There is always a designated ‘Group of Death’ at these World Cup tournaments, and the 2018 edition has to be Group D. Due to seeding, it always seems that there is bound to be a foursome that features a quartet of quality teams, and with this group, it’s no different. Argentina enters as the class of Group D, featuring the world’s best talent in Lionel Messi. But they will certainly have their hands full and face a stiff test throughout the group stage from countries like Nigeria, Iceland, and Croatia.
While Argentina enters as the favorites, the battle for second place will be fierce between these equally competitive sides. It is worth noting that the runner-up from Group D will likely face-off against France in the Round of 16. Regardless of which team advances from this fascinating group, Les Bleus will be on upset alert right away in the knockout stage. This all makes for a thrilling Group D preview. Read on below for team-by-team analysis and predictions for 2018’s Group of Death.
For all of the Argentinian talent, they should really be much better and enter as more decisive of favorites before this year’s World Cup. Their qualification to Russia was a grueling road, requiring all kinds of last match heroics from the dominant Lionel Messi – but unfortunately what surrounds the talented attacker remains very uncertain.
Like the French of Group C, the Argentinians too possess a wealth of talent but have yet to truly find a lineups that fits or a style that meshes. They’re littered with an array of skilled offensive players such as Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Aguero, Angel di Maria, and Paulo Dybala – but there are still concerns with their play away from the ball.
Manager Jorge Sampaoli likes high defensive lines, and it remains to be seen how the Argentineans can handle that in a tight Group D. As of now, he hasn’t found the right mix on defense and the personnel he has to choose from doesn’t really inspire much confidence to play the active style he craves. La Albiceleste have the necessary talent to emerge from this group and perhaps even to hoist a World Cup trophy, but given their dysfunction and uncertainty, it wouldn’t be shocking to see them struggle with a pesky group of contenders.
Sampaoli likes a pressing and active 10-man system, but typically that hasn’t worked for Lionel Messi in the past. It seems like a classic case of jamming square pegs into round holes. The talent is there, but the results may not be in Russia.
Croatia have long been the perennial dark-horse team at these major international tournaments. However, the 2018 version might just escape from the darkness as it truly is their top team in years. The Croatians enter a very deep group, with skill at all positions. Luka Modric returns as a midfield maestro, and though he is now 37 years old, I’d venture to expect a memorable last hurrah from the Croatian star. He’s still a huge part of the squad and will be counted upon to control that midfield and provide great service to their lethal strikers up front.
That said, for all of their talent on paper – they seemed disjointed in pre-tournament friendlies and qualifying. Iceland should have never finished above them, yet their team-oriented approach stymied the skilled Croatians. Manager Zlatko Dalic has been criticized in the lead-up for a glaring lack of a decisive plan or tactical approach. At times it just looks like a talented group of Croatians are out to play a high-pace game of pick-up soccer. There’s more here, and this generation of Croatians knows it’s time to be urgent at Russia 2018.
They’re an incredibly attack-minded side and that could make for must-see TV when those beautiful jerseys take to the pitch in Russia. Dalic employs a 4-2-3-1 formation on most occasions, and that has his side typically on the front-foot, dictating the pace of most matches.
That said, there’s also a weakness to this side – stunning inconsistency. They can beat the best but can be beaten by the worst. There’s no reason the Croatians should struggle against teams like Finland or Estonia, but a bumpy qualifying road showed some holes within this roster. They also have an old back-line that can be exposed in this mostly speedy group. If the Croatians play too far forward and get caught on the counter-attack, it could leave some of their weaknesses exposed. But if they play things smartly and Dalic has them focused and well-prepared, they could make a deep run in Russia.
There has been much hype about the Nigerian team jerseys in the lead-up to Russia 2018. If you haven’t seen them already, I really recommend a viewing. But this squad isn’t here because of their unique kit features – they’re here because the Super Eagles can flat out fly. This is a team that plays fast, and manager Gernot Rohr would have it no other way. This tournament likely marks the beginning of a prominent period in Nigeria football, with many young stars on display for the first time on the world stage.
Their strengths like in a formidable and pace-driven attack. Many within the side can flat out run, and that can create tons of trouble for some shoddy back-lines among the rest of Group D. Victor Moses of Chelsea will play a key role in the centre of the field winning balls and driving them forward, while the pace and skill Alex Iwobi should be there to bag a few goals in the group stage at least. Their captain John Obi Mikel is on the final legs of his illustrious career, but he can still play a key role with his experience and playmaking ability.
Where the Super Eagles struggle is beyond those few star players, there isn’t much else. The depth falls off dramatically which can be concerning with card accumulation or injuries gained in these tightly compressed competitions. If their three-man midfield can’t control the game and win key balls, it will leave a very mediocre back-line exposed. This is likely why they’ll stick with a four-man back-line to keep things as tight as possible. They’re lethal on the counter-attack and will score some goals via this route, but defending against the likes of Croatia and Argentina for 90 minutes will prove to be a challenging feat. It’s also worth pointing out that this is a side getting a ton of hype despite entering in such poor form.
They’ve won just once from their past six fixtures, losing to the Czech Republic and England, and even drawing a poor side from Congo. They can be better, but 2018 might be too soon for a side that still needs to mature.
Iceland were undoubtedly the story of Euro 2016. Their magnificent run to the quarter-finals was unexpected and showed the power of team-oriented football. That strategy has again led the diminutive nation to its first ever World Cup in Russia, though this tournament might be a lot tougher for this Cinderella story.
They win games because they’re supremely well-organized and all players strictly adhere to the team’s vision and philosophy. They remain an excellent defensive squad and they really make their set pieces count. Iceland are excellent off of corners, and free kicks – especially with Everton’s Gylfi Sigurdsson’s sublime deliveries. They are a big and tall side, and those types of situations have to concern the defense and goalkeepers of their Group D foes.
That said, this team still lacks a ton of skill and creativity outside of maybe a few players. They struggle to maintain possession of the ball, and it’s incredibly difficult to defend for upwards of 90 minutes against teams like Argentina, Croatia, and Nigeria. Let’s not forget there was a lot of luck involved in Iceland’s run to the quarters two years ago, and then France suddenly pumped five past them.