nd).

But former Chelsea star Obi said that could spur the Super Eagles on and beyond their previous tournament best of reaching the round of 16. “Being underdogs is good for us. It means we have to do more, we have to be humble,” the experienced midfielder, who is set to play in his second World Cup, told a news conference. “That means we can do better than what people expect us to do.”

He added: “We have to do better than we have ever done. It will be tough because we’re in a tough group and so our first game (versus Croatia) is very important.

Key player: Victor Moses

Image credit: Victor Moses
Image credit: Victor Moses

Chelsea star Victor Moses will be the man to watch for Nigeria at his second World Cup in Russia after he inspired his country to qualify for their sixth appearance at the finals.

A right wing-back at Chelsea and a winger with the Super Eagles, Moses had an eventful 2017.

After being on loan to Stoke City, Liverpool and West Ham United in the past three seasons, Antonio Conte handed the Nigerian star a chance to establish himself at Stamford Bridge in the 2016-’17 season.

Star striker Odion Ighalo says Moses is an inspiration for him.

“Victor Moses can deliver anytime and anywhere. He scores goals, takes on defences and wins for the team. We need him at the World Cup because when he’s fit, he can do magic at the World Cup,” he said.

Nigeria could well have lost this gem to England after he was capped by his adopted country at various age-grade levels.

He was eventually capped by coach Stephen Keshi in 2012 and a year later stood out as Nigeria won a third Africa Cup of Nations in South Africa.

World Cup history:

Nigeria were Africa Cup of Nations winners in 1980, 1994 and 2013. The Super Eagles were shock Olympic Champions in 1996 and this is their sixth World Cup. They reached the round of 16 in 1994, 1998 and 2014.

Prediction:

Goalscoring is a bit of a problem for Nigeria and in this group, might end up at the bottom.

(With inputs from AFP)