Belgium (Currently ranked 3 by FIFA) and England (ranked 12) are clear favourites to qualify from Group G into the knockout stage. However Tunisia (ranked 21) and debutants Panama (ranked 55) would be keen to prove that they are not in the world cup simply to make up the numbers. Their matches against the two favourites should be interesting, to say the least.
Panama will be making their first appearance in world cup finals, and as such, will be one of the least known sides in the competition. However, they have not reached the finals by fluke. They have, in fact, been performing quiet consistently in the last few years, and have come to Russia with a squad that have collectively played over a thousand international matches. In Colombian Hernan Dario Gomez, who has been with Panama since 2014, they have an experienced coach. This will be Gomez’s 3rd world cup, having earlier appeared with Colombia in 1998 and Ecuador in 2002.
Panama’s principal goalkeeper is the highly experienced Jaime Penedo. In defence are two very experienced players in captain Felipe Baloy and centre back Roman Torres, along with the robust Adolfo Machado. Harold Cummings, Erick Davies and Luis Ovalle will also probably feature. Their mainstay in midfield is yet another very experienced campaigner, Gabriel Gomez. He sits in front of the defence and controls the counter attack, along with Anibal Godoy. Armando Cooper is another stalwart in midfield. Young Edgar Barcanas is a relative newcomer in the side, but he can play a significant part. Their main strikers are both very experienced, Luis Tejada and Blas Perez, and they will probably be supported by Gabriel Torres, who operates a little deeper. Young Ismail Diaz may cause a flutter or two if given an opportunity.
Tunisia are currently the highest ranked African team and will be keen to make their mark in this world cup. Coach Nabil Maaloul has included 9 French born players in the squad to give it more variety.
In goal for Tunisia shall be Aymen Mathlouthi, the squad captain. In front of him is a defence that is usually hard to break down. At the centre, Syam Ben Youssef may be partnered by the newcomer Yohan Benalouane, who made his debut for Tunisia just 5 days before his 31st birthday. Hamdi Nagguez can also play at the centre, or move to right back, partnering Ali Maaloul at left back. Yassine Meriah or young Dylan Bronn can also play in the centre. Oussama Haddadi can cover for the side backs.
In midfield, Ferjani Sassi and Mohamed Ben Amor are expected to sit back and control the central midfield, allowing Wahbi Khazri and Naim Sliti to attack. The wing play of Fakreddine Ben Youssef will also be important. Talented youngster Bassem Srarfi may also make his mark. Saber Khalifa and Anice Badri are the two recognised strikers in the squad. Saif-Eddine Khaoui may also join the attack.
England come to the world cup with their youngest squad ever, and few players with prolonged international exposure. However, under Gareth Southgate, their performance so far has been solid, if not sensational. Their 3 back defensive system worked against Brazil and Germany last November, when neither of these heavyweight attacks could score.
England have come with three inexperienced goalkeepers, who have featured in only 12 internationals between them. Jordan Pickford is likely to be first choice, while the slightly more experienced Jack Butland waits in the wings. John Stones, Phil Jones and veteran Gary Cahill could form the three-man central defence, with Harry Maguire as cover. Kyle Walker and Ashley Young could be the two wing backs, covered by Kieran Trippier and Danny Rose respectively. Walker may even move into the central defence to give it more pace. Teenager Trent Alexander-Arnold and the recalled Fabian Delph could also slot in as wing backs. Delph can also play as the midfield marker, if required.
In the centre of midfield, Jordan Henderson could play a key role, along with Eric Dier perhaps. Ruben Loftus-Cheek has shown that he can also fit in adequately when required. In more advanced roles, Jesse Lingard, Raheem Sterling and the flamboyant Dele Alli can lend teeth to the attack. Young captain Harry Kane is England’s best hope for getting goals. Experienced Jamie Vardy or the talented young Marcus Rashford can provide adequate support. Even Danny Welbeck can chip in; his scoring record for England is much better than his club record suggests.
Belgium could well end up as world champions this time. Their talented young squad showed much class and verve in the 2014 world cup, though they fell short in the end. This time they will be much more mature, and their key players are still quite young. Under their Spanish coach Roberto Martinez, the second youngest coach in this year’s competition, they have played some superb football in the last couple of years.
The brilliant young Loic Courteau will be Belgium’s principal goalkeeper, in front of an experienced and skilful defence. The quartet Toby Alderweireld, Thomas Vermaelen, Vincent Kompany (if fully fit) and Jan Vertonghen could all walk into any international team. In Thomas Meunier, Dedrick Boyata and Leander Dendoncker, there is adequate back-up.
The midfield, too, is packed with players of undoubted international class, The magnificent Kevin De Bruyne will have experienced players such as Mousa Dembele, Alex Witsel and Marouane Fellaini around him to weave magic in the middle of the park. Yannick Carrasco and Thorgan Hazard would be more than competent covers, along with the attacking Nacer Chadli. On top of all that is 21 year old Youri Tielemans, who could be one of the revelations of the tournament. The attack is led by their captain and best player Eden Hazard. On his day he can destroy any defence in the world. Romelu Lukaku is a strong striker and a consistent scorer, but he can also be much more. Dries Mertens and Michy Batshuayi can fill in if needed, while the temperamental Adnan Januzaj can join in from the wings.
(From the desk of Rajat Subhra Banerjee)