Group G has the potential to be a walk in the park for two of its participants yet could also turn into a disaster for either. Logic says that Belgium and England advance quite easily, however Panama and Tunisia will look to shock.
World Cup History
After a 12-year absence from the finals, Belgium returned in 2014 and roared all the way to the quarter-finals. Belgium appeared at the very first tournament, and has since made the finals on 12 occasions and enjoyed a golden run of qualification from 1982-2002. Only Spain has reached more consecutive tournaments through that process with eight.
England began World Cup competition in 1950 and by 1966 had claimed their first and only title. On only three occasions have the men in white failed to qualify for the tournament. Since 1998 they have not made a serious run at the title of World Champions. 2014 was a disaster as England failed to advance from their group; claiming a mere point.
1978 was the first occasion that Panama attempted to qualify for the World Cup Finals. It was subsequently unsuccessful for ten consecutive campaigns until finally advancing to Russia 2018. Something of a Cinderella story, many will expect them to succumb quickly at the hands of both England and Belgium. However, the team will play with a passion and desire befitting one with such a wonderful story of resilience to tell.
The Tunisians return to the World Cup Finals after a 12-year absence and will seek to advance beyond the group stage for the first time. 1978 saw its first successful qualification and a run of three appearances from 1998-2006 completes its World Cup resume. Russia marks their fifth appearance and Tunisia enter the tournament as something of an outsider. A free-spirited, nothing to lose style of football could spell danger for the other teams in the group.
Roberto Martinez – The Spanish manager cut his teeth in the English leagues with both Swansea City and Wigan Athletic. His move to Everton looked to be a culmination of that hard work yet he eventually parted ways with the Premier League club in 2016. Since that time he has been at the helm of the powerful Belgian side and won 14 of 20 international matches. With such talent at his disposal, Martinez must encourage the attacking flair his team showed in the qualifying stages.
Gareth Southgate – Standing as one of England’s most successful managers at under-21 level, Southgate brings a sense of freshness and rejuvenation to the English squad. With 57 personal caps for England, the 47-year-old knows what is required and his ability to mould players and personalities into one unit appears his greatest asset.
Hernan Dario Gomez – Gomez sits in an elite group of coaches, as one of only four to have taken three separate teams to the World Cup. Understanding the big stage and assembling the ingredients necessary to navigate sudden-death matches are attributes that the Colombian has in spades. Now 62, Gomez will have a tough task on his hands this time around but the 2015 CONCACAF Men’s Coach of the Year might just be able to inspire his team to something special in Russia.
Nabia Maaloul – The 55-year-old brings a wealth of experience and must feel great pride in guiding his own nation to the finals. After a three-year stint with Kuwait where rebuilding and developing talent was key, he now possesses attacking weapons and polished players capable of causing an upset or two in Russia. Extracting the best from them under pressure and on the biggest stage will be his challenge.
Belgium – Thibaut Courtois
The two-metre giant will play a key role for Belgium in Russia. Courtois had another excellent domestic season in England despite his club never really threatening for the title. Chelsea’s flaws could never be traced back to the shot-stopper, whose statistics were excellent once again. Still only 26 and young for a goalkeeper, there will be much noise about Belgium’s attacking weapons, however, Courtois could play the most important role of all as the tournament unfolds.
England – Harry Kane
The striker from Tottenham will be the most important player for the English in Russia. My selection for the golden boot; the captain will literally lead from the front and need to find the back of the net if England are to make a serious claim for the title. At 24, it will be a significant challenge for Kane. However, if provided with quality service from the supporting cast, he could take this World Cup by the scruff of its neck.
Panama – Fidel Escobar
Currently on loan to the New York Red Bulls, the 23-year-old defender will play a vital role in Russia. Escobar should sit at the heart of a five man defensive structure that Gomez has been implementing. The 5-4-1 structure sees Escobar take on significant responsibility, as it requires much communication to work well. Capped 21 times, he is part of the youthful new breed that Panama hopes will bring a new era of consistency.
Tunisia – Youssef Msakni
The 27-year-old attacking winger will be the key man for Tunisia and his club goal-scoring feats explain why. With 25 goals from only 22 appearances for his Qatar Club Al-Duhail, it is easy to understand the threat that he could pose on opposition goal mouths. Capped 47 times for Tunisia and with nine goals already under his belt, Msakni could make his mark in Russia if given quality service from midfield.
While the world will expect an easy advance for both Belgium and England, the other two members of the group will provide a stern test along the way. Belgium look solid and England’s historical fragilities are well known. The final game of the group between the two big guns could be one of the matches of the tournament if points are required by either to advance to the Round of 16.