World Cup week is here! In anticipation of the 2018 World Cup kicking off on Thursday, we’ll be taking a look at all 32 teams in each of the 8 groups. It is worth noting that the 2018 World Cup lacks some luster as 5 of the Top 25 teams in the World failed to qualify. Those 5 include some of the biggest names and biggest draws both locally (with the United States missing the World Cup for the first time since 1986) and internationally with Italy, Chile, the Netherlands, and Wales.
Today, we continue with Group G which features one of the most talented offensive teams in the tournament in Belgium, perennially disappointing England, upset-minded Tunisia, and defensive Panama. Group G has the unfortunate alignment in the Knockout Stage where the winner could potentially face the Group E winners (likely Brazil) in the quarterfinals and the second place team could face the Group F winners (likely Germany) in the quarterfinals.
Group A (Russia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Uruguay)
Group B (Portugal, Spain, Morocco, Iran)
Group C (France, Australia, Peru, Denmark)
Group D (Argentina, Iceland, Croatia, Nigeria)
Group E (Brazil, Switzerland, Costa Rica, Serbia)
Group F (Germany, Mexico, Sweden, South Korea)
Belgium qualified for their second consecutive World Cup after reaching the quarterfinals in Brazil. Their best result came in 1986 when the Red Devils finished 4th. Overall, Belgium has made it out of the group stage in 6 of the last 7 World Cups they have appeared in. Belgium also reached the quarterfinals of the 2016 European Championship.
Belgium rolled through qualification with 9 wins and 1 draw, finishing 9 points ahead of second-place Greece. They also netted an astounding 43 goals in 10 qualifying matches, tied with Germany for the most among UEFA teams. As a squad, Belgium has not lost a game in nearly 21 months with their last defeat coming to Spain in September 2016. Since then, the Red Devils are 12-5-0 and look poised for a strong showing in Russia.
Players to Watch
With the combination of Chelsea’s Eden Hazard and Manchester United’s Romelu Lukaku up front, Belgium boasts one of the most offensively talented teams in the tournament. The Red Devils have a capable midfield with Manchester United’s Marouane Fellaini, Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne, and Tottenham Hotspur’s Mousa Dembele. The concern comes on the back end if an experienced but aging defense of Thomas Vermaelen (Barcelona), Vincent Kompany (Manchester City), Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld (both of Tottenham) can hold up against the talent and speed that some other sides will bring. The key to the future of the back line may be Paris Saint-Germain’s Thomas Meunier.
England is appearing in their 6th consecutive World Cup. The Three Lions have not made it past the quarterfinals since a 4th place finish in 1990. They have won one World Cup (in 1966 on home soil on a goal that probably wasn’t a goal). Their reputation for underperforming reared its head again at Euro 2016 when they were bounced in the Round of 16 by Iceland.
With the prevalence of the English Premier League now available on most regular cable packages, fans in the United States have grown more and more familiar with English soccer. Expectations are (once again) high for this group after they breezed through qualification with an 8-2-0 record. The Three Lions have not lost a game in a full calendar year, going 7-3-0 since a loss to France last June.
Players to Watch
England’s squad is made up entirely of players from the Premier League, many of which are household names for regular followers. The English have brought a younger and slightly less experienced team (but still brimming with talent). Up front, Tottenham’s Harry Kane will captain the team and be joined by Jamie Vardy (Leicester City), Raheem Sterling (Manchester City), and Danny Welbeck (Arsenal). Even with all that star power, don’t sleep on 20-year old Marcus Rashford (Manchester United) In the midfield, the Tottenham pair of Dele Alli and Eric Dier will be heavily relied upon to make things happen. Chelsea’s Gary Cahill and Manchester United’s Ashley Young are the senior members of the squad at 32 years old. The biggest question mark will be at keeper where Joe Hart (who manned the goal for the last 3 major tournaments) was left off the roster. Nick Pope (who had 11 clean sheets for Burnley this past year), Jordan Pickford (10 clean sheets for Everton) and Jack Butland (Stoke City) all have fewer than 10 caps but were the only 3 keepers chosen to be on the final roster.
Tunisia qualified for the World Cup for the 5th time in their history and for the first time in 12 years. The Eagles of Carthage have never made it out of the group stage, but enter the World Cup as the highest-ranked African side. They reached the quarterfinals of the Africa Cup of Nations in 2015 and 2017.
Tunisia edged the Democratic Republic of Congo by 1 point to win their CAF Qualification group and earn a spot in Russia. In their tune-ups for the tournament, Tunisia scored a 2-2 draw against Portugal and victories over Costa Rica and Iran. Their only loss in the last year was a 1-0 defeat by Spain.
Players to Watch
Tunisia is a relatively young team and will be captained by keeper Aymen Mathlouthi. He will need to keep his team calm in front of him and will rely on the defensive experience of Ali Maaloul and Syam Ben Youssef. Midfielders Wahbi Khazri and Naim Sliti will be tasked with carrying the team after leading goal-scorer Youssef Msakni went down with a knee injury in April.
This is Panama’s first World Cup appearance. Panama has proven to be a feisty team in CONCACAF play, finishing in the Top 3 in the 2011, 2013 and 2015 Gold Cups. They were defeated by Costa Rica in the quarterfinals of the 2017 Gold Cup.
Panama qualified for the World Cup with a third place finish in the CONCACAF Hex. They were awarded a controversial goal in the final game against Costa Rica where the ball did not cross the line but was called a goal. The “Ghost Goal” was enough to draw Panama even on points with Honduras and with the United States’ loss to last place Trinidad, Marea Roja secured a spot in Russia. Panama has struggled, particularly offensively, since qualifying for the World Cup. In 5 games this year, they have scored just 1 goal and are 1-1-3.
Players to Watch
Panama is a defensive-minded squad that will sit back and wait for an opportunity then capitalize on the break. This stifling style has served them well against CONCACAF competition but could lead to trouble against some of the elite finishers on the World stage. Roman Torres of the Seattle Sounders is the anchor on the back end while Gabriel Gomez will command the midfield, shuttling balls forward to the tandem of Blas Perez and Gabriel Torres up front. This is an older group of players with 6 players over 100 caps. Keeper Jamie Penedo has over 130 appearances for the national team and defender Felipe Baloy will wear the captain’s armband.
Here are the predictions of the SCB crew (including a special guest appearance by soccer expert SteelSon) on which teams from Group G will advance to the Knockout Stage.