A World Cup preview, with predictions for Group D, which features Argentina, Croatia, Iceland, Nigeria and opens play on Saturday with Argentina vs. Iceland and Croatia vs. Nigeria.
Predicted order of finish: Argentina, Croatia, Iceland, Nigeria
How fun is this going to be? Lionel Messi and Argentina? Yes, please. Iceland (pop. 337,000) and the spine-tingling Viking Clap making World Cup debuts? Oh yeah. Croatia's array of high-end attackers? Definitely. Nigeria's highflying Super Eagles? But of course.
Four years after finishing second, the Argentines are the favorites in the foursome but not definitively after a rickety qualifying campaign came down to the final day. A 6-1 fiasco against Spain in a March friendly did not inspire confidence, and questions have lingered about what Jorge Sampaoli's lineup will look like.
The thing is, Messi could shroud Argentina's problems by himself. He is extraordinary. Still, he will need a stable supporting cast to draw attention from him. Capable contributors are abundant: Angel di Maria, Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain and Paulo Dybala, 24, who has scored 52 goals in three seasons with Juventus.
Messi's strength and endurance will be tested by what is sure to be tight marking and physical (likely excessive) challenges. Knock Messi off his game (if that is such a thing), and knock down Argentina. That's the theory, anyway. He might have other ideas.
Iceland is the feel-good story of the tournament, but don't let the thermal baths and quaint fishing villages fool you. This team barely missed out on the 2014 World Cup, then made the most of its first European Championship visit by going unbeaten in group play and upsetting England in the round of 16.
In qualifying for this World Cup, Iceland finished ahead of Croatia, Ukraine and Turkey. Size and strength are top qualities, making it particularly dangerous on set pieces. Possession will come in short supply against technically superior foes.
Twenty years ago, in their first World Cup as an independent nation, the Croatians finished third. Since then, they've been a bust, winning two matches in nine attempts during three group-stage exits. The midfield and front-line personnel is individually stellar: Luka Modric (Real Madrid), Ivan Rakitic (Barcelona), Ivan Perisic (Inter Milan), Nikola Kalinic (AC Milan) and Mario Mandzukic (Juventus).
In its sixth attempt, Nigeria is looking to finally fulfill the enormous promise that took root in the 1990s. It has never ventured beyond the round of 16. Chelsea midfielder Victor Moses leads the way.
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