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Group F

A fascinating group containing the last chance saloon of Golden generation Belgium, 2018 World Cup finalists Croatia, highly rated Morocco and the first qualified nation from North America, Canada. Belgium and Croatia appear to not present the same threat as they did 4 years ago but as much as Real Madrid were written off in their Champions League campaign against their English rivals it would be wrong to underestimate Modric’s Croatia and Courtois’ Belgium sides

Canada will look to resolve off the field issues and show they mean business on the pitch headed by Bayern Munich’s Alphonso Davies and top goal scorer Cycle Larin. Chelsea’s and Morocco’s Hakim Ziyech is hoping to make the squad and to edge by Group F rivals – a blockbuster of a group to watch!

 

 

Belgium

Has Belgium’s opportunity come and gone?
 
Ranked second in the world according to FIFA rankings, Belgium have been a dangerous if not yet successful outfit during their Golden generation years. Some of the old guard have left including talisman leader Vincent Kompany who is now trying out management at Burnley. The team are managed by former FA Cup winning manager Roberto Martinez and they came close to a World Cup Final last-time out, beaten by eventual winners France. Their defence could be lacking pace at the best of times however with aging Jan Vertonghen (Benfica) and Toby Alderweireld (Qatari club Al-Duhail) still at the heart of the defence. That being said, being led by Kevin De Bruyne who pulls the strings in midfield and having a world class all-time Belgium leading goal scorer in Romelu Lukaku they still have a chance. Brothers Thorgan and Eden Hazard are coming back into form too. The likes of Youri Tielemans who is arguably Leicester’s best player, Axel Witsel at Borussia Dortmund, Dries Mertens at Galatasaray (ending a remarkable stint at Napoli) and Yannick Carrasco at Atletico Madrid ensures quality in midfield and upfront. The latter Carrasco is excellent at taking the ball past defenders, delivering dangerous crosses and shooting on the half-volley - Group F defenders beware!
 
So, what are their chances at the World Cup?
 
For a team that have just been knocked off the top of the FIFA rankings after three years, expectations are lessened for this side which might just help them out this time around. They have been unfortunate that they have become unstuck to the eventual winners of tournaments. This remains a group they should get out of although they can’t underestimate their rivals. Should they top the group, a tough encounter with Spain followed by Portugal potentially in the quarters. With Brazil and Argentina on the opposite side of the draw they will have to get through European foes en-route to the final (but then again this is World Cup, anything can happen). Belgium may have shifted from the role of favourites to the role of dark horses, but no-one at this stage can be labelled as clear favourites. If the stars of Courtois, Kevin De Bruyne and Lukaku play at their best they may not be stopped this time around…but recent form suggests otherwise – Last 16 it is.
 
Verdict: Group F Winners (9 points) – Last 16
 
Manager: Roberto Martinez (Spain) has been Belgium manager for some time but hasn’t quite yet had the fortune of guiding them to silverware – if his tenure is to be a success bringing them the biggest trophy of them all will be a crowning legacy. Prior to Belgium Martinez was a player and manager for both Swansea City and Wigan Athletic, winning League One and the FA Cup respectively. Graeme Jones was his assistant at Swansea and holds Martinez in high regard: “Working with Roberto was exciting. Exhilarating. He proved to be intelligent, thoughtful, and highly tactical.” He then went onto a mixed spell with Everton although I suspect fans of the club would clamour for those times once again.
 
His biggest hope for the World Cup is that Lukaku enjoys his football at his club ahead of the tournament. Players in a good frame of mind tend to deliver on the big stage. And a team that is used to winning came unstuck against Holland a couple of times in the Nations League but claims it was a defeat his team needed. He is unlikely to deter from his possession-based approach, with three defenders at the back and relying on wing backs to provide cover when needed. Crossing does not feature much in their game and a short interchange of passes is required to get the ball forward to their attacking players to break the deadlock. Martinez is unlikely to sway from his principles, he will hope his faith in his system will finally bring the trophy he needs.
 
Key players: Kevin De Bruyne is no doubt Belgium’s best player or at least the most creative. And it is clear that the World Cup is higher up his priority list than the Nations League which were described as: 'glorified friendlies after a long and tough season'. He has had one of his best seasons in front of goal for Manchester City as they often played without a recognised striker, creating 3.91 chances a game and scoring 15 goals last year. Pep Guardiola was impressed: He is not just a player to make assists – now he scores a lot of goals. I’ve said to him many times, ‘I know you enjoy making a lot of assists, for you and your team-mates, but you have to score goals to reach another stage’. Now he is doing that, a lot of goals and chances.” Thibaut Courtois (6 foot 7) has had his critics but having put in a man of the match performance against Liverpool in last year’s Champions League final has quietened his doubters and raised his credentials – Belgium will need him on top form.
 

Canada

Pay disputes threaten Canada’s return to the global stage…
 
All things seemed very promising for Canada, their first qualification to the World Cup since 1986, they are due to be joint hosts of the 2026 World Cup, they have their all-time leading goalscorer in his prime and in the shape of Cyle Larin (25 goals in 53 appearances). But all is not well as John Herdman’s squad refused to train ahead of national team matches as there were protests over apparent perks and compensation after months of failed talks. Canada Soccer also cancelled a friendly against Iran which proved all too controversial with the geopolitical situation untenable. They then had a game cancelled against Panama at the last minute too, attributed to bonuses this time. The list of demands from the players were as follows:

· Changes in leadership of Canada Soccer

· An equitable pay and bonus structure with the country’s women’s team

· A 40% cut of Qatar prize money

· Better perks for the tournament and

· Clarity on a 2019 agreement the association made with an entity called Canada Soccer Business, closely tied to the country’s upstart domestic competition, the Canadian Premier League.

There are also issues with Canada’s kit suppliers and will be the only nation not to have a new kit for the tournament with manufacturers Nike claiming Canada are on a different kit development cycle. Jonathan David covered up the Nike badge when celebrating his goal against Qatar in a recent World Cup warm up match.
Despite the restlessness, Alphonso Davies, who has already won 20 major trophies in his club career, including the Champions League at the tender age of 21 is optimistic by Canadian football in general: “There’s been a change in culture over the years, and it starts at the young age levels with good programs and professional academies. We have been able to develop some great talent over the years, and you see it with our squad. Players playing in top teams and leagues in both North America and Europe,”
 

So how will they line-up? Well against Qatar they played 3 at the back with CF Montréal pairing Alistair Johnston and Kamal Miller alongside Chaves’ Steven Vitória. Junior Hoilett can be found on the wing with great pace and an eye for goal – he has played for several clubs in the English domestic leagues and currently plays at Reading in the championship. Another player not to be missed is Porto’s Stephen Euataquio who operates as a defensive midfielder and is a nuisance for opposing sides, helped his side secure a league title last year. Alphonso Davies, Cyle Larin and Jonathan David operate as a dangerous front three all capable of scoring goals.

So, what are their chances?

Well, this seems to be their best ever generation including Jonathan David (worth over £40 million) is a potent threat for Lille in Ligue 1. Alphonso Davies still has his whole career ahead of him despite the extraordinary success he has gleaned from the game. Top goalscorer Cyle Larin scored 23 goals in the 2020-21 season. They will have to keep games tight if they are to stand a chance, but they may just get picked apart against more experienced opposition and use this in good stead for 2026.
 
Verdict: Group stage (3rd – 3 points)
 
Manager: John Herdman (England) has not only guided Canada side to its second World Cup but doing so having overseen both women and men’s national sides. Boasting a 70% win percentage and moving his side up to 38th in the world (in 2016 they were a lowly 117th!), Canada have unearthed a gem of a manager. A former lecturer in sports science, he says his tenacity comes up from his upbringing: "I've never had anything handed to me easy. I've never lived that professional life. I've had to fight for everything, every opportunity, and you had to fight to keep it.” Goalkeeper Milan Borjan is a dependable figure at the back and there is no doubt how much faith he has in his manager: "He deserved this," said Borjan, his trademark sweatpants paired with a "WE CAN" T-shirt and ski goggles to protect against champagne backsplash. "This guy, he did everything." Herdman has had to be flexible in his tactical approach being more compact against USA and Mexico whilst being more attacking against the likes of Panama and Costa Rica. He likes to use wing-backs and wingers with interchanging positional players Alphonso Davies and Richie Laryea. Buchanan, David, or Osorio are often used as false 9s whilst top goal scorer Cycle Larin is used as more of a number 9.
 
Key players: Alphonso Davies is a talent that gives Canada hope that they can edge out their group rivals. Capable as playing as a wing-back or as a part of an attacking three; his passing and dribbling skills make him an important asset for club and country, he is preferred in an attacking setting for Canada, scoring 5 goals in World Cup qualifying. And it is clear to see what World Cup qualification meant for him. Davies has however had his fair share of injury problems, thigh issues towards the end of the season; but of greater concern he was diagnosed with mild myocarditis (heart) following Covid-19. Davies bounced back since those issues, scoring twice in his first game back for the national team against Curacao. Let’s hope he avoids any more health issues before the big tournament.
 

 

Croatia

Can Croatia repeat magical run?

Getting to a World Cup Final can be regarded as a magnificent achievement for a population size a little over 4 million. Modric, quite rightly won the Ballon D’or that year and still pulls the strings for both national side and club Real Madrid 4 years on. But Croatia are an ageing side and whether the draw will fall as kindly to them as it did last time is left for debate. Alongside Modric, Kovacic is regarded as one of Croatia’s best players who operates well in front of Chelsea’s defence and is a key penalty taker. Ivan Perisic is an attacking full-back who finally made his move to the Premier League with Spurs and still presents a threat with his assists. These will likely be the last world cups for the likes of Modric, Perisic and Sevilla’s Rakitic. Mandzukic, Croatia’s second highest goalscorer at international level, has since retired and it will be difficult to replace him (that job seems to lie with Osasuna’s Ante Budimir and Torino’s Nikola Vlašić). Marcelo Brozovic was injured in a Nations League game so is in a race to be fit - he has been included in the preliminary squad. Joško Gvardiol (RB Leipzig), Dejan Lovren (Zenit), Josip Stanišić (Bayern Munich), Borna Barišić (Rangers) form a united defence - will they be able to stand strong in front of Ziyech, Davies and Lukaku?
 
So, what are their chances?
 
Despite an aging team, Nations League wins against World Cup rivals France and Denmark are encouraging and they made the finals illustrating their stars still have plenty to offer.
 

There will be no limit on this Croatia side but to make the final again would be some achievement.

Croatia may possess World class players, but the side could do with an injection of youth and the emergence of some world class defenders to solidify the team. Although on paper they should go through, this is a competitive group and will have to lean on the likes of Modric and Perisic to get them through matches. If they ever did manage to go one better with this team, it really would be one of the most remarkable achievements in the game. The fans are hopeful though; their new World Cup anthem ‘Jedna je Croatia’ by Stole, Hiljson and Sestre Palić premiered on the JoomBoos channel to encourage the Croat side! Last-16 or Quarter Finals is their best hope.
 
Verdict: Group F runners-up (2nd - 6 points) Quarter Finals
 
Manager: Zlatko Dalić (Croatia) - Following the sacking of Ante Čačić (under concerns voiced by Modric), Dalić guided Croatia to the 2018 World Cup and to the final itself beating the likes of Argentina, Denmark and England on the way (the last time they even reached the knockout stage was 1998). He didn’t shy away from tough decisions away from the pitch, as forward Nikola Kalinić was sent home having declined to come on as a substitute against Nigeria – which received public backing.
 
Key players: Luka Modric needs little introduction – having made a name for himself at Dinamo Zagreb, he made his big money Premier League move to Spurs (where he helped his team to make the Champions League). Modric subsequently made his Real Madrid move and has won a major haul of trophies whilst pulling the strings in the Bernabeu’s midfield (including a quintuple of Champions League titles). Modric is regarded as a creative playmaker, someone who is able to keep possession under pressure, able to pick a pass and is an attacking threat on the pitch too. Winning a Ballon D’or in a World Cup year with Messi and Ronaldo still playing at the highest level can be regarded as some achievement. At 37, he is part of a special group of players able to remain at the highest level well into their 30’s - it is well worth watching FIFA's Captain series here Modric heavily features on Croatia's run to Qatar 2022. Ivan Perisic's delivery of the ball and attacking ability offers a threat from out wide and is captain when Modric is absent.
 

 

Morocco

Morocco's late change completes 100% African coach set up for African participants.

Ranked 24th in the world and the second highest ranked African nation, Morocco have come a long way – they were ranked as low as 92nd back in 2015! With this rise Morocco hope to achieve more on the international stage as they have only escaped the World Cup group stage once, that was in Mexico 1986 (that was the first time an African or Arab nation qualified for the next stage of the World Cup). They could count themselves unfortunate four years ago when they were ousted 1 nil by Iran and Portugal before bowing out with a 2-2 draw with Spain. They qualified for Qatar this tiem however with a significant victory over DR Congo by 5 goals to 2.
 
Yassine Bounou, also known as Bono, is a dependable goalkeeper at the back who has cemented himself as Sevilla’s first choice goalkeeper as well as Morroco’s number 1 (he was eligible for Canada too but opted for the African nation). He’s scored in La Liga (yes, you read that correctly), played in the 2018 World Cup, and has won the Europa League where he has kept the likes of Wolves, Manchester United and Inter Milan at bay.
 
Chelsea football star Hakim Ziyech made his return from the wilderness having fallen out with previous manager Vahid Halilhodžić against Chile in a World Cup warm up 2-0 victory. Sofiane Boufal scored that day and will be familiar to Southampton fans. He now plays at French club Angers where he started his youth career. Youssef En-Nesyri played as a centre forward as part of an attacking three; the Sevilla man has cored 14 goals for the national team and 27 goals for the club side. Sofyan Amrabat plays in central midfield and plays his club football for Serie A club Fiorentina. Attacking right-back Achraf Hakimi will be one of the more familiar names as he is a regular for PSG. On the opposite flanks is Bayern Munich’s Noussair Mazraoui. Captaining the side, Romain Saïss, will provide both leadership and experience having made over 200 appearances for Wolves including the Premier League and played at the last World Cup - he now plays for Beşiktaş. Achraf Dari partners with him in central defence.

So, what are their chances?

An initial look at the group and it poses a daunting task; 2018 World Cup Finalists Croatia, Fifa’s ranked number 2 side Belgium and North America’s best qualifier Canada. On the flip side Croatia and Belgium are ageing sides with perhaps their best tilt at the World Cup was in fact 4 years ago. Canada have had their own difficulties with players refusing to play due to pay disputes as well as high-profile warm up games getting cancelled. But Morocco quickly needs to come up with a unified team strategy. It may have worked with Chelsea a few times changing manager mid-campaign to win a Champions League, but it cannot be recalled when it works so well for the international stage.

Verdict: Group stage (4th – 0 points)

Manager: Walid Regragui (Morrocco) has only been in the role only a short while, replacing the sacked Vahid Halilhodžić but has been a coach for the national team before and has been a player making 45 appearances. Previous manager Vahid Halilhodžić can perhaps consider himself seriously unlucky to have been sacked for a third time before a World Cup (Ivory Coast in 2010, Japan in 2018 and now Morocco). Despite an undefeated qualifying campaign, this time around there was an apparent disagreement in terms of approach; there was also a prior falling out with talented winger Hakim Ziyech (allegedly accused of faking injury to get out of international duty) who hasn’t played in over a year for the side. 'Given the differences between the Royal Moroccan Football Federation and national coach Vahid Halilhodzic on the best way to prepare the national football team for the Qatar 2022 World Cup, the two parties decided to separate by mutual consent.'
 

Key players: Achraf Hakimi is certainly one of Morrocos most decorated players, more recently helping his PSG side to the French Super Cup. Born in Madrid, to Moroccan parents, Hakimi has already played for many of Europe’s elite clubs including Real Madrid, Inter Milan, Borussia Dortmund and now PSG. He has won major honours with all clubs he has played for including Serie A, Ligue 1, DFL-SuperCup and the Champions League. He is an attacking wing-back and is a goal-threat, scoring in the last African Cup of Nations, although not enough to secure international silverware just yet. Hakim Ziyech would add a world class attacking threat should he return to the side.

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