Argentina, Croatia, Iceland and Nigeria will compete in Group D at the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Here’s what to expect from each side.
Group D looks, at first glance, like a two-horse race between Argentina and Croatia. The big names, the seasoned players plying their trade not only on the biggest stages of club soccer but for the biggest clubs, belong to these two teams.
However, as we’ve seen so many times during past World Cups, teams such as Iceland and Nigeria are capable of elevating their games. Iceland and Nigeria may not have the household names of Argentina or Croatia, but they’ve got plenty of talent.
If either of them can sneak an upset against one of the group favorites, we could in a for a nail-biting race that continues through the last round of group matches. Here’s a look at what to expect from each team in Group D.
The albiceleste‘s strength is in attack, where Lionel Messi will line up alongside the likes of Sergio Aguero, Angel Di Maria, Gonzalo Higuain and Paulo Dybala. If you can afford to leave Mauro Icardi, the leading goalscorer in Italy’s Serie A, at home, you know you’ve got some quality attacking options. Whether those options add up to a coherent whole is harder to say.
Reeling from an embarrassing 6-1 loss against Spain in March (in which Messi didn’t play), there are serious questions regarding Argentina’s midfield and back line. Relying on a 33-year-old Javier Mascherano in a defensive midfield role may have its limitations, while a defense of Nicolas Otamendi, Marcos Rojo (or Federico Fazio) and young, relatively unproven full-backs Eduardo Salvio and Nicolas Taglifico doesn’t inspire much confidence.
Key player: Lionel Messi
Argentina’s hopes begin and end with Messi. He’s the best player in the world and appears to have reached a level of maturity that should enable him to better handle the stress of leading a soccer-crazed nation like Argentina.
He also enters the tournament relatively well rested after exiting the Champions League in the quarterfinals and cruising through the final weeks of the season having long since wrapped up the Liga title with Barcelona.
This may well be Messi’s last chance to lead Argentina to glory and crown his storied career with the major international trophy that has eluded him. It will be a big ask given the holes in the squad, but if anyone can do it, Messi can.
Biggest question: Can Jorge Sampaoli’s tactics work with these players?
Jorge Sampaoli’s success with the Chilean national team was based on a high-pressing system that valued intensity and speed above individual skill. Given Argentina’s aging squad and overall lack of pace, it’s hard to imagine the same approach working as well for them.
Then again, Argentina are, at least in attack, a lot more talented than Sampaoli’s Chile team. If he can get the albiceleste playing in a way that takes even some of the attacking burden off Messi, his number 10 may be able to take care of the rest.
Croatia feature a rare mix of skill and brawn that is the hallmark of successful tournament teams. The nucleus of this side has been together for almost a decade, and this may well be their last tournament together.
Their midfield features Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic, whose performances for Real Madrid and Barcelona, respectively, put them in an elite class. In addition, Ivan Perisic offers blazing speed on the flanks and Mario Mandzukic is a dangerous, goalscoring target man.
Much like Argentina, Croatia’s apparent weakness is their back four, where the strongest of the bunch may be Liverpool’s mistake-prone center-back Dejan Lovren. For Croatia to advance, the back line will need to impress in a group full of dangerous attacking teams.
Key player: Luka Modric
At 32 years young, Modric is probably playing his last major tournament. If he can replicate his club form, where his outstanding technique and ability to link defense and attack have been the driving force in Real Madrid’s dominance of the Champions League, Croatia will be in good shape to qualify out of Group D.
Biggest question: Can they find some consistency?
Their potential is tremendous, but Croatia have been frustratingly inconsistent, finishing behind Iceland in their qualifying group after losses to Iceland and Turkey and draws with Turkey and Finland.
Recent friendly results — losses to Peru and Brazil, and a win against Mexico — have done little to erase these concerns. If they put it together at the right time in Russia, however, this team could go far.
Having strolled through an African qualifying group containing World Cup regulars Cameroon and Algeria, Nigeria have the talent to challenge for a top-two spot in Group D.
They feature a blend of youthful talent, including Alex Iwobi and Kelechi Iheanacho, and experienced veterans such as Jon Obi Mikel and Victor Moses. The Super Eagles have the speed and skill to hurt opponents, particularly out wide, and have plenty of depth across the front line.
The glaring weakness appears to be the goalkeeper spot, as neither of the three keepers on the roster appear ready to fill the shoes of retired keeper Vincent Enyeama. With just days to go before their game against Croatia, it’s still unclear who manager Gernot Rohr will pick as Nigeria’s number 1.
Key player: Wilfred Ndidi
Almost all of Nigeria’s standout players are forwards, and if they’re to succeed in Russia, they’re likely going to score a few goals. That will place a huge amount of responsibility on Leicester’s Wilfred Ndidi, who will be tasked with breaking up counter-attacks and distributing the ball to the forwards. Ndidi’s level of recovery from a recent hamstring injury will be a key factor.
Biggest question: Can they fulfill potential?
Nigeria have often underperformed at World Cups, but made it out of the group stage for the first time this century in Brazil in 2014. They have very little margin for error if they’re to repeat the feat in a difficult group in Russia.
Rohr must strike the right balance between defense and attack. His side have the pace and finishing ability to cause teams problems when breaking at speed, but there’s always a risk that will expose a young, inexperienced defense.
The first game should set the tone for Nigeria’s hopes of qualifying out of the group. Come away with at least a point against Croatia and they’ll stay in the mix until the last game against Argentina. A loss may end their hopes of making it out of the group.
Competing for the first time ever in a World Cup, Iceland have become somewhat of a phenomenon among neutrals. Their impressive showing at Euro 2016, where they knocked England out in the round of 16, earned them fans the world over, but their World Cup qualifying campaign, which saw them top a group containing the likes of Croatia and Turkey, suggested they’re more than just plucky underdogs.
Despite being the smallest country ever to qualify for a World Cup, and having been no more than an afterthought on the world soccer stage less than a decade ago, Iceland head to Russia with genuine hopes of earning a place in the last 16.
Key player: Gylfi Sigurdsson (sort of)
Gylfi Sigurdsson is Iceland’s best player, but their strength lies in the collective. They defend well, usually in numbers, and are extremely opportunistic when they recover the ball, counter-attacking quickly and exploiting their size on set pieces. It isn’t the prettiest style of play, but as their 1-0 win against Croatia in World Cup qualifying suggests, it can get results.
Biggest question: Can they score?
The biggest concern for Iceland will be their ability to generate chances. With the surprise element and the novelty factor of their play gone, opponents will know what to expect from this previously unheralded team. In addition, their most potent attacking threat, Sigurdsson, hasn’t had a stellar year for his club. Someone else will have to step up if Iceland are to have a chance at getting out of the group.