Get ready for some heavyweight clashes, a renewal of old rivalries and the chance for some teams to avenge bitter defeats after the draw for Qatar 2022 offered some box office match-ups in the group stage of this year’s World Cup.
The leading nations can now plot their path to the final, with Brazil aiming for a record sixth title and France aiming to become the first country to win back-to-back World Cups since Pele‘s Brazil achieved that feat in 1958 and 1962. But to have a hope of winning the World Cup, you have to get out of the group, and there are some tantalising games awaiting in the early stages.
Spain face Germany in Group E, while Argentina and Mexico go head-to-head in Group C. In Group H, Ghana get the chance to avenge their 2010 quarterfinal loss to Uruguay in South Africa, when Asamoah Gyan missed a stoppage-time penalty after Luis Suarez had denied a certain goal by handling the ball on the line.
In Group B, the United States face England and Iran, with England also facing the prospect of a clash against British Isles neighbours Wales or Scotland if one of them emerges from a three-way battle, alongside Ukraine, for the final European qualification spot.
How will it all play out? Gabriele Marcotti (Groups A-D) and Mark Ogden (Groups E-H) have assessed each group to predict the big games and the teams who will qualify.
Ed Dove is “optimistic” that all of the African teams could make it into the knockout rounds of the World Cup.
Other than South Africa in 2010, every host nation has made it out of the qualifying group and into the knockout phase, but this might be like a tall order for Qatar. As hosts, they avoided going through qualifying, though they did play a string of high-profile friendlies and even entered the 2021 Gold Cup as an invitational team, losing in the semifinal to the United States.
On paper, the Dutch, Senegal and Ecuador look a notch above them. The Netherlands appear somewhat revitalized after Louis van Gaal’s return, Senegal are the reigning African champions (and boast Liverpool‘s Sadio Mane in attack) and Ecuador were third for most of the grueling CONMEBOL qualifying tournament before dropping off at the end.
Must-see match: Netherlands vs. Senegal
Senegal are deep and gifted in every department, from Edouard Mendy in goal to Kalidou Koulibaly at the back and Mane up front. They have plenty of big-game experience too, coming through shootout wins against Egypt in both the African Cup of Nations final and the CAF World Cup playoff. They won’t be rattled by the pedigree of the Dutch and this should be an open affair.
X factor: Will home-field advantage matter?
OK, you don’t expect wild and noisy support from the Qataris at their game simply because, well, we’ve never seen it before, whether it’s Asian qualifying or glamour friendlies. But they know the territory, they know the grounds and hosts often get a bit of the rub of the green. They obviously need to start with a win over Ecuador if they’re to have a chance, but stranger things have happened.
Predicted finish: Netherlands, Senegal, Qatar, Ecuador
England, Iran, USA, (Wales, Scotland OR Ukraine)
Mark Ogden says England should progress from their group, but will face three awkward games against the USA, IR Iran and Scotland, Wales or Ukraine.
England are deep and talented. They reached the semifinals of the 2018 World Cup and the final of the last European championship; if anything, they went out with a sense that they could have done more because in terms of talent, they certainly weren’t inferior to the sides that beat them. Has Gareth Southgate learned from past mistakes? The sense is that he has.
Behind England, things should be extremely tight. The United States have plenty of stars based in top European teams, from Chelsea to Borussia Dortmund, but for different reasons, the likes of Christian Pulisic and Gio Reyna aren’t always difference-makers at club level. They’ll need to be in Qatar.
Iran sailed through Asian qualifying, losing just one game, but on paper don’t look as strong as previous editions. Each of the potential European qualifiers has to be an underdog at this stage, but if it’s Ukraine, you know who most neutrals will be rooting for.
Must-see match: England vs. USA
Expect plenty of Joe Gaetjens references and stories harking back to 1950 here, though there’s another layer. This will be both teams’ second group game; if Southgate & Co. need a result, and if they haven’t played well until that stage, prompting the tabloids to call for blood … anything can happen…
X factor: Welsh or Ukrainian fairytales
OK, Wales might not even be there — they, plus Scotland and Ukraine, will play off for one spot — but we’ve seen Gareth Bale carry Wales on his shoulders to seemingly unreachable heights. And right now, Ukraine are much of the world’s second-favorite team, given what’s going on there. A bit of fairy dust, and there’s no telling what can happen.
Predicted finish: England, USA, Wales/Ukraine/Scotland, Iran
Gab Marcotti believes England and the USMNT will progress out of Group B at the World Cup.
This could be Lionel Messi‘s final World Cup, but in some ways, the fact that the narrative isn’t about that (or his struggles at Paris Saint-Germain) as much as it is about Argentina’s long unbeaten run should help relieve some of the pressure. They’ll be very happy with this group, in any case.
Mexico are likely to battle it out with Poland for second place. El Tri blew hot and cold in qualifying while Poland, having changed coaches before the playoffs, are in some ways still finding themselves. Robert Lewandowski will get you out of jams, but only if you can get him the ball in dangerous areas and that’s not always a given. The Saudis won their Asian qualifying group, beating out Australia and Japan, but they were disappointing at the Asian Cup and look a notch below the rest of the group.
Must-see match: Mexico vs. Poland
It’s the opening game of this group, and it could be an early decider in terms of who finishes behind Argentina. There’s a ton of pressure on coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino, but on the other hand, Mexican supporters tend to travel in large quantities, which could give this the feel of a “home” game. Poland overcame Sweden in a tense playoff final to qualify, but there’s a sense they have yet to get their best out of their stars, Lewandowski and Piotr Zielinski.
X factor: Lionel Messi
There are so many layers to his World Cup experience. Argentina have bounced back from the Jorge Sampaoli-led chaos we saw in Russia and, perhaps most intriguingly, they’ve done it without piling excessive pressure on Messi. He’s still key, of course, and the side is still built around it, but we don’t see the Messi-dependency we’ve seen in the past. Might that be the difference in him finally conquering the game’s biggest prize?
Predicted finish: Argentina, Mexico, Poland, Saudi Arabia
Sebastian Salazar assesses how Mexico will matchup against Argentina, Poland and Saudi Arabia in Group C.
Les Bleus have reloaded and Didier Deschamps has an embarrassment of riches at his disposal. It will be interesting to see if he sticks to the defend-and-counter approach that delivered the World Cup last time — you can afford to do it when you have this many individual match-winners — or, as we’ve seen in recent outings, he opts to be a bit more expansive. Either way, he’s in the driver’s seat.
The rest of the group is actually quite tight. Tunisia won’t win points for style and are nowhere near as talented as they’ve been in the past, but they’ve proven to be difficult to play against and cagey — a script that served them well throughout qualifying. All eyes on Denmark, who are solid at the back and showed at the Euros that they can compete with the big boys all the way to the semifinal.
Ricardo Gareca’s Peru (if they make it) should not be underestimated, and they certainly look stronger than Australia (who had a poor qualifying campaign) or the United Arab Emirates (whose run was even worse).
Must-see match: Denmark vs. Tunisia
This is easy. It will be Christian Eriksen‘s first game back at the World Cup after his cardiac arrest at the Euros. He said this was his dream, and this is where he will live it. You won’t get a more emotional moment at the World Cup (well, certainly not in the first week).
X factor: Can Paul Pogba return to being Pogba?
Pogba for France and Pogba for Manchester United are often two different things. Les Bleus fit him like a glove, and his role in offering creativity, quality and leadership in the middle of the park can’t be overstated. We don’t know yet where he’ll be playing his club football at next season, but we do know he’s a man on a mission.
Predicted finish: France, Denmark, UAE/Australia/Peru, Tunisia
Spain, (Costa Rica OR New Zealand), Germany, Japan
Gabe Tan assesses the chances of Asia’s sides advancing to the knockout stages of the World Cup.
On the face of it, this looks to be one of the more straightforward groups in Qatar. Japan have shown the ability to cause an upset at previous World Cups, while Costa Rica or New Zealand — the winners of the CONCACAF / OFC intercontinental playoff will complete the group — have both recorded surprise results in recent tournaments. But Spain and Germany are two European heavyweights, and it’s tough to see either of them slipping up in this group.
Germany will be determined to make up for the embarrassment of a group-stage exit as holders four years ago and Spain are a resurgent force under Luis Enrique after a second-round exit against hosts Russia in 2018. The key issue in this group is likely to come down to which team finishes top. The runners-up are likely to face Belgium in the second round, while the winners will expect to see Croatia, Morocco or Canada.
Must-see match: Spain vs. Germany
It’s all about the second group game on Nov. 27. Spain’s lack of a reliable goalscorer could cost them in Qatar and, in this game, Germany will have too much in all areas of the pitch for the 2010 world champions.
X factor: Which Germany will we see in Qatar?
The big appeal of this group is assessing whether Germany are over their unusually-long blip of two poor tournaments, at Russia 2018 and Euro 2020. But with Hansi Flick unbeaten as coach since replacing Joachim Low last summer, the signs are that the Germans are back and once again a team to be reckoned with.
Predicted finish: Germany, Spain, Japan, Costa Rica/New Zealand
Belgium, Canada, Morocco, Croatia
There is plenty of intrigue in Group F. Belgium and Croatia have been two of Europe’s leading teams over the past decade — Belgium have never fulfilled their potential, while Croatia made it all the way to the World Cup final in 2018 before losing to France. But although both teams are still stocked with world-class talent — Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku for Belgium, Luka Modric and Ivan Perisic for Croatia — they are also two of the oldest squads in Qatar and they could be vulnerable to an upset against Morocco and Canada.
Belgium and Croatia are favourites to qualify, but Canada are a young and ambitious team under coach John Herdman and will be desperate to impress in Qatar before co-hosting the 2026 World Cup with the USA and Mexico. Morocco are a squad full of top-level experience in Europe, most notably Paris Saint-Germain full-back Achraf Hakimi, captain Romain Saiss, the Wolves defender, and Sevilla forward Youssef En-Nesyri.
Must-see match: Croatia vs. Canada
The meeting between Croatia and Canada on Nov 27 could be the decisive fixture in the group. If Canada can get a positive result in this game, they would then face Morocco in the final match knowing that a win could take them through.
X factor: Oh, Canada?
Canada are the X factor in this group. They have been the sleeping giant of CONCACAF since last reaching a World Cup in 1986, so this is their opportunity to show they deserve to share the spotlight with the USA and Mexico.
Predicted finish: Belgium, Croatia, Canada, Morocco
Whenever Brazil are drawn into a World Cup group, you can guarantee that one qualification spot is already taken. The five-time winners have made it to the knockout rounds in each of the last 13 World Cups and their early exit in 1966 remains the only time they have failed to emerge from their group.
So Group G will come down to which team qualifies alongside Tite’s squad, who have this week reclaimed top spot in the FIFA world rankings. Serbia, Switzerland and Cameroon make up the group and recent form suggests that Switzerland will make it through. Less than a year ago, they dumped world champions France out of Euro 2020 at the second-round stage.
Cameroon haven’t made it through the group stage since 1990, while Serbia have also under-performed at recent World Cups.
Must-see match: Serbia vs. Switzerland
The game to watch in this group will be the game that could decide who qualifies alongside Brazil. When the two nations met at Russia 2018, Switzerland’s Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri were both charged by FIFA after celebrating their goals in a 2-1 win by goading the Serbia supporters with an Albanian nationalist symbol. Both Xhaka and Shaqiri are players of Albanian-Kosovan heritage — Kosovo is not recognised by Serbia — and relations between the two countries remain tense.
Xhaka and Shaqiri are now captain and vice-captain of Switzerland, so both are likely to be involved — and integral — against Serbia.
X factor: Which Brazil will show up?
No South American nation has won the World Cup since Ronaldo and Rivaldo inspired the Brazilians to glory in 2002, but Brazil always start as everyone’s favourites and the group stage is often where they’re at their best.
Predicted finish: Brazil, Switzerland, Serbia, Cameroon
Portugal, Ghana, Uruguay, Korea Republic
Group H feels like a bunch of ageing rock stars getting it together for one last tour. Cristiano Ronaldo, Luis Suarez, Edinson Cavani and Diego Godin are all well into their 30s, while Heung-min Son will also be 30 by the time Qatar 2022 kicks off. Son might have another World Cup in him with South Korea in 2026, but this really feels like the farewell tournament for Portugal’s Ronaldo and Uruguay’s long-serving stars. And they have all ended up in a really tough group, with a young and emerging Ghana team likely to make it a four-way battle for qualification.
Portugal, who qualified via the UEFA play-offs, are no longer solely reliant on Ronaldo’s goals. From back to front, coach Fernando Santos has real quality in Ruben Dias, Renato Sanches, Bernardo Silva, Bruno Fernandes and Diogo Jota and Portugal will be favourites to win the group. But each team is capable of beating each other and Group H really is too close to call, with South Korea proving on several occasions that they are capable of beating anyone at a World Cup, as Germany will attest from 2018.
Must-see match: Portugal vs. Uruguay
Two stunning goals by Cavani sealed a 2-1 win for Uruguay when the two sides met in the second round in Sochi in 2018, and this one might be a case of Manchester United teammates Cavani and Ronaldo facing off to keep their World Cup dreams alive — with the ever-present menace of Suarez offering a sub-plot.
X factor: Can Uruguay’s emerging stars stand out?
Predicted finish: Portugal, Korea Republic, Uruguay, Ghana