In what is maybe the most intriguing group of this World Cup, group D includes two-time winners Argentina as well as Croatia, Nigeria and debutants Iceland. It is the only group in this year’s edition (bar maybe group H) where you could pick any two of the four teams to go through and not sound crazy.
Another interesting wrinkle is that there is plenty of shared history between the teams. This is the fifth time Argentina and Nigeria have been in the same World Cup group, whilst it was Croatia who beat Iceland in a playoff to qualify for the 2014 World Cup. The Nordic country soon got revenge though, topping their 2018 qualifying group ahead of Croatia to get to Russia automatically. Group D is also the group that has far and away the best selection of kits with Argentina and Croatia’s iconic strips and Nigeria’s futuristic new jersey.
Argentina and Croatia are maybe two of the most unpredictable teams in this year’s World Cup. Both have massive upside and could go deep in the tournament if they generate momentum. However, they could also just as easily both be dismal and spectacularly crash out before the business end even starts.
On the other hand, Nigeria and Iceland are two sides with great team morale who it could be argued have punched above their weight just to get here. Although they are a traditional regional power, Nigeria were in the toughest African qualifying group which included African champions Cameroon and a strong Algeria. Iceland, meanwhile, has roughly the same population as Coventry.
Argentina will be the group’s favourites as any team with Lionel Messi should be, but they are also a squad riddled with issues. If it wasn’t for an immense hat-trick scoring performance by Messi against Ecuador on the last day of qualifying, Jorge Sampaoli’s side mightn’t have even reached the finals. This would have been a travesty given the array of talent La Albiceleste have at their disposal.
One problem with this talent admittedly though is that it is nearly all in attack. Argentina have Sergio Aguero, Pablo Dybala and Gonzalo Higuain to support Messi. Indeed, they are so strong in that department that they could even omit this season’s Serie A joint top goalscorer Mauro Icardi.
In other areas, however, Argentina are a bit light. Javier Mascherano is still in the squad but is probably now past his best and they will struggle to replace his calming influence. Defensively speaking Nicolás Ottamendi will have to be the leader having struggled previously, while his Manchester City teammate Willy Cabellero will have to step up in goal.
Sampaoli is clearly a capable manager as shown by his time in charge of Chile where he won the Copa America. Having said this, he hasn’t fully figured how he wants this Argentina team to play. He is regarded as a manager who needs time to teach his methods and with the World Cup build up the being longest period he has had with the squad, we might yet see a rejuvenated Argentina. However, cancelling a warm-up friendly against Israel and losing Manuel Lanzini to injury has meant they have not had the most ideal preparation so far.
Another team with serious issues is Croatia. On paper, many would suggest the Balkan nation might be a dark horse for the tournament. But two of the Croatians key players: Luka Modric and Dejan Lovren have been embroiled in a legal case involving former Dinamo Zagreb director and football agent Zdravko Mamić. Modric was even found guilty of perjury due to giving false testimony.
Not only has this created a chasm between the team and its fans, but it could also split the squad as well. Hoffenheim’s Andrej Kramaric stood up to Mamic as shown in this Guardian profile. Kramaric’s stance has made him one of the few players adored by the Croatian public and he also got both goals in a 2-0 win over Ukraine to send them to Russia. With a number of other players in the squad such as Sime Vrsaljko and Mateo Kovacic having associations with Mamic, it is hard to imagine that Kramaric can see eye to eye with them. This, one would expect, will naturally affect team harmony.
If we are looking for positives, Croatia do still have one of the best midfields at this tournament with Modric, Kovacic, Ivan Rakitic and Mauro Brozovic among their 23. Juventus’ Mario Manduzkic and Inter’s Ivan Perisic also provide an edge in the final third. The first game against Nigeria will be key as they will need to win over their fans quickly.
The Super Eagles, on the flip side, will see that first game in Kaliningrad as an opportunity to strike before the Croatians settle into the tournament. This team may not have as many star names as previous Nigerian sides, but they do seem unified and together under the stewardship of Gernot Rohr.
Former Chelsea midfielder Mikel John Obi captains the side, playing in a more advanced role for his country than he ever did for the blues. Victor Moses and Arsenal’s Alex Iwobi, who stood out in a recent friendly loss against England, will also carry much of the responsibility going forward. Odion Ighalo will likely spearhead the attack on his own as Rohr favours a 4-2-3-1.
One area where Nigeria may be weak is in goals. Wolves keeper Carl Ikeme would be their usual number one, but he misses out as he needs treatment for his acute leukemia. However, Gernot Rohr did still name Ikeme in the squad as the symbolic 24th man. With the 2014 squad’s number one Vincent Enyeama suffering a remarkable decline of form – he only played two games for Lille’s B team this season – it is expected that goalkeeping responsibilities in Russia will fall upon the shoulders of 19-year-old Francis Uzoho of Deportivo La Coruña.
The final team in group D are newcomers Iceland. Two years ago, they stunned the world by beating England to reach the Euro 2016 quarter-finals and this well-organised side will be looking to make a similar impact this time around. Iceland were brilliant in qualifying topping their group, beating Croatia at home and picking up an eye-catching 3-0 win away in Turkey along the way.
Like in the Euros, Iceland will be tough to break down and dangerous on the counter. The experienced centre-back partnership of Ragnar Sigurdsson and Kári Árnason will be integral to this game plan. One worry for manager (and dentist) Heimir Hallgrímsson is the fitness of star player Gyfli Sigurdsson who has struggled with a knee injury this season at Everton. They will need him fully on song if they are to progress out of this tough group.
As mentioned at the start of this article, this group is to close to call. However, if one was to put a gun to my head, I would probably predict Argentina overcoming their issues and Nigeria capitalising on Croatia’s problems to advance.