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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 September 2018

World Cup Group D guide: Messi tasked with inspiring Argentina as Nigeria, Iceland and Croatia battle for runner-up spot

Ian Hawkey runs the rule over the four teams that comprise Group D

Lionel Messi will look to go one better by guiding Argentina to World Cup glory in what is likely his final global tournament with his national team. Alejandro Garcia / EPA
Lionel Messi will look to go one better by guiding Argentina to World Cup glory in what is likely his final global tournament with his national team. Alejandro Garcia / EPA

ARGENTINA

Qualified: Third in the Conmebol section, well behind Uruguay and fully 13 points beneath Brazil. Argentina, as is their recent habit, survived some cliffhangers before ensuring their place in the finals, and suffered home defeats to Paraguay and Ecuador.

Manager: Jorge Sampaoli. A coach who almost comes with a gilt-edged guarantee of commitment to fast attacks, high press and intensity. He is an Argentine without a great playing background, his ambitions cut short by injury before he turned 20. Sampaoli largely made his name coaching elsewhere in South America, and guided Chile to victory at the 2015 Copa America. Sevilla offered him their manager’s job in 2016, but after Argentina asked him to coach his native country, he cut short his Primera Liga adventure.

Player to Watch: Lionel Messi, of course. The most watchable player in football. Trouble is, watching Messi for Argentina can too often be excruciating, not because he applys any less than 100 per cent to the task, nor because he is not eagerly setting off on his brilliant dribbles. It’s simply that, away from the minutely rehearsed and instinctive interactions that centre around Messi for his club Barcelona, he can look more mortal. And this time, there’s a sense this will probably be his last World Cup while he still feels at the summit of his game.

Talking Point: The Stand-in Glovemen.

Argentina’s chosen goalkeepers for this World Cup have spent an awful lot of time sitting down lately. Both Sergio Romero and Willy Cabellero are back-up keepers for their respective clubs, Manchester United and Chelsea. What’s worse is that Romero, designated as Argentina’s first pick with the gloves in Russia, with his hundredth cap in view if he were to reach a second successive final, is now injured. So Caballero looks set to take the jersey. He is 36 and has less than five caps to his name.

Prediction: Argentina have not had a very stable time since they narrowly lost the 2014 World Cup final to Germany. There have been several changes of manager; there have been heartbreaks in the Copa America. They cut it fine once again in qualifying, and the balance of the squad they take to Russia is less than ideal, with an overload of talented, proven goalscorers and some patchy areas in defence. They should score enough to top their group, though, and to make the last eight.

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Former Chelsea midfielder John Obi Mikel is key to Nigeria's hopes of progressing from the group. Catherine Ivill / Getty Images
Former Chelsea midfielder John Obi Mikel is key to Nigeria's hopes of progressing from the group. Catherine Ivill / Getty Images

NIGERIA

Qualified: Having missed out on the last Africa Cup of Nations, Nigeria saved their better performances in the last two years for World Cup 2018 qualifying, navigating a demanding-looking group and finishing ahead of Zambia, Cameroon and Algeria with time to spare.

Manager: Gernot Rohr. The German has worked extensively in Africa and achieved his best distinctions in club football in France, where he played for a fine Bordeaux team and then managed them to the Uefa Cup final in 1996. He is 64 and exudes a calmness that his players describe as helpful. Tactically flexible, he is dousing expectations. “We cannot win the World Cup, of course, but we are allowed to dream,” he said ahead of the Super Eagles’ departure for Russia.

Player to Watch: John Obi Mikel. Once upon a time, in his teens, Mikel was the subject of a ferocious tug of war, between Manchester United and Chelsea. He had announced himself at a Fifa Youth World Cup as a majestic midfielder, seemingly perfect for the modern game with his combination of deft touches, stamina, courage and strength. His long Chelsea career brought great triumphs but also a pigeon-holing of him as a deep-lying spoiler rather than the creator he can be. In his national jersey, he gets invited to show his artistic side.

Talking Point: Best of Enemies?

Nigeria have qualified for six World Cups. They have been drawn in the same group with Argentina in five of them. If that’s eerie, then add the two Olympic Games Men’s finals contested between the two countries, including the memorable 1996 gold-medal match, won by the African team, and avenged in 2008 in Beijing by Lionel Messi’s South Americans. Argentina have an overall edge in the World Cup head-to-head, but Nigeria won the last meeting of these over-familiar rivals, 4-2, in Russia, in a friendly last November.

Prediction: The Super Eagles have some obvious flaws, not least in goal, where they have nobody with anything like the authority and experience of the long-serving Vincent Enyeama, who retired from international football in 2015, or even Carl Ikeme, the Wolverhampton Wanderers keeper who is recovering from leukaemia. But they have speed on the counter-attack and if Alex Iwobi and Mikel John Obi see enough of the ball, chances will follow. It is still doubtful they can squeeze above Croatia and Argentina in the group.

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Ivan Perisic offers a goal threat for Croatia and can operate as a striker or on the left flank. Andrew Yates / Reuters
Ivan Perisic offers a goal threat for Croatia and can operate as a striker or on the left flank. Andrew Yates / Reuters

CROATIA

Qualified: Finished behind Iceland in Uefa qualifying Group I, and so proceeded to a play-off. That turned out to be the simple part, with the Croatians racking up four goals to Greece’s one within the first 50 minutes of their home leg. They kept things goalless for the remaining 130 minutes of the tie.

Manager: Zlatko Dalic. Had a terrifically successful three years in the UAE as manager of Al Ain, winning a President’s Cup, an Arabian Gulf league title and guiding Al Ain to an Asian Champions League final. His call to take over the national team came just before his 51st birthday, last October, leaving little time to prepare for the tense final stage of World Cup qualification. That he mastered the play-off so astutely is a promising sign.

Player to Watch: Ivan Perisic. The Inter Milan striker offers pace, ingenuity and versatility, though he is probably at his most effective attacking from the left flank. He can offer a target for crosses, too, and combine in the intricate midfield passing movements usually initiated by Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic. Impressed for Croatia at the 2016 European championship, and in his country’s short-lived expedition to the last World Cup. He will hope this one lasts longer.

Talking Point: End of the golden generation?

It is twenty years this summer since Croatia, playing in their first World Cup since gaining sovereign-nation status after the break up of the former Yugoslavia, gloriously finished third. They have never achieved such heights since, and there is impatience that the current side, blessed with talents such as Modric, 32, Rakitic and Mario Mandzukic should leave their firm mark on a major tournament before age catches up with them.

Prediction: Croatia have reason to believe that, under Zlatko Dalic, they have developed since their completed their qualifying campaign. They will certainly hope so, given that they finished their group behind Iceland, who defeated them 1-0 this time last year. Those two meet again in Russia on matchday three, which may well turn out to be decisive. Most important for the Croatians is the opening game, against Nigeria. It may be tight, but Croatia to edge through to the knockouts.

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Iceland will look to lean on Gylfi Sigurdsson, left, as they have done so often in the past. Hannibal Hanschke / Reuters
Iceland will look to lean on Gylfi Sigurdsson, left, as they have done so often in the past. Hannibal Hanschke / Reuters

ICELAND

Qualified: Top of European Group I, two points above Croatia, having beaten them at home but lost in Zagreb. So Iceland were spared a play-off and celebrated reaching the World Cup for the first time in the small island nation’s history.

Manager: Heimar Hallgrimsson. Closely aligned to the whole romantic fairytale of Iceland’s coming-of-age as a major tournament force, Hallgrimson was assistant manager of the Icelanders who reached the European Championship in France in 2016, and eliminated England to reach the quarter-finals. Since then, and the departure of Lars Lagerback, Hallgrimsson has had the principal managerial role, which leaves him even less time to do his other job – as a dentist.

Player to Watch: Gylfi Sigurdsson. Sigurdsson has not had the easiest of 12 months since he joined Everton from a Swansea City he had helped steer clear from relegation in 2016-17. Just as Swansea were then revealed to have been over-dependent on Sigurdsson’s knack of thinking one step ahead of opponents, so Iceland tend to lean on their most creative player. And no one will have been studying the aerodynamics of the World Cup ball harder than this free-kick specialist.

Talking Point: Beginners’ Pluck.

Iceland surprised and delighted neutrals at Euro 2016, their first major tournament and the French enjoyed their performances, too, because it was against France that the Icelandic volcano was finally doused. By then, England had been knocked out, defeated partly because they seemed unprepared for Iceland’s tactics, or at least their long throw-ins. Newcomers can startle like that, and in their debut World Cup, there may be a novelty, impact moment, from Iceland. And if their fans can introduce something else as catchy as the ‘Viking Clap’ they made popular in stands across the world, they will have left their mark.

Prediction: Iceland’s lack of World Cup pedigree need not be an impediment to progress, but their small pool of playing resources – they are nation of 300,000-odd people – means that they are bound to cultivate a strong first XI more than a deep squad, rich with quality reserve players. That runs the risk of making their football predictable and spreading anxiety if one or two seniors are out of form, or unfit. They will collect points, but probably not enough to make the knockout phase.

Group D Overview

On the face of it, a group including two-times former champions from South America; Africa’s most populous country; a nation that only came into being in the late 20th century and a World Cup debutant ought to seem very exotic and unfamiliar. In fact, these four teams know rather too much about one another, Argentina v Nigeria being a fixture that comes around again and again and Iceland and Croatia having met one another in qualifying for both the 2014 and 2018 tournaments. Argentina should have enough firepower to progress, and Croatia the experience to negotiate the other ticket onwards.

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