Belgium are favorites, but both they and England will have been happy with the draw.
The Red Devils qualified convincingly, winning nine out of 10 fixtures and scoring 43 goals (though 15 were against minnows Gibraltar). With Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard – two of the Premier League’s best players – expect them to create plenty of chances.
England also qualified comfortably, as they almost always do (they have not lost a qualifying match for a major tournament since October 2009). There is a youthful look about the squad and captain Harry Kane will need to continue the scoring spree that saw him bag 30 Premier League goals this season. Tunisia qualified unbeaten but suffered a huge blow when star player Youssef Msakni was ruled out of the finals with injury. Panama’s Colombian coach Hernán Darío Gómez isn’t expecting much. He suggested there would be even bigger celebrations than after their historic qualification if his side wins a group match.
Check out previews of Group A, Group B, Group C, Group D, Group E and Group F.
MOST VALUABLE PLAYER?
Harry Kane (England): €198.7m* ($233m)
According to CIES Football Observatory
ONE TO WATCH?
Raheem Sterling (England)
Raheem Sterling has had a rollercoaster few years. In 2015, he completed an acrimonious transfer from Liverpool to Manchester City for a then British record £49 million ($65.2m). An inconsistent start at his new club, including some haphazard finishing, left a feeling the Jamaica-born winger was failing to justify his hefty price tag. But Sterling comes into the World Cup on the back of a scintillating season, scoring 18 and assisting 11 as Manchester City stormed to the title. Belgium’s Premier League-heavy defence know all about him, and Tunisia and Panama will probably sit deep, but if given space to break down the wing or the middle Sterling’s pace will frighten any defender.
COACH TO KEEP AN EYE ON?
Roberto Martinez (Belgium)
A few eyebrows were raised when the Spaniard, recently sacked by Everton, replaced Marc Wilmots in the Belgium hotseat. After a hugely disappointing quarter-final defeat to Wales in Euro 2016, Martinez’s first job was reaching the World Cup. That proved easy enough but now comes the real test. With an exceptionally-talented squad at his disposal, Martinez must inspire his team to fulfill its great potential in the pressure-cooker atmosphere of the world’s biggest tournament. Panama’s Hernán Darío Gómez also deserves a nod – this will be his third finals with a third national team (Colombia, 1998, Ecuador, 2002, Panama, 2018).
Belgium’s capital Brussels continues to get plenty of mention in England’s media as it is one of the workplaces of the European Parliament. Britain voted to leave the European Union and, in trying to negotiate the terms of its departure, politicians are having plenty of discussions (not all of them fruitful). The Panama Papers data leak caused a few diplomatic wobbles but nothing likely to spill on to the soccer field.
If there were points for best kit, Belgium would already be winning. Inspired by their Euro 1984 strip, Belgium’s red home shirt features a diamond pattern around the country’s centrally-located crest. The away shirt is also a belter – incorporating the yellow, black and red of Belgium’s flag.
MATCH ADVERTISERS WILL BE SCRAMBLING FOR?
England vs. Belgium on June 28. In the third round of group matches it’s likely to decide the group winner and will almost feel like a Premier League match given the number of players from that league who will be on show.
WORLD CUP NERDS ARE LOOKING FORWARD TO…
Tunisia trying to get their second World Cup finals win – four decades after their first. The 2018 tournament is the North African nation’s fifth finals, but they have only won once, beating Mexico on June 2, 1978. Their best bet for a second win looks like the encounter with Panama on June 28. If they prevail, their second World Cup finals victory will be exactly 40 years and 26 days after their first.
England to start brightly, convincing much of the country they are going to win the World Cup, before losing on penalties in the knock out stages. The men’s team were knocked out of the World Cups in 1990, 1998 and 2006 on penalties and the European Championships in 1996, 2004 and 2012. Only Italy have lost the same number of penalty shootouts at those tournaments, though they’ve won more than England.
Witty chants about corporate tax havens to be aimed at Panama fans.
WILL ANY OF THEM WIN IT?
It’s not quite ‘now or never’ for Belgium but many will feel this is the best chance they will have for a while. The squad is packed with players starring in the top European leagues and their first 11 can arguably match any team in the world. There were high hopes in World Cup 2014 before Belgium fell to Argentina in the quarter-final and for several players this will be their last chance. In defence in particular – perhaps the only position Belgium look short of backup – Vincent Kompany, Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld will all be past their prime in 2022. There are still youngsters coming through but, with a favorable draw in the second round, Belgium won’t get many better chances with this golden generation. England have some talented and unpredictable players but their squad looks a bit short to go further than the quarter-finals.