World Cup Candidates: Interviewing the Group D hopefuls

Lionel Messi headlines a star-studded line-up in Group D as one of the favourites Argentina face off against Croatia, Nigeria and Iceland.

World Cup Candidates: Interviewing the Group D hopefuls
Lionel Messi renews pleasantries with Nigeria in Russia | Photo: Alex Grimm - FIFA

Each day we preview four new World Cup nations. Can they win the ultimate process and secure the role of reigning World champions?

Today, it's Group D.

Argentina

Known as: La Albiceleste

Address: Buenos Aires, Argentina

Best previous role: Two-time World Cup winners: 1978, 1986

What are your strengths and weaknesses?

In terms of strength, we’re the one team that can boast the best player in the world in their squad. The brilliance of Lionel Messi has seen us through a number of tournaments in recent years but we’ve fallen short.

Add to that the fact that this is the last World Cup for some of our best and we can mark us our hunger as a strength.

Finally, we’re also being managed by a new boss - Jorge Sampaoli. He’s the man who's wacky genius propelled Chile up the world rankings and to Copa America glory a few years ago. Now, managing his home country, we’re hoping his tactical prowess will give us an edge.

For weaknesses, there’s a glaring discrepancy of talent in our backline and in midfield we lack quality and depth but as ever, we’re backing our boatload of attacking talent to overshadow that.

What happened last time out?

Brazil 2014? Heartbreak. Made it all the way to the final thanks to the brilliance of Messi but fell short at the final hurdle. We were beaten 1-0 by Germany after wasting a number golden chances.

Have you set up meetings with any other candidates?

We meet Iceland on June 16th in Moscow before facing off against Croatia five days later on June 21st in Nizhny Novgorod. We finish off the groups with Nigeria on June 26th in Saint Petersburg.  

We want to see a few more opponents after that, though. We’ve no plans for an early exit.

What’s your strategy to beat those candidates?

Our first option will of course be our attacking prowess that is headlined by Messi’s genius.

After that, the speed we possess in our squad will allow us to play on the counter-attack and we should be able to cut anyone open.

We will, like everyone else though, need a bit of luck though. We’ve lost our first choice goalkeeper Sergio Romero to injury and with an already shaky defence, we will have to ride our luck in games.

That strategy worked in Brazil though, we wouldn’t mind it working again this time out.

Who are you relying on to help you secure the job?

The obvious answer is of course Messi. However, we feel that with players like Sergio Agüero, Gonzalo Higuain and Paulo Dybala, we’ll be able to out score anyone. Between the four of them they scored 79 goals last season. So, we’re confident.

At the back, we’ll need quality from Premier League champion Nicolás Otamendi to help us through. He helped Manchester City to 21 clean sheets in all competitions.

Any wildcards that might help you out?

Just a few. The big name one will of course be Dybala but because of his and Messi’s tendency to cut each other up when they start together, he’ll likely be an option from the bench.

In terms of perhaps more unknown players, we’ve got the highly touted Giovani Lo Celso. He’s had a break through season with PSG making 48 appearances and scoring six goals. He will be a youthful option in the heart of our midfield.

Finally, where do you see yourself in five years weeks?

Hopefully, champions. Returning home as heroes and breaking our drought.

 

Croatia

Known as: The Blazers

Address: Stadion Maksimir, Zagreb

Best previous role: Semi-finals, 1998

What are your strengths and weaknesses?

We could well be slightly underestimated by bigger nations. Despite not having the most prolific World Cup history, we head to Russia with a squad blessed with genuine, world class talent.

Specifically, we possess a midfield that really could challenge the best there is with the likes of Luka Modrić, Ivan Rakitić, Mateo Kovacić and Marcelo Brozović. We are also more than capable of scoring a few goals, too, boasting Mario Mandzukić, Andrej Kramarić, Ivan Perisić and Nikola Kalinić.

Our one glaring weakness is our depth at full-back. The players we have selected are not necessarily the strongest and if any suffer injuries, we could be in trouble.

What happened last time out?

It was not a great tournament for us in Brazil 2014. Matched with the hosts, Cameroon and Mexico, we were eliminated at the group stage. Despite taking the lead against Brazil in the first match of the tournament, we eventually fell to a 3-1 defeat. We bounced straight back with a 4-0 victory over Cameroon, before we capitulated against Mexico 3-1.

Have you set up meetings with any other candidates?

A few, but we are hoping to organise more later in the process. The first is with Nigeria on the 16th of June, before we meet Argentina five days later. Our final meeting is with Iceland on the 26th of June.

What’s your strategy to beat those candidates?

It will have to be defensive solidarity. Facing the likes of Argentina and Nigeria is obviously going to be a challenge but if we keep it tight at the back, that’s a great platform to go and win games. Also, with second place really up for grabs, goal difference could prove crucial. Hopefully, the experience of Vedran Ćorluka and Dejan Lovren will be important in stifling the ‘smaller’ nations.

Who are you relying on to help you secure the job?

Luka Modrić. Arguably the poster boy of Croatian football, the Real Madrid man has the capability to unlock the strictest defence with his stunning eye for a pass. The former Tottenham Hotspur midfielder got eight assists last season so could increase that tally in Russia.

Any wildcards that might help you out?

Still relatively inexperienced at major tournaments having only played a total of five minutes at Euro 2016, Andrej Kramarić could well be a breath of fresh air. The 26-year-old forward has enjoyed his time with Hoffenheim since leaving Leicester City and has had a hand in 57 goals in only 93 appearances. His international record is also nothing to be sniffed by notching eight goals in 29 games.

Finally, where do you see yourself in five years weeks?

Probably eliminated in the Round of 16 thanks to an extra-time loss to France. We’re surely going to get out of our group but nothing more, we’re afraid.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Iceland

Known as: Strákarnir okkar (Our Boys)

Address: Laugardalsvöllur, Iceland

Best previous role: No prior experience

What are your strengths and weaknesses?

Our biggest strength is our team spirit. We’ve got perhaps the best togetherness in our squad compared to anyone else in the tournament. 

After that, we have our defensive shape. We’re relatively strong at the back and only conceded seven goals during qualification. We’ll frustrate teams.

Our final strength is the element of surprise. We’ve never been here before and whilst we showed some of what we can do during Euro 2016, there’s still plenty more we can achieve.

In terms of weaknesses, the biggest one is our lack of quality compared to the other teams in tournament. That isn’t helped by the fact that our best player, Gylfi Sigurðsson, is recovering from a knee injury that kept him out of the back end of the Premier League season.

However, our pre-World Cup friendlies will give him a chance to get back up to match fitness.

What happened last time out?

Nothing. We’ve never been here before.

We did, however, capture the hearts of the world during the European Championships in France in 2016. We’ll be aiming to do that again but on a much bigger stage in Russia.

Have you set up meetings with any other candidates?

We were barely beaten by Norway in our first preparation friendly 3-2. We’ll face Ghana in our final game before we jet off to Russia.

In terms of group games, we’ve got just the three. We meet Argentina on June 16th in Moscow before facing off against Nigeria a few days later on June 22nd in Volgograd. We finish off with Croatia on June 26th in Rostov-On-Don.  

We would like to see a few more opponents after that, though but we’ll see what happens.

What’s your strategy to beat those candidates?

Sigurðsson's genius will be our best strategy to beat our opponents.

After that, we have our defensive strength and ability to frustrate teams. If you can’t break us down, you can’t score.

Like everyone, but perhaps even more than most, we’ll need a bit of luck. A few bounces of the ball that see us keep a goal or two out whilst getting a set-piece at the other end wouldn’t go amiss.

Who are you relying on to help you secure the job?

Once again, it’ll be Gylfi Sigurðsson.

His set-piece play is second to none and his ability to open up a team will give us a great chance.

He also chipped in with six goals and five assists for Everton last season before his injury. Gylfi is undoubtedly our talisman.

Any wildcards that might help you out?

We do have a number of known names in our squad but on a whole, we are mostly a wildcard.

Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson enjoyed a stellar season at Burnley in their run to finishing in a Europa League spot in the table. He may have only bagged two goals but chipped in with eight assists. His versatility and solid performances will be key for us.

Finally, where do you see yourself in five years weeks?

In the hearts of world and returning home as heroes. We recognise that we’re probably not going to win the whole thing but we’ve a chance to at least get out the groups if things go our way.

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Nigeria

Known as: The Super Eagles

Address: National Stadium, Abuja

Best previous role: The round of 16 on three occasions: 1994, 1998 and 2014

What are your strengths and weaknesses?

First and foremost, we possess players with experience in prominent European leagues. John Obi Mikel enjoyed a successful stint with Chelsea, whilst we also have the likes of Kelechi Iheanacho, Wilfred N’didi and Victor Moses who also play regular Premier League football.

Despite that, the youth in our squad could count against us in those crunch clashes. Our squad on average is the youngest at the World Cup at 25.9 years old which could lead to some naivety.

One advantage of that is that we have plenty of pace in the frontline. Iheanacho, Moses, Ahmed Musa and Alex Iwobi all have plenty of speed so could trouble plenty of defences with their direct running.

Our kit is also not bad either, as you may have heard.

What happened last time out?

Nobody could really decide if we had a good tournament in Brazil. We got out of the group with four points after a 0-0 draw with Iran and a tight 1-0 win over Bosnia and Herzegovina. Arguably our best performance was in the 3-2 defeat to Argentina in our final group game in which Ahmed Musa scored twice.

We eventually went out to France in the round of 16 with Paul Pogba netting late on and Joseph Yobo scoring an own goal to consign us to elimination.

Have you set up meetings with any other candidates?

Just the three so far. Our first is with Croatia on the 16th of June before we meet Iceland in what is surely set to be a crucial meeting six days later. We face Argentina in the final round of meetings yet again on the 26th of June.

What’s your strategy to beat those candidates?

Like we’ve already said, pace. If we can successfully absorb pressure from the bigger nations, the idea is to break quickly with the likes of Musa, Iwobi, Iheanacho and Moses and hopefully catch them cold. We’ve seen it can be effective before, so it is our job to execute it with ruthless efficiency.

Who are you relying on to help you secure the job?

John Obi Mikel. The captain of Nigeria, he will supply the team with considerable experience and a calming influence in midfield. He is also a serial winner having lifted the Premier League twice, multiple FA Cups, the Champions League and Europa League. Let’s hope that he can add to his trophy cabinet in Russia.

Any wildcards that might help you out?

Young goalkeeper, Francis Uzoho. The 19-year-old only made his debut for Deportivo La Coruna last year but is already in contention for the No. 1 shirt in Russia having kept two clean sheets in four games. Ironically, he has already made more appearances for his country than his club and Gernot Rohr does not seem scared to put him between the sticks.

Finally, where do you see yourself in five years weeks?

Probably out in the group stages despite a few gutsy and admirable performances against far more fancied nations. We will return with our heads held high after again giving Argentina a scare.