Belgium and England are strong favourites to progress from Group G of the 2018 Fifa World Cup, while Tunisia and tournament debutants Panama hope to spring a huge surprise.
The very last match of the group stage will be played in Kaliningrad on June 28, and it will be worth the wait, as Belgium and England are expected to be competing for top spot in this group.
The Belgians are ranked third in the world, and Roberto Martinez’s squad contains some of the best players in the Premier League, so there will be no surprises for Gareth Southgate’s England.
The English have a talented young squad, and for once expectations at home are not over the top. It will be fascinating to see how they fare against Belgium’s golden generation, led by Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku.
Group G: Belgium, England, Tunisia, Panama.
Touted as the golden generation, Belgium’s collection of stars, including Kevin de Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku have so far failed to deliver on their potential.
Reaching the quarter-finals four years ago was seen as an acceptable stepping stone, but a last-eight exit to Wales at Euro 2016 saw coach Marc Wilmots sacked. Former Everton boss Roberto Martinez was the surprise choice to take over.
Martinez’s men cruised through qualifying, but doubts remain over the Spaniard’s ability to get the best out of a supremely talented squad and his decision to leave out Roma midfielder Radja Nainggolan was a deeply unpopular one with fans.
Key player: Kevin De Bruyne
Manchester City’s midfield talisman will be vital to Belgium’s performance in the tournament. The 26-year-old is coming off a brilliant Premier League season in which he had eight goals and 16 assists to his name. Watching him link up with captain Eden Hazard and striker Romelu Lukaku further up the field is a lip-smacking prospect and Belgium will need De Bruyne to be at the top of his game if they want to get their hands on the trophy.
World Cup record: This is the 12th time that Belgium will be participating in the World Cup, and probably their best chance at holding aloft the Jules Rimet trophy. Belgium have never gone past the semi-finals, the last time being way back in 1986.
Prediction: Belgium are expected to top this group but expect them to come a cropper against underdogs England.
England have more humble expectations after failing to make the last eight in their last two major tournaments.
How far Gareth Southgate’s men go will depend a lot on captain Harry Kane finally taking his club form for Tottenham Hotspur onto the tournament stage.
A youthful squad is filled with attacking talent, but there are questions over Southgate’s lack of options in midfield.
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Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford suffered a knock before the squad flew down to Russia and this will be a concern.
Rashford shone with a stunning opening goal in England’s final warm-up friendly against Costa Rica last week, but the Three Lions are hopeful he will be fit for their tournament opener against Tunisia on Monday with Southgate describing the injury as a “slight knock”.
Key player: Harry Kane
England’s newly crowned captain has been in terrific form for his club Tottenham Hotspur over the last four seasons, with 31, 28, 35 and 41 goals. For the national side, he has scored 13 goals since his debut in 2015 and has turned into a brilliant forward, capable of scoring with his feet and his head.
Kane also recently said that the England team does not have cliques within the camp based on club loyalties and are a united bunch, which would augur well for his captaincy. Kane will only hope that his midfield can provide him good service through the tournament.
World Cup record: England have been regulars at the World Cup – this is their 14th tournament – but have little to show for it. They have won the cup just once – 52 years ago in 1966.
Prediction: For a change, England have the underdog tag in a tournament of this scale and that might just work out in their favour. Expect England to surprise everyone and top the group ahead of Belgium.
Tunisia’s hopes of winning a first game at the World Cup since 1978 have suffered a huge blow with star player Youssef Msakni ruled out due to a knee ligament injury. Tunisia coach Nabil Maloul described the loss as like Argentina going to Russia without Lionel Messi.
Maaloul stripped six players from his provisional group to reveal a whittled down 23-man squad. The Carthage Eagles squad will head to the World Cup without striker Ahmed Akaichi or goalkeeper Moez Ben Cherifia.
Key player: Wahbi Khazri
Tunisia will be hoping that Sunderland winger Wahbi Khazri can provide some punch in their attack after reviving his career this season on loan at Rennes. The 27-year-old scored 11 goals last season back in France, after an ill-fated move from Bordeaux to northeast England in January 2016.
While his parent club were suffering a second straight relegation to drop into the English third tier, Khazri was helping Rennes finish fifth in Ligue 1 to qualify for European football for the first time since 2011-’12.
Vice-captain Khazri has scored more times for his country than anyone else in the squad, and they may need him to produce a moment of magic if they’re to get the result they need against either England or the Belgians to progress from a group also including tournament debutants Panama.
World Cup record: This is the fifth time Tunisia are participating in the World Cup. However, they have never got past the group stage in either of their previous attempts in 1978, 1998, 2002, and 2006.
Prediction: Without Youssef Msakni, it looks unlikely that Tunisia will be able to beat either Belgium or England. A third-placed finish is the best they can hope for.
Panama are the tournament’s rank outsiders with odds of 1000/1, having produced miracles just to make it to Russia by eliminating the United States in qualifying.
A 6-0 friendly thrashing at the hands of Switzerland in March showed the step up from Concacaf to facing some of the world’s best may be a jump too far though.
Panama will have to score more upsets to progress in a Group G. The Central Americans’ preparations ended on a sour note in Oslo on Wednesday: they lost 1-0 and saw their hotel rooms get robbed during the game. Police said objects worth around €53,000 euros were taken.
Key player: Roman Torres
If Harry Kane wants to break his tournament goalscoring duck at the World Cup, the chances are he will need to find a way past the physically imposing figure of Roman Torres.
The Panama defender is one of the key members in the Central Americans’ squad, a rugged centre-half who etched his name into his nation’s football history by scoring the goal that qualified the team for Russia.
At 6ft 2in and 183lbs, the burly Seattle Sounders defender with the build of boxer was the man ultimately responsible for the knockout blow that sent the United States crashing out of World Cup qualifying.
The 32-year-old’s 88th-minute winner in a 2-1 victory over Costa Rica in the final round of qualifying meant Panama edge into the finals for the first time ahead of the shellshocked Americans.
It was sweet revenge for Torres, who four years earlier had been part of the Panama team which conceded two injury-time goals against the US in a 3-2 defeat that ended their hopes of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup.
World Cup record: This is the first time Panama will play in the Fifa World Cup.
Prediction: The best Panama can hope for is a third-place finish if they manage to beat Tunisia. Overcoming either of Belgium and England will be a miracle and a half. Likely to end up fourth.
With inputs from AFP