Group D Preview: World Cup is the last stand for Argentina with Messi

Every World Cup group is rife with storylines, yet the lineup in Group D ticks all the boxes culturally as well as competitively.

Two-time champion Argentina is led by Lionel Messi, one of the all-time greats whose brilliant legacy is destined to be at least partially eclipsed if he can’t lead his nation to the title. And this is his last shot.

Iceland is the underdog champion, the smallest country by population (340,000) in the tournament but by no means the weakest. Croatia, a surprise semifinalist 20 years ago that hasn’t made it out of the group phase since, is renowned for superb players and notorious for right-wing crowd incidents. Nigeria is the classic African enigma that is traditionally less than the sum of its formidable parts.
Argentina needed a Messi hat trick in its final Conmebol qualifier just to reach Russia yet as a traditional power led by a superstar rates among the top contenders. Argentina is one of only four nations to play in at least five World Cup finals, winning the title in 1978 and 1986 and losing in 1930, 1990 and 2014. It will be under intense pressure and may struggle while topping the group, perhaps with seven points instead of nine.

Iceland qualified for its first European Championship two years ago and after finishing second in its group stunned England, 2-1, in the round of 16. Its sensational run ended in the quarterfinals against France, and on the momentum of that success rolled through its World Cup qualification schedule with a 6-2-2 record.

Iceland and Croatia met during qualifying in Europe Group I: the teams split their two meetings though Iceland needed a 90th-minute goal from Hordur Magnasson to win its home game, 1-0. Group runner-up Croatia beat Greece (4-1 aggregate) in the playoffs. Nigeria qualified for its third straight World Cup and has a few key returnees from the team that reached the round of 16 last time around. 
Our picks:  1. Argentina. 2. Croatia. 3. Iceland. 4. Nigeria

Group D Schedule
June 16 Argentina vs. Iceland, Spartak Stadium, Moscow (9 am ET, Fox, Telemundo) 
June 16 Croatia vs. Nigeria, Kaliningrad (3 pm ET, FS1, Telemundo) 
June 21 Argentina vs. Croatia, Nizhny Novgorod (2 pm ET, Fox, Telemundo) 
June 22 Nigeria vs. Iceland, Volgograd (11 am ET, Fox, Telemundo) 
June 26 Nigeria vs. Argentina, St. Petersburg (2 pm ET, *Fox, Telemundo) 
June 26 Iceland vs. Croatia, Rostov (2 pm ET, *FS1, Universo)
*Network assignment subject to change.

The Entertainers
Messi, obviously, but can his teammates – several of which are top-class (Angel di Maria, Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Aguero) if not in his class -- step up at the crucial moments so the burden is somewhat shared? Is this the breakout competition for Boca Rivers starlet Cristian Pavon? ... Luka Modric has the skill set to carry Croatia a long way, yet he’s dogged by criticisms of his performances at this level.  ...Gylfi Sigurdsson is well-known to fans and rivals of Everton and a hero to the people of Iceland. ... John Obi Mikel is the veteran leader of Nigeria, Alex Iwobi drives the attack.
Argentina is on a run of successes ended by bitter disappointment. After falling to Germany, 1-0, in the 2014 World Cup final, it has lost to Chile on penalty kicks in the 2015 Copa America and 2016 Copa America Centenario finals. Chile didn't qualify for this World Cup so at least one bogey team has been removed.
1 comment about "Group D Preview: World Cup is the last stand for Argentina with Messi".
  1. beautiful game, June 15, 2018 at 4:14 p.m.

    DiMaria, Aguero, and Higuain are quality players, but when crunch time comes with the NT, their stature tends to diminish. In addition, it's obvious that the team chemistry is ineffective and the coaching staff continues to rely on the same players from the back to the front.

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