The first-ever winter World Cup kicks off this Sunday in the little Gulf country of Qatar. Eight stadiums, 32 teams, and 831 players all with the endgame of a big, golden trophy
When the football begins, almost all else comes to a halt. As the stars converge and get through their final preparations and drills, spectators across the globe will be busy soaking up as much content about the tournament as possible.
And yet, what can we expect from this unique World Cup? Of course, limited preparation and an almost complete lack of cohesion are observable factors. Still, in a competition that borders on the finest of margins, individual brilliance will readily be on display.
Indeed, more teams are leaning towards pragmatism, as was seen at the last Euro competition and the 2018 World Cup. But by and large, the team with the right will and motivation will win this tournament.
Here is a preview of Groups A and B and the first four matches:
Qatar vs Ecuador
The hosts might yet spring a surprise at this tournament for a few reasons not limited to home support or weather adaptation. Qatar’s entire squad is home-based. In effect, the preparation should be more than adequate—better than any other side in the competition.
What they might lack in individual star power, they will make up for in organization and cohesion. This is, after all, their very first World Cup.
Felix Sanchez has had enough time with this crop of players since he became manager in 2017. And while they qualified for the World Cup automatically, they are the defending champions of the Asian Cup. Even more, they come into this fixture off the back of a seamless qualifying series, winning seven out of eight matches.
Notably, the Maroons have struggled against World Cup-bound teams. The main strategy for Sanchez, you suspect, will be to commit numbers in defense to shut down the spaces. Homan Ahmed and Bassam Al-Rawi will both need to concentrate for the entire duration. Saad Al Sheeb can expect to face more shots against a fast-paced, energetic Ecuador side.
The South Americans, who finished fourth in the CONMEBOL qualifiers, will be confident of winning. They built a reputation of resilience while being able to score goals aplenty. Only Brazil scored more goals in the qualifiers than La Tri.
Against Qatar, Enner Valencia will fancy his chances. The Fenerbahce forward scored 13 goals for his club just before the break. Moises Caicedo has been a revelation for Brighton in midfield this season. His industry and creativity will be pivotal.
Prediction: Under 3.5 goals
Senegal vs Netherlands
Senegal will be brimming with the belief that they have a solid chance of progressing from this group. The Teranga Lions lost a second-round spot to Japan at the last edition owing to a poor disciplinary record.
This year, Aliou Cisse’s men have been outstanding. They won the Nation’s Cup for the first time ever at the expense of Egypt, whom they also defeated in the qualifiers. However, the African side has been dealt a huge blow with the absence of Sadio Mane, who underwent surgery on Wednesday.
Even so, the Senegal manager will feel that he has enough attacking power to make a mark at this tournament. There is no time to feel sorry for themselves as they begin their campaign with the toughest opponent in the group, the Netherlands.
Cisse has prioritised the wings for chance creation. Nicolas Jackson and Ismaila Sarr will need to get on the ball as much as possible. Gana Gueye will give control in midfield as Kalidou Koulibaly leads the defence.
The Netherlands, similarly, have been just as exciting since their struggles in 2016 and 2018. They were brilliant in the Nations League, where they rolled through to the semi-finals.
Louis Van Gaal has a blend of youth and experience to draw from. He will be relying on his 3-5-2 system with Virgil Van Dijk in defence, Frenkie de Jong in midfield, and Memphis Depay in offense.
While they have thrived on the counter, they will naturally have more of the ball against Senegal.
Prediction: Over 2.5 goals
England vs Iran
England have grown in leaps and bounds, at least when considering results. The Three Lions have gone from mere appearance to substance.
Since Gareth Southgate became manager, his team have finished in fourth place at the World Cup and second place at the Euros. And yet, in the last few months, the former champions have been horrible. In September, they lost scandalously to Hungary and eventually succumbed to relegation in the Nations League.
South Gate continues to favour pragmatism over a defined style of play. In truth, it has produced results, going 480 minutes without conceding a goal.
Not much will change at this World Cup. The English manager will build his side around Harry Kane, who will expectably drop deep to link with Raheem Sterling and Phil Foden. And yet, the defence will be the foundation, marshalled by Harry Maguire, a player who many love to hate.
But for Iran, a lot of unrest clouds their participation. Dictatorship amid protests has seen the players continually move in silence. Indeed, there have been campaigns to disqualify them.
On the pitch, Carlos Queiroz is sweating on the fitness of his star forward, Sardar Amzoun of Bayer Leverkusen. Still, this is an opportunity for Porto’s Mehdi Taremi to step up. Hossein Kanaanizadegan will need to be excellent in containing England’s explosive forwards.
Prediction: England win
USA vs Wales
After deservedly missing out on the previous World Cup, the United States have a chance to go at it on the biggest of stages.
Their qualifying campaign was anything but smooth, yet wins against Mexico and the continent’s weaker teams gave them enough leverage to earn a ticket.
Gregg Berhalter’s appointment has coincided with the development of young, promising talents across Europe’s top clubs.
Christian Pulisic is perhaps the team’s biggest player. Berhalter will be counting on the Chelsea forward to get into the right pockets and fashion chances. Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie will provide control in midfield, while Tim Weah and Gio Reyna will be the jokers in offense.
One downside to this exciting team is the defence where two defenders have withdrawn due to injury.
Wales will be too excited to be at their first World Cup in 64 years. With the odds stacked against them, they might yet pull a surprise. After a tough route to this competition, motivation will not be in short supply.
Rob Page tends to sit deep and attack with pace. The Welsh manager will stick to this successful model. Gareth Bale was instrumental in the playoffs. He will need another big performance against the USA, a country where he now plays club football.
Prediction: Over 1.5 goals