For the true casual fan....Quick-twitch bits and opinions on the 32 teams, if you accidentally stumble upon soccer while watching TV this month! GROUP G edition.
TUNISIA: Where is Tunisia? It is a small, north African country sandwiched between Algeria and Libya, on the shores of the Mediterranean sea. This will be the 5th World Cup they've participated in and the first since 2006. Tunisia have never advanced out of the group stage. They won't be advancing this time, either. Youssef Msakni is their star and their best player...who tore up his knee in April and will be only a spectator of the action in Russia. 27yr old Wahbi Khazri is someone to watch. Has played most of his pro career in France including Bastia, Bordeaux & currently at Rennes on loan from the putrid Sunderland club in England. He has 9 goals in 24 appearances for Rennes, so he can make plays. Mohamed Amine Ben Amor is a tough minded midfielder that could bring a physical presence to their games, but he is one of 3 or 4 players that have either recently had surgery or are scrambling to get fit for this tourney. Panama will be the only game they have a realistic chance of winning, UNLESS either Belgium or England make the mistake of limping through a matchup with them.
PANAMA: Panama is one of two squads that knocked team USA out of the World Cup after our Americans couldn't get a result against Trinidad & Tobago. Once we flopped on our faces, the Panamanians were down 1-0 and snagged two 2nd half goals to win. Honduras also won that night after trailing, and the US collapse was complete. This is Panama's World Cup DEBUT! Congrats. Michael Amir Murillo is a fantastic defender that plays for New York Red Bulls in MLS. Roman Torres plays for Seattle Sounders, scored the goal that sent them to Russia and he'll be a vital piece of the mix defensively as well. As I said above, the match with Tunisia will be the only realistic opportunity that either nation have of snagging 3 pts in a match during this tournament. But cheers to them for making the World Cup!
BELGIUM: Alright. Some fun with name dropping! Thibaut Courtois plays for Chelsea. Kevin De Bruyne plays for Manchester City. Romelu Lukaku plays for Manchester United. Eden Hazard plays for Chelsea. Jan Vertonghen plays for Tottenham. Mousa Dembele plays for Tottenham too. The currently injured, potentially available Vincent Kompany is a Manchester City stud as well. It's a Premier League All-Star team!!! This squad eliminated the US in WC2014 with a pair of extra time goals to move on 2-1 in the Round of 16...they were smacked 1-0 by Argentina in the quarters. From a talent perspective, this team should certainly be a force in the tournament and at least a betting favorite to win this group. Winning this group means they'll face the Runner Up in group H for round of 16(maybe a Poland/Senegal?)...finishing 2nd in this group would likely mean a matchup with a formidable Colombian squad, my favorite in the 8th and final group.
ENGLAND: American soccer fans want us to be like England. Their system, their culture, promotion and relegation, etc. England won the World Cup in 1966, but have been basically as irrelevant in the tournament as team USA ever since. Unfortunately for our friends across the pond as well, most great soccer players with clubs in England are from other countries (look at Belgium's PL roster above, as one example). This feels a bit different, and I love what England is bringing to Russia. Harry Kane is WORLD CLASS, and if he's completely fit after an ankle injury in the spring, he'll be special. He'll work with Raheem Sterling and create a nice pair in front. What I want to see, though, is 20yr old ManU kid Marcus Rashford come on and score a big goal in late minutes for these guys. Their midfield options with Jordan Henderson, Dele Alli, Eric Dier and Jesse Lingard is impressive. No Joe Hart in net means they'll probably look at either Stoke City's Jack Butland or Everton's Jordan Pickford. I'm partial to Pickford only because I pretend to care about Everton.
***England WINS this group. Belgium finishes 2nd.