MESSI & CO IN FORM: Argentina heads to Qatar

Argentina’s nearly three decades of pain and run of tearful losses in major finals came to an end last year when it won the Copa America.
Argentina heads to Qatar on the back of 36-game unbeaten run
Argentina heads to Qatar on the back of 36-game unbeaten run

GROUP C

ARGENTINA – Can Scaloni weave his magic again?

Argentina’s nearly three decades of pain and run of tearful losses in major finals came to an end last year when it won the Copa America. And, Lionel Scaloni’s team will head to the World Cup by taking confidence from that triumph in Brazil. Having last lost at the 2019 Copa America, ‘La Albiceleste’ is on a 36-match unbeaten streak and is one of the favourites to break Europe’s 16-year stranglehold on the World Cup. Much of the credit for winning a major final after six failed attempts has to go to Scaloni, the 44-year-old who rose from the role of assistant to caretaker and eventually permanent boss. “I hope that people identify with this team,” Scaloni said recently. The team’s talisman Lionel Messi has been encouraged by Scaloni’s changes and tactical acumen, growing more determined and even playing through injury in the Copa America semi-finals and final.

Argentina heads to Qatar on the back of 36-game unbeaten run
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POLAND - All-round effort required

Poland will need to look beyond leading striker Robert Lewandowski if it is to break its group stage jinx and reach the knockout rounds (the last time it progressed was way back in 1986). It has since qualified for three World Cups – 2002, 2006 and 2018 (excluding the upcoming one) – winning one group match and losing the other two at each of them. The good news for head coach Czeslaw Michniewicz is that he has quality players at his disposal. The bad news is that he is still struggling to get a tune out of them ahead of his first World Cup. Michniewicz took over in January after former coach Paulo Sousa, who masterminded Poland’s World Cup qualification campaign, quit to take over Brazilian side Flamengo. Getting out of the group will be considered a success for Poland, but a lot depends on how the team comes together under its new coach.

SAUDI ARABIA - On 'home' away from home

The build-up to Saudi Arabia's sixth World Cup has been marked by an uncharacteristic lack of drama amid the stability brought to the national team by the calm coaching of Herve Renard. Previous preparations have seen players forced to adjust to new coaching regimes installed in the months leading up to the finals, but in Renard, Saudi Arabia has found a manager who has brought a level-headed approach to its often chaotic environs. Renard's squad, like those of the majority of his predecessors, is entirely home- based, with the financial clout of the Saudi Pro League ensuring none of the country's leading players show any desire to venture overseas. The World Cup's proximity to Saudi Arabia - Qatar is perched on a peninsula beside the Gulf nation - will ensure Renard and his team have considera- ble backing from the travelling supporters. But, it is unlikely that it will be enough to prevent another early World Cup exit.

MEXICO – Inconsistent attack a concern

Pessimism surrounds Mexico as it gears up for the World Cup, courtesy of its inconsistency in the qualifying and warm-up matches. Despite finishing second in the eight-team CONCACAF qualifiers behind Canada, Gerardo Martino’s team drew criticism for its performances, with the toothless attack posing a major concern. Mexico, which lost the CONCACAF Nations League and Gold Cup finals against the United States of America last year, has averaged one goal per game in competitive matches and friendlies in 2022. But, Mexico will look to end a 36-year wait for a place in the quarter-finals, having reached the last-16 in each of the previous seven editions. It will face a stern test in Group C, where it is placed alongside Argentina, Saudi Arabia and Poland. Hirving Lozano, Alexis Vega and Edson Alvarez will have to step up if Mexico is to spring a surprise at the Qatar 2022 finals.

GROUP D

FRANCE Not the ideal build-up

France heads into the World Cup with more questions than answers as its build-up to the marquee tournament has been marred by injuries, poor results and off-field distractions. The defending World Cup champion had a dismal Nations League campaign, just salvaging its place in the top tier of the competition. Key midfielders N’Golo Kante and Paul Pogba, who played pivotal roles in France’s victorious run in Russia in 2018, have been ruled out due to injuries. On the pitch, France has been struggling to rediscover the spark that guided it to a perfectly mastered Nations League triumph last season. Ballon d’Or winner Karim Benzema and Kylian Mbappe might have the potential to form the most formidable attacking duo, but their partnership has been taking time to gel. Meanwhile, head coach Didier Deschamps needs to fix the defence and decide, for good, whether he will play with four defenders or three centre backs and two wing backs.

DENMARK - Danish team in with a chance

Going into the World Cup, Denmark can point to previous occasions when it overcame seemingly insurmountable odds and say that it is genuinely in with a shout of winning the trophy. This, after all, is the nation that was admitted to Euro 92 in Sweden only at the last minute following the exclusion of the former Yugoslavia. It then went on to win the title. In more recent times, it bounced back from the traumatic loss of talisman Christian Eriksen to a heart attack in its Euro 2020 opener against Finland. Denmark miraculously got out of its group and made it to the semi-fi- nals, where it narrowly lost to England. Since taking the reins in 2020, Kasper Hjulmand has the Danish team playing a breathtaking style of attacking football that blends individual brilliance with a solid organisation. The hallmark is the intelligence and tactical flexibility coupled with a desire for continuous improvement.

AUSTRALIA - Expectations low this time around

Australia is sometimes known as ‘The Lucky Country’ and the ‘Socceroos’ looks like needing a major dose of good fortune if it is to get out of Group D on its fifth successive visit to the World Cup. The Australia team heads to the global showpiece with low expectations after an underwhelming qualifying campaign that went down to the wire and culminated in a penalty shootout victory over Peru. Socceroos head coach Graham Arnold has problems to solve, with proven international quality thin on the ground and barely any of the players getting regular starts in the top leagues. Arnold is still searching for an X-factor who can make the difference in the final third of the field. Australia teams have always offered plenty of physicality and unstinting effort, but they are unlikely to be enough in a tough group which also comprises world champion France, Denmark and Tunisia.

TUNISIA – Set for a home-like atmosphere

Tunisia will rely on familiar stadiums and its passionate fans in Qatar to achieve what has eluded it for more than 40 years as it seeks to reach the World Cup second round for the first time. Qatar hosted the Arab Cup in December last year at the World Cup stadiums to serve as a test event for the finals, with Tunisia reaching the title decider before losing to Algeria. During its run to the final, Tunisia benefited from its large fan base in Qatar, which is expected to give it a home-like atmosphere. Under head coach Jalel Kadri, Tunisia sealed a place at the World Cup following a win over Mali in the African qualifiers play-offs. Tunisia’s realistic chance of bagging only its third World Cup victory could come against Australia. But, it would hope to spring surprises if it is to go through to the knockouts.

GROUP E

SPAIN 2010 champion back at the top

Twelve years after Spain’s golden generation won the nation’s first World Cup – but failed dismally in the next two outings – Luis Enrique’s side looks to have finally re-established itself as title contender. That is thanks to a young and talented core who are rising to a level where they are ready to try and emulate the 2010 winning team. Under the guidance of former Barcelona manager Enrique, Spain reached the European Championship 2020 semi-finals and Nations League final last year with a team just over 25 in its average age. After taking up the top job, Enrique took his mission to the extreme and pressed the reset button, handing responsibility to a group of young players. Supported by the experience of veterans such as Sergio Busquets, Jordi Alba, Dani Carvajal and Alvaro Morata, Spain arrives in Qatar as one of the most promising teams.

COSTA RICA - Hopes pinned on veterans

Costa Rica was the last team to qualify for the World Cup, but the Central American side will travel to Qatar hoping to avoid making a swift exit like it did in Russia four years ago. Set to play in its sixth World Cup, Costa Rica is no longer a minnow, with Luis Fernando Suarez’s squad expected to do more than just make up the numbers. Costa Rica shocked the world in 2014 when it had its best run at the finals, reaching the last-eight stage. Six players from that squad, who are all on the wrong side of 30, will be in Qatar – Keylor Navas, Bryan Ruiz, Joel Campbell, Oscar Duarte, Yeltsin Tejeda and Celso Borges. The same players also featured at the World Cup in 2018 and, although Costa Rica was eliminated in the group stage, Suarez has a core of senior men with tournament experience to count on.

GERMANY - Unpredictable under Flick

Germany is almost always among the title favourites at international tournaments, but it is hard to predict how far Hansi Flick’s team will progress in Qatar 2022. Flick, who took over last year after Joachim Low’s 15-year spell, is no stranger to World Cups, having been Germany’s assistant coach in the 2014 title win. Germany suffered a shock first-round exit as defending champion in Russia in 2018 – its earliest in 80 years – and then finished bottom of its group in the inaugural Nations League before a change of rules prevented it from being relegated. The arrival of Flick led to renewed optimism after an eight-match winning streak at the start of his tenure, although it came against weaker teams. But, injuries and constant changes to the squad have seen Germany win only one of its last seven internationals, with Flick still trying to find his best starting eleven.

JAPAN - Will agony turn ecstasy?

Japan will remember with anguish a World Cup qualifier from 28 years ago in Qatar, when it was within seconds of reaching its first finals only to concede a stoppage-time equaliser to Iraq, which sent South Korea through instead. That crushing moment is known as the ‘Agony of Doha’. While Japan’s biggest football setback may never be forgotten, the ‘Samurai Blue’ is determined to reverse its fortunes and make Qatar the stage for its best World Cup performance. Head coach Hajime Moriyasu played in the team that missed out in Doha in 1993 and believes that after qualifying for seven successive World Cups, a last-eight finish is finally within Japan’s reach despite featuring in a tough group. For however long it can stay at the finals, Japan, which was knocked out in the Round-of-16 by Belgium four years ago, will entertain and make life difficult for the big teams.

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