Navas and Flick win early at World Cup 2022
Today, with Group E, we continue our FIFA World Cup 2022 group-by-group analysis. The group teams are—Germany, Spain, Japan, and Costa Rica.
This is another top-heavy group (like Groups D and H) with the UEFA sides overwhelmingly favored, but with a twist, as these specific CONCACAF and AFC teams have traditionally overperformed in singular games at the cup, and if one of those over-the-top showings materialize in a key group game, this could easily become a very tough group from which to progress for Spain and Germany.
Germany are trying to come back from a disappointing and underperforming 2018 World Cup and in Hansi Flick, they have a coach trying to recruit the best the nation has, including bringing back veterans who were in form but out of favor with prior coach Joachim Low. And the Germans have quite a team. Flick thinks he can rekindle the killer Dei Mannschaft mentality of old and key remnants of the 2014 World Cup-winning team seem to have been retained to help transmit that vibe. The Germans, nevertheless, are not among the top handful of global elite teams this year, but they are just under them and their pedigree in World Cups is unquestioned. Should they arrive in the right frame of mind and in health they could go far in the cup.
Yet, as with the French and Dutch this time around, the Germans have been inconsistent—defeating Italy 5-2 but both drawing 1-1 and losing 0-1 to Hungary. Interestingly, their last pre-cup friendly is against Oman which would seem to indicate Flick has all the info he needs going forward and simply wants his sharks to feed before the cup begins. One caveat in that conceptualization, though, may force itself to the fore in the form of injured players, as of this writing Timo Werner, Leroy Sane, Thomas Muller, and Manuel Neuer are questionable. This is a bad quartet to miss and the younger Werner is a key offensive ingredient and the latter three are those mainstays who would transmit that German steel to the squad.
Spain are also in rebuilding mode but they are a few steps ahead of most in that regard since their coach, Luis Enrique, has an incredibly talented young generation to work with and enough veterans of quality to meld into a good team. With the likes of Pedri, Gavi, Ansu, and company, La Roja has a bright future and a competitive present. Their injury problem though is substantial as of this writing: Mikel Oryazabal is out of the cup, and Gerard Moreno, Marcos Llorente, Alvaro Morata, and Eric Garcia are nursing injuries and fighting the clock for fitness. Nevertheless, given the Germans’ situation, as it now stands, the Spaniards should feel like the top dog in this group.
Costa Rica needed an inter-confederation playoff to make it to Qatar but somehow discovered their mojo on their way. Their coach, Colombian Luis Fernando Suarez, has only been at the helm for a year but is very aware of the Central American nation’s traditional football strong suits and talismanic players—ensuring PSG bench warmer Keylor Navas (35 years old) and midfielder Bryan Ruiz (37) are among the travelers. But, aside from using a majority of veterans on his roster, he has also chosen a handful of young hopefuls and given them starting roles. On their side is the fact that no major player has reported an injury as of this writing. If they stay healthy, Los Ticos will not be pushovers even when competing against their betters.
Japan are a perennial Asian power and their easy qualification via relatively poor opposition notwithstanding this is an experienced and talented team with 14 players (over half of their World Cup squad) who ply their trade in the top five European domestic club leagues. The Samurai Blue are also going relatively injury-free and less laden with pressures and expectations than their group mates Spain and Germany. Since qualifying the Japanese have made it a point to compete with as many Qatar-bound sides as possible in their pre-cup friendlies and since June their record against those teams is 3W-2L-1D—one of those losses being a 0-1 to Brazil. Interestingly, they have not played any UEFA teams in their preparations.
Spain—are in a bubble of their own making and Enrique is doing nothing to puncture the mix of high expectation and hubris that has resulted in La Roja believing that their recent Euro and Nations League performances have certified them capable of lifting the cup in Qatar. In a recent interview with World Soccer, in response to whether he will continue in the stylistic vein he has used since taking the reins of the national team, he said: “If we look at the numbers from the  Euros, we were the team that made the most chances…scored the most goals… allowed the fewest chances against it, and…that had the most possession. There is no need to change the style with which we were world champions and won two Euros.” In answering what Spain’s aim was in Qatar, he responded: “We go there…to aspire to…win the World Cup.”
Though Spain will be a force to be reckoned with in the 2026 and 2030 World Cups, given their incredible generation of young stars, that talent is still in its teens to early twenties, and despite their continental experience, they have not been tempered by competition outside Europe. If they progress in first place from their group and then win their Round of 16 match against expected rivals Croatia, they still will not have played any African or South American competition, and their next match, in the semifinals, would be against Brazil. Papa believes that Enrique’s hopes notwithstanding, that clash with the cup favorite would be as far as La Roja gets.
Germany—assuming most of their ailing stars recover in time to go to Qatar, will be pushing to recover their World Cup stature and seem hungry to show 2018 was an aberration. The good news for Flick and company is that they have the guns to make some noise at the cup. The bad news is they have not jelled as a unit and have precious little time to accomplish that between now and their first match on November 23 against Japan. Papa believes the Germans will advance but having to expend a lot more effort than their two weaker adversaries might have seemed to warrant on the drawing board. If they heal and jell, they will come in first, if they miss either ingredient, they will come in second.
Costa Rica given the youth and relative inexperience of the Spaniards and the potential fragility of the Germans, the healthy, experienced, and in-form Ticos will be looking to exploit any chink in their UEFA adversaries’ armor. If either of the two slips up it will be the Ticos who take advantage and slip by. If the two European sides become whole in time the Ticos and the last remnants of their great generation will walk into the sunset.
Japan has a better team than they might be able to showcase in this group. Their issue is not just that two of their three adversaries are much stronger sides, it is that those two have very different agendas with but a single desperate destination. The Germans will be doubly tough because they are trying to prove they are the Huns of old and the young Spaniards will be doubly tough because they want to prove Enrique correct in trusting them so early in their careers to bring the cup home.
Thus, the Japanese will not be the only ones playing to knock the legitimacy chip off their shoulder. That said, they are the team that could provide the two UEFA sides with the game in which they slip up allowing the Ticos to progress. Unfortunately, Papa does not see the Japanese progressing unless the Ticos provide the slip-up game and the Japanese pick up the pieces, which seems less likely. Unless they get a lot of help from all sides the Samurai Blue will have a short visit to Qatar.
English language soccer media perspectives
Here is ESPN’s take on Germany:
“Flick’s team were the first to secure their place at Qatar 2022, bouncing back emphatically from their early exit at Euro 2020 [in the Round of 16]. Having been embarrassingly eliminated at the group stage when defending their title at Russia 2018, Germany will believe they have a point to prove in Qatar and they are strong enough to go all the way.”
Here is Yahoo Sports on Spain:
“Their midfield allows La Roja to control games better than any other World Cup team. The problem, as ever, is scoring enough to win those games. Spain can suffocate opponents enough to win the World Cup, and it can probably create enough chances to win it. But it does not have the top-end talent that in once did, and at some point, it will likely falter in the final third.”
Here is Sports Illustrated on Costa Rica:
“This will be one of the most experienced Costa Rican sides to ever step foot at a World Cup. In Qatar, multiple players—Keylor Navas, Joel Campbell, Celso Borges, Bryan Ruiz—are expected to feature at their third World Cup and break the country’s current record of nine matches of World Cup experience. They were all a part of that special 2014 quarterfinal team that defeated Uruguay and Italy and drew England to top the Group of Death when it was expected to finish last. Despite coming into the World Cup with an experienced squad, though, the outlook will be bleak with Germany and Spain in its group along with Japan scrapping for points. Unfortunately, only chaos, some luck, and a few well-timed goals can gift Costa Rica another shot at its 2014 heroics.”
Here is AP News on Japan:
“Japan coach Hajime Moriyasu said the aim this time…is to reach the quarterfinals. But it won’t be easy. Japan is in Group E…probably the toughest group in Qatar. ‘I don’t think we can win by doing the same things we have done in the last six tournaments,’ Moriyasu said. “We need to be able to function and compete regardless of who is on the pitch.” After fielding two entirely different lineups for September friendlies against the United States [a win] and Ecuador [a draw], it remains to be seen who exactly Moriyasu will pick to face Germany on Nov. 23.”
In all of Japan’s World Cup matches combined they have only lost by three goals twice in 2006, 1-4 to Brazil and in 2014, 1-4 to Colombia, and by two goals once against Australia in 2002. In all the other matches they have lost, including against Argentina, Croatia, Belgium, Netherlands, Denmark, and Senegal, the difference between the winner and loser has been one goal.
Contestant’s local media perspectives (in translation)
Costa Rica’s Diario Extra, today covered the 26-man, squad choices made by coach Suarez. Among the idols of the nation chosen to travel to Qatar was Bryan Ruiz who was asked how he would take on the challenge of his last World Cup. “I am going to enjoy my last quadrennial, my last dance, so to speak. I will give my all, the best of myself in whatever role is asked of me by the coach.”
Speaking at a press conference to announce his 26-man squad, Japan’s coach Hajime Moriyasu repeated his prior comment that “Our goal for the tournament is to reach the quarterfinal, at least.” Asked about the toughness of his group and the odds against his team progressing the coach responded” “Hopefully, we have a different view of the landscape this time.” The coach seemed to imply that with this particular group—an exciting mix of young talent with a majority of experienced players, many with prior World Cup participation—the squad as a whole will see the cup in more accessible terms and feed upon its recent success such as their 2018 game against Belgium.
The German media has been worried about Timo Werner’s replacement since the striker injured himself and was ruled out of participating in Qatar. Young Borussia Dortmund striker Youssoufa Moukoko seems a likely replacement. Kiker magazine, quoting Dortmund coach Edin Terzic, asked the coach to comment on his charge’s potential call-up to the national team. “Moukoko has pushed his competitor, twice his age, out of the starting XI in recent weeks. With four goals and four assists in eleven league games, he has also been able to prove his growing value for BVB. But Flick himself has “enough expertise and experience” to be able to assess that. “We are particularly pleased that Youssoufa is injury-free for the time being, and that he is performing, scoring goals, and preparing well. We will continue to accompany him on this path.”
The Spanish media via Marca featured an article on the song Chanel has just produced as a send-off and accompaniment of the Spanish National Team on their way to Qatar. A kind of Hymn to the past glory and hopeful new glory of La Roja. Meanwhile, rtve.es basing their commentary on Stats Perform’s statistical analysis, conclude that “Spain is the fourth team in line, in terms of odds-to-win the 2022 World Cup, behind favorites in order Brazil, France, and Argentina and ahead of England, Germany, Holland, Belgium, and Portugal.”
Sundry and/or Intangible
Among the things that differentiate the four teams in this group are that Spain and Germany are leagues ahead of Costa Rica and Japan, yet both of the minnows come to the cup with loads of experience and well-marshalled resources. There are few keepers better than the Central American Navas, and few young defenders on Japanese Takehiro Tomiyasu’s level. So both favorites will have to play as such to progress from this group.
What seems more at stake is the state of two of the more storied World Cup sides—the Spanish side of the last decade as inherited by their newest incarnation and the German sides of the ages as Flick tries to reincarnate them in his current charges. Papa believes the Spanish side has greater belief in their potential than the Germans, but the latter have more experience and wiles than the former, save Enrique.
If the Spanish coach can devise a strategy to play Flick’s guys which is as audacious and effective as the one he used to defeat Portugal in the Nations League, Spain could sail through their group unscathed, in first place, and fresh for their likely Round of 16 opponent, Croatia. If Enrique messes his tactics up the Germans will likely take the top spot and the Spaniards would be facing Belgium instead.
Finally, the injuries will play a role, as Werner’s absence is as crucial to Germany as Morata’s would be for Spain while the health and cohesiveness of Japan and Costa Rica could be unexpected but key weapons in the fight for group progression.
All of that said, and assuming that by game time the teams’ rosters are devoid of major absences, or those absences have been substituted for adequately, below is one potential series of scenarios of how Group E might unfold come this winter.
The Germans begin with a strong but ineffectual showing and are met with the expected Japanese resistance leading the teams to a 1-1 halftime score. But in the second half, the Europeans find their top gear and in a 20-minute span score twice to put the game away.
In a scintillating match where coach Suarez surprises all by starting Navas in goal, who then stars in the match, Spain showcase their one glaring weakness—inability to score—the Costa Rican’s Joel Campbell finds the back of the net in one of his team’s few second-half breakaways and turns a Spanish first-half lead into a match draw. Enrique’s men control the game from the opening whistle to the final one but cannot find a way past Navas a second time.
Both teams know this is their one chance to get the points they need to hope for progression, but in a tough match where both teams play well neither is able to pull ahead for long before the other draws even. In the end, neither gets their wish complicating both of their chances. Navas does not start this game as he is banged up a bit from the Spain match and Suarez rests him.
In the key group match-up, the willy Germans outmaneuver the younger and less experienced Spaniards who often outplay their opponents but are yet unable to execute a brilliant Enrique game plan simply because Flick’s troops are able to adapt to it on the run. Spain start the game better and take a very early lead only to have the Germans tie before half-time leaving both sides weary and wary as they return to the pitch for the second half. But though the possession arrow favors the Spanish throughout the half, the final score, late in the half, is Kai Havertz’s.
With the Germans top of the group with six points, and the Spaniards and Costa Ricans tied at two points each, the Japanese, with only one point, have nothing to lose by going all out in their final match in hopes of pulling off a surprise. But the Spanish are ready, in need of points, and have a plan of their own that carves open their opponent’s defense which until this match had been hard for anyone to crack.
Luring the Samurai Blue out of their shell La Roja gets in behind their lines to score two quick goals in the first half. The second half is a tougher match and played on even terms but that only ends up meaning a 1-1 draw for those 45 minutes. In the end, the first-half scores have done the trick and Japan is eliminated while Spain sits at four points.
In a well-played final group match, the Ticos and Germans cannot break one another down in the first half and yet both keepers are called upon to make several key saves. But in the second half, the Costa Ricans get an early goal the Germans are unable to counter. So as the half winds down the Nationalelf are caught too far up-field looking for an equalizer and another Tico counter sees them double their lead. As the match reaches the last few minutes the Germans finally break through to get one back. They then launch wave after wave of attacks that often get through only to have the reinstated Navas push all balls aside. In the end, Costa Rica wins, garners five points, and eliminates a cup contender in the mix.
Order of progression to the next stage: 1. Germany 2. Costa Rica.
Photo: Keylor Navas, Shutterstock ID: 290415446, by Maxisport.