In one of the World Cup’s more straightforward groups, all will come down to the meeting of the two European sides – England and Belgium – on match day three, with minnows Tunisia and Panama widely expected not to advance.
So often their own worst enemies, England will try to avoid the humiliation of exiting at the group stages as they did in Brazil in 2014, the first time they had done so since 1958. Despite the presence of Belgium in their bracket, failure this time around will be considered a catastrophe for Gareth Southgate’s men.
It has been a while since England have performed to their potential on the world stage; since their 1966 World Cup win, fourth place at Italia 90 and three quarter final finishes are all they have to show in the intervening World Cups.
Despite drawing players from the Premier League – arguably the most talent-packed and competitive domestic division in world football – they have frankly underachieved when it matters.
So great is the public expectation on Gareth Southgate’s squad that it can lead to a paralyzing effect on the players. The result is that they tend to stifle themselves, which leads to criticism in the tabloids, leading to more pressure and more inadequacy on the pitch.
After being disappointingly dumped out of Euro 2016 by relative minnows Iceland, and crashing out at the first hurdle four years ago, time will tell if England have learned from recent costly mistakes.
On the upside for the Three Lions, Tottenham Hotspur’s Harry Kane has emerged in the last few years as a world class forward to lead their line, while Raheem Sterling’s form has lit up for Manchester City this season.
There is also some spring cleaning in Southgate’s squad. The England manager has opted to exclude experienced but out-of-favor players such as goalkeeper Joe Hart and midfielder Jack Wilshere, who have not even been named as back-up.
In their place are Burnley stopper Nick Pope and Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who spent last term on loan at Crystal Palace from Chelsea. Both have starred in relatively successful seasons for their club sides.
Will this England side venture beyond the quarterfinals or maybe even further? We will find out at Russia 2018, but if England fans can do one thing, it is dream.
If Harry Kane can reproduce his domestic form at the World Cup, England will have one of the world’s best players in their ranks. The Spurs man is a complete center forward, comfortable making runs behind the back four or holding up play to allow his teammates to streak forward. Kane’s form dropped off a little towards the end of a grueling season in England, but if he is rested and on form ahead of Russia 2018, he will be a handful for anyone.
His Tottenham teammate, Dele Alli, will be expected to provide vital support to Kane from just behind the forward line. Kyle Walker still remains one of the best full backs in world football and will be invaluable in defence, while Man United duo Marcis Rashford and Jesse Lingard add attacking threats up front.
If the results fall as expected, both Belgium and England will enter their match day three duel on June 28 in Kaliningrad, with the intention of topping the group. This Belgian team, currently ranked as the world’s 3rd best side, remain in the midst of their ‘Golden Generation’ as a seemingly never-ending conveyor belt of outrageously talented players continues whirring along.
Any team which boasts the attacking threats of Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku is capable of causing trouble to even the most miserly of defenses, but unlike some of the other major nations at this summer’s tournament, the Belgian side is remarkably balanced all across the park.
Their rearguard is marshaled by the excellent Toby Alderweireld and Vincent Kompany (when fit, of course) and add to that one of the world’s best goalkeepers in Thibaut Courtois and a midfield which contains Moussa Dembele and Axel Witsel, and you have a team who will be confident of an extended stay in Russia this summer.
Belgium are littered with an array of different attacking threats, but in Eden Hazard they have one of the world’s most capable forwards. When the Chelsea man is on form he is almost unplayable, and if Belgium are to deliver on the lofty expectations in Russia, one suspects that Hazard will be central to it. Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne has the potential to light up any stage, and Russia 2018 could bring out the form that saw him become a pivotal part of Manchester City’s 100-point total Premier League season.
Panama qualified for their first ever World Cup ahead of the United States and Honduras in the CONCACAF qualification round – quite an achievement when you consider the lack of resources available in Panamanian football.
Qualification for the World Cup is likely going to be as good as it gets for them, however. The team lacks any real quality and struggled to find the net in the qualification round, relying instead on an organized defence and an indomitable team spirit to drag them to Russia.
Things will be much tougher when faced with the attacking wealth that Belgium and England have in their ranks. A point, likely against Tunisia, is the best that Panama can hope for in their maiden World Cup voyage.
Román Torres. The Seattle Sounders defender is the most influential member of a Panamanian side devoid of any real quality, but his 110-cap experience will mean that at least he won’t be overawed by the situation. Captain and center-back Felipe Baloy is the oldest member of the squad at 37, but his experience is expected to be a huge advantage to the squad in Russia.
The Tunisians have never qualified from the group stage in their four previous attempts, and as fate has placed them in a group with both Belgium and England, it looks like they are not going to improve upon that record any time soon.
While a gulf in class exists between Tunisia and the two group favorites, a similar gulf exists between them and Panama, so Tunisia’s best case scenario will be to emerge from Group H with a solid victory against the group’s minnows and hope to nick a point from one of the other sides in their group.
Realistically, Tunisia will most likely finish third and continue their unfortunate trend of flying home before the knockout stages begin. But anything can happen on the world’s biggest stage.
Wahbi Khazri averaged a goal every other game in the French Ligue 1 this season, so it will be important for England and Belgium to respect the goal scoring threat of the Rennes man, who is on loan from Sunderland.