Bookmakers will tell you that Brazil are overwhelming favourites. They will also suggest Croatia and Morocco might as well accept their fate and head home now. However, the FIFA World Cup is a tournament with a proven record of defying the odds. Only one of the past 12 pre-tournament favourites has taken home the trophy and, with each of the quarter-finalists just three games from glory, the sport’s greatest prize is within touching distance.
None of these teams would have reached this advanced stage if they didn’t have the ingredients to be successful. But what is the one aspect of their Qatar 2022 campaigns strengthening convictions that this could be their year?
New stars emerging beside a talisman at the top of his game.
Lionel Messi has produced some magic World Cup moments down the years, and even won the Adidas Golden Ball in 2014. Yet many are suggesting that this – his fifth edition – is shaping up to be La Pulga’s best yet.
Argentina expect great things from Messi though. What’s perhaps even more encouraging and surprising for Albiceleste fans is the range of unexpected heroes who have emerged alongside their talisman, with the likes of Alexis Mac Allister, Enzo Fernandez and Julian Alvarez rising to the occasion when that opening-match defeat to Saudi Arabia left the team in genuine peril.
A functioning attack with a long-awaited spearhead.
Not for a long time – not since 1982, some are saying – have Brazil dazzled at the World Cup like they did in that first half against Korea Republic. Four outstanding goals, each arguably better than the last, spoke for an attacking line-up that is clicking in truly spectacular style.
In Richarlison, the pre-tournament favourites also look to have unearthed the No 9 they have been searching for since Ronaldo hung up his boots. O Fenômeno himself certainly seems to think so, telling Brazil’s top scorer in Qatar: “What I did for you, to inspire you – now it’s your turn.”
New stars supporting evergreen icons.
With Luka Modric still pulling the strings and Ivan Perisic popping up with vital goals, this might seem like a carbon-copy of the team that reached the 2018 final. And if that was true, it would be no bad thing. As it is, a new generation of stars are boosting Vatreni hopes of going one better in Qatar. Marko Livaja has impressed in attack, while Josko Gvardiol is attracting the attention of super-clubs across Europe after being hailed as “the best central defender in the world” by coach Zlatko Dalic.
Croatians have even found a new penalty-saving specialist, with Dominik Livakovic proving against Japan that he is a worthy successor to 2018 hero Danijel Subasic.
Goals galore – and from a wider variety of sources. Although England finished third in 2018, they were heavily reliant on two sources of goals. One, of course, was Harry Kane, the tournament’s Adidas Golden Boot winner. The other was set pieces. No team in Russia produced more goals from dead-ball positions, with nine of the Three Lions’ 12 goals emanating from those situations.
Fast forward four-and-a-half years and Gareth Southgate’s side are the tournament’s joint-top scorers, but with set pieces barely figuring and Kane having scored just once. The Three Lions’ creativity in open play, and the variety of scorers thus far – seven in total – is offering encouragement that all those years of hurt since 1966 might finally be coming to an end.
From Stan Mortensen to Marcus Rashford, England have reached the 100 goals mark on the world stage.
Magnificent Mbappe and his fellow musketeers.
Didier Deschamps’ side won the World Cup four years ago with Kylian Mbappe dazzling only in brilliant bursts and Olivier Giroud famously failing to find the net throughout. In Qatar, the former has raised his game significantly to spark comparisons with all-time greats, while the latter has found his scoring touch to contribute three goals already. Ousmane Dembele, with two assists, looks to be another impressive addition to that title-winning formula.
Mbappe in particular, with five goals and two assists, looks to be the pre-eminent difference-maker at this World Cup. And as we have seen in the past with the likes of Garrincha in 1962 and Diego Maradona in 1986, one brilliant individual can often make the difference between also-rans and champions.
Spirit and solidity in Qatar 2022’s best defence. They are without question the tournament’s surprise packages. But the Atlas Lions have no chance of winning the title, right?
It’s a long shot, admittedly. But as history has conclusively shown, it tends to be the team with the sturdiest defence that prevails once the knockout rounds sort the wheat from the chaff. Given that Morocco have already shut out Belgium and Croatia – 2018’s top-scorers and runners-up respectively – and done the same to Spain, it would be brave and potentially foolhardy to rule them out entirely.
An old fox with a familiar plan.
In 2014, Louis van Gaal came within a penalty shootout of the final with one of the least talented Dutch squads in the nation’s largely illustrious history. Now, Qatar 2022’s oldest coach is back on the world stage and employing the same tactical formula – only this time with better ingredients.
Arjen Robben might be missing, but Van Gaal now has Virgil van Dijk marshalling the defence, Frenkie de Jong controlling the midfield and Cody Gakpo ably assisting Memphis Depay in attack. “I don’t see teams adapting to us and that gives us a chance,” the veteran coach has said. “I’ve said for a year now that we can win the World Cup – not that we will win, but that we can win it.”
Given the world-leading players at his disposal in certain key areas, and the tactical skill of the man leading them, it is tough to argue with Van Gaal’s assertion.
Curtain has come down on the one-man show. It’s undoubtedly true that too many conclusions can be drawn from one match. All the same, Portugal’s 6-1 demolition of Switzerland in the last 16 – described domestically as their best World Cup showing of all time – seemed to herald a new and exciting era for A Seleção das Quinas.
Having for so long orbited a large, Cristiano Ronaldo-shaped sun, the Portuguese looked unburdened by playing without their long-term talisman in the starting XI. It helped, of course, that his replacement, Goncalo Ramos, hit a hat-trick, that Joao Felix enjoyed his best-ever match for Portugal and that Bernardo Silva performed superbly in a more central role. But if this is all a sign of things to come, the other teams in Qatar should be very worried indeed.