Here’s Rob Reid with the 2nd of his world cup fantasy analysis articles. This time it’s Groups C and D where he looks at each team individually within both Groups and their fantasy player prospects
World Cup Fantasy – Rob Reid analyses Groups C and D
Here’s Rob’s analysis of Group A and B if you’ve yet to see it.
Group odds – France 4/9 Denmark 9/2 Peru 12/1 Australia 22/1
I’m fairly intrigued by Group C, I think it has potential to surprise. France have the pedigree and big names to go all the way, but they have come unstuck against stubborn opposition in the past. Denmark blasted their way through the play-offs, inspired by Christian Eriksen and will be favourites for the 2nd spot in the knockout phase, but I certainly wouldn’t write off Peru, currently ranked at 11 in the world or Australia, a nation whose players have a reputation for stepping up when the big occasion presents.
We’ll start with Australia who are appearing in their 4th consecutive tournament and are hoping to emulate the team of 2006 who made it to the knockout phase. It was a tough multi-staged qualifying process for The Socceroos. Draws against Thailand and Iraq left them with work to do at the business end of the group and they ultimately missed out on an automatic qualifying spot on goal difference. They were faced with a tricky Asia play-off where Tim Cahill bailed them out at home after falling behind to Syria. They then had to win a second play-off tie against Honduras, this came courtesy of a 2nd half hat-trick from Mile Jedinak in Sydney. It was a long qualification road to Russia, but Australian teams are nothing if not resilient and this should stand them in good stage for a tough group.
Tim Cahill of Millwall has been a great servant to Australian football with 50 goals in 109 caps, but at 38 years old this tournament may just be a bridge too far for him. Unfortunately there’s not another notable goal-scoring option in the Aussie squad, though Mile Jedinak does have 18 goals in 75 games – mainly due to him taking penalties and being on free-kick duty. There are other creative options in midfield – Tom Rogic is the stand-out for me. He’s had a fantastic season at Celtic and has 7 goals in 36 caps along with good assist potential.
Defensively, I’d probably avoid any Australian cover. They only kept 4 clean sheets in 14 matches through the 3rd qualifying round and the play-off phases against fairly modest opposition. If you’re going with anyone, I’d probably lean towards Brighton stopper Matt Ryan but I can’t say that I rate their clean sheet prospects highly in any of the group matches.
The Aussies open against top seeds France with Les Bleus among the favourites for the tournament. They have a wealth of individual talent and have posted some impressive results in the build-up with wins away to Russia, at home to Italy and Ireland and a draw away to Germany. They are however capable of typically French implosions. A 0-0 draw against Luxembourg in qualifying and throwing away a 2-0 lead to lose 3-2 at home to Colombia are notable examples of this in the last year. When they’re good they’re irresistible though, and the 0-0 with Luxembourg didn’t stop them qualifying comfortably from a group containing Sweden and The Netherlands, the latter of which they thumped 4-0 in Paris.
I’ll look at their forwards first and you can take your pick from several good option. Antonie Griezmann is the obvious pick of these and he has penalties and set-pieces. He’s scored 29 goals for Atletico this season and looks a great pick, though he’s likely to be registered as a forward rather than as a midfielder as he was in a couple of formats for the Euros. Kylian Mbappe and Ousmane Dembele both offer alternative options. Neither have much international pedigree as yet, but they’re used to performing on the big stage with their clubs and this could be the ideal platform for them to showcase their talents.
I wouldn’t highlight a standout fantasy option in midfield – Paul Pogba has always promised fantasy managers somewhat more than he’s managed to deliver and none of his midfield counterparts look particularly prolific fantasy options. Defensively, there’s some good choices. Raphael Varane and Samuel Umtiti should form the central partnership and have been in good form in La Liga this season. There’s also goalkeeper and captain Hugo Lloris though he’s had a mixed season with Spurs this year and has seen some errors creep into his game.
Denmark are the bookies favourites for 2nd place in Group C. They finished second in a challenging qualifying group behind Poland, but smashed their way through the play-offs thumping Ireland 5-1 in Dublin to secure their place in the finals. There’s a feeling that this is Denmark’s strongest squad since the amazing group that surprised everyone at Euro 92, though they’ll have to go a very long way and seriously upset the odds if they’re going to emulate Laudrup and co. in Russia this year.
Their qualifying campaign was inspired by Christian Eriksen who scored 8 times and had 3 assists – he is without doubt a Denmark’s outstanding pick. He’ll be listed as a midfielder but is likely to be given a free role and has nearly all the set-piece responsibility. Overall, he has 21 goals in 77 caps and will present both a goal and assist threat, however there is a bit of a caveat.
Denmark’s other main goal-scorer is the enigmatic Nicklas Bendtner (30 goals in 81 caps) but he has been left out due to injury. This does leave The Danes without an obvious prolific striker and may nullify Eriksen’s assist potential somewhat. Nicolai Jorgensen will be the most likely starter in Bendtner’s absence – he has 8 goals in 30 appearances.
Denmark conceded 8 goals in the group stage of qualifying, keeping 4 clean sheets in the process. They don’t stand out to me as an obvious defensive choice, but there is clean sheet potential I’d say, especially in the Australia fixture. Sevilla’s Simon Kjaer is their captain and key defender in what is likely to be a 4-5-1 formation, however they may opt to play 3-5-2 if trying to attack in which case a full-back might be a nice option though it’s not as clear who will start in these positions.
The dark horses in this group for me are Peru who I think are a very underrated team. It’s great to see that iconic strip back on the big stage after they battled their way through the tough CONEMBOL qualifiers; securing their place through a play-off against New Zealand after pipping Chile to 5th place in the group phase on goal difference. The key to this was their form in the second half of the campaign which has seen them rise to a FIFA ranking of 11 as part of an 18 month unbeaten run. They’ve beaten fellow World Cup qualifiers Croatia and Iceland this year as well, I’d write them off at your peril.
Captain Paulo Guerrero’s clearance to play following a drugs ban will be key for Los Incas – he is their top scorer with 34 goals in 87 caps and is a popular figure at his club Flamengo. Jefferson Farfan is his strike partner and he’ll be right at home in Russia as he plays for Lokomotiv Moscow. His scoring record is more modest – 25 in 82, though he does offer some assist potential. There are also offensive options in midfield as well through Christian Cueva and Edison Flores. They offer goal and assist threat and they both may have some set pieces as well.
Defensively Peru weren’t that impressive in qualifying conceding 26 goals, more than any of their fellow CONEMBOL qualifiers so they don’t standout as clean sheet prospects. None of their defenders offer an obvious attack threat either – Christian Ramos has 3 goals in 66 caps and is the only one of their defenders to have scored an international goal. It might be better to look elsewhere for defensive cover.
France face Australia first then Peru, so these 2 fixtures present a nice pod before the potentially tougher game against Denmark. 2 French wins might already have secured qualification before the Denmark match in a group where I reckon all the teams can take points off each other. If so expect rotation in Matchday 3. Of the others, Denmark also of course have arguably their toughest fixture last and Peru have the potential to score against anyone.
Group Odds – Argentina 8/13 Croatia 9/4 Nigeria 10/1 Iceland 12/1
Group D has thrown up another interesting mix with the 2014 Runners-up, the competition’s fairytale team and possibly the 2 best strips in the tournament! Argentina will be keen to go one better than last time and give Lionel Messi that missing World Cup winners medal. Croatia have never managed to match the achievements of the golden generation of 1998 while Nigeria have always been a nation who have promised much and delivered little on the World Cup stage. And then there’s Iceland. Euro 2016 was the dream that hasn’t ended for the country with smallest population ever to qualify for the greatest tournament of all. Can their 2018 side continue on their run?
We’ll start with the European teams and Croatia have made appearing at major tournaments a habit since their major tournament debut at Euro 96. Qualification was hardly easy this time around with their group containing Ukraine, Turkey and eventual winners and now Group D rivals Iceland. They changed coaches with 2 group matches remaining after a run of bad results, but new boss Zlatko Dalic guided them to second spot.
Their play-off match was a bit more straightforward, the hard work was done at home with a 4-1 win over Greece before a 0-0 draw in Athens sealed their passage. Despite this success, there’s been significant unrest behind the scenes, with key federation figures facing corruption charges thanks to reputations as chequered as Croatia’s famous shirts. Captain Luka Modric has been sucked into this also and faces perjury charges, will this affect his and his country’s chances?
Croatia’s leading forward options are all based in Serie A. Juve’s Mario Mandzukic is the obvious forward choice, though he’s not as prolific at club level now as he was in his Bayern Munich days. His goal average at international level (a goal every 2.7 games) is identical to prospective strike partner Nikola Kalinic of AC Milan who is likely to be slightly cheaper in the listings, but possibly less gametime secure. Ivan Perisic of Inter is an intriguing option also, his strike rate at international level is slightly lower but he could be listed as a midfielder in some formats making him more appealing.
In midfield Croatia boast some fantastic talent in Modric and Mateo Kovacic of Real and Ivan Rakitic of Barcelona. None of them standout immediately as fantasy prospects to me, with Rakitic’s 14 goals in 91 the best of the three. Modric however has been pushed into a more advanced role under new coach Dalic and may be more of an attacking threat. The problem with Croatia for me though is as much about their opposition. Iceland defeated them twice in qualifying and defeats to both Peru and Brazil in recent months doesn’t bode well for the Argentina match. This makes their defenders less appealing – Corluka is probably the most gametime secure if you’re considering anyone here.
Iceland will be the fan’s favourite team in Russia and for good reason. They were the darlings of Euro 2016, going all the way to the quarter-finals before defiantly losing to hosts France. They made many friends along the way. This was driven by their most wonderful supporters and an estimated 10% of their 340,000 population are allegedly making their way to Russia. The recent success of Icelandic football is underpinned by a well-organised grass roots system that draws from the best elements of Spainish, German and Dutch youth development and focuses on the nation’s strengths of good physical attributes, organisation and basic skills. As such, they have a relatively settled team, albeit with players who ply their trade at a more modest level than their rivals.
Strakarnir okkar (which translates as ‘Our Boys’) qualified comfortably from Group I ahead of rivals Croatia, but have only won one game since – a 4-1 victory away to Indonesia. Their problem lies in reduced game time for many of their players and star man Gylfi Sigurdsson reflects this. He’s got 19 goals in 56 caps and significant set piece responsibility but injuries and poor form has limited his involvement with Everton this season. In terms of pure goal threat, Alfred Finnboagson of Augsberg might offer a stronger current alternative – he’s got a record of 12 goals in 46 appearances and scored 12 times in 19 games for his club last season.
I’m not overly sold on Iceland’s defensive prospects – they’ve shipped 9 goals in their last 3 matches to Mexico, Peru and Norway respectively. I do however have a sentimental attachment to former Aberdeen defender Kari Arnason. He was superb at Euro 2016, leading to the joke that after the Portugal match he got back to the dressing room, emptied his pockets and found his wallet, keys, mobile phone and Christiano Ronaldo! He’s only had limited minutes for Scotland’s second best club side this season, but he does sometimes play out of position in midfield and offers an aerial threat at set plays. He scored twice and got 2 assists in qualifying so could be a budget differential.
The Super Eagles of Nigeria are regular representatives from Africa and have made it to 6 out of the last 7 World Cups. This is in contrast to their African Cup of Nations record where they’ve surprisingly failed to qualify for the last 2 tournaments since winning it in 2013. Securing their berth was surprisingly straightforward out of a tough group featuring Cameroon, Algeria and Zambia. It would look even more comfortable on paper had they not been penalised with a 3-0 defeat to Algeria for fielding an ineligible player. Recent friendly results have been mixed – they defeated group rivals Argentina in a friendly in Russia last November and also won away in Poland in March. In between this though there was a 4-0 drubbing away to Morocco and an uninspired 2-0 defeat to Serbia. Not many clues here!
They have a number of players who will be very familiar to FPL managers. There’s question marks as to who will start up front, but I suspect it will be Kelechi Iheanacho playing just off Odion Ighalo. The former scored twice in the friendly win over Argentina and has close to a goal every second international match. Ighalo’s record is more modest, 4 goals in 18 caps and he may be challenged for his starting berth by Arsenal’s Alex Iwobi or Ahmed Musa of CSKA Moscow.
In midfield Victor Moses has 11 goals in 33 caps though may be less of a threat if Nigeria opt to play a 3-5-2 like they did in the second half of their recent friendly versus England. Defensively, Nigeria conceded the most of the African qualifiers but bear in mind 3 of these are in that scoreline that was awarded to Algeria. William Troot-Ekong looks the most secure gametime wise, but in truth with little attacking threat offered and clean sheets likely to be at a premium in this group, I’d look elsewhere. If nothing else though, they’ve probably got the best kit in the tournament!
Now onto the big guns in the group, 2 time winners Argentina. The unthinkable almost happened and they were perilously close to failing to qualify. Going into Matchday 18 of the CONEMBOL group, automatic qualification was out of their hands and they fell behind in the first minute of their vital final match away to Ecuador. But cometh the hour, cometh the man, Lionel Messi produced a hat-trick to win the match and Argentina were propelled into 3rd spot in the group via a combination of this victory and scores elsewhere. Since qualifying, there’s been a mixed bag of results with wins against Italy and Russia but defeat to Nigeria and a humiliating 6-1 reverse to Spain. Argentina go into this World Cup in a troubled state and with an unstable squad…but the trade-off is that they have the incredible Lionel Messi!
Messi’s record for club and country is quite amazing and he goes to his 4th World Cup in his usual fine form. He’s a massive goal and assist threat and dominates the set-piece responsibility to boot. Again though, like his Real rival Ronaldo, his World Cup record is rather modest – 5 goals across 3 tournaments and there’s a worry that at this level he’s considered more of a flat-track bully than a prolific scorer. The other issue is the weight of pressure. Many consider Argentina to be a bit of a one man team and with much uncertainty surrounding Argentina’s midfield and defence selection, will his colleagues be able to produce a performance that allows him the platform to ignite?
I’d argue that the one man team suggestion is rather harsh on Argentina, especially when you consider that they also have the likes of Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain and Angel Di Maria available. All would grace any international squad and Aguero and Higuain have international goal averages only slightly inferior to Messi’s. There are problems at the back though. They enter the tournament without a particularly experienced international keeper in their squad and Nicolas Otamendi was the only player to rack up a significantly consistent number of appearances through qualifying. As mentioned earlier, I think there will be plenty of goals in this group and considering the Argentinian defenders will likely command premium prices, I’d be tempted to buy elsewhere if I wanted a premium defender. That being said, they were one of the meaner defences in their qualifying section with 7 clean sheets and only 16 goals conceded so they might be worth considering.
I don’t see any obvious fixture clumps here as I consider this to be quite an open group where anyone can score against and beat anyone. Much hinges on the way teams play in opening fixtures I reckon – will they play it cautiously to try and stay in the group or will they gamble to try and get their noses out in front? I can see Nigeria and Iceland starting out with nothing to lose and one of the two potentially blowing the section wide open. More questions than answers sadly!
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