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Group D Preview & Tips: Argentina favourites to emerge from 'Group of Death'
Lionel Messi's team are favoured to win Group D, but Croatia, Nigeria and Iceland are all capable of reaching the knockout stage
Argentina's Lionel Messi celebrates after defeating Ecuador to qualify for the 2018 World Cup (Juan Ruiz/AFP/Getty Images)
2018 World Cup Group D Preview & Betting Tips
Group D has been labelled the 'Group of Death' with Argentina expected to qualify and little separating Croatia, Nigeria and Iceland. The pressure on Lionel Messi and his quest to join Maradona as an Argentine World Cup winner will be immense but his first task will be leading the Albiceleste out of a tricky group.
Argentina have faced the same dilemma for many years which is an overloaded attack and an uninspiring defence, but they did make the final at Brazil 2014 and have one of the greatest footballers of all time on their team. The Albiceleste struggled their way through South American qualification, only securing their ticket to Russia in the final match with a 3-1 win in Ecuador courtesy of a Messi hat-trick.
New manager Jorge Sampaoli recently lamented the need to play friendlies as he would prefer training in order to transmit his fast-paced, high pressing and attacking approach to the squad. A recent 6-1 thrashing at the hands of Spain is a big concern despite Messi missing the match through injury. Argentina are priced around 1.70 to win Group D but will need to be wary of tricky and unpredictable opponents.
The Argentine attack is enviable and devastating weapins in Messi, Sergio Agüero, Gonzalo Higuaín and Paulo Dybala. The defensive options haven't been given much credit and many expect them to struggle but there is still enough talent there to compete. Hot prospects Giovani Lo Celso and Cristian Pavon might struggle for game time.
Goalkeepers: Willy Caballero (Chelsea), Franco Armani (River Plate), Nahuel Guzman (Tigres).
Defenders: Gabriel Mercado (Sevilla), Federico Fazio (Roma), Nicolas Otamendi (Manchester City), Marcos Rojo (Manchester United), Nicolas Taglafico (Ajax), Javier Mascherano (Hebei Fortune), Marcos Acuna (Sporting Lisbon), Cristian Ansaldi (Torino).
Midfielders: Ever Banega (Sevilla), Lucas Biglia (AC Milan), Angel Di María, Giovani Lo Celso (both Paris St-Germain), Enzo Pérez (River Plate), Cristian Pavon (Boca Juniors), Maximiliano Meza (Independiente), Eduardo Salvio (Benfica).
Forwards: Lionel Messi (Barcelona), Gonzalo Higuain, Paulo Dybala (both Juventus), Sergio Aguero (Manchester City).
Croatia will be competing in their 5th World Cup with their best performance coming in their debut at France 1998 where they finished 3rd. Manager Zlatko Dalić has been in charge for five games after Ante Čačić was sacked in October, rescuing the campaign and steering his nation to Russia with a play-off victory against Greece.
Croatia underperformed under Čačić but if Dalić can put the talented pieces together with limited preparation time they should be able to qualify for the knockout rounds. Croatia have a top quality midfield consisting of Luka Modric, Mateo Kovacic and Ivan Rakitic while Ivan Perisic, Andrej Kramaric and Mario Mandzukic provide offensive threat.
An opening game against Nigeria is a perfect opportunity to get off to a winning start before facing Argentina and Iceland. Croatia will be an entertaining side to watch this summer and should have enough quality to emerge from Group D, but there must be serious doubts with a new manager who is inexperienced on the international stage.
Goalkeepers: Danijel Subasic (Monaco), Lovre Kalinic (Gent), Dominik Livakovic (Dinamo Zagreb).
Defenders: Vedran Corluka (Lokomotiv Moscow), Domagoj Vida (Besiktas), Ivan Strinic (Milan), Dejan Lovren (Liverpool), Sime Vrsaljko (Atletico Madrid), Josip Pivaric (Dynamo Kiev), Tin Jedvaj (Bayer Leverkusen), Duje Caleta-Car (Red Bull Salzburg).
Midfielders: Luka Modric (Real Madrid), Ivan Rakitic (Barcelona), Mateo Kovacic (Real Madrid), Milan Badelj (Fiorentina), Marcelo Brozovic (Inter Milan), Filip Bradaric (Rijeka).
Forwards: Mario Mandzukic (Juventus), Ivan Perisic (Inter Milan), Nikola Kalinic (AC Milan), Andrej Kramaric (Hoffenheim), Marko Pjaca (Juventus), Ante Rebic (Fiorentina).
Nigeria qualified for their 6th World Cup after going undefeated in their group which included Zambia, Cameroon and Algeria. The Super Eagles have a proud record at the World Cup, reaching the Round of 16 on three occasions including Brazil 2014 where they were knocked out by France. German manager Gernot Rohr has done well despite an underwhelming resume.
Nigeria have many former and current Premier League players in their ranks including Ola Aina, John Mikel Obi, Wilfred Ndidi, Victor Moses, Alex Iwobi, Ahmed Musa, Odion Ighalo and Kelechi Iheanacho. Nigeria have been growing in confidence and will fancy their chances of an upset, especially after a 4-2 friendly win against Argentina in Russia last November.
Nigeria have an array of fast and physical players and have one of the youngest teams in Russia with seven under-23 players in the squad. Excitement should be guaranteed and the Super Eagles’ opening game against Croatia will go a long way to deciding their World Cup fate. Concerns exist with the absence of a top class goalkeeper and a defence which lacks experience at the highest level.
Goalkeepers: Francis Uzoho (Deportivo La Coruna), Ikechukwu Ezenwa (Enyimba), Daniel Akpeyi (Chippa United).
Defenders: William Troost-Ekong, Abdullahi Shehu (both Bursaspor), Tyronne Ebuehi (Benfica), Elderson Echiejile (Cercle Brugge), Bryan Idowu (Amkar Perm), Chidozie Awaziem (Porto), Leon Balogun (Brighton), Kenneth Omeruo (Chelsea).
Midfielders: Mikel John Obi (Tianjin Teda), Ogenyi Onazi (Trabzonspor), Wilfred Ndidi (Leicester), Oghenekaro Etebo (CD Feirense), John Ogu (Hapoel Be'er Sheva), Joel Obi (Torino, Italy).
Forwards: Ahmed Musa, Kelechi Iheanacho (both Leicester), Victor Moses (Chelsea), Odion Ighalo (Changchun Yatai), Alex Iwobi (Arsenal), Simeon Nwankwo (Crotone).
Iceland reached Russia 2018 as the smallest nation ever to qualify for a World Cup with a population of just 334,000. The achievement comes after Iceland qualified for their first ever major tournament at the 2016 European Championships, famously beating England 2-1 before losing 5-2 against France in the quarter-finals.
Iceland qualified for their first World Cup in style, finishing top of their group which included Croatia, Ukraine and Turkey. Managed by Heimir Hallgrímsson since 2013, the team known as Our Boys are entertaining and incredibly hard to beat, playing with passion and a collective work ethic that allows them to continually win against the odds.
Gylfi Sigurdsson is the leader and most influential member of the team followed by Ragnar Sigurdsson, Aron Gunnarsson and Johann Gudmundsson. The Icelandic supporters are a joy to watch and many neutral fans will be hoping Our Boys can surprise in Russia. Iceland’s opening game against Argentina could define their tournament.
Goalkeepers: Hannes Thor Halldorsson (Randers FC), Runar Runarsson (FC Nordsjælland), Frederik Schram (FC Roskilde).
Defenders: Kari Arnason (Vikingur), Ari Skulason (Lokeren), Birkir Saevarsson (Valur), Sverrir Ingason (FC Rostov), Hordur Magnusson (Bristol City), Holmar Eyjolfsson (Levski Sofia), Ragnar Sigurdsson (FC Rostov).
Midfielders: Johann Gudmundsson (Burnley), Birkir Bjarnason (Aston Villa), Arnor Traustason (Malmo FF), Emil Hallfredsson (Udinese), Gylfi Sigurdsson (Everton), Olafur Skulason (Kardemir Karabukspor), Rurik Gislason (SV Sandhausen), Samuel Fridjonsson (Valerenga), Aron Gunnarsson (Cardiff City).
Forwards: Alfred Finnbogason (Augsburg), Bjorn Sigurdarson (FC Rostov), Jon Dadi Bodvarsson (Reading), Albert Gudmundsson (PSV Eindhoven).
Group D is incredibly hard to predict. Argentina are the obvious choice to win the group at 1.73 and a comfortable win against Iceland in their opening game will set them up nicely. The three remaining nations all have flaws that can be exploited which makes an underrated Nigeria a decent shout to qualify.
Group D Winner: Argentina @ 1.73
Group D to Qualify: Nigeria @ 3.75