We’re just one week away from the big kick off and the 2018 edition of the biggest sporting event of them all. The World Cup is finally here and for all England supporters, we’ll soon know whether to expect another big let-down or maybe, just maybe, this young team, assembled by Gareth Southgate, can cause a big upset.
Four years ago in Brazil, Roy Hodgson’s England finished bottom of a strong group but in what seems to be a weaker section this time around, surely that won’t happen again…? The Three Lions are second favourites to win Group G at Russia 2018 at odds of 6/5 with bet365 but to make it through, they will have to negotiate one set of tough opponents and two potential ‘banana skins’.
Here is a general guide to their opponents and we’ve identified some key players that England must be wary of if they are to progress.
England will play the Tunisians in their opening match of the tournament in Volgograd on June 18 and for us, this is the crucial game. Most England squads, even the one that won the Jules Rimet trophy back in 1966, have started big tournaments slowly and with Tunisia third favourites to win the group at 25/1 with 888Sport, they represent the biggest danger to our chances of progressing.
In qualification for Russia 2018, Tunisia topped their third round CAF Group and were unbeaten in six matches. Goals were shared around at that stage but the most vital individual contribution came from Youssef Msakni, who scored a hat trick in the 4-1 win away to Guinea.
Msakni is, however, not travelling to Russia after suffering knee ligament damage at the beginning of April – an injury that was widely seen as a huge blow to Tunisia’ chances in Russia. In his absence, tipsters are identifying 25 year old Naim Sliti as one to watch in this tournament.
The striker plays his club football in France and while his scoring record is a modest one, it’s his assist record and ability to bring others into play that have marked Naim Sliti out as a tangible dangerman.
The leading scorer in this squad is Wahbi Khazri who spent last season on loan at Rennes from Sunderland. Khazri has 12 goals from 36 internationals while the most experienced player is the skipper and first choice keeper Aymen Mathlouthi with 70 caps.
England’s match against Panama is set to be played in Nizhny Novgorod on June 24 and this is expected to be the most comfortable game of all. The Three Lions are quoted at a best industry price of 21/100 with MarathonBet for the win but will this be as easy as the odds setters believe?
Panama are at their first World Cup and they travel to Russia with a vastly experienced squad that contains no fewer than six players who have won more than 100 full international caps. The stats here are quite remarkable with Gabriel Gomez having made 144 appearances – a record for his country – and keeper Jaime Penedo just behind on 131.
Depending on your perspective, you could uncharitably describe the squad as ‘ageing’ with ten players at 30 and over, including two 37 year olds, but we should mock Panama at our peril.
The side qualified in third place from their CONCACAF section and much has been made of the fact that they came through with a negative goal difference but nevertheless, two of the squad, Luis Tejeda and Blas Perez have both registered 43 goals from their country so there is some potency in this set up.
Goals were shared around in qualifying but the player to watch is Gabriel Torres, who was joint top scorer with two and has been handed the number nine shirt. Qualifying was, however, based on this side not conceding so it’s the defence that England, and others, will need to break down in Russia.
Panama are best-priced at 50/1 with MarathonBet to win Group G and while that won’t happen, there is potential to frustrate teams and this side will be confident of taking at least a point off Tunisia in Saransk on June 28.
Unlike their earlier opponents, much of this Belgium side will be familiar to England’s players and supporters. In fact, there are 11 players in this 23-man squad who are currently with Premier League clubs and all but one of those 23 is employed outside of Belgium.
The threats are obvious ones with Romelu Lukaku now starting to bring his club form into the international arena while Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne will be supplying the ammunition, and additional goal threats from midfield.
When we consider Belgium’s qualifying campaign, it really is hard to find a vulnerability as the Red Devils won nine and drew one of their ten games, albeit in one of the weaker UEFA sections. Lukaku finished with 11 goals from those ten games and after a sluggish start to life in a Belgian shirt, he is on top form right now and likely to be the biggest danger to England when the sides meet on June 28.
Much has been made of the decision by manager Roberto Martinez to leave Roma’s Radja Nainggolan at home and that was a definite surprise but the 30 year old has only been used sparingly in his nine years as a full international and when you look at the quality and depth of this squad, the midfielder is unlikely to be missed.
Fast Start Needed
There are dangers within each of their three opponents but England’s hopes of progressing come down to one game and that’s the opening fixture against Tunisia. If they win, a comfortable contest against Panama follows and Southgate’s side will then be virtually assured of a place in the knockouts when they tackle Belgium in their final match.
Alternatively, even a draw with Tunisia could be a disaster as England will not want to approach such a strong Belgian unit while carrying any element of desperation. We must therefore hope that the curse of the ‘slow start’ doesn’t affect this current pride of Lions.