Group D Round-Up: World Cup 2018
Group D is arguably the most open and intriguing of the 2018 World Cup. The betting markets may point to one strong favourite and three teams fighting for second spot, but this segment of the draw certainly has an anyone-can-beat-anyone feel to it.
Having said that, there is little doubt that an Argentina (1.61) side firing on all cylinders have the quality to blow all three of their first-round opponents away. The Albiceleste have the world’s greatest player to call upon in Lionel Messi, who will be able to take things relatively easy for the remainder of the domestic campaign following Barcelona’s elimination from the Champions League at the hands of Roma.
Sergio Aguero looks set to get the nod ahead of Gonzalo Higuain, Mauro Icardi and Paulo Dybala up front, but the presence of those other three forwards – as well as Angel Di Maria and Angel Correa – means manager Jorge Sampaoli will not be short of options in the final third.
The problems for Argentina are found deeper in the pitch. Sampaoli likes his teams to press high up the field and defend with a high line, traits which defined his wonderfully thrilling Chile side between 2012 and 2016.
Yet the Argentine defence is sorely lacking in speed and mobility, with Nicolas Otamendi the standout centre-half in an average-looking pool which also features Federico Fazio, Marcos Rojo and Ramiro Funes Mori. The decline of Javier Mascherano means the midfield may not be able to offer the backline adequate protection, a concern which was confirmed in recent friendly losses to Nigeria (2-4) and Spain (1-6).
Can Croatia upset the odds?
Betting tips: There’s a chance that I’m going against the grain here, but I’m inclined to recommend putting some money on Croatia (2.80) to win the group and Argentina to finish in second. Croatia will be looking to take advantage of any Argentine mishaps, both before, during and after the two teams’ meeting on 21 June.
The Vatreni were hugely impressive in the group stage of Euro 2016, but it was not exactly plain sailing in qualification – the 1998 semi-finalists finished second in an open group, before beating Greece in the play-offs.
Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Mateo Kovacic form a highly technical midfield, while Ivan Perisic is a dangerous winger and Mario Mandzukic is an underrated striker willing to sacrifice himself for the collective when necessary. Given the respective odds, it could be worth backing Croatia to pip Argentina to first place.
It would be foolish to write Iceland (17.00) off before a ball has been kicked in Russia; this, after all, is a team who have continually defied the odds in recent years. This nation of 334,000 people stunned the continent by advancing to the quarter-finals of Euro 2016.
Before proving that accomplishment was no fluke by qualifying for the World Cup as group winners – ahead of Croatia, Ukraine and Turkey. Iceland will defend in a compact and narrow shape, looking to make life difficult for their opponents, but a place in the knockout stage could be beyond them this time around. Nevertheless, they may be a good choice as an outside pick.
Nigeria (13.00) should similarly not be discounted from the top-two conversation, and they will be buoyed by their 4-2 defeat of Argentina last November. The Super Eagles inexplicably failed to qualify for the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations, but head coach Gernot Rohr successfully guided the continental giants to their sixth World Cup finals with a minimum of fuss.
Victor Moses, Alex Iwobi, Ogenyi Onazi and Kelechi Iheanacho are all talented members of a young side, but a relative lack of experience means they may fall just short.
By Greg Lea
After many years of sports writing with emphasis on football, including a stint at Sky Sports, Greg is here to help you with betting tips. Follow him on Twitter @greglea to get the latest updates before placing your bets.