Group G Preview: England and Belgium are clearly a class above

Like Group B with Portugal and Spain, this group is composed of two heavyweights -- Belgium and England -- and two outsiders.

Unlike the Iberian rivals, they do not meet in the first round of games. They play on the final day of group competition and are not only expected to advance but also take care of whichever teams they meet from Group H in the round of 16. This scenario is so plainly laid out that Panama and Tunisia, while overmatched in most categories, could be facing distracted opposition and thus be in line to steal a result that would mess up the math.

June 18 Belgium vs. Panama, Sochi (11 am ET, FS1, Telemundo)
June 18 Tunisia vs. England, Volgograd (2 pm ET, FS1, Telemundo)
June 23 Belgium vs. Tunisia, Spartak Stadium, Moscow (8 am ET, FS1, Telemundo) 
June 24 England vs. Panama, Nizhny Novgorod (8 am ET, FS1, Telemundo) 
June 28 England vs. Belgium, Kaliningrad (2 pm ET, *Fox, Telemundo)    
June 28 Panama vs. Tunisia, Saransk (2 pm ET, *FS1, Universo)
*Network assignments subject to change.

Heralded as the nation’s best team since the squad that reached the semifinals in 1986, Belgium is haunted by quarterfinal defeats at the 2014 World Cup and 2016 European Championship. The resolve and determination of its players came under fire two years ago when upset by Wales. It had also lost in group play to Italy, which didn’t even make it to Russia. A rudimentary qualifying campaign didn’t address its issues, so any glitches in these group games will revive concerns of Belgium’s true quality.

Since reaching the World Cup semifinals in 1990, England has fallen short of unrealistic expectations of at least reaching the final if not winning it. It isn’t ranked among the favorites for 2018, perhaps because of dour victories such as a 1-0 dismissal of Slovenia that clinched a World Cup slot. By consensus from most sources, Belgium is expected to top the group, so England has the situation as well as the resources to spring a surprise and finish first.

Panama has rebounded from the heartbreak suffered during the 2014 qualifiers, when a stoppage-time goal by Graham Zusi knocked it out of the Hexagonal top four to the benefit of Mexico. It is an older team but led by Quakes midfielder Anibal Godoy, can play the rock’em, sock’em style that unsettles more polished squads.

In its four previous World Cup appearances, Tunisia has been eliminated at the group stage and though it has returned to the big stage after missing out in 2010 and 2014, it’s not expected to make much impact this time around. But as one of three North Africa teams to qualify it is carrying a big burden to at least out-perform Morocco and Egypt, and will eye its match against Panama as the most important in recent memory.

Our Picks: 1. Belgium. 2. England 3. Panama. 4. Tunisia.

The Entertainers
In this group are some of the world’s most dangerous attackers running at defenders. The Belgians have two -- Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard -- and their knack for knifing through spaces and challenges is the ideal weapon for breaching packed defenses that are commonly deployed in this competition. Belgium is also well-stocked in the finishing department. If Romelu Lukaku and Dries Martin snap up the chances that are created, Belgium can knock off teams that may be more talented overall but not as efficient.

One such case may be England, for which Raheem Sterling has blossomed into an electrifying force of skill and pace, and Harry Kane is the main scoring threat as well as the captain. Since failing to score at the 2016 Euros, Kane has racked up 83 goals for England and Tottenham the past two seasons. Dele Alli, Marcus Rashford and Jamie Vardy give England the most potency of the teams in this group.

MLS and USA fans know well the wiles of Panamanian forward Blas Perez, who during his days with FC Dallas and Vancouver scored important goals and took notorious dives. At 37, he’s not the force he once was but as his nation’s all-time leading scorer (43 goals) he’ll be a pest for opposing defenses and match officials alike.

Midfielder Wahbi Khazri will direct the show for Tunisia, which headed to Russia without forward Youssef Msakni, its primary creator sidelined by a knee injury in April.

Breakout Players
There could be a few. Rashford (20), Chelsea midfielder Rufus Loftus-Cheek (21), and uncapped Liverpool defender Trent Alexander-Arnold (19) infuse a lot of youth into an England squad that manager Gareth Southgate expects to improve sharply in the next few years. That’s not a typo: the Belgian squad includes Thorgan Hazard, younger brother of Eden, along with up-and-comers Leander Dendoncker and Mousa Dembele. Red Bulls right back Michael Murillo seems to have a bright future for the Red Bulls as well as Panama.

U.S. Connections
Panama’s trip up the learning curve to its first World Cup can be traced through MLS. Nine of the 23 players, including goalie Jamie Penedo (ex-Galaxy) and centerback Roman Torres (Seattle), are either current or former MLS employees. Los Angeles FC defender Laurent Ciman was named to Belgium’s stand-by list but was sent home Saturday.

England and Belgium last played a competitive match in 1990, when a David Platt goal late in the second period of extra time decided their World Cup round-of-16 match in Bologna, 1-0. England progressed to the semifinals and hasn’t gone that deep in the tournament since.
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