The 2018 World Cup kicks off in four months’ time, but which side will emerge from the pack to lift the famous trophy in Russia? With 32 teams slogging it out for supremacy, Marathonbet takes a closer look at each World Cup finals group in a bid to whittle down the contenders.
Group G: Belgium, Panama, Tunisia, England
This is the group that the majority of English men and women across the world will have their eyes on – and Three Lions fans couldn’t have wished for a seemingly easier task.
We say seemingly because, of course, nothing is ever as simple as it appears on paper. Gareth Southgate’s men have to navigate past a Tunisia team that’s not appeared at a World Cup finals in 12 years and a lowly Panama side that’s making their first-ever appearance at the competition. Then there’s the challenge from Belgium, the strongly fancied group favourites.
Southgate takes charge of his first major tournament as manager but in truth the pressure of yesteryear has dwindled somewhat when it comes to England’s push for a first major title since 1966. England teams have never been short of talent but something just does not quite click when it comes to the big stage. There have been a few hard luck stories on the way – Southgate skying a penalty against Germany in the semi-finals of Euro ’96 comes to mind – but nobody is really expecting England to win the World Cup in Russia.
The players will be thinking differently, however. Progress this time around could come thanks to the likes of Spurs’ target man Harry Kane, who’s found incredible form in front of goal over the past 12 months, and his midfield compatriot Dele Ali. When it comes to Kane, who scored an emphatic record-breaking, 54 goals for club and country last year, England’s apparent reliance on him compares to that of Wayne Rooney at Euro 2004. However, Southgate will also be turning to names including Man City’s Raheem Sterling, who looks a new player under Pep Guardiola, and super-efficient right-back Kyle Walker, to bring stability and consistency to the side. Whether they’re a match for Belgium remains to be seen when the sides clash on June 28 – a game which could decide who tops this group.
England’s European neighbours topped their qualifying group unbeaten after appointing former Swansea and Everton boss Roberto Martinez to the helm. It’s his first major tournament as a player or coach and some suggest his inexperience will be Belgium’s downfall. On the pitch however, they’re not short of superstars. Chelsea’s Eden Hazard is both speedy and skilful – terrorising defences with intricate dribbling and an arsenal of goals – and Man City’s Kevin De Bruyne could be a lively outside bet for winning the Golden Boot. There’s plenty of height and strength in the side too with Manchester United’s Romelu Lukaku leading the line up top, club teammate Marouane Fellaini in midfield and Chelsea’s safe-hands ‘keeper Thibaut Courtois in goal. There’s a real solidity to Belgium’s spine and if Martinez can carry over their form from qualifying into the World Cup finals, Belgium could easily make the latter stages.
Elsewhere, the betting suggests Tunisia will finish third in the group. Ranked 23rd in the world, the north Africans have never made it past the group stage at a World Cup finals but did pip Congo to top spot in qualifying. Tunisia faced England at the 1998 World Cup, the Carthage Eagles suffering a 2-0 defeat at the Stade Velodrome in Marseille, and will rely on striker Youssef Msakni to find the net in Russia. The forward, who plays for Qatar Stars League club Al-Duhail, scored a bundle of goals in qualifying including a hat-trick away to Guinea. He will be looking to impress as he has already attracted interest from several European clubs.
And Panama, who most fans will be familiar with for the Panama Canal and more recently the leaking of financial papers, step into unchartered territory at their first World Cup finals. Boss Hernan Dario Gomez previously led Colombia and Ecuador to the group stages in 1998 and 2002 respectively so is not totally out of his depth. A 2-1 win over a decent Costa Rica side in qualifying in October ensured Panama secured their historic qualification but there’s a reason they’re the rank outsiders to win this group.
Group G top stat:
England have lost just once in 21 meetings with Belgium – that only defeat way back in 1936. The sides have met twice at World Cup finals, drawing 4-4 in 1954 before a David Platt winner earned England victory in 1990.
Marathonbet odds for winning the group: Belgium (17/20) – England (28/25) – Tunisia (13/1) – Panama (30/1) Check the full Group G betting markets here.
When and where can I watch Group G games? And what TV channels are they on?
June 18: Belgium v Panama (4pm, Sochi, BBC)
June 18: Tunisia v England (7pm, Volgograd, BBC)
June 23: Belgium v Tunisia (1pm, Moscow, BBC)
June 24: England v Panama (1pm, Nizhny Novgorod, BBC)
June 28: England v Belgium (7pm, Kaliningrad, ITV)
June 28: Panama v Tunisia (7pm, Saransk, ITV)