FIFA World Cup 2022: Netherlands heads to World Cup on a high

Netherlands has been runner-up three times and, although it missed out on the previous tournament in Russia four years ago, is one of the form teams going into Qatar 2022.
England players train in Doha
England players train in Doha

GROUP A

NETHERLANDSWill silver turn gold?

Van Gaal’s Dutch team likely to dominate Group A

The Netherlands has legitimate hopes of turning its status as World Cup nearly men into champion as it takes a 15-match unbeaten run into the Qatar finals and pins its hopes on the wily ways of veteran head coach Louis van Gaal. Netherlands has been runner-up three times and, although it missed out on the previous tournament in Russia four years ago, is one of the form teams going into Qatar 2022. Netherlands topped its World Cup qualifying group and then finished first in its Nations League group as the return of van Gaal breathed new life into its fortunes. This is van Gaal’s third spell in charge after the Dutch FA quickly turned to him to take over when the team was eliminated by the Czech Republic at the last European Championship. It has not lost since, renewing confidence after the barren patch that followed van Gaal’s previous spell, when it finished third at the 2014 finals in Brazil.

ECUADOR - Youngster Caicedo the key

Ecuador midfielder Moises Caicedo will have just turned 21 when he lines up against Qatar in the World Cup opener on Sunday, but he is already an experienced lynchpin of the national team and is turning heads in one of the best leagues in the world. Part of Ecuador’s successful generation change, Caicedo became a commanding midfield presence during its arduous, two-year South American qualifying campaign. Able to drive forward and create chances for others, Caicedo also netted two goals himself for “La Tri” in the qualifiers and has become a box-to-box player, helping out the defence when necessary. “He is getting better and better,” enthused his Argentine manager Gustavo Alfaro. Not surprisingly, Caicedo is making waves in England’s Premier League with Brighton & Hove Albion, undaunted by being thrown in against some of the world’s best players. It will all be worthwhile should Caicedo help Ecuador to a good showing in Qatar.

QATAR - Can the host punch above its weight ?

Qatar has a population of just three million and is not renowned for its football pedigree, but the tournament host cannot be taken lightly. Felix Sanchez’s team won the 2019 Asian Cup on home soil, beating the likes of South Korea and Japan in the process. It performed above expectations as a guest at last year’s CONCACAF Gold Cup, losing to eventual champion the United States in the semi-finals. An impressive mix of experience and youth combined with Sanchez’s tactical expertise and the support of home fans could see Qatar again punch above its weight. Its star player is Sudan-born striker Almoez Ali, who was the top scorer at the Gold Cup with four goals in five matches. He also won the ‘Golden Boot’ at the 2019 Asian Cup, netting nine times in seven games.

SENEGAL - African champ banks on veterans

African champion Senegal carries the continent's best prospect of breaking barriers and hopes to atone for a miserable 2018 show in Russia, where it was eliminated in the group stage on disciplinary points. The team has had a significant overhaul over the last few years, boosted by a contingent of French-born players, including goalkeeper Edouard Mendy, defender Abdou Diallo and midfielders Pape Gueye and Nampalys Mendy. Senegal put much effort into recruiting players from the growing European-based diaspora, contributing to it winning the African title for the first time in February. But, it was stalwarts such as Kalidou Koulibaly, Sadio Mane and Idrissa Gana Gueye who proved to be the backbone of the Africa Cup of Nations triumph. They will likely provide the driving force for the team in Qatar too. One of the drawbacks is that many regulars lack game time at club level this season, but head coach Aliou Cisse is putting on a brave face.

GROUP B

ENGLAND - Can Southgate & Co. go all the way ?

There have been plenty of ‘nearly men’ in the annals of world football, nations with all the ingredients to deliver on the biggest stage but who ended up with just crumbs for comfort. England, under Gareth Southgate, is the latest to own that unwanted label as it heads to the Qatar World Cup finals still saddled with ending an interminable wait for silverware – England’s first and only World Cup title was won in 1966. Southgate’s England came close to delivering what the nation craves as the team reached the semi-finals of the 2018 World Cup, where it lost to Croatia, and then the final of the European Championship 2020 at Wembley only to suffer penalty heartache against Italy. It is getting closer and if the incremental pattern of progress continues, Southgate and his players will fly home from the Middle East with the glittering trophy for an open-top bus parade that would bring the capital to a standstill. It is a very big ‘if’ though.

THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA – Time to make a mark

The United States of America will look to silence the critics after a rocky run-up to Qatar, when it returns to the World Cup stage for the first time in eight years. Its failure to qualify for the finals four years ago prompted much soul-searching within the sport’s national governing body, even as the women’s side thrived. But, the USA appeared to exorcise the demons of that failed attempt by securing one of CONCACAF’s three guaranteed World Cup spots despite a tepid start to its campaign. The achievement was met with relief in the USA, which is set to host the 2026 finals along with Canada and Mexico. Head coach Gregg Berhalter had said that his side was moving in the right direction, adding that it could be “very dangerous” when it gets its confidence up. The heart of the team will be Christian Pulisic, the charismatic forward.


WALES – Hungry on return

Wales’s preparations for its first World Cup in 64 years have been dogged by poor form and injuries, but after qualifying confidently, it will be determined to deliver in Qatar, where its knockout hopes could hinge on a ‘Battle of Britain’. Rob Page’s team made it to the World Cup via the play-offs, overcoming Austria and Ukraine to reach the showpiece tournament for the first time since 1958. While the wheels came off after it booked a spot in Qatar – with four defeats in five matches ensuring it dropped out of the top tier of the Nations League – Wales will head to the tournament targeting at least the last-16. And, there will be plenty of fire in the ‘Welsh Dragon’ after such a lengthy absence from the event. Wales’s qualification is testament to the excellent work of Page, who initially took charge on an interim basis when the then manager Ryan Giggs was arrested in November 2020. The team’s charge will be led by Gareth Bale, whose fitness is a concern for now.

IRAN - Queiroz has another crack at history

Carlos Queiroz’s return as Iran head coach threatened to throw the team’s preparations for the World Cup into turmoil, but the re-hiring of the Portuguese has galvanised an ageing squad for one last crack at history. In five previous World Cup campaigns, Iran never progressed beyond the group phase but after being drawn in a group alongside England, Wales and the United States, hopes among its local fans are growing. Queiroz reclaimed the position at the helm in mid-September, replacing Dragan Skocic, after qualification was assured with the Croatian. The former Real Madrid and Portugal coach has been looking to reignite a relationship which he fostered with the squad during his previous eight-year stint and the signs have been clear from the beginning that little has changed for the 69-year-old. ‘Team Melli’ narrowly missed out on a place in the knockout rounds four years ago, and Queiroz and Co. will be determined to go one step further in Qatar.

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