Qatar 2022 World Cup: Who will top Group of Death?

Germany will be looking to bounce back after their shock first-round exit in 2018. File photo: AFP/Ina Fassbender

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 E and F.

Read the first two parts (Qatar 2022 World Cup: Dutch favourites to top Group A) and (Qatar 2022 World Cup: Argentina primed to win Group C) of the series here.

Clash of the titans
The group which most closely embodies the moniker of Group of Death will be Group E as it contains the two heavyweights that are Spain and Germany. Both teams will be looking to bounce back after a disappointing outing in Russia, with the 2014 champions Germany making a shock exit in the group stages and Spain following behind with a round of 16 loss to the hosts.

Since then both teams have undergone huge transformations. Spain brought in many talented youngsters such as Pedri, Gavi and Ferran Torres and have bolstered their team with these new faces. They made an impressive run in the Euro 2020 reaching the semifinals where they lost a penalty shoot out to would-be champions Italy. Since then, they also reached the final of the Nations League where they lost to the current World Cup champions France.

Despite these losses, Spain look like serious contenders and will hope to finish top of the group to get an easier draw in the knockouts. They will have their work cut out though as they face a rejuvenated Germany, who are under a new management since Hansi Flick took over from Joachim Low.

Flick, who had previously led Bayern Munich to a sextuple in 2020, still remains undefeated since he has taken over as coach. Flick has no shortage of talent in his team, with a perfect mix of veterans as well as youngsters. Players like Manuel Neuer and Thomas Muller, who were instrumental to their 2014 World Cup victory, will hope to add another trophy to their cabinet with the help of the younger stars like Kai Havertz and Timo Werner.

Spain are one of the title contenders. File photo: AFP/Jorge Guerrero

No pushovers

Japan and Costa Rica make up the rest of the group and while both teams seem unlikely to advance, they will still put up a tough fight against the two giants. Although Japan did exit in the round of 16 last time, this was due to a miracle comeback by Belgium in the final quarter of the match, after the Samurai Blue led 2-0 for most part of the game. Costa Rica, on the other hand, exited after a poor performance in the group stage and haven’t exactly been in the best of form since then.

Since making their debut at the 1998 World Cup, Japan have not missed a single World Cup. So far, they have had an alternating trend of being knocked out of the group stages in one edition and then being eliminated in the round of 16 the next edition. The team will hope to breakthrough to the quarterfinals this time, with the help of stars like Takumi Minamino, who helped Liverpool reach the final of the 2021-22 FA Cup, Arsenal’s impressive new defender Takehiro Tomiyasu and captain Maya Yoshida.

Costa Rica, will be playing their sixth World Cup in Qatar and will hope to recreate their 2014 dream form to make it out of the group. At the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, Costa Rica were expected to exit early after being placed in the Group of Death, which included three former World Cup champions - Italy, England and Uruguay- all of whom were then in the top 10 of FIFA World Rankings. The Los Ticos, as they are called, surprised everyone by topping the group and even remaining undefeated, knocking out both England and Italy. They reached the quarterfinals, where they unfortunately lost to the Netherlands on penalties, after a tense draw. Eight years later, the team find themselves in a similar position and will hope that veterans of the 2014 campaign like PSG goalkeeper Keylor Navas and forward Joel Campbell, who secured their qualification, will once again be there to help the team out of the Group of Death.

Heavyweight duel

Group F will see the runners-up and third place winners of the last edition go head to head as Croatia and Belgium will clash. Joining these two are Canada, who will be making just their second appearance in the tournament, and Morocco - featuring in their sixth World Cup.

Qatar could well be the venue where the golden generation of Belgium bids farewell. The team held onto the top spot in the FIFA rankings for almost four years from 2018 till their dethronement in 2022 by Brazil. Yet they never won a single international trophy during this entire period. Despite being praised as one of the most lethal and complete teams in world football and having some of the best players in the game, the Red Devils have not been able to enter the summit clash. Whether it was crashing out of the 2018 World Cup in the semifinals or losing to Italy in the quarterfinals of Euro 2020, the team could not scale that final mountain and clinch the trophy. The golden generation is now in its 30s but this hasn’t stopped players like Kevin de Bruyne or Thibaut Courtois from being the best players in their respective positions in the world. Both have been instrumental to the trophies won by their respective clubs and are equally prolific when playing for Belgium. The defensive duo of Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen are both well into their mid 30s now, yet manager Robert Martinez puts his faith solely in them to cover the penalty area, which could be their weakness. A return to form for players like Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku, would further bolster the team. If this is the beginning of the end for the golden generation, then they will be hoping to go out on a high.

Belgium will be hoping to make amends for years of disappointment. File photo: Reuters/Yves Herman

Onus on Modric

Luka Modric will once again hope to inspire Croatia to another fairy-tale run after their performance in 2018 won the hearts of millions of fans around the world. The Vatreni's road to the summit clash in 2018 included beating heavyweights such as Argentina and England, but in the end they fell just short, losing 4-2 to France in the final. Although the team topped their group in the qualifiers, they have not been performing at the same level as in 2018 and crashed out of the Euro 2020 in the pre-quarterfinals.

Modric is now 36 years old but shows no sign of stopping as shown in his recent display against Chelsea in the Champions League quarterfinals, which helped Real Madrid to advance. The current Golden Ball winner will be leading his team from the front as he did in 2018 and Croatia will hope to reach the final once more but with a different result this time around.

Prior to the 2022 World Cup, Canada had made just a lone appearance in the tournament in 1986, where they made an early group stage departure. More than three decades later, they return to the big stage but this time making more noise along the way. Led by Bayern Munich’s Alphonso Davies, who at the age of 21 has already won the sextuple with his club and is receiving shouts of the best left-back of his generation, Canada look like a formidable team. With his explosive pace and creativity, Davies has become a key part of the team and scored the opening goal as Canada beat the US for the first time in 34 years in the 2019 CONCACAF Nations League group match. The team topped the qualifiers and will be expecting to at least make it out of the group stage although that route seems tough.

Luka Modric
Luka Modric, right, holds the key to Croatia's fortunes. File photo: Reuters/Gonzalo Fuentes

Making their sixth appearance in the tournament, Morocco will hope to make it further than the round of 16, their best performance so far which came in the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. The Atlas Lions will have to do better than their lacklustre performance in the 2021 African Cup of Nations (AFCON), which saw them being knocked out in the quarterfinals. Their AFCON campaign was blamed upon the internal conflicts which had been plaguing the team for a while. The rocky relationship between head coach Vahid Halilhodzic and star player Hakim Ziyech and with others like Ajax’s Noussair Mazraoui, ended in the two players not making it to the AFCON squad despite being two of the very best the the country had to offer. With many fans angered over their exclusion, Halilhodzic stated that he did not need players who wouldn’t train or refused to play which has been refuted many times by the players. The conflict resulted in Ziyech retiring from international football at the age of 28 and refused the coach’s invitation to play in the World Cup qualifiers, along with Mazraoui. Although Morocco will be hoping that their scorned players will rethink their decision, they will have to bank on the stars who are still left in the team. PSG defender Achraf Hakimi, widely considered one of the best right-backs in the game right now, as well as captain Romain Saiss will be pivotal for Morocco if they want to get out of the group stages.

(To be continued)

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