With the World Cup about to start, Emabis takes a look at Group D where Messi should lead Argentina into the knock-out stages.
Group D features Argentina, Croatia, Iceland and Nigeria.
Two-time winners and losing 2014 finalists, Argentina, are one of the competition favourites. And I don’t think there’s any genuine football fan who wouldn’t like to see Lionel Messi lift the World Cup. But can Argentina actually win it? The evidence suggests Messi’s Argentina face an uphill battle. In an uninspiring qualification campaign, Argentina finished thirteen-points behind winners Brazil and three-points behind Uruguay.
It’s a surprise that Argentina scored the fewest goals of any South American qualifier given their attacking options include Messi, Aguero, Dybala, Di Maria and Higuain. It's the rest of the Argentinian squad that appears vulnerable given its age and quality. Of their nineteen goal haul, Messi scored seven goals in ten games – five more than his closest teammate – so it's very clear Argentina’s World Cup prospects rely on Messi papering over cracks elsewhere on the pitch. If anyone can win a World Cup on their own, it's Messi. But it’s a huge ask.
Croatia qualified for Russia as runner-up to Iceland. And they arrive as many so-called expert’s ‘dark horses’, as they have been over the past number of European Championships and World Cups. But apart from one semi-final appearance at France 1998, and two quarter-final appearances at World Cup 1990 and Euro 2008, Croatia have disappointed in major tournaments.
The introduction of younger stars like Real Madrid’s Mateo Kovacic and Atletico Madrid’s Sime Vrsaljko shows Croatia continues to produce talented footballers. But the fact of the matter is that since 2002, Croatia have failed to qualify from the Group stages of three World Cups. And that was with the benefit of star attacking players like Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Mario Mandzukic in their prime. Now that those players are on the wane (although still playing at top class European clubs), it’s difficult to see why the outcome in Russia will be improved.
Iceland qualified for Russia by topping Group I ahead of ahead of Croatia, Ukraine, Turkey, Finland and Kosovo. Interestingly in this Group, Iceland and Croatia featured in the same qualifying group where each won their home fixture to nil (Iceland by one and Croatia by two).
In fact, it’s notable that five of Iceland’s seven qualification wins were on home soil. But, as Euro 2016 showed when Iceland impressively reached the quarter finals, they can also win away from home in tournament football. So Argentina and Croatia have been forewarned. And therein lies Iceland’s greatest challenge; no opponent will underestimate them this time.
Nigeria qualified for the World Cup after topping a final group featuring Zambia, Cameroon and Algeria. But the World Cup is not a new experience for Nigeria. Since first qualifying for USA 1994, the Super Eagles have qualified for the last five of six tournaments (the exception being Germany 2006) and reached the Last 16 three times.
Sprinkled with Premier League stars like Arsenal’s Iwobi, Chelsea’s Victor Moses and Leicester's Iheanacho, Nigeria will be upbeat about their prospects at this World Cup. However, goals look an issue with neither Iheanacho nor Gent’s Moses Simon prolific. Coupled with a lower quality defence, Nigeria may pose problems for their group opponents but it is difficult to see them secure enough points to qualify.
Nigeria hold pedigree in reaching the knock-out stage of World Cups but I don’t think they have the team to continue that trend.
Of the other three, there are merits and demerits to their respective prospects of emerging from the ‘Group of Death’. Some suggest Argentina may be vulnerable, especially as they play Iceland first up. But Jorge Sampaoli won’t underestimate Iceland and I just can’t see a Messi-led Argentina failing to qualify from their group. Most likely as winners to avoid the Group C winners (likely France) in the Last 16.
For me, the question is whether Croatia or Iceland qualify as their head-to-head game is too close to call. On paper, Croatia win it but their history in tournaments makes it difficult to trust them. So despite giving Croatia a tentative nod to qualify ahead of Iceland, I won't be backing them.
Predicted Group Standings
Recommended Group Bet
Iceland are the bookies favourites to finish bottom of Group D. But I think Iceland continue to be under-rated and Nigeria are the worse team in Group D.
Recommended Group Match Bet
Doubling up on my Recommended Group Bet, I think Iceland will beat Nigeria when they meet in Volgograd.
Iceland to beat Nigeria @ 2/1 with select firms.