A World Cup preview, with predictions for Group G, which features Belgium, England, Panama and Tunisia and opens play on Monday with Belgium vs. Panama, followed by Tunisia vs. England.
Predicted order of finish: Belgium, England, Tunisia, Panama
Ah, Belgium's golden generation. Last chance at glory? Probably. Hopes died in the quarterfinals of the past two major tournaments.
If everything is working properly, the third-ranked Red Devils could win the whole darn thing. The roster rocks: Chelsea's Eden Hazard and Thibaut Courtois, Manchester City's Vincent Kompany (should he recover in time from a groin injury) and Kevin De Bruyne, Manchester United's Romelu Lukaku and Napoli's Dries Mertens.
The ratio of world-class talent to population (just 11.4 million) is mind-blowing.
They'll begin the foursome as favorites, but in a top-heavy group, the England clash on the final day of the first round is likely to decide first place and a more favorable pairing in the round of 16.
Belgium's coach might look familiar to the U.S. audience: Spain's Roberto Martinez is a former ESPN studio analyst for multiple World Cups and European Championships. He guided Everton for three years before accepting his first national team gig in August 2016.
After losing to Spain in his debut, Martinez oversaw a 9-0-1 record and 43-6 scoring margin in World Cup qualifying.
England has always carried an oversize mystique, like UCLA or Notre Dame on the NCAA scene. Substance often falls short of perception. Aside from runs to the semifinals of the 1990 World Cup and 1996 European Championship, England has failed to reach the quarterfinals in eight of the past 12 major competitions.
Is something special brewing this summer? Eh. Harry Kane posted 30 goals for Tottenham Hotspur this season -- second in the Premier League to Liverpool's Mohamed Salah -- and Manchester City's Raheem Sterling is a menacing forward.
Inexperience in goal is an issue for Gareth Southgate, a former England international who previously guided the U-21 squad. The cast does not include anyone with 10 international appearances. A new three-man formation on the back line began training camp having not conceded more than one goal in a match since last summer.
Tunisia returns to the World Cup after missing two tournaments, but with top scorer Youssef Msakni sidelined with a knee injury, the outlook is grim. Midfielder Wahbi Khazri is the ringleader.
By beating out the United States, Panama joined Iceland as the tournament's only first-time participants. The roster features six MLS players, including Seattle defender Roman Torres, and seven who previously played in the U.S.-Canadian league.
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