On paper, Belgium is as imposing a side as there is in the World Cup. The country’s heralded “golden generation” — a group of players including Thomas Vermaelen, Vincent Kompany, Eden Hazard, Moussa Dembele, Romelu Lukaku, Kevin De Bruyne, Thibaut Courtois, Mousa Dembele, and more — has so far failed to live up to the immense hype, but if the squad comes together under manager Roberto Martinez, they could go very, very far.
That’s a big if, however. Martinez is a wonderful TV personality and a charming man, but it remains to be seen if he can be the manager to take this many incredible pieces and get them to work together. If he does figure out how to take the generational talents of De Bruyne, Hazard, and Lukaku and get them to thrive as one, and the defense coalesces around a healthy Kompany, this is a team that has a real chance of winning the Final.
Key player: Kevin De Bruyne
American fans will know Panama as one of the teams that, along with Honduras, kept the United States from making the World Cup. They were aided in part by a phantom goal that never crossed the line in their final World Cup qualifier. But despite the circumstances they qualified in, Panama has a talented and experienced team that will be difficult to beat.
Some older Panamanian legends are hoping they get their first chance to compete at a World Cup. Jaime Penedo, Felipe Baloy, Blas Perez, Gabriel Gomez, Roman Torres, and Luis Tejada will all go into June over 30 years old and with over 100 caps. Some of them will make the final squad, and some won’t.
As for how they’ll play, expect to see a very physical style from the Panamanians. They might not have the skill or pace of their opponents, but they’re generally unmatched for toughness.
Key player: Armando Cooper
Tunisia makes regular appearances in the knockout stages of the Africa Cup of Nations, and its club teams are competitive in continental competition as well, but The Eagles of Carthage have struggled to make an impact on the biggest stage. But thanks to a favorable qualifying draw, Tunisia is in Russia ahead of better-known teams like Cameroon, Algeria, Ghana and Ivory Coast.
The Tunisians had to beat the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Libya, and Guinea to get here, which is the easiest road that any of the African qualifiers had to go down. But, to Tunisia’s credit, they went undefeated in qualifying and pulled out the victory in a must-win game over DRC in September. They will be among the World Cup’s biggest underdogs, but they can’t be counted out before they’ve lost a competitive game.
Key player: Youssef Msakni
It is a strange time for the England national team. The plan was that Sam Allardyce would be leading a newly-confident, baggage-free England to Russia, but a pint of wine and an unwise conversation did for that idea. Instead, nice man Gareth Southgate has done the job, and England have looked … okay?
Qualification was a smooth, unbeaten affair, though England tended more to the workmanlike than the brilliant. In the absence of a clear first-team, Southgate has been experimenting with a back three, which kept creditable clean sheets in friendlies against Germany. Quality in midfield, and just who should play in defence, but Harry Kane’s continued excellence at Spurs and Raheem Sterling’s levelling-up at Manchester City suggest that England, however they end up performing, might at least be fun.
Key player: Whoever ends up in goal.