Belgium, Tunisia and Panama: England’s World Cup Opponents Reviewed
With the World Cup draw having been made, England fans will be relatively happy with the group they have been given. The pot one heavyweights in the form of Argentina, Brazil, France and Germany were all avoided, whilst Tunisia are one of the weakest teams in pot three. World Cup debutants Panama are another side the majority of teams would have been happy to face. Here we review all three of England’s opponents ahead of football’s greatest showpiece kicking off in Russia next summer.
Belgium will be by far the most familiar of England’s opponents. The majority of The Red Devils’ squad play or have played in England’s top flight with 21 of the 34 players to have appeared in Belgium squads since September having Premier League experience. In addition, Mats Sels played for Newcastle in the Championship last season whilst Thorgan Hazard was on Chelsea’s books despite not making a single appearance for them.
In terms of key players, Manchester City midfielder Kevin De Bruyne is arguably the pick of the bunch with many regarding him the Premier League’s best player this season. Chelsea duo Thibaut Courtois and Eden Hazard, Manchester United striker Romelu Lukaku and Tottenham defenders Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld will also be high-quality opposition for Kane, Alli and co. to test themselves against.
Outside the Premier League, PSG defender Thomas Meunier, Roma’s Radja Nainggolan and Atletico Madrid winger Yannick Ferreira Carrasco are all big players, but arguably the most dangerous threat will come from Napoli’s Dries Mertens who has ten Serie A goals already this season.
In recent years, the so-called “golden generation” has not yet lived up to expectations. In 2014 they reached the World Cup, their first major tournament in 14 years. After one-goal victories against Algeria, Russia and South Korea in the group stages, they beat the USA 2-1 after extra time in the last 16. Their run was halted by Argentina in the quarter finals when an early Gonzalo Higuain goal gave the South American giants a 1-0 victory.
It was Euro 2016 however in which they really disappointed. Despite losing 2-0 to Italy in their opening group match, 3-0 and 1-0 wins over Republic of Ireland and Sweden respectively were enough to see them progress to the knockout rounds as group E runners-up. A 4-0 win over Hungary set up a quarter final match with Wales and when Radja Nainggolan’s long distance strike gave Marc Wilmots’ side an early lead, hopes were high of a semi-final clash with Portugal. But Wales came back to claim a shock 3-1 victory which knocked Belgium out.
Wilmots was sacked after this result and replaced with another name familiar to Premier League fans in the form of Roberto Martinez. The ex-Swansea, Wigan and Everton boss led Belgium to become the first European team to qualify for Russia 2018. Only a 1-1 draw with Greece denied them a 100% qualifying record in a campaign which saw 6-0 and 9-0 wins over Gibraltar and an 8-1 victory over Estonia. This helped secure their status (joint with Germany) as the highest-scoring team in the history of a single World Cup qualifying campaign with 43 goals.
Belgium are currently sixth-favourites to lift the trophy in July ahead of former winners England and Uruguay, and European Championship holders Portugal. England have played them 21 times picking up 15 victories and just a solitary defeat which came back in 1936.
©Pic Sydney Mahlangu/BackpagePix
The other two teams in Group G will be a lot less familiar to England fans.
Tunisia are making their fifth appearance at the World Cup finals having failed to progress beyond the group stages in all four of their previous campaigns, most recently in 2006. They began their campaign in the second round of African qualifiers with a 4-2 aggregate victory over Mauritania before topping a group including Guinea, Libya and closest rivals Congo DR in the third round. A 0-0 draw at home to Libya in the final group game was enough to book their ticket to Russia despite Congo DR defeating Guinea 3-1.
The Premier League has seen five Tunisian players in its history. The first to arrive was defender Radhi Jaidi. Jaidi played for Esperance Sportive de Tunis, Tunisia’s most successful club before joining Bolton Wanderers in July 2004. He then went on to play for Birmingham before joining League One Southampton in 2009. The ex-national team captain is now coaching the Saints’ U23 team. He played at the 2002 and 2006 World Cups and was a part of Tunisia’s African Cup of Nations-winning side in 2004. Birmingham signed Mehdi Nafti just a few months after Jaidi’s arrival in England.
Nafti now manages Merida in the Spanish third division. Hatem Trabelsi had a brief spell at Manchester City in the 2006/07 season before Yohan Benalouane signed for Leicester in 2015. The defender played in four games during Leicester’s title-winning 2015/16 season but missed out on a winners’ medal as a minimum of five appearances were required. Wahbi Khazri makes up the Premier Leagues’ Tunisian contingent having joined Sunderland in January 2016. His highlight in the North-East was a goal and assist in a 2-1 victory over Manchester United. He now plays on loan for Rennes in the French Ligue 1.
Tunisia’s biggest-name player at the moment is defender Aymen Abdennour who currently plays for Marseille on loan from Valencia. Abdennour was once a reported Chelsea target and Watford were said to be interested in signing him this summer before he returned to France where he had previously played with Toulouse and Monaco. Another key player is captain Aymen Mathlouthi. The goalkeeper has spent his entire career in Tunisia. He has spent fourteen years at Etoile du Sahel and won the CAF Champions League in 2007. Mathlouthi is known as a ball-playing goalkeeper and lifted the African Nations Championship (not to be confused with the African Cup of Nations) in 2011. Other names that may be familiar to avid fans of European football are Ligue 1 trio Oussama Haddadi, Naim Sliti (both Dijon) and Nice youngster Bassem Srarfi. Doncaster Rovers fans will be familiar with midfielder Issam Ben Khemis, although with just one cap to his name (in October 2016), he looks likely to miss out on a trip to Russia.
Nabil Maaloul is the Tunisia head coach. He played in Europe briefly for German side Hannover and is currently in his fifth spell as either Tunisia manager or assistant manager (including managing the Olympic side in 2004). He had a three-year spell as Kuwait boss before returning to the Carthage Eagles in April 2017, just in time to mastermind his nation’s progression to the World Cup finals.
In two appearances against Tunisia, England are unbeaten. They drew 1-1 in a 1990 friendly before winning 2-0 in the 1998 World Cup group stages.
If England fans are unfamiliar with Tunisia, then Panama are even more of an unknown quantity. The Central American side began their campaign in the fourth round of qualifiers for teams in CONCACAF, the equivalent of UEFA for teams in North and Central America (plus Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana). They finished second in a group featuring Haiti, Jamaica and group winners Costa Rica to progress to the fifth and final qualifying round.
In the fifth round they had to finish in the top three to qualify for the World Cup or fourth to enter into a play-off. After nine of the ten games had been played they found themselves fourth with Mexico and Costa Rica having already qualified and Trinidad and Tobago knocked out. After 87 minutes of their final match with Costa Rica, they were level at 1-1 but heading out with Honduras and the USA both above them. Having gone 1-0 down, a controversial equaliser was given to Gabriel Torres despite having not crossed the line. On 88 minutes, defender Roman Torres wrote his name into Panamanian history when he smashed the winner past goalkeeper Patrick Pemberton sending his country into third place and booking a ticket to Russia.
Five of the Panama team called up for recent friendlies against Wales and Iran currently ply their trade in Europe. Goalkeeper Jaime Penedo, who has 128 caps, plays in Romania with Dinamo Bucuresti. Defender Erick Davis is at Slovakian top flight side Dunajska Streda. Midfielder Ricardo Avila is with the reserves of Belgian side KAA Gent. Attacker Ismael Diaz is in the Spanish third tier with Deportivo Fabril, the reserve side of Deportivo la Coruna, whilst Gabriel Torres, a former Manchester United trialist, is in Switzerland with Lausanne-Sport. Panama’s top scorers with 43 goals are Peru-based Luis Tejada and Blas Perez of Guatemalan side Municipal.
Head coach Hernan Dario Gomez is one Panamanian who has faced England before at a World Cup. He was manager of the Columbia side that finished third in their group at France 1998, behind second-placed England, but ahead of Tunisia. He also took Ecuador to the tournament in Japan and South Korea back in 2002.
The June 24th clash in Novgorod will be the first time England have ever played Panama.
Whilst defeat to Belgium would not be a disaster (assuming things have gone to plan in the other two games), losing to Tunisia would be a massive blow, whilst picking up no points against Panama would prove to be a disaster of Icelandic proportions. San Marino have managed to dispel the old cliché “there are no easy games in football”, but truly poor teams do not qualify for World Cups meaning Gareth Southgate’s side will have to stay professional to ensure there are no early upsets. A top two finish will set up a last 16 tie against Poland, Japan, Colombia or Senegal. The minimum that should be expected from this tournament.