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FIFA 2018 WORLD CUP: GROUP D OVERVIEW

MESSI DREAM

ARGENTINA

Coach: Jorge Sampaoli
Captain: Lionel Messi
Nickname: La Albiceleste
Kit: Home – sky blue and white; Away – black.
Cup Best Record: Winners 1978, 1986

Squad
Goalkeepers: Sergio Romero (Manchester United), Wilfredo Caballero (Chelsea), Franco Armani (River Plate)

Defenders: Gabriel Mercado (Sevilla), Cristian Ansaldi (Torino), Nicolas Otamendi (Manchester City), Federico Fazio (Roma), Marcos Rojo (Manchester United), Nicolas Tagliafico (Ajax), Marcos Acuna (Sporting CP).

Midfielders: Javier Mascherano (Hebei China Fortune), Eduardo Salvio (Benfica), Lucas Biglia (Milan), Giovani Lo Celso (Paris Saint-Germain), Ever Banega (Sevilla), Manuel Lanzini (West Ham), Maximiliano Meza (Independiente), Angel Di Maria (Paris Saint-Germain), Cristian Pavon (Boca Juniors),

Forwards: Paulo Dybala (Juventus), Lionel Messi (Barcelona), Sergio Aguero (Manchester City), Gonzalo Higuain (Juventus).

Road to World Cup: Argentina were on the brink of missing out on the World Cup and had to wait until the last day of the CONMEBOL qualifiers.

They needed a win over Equador in their final group match to ensure qualification.

Romario Ibarra’s first minute goal for Equador in the match piled on the pressure for the South American giants.

It was their most famous player, Lionel Messi, who stepped up to salvage the Argentinian pride. After managing only four goals in all previous matches in the qualifiers, Messi finally came up with a hattrick.

By all standards it was a poor run for the Argentinians, who went into the qualifying as the number one team. Only Bolivia, who finished second from bottom, in the competition had a worse goal scoring record.

Player to watch

LIONEL MESSI
Date of Birth: June 24, 1987 (age 30 years)
Place of Birth: Rosario, Argentina
Height: 1.7m
Club: FC Barcelona (#10, Forward)

The five-time Ballon d’Or winner will be hoping to win the World Cup and taste international glory with Argentina for the first time.

While he has been hugely successful with Barcelona, the mercurial striker has been unable to replicate it with Argentina.

Argentina were beaten by Germany in the final last year and Messi was also not able help his team win the Copa America at the 2015 and 2016 finals.

The frustrated Messi even announced his exit from the national team following the failure at the 2016 Copa.

The football crazy nation were relieved when he decided to retract the decision. The 30-year-old star will once again shoulder the heavy responsibility in the Argentinian dream.

Team assessment:

Argentina may boast of some of the most experienced and talented stars in the world. But their international failure over the past two decades would put plenty of pressure on the team.

Messi, Sergio Aguero, Angel Di Maria and Gonzalo Higuan have been impressive with their goal scoring feats at the club level.

But they have not been able to do the same with Argentina. In the qualifiers, they managed a paltry 19 goals compared to group champions Brazil who netted more than double the amount.

Messi has been hugely successful with Barcelona because the team is built around him. His teammates at the national team have not been able to combine as effectively.

Coach Jorge Sampaoli is also having a major issue with injuries to several key players including defender Marcos Roja.

He has been forced to constantly swap his line-up with different formations and that has not given the desired effect. Argentina were in fact at the receiving hand against Spain, losing 1-6.

Despite all the problems, the two time champions are favoured to qualify for the knockout stages from the group.

 

STRENGTH IN THE MIDFIELD

CROATIA

Coach: Zlatko Dalic
Captain: Luka Modric
Nickname: Vatreni (The Blazers)
Kit: Home – red and white; Away – black and dark blue.
Cup Best Record: Third place 1998

Squad

Goalkeepers: Danijel Subasic (Monaco), Lovre Kalinic (Gent), Dominik Livakovic (Dinamo)

Defenders: Vedran Corluka (Lokomotiv Moscow), Domagoj Vida (Besiktas), Ivan Strinic (Sampdoria), Dejan Lovren (Liverpool), Sime Vrsaljko (Atletico Madrid), Josip Pivaric (Dynamo Kiev), Tin Jedvaj (Bayer Leverkusen), Matej Mitrovic (Club Brugge), Duje Caleta-Car (Red Bull Salzburg)

Midfielders: Luka Modric (Real Madrid), Ivan Rakitic (Barcelona), Mateo Kovacic (Real Madrid), Milan Badelj (Fiorentina), Marcelo Brozovic (Inter), Filip Bradaric (Rijeka)

Strikers: Mario Mandzukic (Juventus), Ivan Perisic (Inter), Nikola Kalinic (Milan), Andrej Kramaric (Hoffenheim), Marko Pjaca (Schalke), Ante Rebic (Eintracht).

(Teams have until June 4 to finalise the 23 man squad)

Road to World Cup: The Croatians failed to earn an automatic qualification from Group I of the UEFA qualifiers.

Their chances were marred by 0-1 defeats to Turkey and Iceland. They finished two points behind Iceland and were drawn against Greece in the playoff.

Croatia’s ticket to Russia was assured following their thumping 4-1 first leg win. They two team played out to a 0-0 draw in the return leg.

Mario Mandzukic, who plays for Juventus top scored for Croatia with 5 goals in the group matches, but was not on target in the playoff against Greece.

Player to watch

LUCA MODRIC
Date of Birth: September 9, 1985 (age 32 years)
Place of Birth: Zadar, Croatia
Height: 1.72m
Club: Real Madrid CF (#10 Midfielder)

Widely regarded as one of the best midfielders in the world, Luca Modric will be hoping to make in impact in what could be his final appearance in the competition.

Modric played a crucial role in Real Madrid retaining the EUFA Champion League late last month and it only further cemented his status as a top notch midfielder.

His vision, passing and control on the ball will be much needed for Croatia to be competitive.

Last October, Modric was named for the third time in the FIFA FIFPro team selected by thousands of professional players. In 2015, he became the first Croatian voted on to the FIFPro XI.

Team assessment

This is probably Croatia’s best side since the 1998 team that finished third. There are enough talents in the side, but they have been drawn in a very tough group.

But Croatia’s revolving door for coaches has not been helpful in moulding a team that plays as a unit. With a number of stars in the side, it is difficult to see how the inexperienced Zlatko Dalic can motivate or even gain their respect.

Croatia, probably has a midfield that most teams at the Finals would gladly absorb.

Apart from Modric, they also have Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic and Inter Milan’s Ivan Perisic and Marcelo Brozovic.

This is almost the same side that beat Spain in their group matches and were edged out 1-0 by Portugal in the quarter-finals of Euro 2016.
The Croatian defence has been suspect and that could be a major setback for them especially against the attacking power or Argentina and Nigeria in the group.

 

INJURY RAVAGED

ICELAND
Coach: Heimir Hallgrimsson
Captain: Aron Gunnarsson
Nickname: “Strakarnir Okkar” (“Our boys”)
Kit: Home – blue, red and white; Away – white, red and blue
Cup Best Record: Debutants

Squad
Goalkeepers: Hannes Halldorsson (Randers), Runar Runarsson (Nordsjaelland), Frederik Schram (Roskilde)

Defenders: Kari Arnason (Aberdeen), Holmar Eyjolfsson (Levski Sofia), Rurik Gislason (Sandhausen), Sverrir Ingason (Rostov), Hordur Magnusson (Bristol City), Birkir Saevarsson (Valur), Ragnar Sigurdsson (Rostov), Ari Skulason (Lokeren)

Midfielders: Birkir Bjarnason (Aston Villa), Samuel Fridjonsson (Valerenga), Johann Gudmundsson (Burnley), Aron Gunnarsson (Cardiff City), Emil Hallfredsson (Udinese), Gylfi Sigurdsson (Everton), Olafur Skulason (Karabukspor), Arnor Traustason (Malmo)

Forwards: Jon Bodvarsson (Reading), Alfred Finnbogason (Augsburg), Albert Gudmundsson (PSV), Bjorn Sigurdarson (Rostov)

Road to World Cup:  Iceland qualified for the Finals as Group champions ahead of Croatia. With two matches to go, Iceland’s hope of an automatic qualifying berth was in no way assured.

On the penultimate match-day, Iceland carved out an improbable 3-0 win over Turkey. And with Finland walking away with a stunning draw against Croatia, Iceland’s dreams of making the Finals was a step closer.

A 2-0 win over Kosovo in their final group match ensured the finished top in the group and a dream debut at the World Cup.

Player to watch

GYFLI SIGURDSSON
Date of Birth: September 8, 1989 (age 28 years)
Place of Birth: Reykjavik, Iceland
Height: 1.85m
Club: Everton (#18/Midfielder)

The Everton star midfielder, named the Icelandic Footballer of the Year for the past six years, is undoubtedly the player to watch in the team.

His steady influence was crucial in the match against Kosovo in the qualifier. As the rest of the team was overwhelmed by the situation, it was Sigurdsson’s opening goal that calmed their nerves.

Sigurdsson has scored 18 goals for Iceland in 55 appearances. But the mercurial midfielder has just recovered from a a knee injury and is not expected to be fully match-fit.

Iceland would be hoping for a fully fit Sigurdsson to give them a much needed sting in the midfield.

Team assessment
No other team possess the belief that this team has in their own ability. Their indomitable spirit would be their biggest asset.

But, fitness of their key players would also be a telling factor.

While the team does not boast of superstars in their midst, they are an experienced side with tremendous work ethics. Just as they played at the Euro 2016, the team are also expected to be physical in their approach in Russia.

Apart from Sigurdsson, the team has a number of other key players on the injury list.

Center forward Kolbeinn Sigthorsson has been dropped from the final squad after failing to recover from the medial meniscus injury he picked up almost two year ago.

Fellow striker Alfred Finnbogason has also injury issues but has been cleared to make the trip to the Finals. It is the same with Aron Gunnarsson, who has only just recovered from a knee injury.

 

TRUST IN THE YOUNG GUNS

NIGERIA

Coach: Gernot Rohr
Captain: John Obi Mikel
Nickname: The Super Eagles
Kit: Home – green and white; Away – dark green
Cup Best Record: Last 16 1994, 1998, 2014

Squad
Goalkeepers: Ikechukwu Ezenwa (Enyimba FC), Francis Uzoho (Deportivo La Coruna), Daniel Akpeyi (Chippa United); Dele Ajiboye (Plateau United)

Defenders: Abdullahi Shehu (Bursaspor), Tyronne Ebuehi (Ado Den Haag), Olaoluwa Aina (Hull), Elderson Echiejile (Cercle Brugge), Brian Idowu (Amkar Perm), Chidozie Awaziem (Nantes), William Ekong (Bursaspor), Leon Balogun (Mainz), Kenneth Omeruo (Kasimpasa), Stephen Eze (Lokomotiv Plovdiv)

Midfielders: Mikel John Obi (Tianjin Teda), Ogenyi Onazi (Trabzonspor), Wilfred Ndidi (Leicester), Oghenekaro Etebo (Las Palmas), John Ogu (Hapoel Be’er Sheva), Uche Agbo (Standard Liege), Joel Obi (Torino), Mikel Agu (Bursaspor)

Forwards: Ahmed Musa (CSKA Moscow), Kelechi Iheanacho (Leicester), Moses Simon (KAA Gent), Victor Moses (Chelsea), Odion Ighalo (Changchun Yatai), Alex Iwobi (Arsenal), Nwankwo Simeon (Crotone), Junior Lokosa (Kano Pillars)

(Teams have until June 4 to finalise the 23 man squad)

Road to World Cup: Following their 2-0 aggregrate win over Swaziland, Nigeria were drawn in a tough group with Algeria, Zambia and African champions Cameroon.

With only the group champions qualifying for the Finals, finished the qualifiers unbeaten. But they were penalised for fielding a suspended Shehu Abdullahi in their final match against Algeria.

The match had ended 1-1, but was awarded 3-0 to Algeria. It, however, did not affect the team’s qualification. They still finished tops with 13 points, ahead of Zambia with 8 points.

Their solid 1-1 draw away to Cameroon and 4-0 thrashing of the same side at home outlined the domination of the Nigerians in the qualifiers.

Player to watch

JOHN OBI MIKEL
Date of Birth: April 22, 1987 (age 31 years)
Place of Birth: Jos Nigeria
Height: 1.88m
Club: Tianjin Teda (#10/Midfielder)

John Obi Mikel is the most illustrious player in the Nigerian team. Although he is currently playing in the Chinese Super League, Obi Mikel comes with credentials none of the others in the team can match.

The former Chelsea star was a member of the teams that won the Champions League, the Europa League, African Nations Cup as well as two Premier League titles to show.

His composure in the midfield would be crucial for the Super Eagles. Obi Mikel would be relied upon to keep the Nigerian structure in place in the midfield to steady the defence as well as to assist the strikers up front.

The 31-year old stalwart also played a key role in the teams bronze medal effort at the 2016 Olympics.

Team assessment
The Super Eagles may be blessed with some of the most exciting African strikers in their side. But their biggest concern would be the man between the posts.

The retirement of the ever reliable Vincent Enyeama has left Gernot Rohr with a big headache.

Rohr has moulded a side that is capable of going all the way, but he would certainly be worried as to whether young upstart Francis Uzoho would be handle the pressure.

His first choice to replace Enyeama had been Carl Ikema. But Ikema was diagnosed with leukemia and Rohr experimented with Ikechukwu Ezenwa before settling on the 19-year-old Uzoho.

Uzoho plays for Deportivo La Coruna, but has only seen 180 minutes of action for the side.

Like Uzoho, Rohr has also put his trust in a number of other youngsters in the run-up to the Finals. It includes the likes of Alex Iwobi, Kelechi Iheanacho and Wilfred Ndidi.

The team also comes into the tournament with the record of having beaten Group favourites Argentina in a recent friendly.

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