Philly Football Daily will be covering the upcoming FIFA World Cup in Russia in its entirety, this summer. In the lead-up to kickoff in Moscow, PFD will be releasing previews of all eight groups.
Continuing with Philly Football Daily’s Group Preview, ahead of the biggest stage for The World’s Game, we arrive at what should be, at least in my opinion, one of the most intriguing groups of this Summer’s World Cup competition.
Group D should provide both pundits and spectators with plenty to talk about once the tournament kicks off later this June.
From Lionel Messi’s quest to bring home a major trophy, to the underdogs of Iceland trying to stake their claim on a second major, international tournament in a row, this is a group that I, myself, will not be able to peel my eyes away from.
So, without further delay, let’s kick off and get right to it.
I will talk through each team in the group while, as always, PFD wants to hear from you, the Fan. Who do you think will go through? What storylines will you be following? We want to hear your thoughts on each of our previews.
Argentina: Leo’s Last Shot
Argentina come into the latest World Cup installment as one of the favorites yet again, and the Argentinians are hoping to improve on their runner-up finish in Brazil, last time out.
It’s a side that boasts one of the most potent attacks in the world, with the likes of Juventus star Paulo Dybala augmenting Manchester City top goalscorer Sergio Aguero.
Then, of course, there is Lionel Messi, the little magician who led all of La Liga, the Spanish first-division, in goals, assists, dribbles, and key passes over the previous campaign.
A solid showing at the World Cup would certainly ensure his position as a frontrunner for his record sixth Ballon D’Or trophy. All this at age 30 and in his 14th season. Any team with Messi leading the line is an automatic favorite.
However, this could be Messi’s last chance at a major international trophy.
For as incredible as Lionel Messi is, one of the biggest things holding him back from being considered the greatest footballer of all time is his lack of success at the international level.
In Russia, at the World Cup this Summer, lies Messi’s last shot at immortality. Fortunately for Messi, the Argentine squad around him oozes quality, despite the recent loss of first choice keeper Sergio Romero to injury.
Argentina’s attack will certainly keep them in games, but head coach Jorge Sampaoli’s side could suffer from a defense that has yet to be tested against the best of Europe’s club teams.
Iceland: Underdogs Looking to Make a Statement
In a tournament that has no shortage of captivating storylines, the story of tiny Iceland is perhaps the most interesting.
After all, a country with a population less than 400,000 people qualifying for the biggest tournament in all of world football is an outstanding story, although it does make Iceland the immediate underdogs in Group D.
However, these “underdogs” could still surprise some people, just as they did when they knocked off England back in Euro 2016.
Iceland’s key to a strong performance in Russia will lie naturally on the shoulders of Everton midfielder Gylfi Sigurdsson, as he is one of three Icelandic players who will be playing English top-flight football next season.
Another key player for Heimir Hallgrímsson’s side could be Aron Gunnarsson, the midfielder who was instrumental in Cardiff City’s promotion to the Premier League for next season. Gunnarsson will have an important role to play as a defensive presence in front of Iceland’s back four.
Iceland could make some waves this June, but the tiny nation will have to shake off recent poor results if they want to escape this highly-competitive group.
Croatia: The Dark Horses of June
If I had to point to one team, who I believe is poised to shock some people this Summer, it would have to be the Croatian side. Croatia likely has its best squad in years, and are certainly looking to escape the toss-up that is Group D.
It is definitely plausible, as the Eastern European team boasts one of the strongest midfields in the world, with La Liga stars Ivan Rakitic and Mateo Kovacic holding down the fort alongside arguably the best midfielder in the world in Luka Modric.
Croatia’s middle of the park must perform well and that area of the pitch will need to provide a good supply chain for the forwards at the top, if the Croatians want to make it out of Group D.
A star-studded midfield is coupled with the goalscoring prowess of attackers Mario Mandzukic and Ivan Perisic. Thus, as a result, the goals will come for Croatia. However, the real questions lie in the back, where AS Monaco goalkeeper Danijel Subasic will be tested with a rather unknown defensive unit ahead of him.
When Dejan Lovren is your most known center back, things could get dicey.
Nigeria: Fire Jerseys, Fire Team
Iceland isn’t the only dark-horse team that could make a splash in Russia this Summer. Nigeria is a team that many have been writing off since well-before the tournament even begins.
Nigeria undoubtedly has the best-looking World Cup jerseys of any team this Summer, but also boast a squad that could surprise many viewers, pundits and fans at the upcoming tournament.
In the midfield, lies the heart of the Super Eagles.
Experienced captain John Obi Mikel will look to protect the back four alongside Leicester City midfielder Wilfred Ndidi. However, it’s the latter player who will have to stay disciplined, as Ndidi is known to rack up a red card (or two) for his club side, since joining Leicester to replace N’golo Kante.
Nigeria’s midfield will prove to be key to protecting a considerably young and inexperienced back line.
Nigeria will likely look to counter, and its midfielders will certainly look to spring pacy forwards Ahmed Musa and Alex Iwobi who will both be looking to get in behind often and early.
It’s a side that has quite a few options going forward, and Nigeria’s tournament could be decided by the individual performances of players such as Chelsea wingback Victor Moses, who has transformed in recent seasons with the Blues, as well as fringe players like Kelechi Iheanacho, who will be looking to make a name for himself this Summer.
Players to Watch: Lionel Messi and Luka Modric
If you want to watch beautiful football this Summer, then keep your eyes glued to these two players.
Messi is the best player in the world. Period. Messi has the ability to do things with a football that seem impossible, to the onlooker, yet he does them as if they are second nature.
He led all of La Liga in almost every statistical category this past season, and the Argentine legend will surely be just as impactful this Summer. He is a magician and deserves all eyes.
Luka Modric is arguably the best passer in all of football.
Watching the Croatian on the ball is like watching a poet write, or a composer script their next symphony. Modric has an ability to dictate the tempo of a game with his ball control, then break open a stubborn defense with a beautiful through ball.
Modric will be one of the most exciting and creative players to watch all Summer.
X-Factors: Gonzalo Higuain and Dejan Lovren
Now these players may not be the biggest names for their club teams, but are neverthless players whose form could have the greatest impact on the outcome of their respective nation’s tournament.
For Gonzalo Higuain, the name of the game is redemption.
Time and time again, in major tournaments, the center forward has been criticized for his inability to perform in big games. From missing sitters in World Cup Finals, to disappearing for 90 minutes in Copa America Finals, the Juventus star has repeatedly failed to capitalize when it matters most.
Combine that with a goal output that has been declining over the past few seasons and it is now solely on the Argentinian to prove why he was selected for the squad over budding Inter Milan star Mauro Icardi.
For Dejan Lovren it is much of the same.
Liverpool’s enforcer has grown tremendously for the Merseyside club since being paired with Dutch defender Virgil van Dijk, but as Reds’ fans know, Lovren is still a liability at times.
Croatia’s central defender is known to be prone to costly errors that can decide matches, and this is something that makes his play all the more scrutinized. It will be even more crucial that Lovren remain error-free this Summer, when he is tasked with leading a relatively unknown back line.
Hot Take: Nigeria Beat Argentina to go Through
One thing is certain: Group D will be utter chaos, and I see this chaos culminating with the final day of group play, as Argentina take on Nigeria and Croatia face off against Iceland.
My hot take is that Croatia wins, but Alex Iwobi delivers a last-ditch winner for Nigeria against group favorites Argentina, to send the Super Eagles to the Knockout Rounds over the Eastern European side.
Predictions: Argentina and Nigeria Move on to the Knockout Rounds
Argentina is clearly the favorite to win Group D, and I think they will ultimately go through with ease after wins in their first two games. However, after that, it’s anyone’s guess.
I say Nigeria will edge out Croatia to go through. Iceland finish last with zero points.
Be sure to keep an eye out for my Group H preview, which will be released in the coming days.