Perhaps the most wide open - Portugal, Uruguay, South Korea and Ghana. All have individual talents that can light up the biggest of stages. Whether that can transform to team unity is another question. You cannot mention a World Cup without Cristiano Ronaldo and he will be expected to captain the side for a last chance at glory.
Uruguay have a shiny new striker in the shape of Darwin Nunez to partner up with the ever-dangerous Luis Suarez who is in the twilight of his career. Ghana will recall his handball which played its part in preventing them reaching the semi-finals in 2010. - revenge is certainly to play for Son Heung Min is a genuine world class player that may see the Koreans through – they're hoping to emulate their 2002 side which reached the semi-finals. Grab your popcorn – this will be box office!
Ghana looking for glory and revenge in Qatar
Ghana made it to the World Cup finals outmuscling a talented Nigerian team and their reward is a re-match with Uruguay, who controversially beat them back in 2010 to deny them a semi-final appearance after Luis Suarez stopped a goal-bound effort with his hands and the resulting penalty was missed. They’ve got to the knockout stages twice (most famously the Quarter Finals) so the bar may be set high for the Black Stars. But not everything is good off the pitch - Ghana’s government had to send over cash by plane as players issued an ultimatum (as allowances promised were not given). Qatar 2022 will be the 4th World Cup they will participate in.
Away from the current crop of players, Ghana have been successful in attracting new players with quality into the squad with Bilbao’s Inaki Williams, Southampton’s Salisu and Brighton’s Lamptey all pledging to play for Ghana. Chris Hughton joined Ghana in a technical advisor role to help manager Otto Addo and may help further still behind the scenes in attracting talent with links to Ghana. Arsenal’s Nketiah and Chelsea’s Callum Hudson-Odoi are also yet to declare their intentions at the time of writing, but this Ghana team could be packed with talent playing in some of the best leagues in Europe. It will be interesting to see how Ghana will perform in Qatar with fellow African side Cameroon with different approaches to player recruitment (the latter relying on players who got them to the tournament). Ghana rank 60th in the world – they will be hoping that belies their true potential when the World Cup kicks off.
So, what are their chances?
Verdict: Group stage (4th place – 1 point)
Key player: Thomas Partey will be one of the first names on the team sheet for Ghana who is more likely to play more of an attacking role than he does for Arsenal and will as Vice Captain during the World Cup. He is very central to Arteta’s plans: "You can see the presence and the special qualities he provides to the team when he is on the pitch." According to the Coaches Voice Partey prioritises covering the spaces between full-back and centre-back, particularly when opponents have progressed into the inside channel. It is this defensive coverage that will be critical if they are to withstand the likes of Darwin Nunez, Cristiano Ronaldo and Son Heung Min.
Packed full of stars and Ronaldo. Can Portugal find a way of maximising their talents.
Although the team on paper has World Cup winning potential, the Portuguese made hard work of qualifying, having lost the opportunity to top their qualifying group (behind Serbia) and with the greatest respect, fortuitously facing Macedonia as opposed to current European Champions Italy. Portugal’s best finish at the World Cup was back in 1966 as they claimed a 3rd place finish - and that needs to change. A possible route to the final, if they can top a tricky group is World Cup Qualification rivals Serbia in the last 16, a reunion with Spain in the Quarters, European finalists England in the Semis and then a final with Argentina. That's right, it would be a GOAT off. Messi vs Ronaldo – winner takes all. A final befitting of two legends of the game. Ronaldo may not be the star he was, but it will be difficult to keep him out of the limelight.
Portugal may have a stunning new kit and a team packed with quality players but their struggle to get the best out of them is something that is confusing and had it not been for a fortunate 2016 Euros triumph (where they didn’t win many games and came 3rd in the group) they may have a different manager now. But in the big tournaments, somehow, they find a way through. Due to the erratic form though there won't be a fairy-tale final this tome.
Manager: Fernando Santos (Portugal) has been charge since 2014 and guided the team to glory in Euro 2016 and the Nations League a couple of years later. But 2 last-16 exits to Uruguay and Belgium in the last 2 major tournaments has left them wanting more this time around. Santos played for Portuguese outfits Estoril and Maritimo in the 1970’s and 1980’s as a defender. As a manager he has won club honours for Porto and AEK Athens. He has been known to play with a 4-4-2 or 4-3-3 formation but encourages the full-backs to push on. However this isn’t a message that his team always receives as he admits in World Cup Qualifying when they failed to beat Ireland or Serbia: “Our DNA is to play with the ball at our feet, but we found it difficult. It’s true that our team lacked personality. Bernardo wanted the ball, but he was the only one. We always played with fear and anxiety, passing from side to side, back to the goalkeeper. The responsibility is mine." Santos will need to ensure his team approach games with the right frame of mind when they kick-off their campaign.
Son-Heung min looking to lead South Korea deep into the World Cup…
Korea Republic or South Korea qualified for their 10th straight World Cup by finishing second to Iran. Last time out, even beating 2014 World Champions Germany was not enough to see them reach the knockout stages having lost to Mexico and Sweden. The last time they did qualify was back in 2010 but were knocked out by group rivals Uruguay in the last-16, thanks to a Luis Suarez double - can they gain revenge this time around? Dutch manager Guus Huddink led them to their most successful tournament when they joint hosted in 2002 – where they beat Portugal, Italy and Spain to a semi-final appearance before finally succumbing to Germany. A memorable run that still lives long in the memory and illustrates how home advantage can play a big difference if momentum can be gathered (watch and learn Qatar!). South Korea will warm up against Cameroon and Costa Rica and will need to get the most out of those fixtures to prepare for a tough group containing Uruguay, Portugal and Ghana. The Koreans may have beaten Chile in a recent friendly 2-0 but they also lost 5-1 to Brazil; they look defensively vulnerable. A notable transfer in the summer was Kim-Min Jae who moved from Fenerbahçe to Napoli as a centre back – in order to replace the outgoing Koulibaly who made his long-awaited move to the Premier League; if he can quickly build momentum in Serie A, that can only be beneficial for manager Bento and his charges. At th time of writing he has already made 11 appearances and scored twice too!
So, what are their chances?
Verdict: Group H runners up (2nd – 5 points) Last 16
Key players: Son Heung Min is simply a world class player and Korea’s main attacking threat. He has scored 33 goals in over 100 appearances for his nation and getting on for a century of goals for his club Tottenham Hotspurs. His form last season as well as his link up play with Harry Kane was formidable and too much for his rivals (as he helped Spurs claim Champions League football). Through the Korean FA Youth project, he joined German outfit Hamburger SV and hasn’t looked back since. He has scored in 3 previous World Cup matches and will likely need to make an impact in all 3 games to help his side qualify. Son is regarded as one of the nicest guys in football, along with Ngolo Kante. Wolves’ Hwang is worth mentioning too as a secondary attacking threat, Son cannot do it on his own.
Which Uruguay will turn up this time?
Edison Cavani and Luis Suarez are in the twilight of their careers and Darwin Nunez is now number 9 for Liverpool although he displays a similar temper to Suarez. Giorgian De Arrascaeta scored the winner against Peru to put Uruguay safely though to the finals - he may be one to watch. La Celeste have Tottenham’s Bentancur to call upon, Real Madrid’s Valverde and Atletico Madrid’s Gimenez who may partner with Sporting Lisbon’s Coates or stalwart Diego Godin in defence. Last time out however it was Cacares and Barcelona’s Araujo but the latter suffered an injury and will need surgery – a blow for the South Americans.
So, how will they do?
Manager: Diego Alonso is the new man at the helm following 15 years of Óscar Tabárez. Although very early days, his team has a 85% win-rate. Alonso also won CONCACAF Champions League with Pachuca so has pedigree when it comes to silverware. He was notably the first coach of new MLS side Inter Miami. He will be keen to imprint his own identity at his first World Cup, starting with a statement win over South Korea.