Ah, England. The constant hype associated with the national side always fails to be equalled by their performances as of late, and they find themselves firmly situated in a group the English media expect to navigate comfortably. They are rivalled in this group by the perennial dark horse Belgium, who have shaken the tag to become serious contenders to Germany’s throne in Russia 2018. However, England must also be wary of the threat of African side Tunisia, and World Cup debutants Panama.
Belgium are heavily favoured to advance in the group, with many predicting them to also top the group by outclassing the Three Lions, and overpowering Tunisia and Panama. The quality in depth Belgium possess is impressive, to say the least, and contains players that English fans will be more than familiar with.
Chelsea star Eden Hazard, and Manchester City talisman Kevin De Bruyne, lead this team in outright quality and have the ability to change a game; whereas Manchester United’s big man Romelu Lukaku can contribute goals galore (11 goals in qualifying), while Marouane Fellaini can break down opposition attacks. Thibaut Courtois is a safe pair of hands, covered in defence by Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen. Moussa Dembelé will undoubtedly make an impact should he be played, as Axel Witsel will most likely be positioned in the middle of the park.
Outside of the Premier League, Yannick Carrasco’s ability on the wings can be troublesome to almost any defence in the world, and former Chelsea social media savant Michy Batshuayi can continue his career rebuild after the spell at Stamford Bridge with the national side, as he has done with Borussia Dortmund this season. This is a side that has the means to go far in the tournament and have possibly a higher level of pressure in their home country to perform than England.
They begin their campaign against Panama, a side that conceded ten goals in their final round of qualifying in North America while only scoring nine. Panama adopted a defensive 5-4-1 system that is very difficult to break down, as evidenced by their four clean sheets in ten games, as well as taking four points out of six against a decent Costa Rica side. This included an 88th-minute winner from Roman Torres which booked their flight to Russia. They were also partially responsible for the premature elimination of the U.S. side from football’s premier competition.
Panama have an old squad, the oldest in the tournament in fact. This means they have experience, albeit not at this level of competition. They are not well equipped to advance far, but the way they set up will frustrate the sides they face, as they primarily look to counter-attack to create an upset. Panama will struggle to entertain, but the fact that they are first-time participants means they will get a pass.
Tunisia are an altogether different entity. 21st in FIFA’s soon-to-be overhauled rankings, they will be a test for all the other sides in Group G. A fifth appearance at the World Cup will be one the people of Tunisia hope brings them past the group stages for the first time, with the weight of expectation falling on the shoulders of players not particularly well known in Europe’s major leagues. Wahbi Khazri stands out with his consistent performances for Rennes in Ligue 1 in France, and while they were rocked by the injury sustained by creative midfielder Youssef Mksani, Saif-Eddine Khaoui can provide a spark that may trouble their opponents.
Tunisia’s gameplan, much like Panama’s, will not reverberate around attacking prowess (11 goals in six qualifying games), but they can catch teams on the break, as their formations can vary depending on the desired result. They utilised counter-attacking 4-3-3 and defensive 5-3-2 formations against DR Congo in qualifying, yielding 4 points from 6. They are not to be underestimated and may take a point from England in the first game of their campaign.
England enter the 2018 edition of the World Cup with lower hopes than ever to win, as a young squad with little major tournament experience looks to see how far they can go. Gareth Southgate has worked admirably to steady the ship after Sam Allardyce’s abrupt exit and created a side showing stout defensiveness and an uncanny ability to pull a result out of the bag when needed. They contain young talent in attack that can trouble nearly any side in the world. Harry Kane has been the most consistent striker in the Premier League in recent years, while both Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling have the ability to destroy a defence on their day.
Midfield seems the issue in this side, with a lack of creativity a potential problem for midfielders such as Jordan Henderson and Eric Dier, with burden resting on Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard. In defence, they have excellent players on either side in Danny Rose and Kyle Walker, who can both venture forward and force opposing wingers to work back more frequently. Kieran Trippier and Ashley Young are also solid replacements should they be needed. In the centre, Jordan Pickford will be covered by John Stones, Phil Jones, Gary Cahill and Harry Maguire. Maguire was arguably the most impressive of these players this season, but Stones will be the first choice in all likelihood.
Southgate has picked his squad based on form rather than reputation, which is exactly what fans want a national manager to do, so it will be intriguing to see how they perform on the grandest stage.
Should England and Belgium defeat both Tunisia and Panama, a mouth-watering clash would be in the offing in on June 28th to decide who tops the group. Should either side fail to fire before this date, their World Cup may depend on this game.
The smart money in Group G is on Belgium to top the group, with the other results dependent on the performance of England. Should the young Lions step up to the plate, they will safely qualify. If not, it could be another early exit.