Lionel Messi, Luka Modric, Aron Gunnarsson and John Obi Mikel
Lionel Messi, Luka Modric, Aron Gunnarsson and John Obi Mikel

Group of Death: Even with Messi it’s hard to pick

THIS group - more than any other in Russia - reignites the quadrennial Group of Death debate.

Argentina will be favourites. Anyone with Lionel Messi in their ranks is surely entitled to that.

But all three of their rivals - Iceland, Nigeria and Croatia - will fancy their chances of progressing.

Argentina endured an unusually fraught qualifying campaign and only reached the finals by the skin of their teeth. It needed a hat-trick from Messi in their final game in Ecuador to push them over the line.

Plucky thunderclapping minnows Iceland will be everyone's favourite second team after their fairytale Euro 2016 run - and it's important to note that they qualified ahead of Croatia and split their head-to-head battle one win apiece.

Croatia have flattered to deceive given their numerous star-studded line-ups over the years, but they still have the potential to go a long way. Does 2018 represent this golden generation's last shot at glory?

Nigeria, on the other hand, are a team well and truly on the up. In form and full of confidence, they are a very real threat to progress.

THE KEY MATCH

Croatia v Nigeria (June 17, 5am): Croatia are a tough team on paper but they have lost their past three World Cup openers, while the Super Eagles were the first African nation to qualify, and did so easily. This clash could very well decide the second team to go through with group favourites Argentina.

 

TEAMS

 

Can Lionel Messi lead Argentina to glory?
Can Lionel Messi lead Argentina to glory?

ARGENTINA

 

Always a threat to win it all, the 2014 runners-up go into this tournament far from their best. They will be hoping Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain and others quickly find their feet in support of Messi and that the defence - which served them so well in Brazil four years ago - doesn't falter. If they don't take care of business as expected, a round-of-16 date with France could be on the agenda. Go through as winners and a far less onerous opponent more than likely awaits.

Key player: Could it be anyone else but the redoubtable Messi? Argentina would not be in Russia without his goals and leadership. He turns 31 during the tournament so this is probably his last chance to lift the trophy.

 

Recent form: Two wins, two huge defeats since qualification. The good: Beating Russia and italy without conceding. The bad: Leaking six goals against the Spanish and a surprising four goals against Nigeria - whom they meet again in Russia.

 

World Cup history: Two-time winners (1978) and (1986), two-time runners up (1990) and (2014) and four-time quarter finalists. That's quite a pedigree! They have only failed to not qualify for the finals once (1970). Their only real finals disaster in the last 50-odd years was in 2002 when they failed to make it out of the group stage.

 

Coach: 57-year-old Jorge Sampaoli is the Albiceleste's third coach in less than a year, taking the reins from Edgardo Bauza in the middle of 2017. He has won five of his 11 games in charge.

 

FIFA ranking: 5

 

Betting: $9

 

Aron Gunnarsson has an important role to play for Iceland.
Aron Gunnarsson has an important role to play for Iceland.

ICELAND

 

One of two tournament debutants. With just 334,000 inhabitants they are the smallest nation ever to reach a finals. They will be hoping for a giant-killing run similar to the 2016 Euros where they knocked England out on the way to the quarter-finals. Passionate fans and the thunderclap chant arguably their biggest weapons.

 

Key player: Aron Gunnarsson. Forget the attacking flash of Gylfi Sigurdsson - he may not even play as he faces a race against time to recover from injury - bearded captain Gunnarsson is the man who drives this gritty band of Vikings. He played a big part in Cardiff City's promotion push towards the Premier League this season.

 

Recent form: They have been found wanting in their last two games, both against Cup qualified teams. A 3-0 defeat to Mexico was followed by a 3-1 loss to Peru. Their hot form from the qualifiers seems an awful long time agfo.

 

World Cup history: They came close to reaching the finals for the first time four years ago but were edged out by Croatia in a playoff. This is a new experience for the country.

 

Coach: Heimir Hallgrimsson. Not many teams are coached by a dentist but Iceland have shown, loudly and clearly, that they aren't most teams. Tactically flexible.

 

FIFA ranking: 22

 

Betting: $250

 

Luka Modric leads an impressive-looking Croatian side.
Luka Modric leads an impressive-looking Croatian side.

CROATIA

 

Packed with stars, Croatia were forced to squeeze into the finals via the playoffs for the second Cup in a row. They actually performed well at Euro 2016, beating Spain while topping their group beforet falling in the round of 16 to Portugal. Time is running out for this golden generation of players - Luka Modric, Mario Mandzukic, Ivan Rakitic, Ivan Perisic and co. Their experience better count for something otherwise they are in big trouble.

 

Key player: Real Madrid star and national skipper Modric must step up if Croatia are any chance of a decent run in Russia. The midfield is their strong point with players like Inter's Marcelo Brozovic, Rakitic and Perisic.

 

Recent form: Since smashing Greece in the Cup playoffs late last year, Croatia have only played twice - and it's been a mixed bag. A 2-0 defeat to Peru was followed by an impressive win over Greece. A friendly against Brazil early next month will test them out.

 

World Cup history: It all boils down to 1998. With a squad featuring Davor Suker, Slaven Bilic, Robert Jarni, Mario Stanic, Robert Prosinecki and skipper Zvonimir Boban, Croatia impressed to finish third. After beating Jamaica and Japan they lost 1-0 to Argentina but still qualified for the round of 16. They then beat Romania before smashing Germany and reaching the semifinals. But after taking the lead against France in the semifinal, they fell to two goals from Lilian Thuram. They did finish the tournament in style though, knocking over the Netherlands 2-1 in the third-place playoff. In their three subsequent Cup final visits (2002, 2006, 2014) they have only won twice in nine games.

 

Coach: Zlatko Dalic. Took charge as the team was in meltdown just two days before the final qualifier. Improvised impressively for a 2-0 win over Ukraine then presided over an authoritative dismissal of Greece in the playoffs.

 

FIFA ranking: 18

 

Betting: $33

 

John Obi Mikel has a calming presence in midfield.
John Obi Mikel has a calming presence in midfield.

NIGERIA

 

They have the form and confidence to make some serious noise. They beat reigning African champions Cameroon 4-0 in the group stages of Cup qualifying and bounced back from 2-0 down in a friendly to beat Argentina 4-2 recently. They have qualified for five of the past six World Cups and have been drawn against Argentina every time. They are still looking for their first win over them.

 

Key player: John Obi Mikel. The former Chelsea star - now playing in China with Tianjin TEDA - is a calming presence in central midfield and takes care of the distribution for attacking weapons Victor Moses, Kelechi Iheanacho and Alex Iwobi.

 

Recent form: Reached the final of the 2018 African Nations Cup before being beaten heavily by Morocco. Bounced back to beat Poland thanks to a Moses penalty in March before being toppled by Serbia. They have games against England and the Czech Republic to get them ready for Russia.

 

World Cup history: Reached the round of 16 three times - including in Brazil four years ago - but have failed to go on with it. Their best performance was perhaps in 1998. Back then they stunned Spain and Bulgaria before crashing out to Denmark. In Brazil four years ago they drew with Iran, beat Bosnia before losing to Argentina. They were then no match for France in the round of 16.

 

Coach: Gernot Rohr. Like Mikel, Rohr has steadied the ship for Nigeria, which has changed coaches eight times since the last World Cup in Brazil. Since he took over last year the former Bordeaux manager has lost one game while injecting youth into what had been a bunch of underachievers, but is now a ruthless counter-attacking side.

 

FIFA ranking: 47

 

Betting: 200-1

 

 

GROUP FIXTURES

 

Saturday, June 16, 11pm

Argentina v Iceland

Otkrytie Arena, Moscow

Sunday, June 17, 5am

Croatia v Nigeria

Kaliningrad Stadium, Kaliningrad

Friday, June 22, 4am

Argentina v Croatia

Nizhny Novgorod Stadium, Nizhny Novgorod

Saturday, June 23, 1am

Nigeria v Iceland

Volgograd Arena, Volgograd

Wednesday, June 27, 4am

Iceland v Croatia

Rostov Arena, Rostov-on-Don

Wednesday, June 27, 4am

Nigeria v Argentina

Krestovsky Stadium, Saint Petersburg



Great Northern to transform Emu Park tourism hub tomorrow

Premium Content Great Northern to transform Emu Park tourism hub tomorrow

The pop-up event, which is open to the public, will include a bar, live music, a...

Weekly rental costs rise as less properties available

Premium Content Weekly rental costs rise as less properties available

CQ has recorded a sharp rise in interest and costs as more people move to the...

Coast woman’s reliance on paper mail bites her

Premium Content Coast woman’s reliance on paper mail bites her

“I had no idea my licence had expired.”