What’s their deal? Belgium’s golden generation has been on the scene for a few years now, tantalizing fans with its boundless potential. To date, the ridiculous talent level has not translated into anything beyond quarterfinal exits at the 2014 World Cup and Euro 2016. The Red Devils will be looking to improve on that record and then some this year in Russia, where they arrive already regarded as one of the tournament’s best sides. Skeptics, however, will point out that manager Roberto Martinez is not exactly known for tactical genius. Sheer talent and a high flying attack are enough to overwhelm inferior opponents, but Belgium’s World Cup fortunes will swing on how they perform against better organized opposition.
But who can play? This team sheet is imposingly loaded with star power, but the first name must be Kevin De Bruyne, maybe the best midfielder in the world. On his very mobile right wing will be Thomas Meunier, who could be due for a showcase on the world stage after providing the bulk of the production during qualifying. Mousa Dembélé is in Martinez’s doghouse, but is world class if given the chance. Behind them will be a defense led by the unflappable Vincent Kompany and Jan Vertonghen, who will do all they can to ensure that Thibaut Courtois does not have to call on his prodigious skills in goal. But we haven’t even gotten to the frontline: “Romelu Lukaku, Eden Hazard, and Dries Mertens” reads like a FIFA fantasy team of strikers.
What’s their soccer look like? Everyone’s skill set in front of the backline is geared towards the attack, and Martinez obliges them with an aggressively attacking approach. The exact formation, likely a 3-4-3 or 3-4-2-1, probably matters less than the forward movement that will relentlessly pressure the opposition, not least thanks to Lukaku’s tackling ability. Powering the attack will be De Bruyne, nominally in the middle but in practice probably roaming just about everywhere in his endless search for passing lanes and scoring chances. If there is a weak point, it is certainly in the wide defensive areas, where things can go awry very quickly for the Belgii.
So, how far can they go? Belgium is a popular pick for a dark horse candidate for a semifinal or even championship, and given all this talent and flair it is easy to see why. A quarterfinal appearance will be the absolute minimum threshold for success, and is easily attainable. To progress any further will be a different matter entirely, and that might just be where yet another dark horse run collides with the reality of Belgium’s troubling weaknesses against possession offenses.
What’s their deal? Perennial disappointments England have finally accepted a retooling of the national team program in recent years. What’s perhaps more remarkable is that the perennially disappointed English seem to have accepted it as well. This has proven to be a beneficial arrangement, as relaxed expectations have allowed the Three Lions to nurture a new generation of emerging talent. Rather than a stodgy collection of fading stars, this version of England looks fresh, egalitarian, and dynamic. The loss of Alex Oclade-Chamberlain is a terrible blow, however, and it will take a concerted effort for the English to improve on their recent World Cup history.
But who can play? Harry Kane is far and away the brightest star on the squad, a scoring machine for Tottenham Hotspur. He hasn’t been quite the same since his return from injury, though, so we’ll see if he can get himself in gear for the big show. Supporting him will be Raheem Sterling, running circles around his markers. Dele Alli will be running almost constantly behind them. Kyle Walker is the key man on a stingy defense, and he will occasionally be joined by wingbacks Danny Rose and Kieran Trippier as they streak up and down the sides.
What’s their soccer look like? A 3-5-2 or 3-4-3 is the likely setup for Gareth Southgate’s squad, in order to capitalize on the tremendous pace in the attacking positions behind Kane. Look for plenty of runs up the wings, as Alli and company look for a quick release from a key pass out of the center midfield.
So, how far can they go? The Three Lions have a robust history of astonishingly mediocre play at the World Cup, but there is no need for history to repeat itself with this pacey group, despite the pessimism of the English press. England should be able to make it out of this group with ease, and a ticket to the quarterfinals is a readily attainable goal if Southgate’s system holds up. Further progress than that, however, will be a tall order.
What’s their deal? Panama may be the weakest team to have qualified for the World Cup, but someone must have forgotten to tell them that when they finished ahead of the USA to go to the big dance for the first time in their history. That they did so partially thanks to a comical ghost goal should not detract from the veteran Canaleros’ heartwarming underdog story.
But who can play? Goalkeeper Jaime Pineda, who plays his club soccer in Bucharest, can keep Panama in a game single-handedly. NY Red Bulls center back Fidel Escobar anchors the defense, and might just surprise viewers by breaking out of the backfield if an opportunity arises.
What’s their soccer look like? In their brute physicality, los Canaleros are reminiscent of their fellow Mesoamericans in Honduras. Panama will be no one’s pushovers as they try to put their opponents off the ball with bruising play. But against such superior competition, they will be defending constantly, likely deploying a 5-4-1 to find the best parking spot for that bus.
So, how far can they go? Panama are ecstatic just to be at the World Cup at all, and even a goal would set off a wave of national celebration.
What’s their deal? Though one of the weaker teams in the tournament, Tunisia feature by far the best name: the Eagles of Carthage. Unfortunately, fortune has clipped the Eagles’ wings before they could even touch down in Russia: two of the team’s best players, Youssef Msakni and Taha Yassine Khenissi, are sitting at home with leg injuries. This is a crippling blow for an already underdog side, who were hoping for a showing the fans back home could be proud of after returning to the World Cup for the first time since 2006. Pride is the main thing this team will have going for them–that, and the name. EAGLES OF CARTHAGE!!!
But who can play? In the absence of Tunisia’s creative forces, Wahib Khazri will be disproportionately relied upon for any and all offense, playing out of position as a striker. The young Ellyes Skhiri could be an intriguing talent playing out wide.
What’s their soccer look like? With their strength concentrated in the midfield, Tunisia will be playing to keep possession until Khazri can find a way forward. The shape may change from game to game depending on how much they find themselves on the back foot, but the organization will remain tight. Despite the soaring name, the Eagles’ soccer will look pretty pedestrian.
So, how far can they go? If the Eagles of Carthage are to notch their nation’s first ever World Cup victory, it will have to come against Panama. Unfortunately for this weakened Tunisia side, the superpowers of the group, England and Belgium, will be smelling blood in the water: Carthago delenda est!