Group A – Qatar, Ecuador, Senegal, Netherlands
As is routine, Group A contains hosts Qatar who didn’t need to go through qualification. With the exception of 2010, when South Africa failed to make it out of their group, the hosts have always made it through to the knockout phase. While nothing is a foregone conclusion this looks like it could be a struggle for Qatar, whose team, on paper at least, is one of the weaker in the tournament. After Louis Van Gaal has returned to the helm of Netherlands, they have been rejuvenated and would be expecting to qualify from the group along with Senegal who bring an exciting and star-studded squad including the likes of Sadio Mane and Chelsea’s goalkeeper Edouard Mendy. This looks like a tough group for Ecuador whose form dipped a little at the end of CONMEBOL qualifying - ensuring a strong performance in their opening match against the hosts will be pivotal if they are to proceed. Netherlands vs Senegal is the one to watch in Group A.
Group B – England, Iran, USA, Wales
The stars of Group B are England who will be looking to top the rankings and to go one further than the semi-finals, the round they reached at the 2018 World Cup. Behind England, the race for the second spot is less clear with Iran, the USA and Wales all believing they stand a chance. Wales will be hoping their talisman Gareth Bale hits the form we’ve seen in the past with an ability to produce something from nothing. Easing through qualification with only a single loss, Iran is not to be ignored, but on paper at least, their squad looks to be weaker than previous tournaments. The USA are bringing a squad filled with experience with the spine of their team packed with players that ply their trade in Europe’s top leagues and coach Gregg Berhalter will be hoping for some strong performances from his rejuvenated team. This should be a tight group and a tricky one to predict.
Group C – Argentina, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Poland
In what is expected to be Lionel Messi’s last tournament, Argentina will enter Group C feeling confident of qualification. While fans across the globe will have their eyes glued to the Argentinian talisman, there is another big name looking to steal the limelight in Poland’s Ballon d’Or winner Robert Lewandowski. The challenge for Poland will be ensuring they supply their lead striker the service he needs. It will likely be Mexico who fight it out with Poland, who had mixed form during qualification, for second place. Despite Saudi Arabia winning their Asian qualification group with wins against Australia and Japan, paper suggests they are a notch below the calibre of their competitors and will need some strong performances if they are to proceed.
Group D – France, Australia, Denmark, Tunisia
The big hitters of Group D are France who were triumphant in 2018 and enter as one of the favourites to retain the title. Packed with quality across the pitch, Les Bleus enter this group with a wealth of star-studded talent and football fans will be expecting to see goals from the likes of Kylian Mbappe and Karim Benzema who are leading their front-line. Behind them, Denmark is best placed on paper to join them in qualification after a strong showing at the Euro’s, reaching the semi-finals. Unlikely to win awards for style and lacking in talent comparted to previous outings, Tunisia should not be ignored. They showed in qualification they are tricky to beat and certainly won’t be a walk over for any team. Australia completes the group after coming through their playoff against Peru – they will need some solid performances and perhaps a strong dose of luck to proceed, but stranger things have happened.
Group E – Spain, Costa Rica, Germany, Japan
Spain and Germany will both enter Group E with high hopes of qualification. Who finishes first or second from these historic heavyweights is a tougher call. Germany will be well drilled to ensure they don’t slip up and repeat their embarrassment of exiting at the group stage four years ago. Meanwhile, Spain will be turning to their young stars of Gavi and Ansu Pati to hit form next to the experience of Rodri and Morata. While Japan and Costa Rica have both caused upsets at previous tournaments it’s hard to see them progressing. The matchup between Span and Germany will be one of the most anticipated matches of the group phase.
Group F – Belgium, Canada, Morocco, Croatia
A group packed with intrigue. At a first glance Croatia and Belgium come to the forefront as the likely contenders for top spot and runners up from Group E. However, although both teams are packed with talent in the likes of Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard for Belgium and Luka Modric and Ivan Perisic for Croatia, they also enter the tournament with two of the oldest squads and are seen by many as being past their best. While Canada offer youth and ambition, and Morocco come with a couple of big hitters in Achraf Hakimi and Youssef En-Nesvri, it’s still hard to see either of these teams troubling the European front runners.
Group G – Brazil, Serbia, Switzerland, Cameroon
The words ‘World Cup’ and ‘Brazil’ go hand in hand and the five-time winners enter Group G as strong favourites. The Selecao have made it to the knockout phase of the last 13 tournaments with only one blemish on their record coming in 1966. The interest in Group G comes down to the remaining three where we expect a tightly fought contest. If Mitrovic can continue his form in the league, Serbia stands a chance of overcoming some underwhelming performances at recent tournaments. Form suggests Switzerland are slight favourites for second and gave a strong run out at Euro 2020. Cameroon head to Qatar buoyed by the attacking threat of Karl Toko-Ekambi but having not made it past the group stage since 1990 they remain a long shot for progression.
Group H – Portugal, Ghana, Uruguay, South Korea
Finally, we turn to Group H, which is a tough one to predict. Fans will have their eyes on the ageing icons of Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo and Uruguay’s Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez, who will all be looking to set the stage alight at what must surely be their final tournaments. Uruguay, who won the inaugural tournament back in 1930, are seen by many as a dark horse to repeat this success in 2022. Ghana brings a young and developing team and South Korea have caused upsets in the past. While Portugal edge it as slight favourites, this group is too tight to call and no one is a foregone conclusion.
So, there we have it. 32 teams, eight groups and only 16 can proceed to the knockout phase. Hopes will be high, and the anticipation is palpable. At the end of it, there can be only one winner. Who will reign supreme in 2022?