The 2022 FIFA World Cup draw produced an easy path to the knockout round for some of the world’s top teams, but others will be forced to grind out results at the start of their journeys in Qatar.
Brazil and Argentina are among the group favorites that should easily make it into the round of 16. The Netherlands could be put in that mix as well.
France, who won the 2018 World Cup, Spain, Germany, Portugal and a few others will need to be at their best right away to avoid an early let down.
France has a dangerous Denmark side in its group. Spain and Germany are paired with each other. Portugal might be in the toughest group of them all alongside Uruguay, South Korea and Ghana.
Some of the group winners are easy to predict because of the gaps in talent between the top teams and their group stage foes. Others could feature a surprise team advancing to the knockout round. After all, this is the tournament where Italy, Spain and Germany dropped out in the group stage in 2010, 2014 and 2018 respectively after winning the previous version of the competition.
Teams: Netherlands, Senegal, Ecuador, Qatar
The Netherlands appear to be the strongest team on paper in Group A.
The Dutch are back at the World Cup after missing out on qualification in 2018. They advanced to the final in 2010 and the semifinals in 2014.
A fresh batch of Dutch talent, including Cody Gakpo, Xavi Simons and Stephen Bergwijn are ready to make their own impact at the World Cup.
Virgil Van Dijk leads an experienced back line that also features Denzel Dumfries, Stefan de Vrij and Matthijs de Ligt.
The backbone of the Dutch team should help it remain in front of the other three Group A participants throughout the group phase.
Senegal boasts the same strength with a defense led by Chelsea’s Kalidou Koulibaly and goalkeeper Edouard Mendy.
The reigning African Cup of Nations champion has to deal without Sadio Mane for some part of the tournament, which could affect its scoring in Group A.
Ecuador possesses a disciplined unit that conceded just 19 times in CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying. Moisés Caicedo of Brighton and Hove Albion has the potential to break out in the tournament.
Qatar is the big unknown in Group A. The host nation did not go through the rigors of World Cup qualifying and all of its players are rostered in the domestic league.
The Dutch should get through with ease. Senegal or Ecuador will likely join them. The November 29 clash between the two sides could determine second place.
The Netherlands finish group play against Qatar and that should help them wrap up first place as long as they avoid a huge failure against a Mane-less Senegal in the opener and Ecuador in the second match.
Predicted Group Winner: Netherlands
Teams: England, USA, Wales, Iran
England is the clear-cut favorite to win Group B.
The Three Lions went on a tear in UEFA World Cup qualifying. They won eight of their 10 matches and produced two draws.
The expectation for England is to reach another final after falling short to Italy on home soil at UEFA Euro 2020.
Harry Kane will once again be in contention for the Golden Boot. He has plenty of support in attack with Raheem Sterling, Marcus Rashford, Bukayo Saka and others in the squad.
England’s main concern comes at the back, where it lost Reece James and Ben Chilwell to injuries before the World Cup.
Gareth Southgate should be able to piece his defense together for the group stage in preparation for tougher tests to come.
The United States men’s national team’s return to the World Cup is a massive storyline, but so is its inability to find a consistent striker.
Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams lead a very talented midfield, but one of Jesus Ferreira, Josh Sargent and Haji Wright must step up to get the Americans out of the group stage.
Wales’ lone international accomplishment is a semifinal run at UEFA Euro 2016; this is only their second World Cup appearance, with the last being in 1958. A second-place finish would be fantastic for the Welsh.
Iran conceded just four goals in 10 AFC World Cup qualifying matches to get to Qatar. It has an in-form striker in Porto’s Mehdi Taremi.
England should cruise to first in Group B, but second place is harder to figure out with three well matched teams in the mix.
Projected Group Winner: England
Teams: Argentina, Mexico, Poland, Saudi Arabia
Group C is Argentina’s group to lose.
Argentina should outclass Mexico, Poland and Saudi Arabia and secure a spot in the knockout round, where the team’s true World Cup aspirations lie.
Lionel Messi could be extra motivated to perform well in Qatar because, at 35, this could be his last World Cup.
The Albiceleste should start in flying fashion against Saudi Arabia. A multi-goal win in the opener could inspire more confidence within the squad to take on Mexico and Poland.
Mexico has a good record of getting out of the group stage, having done so in each of the last seven World Cups. El Tri might have had an edge to win the group if Argentina was not drawn alongside them.
Poland has not advanced out of the group stage in its last three World Cups and in three of its last four Euro appearances.
If the historical trends continue, Mexico will follow Argentina out of Group C and into the knockout round.
Projected Group Winner: Argentina
Teams: France, Denmark, Tunisia, Australia
Reigning World Cup champion France is the headliner of Group D.
But as Les Bleus have learned in the last year, it is unfair to sleep on Denmark’s quality.
The Danes defeated France twice in the UEFA Nations League this year, with the most-recent win coming on September 25.
Denmark advanced to the semifinals of the UEFA Euro 2020 and it made it to the round of 16 in Russia in 2018.
France will be wary of the threat posed by Denmark, but the two losses in 2022 to the Danes could be the extra motivating force that manager Didier Deschamps needs to focus the 2018 World Cup winner.
Kylian Mbappé is in tremendous form and he is surrounded by a group that includes Antoine Griezmann, Olivier Giroud, Kingsley Coman and Ousmane Dembélé.
France lost Christopher Nkunku to an injury this week and Karim Benzema has been dealing with injuries at Real Madrid this season, but those are not the two injuries that could affect France the most.
The absences of N’Golo Kanté and Paul Pogba could be felt in the group stage and may leave France more open in midfield than it would like.
If Group D was a tougher group, France might have been in trouble, but it should earn six points off Tunisia and Australia.
A win over Denmark comes with extra meaning because of the two clashes between the European sides in 2022 already. We can expect France to come out flying in that match to prove a point that it will be a top contender in the knockout round.
Additionally, winning Group D comes with the prize of likely avoiding Argentina in the round of 16, something France encountered on its way to winning the 2018 World Cup.
Projected Group Winner: France
Teams: Spain, Germany, Costa Rica, Japan
Circle November 27 on your calendar.
The Spain-Germany Group E clash headlines the slate that day. The winner of that match could go on to win the group.
The respective 2010 and 2014 World Cup winners both know what it is like to suffer disappointment in the group stage and that could help them deal with the challenges posed by Costa Rica and Japan.
Spain dropped out in the group stage in 2014 and lost in the round of 16 in 2018, while Germany was eliminated in the group stage four years ago.
The two squads have an abundance of young talent. Gavi, Pedri, Ansu Fati and Pau Torres are among the young Spaniards that can raise their international profiles.
La Roja does not have Sergio Ramos in the back. Only Jordi Alba has more than 45 caps in the Spanish defense. That would be the area of concern for the Spanish.
Germany has the edge in net with Manuel Neuer and most of its top attackers already have strong chemistry from their time at Bayern Munich. There are six Bayern midfielders and forwards on the German roster, led by Thomas Muller and Leroy Sane.
Germany was the more dominant squad in UEFA World Cup qualifying and it has an important edge in net with Neuer that could be the difference against Spain.
Japan is probably the more dangerous underdog in Group E, but it needs some type of result against either Spain or Germany to be in the mix for the knockout round.
Costa Rica needed a win over New Zealand in the intercontinental playoff to get to Qatar and its World Cup hopes likely rely on Keylor Navas in net.
Projected Group Winner: Germany
Teams: Belgium, Croatia, Canada, Morocco
Belgium and Croatia have sky-high expectations going into Qatar.
Croatia was the surprise team of the 2018 World Cup, as it advanced to the final. Belgium made it to the semifinals.
Belgium’s golden generation has taken it to at least the quarterfinals in its last four major tournaments.
The Red Devils have arguably the best midfielder in the world in Kevin De Bruyne running their attack. De Bruyne may be needed more if Romelu Lukaku is not at 100 percent. Lukaku has been dealing with some injuries this season at Inter Milan.
Roberto Martinez’s side is loaded with experience, as it has six players with 100 caps on the roster. De Bruyne and Thibaut Courtois could join that collection of players in Qatar.
Belgium should be the favorite to advance out of Group F because of its consistency at the top international levels.
Croatia could be in a bit of trouble. The 2018 run was an exception to its World Cup trend. Croatia exited the group stage in 2002, 2006 and 2014. It only made it to the round of 16 at the last two Euros.
Canada will be fearless with its group, led by Bayern’s Alphonso Davies, and it has some quality up top that could surprise the two European teams in its group.
Morocco only scored two goals in the 2018 World Cup and it may not be a huge threat to Belgium, but it could take a point off Canada or Croatia if they do not respect the African side.
Projected Group Winner: Belgium
Teams: Brazil, Switzerland, Serbia, Cameroon
The World Cup draw probably brought about some deja vu for three Group G teams.
Brazil, Switzerland and Serbia were together with Costa Rica in Group E in Russia.
Brazil won that group with seven points. The Selecão beat Serbia and tied with Switzerland.
Since then, Brazil rolled through CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying behind one of the most talented attacking units ever assembled, led by Neymar.
Neymar is the star of the Brazilian team, but do not be surprised to see Richarlison, Antony and others on the score sheet. Vinicius Junior, Raphinha, Gabriel Jesus and Rodrygo are also on the World Cup roster.
Brazil should win Group G on pure talent alone. The Selecão are one of four teams to make it to the knockout round in each of the last three World Cups.
Switzerland made it out of the group stage in three of its last four World Cup appearances, but it has not made the quarterfinals since 1954. Serbia is 0-for-2 in attempts to get out of the group stage.
Cameroon could be a tough foe for everyone in Group G with an in-form Eric Choupo-Moting up top. The Indomitable Lions conceded 14 times in their last two World Cups. If their defense holds up, they may be able to earn a result or two.
Projected Group Winner: Brazil
Teams: Portugal, Uruguay, South Korea, Ghana
Uruguay is the most consistent international team in Group H.
The South American nation advanced to the round of 16 in the last three World Cups and it got into the quarterfinals at three of the last four Copa Americans.
Uruguay is one of the most battle-tested teams in the tournament. Luis Suárez, Edinson Cavani, Diego Godín and Fernando Muslera are still around, but La Celeste injected new talent into the squad over the last few years.
Darwin Núñez, Rodrigo Bentancur and Federico Valverde all come into the tournament in solid form and they could be the keys to winning Group H and going on a deep run in Qatar.
Even though Portugal has Cristiano Ronaldo on its roster, it has been inconsistent at times on the international stage. Portugal won Euro 2016 and then dropped out in the round of 16 in the last tournament. It was bounced in the World Cup group stage in 2014 and lost in the round of 16 in 2010 and 2018.
No one knows what version of Ronaldo will show up for Portugal and that could make the European side vulnerable in matches with Ghana and South Korea.
Ghana and South Korea are no pushovers and they will contend for one of the two advancement spots out of Group H.
Uruguay has been the most consistent side of the four at this level, and that is why it has the edge in Group H, but the order of the group could be up in the air if Portugal disappoints.
Projected Group Winner: Uruguay
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