And then there were eight at the 2022 World Cup

Portugal's Joao Felix
Portugal's Joao Felix

World Cup 2022 Predictions

We have reached the quarterfinals of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar with the following pairings: Holland v Argentina, France v England, Brazil v Croatia, and Morocco v Portugal. Twenty-four teams have been eliminated and these are our final eight national teams vying for progression to the semifinals. All the teams that qualified at the top of their group have progressed save Japan, seven out of eight.

We have been blessed with a lack of rain, the one truly disruptive potential weather event given the stadia have been at least tolerable in terms of heat and humidity. And, with a couple of clear and pointed exceptions (Brazil’s and Iran’s internal politics, Raheem Sterling’s forced return home, CR7’s ego saga) we have not had to contend with much non-sporting interference of the type that might affect the games’ outcomes. Let’s hope those trends continue.

Spain, Germany, Belgium, and Uruguay were the eliminated teams that were expected to survive further into the tournament and a couple maybe even into the next stage, but every cup has its upsets and surprises and this one has had more than its share. The questions on everyone’s mind are will there still be more upsets ahead, and in a cup with many pre-tourney issues and all types of media slants, will our memories ultimately rely mostly on what we witness on the pitch?

Argentina v the Netherlands–World Cup 2022 Prediction and Analysis

This is one of the cup’s storied knockout stage rivalries which evokes memories of such great prior matches (1998, 2014) and some we would rather forget (1978). But always a tough game contested by teams playing contrasting styles and larger-than-life characters—either coming in or forged in battle—whose actions will take hold in our memories at least for several years to come.

Holland’s path was mostly non-confrontational as they beat Senegal (without Sadio Mane) 2-0, drew with young Ecuador 1-1, and defeated lowly Qatar 2-0, before exploiting the naivete of the USA in their 3-1 victory over the Yanks. Though they seem to have been steadily building up steam the Dutch have not had to play a big team yet and meeting Argentina in the knockout rounds will be their big test.

Coming into the cup the Netherlands’ form had been in question as they would produce a horrid performance followed by a good one. In the past year, they have not performed very well in competitive matches save their two wins over a brittle Belgium. So, coming in, they were seen as a team that would make the quarters but go no further. But this is the World Cup and their coach, Louis van Gaal, thrives in tournament play.

If anyone can put together a plan to nullify the ongoing adventures of one Lionel Messi, it is van Gaal. So, expect the Dutch to have a plan to deal with the excessive influence of the diminutive Argentine, work themselves into set play territory to put pressure on a key flaw of the South American’s defense, and exploit the lack of pace in the Argentine back line with the likes of Memphis Depay and Cody Gapko. Assuming the Dutch use a 3-4-1-2 formation, they should be able to use their five men in midfield to blunt Argentina’s slow-build-up attack while allowing Depay and Gapko a chance to roam on the counter.

Argentina has had a rocky cup so far. They lost 1-2 to Saudi Arabia in their opener and needed Messi to right their boat against Mexico 2-0 while leaving it to others to defeat a toothless Poland 2-0 before Messi had to take the reins again against an unexpectedly feisty Australia 2-1. The Albiceleste have also yet to meet a major team and will have their hands full with the Dutch. But the glaring weakness in Holland’s armor is their lack of consistency when confronting major teams—if they are on it will be a tough, and mostly even match, if they are off Messi and company will eat them alive.

The Argentines are building up steam of their own in their own way and they will feel that with a healthy and in-form Messi, they have the upper hand coming in. Argentina’s coach, Lionel Scaloni, is not a major tactician so don’t expect any earth-shattering game day strategy from the Argentines. They will come in, once again, assuming they are the better side and that if they play their game all will be well. That is not a bad strategy, they are the better side. Scaloni will believe they have left their one poor performance of the cup behind them and that is a double-edged sword.

This is the world’s biggest football stage and everyone, players and coaches alike, are trying to leave their mark. Van Gaal, who has said he is always lucky at the World Cup—and has pointed to the Dutch’s weak group as their good fortune— always delivers one surprise per cup of his own. It will be in this game that he produces his one magical moment and likely do what the Moroccans did with Sergio Busquets, this time sacrificing a midfielder, maybe Davy Klaassen, to man-mark Messi, cutting down on the Argentine’s touches and attempting to keep him out of the two sequences where he is the deadliest, starting the ball rolling at the nascent stage of a play, and finishing the team movement off by taking the shot they have all been working toward.

No question this is going to be a game that turns on a razor’s edge, and Messi is Messi, but if van Gaal’s tactics work, the Dutch will win, if he messes up the Argentines will move on.

World Cup 2022 Prediction: Netherlands win 1-0 a.e.t.

 

France v England–World Cup 2022 Prediction and Analysis

There are few national rivalries as historical and storied as this one, only it has not been so much so on the World Cup’s soccer pitch. They have only met twice at the cup and England won both times—1966 and 1982. This time, the teams are pretty evenly matched if France have the edge by having Kylian Mbappe.

France had one contender in their group and Denmark “chose” the wrong time to be off and finished last in the group. France defeated Australia 4-1, Denmark 2-1 (in the only truly competitive match of the group, won on a Mbappe score off an uncharacteristic keeper mistake by Kasper Schmeichel), and then lost 0-1 to Tunisia while fielding a second string. The embarrassment of that loss was avenged or assuaged against Poland who were seriously outclassed 3-1 in the Round of 16 with a rampant Mbappe. What all of this means is that France has not been tested either but will now face a team it could call its cup equal in England.

England had a single tough game before reaching their day of reckoning against France, their 0-0 draw with the USA. Otherwise, the Brits defeated Iran 6-2 in an emotional and unfortunate match (for the Iranians), and easily beat Wales 3-0 before outclassing an undermanned Senegal 3-0 in the Round of 16. The good news for the Three Lions is that they are peaking at the right time the bad news is France is one of the overall tournament favorites.

Didier Deschamps has been given credit for keeping a contender in contention despite myriad injuries to key personnel and for keeping a combustible locker room relatively fireproof. But if one looks at the lineup choices Deschamps can make, as we all witnessed against Tunisia, he really only has a starting eleven and a few equal-quality subs left on his roster. Should he need more than that there will be a weak link in his lineup. Similarly, the side is so overly dependent upon the goals of a very in-form Mbappe, who has scored half of the team’s goals, that if he has an off day and Antoine Griezmann, Olivier Giroud, and Ousmane Dembele don’t step up to make up the difference the French will suffer.

Gareth Southgate has been given credit for making his charges believe they are better than the sum of their parts, and it is a well-earned accolade. England are a good team but have been playing like a very good one, and one that is peaking. But the team weakness Southgate has yet to resolve is his own penchant for starting Harry Maguire and an overall defense with but one speedy defender. It will be up to the English coach to figure out how he will keep two of the most explosive, young, wing-based attacking talents at the cup in check while simultaneously blunting a four-striker offense.

Similarly, countering France’s strong six-main defense might entail a bit of a gamble, a strategy some ways outside the Southgate tactical box, something like a 4-2-4 with an added offensive player with both speed and dribbling skills—such as Jack Grealish. Another option would be to keep his 4-3-3 but start Mason Mount with Declan Rice and Jude Bellingham in midfield with carte blanche to go forth. Finally, he could opt for a 4-4-2 flooding the midfield to force Griezmann to play more defense than offense and providing the wingbacks support against the speedy Dembele and Mbappe. If he really thought outside the box, he might devise a way of forcing Mbappe to play further back to receive the ball making him have to cover more ground each time he tries to attack, while also providing zone coverage on him—wherever he is the closest man marks him, period.

On the French side, their current setup works well to blunt a Harry Kane, Phil Foden, and Bukayo Saka attack, but their effort counts on Adrien Rabiot and Aurelien Tchouameni to be free to both defend and supply their four-man attack with playable balls. Maybe switching Griezmann out for Kingsley Coman and/or subbing in Benjamin Pavard for one of the wingbacks might provide a stealth attack while also maintaining defensive strength in midfield.

This will be a classic match between two powerhouses who have not had to change much to succeed but whose strengths against weaker opponents might not work against a stronger one. England’s defense is susceptible to a speedy attack and France’s use of a four-man offense leaves the midfield susceptible to a standard mix of two holding and two offensive midfielders as a counter. Controlling the midfield will be half the battle in this match.

With the exception of an early Mbappe scoring explosion, the game’s outcome will be decided by the coach who can make the changes that counter the strengths that their first big opponent pose, and maybe make those changes on the fly as the game develops its own character. If at the game’s end the teams have depleted themselves to progress and their next opponent is fresher, then regardless of whether the French or English win their semifinals opponent will have the upper hand in that clash. On the other hand, if the team achieving victory in this clash earns a convincing triumph in regulation time, that team will be automatically considered the cup’s top contender.

World Cup 2022 Prediction: France wins 1-0 a.e.t.

 

Brazil v Croatia–World Cup 2022 Prediction and Analysis

These teams have met twice before at World Cups—2006 and 2014—and Brazil won both games. This time around the Croatians are a better team than in those years if a bit on the older side. But the Brazilians are also a much better side and they are on a roll right now. It does not present as an easy match, with the exception of Brazil having a first half like the one they had against Korea Republic—a slight but still potential possibility.

Brazil had the toughest road to tread of any quarterfinalist, regardless of the New York Times’ perspective to the contrary. Beating Serbia 2-0 was a strong performance against a tough opponent, and though the win over the Swiss was only a 1-0 victory it never did seem the Swiss were going to beat the Brazilians. Finally, the meaningless second stringers’ 0-1 loss to Cameroon at the 90+2-minute mark was worth it since the starters got to rest, the injured got to heal, and Tite got the team to see what happens when they let their guard down against even a lesser opponent.

The Selecao’s samba-rhythm first-half display against South Korea has only been matched by the full-game performance of the Portuguese against a stronger opponent, Switzerland, and that is what Tite will hammer home—”we are that good, go out there and show the world.”

Brazil knew who their starting lineup was coming into the cup but Tite has had to make several changes due to injuries. Now, with Neymar back and potentially Alex Sandro and Danilo ready for the Croatia match, the Canarinha may be putting all their pieces back together at just the right time. Assuming no further injuries and that the referees actually make the needed calls to protect top talent, the rest of the cup should be won or lost, and reported by the media, on the facts in evidence and merit of the players’ performances on the pitch.

Croatia are the remaining veteran cup warriors, as opposed to the newly minted ones from Morocco. The Croats, in a poor showing, still drew 0-0 with Morocco, in a must-win performance demolished Canada 4-1 (something neither the Belgians nor the Moroccans were able to do) and drew with Belgium when the Red Devils needed the win. But the Checkered Ones have not been able to score much against strong defenses and have had to rely on their wiles to survive.

They are also older than the Brazilians and their starters have had to play many more minutes without the luxury of quality subs to give them a breather. The team can take heart from the performance of their subs in extra time and the penalty shootout, but it was still veterans and their keeper who pulled them to this stage. Finally, there was a good dollop of luck in their draw with Belgium, it would be difficult to imagine Romelu Lukaku having another such horrific game the rest of his career. But the Croats are asking a lot from lady luck and she may have used up their share.

Luka Modric and Zlatko Dalic know how the game is played at this level and have the golden-generation weapons to make life miserable for the Brazilians. The Croatian midfield is as strong at what they do as the Brazilian one is at what they do. The conundrum for Dalic is what to do with an offense that is not very mobile or speedy and is so dependent upon a midfield that will be hampered to support them as they will have to help out to defend against the Brazilians’ strong attack. Beyond that, the two issues are, that Tite’s troops play at a full level above anyone the Croats have had to face so far and that the Brazilians, who have many more super-subs than the Croatians do, did not have to play extra time or take penalties to progress.

Croatia has no choice but to play their best players and though Dalic made some eye-raising substitutions in the final stages of their match against Japan, it was a match against Japan. Whatever gamble he takes in Croatia’s next match will be a very high-risk/reward choice. For Tite, Croatia poses the same danger the small nation has posed for the past three World Cups, they are predictably tough and technically skilled. So, the Brazilian coach will have to preach patience and ruthlessness to his charges.

World Cup 2022 Prediction: Brazil wins 3-0.

 

Portugal v Morocco–World Cup 2022 Prediction and Analysis

These teams met in the 1986 World Cup where Morocco won 3-1 and then again in 2018 where Portugal won 1-0. This time around the Iberians are a couple of levels above the Atlas Lions and whatever reserves of grit, nerve, and physicality the Africans might possess are necessarily somewhat depleted after their run-in with Spain, particularly given their top players will need to again be on the pitch. Those two circumstances tilt this game heavily toward Portugal.

Portugal barely defeated Ghana 3-2 in what turned out to be an unnecessary opening nailbiter. Then, they had a solid 2-0 win over Uruguay and a 90+1-minute 1-2 loss against Korea when the result did not matter. Their next match, the 6-1 demolition of Switzerland with a revamped and energized lineup, was the most devastating result of the cup so far and instantly placed The Navigators among the tournament’s elite contenders.

The Portuguese are arguably at the level of the English, French, and Brazilians in terms of being able to field two fully competitive teams with their current squad. Why it took coach Fernando Santos so long to figure out he had one of the most potent offenses of any national side to go along with, man-for-man, one of the cup’s best defenses is something for the historians to figure out long after we are gone and buried. But for now, the current-lineup Portugal, the CR7-on-the-bench Portugal, is the hottest team coming into the quarterfinals.

Given their likely less difficult opposition in this match and the doubtless tougher one ahead, should they progress, it would behoove Santos to begin his next lineup considerations with those same starters as the foundation in order for them to build a rhythm. Then, he should consider resting the older Pepe, maybe switching Ruben Neves for the banged-up Otavio, and figuring how to slot in the very in-form Rafael Leao. But any attempt to backtrack on his offensive bent will backfire. If he sticks to the guns he has been sporting, Portugal can compete for the trophy.

Morocco was the main spur and beneficiary of Belgium’s implosion in their shared group. The African side drew with Croatia, defeated Belgium 2-0, and defeated Canada 2-1. But their most amazing feat was still to come, a 0-0 draw against Spain in the Round of 16 followed by a 3-0 win on penalties over the Red Fury after maintaining the draw another 30+ minutes of extra time.

The Africans are the remaining Cinderella story of the cup and if they were not fully exhausted mentally and physically from their exertions to get this far, they might have a chance against Portugal—a very slim chance and necessarily similar in construction to what they attempted and made work against Spain. The problem is that Morocco will also necessarily be sluggish in this game, if not coming in then certainly as the match progresses. The Atlas Lions do not have a reservoir of talent to call upon should the starters fade or need support, and their offense is not strong enough to match up well with the Portuguese defense. They were only overmatched in talent against the Spanish, not in technical ability, mental toughness, or in their strategic stance. But the Portuguese do not have the weaknesses of the Spanish while having more talent and just as much technical skill if not more.

World Cup 2022 Prediction: Portugal wins 4-0.

 

Photo: Portugal’s Joao Felix, Shutterstock ID 1533068975, by Vitalii Vitleo.

 

With 57 World Cup 2022 matches played, Papa has correctly predicted 30 games and incorrectly predicted 27, a paltry, barely above .500, 52.6% success rate.

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