FIFA World Cup Group A Preview: Hosts Qatar face stiff challenge

FIFA World Cup Group A Preview: Hosts Qatar face stiff challenge

Since being named host of the 2022 World Cup a decade ago, the Qatari national team has made great strides in international soccer, including winning its first ever Asian Cup in 2019. At the same time, the tiny Gulf nation has climbed to No. 51 from 112th in the FIFA world rankings as millions of dollars in resources have been poured into the program in an effort to ensure Qatar will be competitive beyond this year’s World Cup.

But make no mistake about it: Qatar faces a big challenge, as it has been pooled in Group A with three nations in the Netherlands, Senegal and Ecuador who all have World Cup experience. Furthermore, while Qatar relies exclusively on domestic-based players, all of its group rivals can call upon players who ply their trade at top clubs in foreign leagues. Even with the benefit of the home crowd, Qatar will be up against it in its World Cup debut.

GROUP A SCHEDULE

Nov. 20: Qatar vs. Ecuador (11 a.m. ET)
Nov. 21: Senegal vs. Netherlands (11 a.m. ET)
Nov. 25: Qatar vs. Senegal (8 a.m. ET)
Nov. 25: Netherlands vs. Ecuador (11 a.m. ET)
Nov. 29: Netherlands vs. Qatar (10 a.m. ET)
Nov. 29: Ecuador vs. Senegal (10 a.m. ET)


 

 

THE TEAMS

QATAR
FIFA world ranking: 50
Top scorer in qualifying: Automatically qualified as host
Odds to win the World Cup: +15,600 (via Sports Interaction)
Odds to win the group: +1,500

Previous World Cup appearances: 0

Manager: Félix Sánchez
Probable formation: 5-3-2
Probable starting XI: Saad Al Sheeb (Al-Sadd) — Homam Ahmed (Al-Gharafa), Abdelkarim Hassan (Al-Sadd), Tarek Salman (Al-Sadd), Bassam Al-Rawi (Al-Duhail), Ró-Ró (Al-Sadd) — Mohammed Waad (Al-Sadd), Karim Boudiaf (Al-Duhail), Abdulaziz Hatem (Al-Rayyan) — Akram Afif (Al-Sadd), Hassan Al-Haydos (Al-Saad)

The Big Question: Can Qatar avoid joining South Africa (in 2010) as the only World Cup host nation not to advance out of the group stage to the knockout round?

The Pulse: Spanish manager Félix Sánchez has been in charge of Qatar’s national team since 2017 and has built a hard-working side that plays attack-minded football and seeks to hurt teams with its speed on the counter. In particular, winger Akram Afif is a dangerous player when Qatar launches forward, and he can be a handful when he cuts into the middle from off the left flank. Afif, 26, is one of several players who features for Qatari club Al-Sadd, so there’s a fair bit of familiarity and cohesion within the national team.

However, there’s no overlooking the fact that the hosts simply don’t have the same quality and depth of options as the other nations in Group A, as every member of its team plays professionally in Qatar’s modest domestic league. Sánchez’s side has also proven to be vulnerable at the back, and you have to think Qatar’s defence will struggle to contain strikers the calibre of Senegal’s Sadio Mané (Bayern Munich) and the Netherlands’ Memphis Depay (FC Barcelona).

The X-factor: Homefield advantage can mean a lot at the World Cup, especially for those host nations without the greatest pedigree. One recalls how South Korea was able to overachieve and ride a tidal wave of home support to a fourth-place finish when it co-hosted the tournament in 2002. Four years ago, an average Russian side survived a tough opening group and then upset Spain in the round of 16 before losing to eventual finalists Croatia via penalty shootout in the quarterfinals.

Qatar doesn’t have much going for itself when you consider the overall quality and depth of its roster. But as the first Middle Eastern country to host the World Cup, the Qataris will be buoyed by huge enthusiastic partisan crowds, something their Group A opponents won’t have the benefit of as they try to acclimatize to the local conditions.
While football will be front and centre at the World Cup, an ongoing and important dialogue will continue to take place over Qatar’s moral fitness to host such an event. Thousands of migrant workers lost their lives in the frenzy of building seven new stadiums for the World Cup, while the country’s laws making homosexuality illegal are obvious flashpoints of controversy. Questions over Qatar’s egregious track record when it comes to human rights are sure to cast a pall over this World Cup.

The Breakout Candidate: You’ve probably never heard of Almoez Ali, but the Sudan-born forward/winger has been a goal-scoring machine for Qatar since making his international debut in 2016. Ali, 26, was a key figure for Qatar in 2019 when it shocked the field by winning its first Asian Cup. He scored a tournament-record nine goals, including the opener in the win over Japan in the final.


The 21-year-old Moises Caicedo is expected to be a figure in Ecuador’s midfield. (Martin Meissner/AP)

ECUADOR
FIFA world ranking: 44
Top scorer in qualifying: Michael Estrada (6 goals)
Odds to win the World Cup: +9,220 (via Sports Interaction)
Odds to win the group: +479

Previous World Cup appearances: 3
Best showing: Round of 16 in 2006
2018 World Cup: Did not qualify 

Manager: Gustavo Alfaro
Probable formation: 4-3-3
Probable starting XI: Alexander Domínguez (LDU Quito) — Pervis Estupiñán (Brighton & Hove Albion), Piero Hincapié (Bayer Leverkusen), Robert Arboleda (São Paulo), Ángelo Preciado (Genk) — Moisés Caicedo (Brighton & Hove Albion), Carlos Gruezo FC Augsburg), Alan Franco (Talleres) — Enner Valencia (Fenerbahçe), Michael Estrada (Cruz Azul), Gonzalo Plata (Valladolid)

The Big Question: Can Ecuador get out of Group A and match its best World Cup showing in 2006, when it narrowly lost to England in the round of 16?

The Pulse: Even though Ecuador finished fourth in the South American qualifiers to claim the last automatic berth, it was never in serious trouble of missing out on the World Cup. La Tricolor was a model of consistency, boasting the third-best defence in the region (19 goals against in 18 games) and the second-ranked attack in the region (27 goals). They also registered a big victory over fellow World Cup participant Uruguay, as well as earning valuable draws vs. South American heavyweights Brazil and Argentina. If Ecuador performs to the level it did in the qualifiers, it can challenge for one of the top two spots in Group A and advance to the knockout round

This is a team blessed with great speed, which comes to the fore when it counter-attacks opponents down both flanks. But don’t expect Ecuador to fall into a defensive bunker. Rather, it uses its quickness to aggressively press teams high up the pitch in order to win back possession. However, one wonders how this relatively young side will deal with the pressure of playing on soccer’s biggest stage. There are also some questions as to who will provide the goals, aside from forwards Michael Estrada and Enner Valencia.

The X-factor: After failing to qualify for Russian in 2018, Ecuador went through a number of coaches before settling on the relatively unknown Gustavo Alfaro. The Argentine had no previous connection to the country, and he was appointed just before the South American qualifiers kicked off in October 2020. The years of turmoil were instantly forgotten, as Alfaro did an excellent job of pulling his team together, while also showing his trust in the country’s wealth of youth products. 

Rather than put his own tactical stamp on the team, Alfaro built Ecuador’s style of play around the counter-attacking skills of the roster, and the team responded by showing a high level of cohesion that allowed it to claim an automatic World Cup berth. The way this side has come together in a short period of time under Alfaro was remarkable, and the unity it has shown under the Argentine should serve it well in Qatar.

The Breakout Candidate: Midfielder Moises Caicedo was only a teenager when he made his senior team in 2020, tagged as a starter by Alfaro as Ecuador began its World Cup qualifying campaign. He didn’t shrivel under the challenge — four days after debuting in a loss to Argentina, Caicedo scored the opening goal in his country’s win over Uruguay. 

Caicedo, now 21, has gone from strength to strength since then, establishing himself as a key figure in central midfield for Ecuador. The Premier League midfielder gives his country a physical presence in the middle of the park, routinely winning back possession of the ball, while at the same time pushing his team forward in attack with his deft passing skills and clever runs in behind opposing defenders.


 

Will Senegal’s Sadio Mané recover from his leg injury in time for the World Cup in Qatar? (Sunday Alamba/AP)

SENEGAL
FIFA world ranking: 18
Top scorer in qualifying: Famara Diédhiou (4 goals)
Odds to win the World Cup: +7,510 (via Sports Interaction)
Odds to win the group: +459

Previous World Cup appearances: 2
Best showing: Quarterfinals in 2002
2018 World Cup: Group stage 

Manager: Aliou Cissé
Probable formation: 4-3-3
Probable starting XI: Édouard Mendy (Chelsea) — Fodé Ballo-Touré (AC Milan), Kalidou Koulibaly (Chelsea), Abdou Diallo (RB Leipzig), Youssouf Sabaly (Real Betis) — Cheikhou Kouyaté (Nottingham Forest), Nampalys Mendy (Leicester City), Idrissa Gueye (Everton) — Sadio Mané (Bayern Munich), Boulaye Dia (Salernitana), Ismaïla Sarr (Watford)

The Big Question: Will Bayern Munich forward Sadio Mané, who was included in Senegal’s roster despite recently suffering a serious leg injury, be fully fit and able to play at the World Cup?

The Pulse: Senegal won its first African Cup of Nations earlier this year and coach Aliou Cissé’s side is considered one of the best African teams to qualify for the World Cup. With a sturdy midfield and an outstanding defensive spin in the form of goalkeeper Édouard Mendy and centre backs Kalidou Koulibaly and Abdou Diallo, Senegal has hopes of making the quarterfinals and becoming the first African nation to reach the final four of the World Cup.

But for all of its physicality and strength in the middle of the park, Senegal’s midfield trio of Nampalys Mendy, Idrissa Gueye and Cheikhou Kouyate don’t offer much in terms of attacking creativity. That leaves the bulk of the work to be done by the front three, which is spearheaded by Sadio Mané. The African champions will be very tough to break down, but the question remains whether they have enough ingenuity to open up opponents with their limited attacking options.

The X-factor: Not to make this all about Mané, but whether or not the Bayern Munich forward will be healthy and able to compete at 100 per cent will have a large bearing on Senegal’s World Cup fortunes. The reigning African player of the year is central to his nation’s attack — he’s a world class player who can hurt teams in a variety of ways, including cutting in off the left wing or playing through the middle just behind the main striker.

The 30-year-old Mané has also shown up in big games for Senegal, scoring the penalty that won the African Cup title in a shootout against Egypt in February. A month later, he scored the winning penalty in another shootout against the Egyptians that clinched a World Cup berth for his country. Senegal doesn’t have another attacking player of Mané’s quality, so it’ll be interesting to see how they manage if the Bayern Munich star is sidelined for the tournament, and who will step up in his absence.

The Breakout Candidate:  The experienced Mané gets a great deal of attention and is rightly considered one of the best forwards in the world. But Boulaye Dia, 25, is not a player who should be overlooked.

The Villareal forward, currently on loan with Salernitana in Serie A, offers Senegal a physical presence up front, and is capable of expertly holding the ball up and setting up his attacking teammates with scoring opportunities. He also uses his size to bully opposing defenders and has a genuine nose for goal.


 

Memphis Depay led all Dutch scorers in World Cup qualifying with 12 goals. (Geert Vanden Wijngaert/AP)

NETHERLANDS
FIFA world ranking: 8
Top scorer in qualifying: Memphis Depay (12 goals)
Odds to win the World Cup: +729 (via Sports Interaction)
Odds to win the group: -241

Previous World Cup appearances: 10
Best showing: Finalists in 1974, 1978 and 2010
2018 World Cup: Did not qualify 

Manager: Louis van Gaal
Probable formation: 3-4-3
Probable starting XI: Jasper Cillessen (NEC) — Nathan Aké (Manchester City), Virgil van Dijk (Liverpool), Matthijs de Ligt (Bayern Munich) — Daley Blind (Ajax), Frenkie de Jong (FC Barcelona), Georginio Wijnaldum (AS Roma), Denzel Dumfries (Inter Milan) — Steven Berghuis (Ajax), Steven Bergwijn (Ajax), Memphis Depay (FC Barcelona)

The Big Question: Can Jasper Cillessen overcome the doubts surrounding his status as the team’s No. 1 goalkeeper after missing Euro 2020 due to COVID-19?

The Pulse: There’s a lot to like about this Dutch side, including a strong spine featuring Liverpool centre back Virgil van Dijk and FC Barcelona midfielder Frenkie de Jong, and an attack led by the dangerous, nimble duo of Memphis Depay and Steven Bergwijn who are capable of causing problems for any back line. The Netherlands head to Qatar riding a lot of confidence as the eighth-ranked nation in the world, having won seven of its 10 qualifying games (with only one loss), and reached the finals of next year’s UEFA Nations League.

Its back line can be suspect at times, and the team doesn’t have a clear-cut No. 1 goalkeeper. But manager Louis van Gaal has this talent-rich Netherlands side playing some fabulous football during his third tenure at the helm. His possession-oriented style of play has allowed the Dutch to manage games on their terms and force their opponent to chase the ball in vain, while allowing his core group of operators and creators to thrive.

The X-factor: This Dutch side doesn’t have the same depth as previous iterations, but it is teeming with quality in almost every area of the pitch, most notably at the forward position thanks to the presence of Depay. Sidelined by injuries for most of this season with FC Barcelona, Depay will be eager to prove he’s still among the world’s elite forwards when he touches down in Qatar.

Depay, 28, was unquestionably the Netherlands’ best attacking and creative threat during the qualifiers. He scored 12 goals (tied with England’s Harry Kane for the most in UEFA), including three game winners, and tallied six assists and logged 899 minutes (both team highs) in 10 appearances, helping the Netherlands cruise to first place in its group after suffering an opening loss away to Turkey.

The Breakout Candidate: Donyell Malen starred at youth level for Arsenal before returning to his native Netherlands where he featured prominently for PSV Eindhoven from 2018 to 2021. He then joined Bundesliga outfit Borussia Dortmund last summer, however, the 23-year-old forward hasn’t been nearly as prolific in Germany as he was during his stint at PSV. 

Still, he has come up big when called upon by his national team, including scoring in a crucial Euro 2020 qualifier against Germany, and a trio of goals in the World Cup qualifiers. With tremendous pace and quick dribbling skills, he’s drawn comparisons to noted Chilean striker Alexis Sanchez, and could inject Netherlands’ attack with some energy if called upon off the bench in Qatar.


 

THE BOLD PREDICTION FOR GROUP A

Memphis Depay will go without scoring a single goal in the opening round, but the Netherlands will still manage to finish first in Group A.

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