Group A kicks off the World Cup proper and it’s an intriguing mix of teams to start - 4 nations from 4 continents and perhaps all teams could have a case for getting out of the group.
Netherlands and Senegal probably have most reasons to be confident with plenty of talent in their ranks, but Ecuador and Qatar may be stubborn opposition to break down. The hosts and debutants Qatar have the chance to open their World Cup account against Ecuador on the 20th of November and will need to capitalise on home advantage. Meanwhile on the 21st, Sadio Mane and Virgil Van Dijk will do battle with Senegal tipped to be the best African representatives. Ecuador have been accused of fielding an ineligible player but seem to have avoided being kicked out the tournament. Can Qatar avoid South Africa’s record as hosts not making it out the group? Are the Dutch ready to be a force again on the world stage? Can Senegal be Africa’s maiden World Cup Champions? Group A is one to watch...
Debutants looking to put on a show for a unique World Cup...
In December 2010, Qatar made history by winning the right to host the first Middle Eastern FIFA World Cup. 12 years on, the time has arrived for their showpiece. There has been plenty of criticism about human and worker's rights by other participating nations but on the pitch it's about a country making their debut in a World Cup. Back in 2010 Qatar was ranked 113th in the world – and now they are 50th (October 2022). In 2019, Qatar beat Japan to claim the Asian cup for the very first time in 2019. So how have they achieved this?
Improving the team over that time boils down to 4 key developments:
1) Building a World Class Academy - The Aspire Academy in Doha, first opened in 2004. Aspire’s student-based athletes receive top-class coaching, as well as the best sports science and methodology training. Aspire’s efforts played a key role in Qatar’s Asian Cup success, as 70% of the squad were academy graduates. This included goalkeeper Saad al-Sheeb, who conceded only a single goal during the tournament, defenders Bassam al-Rawi, Abdelkarim Hassan, Tariq Salman, and forwards Akram Afif and Almoez Ali, who finished as the competition’s top scorer on nine goals.
2) Hiring a Barcelona manager - Spanish manager Felix Sanchez hails from Barcelona’s La Masia Academy and has overseen Qatar’s current crop of players through youth to the first team achieving a 53% win-rate (at the time of writing).
3) Expanding the player pool - Qatar’s current squad for the Arab Cup contains 10 players who were born outside the country, including Ghana, Sudan, Egypt, France, Bahrain, Iraq, Algeria and Portugal. They remain largely naturalised players, those who spent five continuous years in Qatari football after the age of 18.
4) Qatar’s venture into new confederation tournaments – Qatar has played in the Copa America in 2019 (Group stage), the Gold Cup in 2021 (making the semi-finals) and have even participated in UEFA qualifying as a ghost team in Republic of Ireland’s group. This has built experience of playing nations from around the world which will put them in good stead for facing the Netherlands and Ecuador.
So, what are Qatar's chances at the World Cup?
An opening day match against Ecuador who lost a third of their qualifiers and who Qatar actually came out on top with in a 2018 friendly by 4-3, surely represents their best chance of taking points in the group stage. With the AFCON champions, Senegal and Netherlands lurking in their group, they have to win the first game and hope hard work pays off in the other fixtures. However, defeats to Serbia, Portugal and Republic of Ireland, in the past year or so suggests finishing in the top 2 would be a huge ask or even in the top 3. The temperature will be around 20C (68F) throughout the tournament, and they will need to show some cool to remain competitive. There is no doubt Qatar have come very far since 2010, but not far enough to get out of the group and could join South Africa as the only hosts not to make it to the last 16.
Verdict: 4th – Group Stage – 1 point
Manager: Felix Sanchez (Spain) From Barcelona’s youth coach to Qatar Manager, Felix Sanchez has nurtured the growth of the national team through the Aspire Academy. Sanchez likes to shift between a 5-3-2 and 3-5-2 formation between defensive and attacking phases. He and the national team are taking extraordinary measures to prepare for the World Cup by taking a 27-man squad into training for 6 months prior to the tournament to build team spirit and develop tactics; seemingly taking inspiration from South Korea on their semi-final run as hosts back in 2002 – will it pay off?
Sanchez is excited for it all to begin: "It's going to be a big day for the country. Qatar's first World Cup, and in Qatar, so it's unique. People have to enjoy this moment and I hope they will cheer for the team."
Key players: Almoez Ali is Qatar’s top goal scorer, winning both the Asian Cup and the Under 19 AFC championship. In 2020, as captain of Al Duhail FC, Almoez lifted the trophy of the 2019-2020 QNB Qatar Stars League. He was also top scorer in the CONCACAF Gold Cup. Akram Afif is also one to watch; he normally plays upfront but has free license to roam to create chances and lies to exploit gaps in defence. Hassan Al-Haydos captains the side and has over 150 caps - the forward scored against Chile in a recent 2-2 friendly - November 20th will be a proud day for him.
So, do you agree? Qatar to crash out of the group stage? Or will home advantage pay-off for this close-knit team?
The Dutch are back as dark horses...
...as is manager Louis Van Gaal who is in his third stint managing the national side. The 2018 World Cup missed them and the 'Organge Legion' in the stands. And this time around they could be considered as outside favourites for winning it all. Although ranked 8th in the world, they will still need to be at their best to oust AFCON champions Senegal, Ecuador and the hosts, Qatar, to top the group.
So, what about team selection? - the goalkeeper position is interesting. Mark Flekken has the highest number of clean sheets so far this season (6) for Bundesliga outfit Freiburg and so seemed a shoe-in to start. But 38-year-old Pasveer, who now plays for Ajax, made his debut for the Netherlands against Poland in a UEFA Nations League match this year. At age 38, he was the second oldest player to ever debut for the Dutch national team, after Sander Boschker in 2010 (aged 39). Either goalkeeper seems dependable enough and will have plenty of experience sat in front of them too.
It is no secret the Netherlands are strong in central defence - Virgil Van Dijk is certain to play and is capable of scoring too (scored the only goal in their recent win against Belgium). Nathan Ake and De Ligt are all vying for a spot alongside him. Manchester United’s new acquisition Tyrell Malacia is also an option for Van Gaal.
Barcelona’s Frankie De Jong and Memphis Depay operate up front. That frontline is supported by Arnaut Danjuma who was potent in last season’s Champions League, providing 3 assists. Steven Bergwijn too offers dangerous pace and finishing off the left-hand side. Left-footed Teun Koopmeiners has been in electrifying form for Serie A outfit Atalanta involved in 5 goals this season already and capable of scoring from distance with aplomb. One player making a late rally to be called up to the squad including Union Berlin’s Sheraldo Becker who is a clinical finisher – the forward is bullish about his chances: “I know what I can do. I know that with my speed, strength and one-on-one I am important to the team. And I have a good shot, I learned that at Ajax.”
So, what are their chances in the World Cup?
Holland have reached the final on three occasions in 1974, 1978 and 2010. The latter match set the record for the most bookings in a World Cup final, with a sending off to boot. In order to reach the final again they will need to get out of the group, and they are favourites to do so. Avoid defeat in the opening game against Senegal and then collect battling wins against the hosts and Ecuador is what is needed. A possible last-16 tie offers England, USA, Iran or Wales which are all winnable. But as much talent as the Dutch have, they don’t feel formidable and perhaps lack a world class striker needed to get past big teams.
Verdict: Group A Winners (7 points) Quarter Finals
Manager: Louis Van Gaal has had a long and successful career managing the likes of Ajax, Barcelona, Manchester United and Bayern Munich. Van Gaal began his third spell as Netherland’s coach in August 2021, having previously failed to qualify for the 2002 World Cup, before leading them to a third-place finish in 2014 (recall THAT demolition against Spain with Van Persie’s header!). The Dutch are unbeaten in nine games since the former Ajax, Barcelona and Bayern Munich boss returned and they qualified for Qatar 2022 as winners of their group. Van Gaal will hopefully have more information about his opponents at his disposal following the draw for Group A: "Those are opponents we know nothing about. At least, I don't and I assume our analysts don't either so they have a lot of work to do in the coming period.” On a personal note, Louis Van Gaal said he has had successful treatment for prostate cancer.
Key players: Virgil Van Dijk – Regarded as the world’s best centre back despite a slugglish start to the Premier League this season. A late bloomer in his career, this will be his first World Cup as the Netherlands missed out on the 2018 edition. Van Dijk has won titles in both Scotland and England with Celtic and Liverpool respectively and has amassed over 80 clean sheets in the Premier League. At the peak of his powers, his leadership and ability will be needed to navigate out of Group A. Van Dijk was shocked by manager Louis Van Gaal’s cancer diagnosis and remarked: "I told him as well that we are definitely going to be there for him as a group whenever he needs it - and hopefully we can also make it, for him, a World Cup to never forget." Teun Koopmeiners is a goal threat and will be needed to support Depay upfront – it has only taken 6 matches for the midfielder to score 4 goals.
Africa’s champions are here to claim the big prize…
Senegal edged out Egypt twice in 2022, once in the AFCON final and once again in World Cup Qualifying (with perhaps some inadvertent help from supporters shining lights into Mo Salah’s eyes prior to a pivotal penalty kick). Senegal was the team to avoid in the World Cup draw and many heavyweights were glad to see that they wouldn’t be facing the AFCON champions in the group stage. Chelsea’s duo of Mendy and Koulibaly, Leicester’s Mendy and Munich’s Mane forms a strong spine, although goalkeeper Mendy has gone from Champions League winning goalkeeper to struggling to keep a clean sheet – Senegal manager Cisse will hope he recovers some form. The Senegal spine is supported by Watford’s pacy and dangerous attacker Sarr, Nottingham Forest's Kouyaté as well as Everton’s Gueye and RB Leipzig’s Diallo. Plenty of talent makes Senegal a dangerous team but do they have the belief to make a tilt at the World Cup?
Finishing top of the group will be the target; a first-place spot is likely important to avoid England (although they have wobbled in recent months) in the last-16 but defeating the World Cup hosts Qatar, Ecuador and the Netherlands will be no easy feat. Senegal is most famous of course for dumping World Cup Champions France at the 2002 Group stage and subsequently reaching the Quarter Finals. They only just missed out on the knockout stages of the 2018 edition with a poorer Fair Play record – the first time that has happened in World Cup history. No African nation has made it past the quarter final stage before, much bad luck is attributed, but Senegal surely represents their best chance in Qatar?
So, what are their chances in the World Cup?
The Group stage is difficult but not impossible. Taking something from the first game with the Netherlands will be important and then they will rely on the firepower to overcome tricky opponents in Ecuador and the hosts Qatar. If they qualify, England or the USA could be potential opponents.
Verdict: Group A runners up (5 points) Last 16
Manager: Aliou Cisse (Senegal) – Winning AFCON as manager. Captain as a player. Now inspiring the development of the next generation of Senegalese managers at the FIFA Coach Educators’ Development Programme. Aliou Cisse knows how to unite: “I want to congratulate everyone on the World Cup qualification,” Cissé said. “I want to thank the people who built this stadium and the journalists who criticized us, they were all a part of our success.” Strong words from the man in charge.
Key players: Sadio Man
é – No doubt about this one. Their talisman and world class striker regarded his team’s qualification as ‘lucky’ but there is nothing lucky about his talent. Sadio Man
é has regularly fronted Liverpool’s challenge in the Premier League and Champions League, collecting one of each in recent seasons and hopes to replicate that success at new club Bayern Munich following the departure of Lewandowski. For Senegal he has reached 29 goals (at the time of writing) in 87 appearances. Virgil van Dijk has said Senegal will need luck if they were to be drawn together in a group – we will see if he will indeed be ‘lucky’ once more. Ismaila Sarr is criminally underrated and deserves to be playing at a higher level (he has already scored from his own half this season).
Ecuador have just about made it to the World Cup this year and they kick off against the hosts...
“I am on the verge of being able to fulfil a dream for me, which is to be able to play in a World Cup. It will be the most significant event of my 30-year career.”
Those were the words of Argentine manager Gustavo Alfaro, who successfully steered Ecuador to their 4th World Cup. Alfaro joined following Jordi Cruff leaving (he didn't manage a single game in the midst of the global pandemic). Gustavo Alfaro claimed many of the players had lost interest in playing for the country and he had to change the team culture quickly. Despite qualifying, the South America outfit have also had to overcome claims from Chile of fielding an ineligible player, right-back Byron Castillo - Chile were adamant the player was born in Columbia. At the time of writing Ecuador remain in the tournament. Ranked 44th in the world, Ecuador will hope to better their 2006 last-16 effort; having beaten Costa Rica and Poland at the group stage, they reached the last 16, losing out to David Beckham’s England by a single goal to nil.
In qualification, much is made of their home advantage with high altitude, but Ecuador have performed admirably under Argentine manager Gustavo Alfaro. Emerging ahead of Peru, Columbia and Paraguay in qualifying represents good progress having missed out on the 2018 edition; Michael Estrada and Fenerbahçe’s Enner Valencia scored 10 goals between them. Enner Valencia will be an important asset in terms of experience having scored 3 times in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil too. Liga MX Leon’s Angel Mena chipped in with 7 assists in the campaign and that creativity will be needed to unlock stubborn defences. Ecuador have shown evidence of this by drawing with regional heavyweights Brazil and Argentina in qualifying which will put them in good stead when they face off with the Netherlands and AFCON champions Senegal.
Ecuador however have used 4 different goalkeepers throughout qualifying (Hernan Galindez ended the qualifiers as first choice) and Alfaro will need to make a final decision on this position. Commentators suggest that they may need another cycle for younger players to gain more experience.
So, what are their chances in the World Cup?
Being drawn with a group with hosts Qatar, the Netherlands and Senegal represents an opportunity for the South Americans but away from home they may not have enough quality, strength and depth to outmuscle their opponents. They will rely on striker Michael Estrada who ended up as Ecuador's top goal scorer in qualifying with 6 goals to step up again for Group A matches. Their friendlies against African opposition suggests they see the Senegal game as the key to unlocking escape from Group A. They may miss out this time.
Verdict: Group Stage 3rd (2 points)
Manager: Gustavo Alfaro (Argentina) – Former coach of Arsenal and Boca Juniors remarked that reaching the World Cup was the most important achievement of his managerial career: “Participating in a World Cup and being at the opening party is something very nice.” Very nice indeed!" Gustavo will be reliant on Angel Mena, now in the twilight of his career who is a left-footed playmaker and who Alfaro regards as one of the most intelligent players he has ever coached.
Key players: Pervis Estupiñán is perhaps their most valuable player at left back and plays for Premier League Brighton Hove & Albion (he helped Villareal to the Champions League semi-final last season). He is one to watch in the tournament, capable of scoring goals (at the right end unlike at Anfield in the Champions League) as well as having an 83% tackle success. Enner Valencia’s experience will be invaluable if they are to stand a chance getting out of Group A. But it may be Moises Caicedo, again of Brighton & Hove Albion and who has been linked with Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United whose attacking threat may be the difference on the biggest of stages. The enterprising midfielder scored against Uruguay and Chile in qualification.
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