The matchups are set. With the 2022 World Cup draw officially in the books, it’s time to dissect the groups. Although much can change between now and November, here’s what to expect from each quartet ahead of football’s showpiece event later this year in Qatar.
Group A ?? ?? ?? ??
Knowing host nation Qatar was automatically preassigned to Group A, this was always going to be the most desirable quartet; there’s something to be said about relishing glory matches against perennial powers, but, ultimately, the most enjoyable outcome for every team and fan base is winning games at the World Cup, and Qatar presents the best opportunity for everyone else to accomplish just that. The Netherlands, Senegal, and Ecuador are the biggest winners of all, then.
The Dutch – seemingly back on track under Louis van Gaal following their perplexing low point – are the class of the field, but reigning African champion Senegal is the more intriguing outfit. Aliou Cisse’s team is rife with star power, stout defensively, and has a legitimate game-breaker in the form of Sadio Mane, who will be looking to get one over on clubmate Virgil van Dijk.
Ecuador limped across the finish line in qualifying and will be relying heavily on 32-year-old Enner Valencia – the nation’s all-time top scorer – to deliver goals. That doesn’t inspire confidence in 2022, unfortunately.
Key question: Will Qatar actually be competitive on the pitch, or is the host nation’s involvement in this tournament just an exercise in massaging the country’s image across the globe?
Prediction: Van Gaal and the Oranje won’t breeze through the group, but superior talent wins out, with Senegal edging Ecuador for the second knockout berth.
Group B ?gbeng ?? ?? (?gbwls/?gbsct/??)
England has made steady progress under Gareth Southgate and will be looking to go one step further after reaching the semifinals of the 2018 World Cup and final at the recent European Championship. The typically conservative tactician is facing increased scrutiny to take the handbrake off and let his young, exciting squad run free.
Speaking of, similar questions have been posed to Gregg Berhalter, who is overseeing arguably the most talented generation of American players the country has ever produced. His side – sometimes hindered by questionable tactics – underperformed in qualifying, but if the United States gels ahead of November, optimism will be high.
As has been the case in previous editions of the tournament, Iran will prove to be a difficult unit to break down; coach Dragan Skocic oversaw a team that conceded only four goals over 10 matches in the final round of qualifying. However, the step up in quality from the likes of Lebanon and Syria might be too much to ask.
Key question: Who comes through the European playoff? Both Wales and Scotland would be hugely motivated to play against England and could spice up a group that may otherwise be a two-horse race. Ukraine would arrive in Qatar with a swell of support.
Prediction: Southgate lets loose, England runs wild, and the Three Lions’ match against the United States proves to be one of the most exciting of the entire group stage.
Group C ?? ?? ?? ??
This is likely Lionel Messi’s last chance to hoist the World Cup. In an ironic twist, it may be his best. Despite Argentina missing the high-profile names of previous years and tournaments, Messi looks more comfortable with the Albiceleste than ever before, and, contrary to his days at Barcelona, appears far more in tune with his national team than his club. Lionel Scaloni has turned a once fragmented and chaotic group into one with balance. Coming off a Copa America title, the decorated national team is in a good place again.
Mexico is looking to get over the hump after being eliminated in the round of 16 in each of the last seven World Cups, but this is probably the least inspiring team of any in that stretch, at least based on the patchy form in qualifying. Meanwhile, Poland is coming off two horrible major tournament appearances but showed signs it can deliver when needed in its European playoff final.
With seasoned tactician and World Cup veteran Herve Renard on the touchline, Saudi Arabia won’t be a pushover in any of its matches, but a lack of overall top-end talent will prove too great an obstacle.
Key question: Can Mexico get its act together? El Tri were disjointed and wildly inconsistent in qualifying, but second place in this quartet is very much up for grabs between the CONCACAF nation and Poland.
Prediction: Messi and Argentina build on their recent success to grab first place. Mexico and Poland both go into the competition with question marks, but the latter has Robert Lewandowski, and he’ll make all the difference.
Group D ?? ?? ?? (??/??/??)
Reigning World Cup champion France boasts the most dominant singular force in the sport today – nobody, not even Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, can take over a match like Kylian Mbappe. France could probably field two competitive teams at the tournament, such is its talent pool. But even with a World Cup title to his name as a manager, Didier Deschamps’ ability to pick the right lineup and system to maximize that obscene collection of players is at the forefront.
Denmark, with Christian Eriksen back in the fold and scoring goals following his harrowing collapse at Euro 2020, is going to be a big problem for the rest of the field. The Danes’ run to the semifinals last summer was no fluke.
Tunisia, as evidenced by its gritty performance in the second leg of its decisive World Cup qualifier against Mali, will try to grind out results, but unless teen sensation Hannibal Mejbri takes a big step forward in the coming months, goals will be hard to come by. The winner of June’s intercontinental playoff between Peru and either Australia or the United Arab Emirates will round out the group.
Key question: Can Denmark build on its recent success and usurp the top spot? France is the obvious front-runner, but the Danish program is riding a wave of excitement and goodwill right now.
Prediction: France and Denmark put on a pulsating show in the battle for first place in the group, while the other two teams, unfortunately, get overrun by the heavy European favorites.
Group E ?? ?? ?? (??/??)
The glamor matchup of the tournament’s opening stage comes from Group E. Both Spain and Germany will be looking to bounce back from a dismal World Cup four years ago; the 2010 champion was ousted by Russia in the round of 16, while Germany was stunned by South Korea en route to a humiliating group-stage exit. Both are on the mend thanks to an influx of blossoming youngsters, with Luis Enrique and Hansi Flick seemingly rejuvenating their respective teams.
Perennial World Cup competitor Japan, which has never ventured beyond the last 16, will likely feel aggrieved about the draw. Takefusa Kubo and Takumi Minamino are more than capable of splendid moments, but, on the whole, upsetting the European heavyweights will be a Herculean task. The same goes for either Costa Rica or New Zealand, who will contest an intercontinental playoff in June. If Los Ticos get to Qatar, star shot-stopper Keylor Navas will be extremely busy.
Key question: Who finishes first? With respect to the other participants, Spain and Germany will be focusing on taking top billing and, in theory, ensuring a more favorable path through the knockout stages.
Prediction: Spain will edge Germany for top spot in the group, which theoretically means avoiding fellow UEFA contender Belgium in the next round. Chalk, of course, but it’s difficult to envision another outcome here.
Group F ?? ?? ?? ??
This is the last chance for Belgium’s golden generation to deliver and erase memories of all the false dawns. If anything, the Red Devils seem to be on the decline, particularly with an aging backline that will have difficulty containing any opposition with pace. However, Kevin De Bruyne, if healthy, is still one of the most dazzling creative forces in the game and Romelu Lukaku will fill the net if he’s in anything close to his best form.
The rest of Group F is truly fascinating. The same criticisms about Belgium’s age can be levied at Croatia, the 2018 World Cup finalist. If anyone can continue defying Father Time it’s Luka Modric, but for how long? At least another nine months, for Zlatko Dalic’s sake. Canada could be the revelation of the competition, with established superstar Alphonso Davies leading a host of up-and-coming players looking to follow in the footsteps of their acclaimed teammate and announce themselves to the world.
Meanwhile, a dispute between manager Vahid Halilhodzic and Hakim Ziyech has robbed Morocco of its most intriguing attacking threat, but Achraf Hakimi provides the type of explosive presence down the right flank that can compensate.
Key question: Will Canada make some noise? Expectations are very high following a remarkable qualifying campaign, and a World Cup opener against Belgium will be a great test for John Herdman’s young side right off the bat.
Prediction: Belgium, despite come cracks starting to show, will get another shot at a run in the knockout stages, while Canada builds on the incredible momentum fostered by Herdman to jump Croatia for second place.
Group G ?? ?? ?? ??
Brazil, fully deserving of its newly minted status as the top-ranked team in world football, has all the makings of a World Cup champion. There’s the standard Brazilian flair in attacking positions – and beyond – while Tite’s tactics provide structure. As always, much of the focus will be on Neymar, who, almost incomprehensibly, is now 30 years old and running out of time to get his hands on the coveted trophy. The Selecao don’t have to rely on him exclusively, but having the PSG star at his best would be an enormous boost.
From there, it’s a dogfight for second place.
Serbia, led by two Dusans – Vlahovic and Tadic – are on the rise, while Switzerland is looking to build on an impressive run at Euro 2020 and the fact it was responsible for keeping Italy out of an automatic World Cup berth. Cameroon, after the most dramatic qualifying finale of any country in the event, will lean heavily on Vincent Aboubakar and Eric Choupo-Moting to deliver the goals. Can the Indomitable Lions bottle up the magic from qualifying and keep it primed until November?
Key question: Which of the “other” three teams will pick up points in their opener? Getting off to a good start is always paramount, and it’ll be a huge step toward qualification if anyone can get a jump on the competition.
Prediction: Brazil, the favorite to win the World Cup for a record-extending sixth time, will be tested just enough to stay honest, but won’t have much issue marching on. The battle will be tight for second, with Serbia advancing by virtue of a superior goal difference.
Group H ?? ?? ?? ??
On paper, this looks like a rather straightforward group, but Fernando Santos’ pragmatism continues to cause consternation for Portugal fans. Uruguay, though resurgent since Diego Alonso replaced iconic bench boss Oscar Tabarez, will be relying on an aging core that was already creaking in 2018. Four years later, the likes of Diego Godin, Luis Suarez, and Edinson Cavani are still central figures.
South Korea and Ghana will be looking to take advantage of any slip-ups. Former Portugal manager Paulo Bento, now in charge of the Asian side, has built an impressive team that has the ever-present threat of Son Heung-Min and the emerging presence of Hwang Hee-Chan up front. Anybody dismissing the Koreans need only ask Germany about the danger of making that mistake.
Ghana has rebounded nicely from the disappointment of a brutal AFCON campaign, with manager Otto Addo instilling a sense of calmness that was lacking before he took the reins. The Black Stars went into the cauldron of Abuja and knocked off Nigeria to reach the World Cup, and will be looking to accomplish similar in Qatar, particularly against old foes Uruguay and Suarez.
Key question: Can Portugal still thrive if built around Cristiano Ronaldo? The 37-year-old, who will be appearing in his fifth World Cup, isn’t the all-conquering force of years past, with some arguing the Selecao would actually be better off without the veteran as the focal point of the team.
Prediction: Portugal and Uruguay both stave off the enthusiastic threats of Ghana and South Korea, who bow out with their heads held high after tight defeats to the favorites.