Battle lines have been drawn for the FIFA World Cup 2022 to be held in Qatar from November 21 to December 18. Middle East's maiden World Cup promises to be a treat for the football fans. Onmanorama analyses the prospects of the teams in this four-part series and today we will have Group C and D.
Read Part 1 of the series here (Qatar 2022 World Cup: Dutch favourites to top Group A).
Group C has already been given a winner by most fans and pundits, as Argentina seem poised to top the group. The fight for second place is likely to be between Mexico and Poland with Saudi Arabia completing the group.
Lionel Messi will look to Qatar to provide him with the one trophy missing from his cabinet and this time he has an able team to back him up. Qatar will most likely be the final World Cup where football fans across the world will be able to watch the wonderkid from Rosario weave his way in and out of the path of defenders and make the whole stadium dance to the rhythm of his feet movement. Many have said in the past that Messi has not been supported by his teammates at the international level and often the fortunes of the team depended solely on his performance. Now, he finally has a team with which he has truly been prospering internationally, winning both his first Copa America and the Finalissima within the past year.
Argentina are currently on a 32-game unbeaten streak, their longest so far. After their 3-0 thumping of Italy at Wembley, they are just five short of the longest unbeaten streak of all time which was coincidentally held by the Azzurri they had just beaten (37 games from 2018-2021). The Albiceleste have many prolific players among them who have contributed to their success. This includes Aston Villa goalkeeper Emi Martinez, veteran Angel Di Maria, Inter Milan’s star striker Lautaro Martinez and Spurs' defender Cristan Romero. Each player will hope to be on the best of forms and help their captain on one final push for the elusive World Cup.
Although many pundits have written them off as just fighting for second place, the rest of the teams in Group C are sure not to go easy on Argentina. Mexico and Poland could trouble them.
Mexico started off their last campaign in Russia with a bang by handing a shock defeat to then defending champions Germany. Unfortunately, although they qualified for the knockouts, they were sent home in the round of 16 after a 2-0 defeat to Brazil. Since 2020, Mexico have been quite inconsistent and haven’t won any continental trophies despite reaching the finals of both the 2021 CONCACAF Nations League and the 2021 CONCACAF Gold Cup. They were defeated by the US (3-2 and 1-0) on both occasions. They will be pining their hopes on the players who helped them in their 2018 campaign like Napoli’s Hirving Lazano, who scored the goal which sank the German ship, Wolverhampton Wanderers' talisman Raul Jiminez and their captain Andres Guardado, who will be playing in his fifth World Cup. Mexico will hope to break their streak of exiting at the round of 16 since the 1994 World Cup and will hope to better their best performance to date which was reaching the quarterfinals in 1970 and 1986, the two years in which they hosted the tournament.
The most important match in this group could be the one between Poland and Mexico as the winner will have a higher chance of progressing to the next stage. Poland have not truly been a force to reckon with in global football since the 1980s. They have only participated in eight editions of the World Cup so far but have finished third twice, in 1974 and 1982. Since the turn of the century, they have only qualified for three editions and have never got past the group stage. All hopes will rest on the shoulders of one man: Robert Lewandowski. Widely considered as one of the best strikers in the game right now, Lewandowski is a prolific goal-scorer. His knack of finding the back of the net from any direction has helped his club Bayern Munich out on many occasions. With his help, Bayern were able to secure the treble in the 2020 season. Lewandowski scored 41 goals in the 2020-21 Bundesliga season which broke the record held by Gerd Muller and also came a close second to Lionel Messi in the 2021 Ballon d’Or awards. Despite this, he hasn't been able to replicate his success at the international level, with Poland finishing bottom of their group in 2020 Euros, failing to win a single game. Hopefully Lewandowski will be able to inspire his team and attempt to make it out of the group stages.
Saudi Arabia will also be travelling to their neighbouring country for the 2022 edition and eyeing an upset or two. The country will be playing in their sixth World Cup, with their best performance coming in 1994 in the US, where they reached the round of 16. They have shown improvement since their performance in Russia, where they exited in the group stage after winning just one match.
Under coach Herve Renard, Saudi Arabia easily qualified for Qatar 2022 by winning seven out of their 10 matches. Renard has managed to become the most successful foreign coach in the country’s history, winning 18 matches.
Defending champions France will be looking to become only the third team after Italy (1934 and 1938) and Brazil (1958 and 1962) to win the World Cup back to back. To reach the knockout stages, they will be facing off against Australia, Denmark and Tunisia.
France will hope to plot a similar course to victory as they did in 2018 and add a third Cup to their trophy cabinet. In fact it will be deja vu for the French as both Australia and Denmark were present in the same group last time too. The only change is Peru’s spot being filled in by Tunisia. Yet if the current record of the defending champions are to be believed, France might be in for a shocking exit. Since the turn of the century, only Brazil in 2006 were able to clear the group stages as defending champions. Other than them all the defending champions fell in the group stages, including Germany in 2018, which was their first ever exit in the first round. Although Les Bleus won the 2020-2021 UEFA Nations League after a 2-1 victory over Spain in the final, their performance was not convincing. A 5-4 loss on penalties to Switzerland, saw the 2016 finalists knocked out in the round of 16 in Euro 2020. The team will be looking to bounce back and put on a show in Qatar. Coach Didier Deschamps is spoilt for choice in almost every position. No player can be certain of his place in the squad with the amount of talent which is available at hand. Some of the most probable stars will be Chelsea’s N’Golo Kante, French captain and goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, and PSG defender Presnel Kimpembe. Of course, the strike force of the team will without doubt consist of Karim Benzema and Kylian Mbappe, two players who have had an amazing season. Benzema, in particular, has had a truly outstanding season with Real Madrid, winning both the La Liga and the Champions League and is the frontrunner for the next Ballon d’Or. Mbappe, who was strongly linked with a move to Real Madrid, opted instead to stay at PSG after being offered a say in the sporting department of the club as well as increased wages, making him the highest paid footballer in the world. If the two continue their form, they could wreak havoc in Qatar and break the trend of group stage exits for the defending champions. France are definitely one of the favourites to win the World Cup and the young squad will definitely be hoping to make it two in a row.
Australia seemed to be in for an easy qualification after starting off with 11 straight wins but a few lacklustre performances later, they were forced to play the inter-continental play-offs. The team rallied to beat Peru on penalties and secured their place in the tournament for the fifth time in a row and the sixth time overall. Their best performance to date was in Germany in 2006, where they reached the round of 16 before losing to the eventual champions Italy. The Soceroos will be aiming to better that record but the road to progress will be tough.
Tunisia seem to be in the same boat as Australia as they too will hope to overachieve if they are to reach the knockouts. They will be partaking in their sixth finals but are yet to make it past the group stage. The team is under new management after Mondher Kebaier was sacked following a thoroughly underwhelming performance in the Africa Cup of Nations 2021, which saw Tunisia fall in the quarterfinals after a 1-0 loss to Burkina Faso. The Eagles of Carthage have gone on to win the 2022 Kirin Cup in Japan, defeating Chile and Japan along the way. They will want to carry on this good form to Qatar and put on a charge to progress to their first ever knockouts.
The Danish story at the 2020 Euros is one which is familiar to most football fans at this point. Tragedy struck as their star player Christian Eriksen suffered a cardiac arrest in their first match, a defeat against Finland. The team rallied together for their fallen teammate and led an impressive charge before losing to England in the semifinals. Their performance, even after losing such an integral player who was the heart of the team, brought happiness not only to the Danish supporters but football fans across the globe. Going into Qatar, Denmark will be ecstatic with the return of Eriksen but whether he will be selected for the World Cup is still in question. The team will rather be banking on players like ex-Chelsea centre-back Andreas Christensen, RB Leipzig striker Yussuf Poulsen, Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Leicester City goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel. Their current run of form in the Nations League has been impressive as they beat France 2-1 and got the better of Austria twice (2-0 and 2-1). The Danes will hope to replicate their Euro 2020 performance in the World Cup and better their best ever show - which was a quarterfinals exit in France in 1998.
(To be continued)