World Cup Group D: Oppose vulnerable favourites Argentina
World Cup 2014 finalists Argentina head the betting in Group D, although a talented Croatian team, plucky debutants Iceland and dangerous Nigeria are sure to offer stern resistance. Mark O'Haire previews the pool.
"Despite their enviable array of attacking talent, Argentina scored just 19 goals in qualification - the same as rock-bottom Venezuela."
Argentina are one of the most interesting teams at this summer's World Cup. La Albiceleste have been flickering between crisis and disaster since losing the 2014 final to Germany and very nearly missed out all together on this tournament following a tortuous qualification campaign.
Lionel Messi was instrumental in dragging the South Americans across the finishing line with a stunning hat-trick on the final night of preliminaries proving decisive.
However, preparation has been anything but smooth. The 1986 champions went through three presidents, three coaches, six tactical systems, 43 players and a different starting XI for all 18 preliminaries en-route to Russia, suggesting this side will be anything but a model of consistency this summer.
Boasting the best player of the generation and arguably one of the most impressive coaches in the competition, Argentina will be targeting top honours. But punters should oppose La Albiceleste at short prices, especially the [1.71] on Jorge Sampaoli's side topping Group D.
Despite their enviable array of attacking talent, Argentina scored just 19 goals in qualification - the same as rock-bottom Venezuela. Finding the right approach to suit Messi is obviously paramount to any possible success and right now time is running out for the South Americans.
A top-heavy team, lacking cohesion and balance, raises question marks, although it's their issues at the back that sends shivers down the sides. Sampaoli's preference for a high press requires a high defensive line. It takes time to perfect on the training paddock with energetic players of pace most capable of carrying out such tasks - personnel Argentina badly lack.
Their spectacular collapse against Spain in a March friendly highlighted the backline woes and in a tricky group, the CONMEBOL giants make little appeal.
Should all come together seamlessly, La Albiceleste would still be scheduled to meet Spain and Germany before a final against Brazil, according to the market. And with 2014 the only World Cup campaign in which the nation have progressed past the quarter-finals since their silver medal in 1990, punters are urged to look elsewhere for an outright winner.
If Argentina are to stumble, Croatia could be best placed to take advantage and pinch top spot at generous [3.45] quotes. The Blazers have failed to progress from the pool in their past three World Cup competitions but did impressively beat Spain to first place in their Euro 2016 group.
The Balkan boys may have suffered a heartbreaking extra-time defeat to eventual winners Portugal in the last 16 in France but hope springs eternal that the current crop can emulate the 1998 semi-finalists that kicked-off the competition as 66/1 outsiders.
On the field, the Blazers are under new management. Ante Cacic was axed ahead of a critical penultimate qualifying trip to Ukraine with Zlatko Dalic taking over and successfully steering the ship into safer waters and play-off progression. Performances improved and the players also seem happier under his guidance.
Nicely balanced in attacking areas, the team have the ability to suffocate sides with their control off the ball, or play on the counter-attack, and Dalic will be desperate to enhance their offensive efforts.
On the road to Russia, Croatia scored just 15 goals, and averaged the fewest shots (11.50) and on-target attempts (3.83) per-game amongst European qualifiers.
Luka Modric has been moved into a more offensive midfield role in order to offer more play-making ability in the final third and, with the likes of Mario Mandzukic, Ivan Rakitic and Ivan Perisic at their disposal, they have the tools to take down the majority of teams at the tournament.
Nigeria have tabled a solitary success in 12 World Cup finals outings since starting France '98 with successive victories. The Super Eagles have often flattered to deceive on the international stage although there's plenty of positivity surrounding Gernot Rohr's 2018 vintage.
The African giants may lack the individual flair and swagger of yesteryear but Rohr has ensured this side is built with the team in mind. Organisation, hard-work and industry haven't always been bywords for Nigerian football at the top level, but the current crop does the dirty work well.
The Super Eagles also boast bundles of pace and power to pose a genuine threat. The first African nation to seal their spot, Nigeria strolled to top spot of a tricky pool alongside Algeria, Zambia and Cameroon, racking up the most goals across the continent.
The president of the NFF suggested the side was capable of reaching the semi-finals and bullish supporters have greeted the draw with glee. Expectations may need to be tempered but players and management believe they have the ability to match the best-ever African achievement of a place in the quarter-finals.
It's certainly possible and the Super Eagles need to be filed under the label of dangerous dark-horses. None of their group rivals possess the same youth and exuberance, or speed and physicality, so have a wee wager on Nigeria at least progressing from the pool at kind [3.50] quotes.
With a population of around 330,000, Iceland became the smallest-ever nation to ever reach the World Cup finals. A monumental effort to reach the Euro 2016 quarter-finals, famously knocking England out en-route, was expected to be this group's class ceiling. With joint-boss Lars Lagerback calling it a day to leave Heimir Hallgrimsson in sole charge, a European Championship hangover and slight regression was forecast.
But Our Boys just don't follow the script. The Euro 2016 after effects were washed away immediately as the Nordic nation extended their never-ending fairytale by topping a devilishly difficult qualification group alongside the likes of Croatia and Turkey.
Iceland's debut World Cup contest against Argentina was one of the first games to sell out - the other being the final - and with an estimated 5-10% of the country's population applying for tickets, it's fair to say anticipation has reached fever pitch amongst Our Boys supporters.
However, for all the optimism swirling around the Icelandic national side, their lack of depth could severely hamper any aspirations to progress. Hallgrimsson is desperately hoping three of his key components return to full fitness in time for the big kick-off in June, particularly set-piece specialist Gylfi Sigurdsson.
Elsewhere, captain and long-throw exponent Aaron Gunnarsson has suffered an injury-plagued campaign with Cardiff and striker Kolbein Sigthorsson is still crocked following a serious knee injury. With such a shallow pool of talent to select from, Iceland need their big guns fit and firing to prosper.
No European group winner qualified having scored fewer goals (16) and Iceland's basic, direct football won't win any prizes for aesthetics this summer. It's far from pretty but often an effective system that works like clockwork when all their star names are on song.
Unfortunately for Hallgrimsson, it's difficult to envisage a repeat without a fully fit Sigurdsson and Gunnarsson, and while Our Boys will arrive wishing to create another minor miracle, matching their exploits from two summers ago seems unlikely. Indeed, [2.20] quotes to finish Rock Bottom are probably fair.
Lay Argentina to win Group D at [1.71]
Back Nigeria to qualify from Group D at [3.50]
Back Iceland to finish Rock Bottom at [2.20]