How they qualified Impressively. Apart from the hosts, they were the first European side to book their place in Russia. Belgium only dropped two points and scored 43 goals in Group H, proving prolific against everyone except Greece. Only Cristiano Ronaldo and Robert Lewandowski outscored Romelu Lukaku, who struck 11 times.
Manager Roberto Martinez. The eternally upbeat Spaniard has signed a new contract to keep him in charge until after Euro 2020. He was a surprise appointment two years ago and his back room staff includes Thierry Henry. He courted controversy by omitting Radja Nainggolan from his World Cup squad: the Roma midfielder then retired from international football.
Player to watch Kevin de Bruyne. Martinez moved the Manchester City man into a deeper midfield role even before Pep Guardiola did, with De Bruyne alongside Axel Witsel at the heart of a 3-4-2-1 formation, charged with supplying Lukaku, Eden Hazard and Dries Mertens further forward. Some think he plays better for club than country, however.
Talking point Can Belgium defend well enough? Martinez has long been criticised for his various teams’ defending and while Belgium have produced outstanding footballers in most positions, the full-back roles have been exceptions. The use of winger Yannick Carrasco as a left wing-back is a typically bold ploy from Martinez, but it could be a risk to field him there against the better sides. And for all the pedigree of their players, some have had less than ideal preparation: Toby Alderweireld has hardly played for Tottenham Hotspur, Thomas Vermaelen has been on the fringes at Barcelona, Vincent Kompany has had injury problems and Thibaut Courtois’ form has been mixed.
Prediction With Kompany, Vermaelen, Jan Vertonghen, Mousa Dembele, Marouane Fellaini and Mertens all in their thirties, this may be the golden generation’s last chance to strike gold. Belgium have reached the quarter-finals of the last two tournaments and there seems a clear path to the last eight again, particularly if they win the group. Yet they could face Brazil or Germany in the quarter-finals and there are already questions about Belgium’s capacity to beat the best sides: 2016 defeats to Italy, Wales and Spain may not bode well. The chances are that history could repeat itself.
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How they qualified Reasonably convincingly, but then qualifying does not tend to be the problem for England and they were in a mediocre pool. Sam Allardyce won the group’s toughest game, away in Slovakia, in his only match in charge. Their defence was only breached three times in 10 games, two in a few minutes by Scotland.
Manager Gareth Southgate. The Under 21 manager was catapulted into the main job when Allardyce’s reign came to an abrupt end. A seemingly uncontroversial figure has actually proved radical, changing formation to a back three and dropping long-serving players like Wayne Rooney and Joe Hart while promoting youth.
Player to watch Harry Kane. Newly appointed captain, he has a fine record with the England armband on but it is a concern that he underperformed in Euro 2016, when he was strangely nominated to take corners, and the European Under 21 tournament the previous summer, as though exhausted by his efforts over the season.
Talking point Can England play to their potential? They have long had players who performed better for their clubs than their country or who did not gel with three lions on their shirt. This is a less gifted group than many of their predecessors, making it more important they are the sum of their parts. Yet Dele Alli and Raheem Sterling are two with a far better scoring record in domestic than international football while the fact Southgate has fast-tracked others who are in form at club level, such as Trent Alexander-Arnold and Ruben Loftus-Cheek, means England have to ensure they can replicate their Premier League performances.
Prediction Expectations have been lowered over the years, and rightly so. England have only reached one quarter-final since 2006. Their recent tournament experience has entailed plenty of embarrassment. Yet they have got luckier with the draw than in 2014, when their first two games were against Italy and Uruguay and they lost both to be eliminated before they even faced Costa Rica. Now the Tunisia and Panama games offer a route to the last 16; perhaps even the quarter-finals. Yet England’s inability to beat the elite sides in friendlies suggests they will be eliminated by the first top team they face in the knockout stages.
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How they qualified Dramatically. Defender Roman Torres scored an 88th-minute winner in their last qualifier against Costa Rica, while the United States had to — and did — lose to Trinidad and Tobago for the Panamanians to reach their first World Cup. But they had threatened to reach the 2014 tournament.
Manager Hernan Dario Gomez. Will become just the fourth manager to take three teams to World Cups after leading his native Colombia in 1998 and Ecuador in 2002. The 62 year old is in elite company with the much-travelled trio of Henri Michel, Carlos Alberto Parreira and Bora Milutinovic.
Player to watch Roman Torres. The tall, dreadlocked defender has an eye for goal and delivered the crucial winner against Costa Rica in qualifying. He has won Major League Soccer with Seattle Sounders and is one of six players in a hugely experienced Panama squad with at least 100 caps.
Talking point Has the World Cup come too late for them? Panama have benefited from the understanding that comes from playing together for years. The problem is that the talismanic defender Felipe Baloy is 37 and goalkeeper Jaime Penedo 36. Strikers Blas Perez and Luis Tejada are approaching a half-century of international goals each but are 37 and 36. Several others are also in their thirties. It may mean Gomez adopts more defensive tactics to keep more men behind the ball in damage-limitation exercises, but that approach can only work when they are level or ahead.
Prediction Few tipped Costa Rica for success four years ago and they were improbable quarter-finalists. It is still harder to envisage their neighbours following suit. The fact they only mustered nine goals in 10 games in the final round of qualifying suggests they will struggle to score, and one of Perez and Tejada, Panama’s two leading scorers ever, will be benched if Gomez deploys a lone striker against England and Belgium. The Tunisia game represents their best chance of a win, even if it could come after both sides are already eliminated. But beating anyone would qualify as a success for one of the rank outsiders.
How they qualified Solidly. Tunisia went unbeaten in Group A in the African section and, if it may have been the weakest pool, they still had to negotiate a double header with the Democratic Republic of Congo in the space of five days. They won 2-1 at home and drew 2-2 away.
Manager Nabil Maaloul. His involvement in the Tunisia team dates back more than three decades. He won 74 caps as a player, appearing in the 1988 Olympics, and was Roger Lemerre’s assistant in the 2006 World Cup. An African Champions League winner as manager, he is in his second stint in charge.
Player to watch Aymen Mathlouthi. The captain was named the best goalkeeper in the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations. A loyalist spent 15 years playing for Etoile du Sahel before leaving for Saudi Arabia and Al Batin earlier this year. But at 33, he may be just past his best.
Talking point How will Tunisia cope without Youssef Msakni? The midfielder scored a hat-trick against Guinea in qualifying and has been prolific both for ES Tunis in his homeland and Lekhwiya and Al Duhail in Qatar. But he suffered a cruciate ligament injury in April and should not recover in time. It places an extra creative burden on Naim Sliti and Wahbi Khazri, who are likely to take up the roles on the flanks. Main striker Taha Yassine Khenissi has so far been more prolific in club football than for his country. That may also have to change.
Prediction This is Tunisia’s first World Cup since 2006 and it is fair to say they have scarcely excelled at each of their last three, taking a solitary point in each. They have won only one World Cup game: their first, against Mexico, in 1978, when they recorded Africa’s inaugural victory. Beating Panama would be momentous, therefore, even if both are already out by then. While Maaloul has used the Tunisian diaspora to bring in some France-born players, they look one of the least talented squads in Russia. Reaching the last 16, therefore, would be a huge feat.
Group G overview
On paper, it looks perhaps the easiest group to call. Belgium look the strongest side, followed by England, then Tunisia and then Panama. The fixture list allows for the two favourites to qualify before they meet each other and decide top spot and the more motivated of the minnows to clinch third on June 28. Yet football is not always that predictable. The June 18 game between Tunisia and England may be the best chance for the script to change. Even a draw could keep the Africans’ hopes alive going into the final round of games.