What’s their deal? Perennial favorites Argentina very nearly failed to qualify for the World Cup. Though loaded with talent, they slogged their way through CONMEBOL competition and only clinched a berth in the final match with the help of a Lionel Messi hat trick. Good thing then that he came back from his very brief retirement from international soccerafter losing three international finals in a row. Messi is, of course, Argentina’s wonderful wizard of footie, a diminutive dervish who can create chances with but a wave of his aquiline nose. Messi’s mere presence makes la Albiceleste a favorite to win by default, but this team’s defensive question marks could undermine its undeniable attacking strength.
But who can play? Alongside the aforementioned great one, the roster features a veritable arsenal of offensive weapons: take your pick of Sergio Agüero, Gonzalo Higuain, Paulo Dybala, Angel di Maria… Giovani lo Celso should be ready to turn some heads as a creative driver in the midfield, assuming he starts in place of the aging Javier Mascherano. But aside from Nicolás Otamendi, Argentina are sorely lacking in their own third, and not least because regular starting keeper Sergio Romero is hurt.
What’s their soccer look like? As should be expected from a roster constructed such as it is, the game plan is attack, attack, attack. Coach Jorge Sampaoli has experimented with various formations during the team’s struggles, but a likely choice would be something with a line of attackers sitting just behind striker Kun Agüero. Whatever the formation, you can bet the bank that Messi will be playing at center forward, ready to create or attack depending on which option his genius determines most likely to produce a goal.
So, how far can they go? The home fans will be demanding a championship, but that’s a lot to ask from such an unbalanced squad, and it may be wishful thinking to hope for la Albiceleste to suddenly find their form after two years of consistently inconsistent play. They have the firepower to go far and they should make some progress, but wizened fans will tell you that it’s defense that wins knockout stage soccer, so even a semifinal should be considered a rollicking success.
What’s their deal? Croatia is the kind of country that you might not expect to produce world class soccer, but can and indeed does: in 1998 at its first World Cup after the collapse of Yugoslavia, the checkered Croatians took third place. This edition of the team keeps the overachieving tradition alive by fielding an all-star midfield with wonderful passing. It’s also a veteran team, however: with an average age pushing 30, will the experience provide an edge or might it be difficult for the Blazers to keep up with more youthful competition?
But who can play? Luka Modric is indisputably one of the greatest midfielders in the world, quite possibly the best pure setup man out there, with unparalleled passing vision and a matching ability to execute. Joining him will be Ivan Perisic at his wing with Milan Bedelj and Ivan Rakitic lying deep to initiate the passing sequences. Up front will be some combination of Andrej Kramaric and Mario Mandzukic, he of the laser-guided header. This sort of quality is lacking on the defensive end,however.
What’s their soccer look like? A really quality midfield is a lovely thing to watch on the attack, and Croatia are no exception. Modric traditionally plays a bit further back while he surveys the field for Real Madrid, but manager Zlatko Dalic has him pushing forward into a CAM position. While this might not play to Modric’s optimal skill set, it makes for some thrilling soccer. The 4-2-3-1 is designed to maintain possession, but with passing that moves the ball just as smoothly on vertical and horizontal axes, the chances can come from anywhere.
So, how far can they go? Croatia present an appealing dark horse candidate to make a deep run in the knockout rounds, since that midfield makes them a pesky matchup for any opposing side in the tournament. But the squad seems not quite good enough to realistically have a shot at matching the 1998 team’s success. They are more than good enough, however, to place second or even win this group, wide open as it is, so a quarterfinal is well within reach.
What’s their deal? Everyone’s favorite Viking explorers/soccer underdogs are back! Fresh off a most unexpected showing at Euro 2016 and a strong qualifying campaign, Iceland’s out-of-nowhere, thermal-powered golden generation enters the World Cup for the first time in the tiny nation’s history. They find themselves in one of the tougher groups in the tournament and will open with a tremendous test against Argentina, but don’t expect that or really anything else to quench this team’s volcanic spirit. Incredible cohesion and the power of the thunderclap will make this team a joy to watch and root for.
But who can play? Gylfi Sigurdsson is a skilled attacking midfielder who can also hit a dime in a set piece situation, while Aron Gunnarsson is the constant leader of the midfield defense. Mostly, the the Icelanders will rely on their immutable organization and their Viking height advantage.
What’s their soccer look like? As lovable as Iceland are, they know their limits, and accordingly play an extremely cautious style of soccer. Just about everyone plays behind the ball, waiting to move up on a counterattack–but not too quickly now! Manager/dentist Heimir Hallgrimsson deploys a 4-5-1 designed to batten down the hatches until such an opportunity presents itself, when the shape might shift into a terribly bold 4-3-2-1.
So, how far can they go? Iceland actually finished first in a UEFA group that included Croatia, so they already have some familiarity with the competition, and of course they know they’re capable of a fairytale run. Trouble is, everyone else does now too. A well-organized side like this can never be counted out, and the balance of this group could swing wildly if anyone can nab 3 points against Argentina, so Iceland could well advance. But to do so would represent a major accomplishment in and of itself for a side that, in all likelihood, will be under near constant attacking pressure.
What’s their deal? The Super Eagles have a cool name and, this year, the coolest kit on the block–just ask the legions of fans who bought up the entire stock within minutes of its going on sale. Nigeria are more than just a pretty shirt, though. This youthful bunch qualified easily on the strength of a potent offense and an almost annoyingly upbeat team spirit. The Super Eagles fly high on the attack, but they’ll need to find another level if they hope to make much progress in this tournament.
But who can play? John Obi Mikel provides veteran leadership for a strong midfield unit, but it’s the wings of the front line that make this team a threat. Victor Moses is a dynamo streaking up the left side, while Alex Iwobi is a constant threat on the right. No names feature on the defense though, and the keeper Francis Uzoho will have a lot to handle at just 19 years old.
What’s their soccer look like? Nigeria have cycled through several formations in qualifying, but whatever the shape, they will always be looking to break quickly. They have the midfield quality to hold the ball if no holes open up, but making brilliant runs in the wide areas like Moses and company love to do is a pretty good way to create gaps in the defense. The quicker the break, the better.
So, how far can they go? Again, this group is open to whatever outfit seizes the moment. It’s not difficult to imagine Nigeria netting some shock goals against superior competition, and then anything can happen. However, part of the reason the group is so tough to call is because of how good it is, and this mostly fresh-faced squad might have a hard time on the world stage. Advancing to the round of 16 is an attainable goal if the attack hums on all cylinders, but nothing beyond that.