A shock 3-1 defeat to Wales (or Gareth Bale), at the European Championships in France two years ago, spoilt BELGIUM’s breakout party as the much-lauded De Rode Duivels (The Red Devils) failed to live up to pre-tournament hype to make any impact on the world stage. Flash forward to Russia and it’s the same conversations. Electrifying in qualifying (9 wins, 1 draw, 43 goals scored and only 6 conceded in 10 games is some record), boasting a gluttony of mainly Premier League superstars, and holding the hopes of many sweepstakes punters from around the globe, the only question is whether the coach is up to the task. Roberto Martínez was utterly unconvincing at Everton after showing promise as a young coach at Swansea and Wigan. His appointment by the Royal Belgian Football Association raised the eye of many critics due to his complete lack of experience both as a player and manager at international level. He has overseen 14 wins in just 20 games, however mainly against inferior opposition. Disappointing draws against Portugal, Mexico and Russia left a lot to be desired compared to inconsequential drubbings of Costa Rica (4-1), Egypt (3-0) and Saudi Arabia (4-0). Eden Hazard is the focal point of the attack and will look to run the show from a traditional No.10 position. Romelu Lukaku has thrived at international level over the past 18 months and in Dries Mertens they have someone who can create something out of nothing. They should easily progress from the group but the game against ENGLAND should tell us a little more about their potential in this tournament. The Three Lions were equally impressive in qualifying and have only lost twice in 2 year (against Germany and the French). Head Coach Gareth Southgate, infamous for missing the decisive penalty against Germany at Wembley in Euro 96, has come through the England youth teams to provide both stability and an unusual sense of optimism. Embracing the modern 3-4-3 formation, the attack is spearheaded by one of the world’s most inform strikers, Harry Kane. The Tottenham Hotspur striker has 145 goals in the past 4 seasons for club and country and needs to emulate the performance of Gary Lineker at Italia 90 if England are to have any realistic chance of lifting the trophy in Russia. An able cast of young, hungry attacking players will attempt to provide service to the captain: Dele Alli, Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford are all under 23 are Southgate looks to build for the future. With a seemingly positive fan base behind them, and a clean slate from the horrific English media, England could surprise the Belgians and top the group. There were 4 million people (the entire population) in PANAMA celebrating when star man and defender Roman Torres, who had been pushed forward in search of a winning goal, outmatched the Costa Rican defence to fire his country to the World Cup for the first time in their history at the expense of the new footballing aristocracy that is the USA. The Los Canaleros (The Canal Men) boast a heavy contingent who play their club football in the MLS alongside captain Roman Torres, who turns out for the popular Seattle Sounders franchise. Michael Murillo of the New York Red Bulls is an exciting prospect who can fly down the right hand side from fullback, whilst former LA Galaxy goalkeeper Jaime Penedo is one of few Panamanians to have carved out a successful career in Europe with Dinamo București. Targets for the tournament are first a goal then a point, any more than that and Hernán Darío Gómez’s side would be in dreamland. Indeed those targets could be well out of reach given the fact that they have only managed one goal in their last five warm up games. Coach Nabil Maâloul returns for his fourth spell with TUNISIA (who make it to the World Cup for the first time since 2006) after a disastrous spell with the Kuwait national team. Maâloul has lost only one of his ten games in charge – impressive wins over Iran and Costa Rica in warm up matches were followed up by a 2-2 draw with Portugal last month in Braga. This is a talented group of players: attacking midfielder Naïm Sliti impressed in Ligue 1 with Dijon FCO this season; Wahbi Khazri has Premier League experience with Sunderland, and striker Ahmed Akaïchi netted 18 goals for Al-Ittihad Club this season. It’s a tall order to ask The Eagles of Carthage to progress from the group, especially after a knee injury to star striker Youssef Msakni ruled him out of the tournament.
Players to watch: Dries Mertens, Thomas Meunier, Kevin De Bruyne (BEL), Dele Alli, Jordan Pickford, Marcus Rashford (ENG), Roman Torres, Michael Murillo (PAN), Naïm Sliti, Wahbi Khazri (TUN)
Fun fact: Panama forwards Luis Tejada (age 36) and Blas Pérez (age 37) are the country’s all-time joint top goal-scorers with 43. The two journeymen boast 38 clubs between them in their playing careers, including every single South and Central American nation with a professional league. Neither has scored for their country since September 2016.