We continue our 2018 World Cup previews with Group G, which is incredibly top-heavy. Belgium is one of the favorites to hoist the cup in Russia, while England should easily work its way into second place. While Tunisia and Panama could be pesky, the European squads should advance.
KEY PLAYERS TO WATCH
KEVIN DE BRUYNE, BELGIUM
Belgium is one of the favorites in this year’s tournament and much of that has to do with the team’s powerful midfield. While Eden Hazard is one of the world’s best players, Kevin De Bruyne has surpassed him as the best Beligum has to offer.
The man who makes Manchester City go, De Bruyne is the perfect modern attacking midfielder. He was named the Premier League Playmaker of the Season this year, was on this season’s PFA Team of the Year and was name Man City’s Player of the Year for the second time.
The 26-year-old is peaking at the right time to propel Belgium on a World Cup run.
HARRY KANE, ENGLAND
If England is going to make at run in Russia, it will need to find a way to score goals. Few in the world do that better than the team’s captain, Harry Kane.
At just 24 years old, Kane has developed into one of the game’s best finishers. In 150 Premier League maches for Tottenham Hotspur, he has tallied 108 goals. And in just 24 national team appearances for the Three Lions, he has found the back of the net 13 times. The goal-scoring machine has won the Premier League’s Golden Boot twice and has been named to the league’s Team of the Year in four straight seasons.
Kane will need to show up big at the 2018 World Cup if England is to compete for its first championship in 52 years. Luckily, he’s developed into an incredible goal-scorer.
WAHBI KHAZRI, TUNISIA
With Youssef Msakni out for the World Cup after tearing a knee ligament, Tunisia will need someone to step up as a go-to playmaker in his absence. That responsibility will almost certainly fall on the shoulders of Wahbi Khazri, who had an outstanding club season.
Khazri was loaned from Sunderland to Rennes this season and he made the most of the move. In 24 league matches he tallied nine goals and in 29 total appearances he bagged 11. He has also scored 12 goals in his 36 matches for the national team.
An attacking midfielder by trade, Khazri can move around the pitch, and has been used as a “false nine” for Tunisia in the past. He will need to provide something special in Russia, as the Tunisians are really up against it in this group.
World Cup Finals Appearances: 12
Best Finish: Fourth place 1986
FIFA World Rank: 3
This may finally be the Red Devils’ time to shine. After a run to the quarterfinals in 2014, Belgium is now one of the favorites to take home a World Cup. It’s not hard to see why.
The squad has an outstanding manager in Roberto Martinez, plus an embarrassment of talented players. De Bruyne and Hazard are arguably the world’s best playmaking duo, while Romelo Lukaku is a world-class striker up front. At the back, the Belgians boast an oustanding keeper in Chelsea’s Thibaut Courtois, and if defensemen Jan Vertonghen and Vincent Kompany can stay healthy, this team will be stout top to bottom.
But can Belgium handle the expectations that will be heaped upon them this year? The Red Devils were one of the favorites at Euro 2016 and bowed out in the quarterfinals with a tremendously disappointing 3-1 loss to Wales. Only time will tell if they can avoid similar heartbreak in Russia.
Previous World Cup Finals Appearances: 14
Best Finishes: Champions in 1966, fourth place in 1990
FIFA World Rank: 13
Disappointments on the biggest stage have haunted the English national team for years. At the 2014 World Cup, the Three Lions didn’t escape the group stage and at Euro 2016 they were bounced from the Round of 16 by Iceland in an enormous upset. It’s no wonder the team has a new, younger look with a new manager.
Gary Cahill, Ashley Young and Jamie Vardy are the only players on this roster over 30 years old, as England has embraced a youth movement. Even with a young squad, this team had better advance out of the group or there will be hell to pay.
The team will have young talent everywhere, but especially up front. With Kane, Raheem Sterling, and Marcus Rashford, there is plenty of youth at forward, while Danny Welbeck and Vardy provide the experience. In the midfield, Dele Alli, Jesse Lingard, Jordan Henderson and Eric Dier should all see time.
Meanwhile, at the back it’s anyone’s guess who will get playing time. There’s a ton of inexperience that will be combined with Manchester City’s Kyle Walker, plus Cahill, Young and Manchester United’s Phil Jones. If things get fall apart for England it will almost certainly be because of a lack of continuity in their own end.
Previous World Cup Finals Appearances: 4
Best Finish: Group stage 1978, 1998, 2002 and 2006
FIFA World Rank: 14
Tunisia enters the 2018 World Cup as something of a wild card, as no one knows exactly what to expect. Despite an obviously inflated FIFA world ranking, the Eagles of Carthage (great nickname) aren’t expected to do much damage. But don’t dismiss them so quickly.
Tunisia won its qualifying group without losing a match and only surrendered four goals in six matches. In fact, the Tunisians didn’t lose at all during qualification.
In this, their fifth World Cup, now they will attempt to finally get out of the group stage, and they will have to do it without their best player, Youssef Msakni. Instead, Tunisia will rely heavily on the aforementioned Khazri and on 31-year-old striker Saber Khalifa.
Facing England and Belgium in their first two matches will be brutal for the Tunisians, but if they can salvage a point in one of those contests, a berth in the Round of 16 will be within reach on the final day of group play.
Previous World Cup Finals Appearances: 0
Best Finishes: N/A
FIFA World Rank: 55
Panama is making its first trip to the World Cup and that’s a reason for celebration…unless you’re a fan of American soccer, because the Panamanians took one of the three automatic qualification spots the U.S. should have had. Sorry, did I just bring up a painful memory?
Los Canaleros will ride into Russia thrilled to be there, but they are not expected to advanced past the group stage. Seattle Sounders defender Roman Torres is the team’s best player, while 37-year-old captain Felipe Baloy will be his partner in crime on the back line. Up front, the nation’s all-time leading goal scorers Blas Perez and Luis Tejada (both have 43 international goals) will try to make something happen.
As with the Tunisians, the game here is to land a point in one of the first two matches against Belgium and England. If the Panamanians do that, they’ll have a chance to advance. If not? Here’s hoping they enjoy the trip.
June 18: Belgium vs. Panama (Sochi), 11 a.m. ET/8 a.m. PT
June 18: Tunisia vs. England (Volgograd), 2 p.m. ET/11 a.m. PT
June 23: Belgium vs. Tunisia (Moscow), 8 p.m. ET/5 a.m. PT
June 24: England vs. Panama (Nizhny), 8 a.m. ET/5 a.m. PT
June 28: England vs. Belgium (Kaliningrad), 2 p.m. ET/11 a.m. PT
June 28: Panama vs. Tunisia (Saransk), 2 p.m. ET/11 a.m. PT
ALL ODDS TO WIN GROUP VIA ODDSCHECKER (PERCENTAGE CHANCE TO ADVANCE IN PARENTHESES)
BELGIUM 5/6 (91%)
ENGLAND 11/8 (86%)
TUNISIA 20/1 (15%)
PANAMA 50/1 (8%)