Today we begin our FIFA World Cup 2022 group-by-group analysis. We begin with Group A—Qatar, Ecuador, the Netherlands, and Senegal.
World Cup 2022 Group A: Introduction
This group is ripe for controversy and surprises as the home crowd will be dreaming of performances beyond their national team’s capabilities and if past tourneys are any indication referees will be gentle on the hosts and tough on their opponents. The problem is that even (plentiful but not ridiculous) officiating largesse will not suffice to have an impact on the probable outcomes of Qatar’s matches. Furthermore, while the Qataris are in an emir-led siege stance the three other teams inhabit a very different frame of mind, and the coming together of those psyches might pose another problem.
Qatar embarked on a sports washing crusade some twelve years ago that seemed to have three prongs: first, bribe to get the cup (and that worked), then build the stadia and complementary infrastructure from scratch in order to showcase the country’s capabilities and argue Qatar was ready for prime time (and that seems a 50-50 proposition at best as of this writing) and third, build a team that could compete in order to say they belonged at the cup (that remains to be seen).
What can be said on the football side of things is that the Qataris invested a lot of money in sports—in BeIn Sports television network to provide a presence and an accompanying narrative around the sport, in their club teams (for example hiring Spain’s Xavi Hernandez) teaching them how to master tiki-taka, and then on the national team (hiring a Spanish coach and cementing what Xavi instilled at club level). What the team has inherited from this full-out press of edification is an offensive-minded, possession-based game with high pressing and the placing of a high value on ball control in both fast and protracted attacks.
The irony will be if the fans, teams and their entourages, and VIP visitors, feel the infrastructure and hospitality (hotels and restaurants) are not worthy of a five-star review, the stadia are not accommodating and broadcaster friendly, and the Qatari team is not successful. Then what will the 12-year project have accomplished?
Back to football. Ecuador’s team is mostly too young to fully appreciate their lofty status as World Cup participants and perhaps this mindset will translate into higher-level, fearless play. Given their coach’s penchant for reliance on their defense together with the offensive needs of their three opponents, the South Americans could be perfectly poised to take advantage of teams who have not seen the Tri play.
Senegal, despite recent injury and form letdowns among key defensive players, is yet an unknown quantity to its group opposition while the team is still riding a psychological high which is strongly supported and catered to by their government and nation’s fans. Recall the difference that type of backing made for the Germans when playing in Brazil in 2014. The Africans could be on the verge of making the type of noise in Qatar that few of their continent mates have ever done in a World Cup.
Finally, the Dutch, possessors of a great mix of veterans and precocious youngsters who are both experienced at the club level and in increasingly good form, have rarely shown the collective strength their players have showcased as individuals. If Lois van Gaal can meld their talents into anything resembling their potential the Dutch could be the big dark horse surprise of the tourney.
World Cup 2022 Group A: Likely Prospects
Qatar—the lowest-ranking team coming into the competition is hoping home turf will magically transport them out of a group where every team is leagues ahead of them in international soccer experience and technical skills. Unfortunately, the reality is that Qatar’s odds for advancement are nil save a miracle or two.
Ecuador—ranked 44th in the world by FIFA, believe they can advance relying on their tough defense and recently in particularly good form (not having conceded a goal in their last five friendlies since qualifying) and getting a win over the one team they outrank, the hosts. The Netherlands and Senegal are better teams and though Ecuador could draw with either or both their ultimate progression will be a difficult task. But if there is to be an early upset the Ecuadoreans could deliver it as all it would take is for either of the favorites to slip up while playing the Tri.
Netherlands—despite their on-and-off nature of late are the strongest team in the group and should progress.
Senegal—is the first- or second-best team in the group depending on how the Dutch play, but in either case, they should progress. That said, they are keenly aware of how serendipitous the cup can be given their 2018 elimination.
World Cup 2022 Group A: English language soccer media perspectives
Here is ESPN’s take on Senegal and Ecuador:
“Senegal have lost just one full international match in the past two years — the World Cup qualifying playoff first leg against Egypt…[they] remain well placed to advance from Group A.”
“Ecuador are not good—but they should cruise [against Qatar].”
Here is Yahoo Sports take on Qatar and the Dutch:
“They [the Netherlands] landed a dream draw in Group A and potentially have a cakewalk to the quarterfinals. But they don’t quite have enough firepower to progress much further.”
“With several African and European imports, this somewhat-Qatari team has improved in recent years, to a level that might enable respectable World Cup showings — but not good ones.”
Here is thescore.com’s take on who progresses from the group:
“Van Gaal and the Oranje won’t breeze through the group, but superior talent wins out, with Senegal edging Ecuador for the second knockout berth.”
World Cup 2022 Group A: Contestants’ local media perspectives (in translation)
As of this writing, the local media of the countries in Group A have covered their team’s progression to the cup but not dwelt unduly on their potential for progression. Though expectations for some level of performance obviously exist they have not been front and center as yet.
Ecuador’s major media (El Comercio, El Universo, and La Hora) focused not on their team’s potential pathway in Qatar but on the recent Spanish Clasico and the 26 players to be chosen for the national squad. A young team, whose evolution is supposed to peak in 2026, the Ecuadoreans are looking forward to seeing their young players do well without the pressure of expectations for any specific objective. Nevertheless, the country is keenly aware they are in a manageable group—one from which they believe they can progress.
Dutch media (De Telegraaf, AD, and Metro) at this writing covered the latest UEFA Champions League action and also seemed focused on who would be selected into the 26-man squad and were not contemplating the team’s progression, with the exception of quoting Lois van Gaal’s assertion that he is “lucky” at World Cups and that he felt this one was no exception since Holland would not have to meet up with any of the tournament’s favorites at the group stage.
Senegalese media (Le Soleil, Sud Quotidien) focused not on their team’s matches or chances but on the nation’s preparations for their national team’s stay in Qatar, with the Sud Quotidien stating: “The Minister of Sports, Yankhoba Diattara, [at a press conference October 24th] recalled that the main objective was first to ‘prepare’ the base camp of the Lions of Senegal (accommodation and training grounds) and the ‘organization’ of their stay from November 16, 2022, to validate the accommodation sites in the company of the other members of the [327-strong] Senegalese delegation.”
Qatari news media (Al Jazeera) recently focused its sporting news politically. They chose not to cover their team’s potential at the tournament but instead featured their nation’s leader venting his displeasure at the criticism that his country has received surrounding the hosting of the World Cup. “Qatar’s emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani says his country has faced an ‘unprecedented campaign’ of criticism in the lead-up to this year’s football World Cup….It soon became clear to us that the campaign continues, expands and includes fabrication and double standards, until it reached a level of ferocity that made many question, unfortunately, about the real reasons and motives behind this campaign,” he said.
World Cup 2022 Group A: Sundry and/or Intangible
Among the things that differentiate the four teams in this group are that Qatar and Senegal will be accustomed to the potential effects of the weather while Ecuador and Holland will not. Also, Ecuador, and to a greater extent Senegal, are coming into the tourney on high notes of good form. But lately, for Senegal, keeper Edouard Mendy has lost his club’s starter position and defender Kalidou Koulibaly is still not fit after injury. These are key defensive players their team cannot do without and if they are not healthy and in form, Senegal’s team will not be the same one that shone in Africa.
Meanwhile, the Netherlands are still an open question despite having a number of individual players peaking at the right time. Memphis Depay, though, their main striker, is still recovering from injury and his form in Qatar will be an issue. Qatar, for all of its team’s recent successes in Asian and CONCACAF tussles, is still basically untested in competition at the level of their three-group opponents. This may be one of the cups at which the host nation does not go far (South Africa 2010 being the last where the host did not progress from its group) and in fact, may severely underperform given their unrealistic hopes and long odds.
But, if Senegal’s key defensive stars were to recoup in time, this may be a surprise group given the Lions have not yet had a chance to show their best against European or South American opposition and may well surprise them. On another note, Ecuador’s players are so young that they will be nearly devoid of the jitters and pressures others may feel more acutely and thus play with a fearless attitude that might unnerve opponents giving the South Americans an opening. Finally, should the topsy-turvy Dutch suddenly meld into a collective top form so many of their individuals seem to be enjoying, in time to showcase a level of football they have only reached a couple of times in the past few years, and at just the right time, well they would no longer be a dark horse.
All of that said, and assuming that by game time the teams’ rosters are devoid of major absences, or if there are such that suitable substitutes have taken their places, below is one potential series of scenarios of how Group A might unfold come this winter.
World Cup 2022 Group A Game-by-game
The group begins with the tournament’s overall opening match which required a rescheduling of the entire tournament to ensure Qatar played the first match. In it, we will see a Qatar desperate to show they belong in the cup while simultaneously trying to give their fans (and in particular their emir) something to cheer about. Expect the offensive-minded and inclined Qataris to go all out to get the win in their first game while the Ecuadoreans absorb the pressure with their strong defense and try to counter on a regular basis. Though a tie is the expected result, each team will know only a win gives them a chance to progress and both will see this as their no-turning-back opportunity. Papa sees the Qataris playing one of their best-ever matches but Ecuador’s young guns, feeling the pressure less and willing to take risks from their defensive posture, pulling out the win 2-1.
While under tremendous FIFA and Qatari pressure the match’s refereeing team, and their automated assistants, get most of their calls right, setting tournament officiating behavior and performance precedents for the rest of their peers to follow.
Both teams know this is THE game of the group and each puts its best foot forward with the back-and-forth tempo leading to quick responses whenever one or the other scores. As the game reaches deep into the second half, a draw seems the ordained result, and neither team fights beyond a tacitly agreed-upon line in the sand. The draw, you see, makes them both masters of their own future as each of these teams knows their remaining games are eminently winnable.
The Qataris start strong and aggressively trying to make up for their opening game stumble, but the Senegalese are too strong. Though the hosts score the Africans’ counter is just too effective particularly when the Qataris venture forward en masse to get a result. The final score is a reflection of the technical difference between the teams and not a fair indication of the blood, sweat, and tears each expended in equal measure. The Qataris will feel hard done by the referee who, well-chosen by FIFA for the match, does not bow to local pressure and calls the game fairly.
The Dutch play their one poor match of the group—reverting for a moment to that topsy-turvy rut they had seemed mired in for so long but had just elevated above against Senegal—and Ecuador take advantage, keeping van Gaal’s troops at bay and garnering the equalizer and point.
Holland needs the win and ironically rise to play to their true potential against their weakest opponent, securing the win in thundering form and topping the group on goal differential, but allowing the Qataris to depart the cup having scored in each game. With eight goals in three games, the Dutch are leading the pack on team scoring and, if fit, Depay is the early tournament’s leading scorer.
In one of the toughest played games of the cup with two obstinate defenses setting the tone, the Senegalese have to come from behind to eke out a draw that sees them through on goal differential. The young Ecuadoreans can leave undefeated, with their heads held high knowing that they can only get better with more experience, as they look forward to a shorter flight…north in 2026.
In the end, Qatar settles into its rightful place.
Order of progression to the next stage: 1. Holland 2. Senegal.
Photo: Matthijs de Ligt, Dreamstime.com Photo ID 151953012, by: Vladyslav Moskovenko
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