2018 World Cup Group H — Colombia vs Japan Match Preview

A potential darkhorse title candidate for the second consecutive World Cup, Colombia looks to start play on the right foot Tuesday when it faces Japan in the Group H opener for both sides in Saransk.

Colombia lived up to being a trendy pick in Brazil four years ago, reaching the quarterfinals after sweeping through group play and defeating continental rival Uruguay before falling to the host country in the round of eight in controversial fashion as a tying goal was disallowed late.

Los Cafeteros are again led by 2014 Golden Boot winner James Rodriguez, who is aided up front by Radamel Falcao, Carlos Bacca and Juan Cuadrado as they look to make a deeper run than their all-time best from four years ago.

Not much is expected from Japan, which is making its sixth straight World Cup appearance after not making the tournament until its maiden showing in 1998. Akira Nishino took over the team in April after Vahid Halilodzic was fired, and the Blue Samurai had an unimpressive string of matches leading up to the World Cup before defeating Paraguay 4-2 in their send-off match last week.

HOW THEY GOT HERE

Colombia started the grind of South American qualifying as the highest-ranked team in the FIFA rankings at No. 5 but got off to a slow start and claimed just four points from its first four matches. Like seemingly all of the usual soccer powers on the continent, the Cafeteros had a period of struggle before regrouping, though they did not secure their spot in the World Cup until their final match day with a 1-1 draw at Peru.

This is Colombia’s sixth overall World Cup appearance and its first back-to-back showing since making three straight from 1990-98. The only other time it reached the knockout round before 2014 came in 1990, when it lost to Cameroon in extra time in the round of 16.

Japan punched its ticket to Russia as the top finisher in Group B of Asian qualifying, doing so with a match to spare as its loss to Saudi Arabia on the final matchday allowed the Green Falcons to claim the other automatic spot. Genki Haraguchi scored a team-high four goals in the final round and Japan had 12 different goal-scorers in the 10 matches.

If the pattern of previous World Cup appearances holds, the Blue Samurai would be tipped to reach the knockout round in Russia after doing so as co-hosts in 2002 and again in 2010. In Brazil, they finished last in the group Colombia won, claiming their only point with a scoreless draw versus Greece.

Those two previous runs to the round of 16 mark Japan’s furthest entry in the World Cup.

FORMATIONS

Both squads are expected to use 4-2-3-1 formations, but it is possible Nishino may go to a five-man backline for Japan after experimenting with it in the run-up of friendlies.

Colombia is backstopped by Arsenal No. 2 David Ospina, who is also the team’s most capped player with 86 international appearances. On the back line, Spurs central defender Davinson Sanchez has been tipped for a big tournament and will team with Yerry Mina, who became the first Colombian player to see action for Barcelona. Veteran defensive midfielders Carlos Sanchez and Abel Aguilar will provide support.

The offense will flow through James and Cuadardo, with the former scoring six goals in Brazil four years ago and the latter supplying pace down the right flank. They will both try to link up with Falcao, who has thrived with Monaco following failed loan stints with both Manchester United and  Chelsea, and is also the Cafeteros’ all-time leading scorer with 29 goals.

The strength of the Blue Samurai resides in the spine with Southampton’s Maya Yoshida in central defense and Borussia Dortmund’s Shinji Kagawa pulling the strings offensively in the midfield. Japan, though, took a huge injury hit when striker Shinji Okazaki suffered a torn calf injury in the win over Paraguay and could be sidelined the entire tournament. The Leicester City forward has 50 goals in international play, good for third all-time.

Nishino also brought along many veterans who could see playing time if things go sideways, including midfielder Keiuske Honda, who could make his third World Cup appearance, and Makato Hasebe, who has 110 caps and is one of three centurions on the team along with Okazaki and defender Yuto Nagatomo (105).

PLAYER TO WATCH

Colombia – James Rodriguez (MF)

More of an attacking midfielder with a forward’s skillset, Rodriguez scored one of the top goals of the 2014 World Cup with an audacious volley in the win over Uruguay in the round of 16 and was man of the match in three of Colombia’s first four matches. He totaled eight goals and 13 assists for Bayern Munich while out on loan from Real Madrid this season and had six in South American qualifying.

Japan – Takashi Inui (MF)

The newly minted Real Betis winger has speed to burn on the left flank, and there will be high entertainment watching him and Cuadardo burn up and down the sidelines. Prior to joining Betis earlier this month, Inui spent the past three seasons with Eibar and had 11 goals in 88 contests.

RUMORED TO MOVE

Colombia reserve forward Carlos Bacca is rumored to want to stay in Villarreal after being loaned out by AC Milan after scoring 15 goals in Spain this past season. Falcao is reportedly being chased by multiple teams, including Premier League side Everton.

BETTING ANGLE

Per Ladbrokes, Colombia is a heavy favorite at 7-10 odds, with Japan decided underdogs at 19-4. A draw returns 12-5 odds. For first goal-scorers, Falcao is the front-runner at 7-2, while the aforementioned Bacca is 9-2 and James is right behind the pair at 5-1. Yuya Osako is Japan’s top option at 7-1 odds.

PREDICTION

While Colombia is a favorite to return to the knockout round, it is not a straightforward path to the top of Group H as Poland can also stake a claim as the best team of the four. Still, Los Cafeteros have the most starpower in the group, and this is a make-or-break tournament for their golden generation after they made a semifinal exit at the Copa America Centenario.

Rodriguez has been dealing with a lingering calf injury but is expected to be available for this game, and despite being Colombia’s all-time leading scorer, this will be Falcao’s first World Cup appearance after missing out in 2014 due to a torn ACL suffered six months before the tournament.

Japan’s players and coaches have said all the right things about not being discombobulated despite the late coaching change, but no one really seems to know how Nishino will set up his team until he hands in the lineup sheet. Yoshida may be the most important player for the Samurai Blue since he will be primarily tasked with defending Falcao.

Colombia pulled away in the match between the teams four years ago in Ciubaba. Cuardado and Okazaki traded first-half goals, with Cuardado converting from the spot on 17 minutes and Okazaki answering with a diving header just before halftime.

Jackson Martinez then scored the go-ahead goal in the 55th minute and added a second marker eight minutes from time before James completed the scoring one minute from time to complete Colombia’s romp through group play.

While the scoreline won’t be that lopsided this time around, look for Los Cafeteros to start things up with a convincing 2-0 victory.

 

World Cup Match Recap 14: England 2, Tunisia 1 (June 18)

Harry Kane’s second goal of the match, coming in the first minute of second-half stoppage time, allowed England to escape with a 2-1 victory over Tunisia in its Group G opener in Volgograd on Monday.

After winning a corner, Kieran Trippier whipped in an outswinger from the right that Harry Maguire nodded to the back post, where an unmarked Kane coolly completed his brace with a header from inside the six-yard box. It prompted a wild celebration and pile-on in the corner as this young Three Lions side left it late after spurning multiple scoring opportunities throughout the contest.

Kane’s other goal came in the 11th minute, stabbing a rebound past Mouez Haseen, who made a spectacular diving save to deny John Stones on a powerful header off a corner by Ashley Young from the left. The ball spilled right to Kane, and the Tottenham striker and England talisman made no mistake by slotting it opposite the prone Hassen next to the right post.

The goal came as part of an opening 20-minute sequence in which the Three Lions tried to run Tunisia off the pitch, and the Eagles of Carthage were lucky to be down only one goal as England had six shots on frame in that stretch. Hassen did well to stop a shot by Jesse Lingard from close range and turned aside a shot by Maguire on a corner before Raheem Sterling scuffed a shot wide of the right post from the six-yard box.

In that span, Tunisia was forced into using backup keeper Farouk Ben Mustpaha on 15 minutes. Hassen appeared to hurt his shoulder in the opening minutes and then aggravated the injury making the save on Stones’ header. He returned to the bench in the second half with his left arm in a sling.

Lingard missed a chance to double England’s lead on 24 minutes, putting a right-footed side volley wide of the left post with all sorts of time. Maguire had a chance when he met Trippier’s cross on a free kick, but Ben Mustapha was up to the task with a diving save.

It would not be an England World Cup match without some consternation, however, and it arrived in the 33rd minute in the form of a penalty awarded to Tunisia after a moment of madness by Kyle Walker. Referee Wilmar Roldan pointed to the spot after the Spurs defender lifted his arm as a Tunisian cross sailed harmlessly through the England penalty area, connecting with Ben Youssef Fakhreddine in the face.

Ferjane Sassi took the penalty for the Eagles, and while England keeper Jordan Pickford guessed correctly and dove to his right, Sassi’s effort had too much pace as it fizzed inside the left post to make it 1-1. Stones had an opportunity to quickly restore England’s lead, but he made a hash of things at the top of the six-yard box and misfired.

Lingard had another chance right before halftime after Maguire got to a Trippier corner, but his shot was deflected over the bar. Tunisia did better in the second half to defend, with most of England’s scoring chances coming on corner kicks and other set pieces.

Manager Gareth Southgate introduced Marcus Rashford for Sterling in the 68th minute, and the Manchester United starlet instantly made a nuisance of himself with his pace on the right. Rashford, though, also was profligate with a scoring chance minutes before Kane’s goal, trying to create a scoring chance for his club teammate Lingard with a dummy rather than shooting from close range.

Turns out it was just ratcheting up the drama for Kane to be the hero as he now has 15 goals in 25 international matches.

Sasse’s penalty was the only shot on target for Tunisia, which was outshot 19-6 as England put seven of its attempts on target.

It was the first win to open group play for England since 2006 and just its second win in the last nine World Cup matches overall (2-4-3). It was also the second time in as many matches the Three Lions defeated Tunisia in the World Cup, with Southgate the starting center back in a 2-0 victory in France in 1998.

The Three Lions are second in Group G behind Belgium on goal difference after the favorites rolled to a 3-0 victory over Panama in its opener. The Eagles of Carthage are third, ahead of the Canaleros on goal difference.

Tunisia’s task to regroup to remain in the hunt to advance to the knockout round will be a difficult one as it faces Belgium on Saturday in Moscow, while England will look to take  a huge step towards qualifying the following day in Nizhny Novogorod versus first-time World Cup entrant Panama.

World Cup Match 13: Belgium 3, Panama 0 (June 18)

Romelu Lukaku’s second-half brace after a wonder strike by Dries Mertens shortly after the interval gave Belgium a glossy 3-0 victory over World Cup debutant Panama in the opening match of Group G in Sochi.

The Red Devils dominated the proceedings throughout the contest and turned on the style in the final 45 minutes as all three goals were well-taken. The gulf in class between the sides, with Belgium featuring players from the best sides in Europe against a Panama side where football is still the second-most popular sport to baseball was evident early and remained that way even while it took more than a half for Roberto Martinez’s side to break down the Canaleros.

That is not to slight Panama, which gave everything it could in its first World Cup match. The country’s president was among 4,000 people of a population of just under four million who made the trek to Russia, and they made a vibrant scene in Sochi.

They were nearly rewarded right before the final whistle, when defender Fidel Escobar tried to loop a shot from his own half over Thibaut Courtois as the Belgian keeper was off his line, but the Chelsea shot-stopper backpedaled and punched it over the bar to preserve his clean sheet.

Belgium never seemed to get out of third gear in the first half yet still fashioned plenty of scoring chances. Eden Hazard pounced on a back pass without pace before the quarter-hour but fired his shot into the left side netting. Lukaku had a sure goal snuffed on a deflection by Roman Torres, who got a toe to a cross whipped in from the right by Mertens in the 20th minute.

Panama’s best option defensively was often physical play, and the Canaleros accumulated five yellow cards over the course of the contest.

The Canaleros continued to soak up pressure as the second half began, and it finally became too much courtesy of a moment of magic by Mertens two minutes after the restart. The Napoli man gave his full attention to the ball Hazard headed into the air and from just inside the penalty area on the right side, uncorked a looping right-footed shot Panama keeper Jaime Penedo had no chance of stopping as it sailed into the net and hit the side netting on the left.

Unshackled from the pressure of getting a result, Roberto Martinez’s men finally engaged the gears that have many pegging them as World Cup title darkhorses. Lukaku doubled the advantage in the 69th minute with a well-placed diving header from six yards inside the right post following an exquisite slicing right-footed pass from Kevin De Bruyne as the Manchester rivals combined on the marker.

Six minutes later it was Hazard’s turn to be playmaker, storming down the middle of the pitch on a counter before sending Lukaku through on the left. The Manchester United forward patiently waited for Penedo to commit before chipping a left-footed shot over him from 12 yards.

About the only downside for Belgium was accruing three yellow cards of its own as Thomas Meunier, Jan Vertonghen and De Bruyne all went into Janny Sikwaze’s book. The Red Devils finished with 15 shots and put as many on target (6) as Panama attempted overall.

Belgium’s second group match will be against Tunisia on Saturday in Moscow, while Panama will face England the following day in Nizhny Novogorod.

 

World Cup Match 12: Sweden 1, South Korea 0 (June 18)

For the second time in the first set of matches at the World Cup, the Video Assistant Referee played a pivotal role as a penalty by Andreas Granqvist in the 65th minute after consultation proved decisive as Sweden edged South Korea 1-0 in Nizhy Novogorod to claim a share of the lead in Group F.

The VAR system has caused plenty of controversy for penalty calls after the fact and some not reviewed in the first five days of the World Cup. Referee Joel Aguilar was alerted to review a play in which Kim Min-woo scythed Viktor Claesson as he chased a ball to the right of goal, enraging the Swedish bench as they called for the play to be given a second look.

After watching the replay, Aguilar pointed to the spot, where Granqvist the center back looked as calm as a striker taking the penalty as he sent Cho Hyun-woo in the wrong direction and slotted it into the right corner.

The win gives Sweden a share of the group lead with Mexico, with reigning champion Germany tied with South Korea for third and needing a victory over the Blagult in the next match to keep control of its destiny in its final group finale.

Sweden also had a penalty shout late in the first half turned down when Ki Sung-yueng made a challenge on Ola Toivonen, but VAR felt Ki got enough of the ball not to ask Aguilar to take a second glance.

The European side had all the better chances as South Korea failed to put any of its five shots on frame. Cho made a fantastic save to keep the game scoreless in the 21st minute, ranging to his left to get his leg to a point-blank shot by Marcus Berg. Eight minutes later, it was Taeguk defender Kim Young-gwon coming to Cho’s rescue as he made a last-gasp slide to deflect Berg’s shot after the ball pinballed in the box following a Sweden corner.

Son Heung-Min tried to find space to be a threat for South Korea, but Granqvist led a well-marshaled backline against the Tottenham Hotspur striker, whose penalty appeal on a challenge by Ludwig Augustinssson shortly before halftime went unanswered.

Though not challenging Blagult keeper Robin Olsen, South Korea did fashion some chances in the final 45 minutes. Koo Ja-cheol sent a header wide of target shortly after the interval. In stoppage time, the Taeguk had their best chance, but Hwang Hee-chan’s unmarked header from 10 yards on a cross by Lee Jae-sung went begging wide of the left post.

South Korea coach Shin Tae-young was forced into one substitution early in the contest as Park Joo-ho left in the 28th minute with what appeared to be a severe hamstring injury. Kim Min-woo played the final 62 minutes in his place.

Sweden moves on to play four-time champion Germany on Saturday in Sochi while South Korea will try to regroup versus Mexico earlier that day in Rostov-on-Don

2018 World Cup Group G — Belgium vs Panama Match Preview

Oozing with talent as one of the World Cup favorites, Belgium looks to live up to expectations Monday when it faces debutant Panama in the Group G opener for both in Sochi.

In the prime of their golden generation, big things are expected of the Red Devils in Russia. They reached the quarterfinals in both the World Cup four years ago and the most recent World Cup championships, though the latter finish was disappointing enough to sack Marc Wilmots and replace him with Roberto Martinez.

Belgium was the first country to qualify for the World Cup, doing so with two matches to spare in group play, as a side led by English Premier League stars Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku are tipped for big things in a group in which it is the clear-cut favorite.

Panama, on the other hand, is making its first World Cup appearance after claiming the third and final spot in the CONCACAF region. That made up for the stinging disappointment from four years ago, when the Canaleros were on the verge of finishing fourth and facing New Zealand in a playoff before conceding twice in second-half stoppage time to lose 3-2 at home to the U.S., which had nothing to play for in that contest.

 

A nation of less than four million people is roughly the size of South Carolina, Panama’s qualification for the World Cup is also the result of a golden generation of players who blossomed under Hernan Dario Gomez, who is taking his second country to the World Cup after leading Ecuador to its first appearance in 2002.

HOW THEY GOT HERE

Belgium made quick work of qualifying in Group I in Europe, winning nine of its 10 matches while outscoring opponents 43-6. It was admittedly a weak group for the Red Devils to boss, with Greece finishing a distant runner-up nine points back and also featuring newcomers Gibraltar in its first qualifying campaign of any sort.

They have gotten out of group play in six of their last seven World Cup appearances, failing only in 1998 when they played three draws. In Brazil four years ago, Belgium swept South Korea, Russia and Algeria in group play before defeating the U.S. in extra time in the round of 16 and losing to Argentina in the quarterfinals.

It was the second time Belgium progressed to the quarterfinals, with its best showing coming with a fourth-place finish in Mexico in 1986.

Panama won only three matches in the final round of CONCACAF qualifying but also lost only three matches. The Canaleros got needed results on the final matchday when it rallied to defeat Costa Rica while the U.S. was unable to get a needed point to qualify as it lost at Trinidad & Tobago. Panama scored just nine goals in its 10 matches but conceded only 10.

FORMATIONS

Belgium is stacked with star power at every position, but talisman and central defender Vincent Kompany will miss at least the first two matches with a groin injury suffered in the run-up. His replacement, Dedryck Boyata, will be flanked by a pair of Tottenham Hotspur defenders in Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld as they serve keeper Thibaut Courtois.

Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne are arguably two of the best players in the world, with the former a one-time EPL player of the year for Chelsea and the latter a runner-up for the award this season playing for Manchester City. They are joined by Axel Witsel, who will be a defensive midfielder in this 3-4-2-1 set-up.

Dries Mertens will join Hazard in a more advanced role behind Lukaku, who finished his first season at Manchester United with 27 goals in 51 matches in all competitions and has tallied 36 goals in 69 international appearances. Vertonghen is the lone centurion on the squad with 102 caps, while Witsel has 90 and Hazard 86.

Panama will utilize a 4-1-4-1 formation, with three members of its backline playing for teams in Major League Soccer in the U.S. Roman Torres and Fidel Escobar will be the central defense pairing. Gabriel Gomez, the Canaleros’ most capped player with 144 appearances, will provide support as a defensive midfielder and may occasionally provide a fifth man in the back, but look for Panama to also be cautious defensively.

While Gomez likes to use a high press, Panama was overwhelmed 6-0 in a recent friendly by Switzerland, which utilized one-touch passing to pull the defense apart. Given how fast De Bruyne and Hazard can move the ball through the midfield, look to see less of the high press and more sitting deep.

Up front, Blas Perez is a physical player who could give young Boyata issues. He has 43 goals in 118 appearances and is tied with teammate Luis Tejada for the most goals in team history.  The Canaleros have six players with more than 100 caps, and a seventh, Armando Cooper, could join them if he appears in two matches.

PLAYER TO WATCH

Belgium – Kevin De Bruyne (MF)

Though not the proficient goal-scorer Mohamed Salah was for Liverpool, De Bruyne showed an unrivaled all-around game in helping Manchester City become the first 100-point team in English football history this season. He finished with 12 goals and 20 assists in all competitions for the Premier League champions and has 14 goals in 62 international appearances.

Panama – Jose Luis Rodriguez (MF)

Just 19 years old, Rodriguez is a curious late call-up by Gomez considering he had not received any playing time with Belgium’s senior Gent side in the Juliper League. He made his international debut in May against Northern Ireland and will likely spend most of this match chasing long balls down the left flank as a relief valve to counter Belgium’s pressure.

RUMORED TO MOVE

Alderweireld is supposedly on the short list of Jose Mourinho’s wants at wide back for Manchester United, with a reported transfer fee of £75 million doing little to rebuff him. His club and compatriot on the backline, Vertonghen has been linked with a move to Lazio, with the Italian side eager for his services.

BETTING ANGLE

Per Ladbrokes, Belgium are heavy, heavy 1-6 favorites, with Panama getting long 16-1 odds to pull off the shock of the first matches of the World Cup. The odds of a draw are also decidedly long at 11-2. For the first goal-scorer of the match, Lukaku is 12-5 and Hazard is 7-2, with Michy Batshuayi surprisingly in the middle of the pair at 3-1.

Ten Belgian players are listed before Panama’s Tejada is listed at 10-1, with Perez right behind at 11-1.

PREDICTION

It’s time for the rubber to meet the road for Belgium, which has embraced the expectations that come with this very talented squad. The Red Devils looked impressive in their last two World Cup tune-ups, dismantling Egypt 3-0 and Costa Rica 4-1 after playing Portugal to a scoreless draw.

They will have to play a patient game, though, given what Panama learned about its limitations in that loss to Switzerland. Gomez knows his team will struggle offensively; the Canaleros scored just one goal in five friendlies in 2018, and that came against Trinidad & Tobago, which finished last in the final round of CONCACAF qualifying.

One thing to keep an eye on here is the weather conditions. Panama is used to playing in humid conditions, and that was the case in the last match played in Sochi. Still, that will not be enough to save the Canaleros as Belgium should win comfortably by a 3-0 count to get things going in Group G.

UP NEXT

Belgium will face Tunisia in Moscow on Saturday, while Panama will have an extra day to recover before facing England in Nizhny Novogorod.

2018 World Cup Group G — England vs Tunisia Match Preview

While the high expectations that usually follow England into a World Cup are nowhere to be found in Russia, there is still a sense the Three Lions owe their supporters something more following their poor showings from the last two tournaments as they open Group G play Monday in Volgograd.

England is making its sixth consecutive World Cup appearance since missing out in 1994, but it has been on a down cycle for most of this decade and has not been beyond the quarterfinals of a tournament since reach the semis of the 1996 European Championship as host. After finishing last in Group D in Brazil in which took one point in matches against Italy, Uruguay and Costa Rica, the Three Lions were humbled two years later in France when upstart Iceland beat them 2-1 in the round of 16 in the Euros.

Manager Gareth Southgate, who replaced Sam Allardyce following his controversial sacking in 2016, has overhauled much of the squad in favor of a younger look. Of his expected starting XI, only Raheem Sterling has previous World Cup experience, and only Gary Cahill has more than 50 caps.

The blood and thunder approach prevalent in the Premier League has given way to the evolution of a three-man back and quick passing, a nod to the revolution Pep Guardiola brought to Manchester City that resulted in the first 100-point season in top-flight English football this past term.

HOW THEY GOT HERE

As is usually the case, the Three Lions cruised through qualifying, finishing eight points clear of Slovakia and Scotland in Group F as they did not lose a match and conceded just three times. Harry Kane led the way with five goals but England also had 12 different players bag at least one through the qualifying process.

England has never made back-to-back group play exits in its World Cup history but the country that invented football has not progressed beyond the quarterfinals since its fourth-place finish in 1990. The Three Lions won their only World Cup in 1966 on home soil and last reached the quarterfinals in 2006.

Tunisia is making its fifth World Cup appearance and first since 2006. The Eagles defeated Mauritania in a two-legged playoff to reach the final round and narrowly held off the Democratic Republic of Congo, finishing one point ahead after completing group play with a scoreless draw versus Libya.

Tunisia has just one World Cup victory to its credit, a 3-1 victory over Mexico in its maiden match in 1978. Tunisia has gone 0-4-7 since that victory, getting outscored 16-5 in that run.

One of those losses was a 2-0 defeat to England in France in 1998, a match in which Southgate started at center back for the Three Lions.

FORMATIONS

England’s formation will be a hybrid between a 3-3-2-2 and a 3-1-4-2 depending on how much license Southgate gives Ashley Young and Kieran Trippier to bomb forward. Jordan Henderson will serve as a defensive midfielder in front of the back three, with John Stones expected to use his passing skills to push forward when the opportunity presents itself.

Up front, Spurs teammates Kane and Dele Alli will be supported by Sterling and Manchester United’s Jesse Lingard. Alli, Sterling and Lingard all have speed to burn and could play underneath Kane, who can be a target forward as well as play the ball at his feet.

The lack of a seasoned veteran beyond Cahill is a concern. Pickford and fellow keepers Jack Butland and Nick Pope have a combined 12 caps among them, and starting defender Harry Maguire has made just five international appearances. Reserve Denny Welbeck is the most capped player up front with 39 appearances.

Tunisia will use a 4-2-3-1 formation in which central defenders Syam Ben Youssef and Yassine Meriah will be pivotal in reducing England’s scoring opportunities. Like England, there is a glaring lack of international experience throughout Tunisia’s roster, with defensive midfielders Saif-Eddine Kahoui and Ellyes Skhiri having four caps between them.

Up front, the Eagles of Carthage will ask much of Wahbi Kahzri to hold up play and harry England’s back line. He has 12 goals in 35 appearances for his country and is coming off a solid season on loan in Rennes, where he had nine goals for the French side.

Goalkeeper and talisman Aymen Mathlouthi has made 69 international appearances and is the only Tunisian player with more than a half-century worth of caps.

PLAYER TO WATCH

England – Harry Kane (F) 

Having been given the captain’s armband for the World Cup, there will be pressure on Kane to produce, especially after a 30-goal season for Tottenham. His goal-scoring pace down the stretch slowed due to injury, but the 24-year-old did score against Nigeria in one of England’s last friendlies before arriving in Russia.

Tunisia – Ellyes Skhiri (MF)

Despite having just two caps to his credit, Skhiri is in the middle of everything for the Eagles of Carthage and will be tasked with neutralizing Sterling through the middle while giving his team time to take shape defensively. The French-born Skhiri has seven goals for Montpellier but is better known as a box-to-box player working in tandem and will have to give service to Naim Sliti, the team’s primary offensive option in place of the injured Youssef Msakni.

RUMORED TO MOVE

Alli is expected to be partnered with Kane for the long haul at Tottenham as he is rumored to be nearing a contract extension. Kane is going to stick around in North London through 2024 after signing an extension earlier this month. Backup keeper Butland may be the most likely to move, with Premier League teams interested in prying him from Stoke City.

BETTING ANGLE

Per Ladbrokes, England is a heavy 4-9 favorite, while Tunisia checks in as a decided 8-1 underdog. There are also long odds for a draw at 3-1. For first goal-scorers, Kane is the front-runner at 11-5 odds, but Jamie Vardy is a surprising second at 13-5 as oddsmakers expect England to need time to break down Tunisia.

Sterling is getting 7-2 odds to give the Three Lions a 1-0 lead, and Alli is 4-1. On the Tunisian side, Khazri leads a trio of players who would return 10-1 odds for that shock scoreline.

PREDICTION

For all the reinvention Southgate has done with the England squad since its disastrous exit in France two years ago, the most important thing he has probably done is temper expectations for this squad with its supporters. He has plenty to work with going forward and has taken pains to get his players to play free, but there is still skepticism the Three Lions will bottle again at a major tournament setting.

When looking at the friendlies dating back to November, it is clear England is not an elite squad. There were draws against Germany and Brazil last November, a draw with an unfancied Italy squad at home and a win over the Netherlands. Its two send-off victories came against World Cup opponents, but both Costa Rica and Nigeria also face low expectations and lost their opening matches.

If England start fast and score early, it will do wonders for its confidence. The longer the match goes without a goal, the more dug in Tunisia will become and the job will become that much tougher. The Eagles of Carthage should not be taken lightly, they are Africa’s highest-ranked team in the latest FIFA rankings at No. 21 and were as high as 14th.

They more than held their own against teams above their punching weight, drawing Portugal, beating Iran and held Spain without a goal for 83 minutes in their final tune-up before suffering a 1-0 loss. The issue for Tunisia will be where its offense originates. Sliti may be its best threat going forward, but if Nabil Maaoul has his team sit deep in defense, he may be starved of service.

While England are the most likely second choice to Belgium to emerge from Group G, Tunisia thinks it can be that side as well since it will be favored against World Cup newcomer Panama. It may take a while, but the Three Lions should get their first World Cup victory since 2010 with a well-earned 1-0 victory.

UP NEXT

England will face Panama in its second group game Sunday in Nizhny Novogorod, while Tunisia will square off with Belgium in Moscow a day earlier.

2018 World Cup — Group F Sweden vs South Korea Match Preview

With Group F wide open following Mexico’s shock win over reigning champion Germany, Sweden and South Korea look to take full advantage Monday as they try to join El Tri atop the group in Nizhny Novgorod.

Sunday’s 1-0 victory by Mexico means everything is to play for as all four teams now have a chance to advance. Sweden is making its first World Cup appearance since 2006, having missed out on South Africa and Brazil.

South Korea is making its ninth consecutive appearance in football’s biggest tournament, but its only two progressions out of group play came with its fourth-place finish as co-host in 2002 and round of 16 exit eight years later.

There is already a hint of controversy to this match as Taegeuk Warriors coach Shin Tae-young admitted his players have been swapping jerseys to keep their strategy under wraps for this contest and made no efforts to hide his reasoning at the press conference.

“In my opinion, I think when the Europeans look at us Asians, I think it could be one of the reasons,” Shin said. “I think we wanted to confuse the Swedish team. That’s why we did that.

“We swapped them around because we didn’t want to show our opponents anything. Ki Sung-yueng is probably known, as is Son Heung-min, but for the other players it might be a little bit confusing.

HOW THEY GOT HERE

Sweden ended its 12-year World Cup drought in surprising fashion. The Blagult finished runners-up to France in Group A of UEFA qualifying and then held Italy scoreless over the two-legged playoff, with Jakob Johansson’s goal in the first leg standing as the playoff winner.

When Sweden does qualify for a World Cup, it usually makes it a point to stick around. It has reached the round of 16 in its last two appearances, and before that, finished third in the United States in 1994. The Blagult’s best finish was a runners-up showing as hosts in 1958 when they lost to Brazil in the final.

After storming through second-round qualifying in Asia by winning all eight of its matches by a 27-0 scoreline, South Korea had a tougher time of it in the final round but still directly qualified for Russia by finishing second to Iran in Group A.

The Reds totaled just 11 goals in their 10 qualifiers and lost at both 2022 World Cup host Qatar and China during group play. They barely claimed the automatic berth, drawing Uzbekistan on the final match day while third-place Syria, needing a win at Iran to overtake South Korea, could only get a draw.

South Korea has won just four matches in group play in its eight previous World Cup appearances, with two coming as co-host in 2002. The Reds finished last in Group H in Brazil four years ago, claiming a draw with Russia in their opening matches before losing to Algeria and Belgium.

FORMATIONS

Both teams are expected to use 4-4-2 formations, but Sweden’s offense has failed to catch since the retirement of Zlatan Ibrahimovic from international play. Marcus Berg and Ola Toivonen continue to be his best options, but the Blagult were shut out in both of their most recent friendlies against Denmark and Peru and scored three goals while going 1-3-2 in the calendar year.

Sweden’s back line is its best asset with Mikael Granqvist and Victor Lindelof teaming in central defense, though Lindelof did have an uneven season at Manchester United. Sebastian Larsson, who is the only player with 100 caps on the squad, will patrol the midfield, and Emil Forsberg will try to use his pace to create opportunities for Berg and Toivonen.

South Korea has a dynamic midfield with captain Ki Sung-Yueng flanked by Lee Jae-Sung and Lee Sung-Woo. Up front, underrated Tottenham Hotspur forward Son Heung-Min leads the line and is coming off a solid season in England in which he had 18 goals in all competitions. He also has 21 goals in 67 international appearances for the Reds.

Ki is the only centurion on South Korea with 102 caps, while Son is one of five other players with at least 50 appearances.

PLAYER TO WATCH

Sweden – Emil Forsberg (MF)

Though Sweden is in need of a goal-scorer, Forsberg will be counted on to at least create the scoring opportunities that lead to goals. The Leipzig midfielder had 21 assists in the 2016-17 season but struggled through an injury-plagued campaign that saw him total four goals and four assists. Forsberg did have four goals in qualifying for the Blagult, so he can force the issue if Berg and Toivonen are misfiring.

South Korea – Son Heung-Min (F)

Often hidden behind the large spotlight afforded to Harry Kane and Dele Alli, Son has an impressive work rate and has a knack of popping up in the right place at the right time to score goals. He scored seven goals during South Korea’s qualifying process and scored a pair of match-winners in friendlies over the past eight months.

RUMORED TO MOVE

Forsberg is rumored to be in the middle of a bidding war as Arsenal, Atletico Madrid and Juventus are reportedly lining up for his services and pondering the £50 million valuation Leipzig have put on the Sweden international.

With Swansea City relegated from the English Premier League, Ki has already declared he will leave the Wales side, with West Ham and AC Milan reportedly among those showing interest.

BETTING ANGLE

Per Ladbrokes, Sweden is listed as a 21-20 favorite, while South Korea gets a return of 3-1 to win. For those who think the match will end level, the odds are 2-1. For first goal-scorers, Berg gets top billing at 7-2, and compatriots Isaac Thelin and John Guidetti are 11-2 while Toivonen is 6-1. Son is South Korea’s top choice at 13-2 odds.

PREDICTION

Both teams sputtered in their World Cup run-ups, with South Korea winning just once in its last six matches and being shut out by both Bolivia and Senegal in its final two. While Son enjoyed success in Tottenham, his club teammates are light years better than his country ones, which means he will have to try and win one-on-one battles to find chances to score.

That will be a tall order against Granqvist and Lindelof, and it may mean he plays behind Hwang Hee-chan in a three-quarters role to better link up with Ki in the midfield.

Sweden has the same offensive issues, though its lack of star power is more glaring since Berg and Toivonen are not on Son’s level. Forsberg is going to have to put in a stellar performance and help draw fouls in the final third to make use of his dead-ball skills.

This will be a tight match that will see its share of spurned scoring chances, even if they are of half-quality. But with a chance to move three points clear of Germany before playing them, someone is going to emerge a winner. And it will be South Korea through Son.