In Group D Argentina (currently ranked 5 by FIFA) seem to be the clear favourites to progress; the others in the group are considerably lesser ranked. They are Iceland (22), Croatia (23) and Nigeria (48). However, Argentina would be ill advised to underestimate any of their group opponents, as each team is capable of producing upsets.
Nigeria have always been underachievers in the world cup, so to speak, in spite of having quite a few talented individuals. This time a lot will depend on how their German coach Gernot Rohr moulds the side and lays down the strategies and tactics. As usual, there is no dearth of talent in the team.
Their likely first choice goalkeeper is Ichechukwu Ezenwa, the only home based player in the squad. In defence, the most experienced campaigner is the left back Elderson Echiejile, who was in the 2010 squad. The centre of the defence is likely to be manned by the Dutch-born William Troost-Ekong and the German-born Leon Balogun. The versatile Kenneth Omeruo can play as right back, or slip into central defence, as required. Shehu Abdullahi is another versatile defender who can cover for any of the above.
The midfield will be led by the experienced John Obi Mikel, who is also the squad captain. Supporting him in central midfield will be the talented young Wilfred Ndidi and the fluent Ogenyi Onazi. Joel Obi of Torino can be a handful in the left flank. The right wing is likely to be manned by the robust Victor Moses. John Ogu, if given the opportunity, can be a creative attacking central midfielder. Young Alex Iwobi of Arsenal is another who can play in the midfield, or lend support to the strikers. Up front, the spearhead is likely to be the powerful Odion Oghalo. Ahmed Musa is also likely to play a major role. Who can forget his two goals against Argentina in the 2014 cup? As back-up, there is another talented youngster, Kelechi Iheanacho.
Croatia, as usual, come to the world cup with a host of brilliant individuals. Their progress in the tournament, however, will depend a lot on how coach Zlatko Dalic can mould the team into a unit. The team is experienced enough, with 13 players from their 2014 squad, including captain Luka Modric, who also played in the 2006 world cup.
The experienced Danijel Subasic is the first choice goalkeeper. The central defence is likely to be manned by cup veterans Vedran Corluka and Dejan Lovren, both powerful players with a lot of aerial control. The side backs are likely to be Sime Vrsaljko (right) and Ivan Strinic (left). The versatile Domagoj Vida can also get a look in.
The Croatian midfield is full of breathtaking talent. Modric has the skills and the temperament to mesmerise any opposition. (He has been one of my most favourite players in the world for many years now.) Alongside him are such wonderful performers like Ivan Rakitic, Mateo Kovacic and Ivan Perisic, each of whom can walk into any international side. Marcelo Brozovic is not far behind, while Milan Badelj can provide solidity as a defensive midfielder. The splendid Mario Mandzukic is likely to lead the Croatian attack, alongside Nikola Kalinic or Andrej Kramaric.
If Croatia can harness all this talent into a cohesive unit, then there are no limits to what this team can achieve.
Iceland will be playing for the first time in the world cup, and that by itself is a huge achievement. When the cup gets underway, Iceland will become the smallest nation (in terms of population) to ever play in the finals. However, Iceland have already demonstrated that they are not satisfied with such records and are determined to make their mark in the competition. Their coach, Heimir Hallgrimsson, is a dentist by profession – the only part time coach in international football, I guess – and he seems to have literally scaled this team to size and drilled it to perfection!
Iceland’s goalkeeper Hannes Halldorsson is a seasoned campaigner and is a pillar of strength. The centre of defence will in all probability be manned by Ragnar Sigurdsson and Kari Arnason, with support from side backs Birkir Mar Saevarsson and Ari Freyr Skulason. Russia based Sverrir Ingason might also play a significant part in defence.
The midfield general is their captain Aron Gunarsson, who will look to the splendid Gylfi Sigurdsson to provide the attacking flair, and to Birkir Bjarnason to provide the central solidity. Johann Berg Gudmundsson and Emil Hallfredsson are likely to provide the width with their wing play. Veteran Olafur Skulason is another defensive midfielder who can play a part. Young Arnor Traustason is another talented midfielder in the squad. Iceland’s principal striker is Alfred Finnbogason, with Jon Dadi Bodvarsson expected to provide adequate support.
Iceland can be a handful for their opponents, and it will be a big mistake to underestimate them, as England found out to their chagrin in Euro 2016. Personally, I will be delighted to see this team in the knockout stage.
Argentina go into the competition under Jorge Sampaoli, who coached Chile in the last world cup. They had to wait until the last match to confirm qualification, but now that they are there, their fans will be expecting the team to at least repeat their feat of 2014 when they reached the final. However, their superstar and captain Lionel Messi and other big guns will have to fire regularly to make that possible.
The team lost their principal goalkeeper to injury just a few weeks ago, and their three squad goalkeepers are really short of international experience. It will be interesting to see who gets the nod to start in goal; the highly experienced (in club football) Willy Caballero might be Sampaoli’s choice. The defence revolves around the veteran Javier Mascherano (who will be playing in his 4th cup) and he will need full support from the two other experienced defenders in the team, Nicolas Otamendi and Marcos Rojo. Federico Fazio, Cristian Ansaldi and Gabriel Mercado have plenty of experience at club level, but not so much at international level.
In the centre of midfield both Lucas Biglia and Ever Banega do have international experience, as does winger Angel Di Maria. Together they can be a potent force. Enzo Perez, who was included recently for the injured Manuel Lanzini, can also play a part. Young Cristian Pavon is an exciting prospect with his speed and skill and it is to be seen how much opportunity he is given. But the key man for Argentina in attack is obviously Messi, as he has been for so many years now. He can slide through any defence and score magical goals, but he will need solid support from his strikers. Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain become very important to the team in this respect, but it might be young Paulo Dybala who will emerge as the new superstar for Argentina this time. He definitely has the potential.
(From the desk of Rajat Subhra Banerjee)