Not every team at the World Cup feels worthy of knockout stage competition, but Group D is unique: Argentina, Iceland, Nigeria and Croatia are all capable of making a run, at least to the round of 16. But for the Group D favorite, Argentina, nothing short of a trophy will satisfy.
Argentina came tantalizingly close to winning the World Cup four years ago, and after two more bitter disappointments—consecutive defeats on penalties to Chile in the Copa America and Cope America Centenario—Lionel Messi’s window to win a major international trophy is closing. After briefly retiring from international play in 2016, Messi almost solely carried his country to Russia, sealing Argentina’s place with a hat trick against Ecuador on the final day of qualifying. Don’t buy the notion that Argentina is destined to disappoint after falling short in ’14: This team is still capable of making a run to the final, especially if Messi gets help from Jorge Sampaoli’s array of attacking options, namely Paulo Dybala, Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Aguero and Angel di Maria.
But the group stage won’t be easy. Argentina will open its World Cup against—Viking clap!—Iceland, everyone’s favorite underdog and one of the best stories in sports. What the World Cup debutants have accomplished this last cycle is nothing short of remarkable: qualifying for Euro 2016, advancing through the group stage (and drawing with eventual champion Portugal), upsetting England to reach the quarterfinal and earning a place at the World Cup by topping a qualifying group that featured Croatia, Ukraine and Turkey. They were rewarded, though, with the closest thing this tournament has to a group of death.
Croatia, meanwhile, mystifies at times—it lost 3–0 to Estonia in a friendly and drew Finland at home in qualifying—but in terms of talent, this team can compete with almost anyone. The midfield combination of Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Mateo Kovacic is difficult to match. Whether the team that beat Spain 2–1 at Euro 2016 or the team that drew Finland in qualifying shows up to Russia is anyone’s guess, but Zlatko Dalic’s side has the quality to win this group. Remarkably, Croatia hasn't advanced to the knockout stage of the World Cup in 20 years.
But don't sleep on Nigeria, a team on the rise making its third straight World Cup appearance. The Super Eagles are rife with young talent, like Alex Iwobi and Kelechi Iheanacho, and they’ll rely on a dynamic counterattack that could surprise Croatia or even Argentina, which lost 4–2 to Nigeria in a November friendly in Russia (albeit playing without Messi). If the World Cup were decided on sartorial elegance rather than footballing ability, Croatia and Nigeria would meet in the final—but instead, Nigeria will have to battle for second in a difficult group.
Saturday, June 16 (9 a.m. ET): Argentina vs. Iceland
Saturday, June 16 (3 p.m. ET): Croatia vs. Nigeria
Thursday, June 21 (2 p.m. ET): Argentina vs. Croatia
Friday, June 22 (11 a.m. ET): Nigeria vs. Iceland
Tuesday, June 26 (2 p.m. ET): Nigeria vs. Argentina
Tuesday, June 26 (2 p.m. ET): Iceland vs. Croatia
Most Pivotal Match
Croatia vs. Nigeria. If the match produces a winner, the victor will be favored to reach the knockout stage. A draw would set the stage for a tight battle for the group’s No. 2 spot. Of course that's assuming Argentina takes care of Iceland: If the tiny nation takes down Argentina in its opening game, this group is wide open.
Potential sleeper team
Nigeria’s potent counterattack, led by Victor Moses and Iwobi, gives the Super Eagles a real shot to upset Croatia or Argentina. With most of the pre-tournament hype centered on Argentina and Iceland, don't be surprised if Nigeria sneaks through Group D as a runner-up. Recall that Nigeria qualified for the knockout stage in 2014 despite its grouping with Argentina, which beat the African side 3–2 in an entertaining group stage match behind a Messi brace.
Players to watch
Lionel Messi (Argentina): What, you thought I was going to say Higuain? No team’s chances hinge as much on one player as Argentina’s with Messi. If anyone can handle that unfathomable burden, it’s the greatest player of this generation.
Luka Modric (Croatia): Modric’s ability to control the midfield will be pivotal. His quality gives Croatia an opportunity to beat Argentina on the second matchday.
John Obi Mikel (Nigeria): The former Chelsea man, now playing in China, is past his prime, but the young Super Eagles will need his veteran presence advance through a difficult group.
Johan Berg Gudmundsson (Iceland): The winger appeared in 35 Premier League games for Burnley last season, helping the club earn a place in the Europa League. He'll play a big role in Iceland's attack, alongside Everton's Gylfi Sigurdsson. Iceland will sit back and absorb pressure from the likes of Argentina and Croatia, so the team’s attackers will have to capitalize on limited scoring opportunities.
Predictions to go through
Let's not overthink this: Argentina and Croatia are the two best teams in this group, and they'll advance. Nigeria will come close, but it won’t be able to earn all three points against an organized and disciplined Iceland, dooming its chances. Iceland will hope to draw England next time around.