Group G: Belgium, Panama, Tunisia, England
So the nation whose golden generation have failed to live up to their immense individual talents have drawn a group with…England, the irony. Belgium will arrive in Russia for another shot at lighting up a major tournament, this isn’t this Belgian sides last chance but with Toby Alderweireld (aged 28), Jan Vertonghen (30), Dries Mertens (32), Vincent Kompany (31 if fit) and Marouane Fellaini (30) this represents their last great chance to make an impact.
With Roberto Martinez replacing Marc Wilmots as manager, Belgium cruised through qualifying but can he steer them to a successful tournament? On paper this is a great side with Thibaut Cortois in goal Vertonghen, Alderweireld and Kompany in defence, Axel Witsel & Mousa Dembele in midfield and the powerful Romelu Lukuaku up front. But it’s the creative powers of Mertens, Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne that could truly power this team to greatness. But can Martinez meld them into a cohesive team and can he fit them into a formation that works as opposed to shoehorning players the way Sven-Goran Eriksson did with England’s golden generation?
Up first for Belgium are Panama who surprised everyone by qualifying ahead of the USA from Concaaf. It will be Panama’s World Cup debut so pride and passion won’t be in short supply. Quality on the other hand might be an issue, Panama are an ageing side whose main attacking threats Blaz Perez and Luis Tajeda have 86 international goals and 71 years between them. But the presence of a limited but passionate unfancied side will stir bad memories for both Belgium & England.
Tunisia meanwhile will provide England’s opening opposition. Tunisia are strong defensively marshalled by champions league regular Aymen Abdennour. They aren’t the most dynamic side but Rennes’ former Sunderland winger Whabi Khazri provides pace and creativity to a functional side.
And so to England, qualification for the World Cup was rarely in doubt but they entertained on even rarer occasions. It’s prompted Gareth Southgate to move to a more expansive 3-4-3 formation with encouraging signs shown in their recent friendlies with Holland, Germany & Brazil. Ball playing centre-back John Stones is having the best season of his fledgling career and England rarely concede goals, they have pace and power down the flanks in Kyle Walker, Kieran Trippier & Danny Rose. Forward power shouldn’t prove a problem either with Harry Kane, Marcus Rashford, Raheem Sterling & Jamie Vardy.
The goalkeeping pecking order remains unclear with Joe Hart’s dropped opening the door for Jordan Pickford or Jack Butland but the biggest issue is central midfield, where England have lacked a player to link defence with attack and there’s a desperate lack of creativity to go with the defensive Eric Dier. Dier’s Spurs teammate Harry Winks could have been a key man but for injury so Ruben Loftus-Cheek could prove a bolter with his range of passing and willingenss to move forward.
The kind draw has raised hopes of a strong showing in Russia but limited sides like Tunisia and Panama are the sort of teams England struggled with in qualifying. England will need to improve their distribution in midfield to break these sides down- prompting talk of Jesse Lingard or Dele Alli playing a more withdrawn role.
No big name nation needs a strong showing more than England after their desperate showings in 2010, 2014 & Euro 2016, the incredible progress of their youth sides this year hints at better days ahead but they need to start at senior level next summer.
England & Belgium should emerge from this group but both need to make a statement that they are a force to be reckoned with if they are to move on from the disappointments of the past.
Must watch game: Belgium v England June 28th 7pm- this should just be a case of deciding top spot but Belgiums attack against England’s defence should be a great contest.
Prediction: 1st England, 2nd Belgium, 3rd Tunisia, 4th Panama
Group H: Poland, Senegal, Colombia, Japan
Poland employed some boffins to determine the best of being in pot 1 and they worked out not playing friendlies was the best method- so this is their reward is a tough group with 3 dangerous attacking sides.
There’s no doubting Poland’s greatest strength the incredibly prolific Robert Lewandowski, he’s already broken his nations goalscoring record and will inevitably be a marked man in Russia.
Arkadiusz Milik is an excellent foil for Poland’s main man whilst Lucasz Piszczek & Jakub Blaszczykowski can provide ammunition from the flanks. Poland’s main problem is their defence isn’t the strongest and all their goalkeepers have a mistake in them. Their Euro 2016 run to the quarter finals remains their best run in a major tournament since 1982 and their fans will be expecting at least a repeat this summer.
Senegal will be looking to revive memories of their stunning opening game win over France back in 2002. They qualified impressively and in Sadio Mane & Keita Balde have dangerous wide forwards with the pace and creativity to make an impact. Like Poland the defence looks a lot less impressive with the squad made up largely of players from the lower end of Lique 1. Senegal would appear a dark horse who could go a distance in Russia.
Colombia were the hipsters choice in 2014 and put together a hugely entertaining run to the quarter finals, most notable for James Rodriguez goal of the tournament against Uruguay. 4 years on and a similar cast will go again but James has struggled to recapture his World Cup form whilst winger Juan Cuadrado has also struggled to get back to his best following a disasterous spell with Chelsea. The attack will however by reinforced by the return to form and fitness of Radamel Falcao who’s rediscovered his scoring touch with Monanco. Much like Poland and Senegal the defence is a lot less impressive but Colombia should again be fun to watch.
Finally we have Japan who’ll be making their 6th successive appearance at the finals and like everyone else in the group they have an impressive attack and vulnerable defence. Shinji Kagawa provides the creative hub of the side whilst Keisuke Honda now plying his trade in Mexico provides guile and a dangerous free kick and Inter’s Yuto Nagatomo provides the width. Upfront Leicester’s Shinji Okazaki has now amassed a half century of goals for Japan so firepower shouldn’t be an issue. But like everyone else in the group they do leak goals with veteran Makoto Hasebe screening a wobbly defence.
This group is unlikely to provide a semi finalist in Russia but it should provide plenty of spectacle.
Must watch game: Senegal v Colombia June 28th 5pm- James & Falcao against Mane & Balde in what’s liekly to be a winner takes all playoff for the last 16.
Prediction: 1st Senegal, 2nd Poland, 3rd Colombia, 4th Japan