Arguably the best Belgium team in recent history, fans will be hoping Belgium prove to be serious title contenders in the 2018 World Cup. With the team averaging 27 years of age, members of this golden generation should be at the prime of their individual careers. Ranked 3rd in FIFA World Rankings, Belgium topped their qualifying table comfortably with 9 wins in 10 games, with 1 draw, and amassed a goal difference of +37.
England also had an unbeaten qualifying campaign and might prove to be Belgium’s biggest challenge in the group. England have been quite convincing, having won 8 and drawing 2 in their 10 games. This is a rejuvenated team compared to the 2014 squad that failed to climb out of the group stages of that World Cup, and quite literally too – England are the youngest in the competition with an average age of only 25.9. And if friendlies are any barometer of just how promising this team is, England remain unbeaten – they won against the Netherlands, Nigeria and Costa Rica and drew against Germany, Brazil and Italy.
2011 African Championship of Nations winners Tunisia were last seen in the World Cup in 2006 where they finished 24th out of the 32 participating nations. The 2018 games will be the 5th World Cup they’ve qualified for and participated in. Tunisia were undefeated in their qualifying campaign and were at top of their group in the CAF Third Round qualifiers with 4 wins and 2 of 6 games. Currently 21st in FIFA World Rankings, their quality will be tested by Belgium and England.
Panama, like Iceland, will also be making their World Cup debut in the 2018 games. While one can hope, it does look bleak for Panama after being grouped with in-form teams Belgium and England. Panama qualified by making it to 3rd place (last slot) in the 5th round of the CONCACAF qualifiers but through more draws than wins: 4 draws, 3 wins, 3 defeats. Still, playing in the World Cup in Russia should be a great experience for Los Canaleros.
Belgium will be guided in Russia by Spanish coach Roberto Martinez. Considering a lot of Belgium’s squad members play in the English Premier League, coaching Belgium would be familiar territory for Martinez since he has only coached for English teams, particularly Swansea, Wigan Athletic, and Everton. Martinez’s managerial accomplishment include winning the Football League one with Swansea in 2007-08, leading Wigan to their first ever FA Cup during the 2012-13 season, and the LMA FA Cup Manager of the Year award in 2013. With Belgium, he has a 68.4% win record, winning 13 of 19 games, drawing 5 and losing just 1.
Leading England’s renaissance is new manager, former England U21 coach, Gareth Southgate. Southgate was assigned caretaker coach of the England team succeeding Sam Allardyce in September 2016. He was then made head coach on November 2016 after impressing the FA with the 4 games he commanded as interim manager. Since his charge in September, Southgate has had 10 wins, 6 draws and only 2 respectable defeats (to Germany and France, no less).
Nabil Maâloul’s has been on and off with the Tunisian national team since 2002. He was assistant coach from 2002-04; left and returned, still as assistant coach, in 2006 till 2008; managed them again in 2013, this time as head coach, but resigns after they failed to qualify for the 2014 World Cup; and are now back together since April 2017, this time qualifying for the World Cup in Russia. Qualifying for the 2018 games aside, Maâloul would be best known for his work with CLP-1 team Espérance de Tunis where he won a historic treble (Tunisian League, Tunisian Cup, and CAF Champions League) with them in 2011. Maâloul has a 50% win record for Tunisia, drawing 4 and losing 1 since his charge in 2017.
One of only 3 people to have led at least 3 national teams to a world cup, Hernan Dario Gomez may someday become a national hero for Panama despite being Colombian. Highly likely if he wins the World Cup with Panama this year. Throughout his managerial career, Gomez has handled more national teams than professional clubs. Among these teams are Colombia (1998 World Cup), Ecuador (2002 World Cup), Guatemala, and now Panama.
If you follow the English Premier League, then these household names should be familiar to you: Belgium’s team captain – Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku, Mousa Dembélé, Nacer Chadli, (former Manchester United winger) Adnan Januzaj, Marouane Fellaini, Kevin De Bruyne, Dedryck Boyata (who used to play for Manchester City), Jan Vertonghen, Vincent Kompany, Thomas Vermaelen (formerly from Arsenal), Toby Alderweireld, Simon Mignolet, and Thibaut Courtois… That’s a lot of top-class Belgians in England’s top flight.
Now for people from England who play in England. You’ll likely be jumping as soon as Harry Kane gets the ball. He’s been a consistent goal-scoring machine for Tottenham since 2014, a revelation since Gareth Bale left in 2013. You’ll be looking for Jordan Henderson to be strong on the ball in midfield. And you’ll be watching rising star Trent Alexander-Arnold to make those interceptions and crosses that earned him his spot.
A good number of Panama’s squad members play in the MLS so if you follow Soccer in the U.S. you might recognize Michael Amir Murillo and Fidel Escobar who play for New York Red Bulls, Harold Cummings and Aníbal Godoy from San Jose Earthquakes, Román Torres from Seattle Sounders, and Adolfo Machado from Houston Dynamo. Not in the MLS, keep an eye on Panama’s all-time goal scorer, with 43 goals to his name, Luis Tejada.
Tunisia meanwhile have a few in their roster, mostly youngsters in midfield, who play in Ligue 1. Vice-captain Wahbi Khazri plays for Stade Rennais, Bassem Srarfi for Nice, Saîf-Eddine Khaoui for Troyes, Ellyes Skhiri for Montpellier, Naïm Sliti and Oussama Haddadi who both play for Dijon, and Goalie Mouez Hassen who plays for Châteauroux
Belgium vs Panama
Belgium. Though it would be interesting to see if Coach Hernan Dario Gomez can contain the Belgians.
Tunisia vs England
England. England have more firepower and have been in great form.
Belgium vs Tunisia
Belgium. Same as above.
England vs Panama
England. If they are able to stop Belgium in their opening game though, England better be careful.
Panama vs Tunisia
Tunisia. Panama might be out of fuel by this time considering they’re the oldest squad in the tournament with an average age of 29.4.
England vs Belgium
Belgium. Maybe on better defense. Or someone loses focus for a split second. It’s going to be tough.
Belgium and England will progress to the Round of 16.