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Belgium

When does potential translate to success? That’s the question Belgium fans might rightly be asking of their team, which has so far struggled to turn undoubted talent into tangible results.

Euro 2016 was supposed to be the tournament where it all came together for the Red Devils. Instead, they scraped through the group stage thanks to a desperately late winner against Sweden from Rajda Nainggolan, before three more late goals against a tiring Hungary saw Belgium flatter to deceive in a 4-0 Round of 16 win. But a desperately disappointing 3-1 exit against Wales in the quarter-finals – after Nainggolan had opened the scoring – ended Belgium’s tournament and Marc Wilmots’ reign as coach.

His replacement was a decidedly left-field choice, with Spaniard Roberto Martínez taking charge soon after being sacked by English Premier League side Everton. And Martínez will have his detractors in Russia – not least for his hugely controversial decision to leave the popular Nainggolan out of his squad. Already viewed with suspicion by the Belgian media for his inability to speak Dutch or French fluently, Martínez gave Nainggolan barely any playing time during the qualification campaign – and provoked howls of disbelief by leaving the combative Roma midfielder out of his finals squad altogether.

Yet the fractured dressing room belies the fact that Belgium enjoyed a wildly successful qualification campaign. In truth, they weren’t drawn in the toughest of groups, but they nevertheless became the first European nation to qualify on the back of nine wins and a draw in a group that also contained Greece and Bosnia and Herzegovina. And they did it playing some of the most attacking football on the continent – finishing with a staggering 43 goals (along with Germany) as they pulverised Estonia 8-1 and finished with 15 goals from their two games against Gibraltar.

However, their qualification exploits will count for little if they fail in Russia, and therein lies the conundrum for Martínez. Much is expected of a squad containing household names like Thibaut Courtois, Vincent Kompany, Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard. But unless an unpopular coach can find a way to unite his dressing room, the World Cup could be yet another case of wasted potential for the less than united Red Devils.

Head coach: Roberto Martínez

Key player: Kevin De Bruyne

One to watch: Dries Mertens (pictured)

Panama

Has there ever been a more dramatic qualifying campaign than Panama’s?

Having failed in their ten previous qualification attempts to date – including an agonising 2014 campaign that saw them knocked out after conceding two goals in stoppage time in their final game to the United States – Los Canaleros finally reached their promised land after one of the most inconceivable nights of World Cup qualifying in recent history. 

Needing to win in their final game against neighbours Costa Rica and hope that Trinidad and Tobago beat regional powerhouse the United States, the situation looked bleak when Panama conceded shortly before half-time. But news that the United States was trailing by two goals in the Caribbean had clearly filtered through, and when Blas Pérez equalised at the Estadio Rommel Fernández in Panama City with the scrappiest of goals, the home fans started to believe. 

But that was nothing compared with the scenes when legendary defender Román Torres burst on to an intelligent knock-down with just two minutes remaining. The powerful centre back literally shoved aside his defender before blasting an unstoppable half-volley into the roof of the net. Cue absolute pandemonium across Panama, which proceeded to celebrate as though the nation has just won the World Cup.

Simply qualifying for the finals is an incredible feat for a nation of just four million inhabitants – even if they had a helping hand from the United States’ inexplicable defeat in Trinidad and Tobago to help them along the way. And although Panama’s overall qualifying campaign was nothing to write home about – they finished second in their Fourth Round qualifying group behind Costa Rica, and third behind Mexico and Costa Rica in the subsequent ‘hexagonal’ – they’ll be desperate to put up a decent showing in Russia.

And in Hernán Darío Gómez, they’ve got a coach who has seen it all before. He’s one of just four coaches to have now led three different nations to the finals, having also qualified with his native Colombia in 1998 and Ecuador in 2002. And, like many Central American nations, he’s got a squad bristling with experience and itching to prove itself on the world stage.

Head coach: Hernán Darío Gómez

Key player: Blas Pérez

One to watch: Román Torres (pictured) - Ed: we also featured him here

Tunisia

It has been a long wait for Tunisian football fans, but finally the Eagles of Carthage are back on the big stage after qualifying for their fifth World Cup finals.

Not since reaching a third consecutive finals in Germany in 2006 have Tunisia graced world football’s showpiece event, and the North African giants are still waiting for just their second ever finals win. The first came way back in 1978 when Tunisia downed Mexico in Argentina, and since then a solitary draw in each of their three subsequent campaigns is the most Tunisian fans have had to cheer about.

They’ll hope that will all change in Russia, although they haven’t been handed the easiest of draws – especially since they face England and Belgium in their first two games. But a clash with finals debutants Panama may just represent the chance to land that coveted second victory, and perhaps also send a message to fierce regional rivals Morocco and Egypt, who likewise qualified for the finals.

Perhaps befitting a side that didn’t exactly set African qualifying alight, Tunisia remains a team short on big-name stars but not exactly lacking in big-match experience. A smattering of players ply their trade in France, whilst several more make a good living in Saudi Arabia – including goalkeeper and captain, and the squad’s most experienced player, Aymen Mathlouthi.

They’ve also got a home-grown coach in Nabil Maâloul at the helm, and as a decorated former national team player, he’ll know more than most just how much this appearance means to his country. What will trouble Maâloul, however, is the question of who will score Tunisia’s goals. They scored just 11 in a weak-looking Third Round group of CAF qualifying, having also toiled to see off lowly Mauritania in the Second Round. And with none of their established strikers into double digits in terms of international goals – at the time of writing Al-Ittihad striker Ahmed Akaïchi had the most with nine – Maâloul will be acutely aware that his team needs to find a source of goals to win games.

But that won’t be of huge concern to the travelling Tunisian fans. This is a proud football nation for whom success hasn’t always come easy – if at all. They’ll be happy to be there in Russia, especially if they can spring an upset or two.

Head coach: Nabil Maâloul

Key player: Aymen Mathlouthi

One to watch: Wahbi Khazri (pictured)

England

“30 years of hurt” sung English band The Lighting Seeds in 1996 as England prepared to host the European Championships. They’ve updated the lyrics since, but sadly for English fans, The Three Lions have come no closer to winning any silverware.

A disastrous 2014 World Cup – in which England recorded three straight defeats to finish bottom of their group – was followed by an even more catastrophic performance at Euro 2016. After finishing second in a group topped by Wales, England faced Iceland in the Round of 16 with much of the English press already making plans for a quarter-final showdown with France. They lost.

So it’s safe to say that expectations are low for Gareth Southgate’s team. But this being England, and with the nation being one of the spiritual homes of football, keeping a lid on emotions has often proved easier said than done. Which may explain why Southgate was happy to jettison some of the players so synonymous with failure.

Gone are the likes of Joe Hart, Jack Wilshire and Daniel Sturridge. In have come players like Fabian Delph, Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford. But at the heart of England’s problems is the fact that, ever since the advent of the Sky-moneyed English Premier League, the best players in English football have typically been foreigners.

So it is that Southgate – himself the face of one of England’s most public disappointments, the penalty shoot-out semi-final defeat to Germany at Euro 96 – must find a way to instil some belief in a psychologically fragile squad. His appointment of Tottenham Hotspur striker Harry Kane as captain may prove a masterstroke, in that Kane has the ability to score at will and, most importantly, has proved capable of bringing his prolific club form into the international arena.

Yet there are plenty of questions around the rest of the squad – particularly in goal, a long-term problem area. There are plenty of leaders about – Kane, Gary Cahill and Eric Dier among them, but England will need much more than just inspiration if they are to progress deep into the tournament. 

Head coach: Gareth Southgate

Key player: Harry Kane

One to watch: Dele Alli (pictured)


Categories: Analysis | World Cup

#russia2018, 2018 world cup, group g, belgium, panama, tunisia, england

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