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Lionel Messi is right there with Pelé and Diego Maradona in the discussion for greatest footballer of them all, and he gets plenty of support in that argument but falls just short, based on one thing: He’s never carried his team to a World Cup championship.
This might be his last hope, and Argentina, as always, has the talent to make a run. But the Albiceleste also head to Russia facing a lot of questions following a protracted qualifying campaign, that 6-1 debacle in Spain a couple of months ago, and injuries that could force two first-choice players to miss the tournament.
They’re the favorites in Group D because, well, they’re Argentina, but things aren’t as simple as they seem. Croatia has tremendous talent, enough to win the group, and Nigeria, always a crafty foe, is finding its best form as the Cup nears. And then there’s Iceland, which will likely have the world behind it and is capable of pulling off surprises, as we saw at Euro 2016 and in qualifying.
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Argentina nearly missed out of Russia, needing a win at Ecuador and a couple of other results to fall into place on the final day of qualifying to climb to third in the South American standings. They brought in Jorge Sampaoli, who guided Chile at the 2014 World Cup and to the Copa America crown the final year, for the final four games, then won just one of them.
There’s a ton of talent, and Sampaoli’s attacking instincts fit well with this group, so if things come together, anything is possible. The Albiceleste have been to three major finals in the last four years, falling to Germany in the 2014 World Cup title game and on penalties to Chile in 2015 and at the 2016 Copa America Centenario, so they’re hungry, no one more so than Messi.
The five-time World Player of the Year hasn’t won anything with the national team, and he’s only got so much time left — he turns 31 during the group stage — and that’s true of so many of the most important contributors. There’s an era-is-ending feel to the project. The defensive unit, led by legend Javier Mascherano, is all above 30, and so are winger Angel di Maria and finisher Gonzalo Higuain.
The uncertainty of top striker Sergio Aguero, who scored 30 goals for Manchester City this year but underwent knee surgery in April, and of midfielder Lukas Biglia, who suffered a back injury in early May, is concerning, but there’s a lot of talent to choose from, including 24-year-old Juventus forward Paulo Dybala.
Tiny Iceland stunned the world by knocking off England en route to the quarterfinals at the European Championship two years ago — with a third of its 330,000 population on hand, roaring the “thunderclap” chant that defined the tournament — then won its qualifying group, finishing ahead of Croatia, to book its first trip to a World Cup. It’s been coming: All but one player on manager/dentist Heimar Hallgrimsson’s roster makes their living in Britain or on the continent, some for big clubs, and the skill required to get so far, the resulting experience, and an uncommon chemistry and spirit have made the Starkarnir Okkar — “Our Boys” — a real force.
Hallgrimsson has been involved for years, first as Lars Lagerback’s assistant, then as co-coach with the former Sweden boss, and as the sole manager since Euro 2016. He plays a straight 4-4-2 that can morph neatly into a 4-5-1, and Iceland’s game is a keen contrast of pragmatism — selflessness, work ethic, physical play — and dizzying offensive movement.
Cardiff City’s Aron Gunnarsson, the captain, provides a strong midfield foundation that enables the creative men — talisman Gylfi Sigurdsson and Burnley’s Johann Berg Gudmundsson — to power a fine short-passing game. Sigurdsson, who hasn’t done much since a big-money transfer from Swansea City to Everton, has been sidelined since March with a knee injury; his absence would be devastating. Top forward Kolbeinn Sigthorsson already has been ruled out with a longstanding knee injury.
This golden generation of Croatia stars deserve more than they’ve achieved, so classy and stylish is the soccer they play, and this is their last chance to make the kind of imprint they’ve long desired. Luka Modric is 32, Mario Mandzukic 31, Ivan Ratikic 30, and Ivan Perisic 29, and their legacy with the Vatreni is a glorious 90 minutes against Spain two years ago and repeated World Cup disappointment.
Behind Real Madrid playmaker Modric, one of the chief talents of his generation, Croatia won its group at Euro 2016 on the strength of that Spain domination — the finest performance in the tournament — before falling to champion Portugal in overtime in the round of 16. Qualifying should have been a breeze, but Iceland was a worthy foe and a draw at home with Finland in the penultimate Group I clash took the reins away and cost manager Ante Cacic his job. Zlatko Dalic stepped in, beat Ukraine in the group finale, then pummeled Greece in a playoff.
In form, the Croats can take apart anyone here. Inter Milan’s Perisic and Barcelona’s Ratikic provide smart support for Modric, with Juventus’ Mandzukic atop a 4-2-3-1 alignment that plays to the group’s strengths. The aim is to match — or, better, surpass — that great 1998 team’s third-place finish. Croatia hasn’t survived group play in three tournaments since.
A potential thorn is the ongoing corruption saga involving key figures in Croatia’s federation and some players, including Modric, and has dulled the support the country has for the team.
Another nation that ought to have accomplished more on the World Cup stage is Nigeria, which has long had the talent to contend with the best but too often lacked the organizational structure required to put a winning side on the field. This is the Super Eagles’ sixth Cup in seven cycles, and they’re still looking for their first quarterfinal berth. They’re capable this time if they can maneuver through one of the more difficult groups in the Cup. The opener with Croatia, on June 16 in Kaliningrad, will be critical.
German manager Gernot Rohr, who has been in charge of Gabon’s, Niger’s and Burkina Faso’s national teams, has brought stability to a team that went through five coaches in the two years following the 2014 World Cup. He’s led a youth movement, bringing in exquisitely skilled attackers making their names in Europe, and has lost just twice in nearly two years in charge. The Super Eagles romped through a thorny qualifying group, in which they disposed of African champ Cameroon, then beat Argentina in a Russian friendly.
Captain John Obi Mikel, now in China after a decade at Chelsea, and 25-year-old Ogenyi Onazi, who toils in Turkey, are dominant midfielders who enable Nigeria to employ four attackers, and there’s no shortage of options. Chelsea’s Victor Moses is the pivotal figure up top, usually teamed with CSKA Moscow’s Wilfred Ndidi and 22-year-old Arsenal forward Alex Iwobi. Watch also for Leicester City’s Kelechi Iheanacho, just 21. The backline star is a 24-year-old Dutch-born center back William Troost-Ekong, based in Turkey.
World Cup Group D ScheduleSaturday, June 16
Argentina vs. Iceland in Moscow, 9 a.m. ET
Croatia vs. Nigeria in Kaliningrad, 3 p.m. ET
Thursday, June 21
Argentina vs. Croatia in Nizhny Novgorod, 2 p.m. ET
Friday, June 22
Nigeria vs. Iceland in Volgograd, 11 a.m. ET
Tuesday, June 26
Nigeria vs. Argentina in Saint Petersburg, 2 p.m. ET
Iceland vs. Croatia in Rostov-on-Don, 2 p.m. ET