Can Lionel Messi win a World Cup? That’s the nagging question around a player who is undoubtedly one of the greatest footballers of all time.

Not since Diego Maradona have Argentina possessed a playmaker of such singular talent as Messi. But unlike Maradona, the freakishly gifted Messi has never fired his national team to a world title. 

He came close in 2014 – driving Argentina into the final against Germany at the Maracana, only to lose out to a Mario Götze goal in extra-time. It was a case of so near yet so far for the diminutive playmaker, and he eventually retired from national team duty following defeat in the Copa America final in June 2016.

It didn’t last, of course. Barely a month had gone by before Messi declared his availability for Argentina’s 2018 FIFA World Cup qualification campaign. And didn’t they need him?

After a dreadful campaign that saw Argentina head to the altitude of Ecuador in sixth-place in the CONMEBOL standings and needing a top four finish to qualify, the Argentines then proceeded to concede a goal inside the opening minute. But cometh the hour, cometh Leo Messi – his sublime hat-trick inspired the Albicelesteto a 3-1 win and ensured Argentina didn’t miss out on a first World Cup finals since 1970.

The question is: can anyone else help Messi? There’s plenty of talent available – names like Javier Mascherano, Angel Di Maria and Sergio Agüero are testament to that. But too often Argentina have looked like a one-man band. Combustible coach Jorge Sampaoli will need to find a way to get the best out of the rest of his star-studded cast if Argentina is to add a third world crown in Russia.

Now that Cristiano Ronaldo has helped fire his nation to a major continental title – Portugal won Euro 2016 – Messi will no doubt be desperate to add his own major international trophy. But can he do so? That’s the question on everyone’s lips, not least in Argentina.

Head coach: Jorge Sampaoli

Key player: Lionel Messi (pictured)

One to watch: Giovani Lo Celso


The sagas of Icelanders may need another chapter after Iceland became the least-populated nation in history to ever qualify for the World Cup finals. In truth, it had been a long time coming.

Iceland played its first international in 1930, but after starring at Euro 2016 – where a shock 2-1 win over England in the Round of 16 propelled them into the quarter-finals – plenty of astute pundits expected the Nordic nation to take the next step up.

But expectations and reality are two very different things, so the fact that Iceland topped a qualification group containing the likes of Croatia, the Ukraine and Turkey is no mean feat. They won seven games from 10 in the process – including an unprecedented 3-0 win over Turkey in Eskişehir on the penultimate night of fixtures, as they topped their group at Croatia’s expense.

Away defeats to Croatia and Finland – the only two of their campaign – suggest Iceland is more comfortable playing at home in Reykjavík, however their success in France at Euro 2016 should put them in good stead for the trip to Russia.

Only a handful of Icelanders ply their trades in Europe’s biggest leagues. Everton midfielder Gylfi Sigurðsson chimed in with four goals during the qualification campaign, while talismanic Augsburg striker Alfreð Finnbogason chipped in with three. Elsewhere, much-capped midfielder Emil Hallfreðsson plays his club football in Serie A with Udinese, while captain Aron Gunnarsson enjoyed promotion with Cardiff City. But this is a team that thrives on collective harmony.

It’s all overseen by Heimir Hallgrímsson – the mild-mannered dentist who combined his medical duties with coaching the national team as joint manager alongside Swede, Lars Lagerbäck. When Lagerbäck stepped down to take charge of Norway following Euro 2016, Hallgrímsson took over as Iceland’s coach on a full-time basis.

They’ll have their work cut out for them in Russia, especially as they’ve been drawn in the same group as qualifying rivals Croatia. But if recent history is anything to go by, there could be another chapter added to the sagas yet.

Head coach:  Heimir Hallgrímsson

Key player:  Gylfi Sigurðsson (pictured)

One to watch:  Albert Guðmundsson


By quirk of the draw, Croatia will face Iceland in Rostov-on-Don fresh from the Icelanders pipping the Croats to the post for an automatic qualification spot.

Finishing runners-up in their qualifying group meant Croatia had to make it through the potentially treacherous European playoffs, however a dominant 4-1 win over Greece in Zagreb in the first leg eased the way to a comfortable two-legged victory.

Luka Modrić was at his imperious best against the Greeks, and the fleet-footed Real Madrid midfielder remains a key figure for his national team. Yet this is a Croatian side not exactly short on star talent, with the likes of Dejan Lovren, Ivan Rakitić, Mario Mandžukić and Ivan Perišić all key players for their respective club sides. 

Can they make their mark at the World Cup? They reached the Round of 16 at Euro 2016, but barely registered a shot on goal as they went down 1-0 to eventual champions Portugal courtesy of a Ricardo Quaresma winner deep in extra-time. And defeat in Lens marked something of a missed opportunity for Croatia, who haven’t always managed to mould their prodigious individual talents into a unified team front.

That was exemplified by the fact that former coach Ante Čačić was sacked following a 1-1 draw with Finland on the penultimate night of qualifiers, leaving the unheralded Zlatko Dalić to take charge for the vital clash with Ukraine in Kiev. Dalić passed that test with flying colours as an Andrei Kramarić brace fired Croatia into the playoffs on the back of a 2-0 win, where they comfortably saw off an outmatched Greece.

And having snuck into the finals through the back door, there’s a sense this is not an opportunity to be wasted. Croatia’s golden generation finished third at the 1998 World Cup at their first attempt, but since then they’ve failed to get out of the group stage at a World Cup – and didn’t even qualify in 2010. Could this be the tournament where that all changes?

Head coach:  Zlatko Dalić

Key player:  Luka Modrić

One to watch:  Ante Rebić (pictured)


Is it really a World Cup without Nigeria? Since their first qualification in 1994, the Super Eagles have only missed one further edition since – the 2006 World Cup in Germany – and the presence of one of Africa’s most powerful sides is always keenly anticipated by fans who don’t see much football from that side of the world.

The Nigerians cruised through African qualifying, where their toughest test ironically came in their very first game against Swaziland in the two-legged second round. After being held to a scoreless draw by the dogged Swazis in Lobama, normal service was resumed when Nigeria eased to a 2-0 win in the return leg in Port Harcourt.

German-born coach Gernot Rohr was then handed a tough looking draw in Group B of third round CAF qualifying, but any doubts that Nigeria would struggle to overcome Zambia, fellow African powerhouse Cameroon and Algeria were soon put to rest. Nigeria never looked troubled – particularly after trouncing Cameroon 4-0 in the coastal city of Uyo – and their only ‘defeat’ was actually the result of an administrative blunder.

A 1-0 win over Zambia in the penultimate round of qualifiers saw Nigeria become the first African team to qualify for Russia, however a subsequent 1-1 draw with Algeria was overturned after the Nigerians fielded an ineligible player – Shehu Abdullahi should have been suspended – and instead was awarded to Algeria as a 3-0 win.

That mistake won’t have unduly troubled the experienced Rohr – although it’s a reminder the African football is often plagued by administrative problems – but he’ll have his work cut out for him in a difficult World Cup group.

Still, the Super Eagles have plenty of firepower to call upon, with English Premier League stars Victor Moses, Wilfred Ndidi, Alex Iwobi and Kelechi Iheanacho among the most recognisable names. John Obi Mikel is still there too – astonishingly, the midfielder who feels like he’s been around forever is still only 31 – and the Tianjin Teda enforcer will no doubt prove a calming influence on a squad bristling with both youthful exuberance and hard-won experience.

Head coach:  Gernot Rohr

Key man:  John Obi Mikel

One to watch:  Moses Simon (pictured)

Categories: Analysis | World Cup

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