A look at the teams that make up Group D of the Russia 2018 World Cup:
FIFA world ranking: 5
Last World Cup: 2014
Best World Cup finish: Champions, 1978, 1986
How qualified: Finished third in South American qualifying tournament.
Key players: F Lionel Messi, MF Angel Di Maria, F Sergio Aguero
It’s a fact: Argentina has been held scoreless for 217 consecutive minutes in its last three World Cup finals, with all three games coming against Germany. It also lost the last two Copa America finals, both to Chile, without scoring a goal.
The skinny: Sure Argentina will field one of the deepest, most talented teams in the tournament. But the storyline surrounding La Albiceleste will be all about Lionel Messi’s pursuit of the one prize that has eluded him, a World Cup title. Messi carried Argentina to the final four years ago, winning the Golden Ball as the tournament’s outstanding player but losing the World Cup to Germany in extra time. Messi will be 31 by the final in Russia and he clearly needs more than a consolation prize if he hopes to one day be remembered as the outstanding player of his generation.
FIFA world ranking: 18
Last World Cup: 2014
Best World Cup finish: Third place, 1998
How qualified: Beat Greece in a European playoff.
Key players: MF Luka Modric, MF Ivan Rakitic, F Mario Mandzukic
It’s a fact: An unofficial national team played Croatia’s first game nearly a year before the country declared its independence in 1991, introducing the team’s iconic checkerboard jersey inspired by the country’s coat of arms.
The skinny: Croatia’s roster reads like a European all-star team, chock full of players from some of Europe’s biggest teams. Three of them played in last month’s Champions League final. The midfield alone – boasting Modric, Rakitic, Ivan Perisic, Marcelo Brozovic and Mateo Kovacic – is so good, manager Zlatko Dalic can’t get everyone on the field at the same time. But Croatia rarely plays with a solid identity or tactical approach and that leaves it less dangerous collectively than its players are individually.
FIFA world ranking: 22
Last World Cup: First appearance
Best World Cup finish: First appearance
How qualified: Won European qualifying group.
Key players: MF Aron Gunnarsson, MF Gylfi Sigurosson, D Ragnar Sigurdsson
It’s a fact: One-fifth of Iceland’s population reportedly requested tickets to the World Cup.
The skinny: The world may be watching and cheering for Iceland, and if it is, it’s likely to nod off while doing so. Because while Iceland has the tournament’s most compelling backstory, it also has a plodding, unattractive style of play that puts as many as 10 men behind the ball. The attack is often limited to cautious counterattacks and set pieces, on which Iceland, with as many as eight starters taller than 6 feet, is exceptional. That makes every free kick and corner kick a scoring opportunity. But Iceland can’t control the ball and if it loses possession repeatedly in its own end, defensive breakdowns are inevitable.
FIFA world ranking: 47
Last World Cup: 2014
Best World Cup finish: Round of 16, 2014, 1998, 1994
How qualified: Won African qualifying group.
Key players: F Kelechi Iheanacho, MF Victor Moses, F Alex Iwobi
It’s a fact: Nigeria is the only African nation that qualified for both the 2014 and 2018 World Cups.
The skinny: Nigeria’s time to shine on the world stage will come – just not now. The Super Eagles have played in five of the previous six World Cups but have never gotten past the round of 16. They may not even get that far this time. Never mind. The team has talent and pace in a young trio of Iwobi, 22; Iheanacho, 21; and 21-year-old Wilfred Ndidi, who is battling a hamstring injury. Nigeria is particularly potent on counters, where it is not afraid to commit numbers forward, and the players’ flair and pace make them fun to watch. Just don’t expect them to win.
June 16: Argentina vs. Iceland in Moscow; Croatia vs. Nigeria in Kaliningrad.
June 21: Argentina vs. Croatia in Nizhny Novgorod; Nigeria vs. Iceland in Volgograd.
June 26: Nigeria vs. Argentina in Saint Petersburg; Iceland vs. Croatia in Rostov-on-Don