Panama – 2000/1 Bet Victor
Captain: Roman Torres
Manager: Hernan Dario Gomez
Nickname: Los Canaleros
FIFA rank: 56
You need a bit of luck in football and Los Canaleros (Red Wave) had just that. Panama scored a ‘phantom goal’ (Blaz Perez) against Costa Rica helping them to book a place in their first-ever World Cup finals. Hernan Dario Gomez is the head coach. He guided Colombia to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Panama managed a 1-1 draw with Wales earlier on in the year. March friendlies against Denmark and Switzerland ended in 1-0 and 6-0 defeats respectively.
The experienced Roman Torres is battling to shake off a hamstring injury. The Seattle Sounders defender scored the winning goal against Costa Rica in qualification. Blas Perez is Panama’s veteran striker. The 37-year-old had a brief spell in La Liga 2 with Hercules before moving back to the Mexican league. Gabriel Torres is likely to partner Perez upfront. Aníbal Godoy will provide protection for the back-four. Goday plays in the MLS for San Jose Earthquakes. A fantastic team spirit is Panama’s strength. Several of the players have been together for a number of years.
A lack of World Cup experience will be a disadvantage for the World Cup’s newcomers. Veteran keeper Jaime Penedo could be kept very busy by the likes of Harry Kane and Eden Hazard. There’s absolutely no way that Panama will cause an upset against England. Now, where have we heard that before?
Tunisia – 1000/1 Various bookies
Captain: Aymen Mathlouthi
Manager: Nabil Maaloul
Nickname: The Eagles of Carthage
FIFA Rank: 14
Ranked 14th by FIFA, yes, you heard it, Tunisia make their first appearance at the finals since 2006. Nabil Maaloul’s target is simple, to guide Tunisia to their first ever World Cup win. Their best chance for a win comes in the final group game against Panama. Tunisia will warm up for the competition against Spain, Turkey and Portugal.
The North African team are a bit of an unknown quantity. Sunderland fans will recognise Wahbi Khazri, who now plays his football for Rennes. Youssef Msakni has had a good season in the Qatari Stars League, scoring 23 goals in 20 games. There aren’t too many other familiar names in their squad, however, that could change over the course of the group stage.
Tunisia faces England in a repeat of the Group G encounter in France 98. Alan Shearer and Paul Scholes scored in England’s 2-0 win on that occasion. The 1000/1 outsiders would like nothing better than to upset the England camp this time around.
Belgium – 12/1 Various bookies
Captain: Eden Hazard
Manager: Roberto Martinez
Nickname: The Red Devils
FIFA rank: 3
Belgium are ranked third in the FIFA standings behind Germany and Brazil. The Red Devils qualified with ease, winning nine and drawing one, they scored 43 goals in a group that consisted of weak opposition including Gibralter and Cyprus.
The Belgian squad is full of players that have played or are playing in the Premier League. There is no room for midfielder Radja Nainggolan in the final squad. Vincent Kompany is likely to line up at the back along with Tottenham’s Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen. Kevin De Bruyne has had a great season for Manchester City scoring eight, he also led the Premier League in assists (16). De Bruyne and Eden Hazard will pull the strings for the Belgian attack which could be spearheaded by Romelu Lukaku. The Manchester United striker has scored plenty of goals this season, bagging 16 in the league.
Belgium has an unbelievably talented squad. Martinez prefers to set his team up in a 3-4-3 formation. The big question is whether or not their stars can translate club form on to the international stage. There is no reason why Belgium shouldn’t top Group G. They look good value at 12/1, whether or not they can deliver is another question.
England – 20/1 Spread Ex
Captain: Harry Kane
Manager: Gareth Southgate
Nickname: The Three Lions
FIFA rank: 13
The FA put Gareth Southgate into the hot-seat after Sam Allardyce’s swift exit but England qualified for Russia 2018 with ease. Nigeria and Costa Rica provide the opposition for England’s warm-up games.
The omission of Jack Wilshere from the squad dominated the news headlines. Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold is an exciting prospect for the future, but whether or not Southgate will give the teenager his first cap remains to be seen. Alexander-Arnold has made an impact at Anfield and he can look forward to the Champions League final along with Jordan Henderson. Burnley’s Nick Pope appears to be a popular choice for the goalkeeper’s jersey. Harry Kane has had another fantastic season for Spurs, providing him with chances and keeping him fit is essential. Kane scored 30 Premier League goals, almost as many as the combined tally of Jamie Vardy (20), Marcus Rashford (7) and Danny Welbeck (5). Raheem Sterling has had a fine season for Manchester City. The 23-year-old is flourishing under Pep Guardiola.
Don’t expect too much from England, they shouldn’t have too many problems getting out of the group stages. Pray that Phil Jones doesn’t have to mark Eden Hazard in the final group game. Colombia or Poland are likely to meet England in the knockout stages. England’s success will boil down to keeping key players fit and testing the opposition keeper. There won’t be too many defences that will fancy marking Kane and Sterling.
*Written on May 17th by John Wozniak **Odds correct at the time of writing
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