Group G will be all about one team for most fans back in Blighty, but the Belgians look the team to watch in a group that gives both Belgium and England a generous draw and a real chance of progression.
To Qualify: 1.16 Outright: 19.0
Countless crushing major tournament exits have extended England’s barren streak to 52 years of hurt and the Three Lions’ latest attempt to seal an overdue piece of silverware is unlikely to end up with Gareth Southgate’s group facing off in the final on 15th July.
After embarrassing group-stage exits in 2010 and 2014, as well as the humiliating Euro 2016 defeat to Iceland, expectations have been quashed in the country. However, a generous draw, that avoids a top seed in the Round of 16, has raised hopes of a first semi-final appearance since 1990.
The remaining 25.00 on England taking top honours disappeared following the favourable path to the last-eight although that’s expected to prove to be the Three Lions’ glass ceiling. Southgate’s side have competed competently in friendly fixtures against elite opposition but they’re by no means accomplished at dispatching the lesser lights.
England failed to hit top gear against any side in qualification, struggling to break down defensively-minded teams and notching only 18 goals in the process. Such inefficiencies could prove decisive in their efforts to win the group with Tunisia and, especially Panama, aiming to frustrate with 10 men behind the ball. Therefore, look to side with the two Group G outsiders on the handicap line in England’s first two fixtures.
The Three Lions should be more comfortable when taking on more confident and possession-centric nations in the knockout stages, where Southgate’s new 3-4-3 system should give the likes of Raheem Sterling and Dele Alli more space and freedom to support Harry Kane in a counter-attacking approach.
Nevertheless, a lack of inspiration in midfield and absence of elite-level experience at the back, plus the unsolved goalkeeper saga, could prove England’s undoing. Realists would suggest a first quarter-final appearance since 2006 should be deemed a success this summer.
To Qualify: 1.11 Outright: 12.5
After Euro 2016 failure, when Belgium, the 2018 World Cup could be the final opportunity for the Red Devils’ much-vaunted golden generation to justify years of hype by making a splash on the world stage. With a collection of their star-studded squad now the wrong side of 30, and others reaching a peak, it’s surely a case of now or never.
Odds of 12.5 are a touch too big for a Belgian outfit that boasts Premier League headliners Courtois, Vertonghen, De Bruyne, Hazard and Lukaku.
With goal difference, the first deciding criteria to separate sides, Belgium’s superior firepower under the guidance of gung-ho Roberto Martinez should prove conclusive.
Martinez might have critics but he asks his teams to play with the handbrake off and they should be capable of blowing away debutants Panama and an ordinary Tunisia. And an opening game against Panama gives Belgium a great opportunity to open their account with a comfortable victory.
Question marks remain over Vincent Kompany’s capacity to play regular competitive football in such a short space of time, whilst Toby Alderweireld’s lack of first-team exposure at Spurs could leave the centre-back undercooked. Elsewhere, back-up centre-half Thomas Vermaelen is also prone to fitness issues.
There are also weaknesses at right wing-back where Yannick Carrasco is forced to fill a role he’s not entirely comfortable with due to a lack of available options. On the opposite flank, Thomas Meunier is able, but certainly not of the same calibre as his team-mates.
Success would suggest at least a semi-final spot but Belgium may lack the winning mentality and focus to feature past what’s likely to be a challenging quarter-final contest against Brazil.
To Qualify: 5.8 Outright: 501.0
Tunisia were inches away from qualification in 2010 and 2014 and so their first outing on the world stage for 12 years was celebrated passionately back home. Now the North African nation are bidding to progress past the knockout stages for the first time in their history following four previous failed attempts.
The Carthage Eagles haven’t tasted success of any kind at the World Cup finals since their debut victory in 1978 and their hopes of ending that barren run were hit badly following a tournament-ending injury to creative lynchpin Youssef Msakni in April.
The team’s top scorer and most capped outfield player was crucial in qualification and was expected to shoulder the attacking burden. Without his leadership in the final-third, Tunisia’s forward invention will go through set-piece specialist Wahbi Khazri and Naim Sliti.
Coach Nabil Maaloul has built a mature squad that’s built upon unity and respect. But defensively the Carthage Eagles are too ponderous to truly trouble Belgium and England, especially with stalwart Aymen Abdennour out of favour due to his lack of action at club level.
Tunisia are targeting a first World Cup win in 40 years and should realise their aim, even without Msakni, in what’s expected to be a dead-rubber against Panama in the final round of Group G games. Anything more would be seen as a huge surprise so back Maaloul’s men at odds-against quotes to beat the debutants.
To Qualify: 12.0 Outright: 501.0
Panama agonisingly missed out on a first World Cup appearance four years ago but the Canal Men sealed their debut berth in dramatic style on the final night of CONCACAF qualification. The achievement was heralded back home with the country’s president declaring the following day a national holiday to celebrate.
Head coach Hernan Dario Gomez led his home country Colombia and Ecuador to the globe’s top table, only to suffer group-stage elimination on both occasions. And even the most excitable Panama fan will accept that Gomez’s group will need to move mountains to stand any chance of reaching the knockout phase.
This ageing squad made a meal of the final qualification phase, winning just three matches, scoring nine goals and returning a -1 goal difference across their 10 contests. At one stage, the Canal Men were winless in six and even suffered a 4-0 thrashing in the USA, highlighting their potential weakness.
Panama’s strength is their squad understanding, unity, organisation and team-work. Several of the roster have been engrained in the group for almost a decade with six winning over a century of caps.
They’ll look to sit deep in a disciplined 4-4-2 formation with two defensive midfielders protecting the back-four.
Avoiding a shellacking will be top of their priorities and if Gomez guides the side to anything other than three defeats from three, expect supporters back home to raise a glass to Panama’s record-breakers.
England v Belgium
By the time the Red Devils face England in the third group-game, their qualification should already be assured and this may be a case of deciding who tops the group. Belgium’s firepower might be too much for the Three Lions in this one in a game where they can probably afford to take the attack to England.
Belgium to win the group
Belgium look a nice price on the outrights but even better value can be found in the Group G Winner market where the Red Devils are generously chalked up as 1.88 favourites – back it!
- 19.0 – England’s price to win the World Cup with the quarterfinals looking a more likely ambition this time around
- 1978 – The last time Tunisia won a game at the World Cup
- -1 – Panama’s goal difference across their 10 qualifying games