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Group G might be the most clear-cut of first-stage groups in this World Cup, containing one true title contender, a would-be power with an emerging golden generation, and two sides just happy to be here. If that doesn’t add up to much suspense, the entertainment could be sublime.
A lot of that has to do with Belgium, which is a stunningly gifted side that would need to reach the semifinals, perhaps go further, to come close to meeting its otherworldly potential. England might be a World Cup away, but it’s got skill and speed to burn, and its youngsters are playing in the best league on the planet. Not so much is expected from ailing Tunisia, nor from little-regarded Panama — the team that took the berth that was expected to go to the United States.
WATCH: Why Belgium may dominate at the World Cup
Belgium has the talent to win the World Cup, perhaps more talent than anyone else in the field, but marshaling that talent into a cohesive whole hasn’t been easy, as we saw when the Red Devils went out in the quarterfinals four years ago and and at Euro 2016. Spaniard Roberto Martinez, who has coached in the English Premier League and served as an analyst in ESPN’s coverage of the past two World Cups and European Championships, replaced Marc Wilmots after the most recent disappointment, and his much-debated tactical adjustments have made for a more dangerous side.
Belgium’s most golden of generations is deep into its prime now, and if this group of players is going to realize its potential, now is when it’s going to happen. Qualifying was easy — the Red Devils drew just one of 10 games and outscored opposition, 43-6 — and there’s an open path to the quarterfinals in Russia. Going further, as they must, will require more than they’ve previously offered. There’s so much ability in the attacking end that anything is possible. Manchester City playmaker Kevin De Bruyne has been magnificent this season as he’s moved into a more withdrawn role, a move initialized by Martinez, and Chelsea’s Eden Hazard offers supreme creativity from the wing. Forward Romelu Lukaku is in great form after a splendid first year with Manchester United, and there’s plenty of depth everywhere.
The Belgians have long been known for stingy defense, and they never have had more capable defenders, but there’s cause for concern. Things are good in the nets with Chelsea’s Thiboult Courtois, but backline leader Vincent Kompany, from Manchester City, has grown brittle as he’s gone into his 30s, and only Tottenham’s Jan Vertonghen among the other first-choice backliners arrives in top form. Martinez has toyed with a 3-4-2-1 alignment to deal with the backline rust, which places top wingback Thomas Meunier, from PSG, a little higher up the field. That’s a plus.
If it all meshes together, Belgium could be the delight of this tournament and a real contender for the spoils. But it’s a big if. This team has a knack for underachievement.
Panama already has won its World Cup just by making it to Russia. The Canaleros are, with Iceland, one of two first-timers in the competition, and they’re not expected to do much here. If they can get a win or draw in the group finale against Tunisia, with both sides likely eliminated by then, they will have exceeded initial expectations. They’re not a bad side, with talent on every line and vaster experience than most teams in the field. And they’ve got a coach who understands the landscape: fiery Hernan Dario Lopez, a former Francisco Maturana assistant who took his native Colombia to the 1998 tournament and Ecuador four years later.
Panama, which has finished second or third in three of the past four CONCACAF Gold Cups, ended the U.S. World Cup run last October, scraping into the tournament thanks to a phantom goal by Roman Torres that knocked off Costa Rica as the Yanks succumbed in Trinidad. After missing the Cup four years earlier on a last-minute goal, there was some justice at work perhaps.
It’s an older team, with 12 of the 35 players on the provisional roster 30 or older. A half-dozen of them have at least 100 caps, and another five have at least 70. Sixteen play or have played in MLS, including Seattle Sounders center back Torres, who anchors the backline; Atletico Bucamaranga playmaker Gabriel Gomez, who runs the attack; Dinamo Bucharest goalkeeper Jaime Penedo, the region’s best goalkeeper not all that long ago; Guatemala-based forward Blas Perez. There are a couple of youngsters to keep an eye on, too: New York Red Bulls defender Michael Murillo and Peru-based midfielder Miguel Camargo.
Tunisia returns to the World Cup after a 12-year absence, somehow as FIFA’s top-ranked African team, and it’s all falling apart. Star forward Yousef Msakni, who carried the Eagles of Carthage through the simplest of African qualifying campaigns, is out after tearing knee ligaments while playing for his Qatari club. That, says the consensus, is that for Tunisia. We’ll see. They’ve got some very capable midfielders, and one of them — Wahib Kharzi, who did little at Sunderland but has found his form on loan to Rennes — is likeliest to pick up the scoring slack. Or else Tunisia doesn’t score, which is possible, too. Wing-back Ali Maaloul, who plays in Egypt, will have much to say about that.
Nabil Maaloul, a key figure in Tunisian soccer, began his second stint as national team coach after last year’s quarterfinal exit in the African Cup of Nations. He’s emphasized a more open, attacking brand of soccer than the Eagles were playing, but a push to replace qualifying veterans with some European-born players could upset chemistry. And he already has jettisoned backline leader Aymen Abdennour, who has played with big clubs in France and Spain, and, more curious, 33-year-old forward Hamdi Harbaoui, the top scorer in Belgium this season.
The central midfield duo of Ferjanni Sassi and Mohamed Amine Ben Amor, both based in Saudi Arabia, could be crucial, if Ben Amor can make it back from injury. A few others have fitness concerns, and there’s only so much depth. Ultimately, it probably doesn’t matter. Tunisia hasn’t gotten out of the group stage in four World Cups, and it’s not about to now.
England is a team worth getting excited about, although it’s probably too young and inexperienced to go much further than the Round of 16, maybe the quarterfinals, in Russia. Former England regular Gareth Southgate, who went to two World Cups and played in one of them, took over after Sam Allardyce, the man meant to guide the Three Lions here, resigned after he was implicated in a September 2016 corruption scandal. Southgate has emphasized youth, speed, dynamism and the future, dumping aging star forward Wayne Rooney and handing the reins to an extremely talented group of players not yet halfway through their 20s.
Harry Kane, the 24-year-old star striker for Tottenham, is the big name here, and he’s surrounded by pacey attackers with consummate skill and daring: his Spurs teammate Dele Alli, 22; Manchester City forward Raheem Sterling, 23; Manchester United forward Marcus Rashford, 20; and Crystal Palace midfielder Rube Loftus-Clark, 22. Injury has deprived the Three Lions of wonderful Liverpool midfielder Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who at 20 went to the 2014 Cup, and his teammate Joe Gomez, a defender.The English are better on the flanks and up front than in central midfield or at the back, where Manchester United’s Phil Jones must marshal an inexperienced backline in front of whichever young goalkeeper gets the nod. These weaknesses likely will hinder the side against the likes of Belgium and such, but there’s so much class in attack that, if it finds momentum, a long run is possible.