World Cup 2018: your guide to Group D
Messi needs to carry Argentina while Super Eagles Nigeria could spring a surprise
The 2018 World Cup could prove to be Lionel Messi’s defining tournament. Photograph: Agustin Marcarian/Getty
Argentina might be the clear favourites, but Group D is a potentially trickier puzzle to solve than it first appears. Lionel Messi has the chance to emulate the great Diego Maradona by leading La Albiceleste to World Cup glory, and he will have to carry a side which has plenty of firepower but looks vulnerable in midfield and at the back. Croatia have no such problems in the middle - the perennial dark horses boast a stunning midfield - but off-field issues are never too far away from the surface. Nigeria are arguably the strongest African nation in the tournament, while Iceland continue to punch above their weight, and qualified ahead of the Croats. In short, it’s very open.
Road to Russia
Argentina finished third in the South American group but needed a stunning Messi hat-trick away to Ecuador to make sure of qualification. Iceland topped their group to secure a first ever World Cup appearance, with Croatia trailing them in second place and needed a play-off win over Greece. Nigeria progressed comfortably from their group ahead of Zambia, Cameroon and Algeria.
World Cup Pedigree
Argentina have won the World Cup twice, in 1978 and 1986 - the latter thanks to the divinity and devilment of Diego. Croatia’s golden generation finished third in 1998 - their first appearance after the break-up of Yugoslavia. Nigeria have reached the last 16 in 1994, 1998 and 2014 - while Iceland are making their debut.
Jorge Sampaoli was Argentina’s third manager of World Cup qualification and needs to find a defensive formula to complement his array of attacking talent. Zlatko Dalic took over Croatia with one game of qualifying to go - plucked from the UAE, he has a relatively low profile. German Gernot Rohr has successfully deployed a policy of youth with the Super Eagles while Heimir Hallgrímsson continues to work wonders with Iceland.
Argentina have the potential to be devastating in attack - enough so for the brilliant Mauro Icardo to be left at home, largely for reasons of internal politics. Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Mateo Kovacic and Ivan Perisic are fine options for Croatia while a fit Wilfred Ndidi will be key to Nigeria’s hopes.
If Messi is at his best he is more than capable of carrying Argentina deep into the tournament almost on his own. Who will join Argentina in the knockout stages is less clear - Croatia should progress as runners-up but Nigeria could easily spring a surprise and take a second place. A place in the last 16 looks a bridge too far for Iceland.