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  • Writer's pictureRyan Weiner

Messi's Last Dance, a Contentious Host and France's Repeat?: What to Watch From Groups A-D at Qatar

Messi. Ronaldo. Mbappé. Neymar. De Bruyne. Lewandoski. When the 2022 World Cup kicks off on November 20th, all the stars will be ready to rumble. With 32 teams from six continents squaring off, there's bound to be an incredible amount of action. But, what should viewers be most focused on for each squad when the world comes to Qatar? That is what Let's Talk Sports will be diving in on today. Disclaimer: This part will exclusively cover teams in Groups A-D

Group A:

Ecuador- The big thing to watch with Ecuador is if they can actually compete with the immense amount of adversity they will face in Qatar. After a scandal arose in regards to defender Byron Castillo's eligibility since he was actually born in Colombia, other South American countries like Chile and Peru were against the idea of Ecuador qualifying and sent in an appeal. However, Ecuador won and will be in Qatar. While this is great, Ecuador faces a relatively tough group with both Netherlands and Senegal being top 20 squads. This is not to say that Ecuador cannot make it to the knockout stage, but the combination of the stacked odds and the controversy means it will require strong performances from veterans such as Piero Hincapié and Moisés Caicedo for La Tri to get out of the group. Prediction: 3rd in Group

Netherlands- For Netherlands, advancing out of this group is an expectation, not a goal. But, one thing fans should watch is the rise of younger players such as Cody Gakpo, Frankie de Jong and Steven Bergwijn alongside decorated vets Memphis Depay and Virgil van Djik. Although de Jong already has 45 caps, just four less than van Djik, he is only 25 and has so much more room to grow as evidenced by his constant improvement and evolution into a solid La Liga midfielder at Barcelona. Gakpo and Bergwijn are following in these footsteps as well as they dominate the Eredivisie, combining for 16 goals in 21 appearances this season for Ajax and PSV Eindhoven, respectively. Based on their veteran skill alone, the Dutch will be great fun to watch as they cruise into the knockout stage. However, the appearances of these younger players into the starting 11 and off the bench will inject a new energy to this squad that could very well carry them to the quarterfinals or beyond. Prediction: 1st in Group, Quarterfinal Exit

Qatar- Unfortunately, the most important thing to watch for Qatar at their own World Cup will not be the soccer. Instead, it will be the protests, obscure laws, and scandals surrounding just about everything Qatar has put into the 2022 World Cup. Whether its the mistreatment and death of their guest workers, restrictions on traditional soccer culture (drinking alcohol and removing shirts) or how they'll respond to inevitable protests for other global issues, the Qatari government is going to have a lot to work through this November. Regardless, it is worth noting that Qatar will likely be the second hosts since 2000 to fail to make the knockout stage, as they are one of the lowest ranked teams in the entire tournament and consist of only players from the Qatar Stars League. While this does mean Qatar should have solid chemistry, the odds are not in their favor and the distraction of the media surrounding their government will likely put unwarranted pressure on the Qatari squad. Prediction: 4th in Group

Senegal- Upfront, the most important thing to watch about Senegal is their potential. This is easily one of the most talented Senegal squads in recent memory, and they should be able to escape the group unscathed. Sadio Mané is an elite forward right now, and he looks to lead a blistering attack that features a ton of young talent from across the major European leagues such as Ismaïla Sarr and Bamba Dieng. On the other end of the pitch, captain Kalidou Koulibaly will likely be able to hold down the fort with no issue. Alongside him, Papa Aboud Cisse and Abou Diallo look to limit the offensive firepower of opposing units. Overall, while the group as a whole might not be the most talented in the world, they have the correct combination of attack, defense, depth and chemistry to make a run in Qatar that would shock the football world. Prediction: 2nd in Group, Round of 16 Exit

Group B:

England- Easily the odds on favorites to win the group, fans should be watching England to see if they can hold their ground with the heavyweights. The English come in with the fourth best odds to win it all in Qatar, just behind Brazil, France and Argentina. But, if all four teams place first in their group as they are predicted to, England would be lined up for a quarterfinal matchup against France, a semifinal matchup against either Germany or Belgium and then a finals match versus Brazil or Argentina. Yikes. Although you do have to beat the best to be the best, there are definitely worse teams still left in those rounds that they could've been slated to play. As of late England has floundered when the pressure is on, having choked away the Euro final in 2020 and botching their recent games in the Nations League. They have all the talent to make a run, with stars like Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling and Trent Alexander-Arnold headlining this loaded Lions squad. But, whether they have the guts or not is something to ponder. Prediction: 1st in Group, Quarterfinal Exit

Iran- Like many other teams from their region, the Iranian national squad mainly has players from the Persian Gulf Pro League and the Qatar Stars League. But, that does not mean this team lacks the skill to compete on the global stage. Fans should keep an eye on the offensive talent this Iranian squad has. Mehdi Taremi and Sardar Azmoun will help keep pressure on opponents back lines while middies such as Ali Gholizadeh and Alireza Jahanbakhsh will support on both ends of the ball. Their defense is a little weak, so Iran will likely have to rely on netting at least two goals in any match they want to win. Now, is it a longshot for Iran to make it our of this tough group? Absolutely. However, there is nothing saying they cannot steal at least one win in this group and potentially make it out somehow. Prediction: 4th in Group

United States- Stumbling into the World Cup, the United States went from looking like a potential sleeper to go deep to a team that could very likely fail to make it out of their group. Nonetheless, the talent of the team is there to make a run. Captained by winger Christian Pulisic, the Americans are poised to redeem themselves after missing out on the 2018 World Cup. But, one thing to watch for them is their maturity. The true leaders of the team (Pulisic, Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams) are still pretty young for national team standards, and the rest of the major contributors like Brendan Aaronson and Gio Reyna are babies on the world stage. This could work well or very poorly for America. Their youth will help keep the team in good form throughout the tournament and also provide for a sense of mystery as many players skillsets and potentials are unknown. However, this youth can also be a source for naivety within the squad and it is likely the team needs more games than it has to get their chemistry in check. Overall though, the USA should be good to at least make it through the group. Prediction: 2nd in Group, Round of 16 Exit

Wales- When one thinks of Welsh football, there is only one player that comes to mind. Gareth Bale. Bale will be captaining an inexperienced Dragons squad in their first World Cup since 1958, and it is likely that they'll need some luck to make it through. Despite their high ranking, only one player besides Bale has more than 10 goals, and only two others have over 100 caps. With that being said, watch for the other Welsh talent to breakout. Keeper Wayne Hennessey should provide security in goal, and Ben Davies & Chris Gunter will be able to keep opponents our of their territory for the majority of matches. Aaron Ramsey will also help Bale put pressure on opponent defenses. This Wales team has gone toe-to-toe with the best of Europe for the last few years now, and they are ready to make a statement in Qatar. But, can they make it through a tough group? I think not. Prediction: 3rd in Group

Group C:

Argentina- What to watch for in Argentina? One word: Messi. In what will almost certainly be his last World Cup, fans should appreciate Messi's greatness one last time on the global stage in Qatar. Fortunately, fans should be able to see a lot of this greatness, as Argentina is poised to win their group and make a run very deep into the tournament despite some setbacks. With the likelihood of veterans such as Angel di María and Paulo Dybala missing the cup, Messi will be tasked with leading this group by himself on the offensive half. On the defensive side, Marcos Acuña, Christian Romero and Nicolas Otamendi will make it hard for opponents to find the back of the net. To sum it all up, Messi has yet to win a World Cup... yet. Expect Argentina to make a very deep run and be in the mix to win it all at the end. Bonus thing to watch: Messi is only ten goals away from notching his 100th with the national team. Very unlikely to happen, but anything is possible. Prediction: 1st in Group, Semifinal Exit

Mexico- In Qatar, fans should watch Mexico to see if they will fall off. Normally a team that is a safe bet to put up a solid performance, Mexico is in serious danger of disappointing this year. Star player Raul Jimenez is currently injured and not guaranteed to be healthy and in good form by the start of the tournament. Additionally, keeper Guillermo Ochoa is reaching the waning years of his career and is a shell of the wall he used to be in the net. They do still have solid chemistry and decent talent, with a player like Hirving Lozano being someone that will make up for the potential loss of Jimenez on the offensive front. The pieces are still there to compete with the rest of the group, but now Mexico lacks the true star power to advance and make a real run in the tournament. The ceiling for this squad is now the round of 16, and it will take a lot to get there. Prediction: 3rd in Group

Poland- Often overlooked in the grand scheme of European football, the Poles might just sneak their way into a knockout round appearance. Obviously Robert Lewandowski will provide the firepower up front, but underrated players such as Arkadiusz Milik, Kamil Glik and Piotr Zielinski will also come up big with support. This Polish team also has incredible experience, as there are seven players with 50+ caps. Look for them to use this experience, and therefore the inevitable chemistry that comes with it, to outsmart other teams with smooth, consistent play. The Poles will be methodical, likely waiting until findign the perfect window to strike and relying on a tough defense to prevent any counterattacks. This will likely work on teams with less chemistry or a lack of talent, and therefore propel Poland to the knockout stage. Prediction: 2nd in Group, Round of 16 Exit

Saudi Arabia- This is going to be a rough three games for Saudi Arabia. As if playing two of the best players in the world in Messi and Lewandowski wasn't enough, they also have to face a tough Mexico team as well. Long story short, there isn't a lot of hope for Saudi Arabia to do anything in Qatar. Fortunately, their team has elite chemistry due to the fact that they all play on a few teams from the Saudi Professional League, which should help them stay relatively competitive for some games. Aside from the negative, watch to see the next generetion of Saudi football take the reigns. Almost the entirety of their attacking unit is under 23, and their keepers are also relatively young. Maybe if these units develop correctly Saudi Arabia could win some matches in the future, but for now they really have no shot. Prediction: 4th in Group

Group D:

Australia- After barely sneaking into the tournament by beating a tough Peru squad in penalties, the Australians face the tough task of getting through a group with the reigning champs. Captain Matthew Ryan will lead the squad between the sticks, but the thing to watch with the Australians is their offensive potential, or more likely the lack thereof. Matthew Leckie is a solid offensive option for the Aussies, but is probably worse than the majority of backup options for the teams in their group. The same goes for Aaron Mooy and Craig Goodwin, who will lead the midfield unit for Australia. As much grit as this team has, they simply lack the talent to escape a group like this. France is France, Denmark has a tough defense, and even Tunisia has an overall more talented squad. Don't expect much out of this squad, although Ryan's ability to keep opponents off the scoreboard might make some games close. Prediction: 3rd in Group

Denmark- This is a very sneaky team, and might be Denmark's best since the 1998 squad that reached the quarterfinals. In addition to Kasper Schmeichel holding down the fort in goal, the Danes have an great defensive unit featuring Simon Kjær and Andreas Christiansen. Then there's Christian Eriksen, who continues to inspire all with his amazing play after suffering cardiac arrest in Euro 2020. He'll be joined by Pierre-Emile Højbjerg in the midfield, who currently looks like the best man on the squad after some solid seasons with Tottenham. Watch to see if the Danes can use all this to make it to the quarters once again. If the Danes get second in this group, they'll likely face a tough Argentina squad. While this is certainly rough, the tough defensive unit Denmark has can certainly give Messi and co. a run for their money. Prediction: 2nd in Group, Round of 16 Exit

France- Only two squads have ever repeated as World Cup champions, and none have done it in the last 50 years. So, can France make history? That will be what fans should be most excited to watch from the loaded France squad as they make their way to Qatar. Even without N'golo Kante, France still has an absurd combination of players such as Kylian Mbappé, Karim Benzema, Hugo Lloris and Kingsley Coman (which doesn't even cover half of the elite talent the French have to offer). Additionally, they have incredible experience, with three players over 100 caps and more on the way with Benzema and Paul Pogba being a few appearances from the mark. The only question mark for France is if they can avoid bad luck. While they do have an easy group, they will face a slate of brutal final matches on the road to the final with the likes of Poland, England, Germany and/or Belgium waiting for them before they even get to the final. Regardless, France should be able to handle business and make it deep, and are my choice to win it all. Prediction: 1st in Group, World Cup Champions

Tunisia- If I were to write this article a few days ago, the thing to watch with Tunisia would be far different, as the squad looks to make the knockout round for the first time in the nation's history. Tunisia was just recently issued a ban threat from FIFA for legal and political interference in football affairs, which is a big no-no for an organization that likes to keep dirty politics away as much as possible. How this will affect the players is very much a question that the world is waiting to see, as the pressure of being at the World Cup alone is enough to mess with players. Ellyes Skhiri and Aïssa Laïdouni will keep the Tunisians steady in the backfield, while Naïm Sliti and Saad Bguir will be pivotal to the success of Tunisia on the offensive side of the ball. Overall, Tunisia's political situation might be more interesting than their soccer play, and they probably won't get very far. But, they definitely could sneak a win in somewhere if they catch an opponent slipping. Prediction: 4th in Group

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