We continue our 2018 World Cup group previews with Group D today. Argentina certainly jumps off the page as a heavy favorite, but Croatia and Nigeria could be seen as sleeper picks to make some noise. And then there’s plucky little Iceland, which has developed into a legitimate European soccer power over the last two years. This could wind up being the vaunted Group of Death.
Previous 2018 World Cup Group Breakdowns:
KEY PLAYERS TO WATCH
What is there left to say about Lionel Messi? He’s arguably the greatest player ever, but the one thing missing from his resume is a World Cup triumph. He came close in 2014, as he led Argentina to a second-place finish.
Messi, a star for FC Barcelona, is La Liga’s all-time leader in goals (383) and assists (149) and has led his club to four Champions League titles and nine La Liga crowns. He’s won the Ballon d’Or five times and won the Golden Ball as the best player at the 2014 World Cup.
At 30, this might be Messi’s last chance to hoist the World Cup. He has already briefly retired from international competition once, so this may be his last hurrah. All eyes will be on him and Argentina as they try to make a magical run.
If Croatia is going to make a run in Russia, it needs Luka Modric to play like the all-world midfielder he is. The Real Madrid stalwart is 32, so this is likely his final chance at the World Cup. While his career has been stellar, leading his national side on a deep run this summer would cement his legacy as the best player in his country’s history.
Modric has been named Croatian Footballer of the Year a record-tying six times, has been on the UEFA Team of the Year twice (2016, 2017), and is the only Croatian player to ever be named to the FIFA World XI. He’s won three consecutive Champions League titles with Real Madrid and was named La Liga’s best midfielder in 2014 and 2016 and was named midfielder of the year in the Champions League during the 2017 season.
Modric has superb vision and is a playmaker for others, using his passing and quickness to put opponents on their heels. He can play centrally or drop deep to take on a defensive role for Real, but expect him to try and do everything for his national side in Russia. In his third and, likely final, World Cup, look for Modric to lay it all on the line.
Gylfi Sigurdsson isn’t a name that just rolls off the tongue, but you should probably learn it. If Iceland is going to make noise in Russia, Sigurdsson must have a stellar tournament.
Sigurdsson has 44 Premier League goals to his credit over seven seasons with Swansea, Tottenham Hotspur and now Everton. In 55 national team caps, the attacking midfielder has scored 18 goals for his national team. He’s the most recognizable player Iceland will put on the field in its first World Cup this summer. It makes sense then that he’s been named Icelandic Footballer of the Year seven times, including six years in a row.
Sigurdsson has a knee injury that has everyone worried just a few weeks before the start of the World Cup. We’re assuming he’ll wind up playing because it’s hard to believe he’ll miss his country’s first ever trip to the World Cup. This may be the only chance the 28-year-old ever gets.
World Cup Finals Appearances: 15
Best Finishes: Champions in 1978 and 1986, Runners-up in 1990, 2014
FIFA World Rank: 5
Argentina is the clear favorite to win the group, but the squad has plenty of questions to answer. While Messi is still the best player in the world, long-time stalwarts like Javier Mascherano, Angel Di Maria and Gonzalo Higuain aren’t as dangerous as they used to be. Instead, Messi and Manchester City’s Sergio Aguero will have to find an understanding quickly and lead from the front.
A player to watch for La Albiceleste is forward Paulo Dybala. The 24-year-old scored 22 goals in Serie A for Juventus this season and has been in remarkable form. Meanwhile, Nicolas Otamendi will be charged with leading a back line that was torched by Spain 6-1 in a March friendly.
Messi is the story, but the rest of the roster needs to step up if Argentina wants to live up to the sky-high expectations being heaped upon it.
Srdjan Stevanovic/Getty Images
Previous World Cup Finals Appearances: 4
Best Finish: Third place in 1998
FIFA World Rank: 18
Croatia needed a playoff win over Greece to reach the World Cup, but should be a tough out now that the team made it in.
As mentioned above, Luka Modric is one of the best players in the world, and he has some help on the roster. Juventus forward Mario Mandzukic, Real Madrid midfielder Mateo Kovacic, Inter Milan forward Ivan Perisic and Barcelona midfielder Ivan Rakitic will be the backbone of a team that will be a sleeper pick to win this group.
Modric and company have a tough task in what is a very solid group. If Croatia is going to survive the group stage, the team has to dominate in the midfield. Luckily, the Croats have one of the best in the world patrolling that area of the pitch.
Previous World Cup Finals Appearances: 0
Best Finish: N/A
FIFA World Rank: 22
Iceland was the darling of Euro 2016, as a nation of just 330,000 people reached the quarterfinals. Now, it is the smallest country to have a team in the World Cup, as Strakamir okkar make their first-ever appearance in the world’s biggest sporting event.
As mentioned above, Sigurdsson is a huge piece to the team’s puzzle, but this is a tightly-knit squad that has been playing together for a while. Something truly bonds this team and it always seems to play far above its capability. This is a case where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
It will take a lot to escape this group, but if Iceland can somehow earn a draw with Argentina in Game 1, something magical might happen. Remember, Iceland actually edged Croatia to win their World Cup qualifying group, so a repeat of that isn’t out of the question.
PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty Images
Previous World Cup Finals Appearances: 5
Best Finishes: Round of 16 in 1994, 1998 and 2014
FIFA World Rank: 47
The Super Eagles enter their sixth World Cup with a painfully low world ranking and a lot to prove. But, as we’ve learned in the past, expecting Nigeria to bow out easily in the group stage is foolish.
The team’s attack is formidable, featuring Arsenal’s Alex Iwobi, Chelsea’s Victor Moses and Leicester City’s Kelechi Iheanacho. Thrown in 25-year-old Ahmed Musa, and you’ve got one of the more potent, athletic groups going forward in the 2018 World Cup.
The Nigerians were the first African team to punch their ticket to Russia, as they easily won their qualifying group. They even smoked African Cup of Nations winner Cameroon 4-0 in a lopsided affair. That result proved the Super Eagles would be a difficult team for anyone to handle, and they certainly have a shot at advancing to the knockout round.
June 16: Argentina vs. Iceland (Moscow), 9 a.m. ET/6 a.m. PT
June 16: Croatia vs. Nigeria (Kaliningrad), 3 p.m. ET/12 p.m. PT
June 21: Argentina vs. Croatia (Nizhny), 2 p.m. ET/11 a.m. PT
June 21: Nigeria vs. Iceland (Volgograd), 11 a.m. ET/8 a.m. PT
June 26: Iceland vs. Croatia (Saint Petersburg), 2 p.m. ET/11 a.m. PT
June 26: Nigeria vs. Argentina (Rostov-on-Don), 2 p.m. ET/11 a.m. PT
ALL ODDS TO WIN GROUP VIA ODDSCHECKER (PERCENTAGE CHANCE TO ADVANCE IN PARENTHESES)
ARGENTINA 8/11 (87%)
CROATIA 13/5 (65%)
NIGERIA 11/1 (28%)
ICELAND 16/1 (20%)