Two Former World Champions collide in the shape of Germany and Spain. Costa Rica join the party too; can Costa Rica spring a surprise like 2014 – they topped a group with Uruguay, Italy and England?
Germany crashed out rock-bottom in their group in 2018 suffering losses to Mexico and South Korea while Spain were surprisingly knocked out by the hosts 4 years ago. Japan have always been hardworking teams at World Cups, but can they start beating the better sides? Japan last faced Germany back in 2006 and Spain in 2001 so an unknown quantity for all involved. Germany failing at 2 World Cups in a row will is hard to believe and have picked up some form in the last 18 months. Spain are a long way from their outstanding 2008-2012 team but remain heavyweights - many international players plying their trade at Champions League winners Real Madrid.
2014's Costa Rica conquered Italy, Uruguay and England. Can 2022's Costa Rica conquer Spain, Germany and Japan?
La Fuente de la Hispanidad is a fountain in Costa Rica, located outside the San Pedro Mall. It is here that Costa Ricans celebrate momentous occasions such as in 2014 where Costa Rica reached the Quarter Finals, surpassing all expectations. Fans will be hoping that come the end of December, that they will be congregating there once again.
Concacaf qualifying was underwhelming at the start but was overcome by an 11-match unbeaten streak saw them finish 4th in the group and then go on to beat New Zealand in the inter-confederational play-off. An early goal from Joel Campbell settled the game with Chris Wood unable to find a way through the Costa Rican defence in Qatar.
The standout player is Keylor Navas who has won multiple Champions League titles with Real Madrid and now plays for PSG. The names are familiar which reflects a stable squad but perhaps an ageing one. Captain Bryan Ruiz is 37 and has almost made 150 appearances for Costa Rica. The aforementioned Joel Campbell is their first choice striker and still scores regularly – he himself surpassed 115 caps. Costa Rica will likely play 5 at the back, much like how they faced off against USA. Calos Martinez (San Carlos), Daniel Charcon (C.S. Cartaginés) Kendall Waston ( San José), Juan Vargas (Millonarios) and Ian Lawrence (Alajuelense) all started that day.
Costa Rica have a young contingent up front waiting in the wings. Anthony Contreras is a young forward who plays for Herediano (Costa Rican Primera Divisison) - he has scored twice for the national team already. 18-year-old Jewison Bennette is also a goal threat – scoring twice in the recent friendly against South Korea and making a name for himself for Sunderland in the English Championship – Costa Rica may have unearthed the gem they’ve been looking for. Sunderland manager Tony Mowbray is optimistic about his future: "The lad from Costa Rica, Jewi we call him, he picks it up and he drives with that ball, his feet are so fast, and he drags it from his left to his right without hardly changing, he just shifts his shoulders, and he is past people," said Mowbray. Group rivals will need to be a quick study.
So, what are their chances in the World Cup?
Spain and Germany may be former World Champions but they look far from invincible. Spain haven’t found an out and out striker and Germany remain erratic in form, losing to Macedonia and Hungary at home. Japan are consistent but not unbeatable. This could be the most wide-open group of them all. It’s a toss of a coin but they will head home early with Spain & Germany squeaking through.
Manager: Luis Fernando Suarez (Columbia) is a former defender who played in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Costa Rica is the third international team he has managed following Ecuador and Honduras, both were at the World Cup too. According to a FIFA interview, Suarez has had the names of his group rivals on his fridge door since the draw – he describes it as an obsession albeit as a healthy one. That was prior to the playoff against New Zealand which he duly guided his Costa Rican side by. “It is an obsession that I always pursued. To be in this position is beautiful,” he added.
Verdict: Group stage (3rd - 4 points)
Key Players: Whether he is guaranteed to take to the field will be one thing, but Bryan Ruiz will be a part of the squad. “This is my last World Cup and I want it to be the best it can be. I want to help in any way I can.” His leadership, quality and experience will be needed and alongside Keylor Navas who isn’t shy of giving an inspirational speech or two to his teammates will allow younger squad players to call upon their footballing wisdom. He doesn’t appear to be the tallest of goalkeepers (6ft1) but his quick reactions are his trademark. He will be hoping that his failed transfer to Napoli in the summer and his subsequent lack of playing time at PSG at club level (thanks to Gianluigi Donnarumma) won’t rob him of his form.
Germany are looking to rediscover their ruthless edge.
Germany and World cup pedigree go hand in hand. They are 4-time World Cup winners, the latest of those triumphs came in 2014. Germany executed a gameplan with ruthless efficiency, even dispatching World Cup greats and hosts Brazil famously 7-1 along the way. Then came 2018. Something many have not recognised in a German side since watching World Cups since 1998. An opening defeat against Mexico, a last-minute win against Sweden and then a poor loss against South Korea. Bottom of the group. They then followed that up squeaking through a European group and then falling short against England at Wembley. Long-standing manager Low moved on as did a number of German internationals. But Germany continued to stutter, at home too. They lost to Macedonia, Hungary, and to World Cup group rivals Spain by a 6 goal margin.
Despite the inconsistency there is plenty of talent and confidence in the side. Manuel Neuer and Thomas Muller remain and bring vast experience. In front of the evergreen Neuer is Real Madrid’s Antonio Rudiger and Niklas Sule of Borussia Dortmund. Manchester City’s Ilkay Gundogan sits in front has scored 14 goals for the national side and 27 goals for his club in the past 2 seasons. His partner in midfield, Joshua Kimmich, is perhaps the most important. Kimmich, who plays for German giants Bayern Munich, is a ball-winner in midfield able to disrupt opposition in possession whilst also able to quickly play devastating through balls taking out several players with one pass.
A 4-2-3-1 formation is favoured with Kai Havertz or Timo Werner attacking up top – despite neither being the most prolific for Chelsea. So there will be reliance on the likes of Serge Gnabry (who Tony Pulis famously said wasn’t ready for top-fight football whilst at West Brom)
and Leroy Sane to attack from the wings. Serge Gnabry, became the fastest player to reach 10 goals for the national team, doing so in his 11th appearance and beating Miroslav Klose
's record by 2 matches (as well as already scoring 2 hattricks). One to watch is Munich's Jamal Musiala - already scoring 9 goals for his club this season at the time of writing.
So, what are their chances in the World Cup?
Well finishing bottom of the group won’t happen again. And going deep into the tournament will be the aim. They should have beaten England in the Nations League after going 2-0 ahead but had to score a last-minute goal to secure a 3-3 draw. A step in the right direction beckons but a long way from a trophy at the moment.
Verdict: Group E runners up (4 points) Quarter Finals
: Hansi Flick
(Germany) Assistant coach when Germany won the 2014 edition and now he is in the hot seat himself. He has pedigree - During the 2019/20 season
, Flick successfully guided Bayern to win the Bundesliga
and UEFA Champions League
. He was also there as a player, winning 4 Bundesliga titles and the German cup. He will be using Bayern’s core midfield in his German side; Gnabry, Sane, Kimmich, Goretzka and Muller and he is in favour of a high press when without the ball: “I think you can recognize our idea of the game: we want to be very active in all positions at all times, we want to put the opponent under pressure early on, we want to stress them,”
explained Flick. “Our back line is very high when we are in possession of the ball: Our centre-backs are then 35, 40 meters away from their own goal. That’s worked well so far.”
Key Players: Defender Antonio Rudiger needs no introduction ranking as a top-class Premier League defender and now as part of the defence at European Champions Real Madrid. Flick highlighted his class: “(Rüdiger) has made a fantastic development. The fact he’s joining Real Madrid is a reward for his work. He is someone who is always very focused in training. He is an absolute leader." But full-back David Raum may need some introduction. Originally a forward at club side Greuther Furth but not prevailing in game time, assistant coach Andre Mijatovic retrained Raum as a left-back: “Mijatovic is a defensive expert who explained the back line’s movement and one-vs-ones to me,” Raum said. Solid defensive performances followed by assists earned him a move to Hoffenheim where he chalked up 13 assists and the solution to Germany’s left back problem, created when Lahm left the international stage in 2017. Neuer is indispensable and has beaten German goalkeeper legend’s Oliver Kahn clean sheet record in the Bundesliga. His experience will be invaluable - 110 appearances for his country. He will need to be at his best in Qatar to drag Germany through the latter stages of the competition, that is for sure.
Hardworking side looking to upset the big teams and set the example.
Japan qualified over a poor Australia side and behind Saudi Arabia, who have been known to suffer some heavy defeats at the World Cup. Japan have however, been promising in their preparations for Qatar, beating Ghana, Paraguay and the US and only narrowly losing to Brazil. Against Brazil, possession was largely even but they conceded far many more chances, particularly on target which they will have to address when facing the more talented teams at the tournament. Japan have never gone beyond the last-16 suggesting they are a hardworking outfit but not one that can beat the big teams when it matters – allowing Belgium to win 3-2 last time out in Russia having led 2-0.
Japan have some players well known to European spectators, Minamino who has been plying his trade at Liverpool in recent seasons, Tomiyasu at Arsenal, Kaoru Mitoma at Brighton & Hove Albion (who has 5 goals in 8 appearances), Kyogo Furuhashi & Daizen Maeda at Celtic, Takefusa Kubo at Real Sociedad and Maya Yoshida at Sampdoria (formerly at Southampton). But perhaps the most important may be Daichi Kamada, a forward who plays in the Bundesliga for Eintracht Frankfurt. Usually he scores 5-10 goals a season but he has already amassed 6 goals in 10 appearances (4 of which at the time of writing have come in the league). What Kamada is able to do well is find and run into space, finish with both feet and inject a burst of pace and quick feet to ensure the ball ends up in the back of the net. Although their endeavour and high energy are calling cards of Japan’s performances, it is how they leave the game which caught the imagination of global supporters at the last World Cup – both players and fans alike leave their changing rooms and seats spotless after their games, bringing rubbish bags as they go – an example for all supporters.
So, what are their chances at the World Cup?
Slim to none. Unfortunate to have drawn two huge heavyweights in their group (although their form is suspect). But should one of Spain or Germany underestimate their opponents or turn up undercooked, this Japan side are capable of making the last-16 where they could face Belgium once more. Until Japan find players at a truly World Class level, despite some high-profile names, they are not going to surpass past achievements. It is a group stage exit predicted for them. But many a neutral as well as the Japanese home faithful will be cheering them on to knock out one of the previous World Cup Champions.
Verdict: Group stage (1 point - 4th )
Manager: Hajime Moriyasu - The Samurai Blues manager Hajime Moriyasu has been in charge since 2018, having been assistant at the previous World Cup where they were knocked out against Belgium – having said that In the 2018 World Cup, they became the first-ever Asian nation to beat a side from South America after they won 2–1 against Colombia in the group stage. He also played professionally, making more than 250 appearances in 14 years with Sanfrecce Hiroshima. As Japan Manager he guided them to the 2019 Asian final, losing out to World Cup hosts and debutants Qatar. He will be looking to go beyond the last-16 but this is a tough group.
Key players: Tomiyasu is a right-footed defender proven at both full-back and in central defence. If playing centrally he defends with greater aggression by stepping out more and attempting to step across of or in front of his direct opponent and therefore make interceptions. Though he also jumps out when in wider territory, he jockeys opponents more to force play along the touchline, slows the opposition's attacks, and secures time for his teammates to recover their defensive positions or make recovery runs back into their defensive block. Should he instead be more aggressive, his ability to accelerate and dribble forwards with the ball after making regains means that he can initiate counters - that may play in Japan's favour in Group E.
Young contingent hope to emulate 2010 heroes...
Spain arguably had the game of the tournament against Portugal in their opening match back in 2018 where they were held to a remarkable 3-3 draw, where a certain Cristiano Ronaldo stole the limelight with a last-minute sensational freekick, completing his hattrick. They were unceremoniously dumped out by the hosts last time out.
Technically gifted midfielders remain a hallmark of the Spanish national team, although probably a tough ask to match World Cup winning Barcelona duo Xavi and Iniesta. Sergio Busquets may be picked for captain and perhaps lining up alongside him will be highly rated Pedri, new Barcelona recruit Ferran Torres with 0.54 goals per game and former Manchester City teammates Rodri and Laporte. A team packed with quality but remains to be seen whether they can be shaped into a title winning outfit.
Despite Spanish giants outmuscling Liverpool, Manchester City, Chelsea and PSG in 2022’s Champions League there appears to be very few Spanish contingent players from the squad. That being said Marco Asensio and right-back Daniel Carvajal are shoe-ins. But this generation may need another cycle to see the best out of it. Ansu Fati, Gavi, Eric Garcia may need more time. Azpilcueta, Jordi Alba, Alvaro Morata and Thiago will have to bridge the gap of inexperience at international level. Spain’s pivotal match against Germany, who are having a renaissance since their uncharacteristic 2018 World Cup exit will take place on November 27th and arguably is the match of the group stages.
So, what are their chances in the World Cup?
An outside chance. Capable of winning big matches yes, but this Spanish side would have to pull off something extraordinary to come out with their second World Cup. Enrique’s brand of football will have to prevail against Germany and then possibly the ageing but still world class World Cup finalists Croatia in the last-16. If they do indeed come out on top, and although nothing is guaranteed, they could face Brazil and Argentina en-route to the final. Finishing second may actually be better and then they would have a distinctly European route to the final. They could face Belgium in the last-16 with a vulnerable defence, Portugal in the last-8, England in the semis and then a grand-finale against Brazil or Argentina. Or it could be something completely different. This young team may not have the know-how when it gets to extra time.
Verdict: Group E winners (7 points) Last 16
Manager: Luis Enrique (Spain) won the treble with Barcelona in 2014-15 and that is something very few managers on the international stage can lay claim to. What the Spanish fans will be hoping for is that he stays for the first match in the World Cup unlike in 2018 where boss Julen Lopetegui was sacked by federation president Luis Rubiales two days before their opening game having negotiated a future with Spanish club Real Madrid. There isn’t the highest of optimism from Enrique as he admits Portugal have better players than his side! 4-3-3 is the preferred formation, but the approach is more direct than tiki-taka; forwards are used out wide rather than a creative attacking midfielder drifting infield – whether this can take them through the latter stages of a tournament remains to be seen.
Key Players: Gavi, at 18, has made a huge impact at both club and international level. According to Coaches Voice Gavi has a low centre of gravity and good strength, his turns on the ball when he is found between the lines are one of the best ways to make progress against opponents in a deep lying defence or with tightly packed lines. His technical ability means he can pass balls through narrow passages finding target players with ease. One surprise key player is not a gifted midfielder but one between the posts - Athletic Bilbao goalkeeper Unai Simon. He has the 2019-20 SuperCup under his belt but what is more impressive is he is only 24 and seems to have cemented the number 1 position. Luis Enrique has explained his decision to omit David De Gea from his Spain squad, stating that "a goalkeeper should start the play and dominate aerially" and should display “calmness”. Enrique wants a sweeper keeper, and should Simon not start, Premier League duo Raya and Sanchez are more than ready to take his place.