These previews will be as free from well-trodden ‘narratives’ as is possible. There are a plethora of other ones out there – some well-informed, some… not so much. I have opted for brevity over bells and whistles, but I still think they provide a fresh take on the most highly anticipated tournament.
Head Coach: Jorge Sampaoli
Odds to Win: 10-1
Tactics & Players to Watch: Sampaoli is a master at rotating both his players and the formation he uses – four have been utilised in the run-up to the tournament. In a 4-2-3-1, the world’s greatest player, Leo Messi, could be the ’10’ or cut inside from the right. He’s likely to be omnipresent in an unbalanced midfield, with only Lucas Biglia offering much protection for the defence. Gio Lo Celso will cover the gaps left in Angel Di María’s wake, and, in an ideal world, he’d be a more disciplined selection on that flank. Manuel Lanzini’s late injury has left the slot behind the sole striker open – Juventus’ Paulo Dybala is the likeliest candidate, but has yet to truly shine on the international stage. His nous will be pivotal in relieving the overwhelming pressure on Messi. Argentina are likely to massively dominate possession in every group game at the very least.
Prediction: Other players must step up with goals or it could mean an embarrassingly early exit á la 2002 for the South American giants. Their tactical setup is only favourable against Croatia and sterile possession won’t be enough against the stout defence of Iceland. On the flip side, they could reach the final if enough players perform and a suspect backline aren’t severely tested. I’m erring towards the former outcome in an even group.
Head Coach: Heimar Hallgrímsson
Odds to Win: 250-1
Tactics & Players to Watch: If you think of how Burnley play, they’re a reasonable approximation for Iceland. Two solid banks of four, with captain Aron Gunnarsson sticking like a magnet on any opposing attacking midfielder. Nominally defensive, they will actually commit lots of bodies forward on the counter. Most of the attacks will come from out wide. Birkir Bjarnason will drift inside when the crosses come from the other wing. Glyfi Sigurðsson’s set pieces will be key against all three sides in their group; watch out also for the young inside forward Albert Thor Gudmundsson if they are chasing the game and need an injection of pace up top. He has already notched several times at senior international level and will pose a very different threat to the two starting strikers.
Prediction: What would cap off an incredible few years for Iceland would be progression to the last 16. Even in this group, it’s not beyond them. They proved in the qualification for the tournament that they have the measure of Croatia, beating them in one of their duals and also to first place. If they can come out of their opener with a famous draw (or even a win), they’ll stand an excellent chance.
Head Coach: Zlatko Dalić
Odds to Win: 33-1
Tactics & Players to Watch: Pressing high from the outset, Croatia strike a good balance between width and congesting the middle of the field. Their front four are particularly impressive; captain Luka Modrić needs no introduction, other than to say he’s deployed more than often than not as an advanced playmaker for his national team, rather than the deeper role he’s made his own for Real Madrid in recentyears. Andrej Kramarić has shaken off the disappointment of his spell in the Premier League and has blossomed into an excellent player, whether he’s through the middle or nominally wide. If it’s the latter, he’ll cut inside to support Mario Mandžukić, who acts as a target man. On the other flank, Ivan Perišić is one of the best in the world at timing runs into the area from the left. Further back, there’s plenty of experience in defence. Should they be given the runaround, youngster Tin Jedvaj is a calming presence at the back, combining an easy-on-the-style with a good range of passing.
Prediction: Should Argentina implode, they might once again fight it out with Iceland to progress. There’s undisputed quality in the furthest five players but they will need Milan Badelj to stay fit/available, as he’s the only one in the squad capable of holding the midfield together and putting his foot in. The first choice centre back pairing are also a concern, given their distinct lack of pace and propensity to make costly mistakes.
Head Coach: Gernot Rohr
Odds to Win: 250-1
Tactics & Players to Watch: Nigeria are all about very quick transitions from the back to the front, with Rohr favouring a direct style of play that allows the pacey wide players to get on the ball as much as possible to give the opposition defence the runaround. The midfield three are extremely solid and also do their bit in attack. Alex Iwobi is a prominent figurehead for his national side, chipping in with goals in a freer role than he has enjoyed at Arsenal up to this juncture. Look out too for Kelechi Ihenacho from the bench. The Leicester City striker is languidly clinical and offers a more varied threat than Odion Ighalo. In goal, Francis Uzoho is set to be the youngest custodian to start at the tournament. He will need to shake off the mistake he made in a recent friendly against England, as the stakes will be much higher.
Prediction: If they can keep on the front foot, they could progress from the group. They have an exciting array of players in attacking areas. Further back, there is much more uncertainty, including between the posts. The system asks a ridiculous amount from the midfield when Nigeria lose possession. Maintaining control will be essential to their ambitions.