World Cup 2018 Group G preview: Intrigue for England, Belgium despite easy draw

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Welcome to Yahoo Sports’ coverage of the 2018 World Cup. With the tournament approaching, and with 32 team previews available for consumption, it’s time to broaden our gaze and dissect the eight groups.

Call them group previews if you like. But they are more so discussions. There will be stage setting and narrative building. There will be questions to answer and pose. There will be analysis and opinions, plus predictions and more. Next up is Group G.

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Group G team previews: Belgium | Panama | Tunisia | England

Group G tiers

Every World Cup group has its own structure; its own unique feel. But a simple numerical alignment, separating the four teams into anywhere between one and four tiers, goes a long way toward framing the discussion.

Group G is a 2-2. It’s two tiers of two teams each. And those tiers are far, far apart. This might be one of the most stratified groups in World Cup history. That would seemingly make it one of the most uninteresting as well. But in reality, there’s intrigue all over.

England against the minnows

Group G is intriguing because England is intriguing – and because nearly all the England intrigue stems from performances against upper-crust foes. We’re talking Germany, Brazil, Italy and the Netherlands. Gareth Southgate’s Three Lions shut them all down with a recently implemented 3-5-2 system that has worked wonders so far. But it’s worked wonders against the big boys – how will it work against the minnows?

Southgate will get one data point in an upcoming friendly against Costa Rica. And he got a positive one, albeit of a slightly different kind, in another friendly against Nigeria. But the group stage will more or less be his laboratory. There’s every chance England could struggle to break down Tunisia and Panama. There is, therefore, every chance the British press could go bats— insane after an early 0-0 draw, and the firestorm could burn all optimism to the ground.

Southgate certainly has the personnel to carve up the two underdogs. Raheem Sterling will partner Harry Kane up top. Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard will be behind them, in half-8, half-10 roles. The attacking firepower right there, in that square, is considerable. Toss in Ashley Young’s crossing from left wingback (maybe), line-breaking passes from John Stones and Eric Dier, and the all-around awesomeness of Kyle Walker, and you’ve got a team that should be able to create chances against a few parked busses. But it’s all hypothetical until we see it play out.

Harry Kane and Dele Alli are two of several attacking talents in the England team that should be able to break down Panama and Tunisia in Group G. But you never know. (Getty)
Harry Kane and Dele Alli are two of several attacking talents in the England team that should be able to break down Panama and Tunisia in Group G. But you never know. (Getty)

Belgium should lead the group stage in goals

Belgium, on the other hand, should have absolutely no trouble breaking down Panama and Tunisia. You think Kane-Sterling-Lingard-Alli is formidable? Try Romelu Lukaku, Dries Mertens, Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne. [Falls out of chair, mind boggled, laughing]

Now think about those four against mediocre MLS defenders. That’s Group G – literally, in the case of Panama, and more or less when Tunisia comes knocking (and quivering) on Matchday 2. Belgium, quite simply, should cruise. It scored 43 goals in 10 qualifiers, only once being held below two in a given match. If all goes to plan, the Red Devils are the favorite to top the team goalscoring leaderboard after three matches. And if all goes to play, both them and England will have knockout round qualification wrapped up after two. Which means …

We might not get a proper England-Belgium showdown

Belgium and England might not have anything to play for on June 28. And that sucks. There will be no decided benefit to winning the group, given the mishmash nature of Group H. So the two Group G giants might experiment, or rest a player here or there. The 11 on the pitch might take their foots off the gas. A Colombia runner-up finish in Group H would further complicated Group G’s final day.

Our best bet for excitement rests with the two managers, who may want to get an extra look at their first 11 against top opposition before the round of 16. Belgium, in particular, has not had enough success in its ludicrously attack-minded 3-4-3 to feel comfortable going into the knockout portion of the tournament. Roberto Martinez seems set on playing those four aforementioned stars, plus a winger (Yannick Carrasco) at left wingback, and just one holding midfielder. The England game could inform him whether the approach is a viable one moving forward. Because Panama and Tunisia won’t provide stiff enough tests.

We’re not in CONCACAF anymore

I would love to be wrong about this. But Panama is way, way, way in over its head. It’s best hope at three points against one of the European sides might be a benches-clearing brawl that gets six of England’s 11 sent off. (Don’t get any dark ideas, Blas Perez. Or at least give us credit if you do start something.)

Any chance we’re overlooking Tunisia?

Yes, actually. There’s a chance. The Eagles of Carthage have impressed in warmup friendlies. Although their defense is a bit shaky, they defend really well from the front. And by all accounts, they have some character.

But they don’t have their best player, Youssef Msakni, who was behind a good portion of that character, and of what Tunisia could create going to goal. Without him, all eyes turn to EFL League One superstar (kind of) Wahbi Khazri – and likely to an early exit.

Group G TV schedule

All kickoff times ET

Monday, June 18
Belgium vs. Panama, 11 a.m. (Fox Sports 1, Telemundo)
Tunisia vs. England, 2 p.m. (Fox Sports 1, Telemundo)

Saturday, June 23
Belgium vs. Tunisia, 8 a.m. (Fox, Telemundo)

Sunday, June 24
England vs. Panama, 8 a.m. (Fox Sports 1, Telemundo)

Thursday, June 28
Panama vs. Tunisia, 2 p.m. (Fox/FS1, Telemundo/Universo)
England vs. Belgium, 2 p.m. (Fox/FS1, Telemundo/Universo)

Group G predictions

Ryan Bailey: Belgium (1), England (2)
Henry Bushnell: Belgium (1), England (2)
Joey Gulino: Belgium (1), England (2)
Doug McIntyre: Belgium (1), England (2)
Leander Schaerlaeckens: England (1), Belgium (2)

More 2018 World Cup group previews

Group A | Group B | Group C | Group D | Group E | Group F | Group G | Group H

Yahoo Sports’ team-by-team previews

Group A: Russia | Saudi Arabia | Egypt | Uruguay
Group B: Portugal | Spain | Morocco | Iran
Group C: France | Australia | Peru | Denmark
Group D: Argentina | Iceland | Croatia | Nigeria
Group E: Brazil | Switzerland | Costa Rica | Serbia
Group F: Germany | Mexico | Sweden | South Korea
Group G: Belgium | Panama | Tunisia | England
Group H: Poland | Senegal | Colombia | Japan

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Henry Bushnell covers global soccer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell, and on Facebook.

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