The World Cup is almost upon us!
If you’re expecting well-reasoned, thoughtful analysis, you’ve likely come to the wrong place. We’ve got 63 matches to sift through (we don’t care for the third-place play-off) and this is an article for fans of “the hunch”.
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And before you cry that this all sounds a bit rogue, spoiler: this World Cup is going to be very rogue. Perhaps the most rogue of all. The world’s best players not called Erling or Mohamed airdropped into the Middle East; eight days to switch from club to international mode; conditions that while not super hot, could definitely be described as uncomfortably warm.
Anyway, what are we waiting for? Let’s dive into where it all begins – the group stage…
World Cup group stage predictions
|Standings||Group A||Group B||Group C||Group D||Group E||Group F||Group G||Group H|
|4.||Qatar||Wales||Saudi Arabia||Tunisia||Japan||Morocco||Cameroon||South Korea|
Everyone happy if we eliminate Qatar and move on? Good. That leaves three teams vying for the top two spots: the Netherlands, Senegal and Ecuador.
Senegal are out for revenge after bowing out of the 2018 World Cup on YELLOW CARDS – seriously, that is not spoken about enough – and have an ominous spine in Edouard Mendy, Kalidou Koulibaly, Idrissa Gueye and Sadio Mane. Sure, everyone around them needs a bit of work, which is why they’ll finish second to the Dutch, but they still earn our coveted ‘dark horses’ tag for 2022.
Ecuador were almost booted out of the World Cup before a ball was kicked after apparently fielding a Colombian in qualifying, and then covering it up. Although they were cleared of doing anything too naughty, their adventure in Qatar will be short. As will Qatar’s.
Just so we’re perfectly clear: England will top Group B not because this is the reincarnation of the golden generation, but because everyone else is garbage. The Rob Green trauma testimonial on November 25 could yet swing the group in the USA’s favour, but they are just a bit too naff for that to realistically happen.
As to the others? Iran would have been our pick to top the group, but the country’s tragic and messy political situation has now engulfed the football team and it’s hard to see this being a happy World Cup for them. Still, they should beat Wales into third spot. The Gareth Bale-Aaron Ramsey connection is dead. Forever.
Gareth Bale of Wales during the UEFA Nations League League A Group 4 match between Wales and Netherlands at Feijenoord Stadion on June 14, 2022 in Rotterdam, Netherlands.
Image credit: Getty Images
The Polish have a proud tradition that stretches back to 1990: whatever you do, don’t you dare get out of your World Cup group. It doesn’t matter that they have the best striker in Qatar (sorry Harry), the modern Poles only know how to play three games at a World Cup. And not particularly well.
Saudi Arabia likely won’t qualify so Mexico – congratulations – you’re through to the last 16 behind runaway group winners Argentina.
The last time France arrived at a World Cup as defending champions, it all went rather badly. Now we’re not saying Tunisia are going to pull off a huge coup à la 2002, and we’re certainly not saying Wahbi Khazri is the new El Hadji Diouf. What we are saying, however, is that this French team is a ticking bomb. One that is set to detonate some time in early December, maybe before. They might advance from Group D given the Tunisians and Australians aren’t all that, but it’s as Denmark’s plus-one.
Since Christian Eriksen had his awful collapse the Danes have been sensational. They won nine straight games in qualifying before losing the final game to avoid too much pre-tournament hype, plus they beat France home and away in the Nations League. So France to finish second is not a spicy take.
France’s forward Kylian Mbappe and Denmark’s midfielder Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg vie during the UEFA Nations League football match between Denmark and France in Copenhagen on September 25, 2022.
Image credit: Getty Images
If you could only pick one group as your holiday destinations for eternity, then Group E is the clear winner. Escape in Costa Rica, grow in Japan, bronze in the Spanish sun. And to be honest, just let Germany be.
As to the football, neither Spain or Germany are quite as strong as some are suggesting, but are comfortably stronger than Costa Rica and Japan. Germany should top the group, given they don’t do consecutive stinkers on the world stage, as they seek to end eight long years of hurt.
A warm hello to Canada! Hopefully you can be more accommodating than your neighbours of the true name of this beautiful sport, and not pedal this soccer nonsense. Either way, there’s something about the Canadians’ upbeat camaraderie that excites us. And Alphonso Davies in full flow. Belgium will win the group, we can all agree there, but we have a sneaking suspicion that Canada will mark their debut tournament with a run to the last 16.
Yes, yes, we know Croatia are being robbed here. They just topped a Nations League group containing France and Denmark and are seeking to go one better after reaching the final four years ago. But it’s unavoidable that their best players are four-and-a-smidge years older than at Russia 2018 and in Croatia’s case, that’s really not a good thing.
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What’s so exciting about Serbia? Dusan Tadic, Filip Kostic, Aleksandar Mitrovic, Dusan Vlahovic, Nikola Milenkovic and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, that’s what. They are primed for a deep run in the tournament, even if Max Allegri is making it his life’s work to ruin Vlahovic at Juventus.
That leaves Brazil top, Switzerland third, and sincere apologies to Cameroon.
The Hipster Special aka the only group any nation could finish first or fourth. Unsurprisingly, we’ve been boring and plumped for Portugal to top the group, even if it feels like we are deliciously close to the ultimate Cristiano Ronaldo tantrum given his woes in Manchester.
Anyway, this group is all about one match: Ghana v Uruguay on December 2. Luis Suarez is still charging around celebrating after Asamoah Gyan’s penalty thwacked the crossbar 12 years ago in South Africa, so it would take a brave person to bet against the most revved-up Ghana team in history from making amends.
And with that (hopefully controversial) Ghanaian win, the knockout stages are upon us. What a ride we’re having…
World Cup last 16 predictions
|Netherlands v United States||December 3||15:00|
|Argentina v France||December 3||19:00|
|Denmark v Mexico||December 4||15:00|
|England v Senegal||December 4||19:00|
|Germany v Canada||December 5||15:00|
|Brazil v Ghana||December 5||19:00|
|Belgium v Spain||December 6||15:00|
|Portugal v Serbia||December 6||19:00|
Victories for the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany and Brazil need little explanation, not even to the poor souls in the US, Mexico, Canada (oh god, we’ve wiped out the whole of North America in one cruel sentence) and Ghana.
But you don’t care about that, do you. Your eyes are paused on the late kick-off on December 3: Argentina v France, Messi v Mbappe, 90 minutes of chaotic end-to-end action, then hopefully another 30 more. That French meltdown we predicted? It’s got to happen here, the bitter memories of that Benjamin Pavard half-volley slow-mo from 2018 inspiring Argentina to victory.
As for those of you who got carried away by England winning our fictional Group B, cancel your bunting delivery. Senegal are AFCON champions, are used to playing knockout tournaments in mid-season and, if required, their fans are more accurate than England’s with laser pens during penalty shootouts.
England manager Gareth Southgate
Image credit: Getty Images
As they did in qualifying, Serbia should see off Portugal, who will again be held back by their constant neediness to give the ball to Ronaldo, while Belgium should beat Spain and save disappointing everyone until later in the tournament. As we said, forget all about well-reasoned, thoughtful analysis. On with the show and the last eight…
World Cup quarter-final predictions
|Germany v Brazil||December 9||15:00|
|Netherlands v Argentina||December 9||19:00|
|Belgium v Serbia||December 10||15:00|
|Senegal v Denmark||December 10||19:00|
Dear Lord Football, we understand not every single one of these predictions is going to be spot on, probably more like 60/63, but please don’t tamper with the first two quarter-finals. They are perfect.
Expect to drown in David Luiz’s tears in the build-up to the first match, his agony from Belo Horizonte 2014 replayed on repeat until Neymar leads the exorcism for Brazil – not a 7-1-level exorcism, but a cathartic win nonetheless.
Then it’s time to revisit the greatest three-touch combo in history, courtesy of Dennis Bergkamp, until Argentina’s very only Lord Football banishes the Dutch.
On the other half of the draw, Serbia have come far. Too far. Belgium to see them off as Senegal continue to carry the torch for Africa at Denmark’s expense.
World Cup semi-final predictions
|Argentina v Brazil||December 9||15:00|
|Senegal v Belgium||December 9||19:00|
Now is probably a good time to point out that Argentina and Brazil haven’t officially finished qualifying for the World Cup. Both still have a game to play, against each other, after their last meeting saw Brazilian medical officials wait until the match had kicked off, then decide that was the perfect moment to invade the pitch to deport Emi Martinez, Emi Buendia, Cristian Romero and Giovani Lo Celso due to Covid rule breaches. Seriously.
Lionel Messi of Argentina competes for the ball with Fabinho of Brazil during a match between Argentina and Brazil as part of FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Qualifiers at San Juan del Bicentenario Stadium on November 16, 2021 in San Juan, Argentina.
Image credit: Getty Images
But something big is brewing with the two giants of South America. Brazil haven’t lost since the 2021 Copa America final, incidentally against Argentina, while Argentina are unbeaten since July 2019, incidentally losing to Brazil. Previously it felt like both sides were a bit top-heavy but that’s no longer the case. This could be the game of the tournament, with Messi v Alex Telles the deciding factor. No prizes for guessing who wins that duel.
Oh, and remember that disappointment we predicted for Belgium? Here it is. There’s only so far you can go with Roberto Martinez, particularly when you are up against the savviest of tournament teams. Senegal march on, grinding out another dull win and moving to the cusp of history.
World Cup final prediction
|Argentina v Senegal||December 18||15:00|
Ah yes, the final we were all expecting: Argentina v Senegal.
Major finals are usually a bit naff and this will likely be no different with Senegal playing for their beloved 0-0 and shootout, and Argentina’s stars so concerned about being the guy that costs Messi immortality that no one dares trespass beyond the halfway line.
But it’s hard to look beyond Argentina. They aren’t just a bunch of strikers and a fire extinguisher-wielding Javier Mascherano anymore. It’s a proper team, one that have conceded just twice in their past 14 matches, and one that look set to elevate Messi to true GOAT status.
Argentina’s Lionel Messi celebrates after winning the Conmebol 2021 Copa America football tournament final match against Brazil at Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on July 10, 2021
Image credit: Getty Images
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