The 22nd edition of the world’s biggest sporting event has just kicked off in Qatar, and there is no better time to preview what should be a very unpredictable tournament.
Group A: Netherlands, Ecuador, Senegal, Qatar
What a difference four years make. Having failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup and hitting rock bottom by struggling to produce an exciting generation, the Dutch have discovered their version of ‘total football.’
The Oranje scored the second most goals in European qualifying with 33, proving that their attacking talent is finally shining through.
Coach Louis Van Gaal took this team to the semi-finals of the 2014 World Cup, and he is the perfect tactician to help them make another deep run.
The South Americans are flying under the radar in this tournament.
They have kept six clean sheets in their past six games and qualified automatically in the most brutal continental qualifying zone. Their defensive solidity will make up for not scoring as many goals which will be the difference in this group.
Group B: USA, England, Iran, Wales
This will surprise many, but the US has improved by leaps and bounds since they failed to qualify last World Cup just like Holland.
This is their golden generation and despite predicting to peak in another four years’ time, they have the talent to cause a lot of problems despite question marks around the number nine role.
Is Gareth Southgate slowly being found out tactically? Some of his selections for his squad have been rather questionable and the Three Lions are not playing the most convincing football, winless in their last six games.
There’s no doubt they have the quality with Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling, Jude Bellingham, Phil Foden, and the like to get past Wales and Iran, but you have to question if they had too much of a comfortable run of the draw in the past two major tournaments.
Group C: Argentina, Mexico, Poland, Saudi Arabia
Yet another nation who were incredibly poor and underwhelming four years ago, the two-time world champions are expected to win the tournament by many.
Currently, on a 36-match unbeaten run, they are playing some impressive free-flowing football which is bringing joy back to both the players and supporters.
All eyes will be on Messi’s last dance for Argentina, but they won’t be needing to rely on him much throughout this group. They have the depth, especially in the attacking third.
The North American giants have always been consistently average at World Cups and this year should not be any different.
El Tri has been knocked out in the round of 16 stages at seven consecutive World Cups since 1994 and cannot get over that haunted hurdle.
Former Barcelona manager Tata Martino is known for implementing a possession-based style to try and take more control of matches and get on the front foot.
They will be relying on the experience of key players such as captain Andres Guadardo playing at his fifth World Cup. Expect them to finally reach the quarter-finals.
Group D: France, Australia, Denmark, Tunisia
The reigning world champions aren’t going to have it all that easy and will take time to adapt and ease their way into the tournament, but their talent will be too much to handle in this group.
The challenge will arrive in the knockouts where a disappointing showing is more than possible.
The midfield will be the biggest area of concern with the number of injuries Deschamps will be facing.
Write the Australians off at your peril, but this could be a tournament where they thrive in playing in the familiar conditions of Qatar.
Denmark will be extremely difficult to knock off, especially having Graham Arnold at the helm who lacks tactical nous at the highest level.
Despite that, this World Cup is sure to throw up a few shocks and surprises.
Group E: Spain, Germany, Japan, Costa Rica
At last year’s Euros, Luis Enrique’s men were the standout team of the tournament as they rediscovered their ‘tiki-taka’ style of play which tore the opposition to shreds, and were unlucky to lose to Italy on penalties.
The one weakness would be the centre-forward role with players like Alvaro Morata never delivering when needed, but they have enough to get a result against the Germans.
One of the big nations that no one is really talking about, Germany has a well-balanced squad mixed with talent, youth, and experience.
Joshua Kimmich will be vitally important in keeping the shape of the midfield and helping out defensively, but watch out for 19-year-old winger Jamal Musiala who is sure to be one of the golden boys of the tournament.
Group F: Belgium, Canada, Croatia, Morocco
The golden generation ship has surely sailed, but that’s not to say that Belgium still doesn’t have a heap of talent in its ranks.
Roberto Martinez has transformed this team into a more compact unit to find more balance, something that was often critiqued during Marc Wilmots’ tenure.
They will be good enough to top this group, but some problems will arise later on in the tournament with question marks surrounding Eden Hazard’s fitness as well as the lack of pace in defence to keep the top contenders at bay.
Without a doubt displaying one of the best qualifying campaigns throughout all confederations, the Canadians surprised by topping their group ahead of Mexico and the US which shows just how far they have developed and grown since the last World Cup.
They play a fearless brand of football that utilises their pace on the wings, with Alphonso Davies being the standout key player for them.
Expect Jonathan David, Cyle Larin, and Atiba Hutchinson to help Davies carry their nation to the knockout rounds.
Yes, Croatia will be sent packing home early.
Group G: Brazil, Switzerland, Serbia, Cameroon
Arguably the nation that is the most stacked, anything other than an appearance in the final by the five-time world champions will be considered a failure.
They won’t need to get out of first gear to top this group comfortably.
Famous for their incredible win over France at Euro 2020, the Swiss are never filled with star-studded names, but they always know how to play collectively as a group which is their biggest strength.
Keep close tabs on striker Noah Okafor who is being scouted by the top clubs around Europe due to his impressive performances with RB Salzburg.
Don’t underestimate them. They knocked out European champions Italy in their qualifying group and they are less likely to implode compared to Serbia in this group.
Group H: Uruguay, South Korea, Portugal, Ghana
Are Uruguay’s best days finally numbered? Many would say so, however, the options up front with Nunez, Cavani, and Suarez are just too impressive to look past.
Expect Rodrigo Bentancur to carry over his fine form from Tottenham to the national team, but the defensive frailties will be their undoing after the group stages.
2. South Korea
The Koreans qualifying at the expense of Portugal will be the biggest shock of this year’s showcase event.
Heung-Min Son will be instrumental once again for his nation to have any chance of making some noise.
Darkhorse – Mexico
As mentioned earlier, due to France’s injuries and depleted squad along with having to ease into the tournament, this will be Mexico’s time to finally end their round of 16 curse and reach the quarter-finals, making it one step further to a semi-final.
Biggest disappointment – Portugal
Portugal is one of those sides that when the expectations are high, will always find a way to underperform and disappoint.
Ronaldo could prove to be a distraction if he is not a regular starter on top of the drama surrounding Manchester United which could pose an issue.
They won’t make it out of their group and it will be the biggest shock in Qatar.
Golden Boot – Lautaro Martinez
The current Inter Milan striker is an outside chance to win the top goalscorer award, but he will be given plenty of service with Messi and Di Maria linking up well upfront.
If Argentina is to win it all, Martinez needs to be firing in almost every game despite having alternatives such as Julian Alvarez.
World Cup Final – Argentina v Germany
A 2014 World Cup Final rematch would be the ultimate way for Lionel Messi to exact revenge and give himself the perfect sendoff from international football.
The way the draw is set up, Germany could be provided with an easier path and not many people are talking about how much potential Hansi Flick has at his disposal.
For Argentina and Messi, this is their time to make a statement and continue with the incredible form that has helped them recover from their shambolic 2018 campaign.
The South Americans will win the continent’s first World Cup since 2002.