Best finish: Champions (1966)
Manager: Gareth Southgate
Star Player: Harry Kane
After a group stage exit at the last World Cup followed by a Last 16 defeat to Iceland at Euro 2016, expectations of England are at an all-time low.
This might just help Gareth Southgate’s young and transitional squad build back up without the usual pressure that surrounds the Three Lions ahead of every major tournament.
An easier start in Group G playing against Panama and Tunisia before Belgium will also ease them in slowly.
Qualifying from the group is all they need to do to prove progress and if they could achieve that, they would then play first or second from Group H, which involves Poland, Senegal, Colombia and Japan; a prospect that makes reaching the quarter-finals a feasibility.
It is in the Last-Eight where England usually come unstuck however. In 14 World Cup appearances, they have won once in 1966 but since then they have only reached one semi-final in 1990 with six quarter-final exits, two of which came amid the golden generation’s era in 2002 and 2006.
Even in nine European Championship appearances, they have twice reached the semis in 1968 and 1996 and endured two quarter-final finishes in 2004 and 2012.
This is most definitely not a golden generation but they did top their qualifying group unbeaten (as they do every campaign) ahead of Slovakia, Scotland, Slovenia, Lithuania and Malta, and they have shown sprouts of promise in recent friendlies beating Holland and drawing with Italy.
Harry Kane was England’s top scorer in qualifying with five but the striker has yet to replicate his Tottenham form with the national team despite the similar England link up with Spurs teammate Dele Alli in midfield.
An ankle injury in March has also left Kane battling to regain match form heading into the World Cup. Besides Kane and Alli, and Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling, the squad lacks dependable and non-injury-prone talent with Liverpool’s Alex Oxlade Chamberlain out injured, Adam Lallana a doubt and flair players Jack Wilshere and Ross Barkley lacking match-time through injuries. Behind that brittle midfield and doubtful front line lie an even bigger headache however.
Best finish: Fourth (1986)
Manager: Roberto Martinez
Star Player: Kevin de Bruyne
A five-second glance at their team sheet is enough scare the living daylights out of any opponent.
Whether it be Manchester City’s Kevin de Bruyne in midfield; Chelsea’s Eden Hazard and Manchester United’s Romelu Lukaku up front; Tottenham duo Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen at the back; or Chelsea’s Thibaut Courtois in goal — it reads like a computer game dream team with the purse limit switched off.
Luckily, for their opponents however, Belgium’s team of stars have never managed to get it together as a unit. They only reached the quarter-finals of the last World Cup, and in a total 12 appearances their best finish is the semi-finals in 1986.
Even in the European Championships they have only ever made one final (in 1980) in five attempts, getting eliminated in the quarters in 2016.
Poor management is often cited as a reason for this underachievement, but now they have coach Roberto Martinez and his assistant Thierry Henry on board, and a more experienced and determined collection of players to really rival the highs of the 1980s squad, which beyond defender Eric Gerets and keeper Jean Marie Pfaff, really wasn’t a team of names.
It is Martinez and Henry’s Premier League fame and their mainly Premier League-based players that really gives Belgium the benefit of familiarity over England — England could say that too of course.
Otherwise, they have a relatively straight forward group with Tunisia and Panama from which to base a solid run.
In qualifying for this World Cup, Belgium unsurprisingly finished unbeaten and top of an unchallenging group ahead of Greece, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Estonia, Cyprus and Gibraltar.
Like England — who it’s often said get no barometer of where they are from these pointless and elongated qualification campaigns against minnow opponents — Belgium come in untested, but also unrested with the majority of the squad also plying their trade in England where there’s no winter break.
Perhaps, again like England, that is why they both come into big tournaments so jaded, or maybe it’s just down to the adage that a collection of individuals don’t make a team.
Best finish: Group stage (1978, 1998, 2002, 2006)
Manager: Nabil Maaloul
Star Player: Wahbi Khazri
Tunisia’s hopes of getting out of the group for the first time in five attempts, in this, their first appearance in 12 years, were dealt a massive blow when their Qatari-based star player Yousuf Msakni was ruled out for six months following a knee injury in April.
The 27-year-old Al Duhail forward played a crucial role in qualifying — where Tunisia topped a group unbeaten ahead of Congo, Libya and Guinea — scoring a hat-trick in an away win over Guinea.
Without Msakni though, the Eagles of Carthage will have to rely on their attacking midfielders, Lille’s Naim Sliti and Sunderland’s Wahbi Khazri, to get the goals.
Maaloul replaced Henri Kasperczak as coach in April 2017 after Tunisia were knocked out in the quarter-finals of the Africa Cup of Nations.
The team were just two matches into World Cup qualification by that stage, but Maaloul admirably led them the rest of the way to Russia.
His side relies around deep-sitting Saudi-based midfielders Ferjani Sassi of Al Nassr and Mohammad Amor of Al Ahli, ahead of Valencia’s Aymen Abdennour at the back. This system allows full-backs to push forward to supply the attack.
The quality of their players, with most unheard of and playing domestically, probably won’t be enough to get past England and Belgium however, and Msakni’s injury has made that even less likely.
Write off Tunisia at your peril though, as they were the first Arab team to win a World Cup match against Mexico 3-1 on their debut in 1978 and followed it up a goalless draw against West Germany at that tournament.
They also held Belgium to a 1-1 draw at the 2002 World Cup and even held England to a 1-1 draw in a friendly just ahead of the 1990 World Cup where the Three Lions went on to reach the semi-finals.
With a history of scalps, and two friendly wins over Iran and Costa Rica since qualifying, they may have struggled to get out of the group, but are more than capable of pulling off an upset, so the Belgium and England would do well not to take the minnows for granted.
Best finish: N/A
Manager: Hernan Dario Gomez
Star Player: Luis Tejada
Better known for its canal and hats, baseball and boxing are Panama’s biggest sports, but now football could be up there too, after Los Canaleros (the Canal Men) qualified for the World Cup for the first time.
A national holiday was declared in October after booking their ticket to Russia with a last gasp 2-1 win at home to neighbouring Costa Rica saw them finish third in their North and Central American qualifying pool behind Mexico and Costa Rica, a point clear of the USA.
The fact Panama managed to qualify and not America — thanks to home draws over Mexico, the USA, and that Costa Rica win — makes it all the more impressive, especially given that the US has a population of 320 million to Panama’s four million.
This is not entirely out of character from Panama however as they have twice finished runners-up in the North and Central American Gold Cup as recently as 2005 and 2013 (losing to the USA on both occasions), also reaching the quarters last time out in 2017.
Now however, coach Hernan Dario Gomez, who led Colombia and Ecuador to World Cups in 1998 and 2002 respectively, has got it together and finally got them over the line in World Cup qualification.
To do this he has had to rely on an ageing squad though. Defender Roman Torres of the Seattle Sounders, who scored that 88th minute winner over Costa Rica to get Panama to Russia, is considered ‘a rising star’ at the age of 31.
Then there is respective Peru and Colombian-based midfielders Alberto Quintero, 30, and Gabriel Gomez, 33, playing behind the likes of respective Guatemala and Peru-based strike duo Blas Perez, 37 and Luis Tejada, 36 — the latter of which has scored 43 goals in 143 appearances for his country.
This experience may not last the pace against the sprightlier-likes of Premier League youth in England and Belgium’s squad. But a 1-1 draw in a friendly against Wales in November followed by a 6-0 friendly defeat to Switzerland in March, leaves you split over how dangerous they will be.