Group G: Can the underdogs spoil the party for the favourites?
Belgium (FIFA rank: 3)
Panama (FIFA rank: 55)
Tunisia (FIFA rank: 21)
England (FIFA rank: 12)
Game to watch: Belgium vs England, June 28, 2018, Kaliningrad Stadium, Kaliningrad.
Perennial dark horses, The Red Devils will hope that Russia 2018 will be where it all comes together and can overcome the demons of their past. With a squad that has been tipped for greatness for several years now, Belgium's undeniable star power should be enough to see them top group G. Belgium will mainly rely on their two superstars, Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne, to act as the focal point of their attack and supply good service to striker Romelu Lukaku.
However, the lack of quality full-backs might pose a problem, especially against the bigger teams. Their clash against England could be one of the games of the tournament, as it will probably decide who tops the group.
The Three Lions, on the other hand, go to Russia with a guarded confidence. Rejuvenated under manager Gareth Southgate, the team has posted impressive results prior to the World Cup and received widespread praise. However, of all countries, England will know that a good qualification record and successful friendlies mean nothing if the team does not do well when it actually matters—at the World Cup.
After a 12-year absence, Tunisia booked their World Cup spot, topping Africa group A. Although qualifying from the group will be unlikely, Tunisia will hope to leave Russia with at least a win, which would be their first ever in a World Cup.
Panama, on the other hand, will be World Cup debutants. After a historic qualification round, which saw them sneak through in the penultimate game, Panama will be looking to continue their hot streak in Russia.
Did you know: England and Belgium have played each other 21 times, with the former having lost just once—in a friendly in 1936.
Group H: No clear favourites here
Poland (FIFA rank: 8)
Senegal (FIFA rank: 27)
Colombia (FIFA rank: 16)
Japan (FIFA rank: 61)
Game to watch: Poland vs Colombia, 24 June 2018, Kazan Arena, Kazan.
The only group in the tournament without a clear favourite to win, Group H is really anyone’s game. While Poland and Colombia are expected to advance, both Japan and Senegal are formidable teams in their own right, with players capable of single-handedly winning games.
After surprising the world at the 2014 World Cup, Colombia will look to build on their previous success. With a good mix of experienced superstars and budding youngsters, Los Cafeteros, on their day, can be a significant threat to any team. 2014 Golden Boot winner, James Rodriguez, will be a crucial factor in determining the success or failure of Colombia.
Led by ferocious Bayern Munich striker Robert Lewandowski, Poland will enter Group H as favourites to advance. The former Dortmund man has been in scintillating form for Poland under new manager Adam Nawalka, scoring 34 goals in 36 games. However, defensive woes and an over-reliance on Lewandowski could see them lose out the top spot to Colombia.
Ever since their historic run in 2002, which saw them beat World Champions France to reach the quarterfinals, Senegal failed to qualify for a single World Cup, until Russia. Despite their lack of experience, Senegal boasts a squad packed with talent. Liverpool winger Sadio Mane will lead the attack, with support from Monaco youngster Keita Balde. Kalidou Koulibaly, coming off a stellar season with Napoli, will provide some much needed toughness in defence.
61st-ranked Japan have not made it easy for themselves, by sacking coach Vedran Halilovic, just weeks before the start of the World Cup. One of the oldest teams in Russia, Japan will hope that their experience will be enough to see them past younger, albeit more talented, sides like Senegal. While qualification might be out of their reach, Japan will look to fly the Asian flag high in Russia 2018.
Did you know: With 16 goals in 10 games, Lewandowski topped the European qualifying scoring charts.