This is a group with the top CONCACAF team, the second-best CAF team, and the highest FIFA-ranked UEFA team, leaving Croatia, ranked 12th by FIFA, as the rankings outlier. The potential for upsets here is large because despite what seem like large chasms of quality between the UEFA sides and their lesser counterparts the lack of familiarity and thus safe expectations are lacking.
The Canadians are one of the cup’s unknown quantities, the Moroccans can play well, and Luka Modric and Croatia want to bow out of cup play on a high, much like Kevin de Bruyne and Belgium. Add to the motivation of the Canadians that they will be hosting the 2026 World Cup and want to show that they are worthy of being on the world stage. Similarly, Morocco is one of the bidders for the 2030 World Cup and are already thinking of making their mark for the same reason as the Canadians. So aside from doing well because they are at the quadrennial show, all four teams have very specific motivations that go beyond the three-game results.
Belgium need to get a more tangible reward for their Golden Generation than progressing from the easiest group in World Cup 2014 to a quarterfinal 0-1 loss to Argentina, after eking by the USA 2-1 (a.e.t.), and beating Brazil 2-1 via an own goal at the 13th minute and a spectacular Thibault Courtois save off Neymar in stoppage time in Russia’s 2018 World Cup. Unfortunately, after this relatively easy group stage the Red Devils’ very next game would likely be against Germany or Spain, and unless an upset occurs in Group E, the Belgians could depart at the Round of 16.
Coach Roberto Martinez has not been able to get Belgium over the hump to a final let alone to a trophy in his six years at the helm, nearly the duration of the Red Devils’ best generation. Assuming Romelu Lukaku is fit in time to join his team in Qatar, Belgium should be a strong team. This would seem to be their last chance and given their group and bracket, should things go to form, they have a good chance to reach the quarterfinals again. But then they will have to prove themselves—and an own goal and a great save will not be enough.
Croatia are very aware that they have but a key 15 players tops and that their collective health is the key to progressing. An injury to Mateo Kovacic, Luka Modric, or Ivan Perisic, for example, would be fatal to their chances. Given that, and the fact that this is a closely-nit team with veteran players who are still able to rise to a very high level of play, the Croats have hope of progressing to at least the quarterfinals themselves and with a little luck, maybe further.
Canada are well aware they are an underdog at the cup, but precisely because of that they will have two major objectives, not to concede embarrassingly and to work their chances efficiently when they come. This team is resilient and tough, and a number of pundits in the English-speaking media believe they will progress from their group. But Canada have never met the likes of the technically gifted UEFA teams in their group. They have played Qatar of late (a 2-0 win) and Uruguay (a 0-2 loss) and have matches against Bahrain and Japan upcoming. Unfortunately, none of those matches will prepare them for what is coming, and these North Americans may end up being their group’s punching bag.
Morocco, with thirteen players on their squad earning their living in Europe’s top five leagues, are an experienced and technical team that should be taken seriously by their group opponents. That said, they are not at the level of their UEFA group mates but are likely above the Canadians. Look for their match with the North Americans to be the highlight for both of those teams.
If Belgium do not progress it would be a major cup upset. Papa thinks they will and in style if not necessarily with ease.
Croatia should also progress with some leeway.
Canada will do their best not to disappoint and may give the Moroccans a tougher fight than the Africans expect, but Papa would be surprised if Canada’s trip is anything but three straight losses.
Morocco will channel their best football at this cup and will feel that at least climate-wise they are as close to playing at home as they have ever been in a cup. Nevertheless, it will only be pleasant playing Canada as the other two teams will be looking to beat their weaker opponents convincingly to allow some goal differential advantage come the Belgium-Croatia clash.
English language soccer media perspectives
Here is ESPN’s take on Morocco:
“[Morocco are] top of the [African] class after the international break…one of only two teams to have gone unbeaten, and the only side of the five [going to Qatar] to have improved on their previous international performances this year. Replacing coach Vahid Halilhodzic with coach Walid Regragui — untested at this level but accomplished in his homeland — remains a gamble, but the early evidence suggests the new man has overseen a major boost in morale, and there’s no shortage of top-end talent in this squad — this has never been in doubt.”
Here is World Soccer Talk (Kyle Fansler) on Canada:
“Canada making just their second World Cup appearance obviously are not going to have the experience playing on the world’s biggest stage. But I do like Canada’s chances. They were by far the best team in CONCACAF qualifying, losing just once. After watching them qualify, I actually think Belgium and Canada get out of that group. I think Canada’s a really well-rounded side. But it’s hard to look at Canada and Croatia and pick between one of those.”
Here is The Analyst on Croatia:
“Beaten finalists last time, Croatia will expect to challenge for the top spot, though their track record at the World Cup is rather erratic. In their previous five appearances, they’ve either not got out of the group (three times) or reached the semis (twice).”
Here is theScore on Belgium:
“This is the last chance for Belgium’s golden generation to deliver and erase memories of all the false dawns. If anything, the Red Devils seem to be on the decline, particularly with an aging backline that will have difficulty containing any opposition with pace. However, Kevin De Bruyne, if healthy, is still one of the most dazzling creative forces in the game and Romelu Lukaku will fill the net if he’s in anything close to his best form. Belgium, though, despite some cracks starting to show, will get another shot at a run in the knockout stages.”
Contestant’s local media perspectives (in translation)
Morocco’s Le Matin covered their national team’s readiness just prior to the cup. “Three weeks before their entry into the World Cup, Qatar 2022, the Atlas Lions are in very variable states of form. While Achraf Hakimi and Amine Harit are in excellent form, other players are either disappointing or in poor form. This is the case of Youssef En-Nesyri, ineffective with Sevilla FC, or Achraf Dari, with Brest. Others are sorely lacking playing time, like Hakim Ziyech, who waxes the bench at Chelsea, and Selim Amallah, dismissed from the Standard de Liege first team for problems related to the extension of his contract.”
Canada’s CTVNews covered their national team’s prep camp. “Canada coach John Herdman has summoned his MLS troops for a camp and an international friendly in Bahrain before assembling his full squad ahead of the World Cup in Qatar. Herdman called in 20 MLS players…for the camp, which is designed to provide training and a game for players out of season. The Nov. 11 friendly with Bahrain in Manama comes ahead of a final Nov. 17 warm-up against No. 24 Japan in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, that will feature the full World Cup roster. The FIFA international window covering the World Cup in Qatar doesn’t open until Nov. 14, with the tournament kicking off six days later. European clubs will play right up until the window opens. Alphonso Davies (Bayern Munich) visits FC Schalke 04 on Nov. 12, while Jonathan David and Lille host Angers in French Ligue 1 action, and Club Brugge, featuring Tajon Buchanan and Cyle Larin, entertain Antwerp in Belgian league play on Nov. 13. The Bahrain camp opens Sunday. Players from the camp selected to the World Cup roster will travel on Nov. 12 to Qatar.”
Belgium’s news media, or the ones Papa reached, required one register or pay for their coverage so instead Futbol Papa reached FIFA.com for their take on the Red Devils which the site had garnered via interviews with current team players. Speaking about their coach’s approach and standing with the team, center-back Jan Vertonghen said: “The current members of the Red Devils’ squad have been massively impressed by Martinez’s tactical nous and the strong relationship he enjoys with his dressing room. “He’s…capable of putting together a strong group with a good blend of personalities and talented players. He knows how to get all of his players singing from the same hymn sheet, which is never an easy task.” The team captain, Eden Hazard, added “He’s constantly talking to us and is incredibly close to his players. That’s the biggest quality a coach needs, particularly in international football, where he doesn’t get to work with us that often. What’s more, he’s very good tactically and isn’t afraid to make big decisions. He’s a great coach.”
CroatiaWeek.com covered Croatian National Team coach Zlatko Dalic’s squad choices (he picked 34 players) for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. He said “There are 34 players on this extended list so that we have enough options in case of any unforeseen situations. I am happy that a large number of players are in good shape and that most of the candidates have played a good amount of minutes. I believe that everyone will make the most of the next two weeks in order to be in optimal condition. We are welcoming assembling again, which we are all extremely looking forward to.” The Croatian national team will gather on November 13 and 14 in Zagreb, from where it will travel to Riyadh on November 14 for a friendly match with Saudi Arabia scheduled for November 16.
Sundry and/or Intangible
Among the things that differentiate the four teams in this group are that Croatia are on an upswing while Belgium are stagnant and Morocco and Canada have been playing well if against a lower level of competition. What this group will boil down to is the contest between two of the most storied Belgian and Croatian teams which will decide their order of progression.
Group E’s Germany and Spain are the expected opponents of the top two teams to come out of Group F, but the issue is who would the winners of those two Round of 16 confrontations meet next. The top team of Group E receives the second team of Group F and the winner of that match will likely meet Brazil. So, it behooves Luka’s and de Bruyne’s troops to try and get that top spot.
As for the chances for Canada or Morocco to slip through, Papa believes they are slim to none. The issue is not that the two teams are particularly poor it is that they have not been repeatedly tested against the top competitors in the world in the manner that UEFA Nations League A teams have done through September of this year. When those uneven encounters occur, the top teams have all the advantages.
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 Croats need these three points and as many goals as they can muster, but they start the cup in a lower gear and though they are one up at halftime and two up halfway through the second half, they lose concentration and allow a Moroccan goal toward the end of the game, messing up their goal differential. The African team plays well but are unable to cope with their European opponents.
In a surprisingly competitive match in which the Red Devils have a hard time coming out of first gear, the Canadians take advantage of their youth and speed to make a contest of it. In the first half, the Belgians score first but the Canadians respond, and the same sequence repeats in the second half until a single defensive lapse allows de Bruyne to thread the needle on a great assist for the win.
Belgium is hitting on all cylinders now and Courtois is annoyed he has already allowed two goals in, so he kicks it up a notch and makes life miserable for his African opponents. The Red Devils end up with six points and a +5-goal differential.
Luka’s guys are now at a higher gear too and start the game with two quick scores within the first half hour of the match. In the second half, the Canadians come back and for half of the second half, the match seems like it could go either way—a draw for the Canadians or a narrow win for the Croatians. But Modric saves his first cup goal for this match and puts the outcome out of reach with ten minutes to go—leaving the pitch with his team at six points and a +3-goal differential.
In the marquee game of the Group Ivan Perisic and Mateo Kovacic score midway through each half and Croatia holds on during the Belgian’s second-half onslaught. The Red Devils score a consolation deep in stoppage time, but the damage is done. Croatia has nine points to Belgium’s six.
In another well-played final group match, both teams are determined to bow out with class and goals, the opponents are unable to keep each other off the scoreboard but neither is able to pull out the win.
Order of progression to the next stage: 1. Croatia 2. Belgium.
Photo: Mateo Kovacic, Shutterstock ID 2213509929, by ph.FAB