Over the next few days, FiveThirtyEight will be examining each of the eight groups in the 2018 World Cup, which begins Thursday in Russia. Read about Group A, Group B, Group C, Group D, Group E and Group F.
Group G is one that neutral fans would be forgiven for skipping until the final round of matches. Given the overpowering, Premier League-fueled strength of Belgium and England compared with minnows Tunisia and World Cup first-timers Panama, this group is really about who finishes first. And unless something miraculous happens, this is likely to be decided by the match between the two giants on June 28.
Paper tiger or legit contender?
Belgium has the most talented team in the group — its squad boasts the likes of Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku, Jan Vertonghen and Thibaut Courtois. Its rating of 85.4 in FiveThirtyEight’s Soccer Power Index places it sixth in the world, one spot above England’s 83.7; Belgium has an 87 percent chance of making it to the round of 16, compared with England’s 85 percent.
Tactically, Roberto Martinez’s preferred system brings the best out of Hazard, who will likely flank Lukaku on the left of a front three, but shackles De Bruyne, who may be the world’s best offensive passer. During European qualifying, De Bruyne created just 0.32 “big chances” per 90 minutes, as defined by data firm Opta Sports, compared with 0.55 in the Premier League for Manchester City this season. Thomas Meunier, who plays right wing-back, was one of Belgium’s most important attacking players in qualifying, scoring five goals and assisting on seven. Given that the team’s first choice of left wing-back, Yannick Carrasco, is attack-minded as well, the defensive vulnerability is obvious: Belgium is aiming to out-score, not contain, its opposition.
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England, meanwhile, plays similarly on paper but is much more balanced. In many ways, Gareth Southgate’s task is simply to take the English players of the Premier League’s best pressing teams — Liverpool, Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur — and fit them into a compatible system in Russia. Fortunately for England fans, this seems to be working. Of all teams to qualify for the World Cup, England won the ball in the opposition half after breaking up an opponent’s possession before it managed three passes more than any team other than Germany and Spain.
It should be remembered that Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola coached the best domestic teams of the past two World Cup victors — Bayern Munich of Germany in 2014 and Barcelona of Spain in 2010 — and his influence is clear on Southgate’s plans. In the friendlies leading up to the tournament, England played a midfield three inspired by Manchester City, with one purely defensive player (either Jordan Henderson or Eric Dier) supporting two attacking midfielders, Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard.
Underdog or also-ran?
Neither of the other two teams in Group G is likely to move on. Tunisia has the better chance of managing a miracle, but it’s still a long shot — FiveThirtyEight’s simulations give it a 16 percent chance to get to the round of 16. Tunisia’s hopes were further dampened by a crushing injury to its best player, Youssef Msakni, who was its top scorer and shot-taker in qualifying. Wahbi Khazri, who flopped at Sunderland but has nine league goals for Rennes in France this season, is the side’s best hope for causing the opposition problems.
Only three countries have a worse chance of making it to the round of 16 than Tunisia. One of them happens to be Panama at 12 percent, the lowest in the tournament. The fact that Los Canaleros are in Russia at all is testament to a brilliant qualifying story that saw them dramatically seal a place at the expense of the United States.
Stranger things have happened, but England or Belgium would need to muster a catastrophic string of results for either of these two to have any real shot at the knockouts.
Player to watch
England’s most important player this summer is Raheem Sterling, who is coming to Russia off the back of a phenomenal season for Manchester City. While Guardiola tasked Leroy Sane with hugging the left wing and being a creator, Sterling was given a relatively free role that allowed him to move inside and excel at getting chances: In the Premier League this season, he ranked fifth in goals scored and tied for third in total assists, often scoring decisively late in matches for his club on its way to a record-breaking title.
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Sterling will play just off of Harry Kane, who will soak up most of the attention of opposition defenses keen to stop him from getting shots off. The Tottenham striker, who is arguably the best pure goal-scorer in the world, was scapegoated by English media during the 2016 Euros for not scoring despite the team’s inability to create chances for him. If he is to salvage his international reputation this summer, he will be heavily reliant on Sterling, whose instinctive ability to drift into space and get the ball in deep areas will be paramount. Kane will score if he gets chances, and it’s up to Sterling to facilitate that.
Check out our latest World Cup predictions.