Teams

Belgium, England, Tunisia, Panama

Qualification

Under new manager Roberto Martinez Belgium dominated their qualifying group and were unbeaten, winning nine of their 10 games. This gave them a nine-point advantage over second place Greece, and they scored 43 times which, along with Germany, was the best record.

England’s bid to reach Russia 2018 started in farcical circumstances as Sam Allardyce lost his job after just one game, and he was replaced by Gareth Southgate. The 47-year-old helped the Three Lions qualify with minimum fuss, however – they were unbeaten and finished with 26 points.

Tunisia topped their group in the CAF third round to narrowly finish ahead of DR Congo. Their success was built on a strong defence, with Nabil Maâloul’s side conceding just four times in six matches.

CONCACAF qualification was surprising for the elimination of the United States, who finished fifth and did not even achieve a play-off place. Panama claimed third and the final qualification berth, though their weak attacking record will raise worries over their competitiveness in Russia.



Previous World Cups

Belgium have reached the semi-finals once – in Mexico 1986 – but have otherwise underachieved on the biggest stage. In 2014 the Red Devils did not seem to gel as they were eliminated in the quarter-final. As they are in the midst of a golden generation, this summer may be their best chance to make a real impact.

Since their sole World Cup triumph in 1966, the England national team has seldom looked like trophy-winning material, with a single semi-final showing in 1990. The last tournament four years ago was rock bottom as they were eliminated in the group stage, though personnel has changed considerably since.

This summer will be Tunisia’s fifth World Cup and they will be targeting their best performance having never advanced from the group stage. They have their work cut out, however, given the calibre of England and Belgium.

Along with Iceland, Panama are making their World Cup debut, but the Central Americans will have to improve markedly on their pre-tournament friendly results – they have won just once since October.



Managers

Roberto Martinez has had a mixed career to date and can consider himself fortunate to have got the Belgium job after a poor final season at Everton. However, his record has been flawless in his first national team job and he has not avoided making bold decisions.

Similarly, Gareth Southgate is heading into his first major tournament. Despite widespread fanbase bemusement upon his appointment, the coach has not put a foot wrong and has overseen obvious changes; from the dropping of Wayne Rooney and Joe Hart, to call-ups for youngsters, and the change of formation to a three-man defence.

Whatever happens in Russia, Nabil Maâloul has done a fantastic job for the north Africans after taking charge in April 2017 – Tunisia last reached the World Cup in 2006.

Hernán Darío Gómez is a Colombian but will surely be a national hero in Panama having led them to a first World Cup. The 62-year-old has previously managed both Colombia and Ecuador in the competition, though did not reach the second round on either occasion.



Squads

Martinez received a furious backlash from Belgium fans after failing to name Radja Nainggolan in his travelling party – the central midfielder is widely seen as one of the most complete in Europe. However, there is plenty of quality at his disposal, with stars all over the pitch. Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku are likely to be key to reaching the latter stages. Vincent Kompany faces a battle to be fit.

England have named a 23-man squad that many expected, though Jack Wilshere was left out after a disappointing second-half of the season at Arsenal. Injuries to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Joe Gomez mean that there is space for Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Trent Alexander-Arnold, while Jordan Pickford and Jack Butland will battle it out to be England’s No1 keeper. With an average age of 26, the Three Lions will be the third youngest in Russia.

Tunisia are captained by Aymen Mathlouthi, who has 70 caps. Wahbi Khazri of Rennes and formerly of Sunderland, is perhaps their most well-known squad member, and the 27-year-old is the only one to have scored over 10 times – there will be a lot of pressure on him to perform.

Panama have no one standout star, though forward Luis Tejada has 43 goals for the national team and is likely to be their major threat. Gomez’s squad have vast experience, though, with six players having at least 100 caps.



Prediction

Group G is, in theory, one of the most clear-cut groups, with Belgium and England seemingly too strong not to finish in the top two places – it is likely to come down to their meeting on matchday three to decide which advances as group winner. It would take some massive upsets for either Panama or Tunisia to stand a chance of reaching the last-16, but as 2014 showed nothing can be ruled out.