Group G features an interesting dichotomy between the supposed top-two teams and bottom-two sides. At the top of this group sit Belgium and England. Two sides littered with talent but have struggled to put it together in recent major tournaments. They’ll be incredibly happy to have drawn a cakewalk pairing of Panama and Tunisia, both of whom are surely just pleased with attending Russia 2018.
Nobody is expecting anything from either of these minnows and even if they play their best – likely can’t trouble the sheer skill and talent Belgium and England have to offer. Where this group will get interesting is on the final match day, when the Belgians battle the Three Lions. That should make for a thrilling clash, featuring a ton of skill and attacking quality. The winner of this group is set up well going into the knockout stage, and while that should be a priority, don’t be stunned if both Belgium and England exorcize some old demons en route to a deep run at this year’s World Cup.
With the tournament’s opening kickoff just a few hours away, continue building that knowledge base by reading through these group previews and team predictions. For an intriguing Group G, read on below for how I see things playing out.
*Odds posted are ‘To Win Group’
This certainly has to be the stage that the talented Belgians finally turn things around. It really is a remarkable generation of footballing talent that has come through the ranks in Belgium, and it’d be a shame to see all of this skill go to waste. They deserve a deep run and many fans and pundits alike are eager to see them at their best.
The always-smiling Roberto Martinez has been a popular replacement at the managerial position instead of Marc Wilmots, and the change has paid immediate dividends. They effectively utilize all of their talent across the pitch, and put the pressure on opposing teams. This was evident in the qualification stage when they won 9 out of their 10 contests, scoring a staggering 43 goals in the process. Eleven of those were netted by their beastly target up front, Manchester United’s Romelu Lukaku. He’s fortunate enough to receive service from two of the game’s best creative midfielders in Eden Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne. That trio can shred any defensive backline, and I think the Belgians will be in a position to do that many times in this tournament.
Along the Belgian defense, they are still very attack-oriented. Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen have finishing ability and will push forward, particularly off of set pieces. Fullback Thomas Meunier managed to get five goals in qualification, which emphasizes the approach Martinez has implemented.
One area where they could fall short could be what makes them so fascinating. Due to their tactics, at times they can be a bit reckless. And at times it seems a bit chaotic and disorganized. Their defense is solid, but if they get caught out too far forward, it could make the Belgians vulnerable to an attack going the other way.
The time is now for this generation of Belgium football. Martinez is the right coach for this group, and they’re as talented as any team on paper. With an easier group to begin with – it should make for a confident start en route to a deep run in Russia.
The expectations surrounding this England side aren’t as high as they normally would be before a major international tournament, but this relatively easy group has many holding out hope of bigger and better things. Manager Gareth Southgate has brought in a new-look side, one that has emphasized the speed and skill within the country, and represents a nice change from the old guard to impressive youngsters.
Southgate has implemented a clear system, one that is very much team-oriented and places an emphasis on possession. They are immensely athletic and that showed on many occasions as the Three Lions breezed through the qualifying stages. England are also fortunate to have one of the better striker duos at the tournament in Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling.
Those two should complement each other well, and both of them should find scoring success in Russia. Sterling provides the type of game-breaking ability needed for these shortened tournaments, and his pace should put pressure on the defensive units in this group. At the back, England have maintained their solidity, regularly shutting out the opposition, and that has continued with their pre-tournament friendlies.
Though it’s common to just expect things to go horribly wrong for England, this squad seems very different from years past. They have skill and talent and a clear vision for how they want to play. Still, however, there are some concerns from the squad. Striker Harry Kane is a great talent but he’s been rushed back from a nagging ankle injury. If he isn’t at his best, it remains to be seen how much attacking threat they’ll possess.
It was also tough to lose Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain before Russia 2018, as his speed would have provided a needed boost, and without him it remains to be seen what their midfield play will be like. It’s imperative to have change-makers within the centre of the pitch, and this is where England can be criticized for lacking creative talent here. It’s believed that Southgate will rely heavily on Jordan Henderson to be the primary ball-winner and distributor to the Kane/Sterling duo, but compared to other top squads – England seems lacking in this area. Against teams that like to put 10 men behind the ball and just defend, it’s uncertain if England have enough passing and creativity to break the proverbial wall down for goals.
Tunisia have never progressed out of the group stage, and Russia 2018 won’t be their first time either. They enter as a step above Panama but are a distant third behind Belgium and England. Making matters worse for the Tunisians is the fact that they’ve endured a fair share of crucial injuries in the lead-up to the tournament. And unlike other sides, the Tunisians do not have anywhere near the depth to compensate for key absences. Star attacker Youssef Msakni tore a ligament back in April and goal scoring will now be much harder to come by. They will also need to force players out of their usual positions, and will likely look to having midfielder Wahbi Khazri lead the attack up top at the striker position.
The Tunisians will likely employ two vastly different tactical approaches in this group. Against Belgium and England, I’d expect them to go with five defenders at the back, with the hopes of securing a draw. That’s a great strategy in theory, except for the fact that Tunisia don’t defend all that well. However, when they take on Panama, I’d expect the Tunisians to have a real go of things and be more liberated with their attack.
This is a team that will struggle from open play and won’t be able to generate much in Group G. They’re a physical side who have the potential to do damage from set pieces, and if they get fortunate in this area – they could be considered a sleeper team going forward. England and Belgium have both been susceptible to collapses in big tournaments before, but I just can’t envision Tunisia being able to shock the world and pass one of those nations. And though they have gotten some promising results and morale victories in the lead-up to Russia 2018, I’d expect once the tournament gets going many teams will raise their game past what Tunisia has to offer.
As their odds above would indicate – the Panamanians have little shot to ruffle any feathers at Russia 2018. Though their players and staff would never admit it, surely Panama is content to just be in attendance at Russia 2018. They were fortunate throughout CONCACAF qualifying and their surprising run is the main reason why the United States are sitting at home and watching.
At this tournament, they will be bringing an incredibly old side. They have lots of international experience but zero World Cup experience. The biggest focus for their team will be playing solid defense and ensuring all 10 men are behind the ball when they don’t possess it.
Panama plays a frustrating style, one that won’t be all that appealing for fans watching them. Look for them to comfortably put five defenders at the back and have the speedy Blas Perez up top to do it all himself on a counter. It will be interesting to see how the likes of Belgium and England react if they can’t break down Panama after a half or so – but I can’t see this team having success over a full game in Russia. They’re incredibly limited on the ball, and in the end, Panama is just content for this experience.