Argentina v Iceland, Saturday 16th June, 14:00
On Saturday afternoon we have two teams who have seared themselves into the collective memory of England supporters, a memory which dredges up immense emotions centred on pain and sadness that spans the years 1986 to 2016. That, though, is where the similarities between Argentina and Iceland effectively end. Two-time winners Argentina arrive with the weight of an expectant nation largely falling upon the shoulders of one man, Lionel Messi. He may well be the greatest player to have ever graced a pitch but he is running out of road to claim the one trophy that has thus far eluded him. Unfortunately for him, he is still only one man and his supporting cast are arguably weaker than they were this time four years ago.
None of Iceland’s players will feel any such pressure. Following the heroics of their maiden voyage in an international tournament at Euro 2016 where they reached the quarter-finals, Iceland have reached their first ever World Cup – the smallest country to ever reach either competition. With a population of under 400,000, it’s fair to say that no other team packs such a punch relative to their size. They are a workman-like but positive team in approach and in Gylfi Sigurdsson have an attacking midfielder of rare guile. Worryingly for Iceland, he picked up a bad injury in early March and, although he is travelling to Russia, it remains to be seen whether or not he is fully fit.
The market has Argentina behind Brazil, Germany, Spain and France in terms of favourites for overall winners. Aside from Messi, they have some brilliant forwards in Paola Dybala, Gonzalo Higuain and Sergio Aguero but the issues in defence and between the posts are big enough to see them fall short of their ultimate goal. However, Iceland should eventually cave in this outing.
Nigeria Will Struggle to Live with Croatia’s Talented Side
Croatia v Nigeria, Saturday 16th June, 20:00
Following Croatia’s third-place finish in the 1998 World Cup, hopes for the future were high. Little did they suspect that their next three World Cup appearances would see them knocked out in the Group Stage each time whilst amassing a mere two wins from nine games. It’s fair to say that expectations were not lived up to. Things are looking different this time around, however. Any team that can start Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Mateo Kovacic and Marcelo Brozovic in midfield should be considered a serious unit. Which is to say nothing of Mario Mandzukic up front, a prolific international striker who has just enjoyed another title-winning season with Juventus. On the face of it, Croatia are a team that should be feared by most.
Nigeria have yet to match the heights they so memorably reached on their World Cup bow in 1994. Minutes away from reaching the quarter-finals at their first time of trying, their exploits that summer have cemented their reputation in the minds of many in a manner which bears little resemblance to their actual World Cup output since. They’ll certainly be looking to add to their solitary win this century, an unhappy statistic to glean from three World Cup’s played. In their favour, they were the first African team to qualify for Russia, winning well in a tough qualification group. This year they were well beaten in the African Nations Championship final by Morocco and, in the six friendlies played since they have a record of W1 D1 L4.
That’s not what you’d call sparkling form to come to Russia with but maybe it’s been a case of experimentation with players and systems. Regardless, the market is firm in its belief that Croatia have the skills to pay the bills and this column must concur.