Despite the controversy surrounding it, the Qatar World Cup 2022 has now kicked-off. Five billion people around the world are expected to watch the football. In four weeks’, we will know if a new or an old name will be on the World Cup.
A new hope
Which are the most likely new names? Two possibilities are Senegal and the Netherlands. Together in Group A, the Netherlands beat Senegal, the African champions, 2-0. Aliou Cissé’s Senegal created more chances, but the Netherlands were more clinical. Liverpool’s Virgil van Dijk, the Dutch captain, provided strength in defence, while Frenkie de Jong and Memphis Depay created the goals.
Senegal clearly missed injured star striker Sadio Mané, of Bayern Munich. Both the Netherlands and Senegal will expect to beat the other two teams in the group, Ecuador and Qatar. and progress to the knock-out stage. Senegal will do well to reach the quarter-finals. The Netherlands have World Cup history, having lost in the final three times and have an experienced manager in Louis van Gall. They will expect to go further, but while the Netherlands always have a chance against anyone, this is a good, not a vintage, Dutch team.
Despite losing 6-2 to England, Iran have a favourable draw and could do well. Like all teams managed by former Manchester United assistant coach Carlos Quieroz, Iran are built on solid defence, while Bayer Leverkusen’s Sardar Azmoun and Porto’s Mehdi Taremi, who scored two against England, score the goals. Iran, ranked 20 in the world, are closely matched with their Group B opponents Wales (ranked 19), the USA (ranked 16). Wales and the USA played a tense 1-1 draw, which shows that this group could be tight. A quarter-final for Iran would show the growing strength of Asian football.
Belgium and Portugal have a chance. Belgium have great players, including Real Madrid goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois and Manchester City midfielder Kevin De Bruyne. Under manager Roberto Martínez, Belgium should progress from Group F, but the tournament’s later stages will test their ageing defence, as Antwerp’s Toby Alderweireld and Anderlecht’s Jan Vertonghen are not the players they were when at Tottenham. In attack, there are also concerns over the fitness and form of Inter Milan’s Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard, who has suffered three difficult years at Real Madrid.
Belgium’s overall weaknesses will probably outweigh the quality of their individuals and they will do well to reach the semi-finals.
Under manager Fernando Santos, Portugal won the Euro 2016 and Nations League in 2019. Portugal have quality players, including Manchester City’s Joao Cancello and Bernardo Silva, and Ruben Neves who plays for Wolves, but they will miss Liverpool’s Diego Jota. Porto’s Pepe and Manchester United’s Cristiano Ronaldo are good players, but their best days are behind them. Portugal’s biggest problem is inconsistency, playing well against bigger teams but poorly against smaller ones. Portugal may struggle in Group H, against Uruguay, Ghana and South Korea, but should reach the quarter-finals.
The empire strikes back
All the previous World Cup winners, except, sadly, Italy, are in Qatar and can be divided into the ‘possibles’ and the ‘probables’.
The ‘possibles’ comprise England, Spain, Germany and Uruguay. England have a talented team. West Ham’s Declan Rice and Dortmund’s Jude Bellingham are among Europe’s best young midfielders and Tottenham’s Harry Kane is a world-class player. Defence is a headache for manager Gareth Southgate. There are questions over Manchester United’s Harry Macguire’s form, Manchester City’s Kyle Walker’s fitness and Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold’s habit of wandering out of position.
England should progress from Group B, how well they do after depends on if they can change their history of near misses and defeats on penalties. As an England fan my head says we have a chance, but my heart says that football won’t be ‘coming home’ for Christmas.
Spain manager Luis Enrique plays a 4-3-3 system and selects players to fit his plan. This may be why 17 of Spain’s 26 players are from Barcelona, including young talents such as Pedri and Gavi and experienced players such as Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba. The problem is that Barcelona are struggling and failed to qualify for the knock-out stages of the Champions League. Spain may also find goals difficult. Atletico Madrid’s Morata creates chances but lacks consistency in front of goal. Spain are in Group E with Germany. Hansi Flick’s team has many players who can score goals, including Bayern Munich trio, Serge Gnabry, Leroy Sané and Thomas Müller. Mario Götze now of Eintracht Frankfurt and Leon Goretzka can also score goals from midfield. Japan and Costa Rica are the other teams in a difficult group, but both Spain and Germany should progress.
Germany, however, are most likely to reach the semi-finals. Uruguay have a talented squad that combines youth and experience. Nacional’s Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani of Valencia are playing in their fourth World Cup, while Real Madrid’s Federico Valverde and Liverpool’s Darwin Núñez are playing in their first. Manager Diego Alonso took over in December 2021 and usually plays with Tottenham’s Rodrigo Bentancur at the heart of the team. Uruguay should progress from Group G and could reach the quarter or even semi-finals.
The ‘probables’ are Brazil, France and Argentina. Brazil have in goal Liverpool’s Allison, in defence Marquinhos of Paris Saint Germain (PSG), a midfield anchored by Manchester United’s Casimero, and a choice in attack between Barcelona’s Raphinha, Real Madrid’s Vinícius Júnior, Gabriel Jesus of Arsenal and Tottenham’s Richarlison. With the best squad since 2002, Brazil are no longer dependant on PSG’s Neymar, but as this is his third and probably last World Cup, Neymar will want to lead Brazil to win it as Ronaldo did in 2002. Tite, Brazil manager since 2016, has had time to build his team.
Defending champions, France, have lost key players, Paul Pogba of Juventus, Chelsea’s N’golo Kante and, crucially, Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema. Manager Didier Deschamps, who won the World Cup as a player and a manager (along with only Brazil’s Zagallo and Germany’s Franz Beckenbauer) has said that he will change how France play compared to last year’s Euros. Much will depend on PSG’s Kylian Mbappé. France should progress from Group D, but history is against them. Only Brazil have ever retained the World Cup and when France were defending champions in 2002 they went out at the group stage.
Argentina have PSG’s Lionel Messi, but are a complete team. Manager Lionel Scaloni’s team is undefeated in 35 games, two short of Italy’s record set between 2018 and 2021. Those 35 games include winning the 2021 Copa América, beating Brazil in the final. Argentina have a mix of experience and youth. Messi is 35 and playing in his fifth and last World Cup. He will want to lead Argentina to victory as Maradona did in 1986. He will be ably supported by Tottenham’s Cristian Romero, Atletico Madrid’s Nahuel Molina and Angel Di Maria of Juventus. Scaloni likes to be flexible and will change how his team plays in the same game.
My bet is on Argentina to win their third World Cup, but my best advice is not to bet.