Qatar World Cup 2022: Group Stage Review (Group A)
The WC group stage's whirlwind has spun itself to a close, so let’s look at the moments and teams that shocked or surprised us. Here’s my group stage review, group by group, team by team.
I’ll be taking a look at three points of interest for each nation.
- How did they perform against pre-tournament expectations?
- Did any players stand out?
- What does their road to the final look like from here?
The 3rd option will of course be omitted for teams who failed to progress.
The Oranje have fulfilled pre-tournament expectations thus far. Many, including myself, had them topping the group and they’ve done just that. However, it wasn’t as comfortable as anticipated. Late goals to beat Senegal, a draw against 44th-ranked Ecuador. This is a shaky Dutch outfit. Struggling to create going forward and vulnerable at times.
Two words, Cody Gakpo. Early shouts for player of the tournament flying all over the gaff. Several PL clubs were in for the winger earlier in the year. Potential suitors can forget all that now. Yesterday's price is not today's price. The term unicorn feels more than adequate to describe Gakpo. A silky wide player that stands at almost 2m tall, possessing aerial ability and a pure strike with both feet. An elite playmaker whose equally comfortable beating you down the line or drifting inside to give you nightmares. Cursed by the classic “it’s only the Dutch league” comments regarding his past two seasons. At 23 and hitting the peaks of his powers, we’ll be seeing Cody Gakpo in something other than a PSV Eindhoven kit next season.
Do the Dutch have positive prospects going forward? In short, no. Without performances from a few key players, we could see them bounced out by the US in the round of 16. A tremendous amount of pressure will fall on Gakpo to either score or provide for someone else. If they can progress past the Americans they’ll likely face a strong Argentina side. I don’t see them past the quarterfinals on this occasion. Maybe even falling to the states on Sunday.
Second place was the popular pick for Senegal coming into Qatar. Beating Ecuador & the hosts while falling to the Dutch seems a fair reflection of their capabilities and what was expected of them. Losing Sadio Mane was a massive blow but the squad has responded well.
The loss of their top scorer and Talisman was a huge loss for the African champions. Attention was now turned to the squad as a whole, could they fill the void left behind? Captain Kalidou Kouliably has done an outstanding job leading from the back and keeping a talented Senegalese unit disciplined. When that winning header, his first-ever goal for Senegal, went in against Ecuador, it felt right. The Chelsea defender has been my standout performer from a solid Senegal team.
Now, a tough test against England. The Three Lions came into the tournament in atrocious form but have been firing on all cylinders. Marcus Rashford has just sent their rowdy neighbours back home, Dragons' tails tucked between their legs. The English attacking depth is in a word, scary. It will be down to Koulibaly and that backline to contain them. I don’t see the Lions of Teranga moving on. A proud showing though, until next time.
A country that did extremely well to qualify 4th from CONMEBOL, with Peru and Colombia, two higher-ranked nations, left nipping at their heels. They were always going to be battling to get out of a group containing the African champions and a European powerhouse. Despite this, they’re massively unlucky to have missed out on 4 points. It was enough for Poland & (Insert other countries who finished on 4 points), but not La Tri. That Koulibaly header proved the deciding factor. This Ecuador team was a lot of fun to watch, I’m hoping we’ll see a Moises Caicedo-captained side at a future world cup.
There’s only one option here. Enner Valencia scored on three occasions. If he could have scored a decisive 4th against Senegal, sending them through into the knockouts, his name would have been etched into Ecuadorian footballing history. Instead, he’ll be the guy who had a great group stage, providing a few moments of ecstasy. His tournament will likely be romanticised, despite dropping an average performance in that crucial final game against Senegal. I have no doubts that he’ll use these WC goals as momentum to continue his blistering start in Turkey (13 goals in 12 games), taking his frustrations out on the entire league after falling short at the World Cup. Once a famous flop at West Ham, it seems Enner Valencia is having somewhat of a renaissance at the age of 33. Good for him.
My pre-tournament knowledge of Qatar was poor, and I’m being generous here. I knew that they had attempted to repatriate large numbers of players in the past, considerably more than any nation typically would and that FIFA ended up intervening. I also knew that Tim Cahill is heavily involved with the cash-laden Aspire Sports academy, their attempt at bringing Qatari sports up to speed with the rest of the world. Now, despite my and almost everyone else's expectations being non-existent, the Qatari national team still managed to disappoint. The only host nation ever to lose their opening game, the quickest any host nation has ever been eliminated from the tournament, and now the only host nation to not pick up a single point in the group stages. Yikes… I don’t have much to say about Qatari football, which was disjointed at best and downright difficult to watch at its worst. Surprisingly, their squad was this poor despite winning the Asian Cup just 3 years ago, beating Japan 3-1 in the final. Compare this Qatari team to the Japanese team we just watched beat Germany & Spain and this fact becomes bewildering.
I don’t think it’s fair to highlight any Qatari players as standouts based on the three performances we were subjected to. Honourable mention to Mohammed Muntari, who scored what I can only assume will be Qatar’s lone World Cup goal for quite some time.