A lot of interest will be shown in Group G as it contains England, the group also contains Panama, Tunisia and Belgium. On paper there are only two teams who are going to qualify out of this group and that is Gareth Southgate,s England and Roberto Martinez,s Belgium, the other two are only along for the carnival of football. In this part of the World a lot of the media interest will be around England and sometimes that is not always a good thing if your an England player or manager.
England have qualified for this years finals by topping a group that included Slovakia, Scotland, Slovenia, Lithuania and Malta. It was a campaign that saw previous England manager Sam Allardyce having to step down after been caught out by a newspaper sting which involved him been prepared to give a third party advice on how to get around certain FA rules. Gareth Southgate was reluctant to step up to the job but since he has come in he has done a tremendous job. Gareth,s sheer professionalism has shone through and the results on the pitch have been superb. The jury is out on whether the three lions can actually win the tournament but there is no doubt that everyone will be tuned into their games come kick off. Two players to keep an eye out for in this tournament are Tottenham Hotspur,s Harry Kane and Manchester City,s John Stones, Kane has just got better and better over the past couple of seasons and in my opinion he is someone that the young children who play our beautiful game can look up to and aspire to be. His goal scoring displays for Spurs helped his club challenge at the top of the Premier League and if he can produce the goods for his country in Russia who knows how far they can go. John Stones is a classy on the ball defender who really has come on leaps and bounds under the tutolidge of Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, his ability to come out from the back with the ball reminds me of so many of the top defenders who have played around the world over the years. If England are to do well in this tournament they will need a bit of luck and strong performances and if they can put those two scenarios together who knows what will happen.
Panama have qualified for the finals for the very first time in their history. In a dramatic qualifying campaign which also included Mexico, Costa Rica, Honduras, USA and Trinidad and Tobago, the qualification went down to the very last game and they beat Costa Rica and the USA lost away to Trinidad and Tobago, the USA losing was the shock that let Panama through. It was an amazing fete by Panama and they will arrive in Russia as total outsiders, but I am not sure that will even bother them as just taking part will be their final. Manager Hernan Gomez is a Colombian who has been at the World Cup before when he led his home nation to the 1998 finals in France and Ecuador to the finals in 2002. His experience as a World Cup coach is excellent and he also went to the finals as assistant coach in 1990 and 1994. Two players to look out for when the tournament begins are Gabriel Gomez of Atletico Bucaramanga and Blas Perez of Municipal. Gomez is Panama,s most capped player with over 140 international caps to his name since his debut in 2003. He has played his football in Panama, Colombia, Portugal, Cyprus, Mexico, USA and Costa Rica as his appearances in these countries tell us he has a vast amount of experience. Gomez was also a key figure in the Panama team who came third in the 2015 Concacaf Gold Cup. Perez made his debut in 2001 and has more than 40 goals to his name. Panama will turn up at these games with no expectations and this might just allow them the freedom to go and express themselves, something that may lead to a few surprises.
Tunisia made history at the 1978 tournament by becoming the first African nation to win at a World Cup finals by beating Mexico three one. That victory played a big part in FIFA,s decision to increase Africa,s presence at the finals from one participating teams to two. This will be their fifth appearance at the finals but they have never got past the first round. They qualified for these finals by coming top of African Group Round 3 which also included Tunisia, Congo Dr, Libya and Guinea. Although they were unbeaten in the group they only managed to win it by one point ahead of Congo, that just goes to show us how tight things were in qualification. Two players to look out for when the tournament starts are Youssef Msanki of Al-Duhail and Balbouli from Etoile du Sahel. Balbouli is considered to be Tunisia,s finest keeper and possibly one of the best African keepers ever. He is captain of both his club and national team and has played 79 times for Tunisia since his debut in 2007. Youssef has scored over 50 goals for Tunisia and was their leading scorer in the qualifying campaign. It will be astonishing if Tunisia get out of this group and maybe their best shot is not getting hammered in their games, which will probably lead to a tactic of parking the bus in Russia.
Belgium without a doubt have a fantastic squad on paper, the problem is you do not always win things on paper. A lot of people feel that this is Belgium,s time and if they turn up as a squad and not 23 individuals they could go a long way in this tournament. In 1986 they came fourth and the last time out in Brazil they got to the quarter finals, they will be looking this time to better all that and under manager Roberto Martinez they have showed a vast improvement in their performances. They qualified for the finals by topping a group which included Greece, Bosnia, Estonia, Cyprus and Gibraltar and not only did they top the group but they were unbeaten in the whole campaign and won the group by nine points. Two players to look out for when the competition starts are Eden Hazard of Chelsea and Manchester City,s Kevin De Bruynne, two players who could set this tournament alight. Hazard at the moment is arguably in the top four players in the world, a smashing player who can turn a game in the blink of an eye. Kevin played a huge part in helping Manchester City win the Premier League and he is also a player who can get you a goal out of nothing. With these two players in the midfield Belgium have to be a real contender but it will depend on the unity in their squad, their game against England promises to be one of the special games of the first round.
Belgium v Panama 18/6/2018
Tunisia v England 18/6/2018
Belgium v Tunisia 23/6/2018
England v Panama 24/6/2018
Belgium v England 28/6/2018
Panama v Tunisia 28/6/2018
By David Meier