Qatar World Cup 2022: Group Stage Review (Group B)
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 pressure on this England Squad might be the most we’ve seen since they were rolling out a midfield of Lampard, Gerrard and Scholes. A World Cup semi-final in 2018, a Euros final in 2021 and an absolute wealth of talent at Gareth Southgate's disposal. Add into the mix some woeful Nations League performances in the months leading up and one misstep would lead to crucifixion at the hands of the English media. Now, despite all this, the Three Lions handled the group stages with substantial poise. They put 6 past Iran, defended astutely against the US of A and battered the Welsh, much to English delight. Some will say the USA performance was more boring Southgate football, others will nod to his history of tournament management. What is sure is that Harry Maguire is back to his international best and that the English attack is frightening in the open field.
Picking just one player from those three performances is difficult. Honourable mention to Harry Maguire who has a lot of people enjoying a slice of humble pie. However, It would be remiss to pick anyone other than a certain former star boy. Marcus Rashford is tied for the golden boot, those two goals against Wales were a thing of beauty. A scintillating freekick followed by vintage Rashford, running in behind before spinning a defender and finishing. You’d back his chances to score a few more if England can make it deep into the tournament. Rashford has sat and listened to armchair pundits call him washed up for the last few seasons. Now seems a perfect time to prove them all wrong, we’ll see if Southgate gives him considerable minutes against Senegal.
Speaking of that round-of-16 fixture. I think England has an excellent chance of progressing. They have a starting 11 and a bench full of attacking quality, it’ll be too much for a Senegalese team which can get loose at times. It remains to be seen how much freedom Southgate will give them come Monday morning but I think regardless they’ll get the job done. If they can execute in the way I’m describing, a meeting with Kylian Mbappe looks imminent… A Flying Les Bleus spearheaded by Mbappe will be difficult to beat, I’m sure the English will be counting on some more Szczesny heroics to see Poland through to the Quarterfinals.
As someone who lived in the American heartland for 4 years, let me tell you one thing. They hate losing. They hate losing to each other, never mind anyone else. That being said, the USA has been an underdeveloped team for a long time, an afterthought in their own homeland. It was a team that lacked quality in some key areas. Gone are those days, the starting XI that beat Iran didn’t feature a single MLS player, this is a new look USA, a USA that plays for Chelsea, Juventus, Lille, Valencia and AC Milan. I think the pre-tournament consensus was a 2nd place finish, so it’s not that they have massively defied expectations so far. It's that they’re playing football in a way some weren’t anticipating. Wales was lucky to win a point against a dominant side, England set up far more defensively than many expected, and they conceded only a single shot against Iran. They leave the group not having tasted defeat and without conceding a non-penalty goal.
That threaded assist against Wales, the goal against Iran which carried with it a great personal sacrifice. Captain America. I’m not sure there are many players in world football who enjoy playing for their country more than Pulisic. He seems to bleed red white & blue whenever playing for the US. He has demonstrated excellent leadership so far, he’s carried the ball extremely well and made good decisions in crucial situations. Controversial as it is to say, and perhaps this is my American bias showing. I think Pulisic is an underrated footballer and he’ll be hungry to carry his country far into this WC, pulling from that passion I mentioned earlier.
Here comes my first big shout. I think the USA will turn over the Dutch on Sunday morning. This might stem from personal bias. However, I think there’s genuine standing to such an audacious call. The USA are a structured team with more attacking flair than people give them credit for, they’ve also been resolute so far at the back. Only the lone Gareth Bale penalty to account for. So, I think if Gakpo & De Jong don’t drop amazing performances in this game, it’s there for the taking. Does Aussie beat Argentina? Probably not, so Lionel Messi & Co. means an end to the American dream. In the quarters no less.
A strong Asian side, Iran qualified in style. Finishing above South Korea in their qualifying group and collecting more points than any Asian side, including Saudi Arabia & Japan. The world’s understanding of Iranian football, and therefore the external pressures, might have been limited. However, they came into the tournament with high hopes, it appeared to be a group in which second place was attainable. They’ll be deeply disappointed to leave with only a solitary win against a weaker-than-expected Welsh side. A battering at the hands of the Three Lions and failing to muster more than a single shot on target against the USA will be massively disheartening for Iran. A tough showing for an underrated footballing nation.
Mehdi Taremi played some excellent football, the Porto striker scored twice, assisted once and was heavily involved in any positive play the Iranians were able to link. The stain on his group stage is a quiet performance against the US, during which he failed to establish himself and completed only 74% of his passes. He managed their only shot on target in the 98th, going down easily and sliding into the ball, could he have found better contact by staying on his feet?
Cymru made their first WC appearance since 1958. Unfortunately, to call it disappointing might be the biggest understatement since 1958. Pretournament expectations, at least from the outside, weren’t massive. Memories of THAT Euros run had some people predicting Wales would ease out of group B and go on a mazy journey through the knockouts. The general (more realistic) consensus was that they’d be battling with the US for 2nd. For Welsh fans hopes were riding high, that they would make their first appearance in over 60 years one to remember! In the end, they’ve taken the wooden spoon and failed to win a game. If it weren’t for a needless challenge from Walker Zimmerman, they’d be leaving Qatar without a single point. This Welsh dragon failed to set the world stage alight, they looked tepid going forward compared to that magical Euro 2016 side. How this squad was ranked 19th by FIFA pre-tournament will remain an absolute mystery. Gareth Bale is 33 and appears to be well past his best. No one has emerged as a suitable heir to the captaincy. You just wonder, what now for Welsh football?
Standout players? I’m not sure they had any. Scoring a penalty and conceding 6 over 3 games doesn’t lend itself well to superlatives.