With 108 players in Russia, the Premier League is the most represented but no fixture will feel quite so English than the match on June 28 in Kaliningrad which is already billed as the group decider.
Belgium and England are the clear favourites among the four teams in Group G, with both managers products of the English game and most of the players on the field set to be drawn from the division. But the other challengers have their own stories to tell and shouldn’t be ignored as we preview Group G.
If Brazil 2014 was the first steps into the big wide world for Belgium’s Golden Generation and Euro 2016 a missed opportunity amid growing pains, then Russia is where this outrageously-talented group of players should, and must, come of age.
Eden Hazard is 27, Kevin De Bruyne, 26, Romelu Lukaku 25, Thibaut Courtois 26, Axel Witsel, 29, with Mousa Dembélé, 30 Jan Vertonghen, 31, and Vincent Kompany, 32, the elder statesmen. This collection of players will never be together again at such appealing stages of their career.
The previous two incarnations of the Red Devils largely underwhelmed in reaching the quarter-finals of Brazil and France but former coach Marc Wilmots carried a considerable amount of the blame for his inability to blend his array of individuals and summon anything approaching a plan B.
Wilmots is gone and in his place is Roberto Martínez, a coach with his own detractors due to his laissez-faire approach to defence and an apparent tactical naivety, which is all eerily similar to his predecessor.
But unlike the former No7, Belgium breezed through the qualifiers unbeaten, with an impressive nine wins from 10, with 43 goals scored and six conceded. Greece, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Estonia, Cyprus and Gibraltar, don’t represent the stiffest of opposition but Belgium of the past would have made hard work of it.
Martínez’s decision to leave out the ball of energy that is Radja Nainggolan raised more than a few eyebrows, but it is testament to his principles that despite the Roma midfielder’s ability, his character and attitude didn’t align with his manager’s values.
The breadth of options at his disposal means Nainggolan’s absence shouldn’t be felt too keenly with the only obvious weakness leading into the tournament is how Martínez makes all the pieces fit. Because anything less than an improvement of their previous two endeavours will be regarded as failure.
Only Portugal and Germany enjoyed more scoring attempts per game than Belgium in qualifying with 21.6, with the Red Devils second in terms of big chances created on 3.4. Lukaku, who scored 11 in qualification, has claimed further eight in six friendlies since.
Unsurprising, given their and their manager’s reputation, they weren’t quite as impressive at the back – despite six clean sheets – allowing 6.8 scoring attempts, ninth in the world.
Take your pick, really, but following his outstanding season for Manchester City, De Bruyne has the potential to run this team. His 2.17 open play key passes per 90 was the seventh highest in the world through qualification and he led all players for set play key passes with 2.3.
Hazard has given the impression he’s been holding something back and Lukaku is now a Champions League-level striker, with Dries Mertens and Michy Batshuayi in reserve, De Bruyne has plenty of targets to aim for with those delicious through-balls.
A refreshing wind blows over England. Gareth Southgate is an ego-free manager whose modesty has filtered down to his players with the openness fostered by the head coach creating a likeable and seemingly relaxed atmosphere in the camp.
Previous England players have revealed they were burdened down by expectation, club divides, distant managers and a fear of failure. But expectations for the Three Lions doesn’t go beyond the quarter-finals. Yet.
Southgate also possesses the youngest squad in average age (26) and least experience in average caps (20) which means, irrespective of results in Russia, the experience will be enriching for the next European Championships and Qatar 2022 with as many as eight of his starting XI sticking around.
However, that’s not to say the next four weeks should be discarded as a learning curve, especially with their status in the group as clearly the second-best team, an impressive qualification campaign and a clutch of Champions League-quality attacking players.
England were unbeaten in winning their group and boasted the best joint-best defensive record conceding just three. It’s worth noting as well that Southgate took over one game into the campaign, following Sam Allardyce’s resignation as a result of a newspaper sting. That unsavoury episode has barely reverberated since.
With Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling, Dele Alli and Marcus Rashford, Southgate has a quartet of fine, young attackers with his captain surely among the top 3-5 strikers in world football. The coach also has a clear vision for how he wants his team to play rather than shoe-horning in the biggest 11 names.
Despite their record over the last two years, there are concerns at the back, as the manager has chopped and changed his back-three with Kyle Walker the only constant, but that uncertainty has also helped enhance the excitement.
Demands may not be as high on the team as past tournaments but, for the first time since the 90s, all the tools are in place for them to exceed expectation.
Only Portugal allowed fewer big chances per match than England’s 0.2 and while there are doubts over the Three Lions ability individually, as a team they defended exceptionally well during qualification as they were fifth for scoring attempts (6.2) and 11th for passes conceded (315.8).
Midfielder anchorman Jordan Henderson may split opinion but he was fifth overall for accurate passes (87.92) while Rashford, albeit mainly as a substitute, led all players for open play key passes with 4.54.
Kane was desperately poor at Euro 2016 and will want to put on a show, especially with his lofty status. He is no longer the wet-behind-the-ears prospect and is a bona fide international star now with the career record to back it up.
His international record is a healthy 13 in 24 and enjoyed the second-most scoring attempts per 90 of all players in UEFA qualifying. He will get chances and if he takes them, England have every chance of making an impression.
The Eagles of Carthage carry the weight of history more so than any other team at this tournament. It’s their first appearance in a World Cup since 2006 but it’s been 40 years since their last victory in the competition, a 3-1 triumph over Mexico at Argentina 1978.
That win inspired a whole generation of Tunisian footballers and with the country’s well-organised domestic league and a progression into the French leagues for its best talent, the belief was the north African nation would eventually develop into the continent’s finest.
That, of course, never transpired as the athleticism and physicality in the west overtook the more structural and methodical approach and seemed more suited to the modern game as Nigeria, Ivory Coast and Senegal have all made greater impressions on the world stage in the intervening years.
But Tunisia have gradually built and finished the African qualifiers with the joint-highest points haul having claimed four wins and two draws to book their spot in Russia in a group essentially decided by their back-to-back matches with DR Congo.
Amid their path to the World Cup, Polish coach Henryk Kasperczak was dismissed and Nabil Maâloul took over with the Tunisian trying to give his starting XI a more youthful edge with the additions of Gent defender Dylan Bronn and France-based midfielders Bassem Srarfi of Nice and Montpellier’s Ellyes Skhiri.
There is a greater fluidity to their play and some of their performances in the warm-ups have really caught the eye. What has disrupted preparations, however, was the knee injury sustained by qualifying top scorer Youssef Msakni in April ruling him out of the tournament.
Maâloul will now look to his new generation to provide that killer touch and inspire a fresh wave of fans back home, akin to the heroes of 1978.
Of the 31 teams to have qualified to Russia no side in qualifying boasted more successful tackles per 90 than the Tunisians with an impressive 25.25, with only neighbours Morocco (20.22) also producing a figure greater than 20.0.
Maâloul’s team were also the fourth-highest in terms of interceptions with 16.87. At the very least, they should be a side that is competitive and hard to beat.
For all the youthful exuberance in the middle of the park it is playmaker Wahbi Khazri who makes the Tunisians tick and if they are to match defensive steel with attacking edge, the Rennes midfielder will be the man punching holes in the opposition.
The 27-year-old was seventh in African qualifying for open play key passes per 90 (1.71) and 11th for total scoring attempts (3.21).
As condescending as it may sound, Panama’s World Cup was won on October 10, 2017. Román Torres’ 88th-minute winner at the Estadio Rommel Fernandez secured a 2-1 victory over Costa Rica and earned them a place in the competition for the first time in history.
As much as Hernán Darío Gómez’s side want to perform in Russia, just being here is an achievement in itself, especially given their squad is littered with a number of veterans who have been ploughing an unforgiving furrow for more than a decade only to finish empty-handed.
But taking that mentality into their opener against a potent Belgium side will likely lead to a heavy defeat and while the experience of a World Cup is one thing, memories will be created on the pitch not away from them.
Analysing Panama’s qualifying is a little baffling as they were largely unremarkable throughout but collected enough points to remain competitive and as the United States and Honduras embarrassingly fluffed their lines were able to profit at the death.
Gómez is likely to err heavily on the side of caution with a conservative, defensive approach and who can blame him with an ageing squad mostly comprising unknown domestic players and MLS squad players. Containment will be the message and it is down to the big guns in the group to break their resistance.
Panama rank last among qualified teams for ball recoveries (46.46) but lie 18th for total scoring attempts (13.0), more than established teams such as Croatia (12.91), Uruguay (12.21) and Colombia (12.61).
Gómez will lean on defensive shape and structure but at least two of their games will be huge mismatches which means the spotlight falls on goalkeeper Jaime Penedo.
The 36-year-old is one of only five European-based players, plying his trade for Dinamo Bucharest in Romania and can expect to be a busy boy.
If Panama’s aspirations are essentially to not get thrashed, their fate is in his hands.