GROUP D

Houston Chronicle - - SOCCER -

Pre­dicted order of fin­ish: Ar­gentina, Croa­tia, Ice­land, Nige­ria.

Out­look: How fun is this go­ing to be? Lionel Messi and Ar­gentina? Yes, please. Ice­land (pop. 337,000) and the spine-tin­gling Vik­ing Clap mak­ing World Cup de­buts? Oh yeah. Croa­tia’s ar­ray of high-end at­tack­ers? Def­i­nitely. Nige­ria’s high­fly­ing Su­per Ea­gles? But of course.

Messi could shroud Ar­gentina’s prob­lems by him­self. He is ex­tra­or­di­nary. Still, he will need a sta­ble sup­port­ing cast to draw attention from him. Ca­pa­ble con­trib­u­tors are abun­dant: An­gel di Maria, Ser­gio Aguero, Gon­zalo Higuain and Paulo Dy­bala, 24, who has scored 52 goals in three sea­sons with Ju­ven­tus.

Ice­land barely missed out on the 2014 World Cup, then made the most of its first Euro­pean Cham­pi­onship visit by go­ing un­beaten in group play and up­set­ting Eng­land in the round of 16.

Twenty years ago, in their first World Cup as an in­de­pen­dent na­tion, the Croa­t­ians fin­ished third. Since then, they’ve been a bust, win­ning two matches in nine at­tempts dur­ing three group-stage ex­its.

The mid­field and front-line per­son­nel is in­di­vid­u­ally stel­lar: Luka Mo­dric (Real Madrid), Ivan Rakitic (Barcelona), Ivan Perisic (In­ter Mi­lan), Nikola Kalinic (AC Mi­lan) and Mario Mandzu­kic ( Ju­ven­tus).

In its sixth at­tempt, Nige­ria is look­ing to fi­nally ful­fill the enor­mous prom­ise that took root in the 1990s. It has never ven­tured be­yond the round of 16. Chelsea mid­fielder Vic­tor Moses leads the way.

Natacha Pisarenko / As­so­ci­ated Press

Ar­gentina’s Lionel Messi will need some help from his team­mates.

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