The World Cup Preview: Group A
There is no denying it, Group A isn’t the most captivating collection of teams at first glance. But the stakes are high for everyone involved. The Netherlands are well overdue a World Cup triumph. Senegal have the potential to give Africa their greatest ever run in the tournament. Ecuador must shake off poor form if they wish to better their best showing on the biggest stage of all. And then there’s Qatar. Is there a word for an underdog that nobody really wants to see succeed? Let’s get into it.
We’ll kick this off with the Group A favourites, the Netherlands. The Oranje sat at home with everybody else for Euro 2016 and the 2018 World Cup, while suffering a disappointing last 16 exit to Czechia at Euro 2020. They’ll look to put past demons to rest in Qatar, however, with Louis van Gaal’s men recently playing gripping football. Their characteristically high-pressing, fluid system seamlessly fits their star players – Memphis Depay, Frenkie de Jong and Virgil van Dijk to name just a few – and has consistently been improved upon.
Player to Watch: Cody Gakpo
PSV wunderkind Cody Gakpo will hope to dazzle in Qatar, with the 23-year-old winger looking to improve his already sky-rocketing reputation ahead of the January transfer window. But while the neutrals eagerly watch on as Gakpo & Co. seek to thrill, Dutch fans will worry about a lack of international experience in goal as 39-year-old shot-stopper Remko Pasveer is expected to start – despite only earning his first two caps in September – while 63-time internationalist Jasper Cillessen is left at home. Two clean sheets for Pasveer versus Belgium and Poland was a solid start, but now the Eredivisie veteran must step up to another level with the entire world watching on.
While the Dutch are aiming to move on from a dismal era internationally, Senegal are looking to strike while the iron is hot. The West African nation lifted the Africa Cup of Nations trophy for the first time in their history earlier this year. It was Sadio Mané who thumped home the winning penalty in the shoot-out to inflict defeat upon Mohamed Salah’s Egypt, before once again slamming home a winning penalty in a shoot-out to again break Egyptian hearts in the World Cup play-off less than two months later.
Player to Watch: Ismaïla Sarr
When you’ve got one of the world’s best in Mané, with a core spine of Éduoard Mendy, Kalidou Koulibaly and Idrissa Gueye behind him, what could possibly go wrong? Well, as it turns out a whole lot can go wrong. Mané – who played 1,205 minutes from a possible 1,230 this calendar year for his nation – has been ruled out of the entire tournament through injury, which is nothing less than an indescribable blow for the Teranga Lions, as his quiet leadership, steadfast determination and, most of all, his elite talent is irreplaceable. Watford star Ismaïla Sarr will be expected to step up to take up Mané’s responsibilities on the opposite flank, but there’s also a great opportunity for the likes of Marseille’s Bamba Dieng and uncapped Villarreal youngster Nicolas Jackson to fill the void on the left-wing.
Ecuador will be led into this World Cup by captain Enner Valencia. The former West Ham and Everton man, now thriving at Fenerbahce, is the nation’s record goalscorer and proved himself at this level in 2014 – netting three times in Brazil. For Ecuador to qualify ahead of the likes of Chile and Colombia for Qatar 2022 is no small feat, and certainly not a task managed by Valencia alone. Bayer Leverkusen’s Piero Hincapié and Real Valladolid’s Gonzalo Plata are a young pair to keep an eye on, but the most likely ‘breakout’ star is Brighton’s Moisés Caicedo.
Player to Watch: Moisés Caicedo
The 21-year-old has already shone for The Seagulls in the Premier League; with the defensive midfielder’s tackling in the attacking third and his long passing amongst the best in the division this season. However, Caicedo plays in a more offensive role for his country, allowing him to add goals and assists to his game. Ecuador can be both an incredibly exciting team in attack while still resolute in defence, but their recent form will fail to excite neutrals as La Tri have picked up only two wins from their last 11 games since this time last year.
Last but not least, we have the hosts – one of only two sides to be entirely made up of players from their own domestic league. Qatar are the least fancied nation in Group A, and have been derided since their automatic qualification was sealed by the corrupt, greedy paws of FIFA ExCo members in December 2010. And yet, there is still a slight chance for the debutante. Qatar were 113th in the World Rankings when they were granted hosting rights. but have since risen to as high as 42nd due to an incredible 2019 Asian Cup triumph and an impressive semi-final placing in the 2021 Gold Cup. The improvements made within the entire senior and youth national set-up since 2010, largely thanks to current head coach Félix Sánchez, have been astronomical.
Player to Watch: Almoez Ali
Sánchez’s progressive tactical system, clearly influenced by the Spaniard’s time at La Masia, allows for the talented Akram Afif to shine as a creator up top. But, despite Afif’s quality, the star man is expected to be the goalgetter Almoez Ali. Ali has shone at recent Asian Cup, Gold Cup and Arab Cup tournaments; grabbing the most goals at the first two and narrowly missing out on a third Golden Boot by just one goal at the last. Alas, the expertise of Sánchez and ability of his two key forwards will still likely not be enough. Qatar have bested lowly Asian and Caribbean outfits recently, but when the host nation have faced countries of a World Cup standard, such as Ghana, Portugal and the US, they’ve been routinely walked over.
Prediction: It goes without saying that every nation in Qatar wants to improve upon their best performance, but that really is the sole expectation case for those in Group A. The hosts, expected to finish last, will be content challenging the more established countries in their path. Ecuador will dream of, even if not expect, a shock quarter-final appearance to better their journey in 2006, while Senegal – if the determined nation can shake off the disappointment of losing Mané – could set their sights on becoming Africa’s most successful nation in World Cup history with a push deep into the tournament and will, even without their star man, expect to finish second in Group A. Meanwhile, for the Netherlands, anything below first is a problem. The narrative behind Louis van Gaal nearing retirement and having one final crack at the World Cup after failing to qualify for 2002 and placing third in 2014 is pure box office entertainment. Bring it on.