Argentina

Road to Russia: Had Argentina have drawn against Chile on March 23, it would be the red of Alexis Sanchez gracing Russia instead of Lionel Messi. That’s how close Argentina came to missing out on qualification. A defense that looked vulnerable to top sides will give others hope in Russia and although there’s too much quality to consider them a one-man team, Messi scored at least 5 more goals then any other Argentinian in qualification.

Coach: Jorge Sampaoli took over 12 months ago from Edgardo Bauza when Argentina was on the verge of unbelievably missing a World Cup spot. The 58-year-old Sampaoli never played football professionally and didn’t coach a first division club domestically, developing his career in Chile and Peru. His success at Universidad de Chile thrust him to the Chilean national team in 2012.  Chile reached the round of 16 under Sampaoli in the 2014 World Cup but lost to host Brazil on penalties. A year later however, Chile tastes its first title while hosting the Copa America. Sampaoli then ventured into European football with Sevilla in 2016, but he quickly left and became Argentina’s savior in qualifying them for the World Cup in its last four games of the South American qualifiers.

Key Players: Sampaoli has an embarrassment of attacking riches at his disposal in Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain, Paulo Dymbala, Angel Di Mario and Lionel Messi and goals are all but ensured in the majority of fixtures. The doubts lie in an ageing back-line marshaled by Javier Mascherano who enters the twilight of his career alongside goalkeeper Wily Cabbalero. Injury concerns loom over Aguero and midfielder Lucas Biglia while Manuel Lanzini has been ruled out of the tournament. Yet again much of Argentina’s hopes lay on the little shoulders of Lionel Messi who’s quest to become the greatest footballer of all time will have to be clenched should he guide the South Americans to victory in Russia.

Verdict: This Argentina side may not have the depth of some of the tournament’s favorites but there is enough quality on the pitch for them to make an impact. If Nicolas Otamendi and Marcos Rojo remain imposing in the heart of defense, an Argentinian forward line lead by Messi is capable of tearing apart the finest defenders in World football. An extra-time defeat in the quarter finals is my tip for Argentina.

Croatia

Road to Russia: With a squad oozing with quality, Croatia surprised many but only scraping into the World Cup finals via a playoff match. Although disciplined in defense, Croatia failed to spark many dangerous periods on play in qualification, netting just 15 times, second only to Ireland in terms of the least goals scored in European qualification.

Coach: You know when Luka Modric describes your impact as “phenomenal” that you must be doing something right. Zlatko Dalic took the reigns at a crucial time in qualifying with Croatia needing to beat Ukraine to progress. After doing so he guided Croatia to a memorable 4-1 aggregate win over Euro 2004 champions Greece and into Russia. Dalic is yet to coach a club side of any real magnitude but has experience with the national team set up as a previous assistant coach of the under-21 side.

Key Players: The midfield pairing of Modric and Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic will be pivotal for Croatia and with over 190 caps between them they should be able to compete with any midfield in the tournament. Mario Mandsukic remains the focal point up top while Lyon goalkeeper Danijel Subasic looks assured to start in goal after conceding just twice in eight qualifiers.

Verdict: A seriously tough group poses considerable threat to Croatia but the strength of the side’s spine should see them make the round-of-16. Should Modric and Rakitic start to dictate play in matches, opposition sides will find it very difficult to get on top of Croatia but a lack of attacking flair may be its downfall. My tip is for Croatia to make the round-of-16 but no further.

Iceland

Road to Russia: There is little doubt that this Iceland team is one of the closest knit units in world football. They are now vastly experienced as a playing group and have essentially been together since 2012. They proved their sparkling Euro 2016 performance wasn’t just a flash in the pan, going on to top their qualifying group over Croatia, Ukraine and Turkey.

Coach: Heimar Hallgrimsson was the assistant to head coach Lars Lagerback at Euro 2016, and was given the top gong ahead of the World Cup qualifying campaign following Lagerback’s resignation. A well-spoken and prominent coach in Iceland, Hallgrimsson has been pivotal in keeping momentum flowing following on from Iceland’s sensational showing at the Euros.

Key Players: Captain Aron Gunnarson empathizes Iceland’s fighting spirit in aesthetics and style of play. His fearsome beard is said to give him strength into every challenge something Mile Jedinak would surely channel. Everton’s Gylfi Sigurdsson is Iceland’s major play maker and is sometimes utilized as a deep-lying forward for Iceland. There is a slight question mark over his fitness with a knee problem keeping him sidelined since March which could prove detrimental to the small nations hopes of finding the back of the net.

Verdict: Everyone’s second team will be cheered on heroically in Russia and if Sigurdsson is fit could cause problems for every side in the group. The tremendously disciplined outfit could cause an upset in the tournament should they perform with the same amount of heart shown in France in 2016. I think a strong and spirited performance will see them agonizingly miss out on qualification out of the group but not before yet again winning over the hearts of all other nations.

Nigeria

Road to Russia: The most populated nation in Africa cruised through qualification defeating continental champions Cameroon along the way. In what could potentially be an omen, Nigeria proved its all-round class by beating group D opponents Argentina in a 2017 friendly.

Coach: Gernot Rohr is a renowned figure in African football, coaching Niger, Gabon and Burkina Faso before accepting the challenge of arguably the continents most demanding football tasks. Losing just twice since taking the job in 2016, Rohr has utilized several formations to ensure his side is capable of any situation they find themselves in.

Key Players: Skipper John Obi Mikel leads a physically imposing side with pace and strength flooded throughout the squad. Arsenal’s Alex Iwobi provides width along with Chelsea’s Victor Moses who will look to get Ahmed Musa running at the opposition. The fullback positions are less assured and will need to be addressed before encounters against Argentina and Iceland.

Verdict: A team with sprinkles of quality, Nigeria have certainly earned its place at footballs biggest event but in a group as tough as this, it will be difficult to see the defense holding up to the likes of Messi and Mandzukic. I’m tipping Alex Iwobi to take his game to the next level but Nigeria to exit with just one point from the group.

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Football fan and digital communications officer following Perth Glory during the 2017/2018 A-League season.