Can Eng­land and Bel­gium de­liver on their in­cred­i­ble po­ten­tial at WC 2018?

The Sunday Independent - - Sport -

THE Fifa 2018 World Cup gets un­der way in Rus­sia on Thurs­day, and In­de­pen­dent con­tin­ues its build-up to the event with a look at the teams par­tic­i­pat­ing in Groups G and H. With a squad that’s the envy of the foot­ball world, could this be the tour­na­ment in which Bel­gium, fi­nally, come good? Surely, with the play­ers at their dis­posal, they should be do­ing far, far bet­ter? And, yet, they al­ways seem to flat­ter to de­ceive at tour­na­ments. Now, with Roberto Martinez in charge, the Bel­gians most def­i­nitely have a great op­por­tu­nity to do jus­tice to their po­ten­tial. Kevin de Bruyne, Eden Haz­ard, Thibaut Cour­tois, Toby Alder­weireld, Jan Ver­tonghen, Vincent Kom­pany, Mousa Dem­bele, Romelu Lukaku and Dries Mertens… Wow, if this team per­forms as the top names in the team sug­gest, well, then watch out! Re­ally not much is ex­pected from Panama. This is their first time ever they’ve qual­i­fied for the World Cup, and that’s prob­a­bly about it. Their play­ers aren’t well-known – most ply their trade in the Amer­i­can MLS – and, in­di­ca­tions are, they will prob­a­bly only be good frus­tra­tion value; they’ll keep things very tight and en­sure they aren’t em­bar­rassed. Like any north African side, Tu­nisia will be or­gan­ised, com­fort­able in pos­ses­sion and dif­fi­cult to break down. They don’t have any re­ally big names – like Egypt’s Salah – but what they will have, in spades, is a fan­tas­tic team ethic, which has al­ways been the foun­da­tion of Tu­nisia’s suc­cess. The man at the helm, Na­bil Maaloul, is now into his third stint as coach, so he won’t be lack­ing in ex­pe­ri­ence as to how to use the play­ers un­der his care. It’s dif­fi­cult to sin­gle out any in­di­vid­ual in the squad, be­cause that just isn’t the way the Tunisians play, but keep an eye on Saif-Ed­dine Khaoui, a quick-think­ing, smooth pass­ing mid­fielder. Al­ways much hyped when it comes to the World Cup, Eng­land con­sis­tently fail to de­liver. This time, with for­mer Eng­land de­fender Gareth South­gate in charge, it has to be said, they do look a lot more set­tled. There’s a solid look about their de­fen­sive work and they have some re­ally smart at­tack­ing tal­ent too. They will be deadly in their abil­ity to hit teams on the break with the pace of Marcus Rash­ford and Ra­heem Ster­ling, and rely on deadly goal ace Harry Kane to do the busi­ness in the penalty area. Will they have enough? To get to the next round, per­haps, but af­ter that? Can they go all the way? Un­likely. Who will go through to the next round? Bel­gium and Eng­land. Robert Le­wandowski. That’s prob­a­bly about all there is to talk about when it comes to Poland. Ev­ery­thing the Poles do at Rus­sia 2018 will re­volve the Bay­ern Mu­nich striker; they’ll get him into the game as much as pos­si­ble and hope that his in­di­vid­ual ge­nius can take them through to the next round. Now coached by Adam Nawalka, still fondly re­mem­bered for his role in Poland’s su­perb cam­paign at the 1978 tour­na­ment in Ar­gentina, he will cer­tainly know what it takes to en­gi­neer a suc­cess­ful World Cup cam­paign. They’re an ex­cit­ing lot, this Pol­ish squad, and, while they’ll get goals and be en­ter­pris­ing in at­tack, they’ll be just as sound at the back, where they have two top-class goal­keep­ers in Wo­j­ciech Szczesny and Lukasz Fabi­an­ski to call upon. A very, very good squad – but, as al­ways, the big ques­tion is whether Sene­gal can trans­late tal­ent in name into ac­tion on the foot­ball pitch at Rus­sia 2018. Sa­dio Mane, Kali­dou Koulibaly, Cheikhou Kouy­ate, Idrisa Gana Gu­eye, Moussa Sow, Di­afra Sakho and Mame Bi­ram Diouf… the names are enough to have the op­po­si­tion quak­ing in their boots. Add to that, a fan­tas­tic coach in for­mer player Aliou Cisse, and it’s more than ob­vi­ous the Sene­galese have to be re­spected.

Mane is a tal­is­manic pres­ence in at­tack, while Koulibaly, af­ter a stel­lar sea­son with Napoli, is de­vel­op­ing a rep­u­ta­tion as one of the best cen­tral de­fend­ers in world foot­ball. If you’re a bet­ting man, here’s an­other sneaky out­sider for top hon­ours. South Amer­i­can teams are al­ways good value at the World Cup; they know how to per­form at such high-pro­file events and, make no mis­take, there is some qual­ity in this Columbia squad.There’s the in­dus­try and craft of James Ro­driguez and the flair and scor­ing boots of Radamel Fal­cao, a reli­able goal­keeper in David Ospina and, of course, that most ex­cel­lent cen­tral de­fender Davison Sanchez, who comes off a real break-out sea­son at Tot­ten­ham Hot­spur.

In Jose Pek­er­man, they have a coach who knows his way around the in­ter­na­tional game – and, while Columbia of­ten op­er­ate un­der the radar, they are def­i­nitely ex­pected to give the favourites a run for their money. Not ex­pected to trou­ble the rest of the group too much, Ja­pan have re­lied on tried and trusted old hands in their squad, like Keisuke Honda, Shinji Ka­gawa, Shinji Okazaki and Maya Yoshida.

But, while the quar­tet is the Asian coun­try’s most recog­nis­able tal­ents, there’s not all that much else to write home about: they’ll scrap away and give a good ac­count of them­selves, but they’ll be lucky to get a point.

Who will go through to the next round? Columbia and Poland

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