The scorelines will not indicate how much I will enjoy watching this group.
Belgium’s golden generation is entering their prime, England’s old guard is finally gone and given way to a fresh and more creative team and both squads will have to find a way to break down Tunisia and survive the CONCACAFings that Panama will no doubt deploy on their debut.
I’m finding the new seeded pots are taking away some of the uncertainty in the group stage, because in a different group I might like Tunisia a lot more than I do here. Panama was always going to be a long shot no matter what, but whether Tunisia is closer to their Top 25 FIFA ranking or their Top 50 ELO ranking remains to be seen.
Why do we call this a “primer” and not a preview? Because this is more a lot of key information in one place that I think is a handy reference for viewers rather than a ton of specific analysis on what each team can or could do at the World Cup.
Belgium vs. Panama, Sochi (11 am ET, FS1, Telemundo)
Tunisia vs. England, Volgograd (2 pm ET, FS1, Telemundo)
Belgium vs. Tunisia, Spartak Stadium, Moscow (8 am ET, FS1, Telemundo)
England vs. Panama, Nizhny Novgorod (8 am ET, FS1, Telemundo)
England vs. Belgium, Kaliningrad (2 pm ET, *Fox, Telemundo)
Panama vs. Tunisia, Saransk (2 pm ET, *FS1, Universo)
Head Coach: Roberto Martinez (ESP)
Rankings: FIFA 3 / ELO 8
Nickname: The Red Devils
Qualification: UEFA (Europe) Group H Winners
Appearance: 13th / Best Finish: Fourth Place (1986)
Player You Should Know: FW Romelu Lukaku, Manchester Utd (ENG), 69 caps / 36 goals - The big target forward also played under Martinez at Everton and racked up 16 goals in his first season at Man Utd.
Player You Should Watch: MF Kevin De Bruyne, Manchester City (ENG), 62 caps / 14 goals - Might have the best vision of any center mid in the tournament and that’s a dangerous combination with the weapons Belgium has on this roster. If the Devils make a deep run to the semis or something, don’t be surprised if De Bruyne leads the tournament in assists.
Another tremendously deep and young team at this tournament and coming off a quarterfinals loss four years ago to eventual runners-up Argentina, there’s no doubt that this team can at a minimum get back to the quarters. It’s a group that sets up well for them, their hardest match will be against England on the final fixture and they start with debutants Panama in the first round.
Head Coach: Gareth Southgate (ENG)
Rankings: FIFA 12 / ELO 7
Nickname: Three Lions
Qualification: UEFA (Europe) Group F Winners
Appearance: 15th / Best Finish: Champions (1966)
Roster Breakdown: 23 Domestic, EPL
Recent Results: June 2, vs Nigeria, W 2-1; June 7, vs Costa Rica, W 2-0
Player You Should Know: FW Harry Kane and MF Dele Ali, Tottenham Hotspur (ENG), combined 49 caps / 15 goals - Two of the most creative and talented players England has had in a long while to finally combine their hard work and defense with actual attacking talent. These two will lead England on a deep run in a major tournament at some point over the next few years.
Player You Should Watch: GKs Butland, Pickford, Pope, combined 12 caps - I’m not sure who the starter is and it doesn’t matter. England has a pretty noted history of keeper issues at the World Cup and going with a trio of guys who were in pretty good form at the end of the EPL seems like a good idea to me. I rate Butland maybe slightly higher than Pickford, just no howlers boys, please, for once...
I know this is going to sound sacrilege, but this is the best English team in a recent memory. The old guard that struggled four years ago in Brazil is gone and have been largely replaced by solid young players and while I don’t know if they’re going to beat Belgium or win the group, they aren’t the overrated/mediocre pushovers they’ve been for most of the decade. I don’t know what this team’s ceiling is for this tournament besides the knockout rounds, but I think they’ll be far more impressive in a major tournament than they have been in a long time.
Head Coach: Hernan Dario Gomez (COL)
Rankings: FIFA 55 / ELO 47
Nickname: Los Canaleros (The Canal Men)
Qualification: CONCACAF (N America) The Hex, 3rd Place
Appearance: 1st / Best Finish: N/A
Player You Should Know: GK Jaime Penedo, Dinamo Bucuresti (ROU), 131 caps - Penedo has been a underrated legend in CONCACAF for over a decade, routinely backstopping Panama to the semifinals or better at the Gold Cup, and yes, there was that MLS Cup with the LA Galaxy in 2014 we don’t talk about on this site.
Player You Should Watch: FW Blas Perez, Municipal (GUA), 118 caps / 43 goals - Inherited the title “King of the CONCACAFings” from Guatemala’s Carlos Ruiz, Perez is about as Route 1 of a striker as you can get and he’s going to start against Belgium. In a World Cup. And it’s going to be epic.
If there’s a team from CONCACAF that deserved to make a World Cup over the last decade or so, it’s Panama. Los Canaleros have arguably been the fourth best team in the region with Honduras over that stretch and nearly qualified for the intercontinental playoffs four years ago were it not for two stoppage time goals from the USA. Penedo, Perez and the old guard of Panama deserve their World Cup debut, even if they get rolled out of the group stages.
Head Coach: Nabil Maaloul (TUN)
Rankings: FIFA 21 / ELO 48
Nickname: The Eagles of Carthage
Qualification: CAF (Africa) Third Round Group A Winners
Appearance: 4th / Best Finish: Group Stage (‘78, ‘98, ‘02, ‘06)
Roster Breakdown: 7 Domestic, 7 France, 5 Saudi Arabia, 2 Egypt, 1 Belgium, 1 England
Player You Should Know/Watch: F/M Wahbi Khazri, Rennes (FRA), 35 caps / 12 goals - Khazri is the leading scorer on the roster with striker Youssef Msakni missing the tournament due to injury, there’s not a lot of international goals on the squad, though forward Anice Badri notched a few in the send of friendlies.
Tunisia isn’t exactly an unknown, they qualified for three straight tournaments not that long ago and won a Cup of Nations in 2004 during that stretch. They never made it out of the group stage but also were never on the wrong side of a blowout either. I think it’s fair to expect more of the same, Tunisia will make things difficult for the group but probably lack the offense to get into the knockout stages.
Of all the groups I want to descend into chaos, it’s this one. I want the final matches between Belgium-England and Panama-Tunisia to mean something for the overall standings, not just to decide who wins the group out of the favorites. Tunisia would seem more likely to capitialize on say, England going full England at another World Cup and sneaking into the Round of 16 though that seems unlikely this time around. Everyone will have to survive Panama and stay out of the referee’s book in those matches. This group will be fun regardless of the scorlines, but this seems like a chalk group. I dislike these new seeded pots everything seems predictable which is why somehow this group will be weird.
1 - Belgium (9 pts); 2 - England (6 pts); 3 - Tunisia (3 pts); 4 - Panama (0 pts)