A lot has changed since the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Previous host nation Russia is seen as a villain by western society. French champion players Paul Pogba and Kylian Mbappe have struggled in their professional careers since winning the Cup, and Germany re-did their coaching staff after a 2020 UEFA disaster.
Then there’s the home of the games for 2022. It would be homicidal for FIFA to hold the games in 110 plus degree (fahrenheit) weather in the Middle East, so the tournament was pushed to November. Most teams will have the rare benefit of additional rest before competing.
For those not familiar with how round one of the World Cup works, this explanation should help (also, the image above is a starting point). Eight groups containing four teams each compete to advance to the next round. Two teams from each group advance. The two that advance must have high point totals or tie-breakers. Winners of each match get three points, those who draw receive one, and losers gain none. All four teams play each other in their own group. Therefore, it’s better to strategize how to play all three teams in order to advance. Now that you understand this better, it’s time to break down which two teams from Groups A through H have the best chance of advancing to round two.
Group A: Netherlands and Senegal
Group A is an easy start for those not familiar with how the World Cup starts. Usually the host of the games is one of the four teams in the first group. Depending on the location, the host team is either a good team or an easy out. Qatar would fit in the latter.
That leaves Senegal, Netherlands and Ecuador to fight for the two spots needed to advance to round two. Both Senegal and Netherlands should have an easier time in round one after they play each other. Ecuador on the other hand could be in trouble. Senegal won the African championship in 2021. They’re balanced on defense while Netherlands is offensively the strongest team in the group. If Ecuador has any chance to advance, they must beat the Qatari team and rely on tie breakers to stay alive (which will be hard considering two of the three teams know how to play quality football).
Group B: England and the U.S.
This will be one of the most competitive and vicious groups once play starts. The British and the Welsh are rivals, and throwing both the U.S. team and fans as well as the Iranian team is like pouring gasoline on a wildfire. The winner/s will be bragging for a long time.
While the Welsh qualified, they haven’t looked strong nor played well against their European competition the past few months. This gives the English team an advantage since they’re well coached. Speaking of England, they’ll be targeted after their UEFA championship bid came up short against Italy. All eyes will be on how coach Southgate uses veteran players and substitutes especially in the match versus the U.S. team. While England should take care of business in round one, expect more serious conversations when round two starts.
The U.S. team is again in the middle compared to most FIFA teams. Thankfully for them, Iran and Wales shouldn’t be much of a problem on offense. The key is scoring first and holding leads well into the second half of those two matchups.
Group C: Argentina and Poland
Poor Saudi Arabia. Thrown in with Argentina, Poland and Mexico, the Kingdom will be lucky to tie one of the three teams. Mexico’s first round omens won’t disappear with the quality competition presented. While many expect Argentina to coast past round one, Poland playing well enough to advance might be one of the more interesting picks someone could have in these games.
Poland’s top player and elite goal scorer Lewandowski will be tested versus the Mexican team early. The Poles have to generate more offense from forward Arkadiusz Milik and midfielders Karol Linetty and Piotr Zielinski. Without a helpful supporting cast, they could be out of the first round faster than expected.
Group D: France and Denmark
Two of the hardest UEFA teams to knock out are placed in the fourth group with Tunisia and Australia. While they’ll play their best against Denmark and France, there’s no doubt both European teams will be favored.
France has a lot to figure out with the declines of Kylian Mbappe and Paul Pogba (who isn’t on the roster). Karim Benzema, Moussa Diaby, and Adrian Rabiot will be the top players expected to carry the offense. The French will be targeted heavily since they won the last World Cup title. Expect all three teams that play France in round one to give them their best game.
Denmark versus Australia to finish group play will determine who advances. The return of Christian Eriksen is a jolt to Denmark’s national team, a well-rounded and balanced offensive threat with a solid defense. Don’t be surprised if the Danes finish with a better point total than the rest of the group with how little pressure they’ll have compared with France.
Group E: Spain and Germany
If Japan or Costa Rica have intentions of doing well this World Cup, they might be disappointed. Japan plays a re-vamped German team early led by new coach Hansi Flick. Flick’s team tied most of their competition until they faced current UEFA champion Italy and throttled them 5-2. The team has the additional benefit of already playing most of the tough European teams and making sure to not give up leads. While the Germans won’t blow most of the teams away early, their advance to round two will spell trouble for serious contenders.
Until proven otherwise, this is Spain’s group to lose. Their unique style of play involving overwhelming time of possession and passing (think of the FIFA version of Russia’s KHL) ensures they’ll finish in the top two of the group. Even in last year’s UEFA championship series, Italy had to do everything to knock Spain out. It’s possible Spain goes past round two if they dominate just as much as they did last year.
Group F: Belgium and Croatia
The sixth group will have two main storylines: those dominated by stars Romelu Lukaku, Luka Modric and their teams, and Canada’s chances to upset one of the two European teams to sneak into round two. Croatia not having Danijel Subasic in net in their UEFA bid was a warning the team had to play better defense against quality teams (such as England). Both Ivan Ivusic and Dominik Livakovic are 27 and will need to gain at least one win to give the team relief early in play. As for Modric’s supporting cast, Mateo Kovacic, Marcelo Brozovic and Andrej Kramaric are slowly entering the twilights of their careers. They all need good runs and some goals to push the Baltic nation far into tournament play.
There couldn’t be more pressure on a team other than Belgium, which has come short of the championship game at least twice since their golden generation has taken the field. Michy, Leandro Trossard and Christian Benteke will have one last chance to make the Cup final before their careers start a gradual descent.
They’ll have to play phenomenal because Canada is the first opponent for their group play. The Canadians have a dangerous team that can give the sixth group some problems if not taken seriously. Canada also has the benefit of playing a weaker Croatia and an okay-assembled Moroccan team. We’ll see early how both the older European teams counter an under-the-radar Canada team that could cause damage past the group stage.
Group G: Brazil and Switzerland
Brazil is clearly the best team in the seventh group. They don’t underestimate their opponents and they overwhelm defenses. The team that advances with them is where curiosity rises. Serbia, Switzerland and Cameroon have multiple weak-spots and whoever advances will have a hard time getting past stronger teams.
However, if there is a favorite among the three, it would be Switzerland. The team’s well coached and made squads in UEFA struggle to finish their scoring chances. Plus they’re great in extra time, something a lot of teams could improve on.
Group H: Portugal, Uruguay
It’s a small eighth group. One of the best players in FIFA history will have his team favored to enter round two early. South Korea and Ghana don’t have enough on offense and will struggle to beat both Portugal and Uruguay.
Uruguay is the best bet to advance after Portugal. There are question marks on Luis Suarez playing (if he does, it will be his last World Cup). As of right now, he isn’t on the roster, despite many articles saying he’ll be playing by November. Age is a factor the team has to take note of outside the Suarez issue. Two of the goal-keepers are 35 years or higher and there are three defensemen who are 34 or older.
Despite the age issues, Uruguay is still a well-rounded team that was built to succeed with/out Suarez. Where they go after round one should intrigue audiences.