The wait is almost over! On Thursday the 14th of June, the 2018 Fifa World Cup will finally be underway. Fans across the world will be hoping to watch their team push aside the competition and lift the world’s most recognisable trophy. The Brazilians will be praying they have a better performance than in 2014, wanting to add another tournament win to their impressive tally. The Spanish (who I think will win) will be hoping the same, as will the Germans.
In England, however, we are far more realistic. With no success since 1966, we know the importance of not getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s just try and get out of the group stages first – cross the other bridges when we get to them. December’s group stage draw in Moscow determined England would be placed in Group G, alongside Belgium, Tunisia, and Panama, where the top two teams will go on to the knockout stages. The more confident amongst us are already certain we’ll progress, alongside Belgium.
Belgium are waiting for their moment to shine, having never exceeded the quarter-finals of a tournament before. They have some amazing talent – with Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku, Kevin De Bruyne and Thibaut Courtois, just a few of the names that have led them to be dubbed the “Golden Generation.”
However, they may find themselves coming unstuck with their slightly inconsistent and largely threadbare defence – with very few defensive options beyond the obvious Kompany/Vertonghen/Alderweireld. Having had, by all accounts, poor management over the years, they will be hoping Roberto Martinez will be the right man to lead them deep into the tournament, especially with Thierry Henry as his assistant. Given Belgium haven’t conceded a single goal in their last four friendlies, it could well be their year.
The second of the three teams England will be in contention with is Panama. This, their first ever World Cup qualification, was the source of a newly created Panama national holiday. Despite their small population of only 4 million, they have proved they deserve to be here, having qualified at the expense of the United States.
Their most important player will undoubtedly be Luis Tejada, their striker who has scored 43 goals for his country, as well as Roman Torres, who scored the goal which sealed Panama’s qualification. Panama’s coach Hernan Dario Gomez has form for leading South American teams to qualification – he did so with Colombia in 1998 and Ecuador in 2002. Panama may not have a squad full of household names, but they have a strong work-rate and certainly won’t be rolling over for anyone.
Our third and final competitor is Tunisia, who found themselves in the group stages, having been unbeaten in the qualifying rounds. They haven’t been in the competition for 12 years and have never progressed beyond the group stage, finding themselves 21st in FIFA’s rankings. All eyes will be on forward Youssef Msakni, who scored a hat-trick against Guinea in the qualifying stages, and Wahbi Khazri, the striker who was loaned out to Rennes by Sunderland (who’ll be hoping to cash in on him if he has a successful World Cup). Whilst they may have lost their last 3 friendlies, they did manage to draw 2-2 with Portugal last month and hold out until the 84th minute against Spain, who only managed to win by one goal. On their day, they shouldn’t be underestimated.
Where to begin? Let’s face it – the bar has been set pretty low for us, given our incredibly disappointing performances in the last 2 major international tournaments. We failed to qualify from the group stage in the 2014 World Cup and crashed out against Iceland in the Round of 16 at Euro 2016. We have a younger squad this time round, but with youth, there is the potential for a lack of experience. Will the youngsters rise to the challenge, or be completely overwhelmed by the occasion?
Arguably one of our key players is Harry Kane, who has had a blinding club season, and has scored 12 goals in 23 England games. He is, however, the new England captain, so it will be interesting to see if (and how) the pressure of this role affects his ability as the main goal-scorer. Without England’s greatest ever goalscorer, Wayne Rooney, retiring from International football in 2017, Kane must pick up where he left off.
With a group comparatively less tricky than others, Belgium are pretty much set to qualify with ease. I don’t think too many people would dispute this. The more optimistic among us will say the same about England. Maybe I’m cynical but I don’t think we’ll beat Belgium (probably losing 2-0), and it would be typical of us to lose to Tunisia.
We will beat Panama, of that I’m reasonably confident. But it’s not a foregone conclusion that we’ll qualify, despite some of the overconfidence in some sections of the fanbase. At this stage, I’m choosing not to blindly suggest Panama and Tunisia are only here to make up the numbers. Upsets do happen (as Iceland proved last time around) and there’s no reason whatsoever the two smaller teams in our group couldn’t do the same in Russia.
Overall, I predict Belgium will run away with the group, probably going undefeated in the process. The rest of the matches will probably be a rather boring affair, with Panama and Tunisia playing ultra-defensively, to try and secure a must-needed win. England will probably qualify, finishing second, although I’m not confident it will be done with any real panache. Given that the runner up of our Group will go on to play the Group H winner, I predict we’ll be playing Colombia or Poland in the Round of 16. Should we win this match, we could be facing Germany in the Quarter Finals. And, well, that could be that.
- Belgium 4 – 0 Panama
- Tunisia 1 – 2 England
- Belgium 3 – 1 Tunisia
- England 2 – 0 Panama
- England 0 – 2 Belgium
- Panama 0 – 1 Tunisia