World Cup 2018 Preview – Group G

Raheem Sterling of England and Yohan Cabaye of France
“Raheem Sterling (left) in action for England against France” (CC by 4.0) by Ben Sutherland

Over the two weeks building up to the 2018 World Cup in Russia, we’re publishing a series of previews on each Group with a special focus on each team’s best players and any details that might be of interest to FPL managers. Today it’s the turn of Group G with Belgium, England, Panama, and Tunisia. On June 18th, Belgium are playing Panama and Tunisia are facing off against England.

Belgium

With the likes of Kevin de Bruyne, Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku and Thibaut Courtois in their ranks, just to name a few, Belgium is considered a potential winner of the World Cup. Bookmakers generally have them at about 12/1 with their main Group rivals, England, at odds of 20/1. If those odds don’t pique your interest then you might consider Footy Accumulators to increase the potential return on your World Cup football bet.

Belgium’s build-up to the tournament has not been without issues off the pitch though, so it’ll be interesting to see if coach Roberto Martinez, assisted by Thierry Henry, can create a unit capable of performing.

The Red Devils have talent in abundance all over the pitch and among all of them, Kevin de Bruyne stands out, especially after his spectacular season at Man City. With 16 assists in the Premier League alone, KBD crowned himself as last season’s assist king and this just shows how much of a game changer he can be. His technique is brilliant, his passing with left and right is second to none, and he scores as easily as he assists. He will form the core of the Belgian midfield in Russia.

Alongside him, though slightly more up the field, will be another Premier League superstar, namely Chelsea’s Eden Hazard. The fact that he scored 17 goals and provided 13 assists in 52 games last season, including 3 goals and 4 assists in the Champions League, but that his season was still largely seen as mediocre by many, just shows the expectations invoked by Hazard’s skills. He’s small of stature but he uses his body excellently to shield the ball, both his acceleration and his speed are thrilling, and his dribbling often requires a double of even triple cover by his opponents. When in form, Hazard can be one of the start performers during the World Cup.

Joining Eden Hazard in attack will most likely be Napoli’s Dries Mertens, who’s been developing spectacularly into one of Europe’s most prolific attackers. The small dribbler scored 22 goals and provided 12 assists in 49 games for I Partenopei last season, including 3 goals and 5 assists in the Champions League. He’s very fast, has lightning-quick feet, and has grown into a killer in front of goal. Whether starting or coming off the bench to replace his rival for a spot in attack, Romelu Lukaku, Mertens is a world class option either way.

The Belgian Red Devils definitely boast the talent and the quality to make it far in Russia this summer. A lot will depend on their ability to form a cohesive unit and to get into “tournament mode” on time to start performing with only one objective in sight: the World Cup.

England

Expectations surrounding the Three Lions in the run-up to an international tournament are always high, which doesn’t always seem to be in the best interest of the squad. This year, the general consensus is that England has some serious quality up top and in the middle, but that the backline is not on par with some of the World Cup favourites.

Just to try and ease English minds a little bit, the first player we’re picking is Kyle Walker, who plays for the Premier League champions, Man City. The 28-year old right-back played 32 games (including 7 in the Champions League) for City last season, partly due to injury, in which he still provided 7 assists. In his position, Walker is one of the best in the world when it comes to a system with wing-backs that play higher up the field in order to support the attack. He’s fast and powerful, and his fine passing, both over the ground and through the air, will be a weapon for England in Russia.

At the other end of the pitch, all eyes will be on Harry Kane, the Spurs talisman who scored 41 goals in 48 games last season. Those included 7 goals in 7 Champions League games. Any FPL manager knows what Kane is capable of on a mediocre day, while every football fan in the world knows that his name is synonymous with goals and lots of them. He works hard to lean on entire defences, he can finish clinically with his left, his right and his head and he does so even when it seems he’s having a terrible game. ‘Hurricane’ Kane had a spell on the sidelines towards the end of last season and his comeback games were lacklustre but his form seemed to get back up to more like his usual self in the last couple of EPL matches last month.

If coach Gareth Southgate has ideas that are similar to Pep Guardiola’s, then it’s likely that City’s Raheem Sterling will be getting lots of minutes alongside Kane in attack. Despite his performances for the National team not having been an undivided success up until now, the superfast winger did perform outstandingly for his club last season, with 23 goals and 17 assists in 46 games, including 4 goals and an assist in 8 Champions League matches. With 18 goals in the Premier League alone, he actually ended as the third-most prolific English goalscorer, behind proven cannons Kane and Vardy, even though he was prone to miss some excellent chances. It’ll be exciting to see how much of his career’s best form Sterling can take to Russia this summer.

England seem to have a very talented squad with a lot of individual quality, it’ll just remain to be seen if they can battle the world’s very best. Passing the group stage shouldn’t be too much of a problem for the Three Lions, though. Fingers crossed for them they don’t endure another penalty shoot out disappointment, one which Southgate has already experienced as a player.

Panama

For the small Central American state of Panama, it’s the first time that they’ve qualified for the World Cup. Most of their players play either in Panama or the United States, and despite keeping both the United States and Honduras at bay during the CONCACAF qualification cycle, hopes for a surprise in Russia aren’t high.

One of Panama’s most important players is striker Blas Perez, who plays for Municipal in Guatemala. He’s widely considered to be one of the very best players to ever come out of Panama and his 13 goals in 32 games for Municipal last season show that, despite his 37 years of age, he still hasn’t lost his goal instinct. Perez has played 113 games and scored 43 times for Panama already, who will be hoping that his experience and goals will have a positive influence on their first World Cup performance.

Another one of many players in the Panama squad who play in the US, is captain Roman Torres. He plies his trade with the Seattle Sounders, but what the 32-year old central defender is possibly more known for is being the one who scored the goal that definitely brought Panama to the World Cup. Thanks to his powerful physique and his fearlessness when it comes to challenges, Torres not only forms the defensive foundation of his national team, but also a threat in front of the opposition’s goal, as shown by his 10 goals in 108 caps for Panama.

For a change, and thanks to his important role in the Panamanian qualification success, we’ve picked out the coach, Hernan Dario Gomez, to look into. While it might be the first World Cup ever for Panama, Gomez has already been there, done that. As matter of fact, he’s one of the only four people in history to have qualified for the World Cup with at least three different teams: his native Colombia in 1998, Ecuador in 2002, and now Panama. Gomez employs a patient approach to games with his Panama. They try and win the ball back quickly and wait for the right moment to go forward, while forming a tight unit in the back to fend of counter attacks and dangerous offensive moves in general. Whether it will be enough for Panama to cause an upset this summer, we’ll just have to wait and see.

Panama is participating in the World Cup for the first time and they look unlikely to surprise. Belgium and England should be well out of their league, while Tunisia should have no problem beating Los Canaleros, either.

Tunisia

Tunisia is another one of this World Cup’s smaller nations in footballing terms, with only a handful of players in the squad active in Europe. The Eagles of Carthage managed to qualify for the tournament for the first time in 12 years though, and they’ll be roaring to show what they’ve got, even without their injured star man Youssef Msakni.

The best player at coach Nabil Maaloul’s disposal is probably Wahbi Khazri, who some FPL managers might remember as a Sunderland player from a few seasons ago. The tricky attacking midfielder of 27 years old was loaned out to Ligue 1 outfit Stade Rennais last season, for whom he scored 11 goals and provided 4 assists in 34 games to help them clinch a respectable 9th position last season. Tunisia will be counting on Khazri’s experience, creativity, and goals to make something happen up front.

Despite playing only 10 games for Leicester City last season, still scoring 2 goals in the process though, Johan Benalouane is likely to be starting for Tunisia on the World Cup. His transfer to the Foxes after a lengthy career in the Serie A didn’t exactly bring him what he expected of it, but he’ll be all the more motivated to show his skills in Russia. Benalouane is physically strong, a decent passer of the ball, and he’s not afraid to make the occasional dash forward. He’ll be expected to lead the Tunisan defence this summer.

Another one of Tunisia’s more promising players is currently active in the Saudi Arabian Pro League, playing for Al-Ettifaq. Fakhreddine Ben Youssef is a former Tunisian Player of the Year who, after a disappointing adventure in France’s top flight, decided to show his skills back in the Tunisian league and last season in Saudi Arabia. The 27-year old attacker has reached 37 games for his country by now, in which he scored 5 goals, and he has participated in a major international tournament with Tunisia before, namely the African Cup of Nations in 2013. Despite a disappointing season in Saudi Arabia, the Tunisians will be hoping that in Russia, Fakhreddine can call on the skills that made him into a wanted talent all over Europe just a few years ago.

Thanks to the presence of Panama in the group, Tunisia can hold on to a flicker of hope of qualifying for the knock-out stages, though it would require a victory over Los Canaleros, a point at least against Belgium or England, and some favourable results in the other Group G matches. It looks very unlikely, but never say never…