Not every team at the World Cup feels worthy of knockout stage competition, but Group D is unique:
Argentina, Iceland, Nigeria and Croatia
are all capable of making a run, at least to the round of 16. But for the Group D favorite, Argentina, nothing short of a trophy will satisfy.
Argentina came tantalizingly close to winning the World Cup four years ago, and after two more bitter disappointments—consecutive defeats on penalties to Chile in the Copa America and Cope America Centenario—Lionel Messi’s window to win a major international trophy is closing. After briefly retiring from international play in 2016, Messi almost solely carried his country to Russia, sealing Argentina’s place with a hat trick against Ecuador on the final day of qualifying. Don’t buy the notion that Argentina is destined to disappoint after falling short in ’14: This team is still capable of making a run to the final, especially if Messi gets help from Jorge Sampaoli’s array of attacking options, namely Paulo Dybala, Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Aguero and Angel di Maria.
But the group stage won’t be easy. Argentina will open its World Cup against—Viking clap!—Iceland, everyone’s favorite underdog and
one of the best stories in sports.
What the World Cup debutants have accomplished this last cycle is nothing short of remarkable: qualifying for Euro 2016, advancing through the group stage (and drawing with eventual champion Portugal), upsetting England to reach the quarterfinal and earning a place at the World Cup by topping a qualifying group that featured Croatia, Ukraine and Turkey. They were rewarded, though, with the closest thing this tournament has to a group of death.
Croatia, meanwhile, mystifies at times—it lost 3–0 to Estonia in a friendly and drew Finland at home in qualifying—but in terms of talent, this team can compete with almost anyone. The midfield combination of Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Mateo Kovacic is difficult to match. Whether the team that beat Spain 2–1 at Euro 2016 or the team that drew Finland in qualifying shows up to Russia is anyone’s guess, but Zlatko Dalic’s side has the quality to win this group. Remarkably, Croatia hasn’t advanced to the knockout stage of the World Cup in 20 years.
But don’t sleep on Nigeria, a team on the rise making its third straight World Cup appearance. The Super Eagles are rife with young talent, like Alex Iwobi and Kelechi Iheanacho, and they’ll rely on a dynamic counterattack that could surprise Croatia or even Argentina, which lost 4–2 to Nigeria in a November friendly in Russia (albeit playing without Messi). If the World Cup were decided on
sartorial elegance rather than footballing ability, Croatia and Nigeria
would meet in the final—but instead, Nigeria will have to battle for second in a difficult group.
Saturday, June 16 (9 a.m. ET): Argentina vs. Iceland
Saturday, June 16 (3 p.m. ET): Croatia vs. Nigeria
Thursday, June 21 (2 p.m. ET): Argentina vs. Croatia
Friday, June 22 (11 a.m. ET): Nigeria vs. Iceland