The closest thing this World Cup has to a group of death, Group D features perennial favorites Argentina with a host of problems besides and related to Lionel Messi, trying to overcome the challenge from talented Croatia, spiritful Iceland and youthful Nigeria.
Four years after losing in the World Cup finals, with two Copa America finals losses squeezed between then and now, Lionel Messi heads into his 4th World Cup with the same kind of pressure he’s always had to carry – win the tournament or forfeit your claim to being the best player of all-time. Rumors suggest that in order to make it happen, Messi is pulling all the strings behind the scenes of the Jorge Sampaoli managed club. Messi certainly deserves plenty of credit for Argentina even making it into the competition, scoring a hat trick in Quito to clinch a spot after a difficult qualifying campaign.
A Group of Death and the usual squad imbalance and perhaps even wrong selections, especially in the midfield and attack, could mean Argentina’s path towards another deep run is more difficult than 4 years ago. Franco Armani will play a major role due to the Sergio Romero injury; the former is one of three players on Argentina clubs, alongside Cristian Pavon and Maximiliano Meza. Overall, this feels like a similar Argentina team to the one from four years ago, only slightly order, once more leaning heavily on Messi, who is coming off a club season in which he was leaned on too heavily. Recipe for disaster?
Despite finishing only second in the qualifying group (to Iceland), many in Croatia see this as the final opportunity for a “golden generation” to achieve something meaningful in a World Cup, similar to the original “golden” who took the side to the semi-final in 1998. Croatia relies on one of the finest midfield units in the tournament, boasting Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Ivan Perisic and Mateo Kovacic, with Milan Badelj and Marcelo Brozovic providing further depth and quality. Having Mario Mandzukic up front with Kalinic to back him up isn’t such a bad state of affairs.
Where are the issues for Croatia? A mistake-prone defense led by Dejan Lovren, alongside Domagoj Vida, Ivan Strinic, and Sime Vrsaljko. Head coach Zlatko Dalic might have issues controlling a veteran and star-studded side. Not the simplest group to tread through as well, especially considering Croatia lost to Iceland in their most recent encounter. The talent and depth are there to put Croatia in the final 16 and beyond, but the group stage will prove to be difficult from start to finish.
A fine example of club unity and the sum of a team being greater than its parts, Iceland are carrying their European Championship fame into the World Cup for the first time, following a stellar campaign in which they won their group, finishing ahead of Croatia. Can a team many consider to be almost a club-side in terms of familiarity and cohesiveness pull off another wonder tournament?
It will be difficult, mostly because they’re no longer an unknown quantity, their lack of pace on defense and a string of recent injuries to key players such as Gylfi Sigurdsson, Alfred Finnbogason, and captain Aron Gunnarsson. Experience and tactical flexibility will play a big part in Iceland’s run, but it’ll be up to Sigurdsson, Jón Daði Böðvarsson, and Birkir Bjarnason to provide extra flair, technique, and ingenuity.
Nigeria impressed in a super-difficult qualifying group by African standards, leaving behind the likes of Algeria, Cameroon, and Zambia. German head coach Gernot Rohr is going with youth and talent, including the likes of Kelechi Iheanacho and Alex Iwobi. The side is deep in defense and midfield, with John Obi Mikel and Victor Moses at the heart of the team in terms of influence and experience.
One issue Nigeria might have is at goalkeeper, struggling to find a replacement for Vincent Enyeama. 19-year old Francis Uzoho, despite hardly playing in La Liga this season for Depor, has been the preferred choice in goal in recent friendlies, but that might force Nigeria to play a more cautious style in the group stage, something that doesn’t fit the Super Eagles at all. Making a second consecutive and 4th overall round of 16 seems more difficult than before on this occasion, but Nigeria doesn’t have to meet Argentina, familiar foes in World Cup group stages, until the final match.
Despite their shortcomings, the other sides in this group have their share of problems. Argentina will win the group, followed by Croatia, who will edge Nigeria to the second ticket. Iceland to finish fourth.