Group of faith

Underachievers, newcomers and a bunch back after a long time. This pool has teams with a range of emotions, from expectations to meet to hoping against hope.

Published: 08th June 2018 02:05 AM  |   Last Updated: 08th June 2018 02:05 AM   |  A+A-

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Underachievers, newcomers and a bunch back after a long time. This pool has teams with a range of emotions, from expectations to meet to hoping against hope. Ayantan Chowdhury checks out the game behind strategies...

Belgium

A Spaniard is in charge of managing the golden generation of Belgian talent. Expectations are high this time despite the Euro 2016 disappointment. The dysfunctional style under Marc Wilmots has been replaced by the attacking philosophy of Roberto Martinez. They netted a massive 43 times during their qualifying campaign including putting 6 past Gibraltar and 8 past Estonia. They remained unbeaten, winning 9 out of 10 games, with Romelu Lukaku scoring an impressive 11 goals. All areas of the pitch are stacked with Premier League stars and players like Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Lukaku are coming off good club seasons. Even the former Wigan manager has a thing or two to prove to the English media, after he was vilified during his reign as Everton boss. The Red Devils should make it out of the group with ease. Concerns still surround their defence and the tendency of their attacking wing-backs to not track back. They have been the pundits' dark horse for every major tournament in the last few editions. This time, can the Red Devils go one better?

Key player: Eden Hazard (midfield)

The manager has a wealth of attacking options and this is his crown jewel. The 27-year-old is the heartbeat of the team. A brilliant dribbler who is equally adept at link-up play, the Chelsea playmaker will be hoping to finally excel for his country on the biggest stage of them all.

Nickname: The Red Devils

Coach: Roberto Martínez

World ranking: 3

Past appearances: 13

Best: Fourth in 1986

Base: Moscow region

Odds: 11

England

It has been a familiar tale for England so far in the build-up to the Word Cup. They qualified with relative ease, going unbeaten over the course of 10 matches and winning 8 of them. This has always been followed by a disappointing exit when it mattered. It has now been 52 years of hurt for England fans. At this point, getting out of the group might be seen as a relative success, considering that recent editions of the World Cup have been underwhelming affairs. An embarrassing group stage exit in Brazil 2014 under Roy Hodgson saw the side pick up just a single point. It was the third straight tournament that England failed to make it to the quarterfinals. New coach Gareth Southgate has overseen a period of transition and decided not to opt for the experience of goalkeeper Joe Hart and midfielder Jack Wilshere and instead went for a young squad in a bid to deflect expectations. It remains to be seen if they can finally deliver the goods. For now, the only thing English fans can do is dream on.

Key player: Harry Kane (striker)

Chances of England doing hinge on him. The Tottenham striker has plundered 35 goals this season, narrowly losing out in the race for PL top scorer. The 24-year-old centre-forward will be keen to prove a point after a disappointing Euro, where he resorted to taking corners!

Nickname: Three Lions

Coach: Gareth Southgate

World ranking: 13

Past appearances: 15

Best: Winners in 1966

Base: Saint Petersburg

Odds: 18

Tunisia

Will make their return to the quadrennial showpiece after 12 years at the expense of Democratic Republic of Congo, Libya and Guinea. They had gone unbeaten during the qualifying campaign, topping their group and scoring 14 times in the process. The Eagles of Carthage, coached by Nabil Maaloul, will be playing their fifth World Cup, although the team is yet to make it out of the group stages. Maaloul is one of few African coaches in charge of a national team and has transformed the lot from a dour, defensive outfit to one more willing to attack since he took over midway through their qualifying campaign. The highest-ranked African team currently had created history at the 1978 World Cup in Argentina, by becoming the first from the continent to win a World Cup match, beating Mexico 3-1. They suffered a huge blow when star striker Youssef Msakni was sidelined with a cruciate knee ligament injury while playing for his Qatari club. They have called up quite a few foreign-born players, mainly from France and how quickly they gel as a unit will shape their World Cup dreams.

Key player: Wahbi Khazri (midfield)

The challenge of filling the void left by Msakni will likely fall on this France-born attacking midfielder. Played for the Tunisia and France youth teams before committing to Tunisia. Has played as midfielder all his career but since his loan move from Sunderland to Rennes, has flourished as a lone attacker.

Nickname: Eagles of Carthage

Coach: Nabil Maâloul

World ranking: 14

Past appearances: 5

Best: Group stage

Base: Moscow region

Odds: 750

Panama

Making their World Cup debut, after 40 years of trying. They qualified for Russia in dramatic circumstances, as Roman Torres hammered home an 88th-minute winner to help his nation overcome Costa Rica 2-1 on the final matchday of CONCACAF qualifying. Their qualifying campaign included respectable results against the likes of Mexico (0-0) and the USA (1-1). It's an incredible feat considering that the Central American country with a population of just four million has reached the finals at the expense of the US, which has 320 million. Most of the credit for this should go to their coach Hernan Dario Gomez. The Colombian has successfully replicated the trick he pulled with his native country in 1998 and Ecuador in 2002, by taking the unfancied Panama to the finals. He has an ageing squad with most players above 30. But he has built a system that works. They might be the lowest-ranked team in the group but as history has shown, you should never disqualify anybody on the grandest stage.

Nickname: Los Canaleros (The Canal Men)

Coach: Hernán Darío Gómez (Colombia)

World ranking: 55

Past appearances: Debut

Base: Saransk

Odds: 1000

Key player: Luis Tejada (striker)

The 35-year-old is Panama's record scorer with 43 goals in 104 appearances. He plays for Sport Boys in the Peruvian first division and has had a journeyman career, having represented no less than 19 clubs. Will be 36 when tournament kicks off, but his eye for goal remains keen as ever.

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