MARTIN KEOWN gives his verdict on EVERY team at the Qatar World Cup in his group-by-group guide 

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The 2022 World Cup in Qatar is now just days away, with the first-ever winter edition of the tournament drawing ever closer.

Host nation Qatar will get proceedings underway with their November 20 clash against Ecuador, while England will get their campaign going the following day against Iran.

Meanwhile, holders France are among the favourites once more, alongside Brazil, following their triumph in Russia four years ago. 

Here, Sportsmail’s MARTIN KEOWN gives his full guide to every team in every group in the tournament.

The 2022 World Cup in Qatar is now just days away, getting underway on Sunday afternoon

GROUP A

Holland

RANK: 8th 

WORLD CUP BEST: Runners-up in 1974, 1978, 2010

THE BOSS: Louis van Gaal

Now in his third spell as Holland coach, the 71-year-old former Manchester United boss revealed he has been diagnosed with prostate cancer and will be replaced by Ronald Koeman after Qatar. Took the Dutch to the semi-finals in 2014.

THE BIG STAR: Virgil van Dijk 

Question marks over his form at Liverpool this season but role as captain never in doubt. Missed Euro 2020 with injury but lines up here for what, incredibly, will be his first major tournament.

THE RISING STAR: Cody Gakpo 

The 23-year-old PSV winger, linked with Manchester United and Liverpool, made his debut at Euro 2020 and is dangerous cutting in from the left. He could be a January target for English clubs.

FORM: Excellent

Since last-16 defeat by the Czechs at Euro 2020 the Dutch have gone 15 games unbeaten, including a notable double over neighbours Belgium, and will fancy their chances of topping this group.

KEOWN’S VERDICT

Louis van Gaal took over the national team midway through qualifying, got them to this World Cup by winning their last game, and has now transitioned to using a back three. 

Van Dijk is the leader at the back, Barcelona’s Frenkie de Jong pulls the strings in midfield and Memphis Depay and former Tottenham man Steven Bergwijn act as split strikers. If they top the group as expected, a route against the USA and Argentina could follow.

Ecuador

RANK: 44th 

WORLD CUP BEST: Last 16 in 2006

THE BOSS: Gustavo Alfaro

Appointed in 2020, the calm 60-year-old has spent almost his entire coaching career in his native Argentina. His last job before Ecuador was at Boca Juniors.

THE BIG STAR: Enner Valencia 

Ecuador’s top scorer, with 35 goals. The striker had a spell in the Premier League at West Ham and Everton.

THE RISING STAR: Moises Caicedo

Box-to-box midfielder has impressed in the Premier League since last year’s move to Brighton and, at just 21, has a huge career ahead of him.

FORM: Solid

Qualified ahead of Peru, Colombia and Chile and remain unbeaten since booking their place in Qatar. However, last five results have been: 1-0, 0-0, 1-0, 0-0, 0-0. It might not be pretty.

KEOWN’S VERDICT 

Brighton pair Caicedo and attacking left back Pervis Estupinan add significant quality at both ends of the pitch.

At the age of 33, this is surely a final chance for the evergreen Valencia to shine on the biggest stage.

Ecuador have not featured in a World Cup since 2014, when they exited at the group stage. I expect them to avoid the wooden spoon but finish third in Group A.

Brighton youngster Moises Caicedo is one of his team's main hopes for a good tournament

Brighton youngster Moises Caicedo is one of his team’s main hopes for a good tournament 

Senegal

RANK: 18th 

WORLD CUP BEST: Quarter-finals in 2002

THE BOSS: Aliou Cisse

Former Birmingham and Portsmouth midfielder who captained Senegal at the 2002 World Cup is a national hero after guiding them to Africa Cup of Nations glory this year.

THE BIG STAR: Kalidou Koulibaly

The captain needs to be a leader in the absence of star man Sadio Mane. Chelsea defender has plenty of experience and is key for Africa’s No 1 team.

THE RISING STAR: Bamba Dieng

Midfielder, 22, U-turned on deadline-day move to Leeds to stay in the Champions League with Marseille. He may regret that decision after making just six appearances this season.

FORM: Good

Beat Egypt on penalties to be crowned African champions in February then did it again in March to qualify for the World Cup. They have the quality and the experience to thrive.

KEOWN’S VERDICT

Much of Senegal’s build-up has been affected by the news of Mane’s injury. He may not be able to play in the group stages but it’s important the 2022 Ballon d’Or runner-up is among the squad for morale. 

Without Mane, Senegal can still put forward a strong XI with a Premier League midfield of Idrissa Gueye, Nampalys Mendy and Cheikhou Kouyate, along with Koulibaly in defence and Edouard Mendy in goal.

Qatar

RANK: 50th 

WORLD CUP BEST: Never qualified

THE BOSS: Felix Sanchez 

The former Barcelona coach is in his first senior job having enjoyed relative success with Qatar’s Under 19s and Under 23s.

THE BIG STAR: Hassan Al-Haydos

Captain has 165 international caps. He has the experience but does he have the quality?

THE RISING STAR: Yusuf Abdurisag

The 23-year-old winger is highly rated in Qatar… but the Qatari league isn’t the World Cup.

FORM: Uninspiring

Played 16 friendlies this year, winning just five – three of which were against club sides.

KEOWN’S VERDICT 

South Africa are the only World Cup hosts to exit at the group stage. It is surely asking too much of Qatar, with their lack of international quality, to escape this group.

GROUP B

England

RANK: 5th 

WORLD CUP BEST: Winners in 1966

THE BOSS: Gareth Southgate 

Despite taking England to the semi-finals and final at the last two tournaments, recent form has not been good and it feels like he needs another deep run to silence the doubters.

THE BIG STAR: Harry Kane 

Still the main man and needs just two goals to equal Wayne Rooney’s record of 53. If he can match his exploits of 2018, when he hit six and won the Golden Boot, England will go far. A fine start to the season at Tottenham with 12 goals in 15 games.

THE RISING STAR: Jude Bellingham 

Move to Dortmund has proved a triumph and at 19 his expansive passing has helped him cement his position in the centre of midfield. The big guns will battle for his signature this summer.

FORM: Not great

Qualified with ease but since a friendly victory against Ivory Coast in March, England have gone six games without a win while a number of key players are out of form, out of their club’s XI or injured. Apart from that… 

KEOWN’S VERDICT

After the ecstasy of reaching the Euro 2020 final on home soil, and agony of losing to Italy on penalties, England want another long run here in Qatar. Injuries haven’t helped preparations and Gareth Southgate has gambled with Kalvin Phillips and the form of Harry Maguire. 

With Southgate’s experience after six years in the job, we hope the group stages go smoothly, but it will get difficult in the latter stages, with a potential date against world champions France in the quarter-finals.

Wales

RANK: 19th 

WORLD CUP BEST: Quarter-finals in 1958

THE BOSS: Rob Page 

Steadied the ship after Ryan Giggs was forced to step down and guided Wales through a tricky qualifying group to make history.

THE BIG STAR: Gareth Bale 

Last hurrah for British football’s greatest ever export. Bale is not the force of old but remains an inspirational presence for Wales and is still a match-winner.

THE RISING STAR: Brennan Johnson

Nottingham Forest flyer has not hit the heights of last season as he adapts to the Premier League but has the attributes to cause problems in Qatar.

FORM: Troubling

One win in eight – against Ukraine in June – tells its own story, but Wales will not be thinking about that poor run as they embark on a first World Cup adventure since 1958.

KEOWN’S VERDICT

It’s a tough group but Wales are a proud nation and will believe they can reach the latter stages of this World Cup, their first since they were beaten by Brazil and a teenage Pele in the 1958 quarter-finals.

Much will depend on the fitness of Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey. Manager Rob Page took caretaker charge in difficult circumstances, but he now has the chance to turn himself into a national hero.

USA

RANK: 16th 

WORLD CUP BEST: Quarter-finals in 2002

THE BOSS: Gregg Berhalter

Former defender travelled extensively as a player, including a spell at Crystal Palace, and played for USA at 2002 World Cup. Took over in late 2018 after they failed to qualify for the last World Cup.

THE BIG STAR: Christian Pulisic

Yet to set the world alight at Chelsea but the 24-year-old is the main man for the US and key to their hopes of reaching the knockout stage.

THE RISING STAR: Brenden Aaronson

Attacking midfielder is living up to the hype after a bright start to his Premier League career at Leeds and will be the main support act for Pulisic. Underestimate him at your peril.

FORM: Poor

Since a 5-0 win over Grenada in June, the US have been held to disappointing draws by El Salvador and Saudi Arabia and lost 2-0 to Japan.

KEOWN’S VERDICT

You are guaranteed 100mph football from the USA. It’s all action and energy and England’s defenders should expect a high-pressing game.

Aaronson covers great distances, as does his Leeds team-mate Tyler Adams, hence why Jesse Marsch signed them both in the summer. An ever-growing nation for football and with Pulisic probably their most gifted player, this hard-working group will give anyone a difficult game.

Christian Pulisic (right) and Co will be hoping to beat England on their way to the knockouts

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Christian Pulisic (right) and Co will be hoping to beat England on their way to the knockouts

Iran

RANK: 20th 

WORLD CUP BEST: Group stage 

THE BOSS: Carlos Queiroz

Former Manchester United coach has plenty of experience and will make Iran hard to beat.

THE BIG STAR: Mehdi Taremi

Porto forward, 30, scored crucial goals in qualifying. His bicycle kick against Chelsea in the 2020-21 Champions League was voted the best in that season’s competition.

THE RISING STAR: Saeid Ezatolahi

Danish-born midfielder has played all across the world.

FORM: Good 

Won qualifying group ahead of South Korea and their last two games saw them beat Uruguay and draw with Senegal.

KEOWN’S VERDICT 

Hopes rest on Taremi, their striker who has scored 28 goals in 60 games for his country. England won’t want to give him too many chances.

Former Manchester United assistant Carlos Quiroz (right) will be taking charge of Iran

Former Manchester United assistant Carlos Quiroz (right) will be taking charge of Iran 

GROUP C

Argentina 

RANK: 3rd 

WORLD CUP BEST: Winners in 1978 and 1986

THE BOSS: Lionel Scaloni

Former West Ham man has proved an inspired appointment since replacing Jorge Sampaoli after the last World Cup, leading Argentina to their first Copa America title since 1993.

THE BIG STAR: Lionel Messi 

With the possible exception of Cristiano Ronaldo – and the whole of Brazil – few would begrudge Messi winning the World Cup in what, at 35, will surely be his last shot at football’s biggest prize.

THE RISING STAR: Julian Alvarez

Lethal finisher who has already shown his quality since his move from River Plate to Manchester City. May not be an automatic starter but could make the difference from the bench.

FORM: Superb

Qualified without losing a game and are unbeaten since a Copa America defeat by their great rivals Brazil in 2019. For all their attacking brilliance, Argentina are a tough nut to crack, conceding just two goals in their last 14 games.

KEOWN’S VERDICT 

Mostly play a 4-3-3 with Messi central but drifting out to the right where he’s most effective. 

Unbeaten in their last 35 games, including all of the South American qualifiers, Argentina have tough defenders in Manchester United’s Lisandro Martinez and Tottenham’s Cristian Romero, plus former Man City player Nicolas Otamendi. They haven’t won the World Cup since 1986. Should top their group.

Mexico

RANK: 13th 

WORLD CUP BEST: Quarter-finals in 1970 and 1986

THE BOSS: Tata Martino

Former Barcelona and Argentina coach was appointed in 2019 and began his Mexico reign with an 11-game unbeaten run. But results have gone south since and expectations for Qatar are not high.

THE BIG STAR: Raul Jimenez

Wolves centre forward, 31, will likely lead a front three in Qatar, two years after that horrific head injury that almost cost him his career.

THE RISING STAR: Santiago Gimenez

Argentine-born forward has scored six goals in 16 games since joining Feyenoord in the summer. Big things are expected of the 21-year-old and this is a chance for him to showcase his talents.

FORM: Erratic

Finished second behind Canada in qualifying and have struggled for consistency, with just three wins – against Nigeria, Surinam and Peru – in their last nine games.

KEOWN’S VERDICT

Mexico’s last seven World Cups have seen them qualify from their group, only to fall at the first hurdle in the knockout stages each time.

Manager Tata Martino wants to break that hoodoo and take them to the quarter-finals for the first time away from home soil.

His ageing team carries a great deal of experience and I expect them to qualify from this group. At their heart is Edson Alvarez of Ajax, a promising player who will look to dictate the play from midfield.

Wolves centre forward Raul Jimenez will likely lead a front three for Mexico in Qatar

Wolves centre forward Raul Jimenez will likely lead a front three for Mexico in Qatar

POLAND

RANK: 26th

WORLD CUP BEST: Third place in 1974 and 1982

THE BOSS: Czelsaw Michniewicz

Former goalkeeper, 52, took over in January after title wins with Zaglebie Lubin (2007) and Legia Warsaw (2021).

THE BIG STAR: Robert Lewandowski

Joined a struggling Barcelona side this summer but his powers seem to be undimmed at 34 – he’s scored 18 goals already this season.

THE RISING STAR: Nicola Zalewski

Roma left-back made his professional debut against Manchester United in 2021 and has not looked back since, becoming a regular for the Italian giants.

FORM: Patchy

Finished second behind England in qualifying but secured their place with a fine 2-0 play-off win against Sweden. Beat Wales in their last game but have only won three of their last nine and were thumped 6-1 by Belgium in June.

KEOWN’S VERDICT 

Michniewicz is a very flexible coach who is happy to change his tactics game by game and midfielder Piotr Zielinski is enjoying an outstanding season with Napoli.

The wing-back system may give Lewandowski more ammunition to score his goals at this World Cup and that will be key to Poland’s chances of success in what will be a difficult group to escape.

Saudi Arabia

RANK: 51st 

WORLD CUP BEST: Last 16 in 1994

THE BOSS: Herve Renard 

Frenchman has had an eclectic career with Ivory Coast, Angola, Lille and Cambridge on his CV.

THE BIG STAR: Salman Al Faraj

Captain, 33, who is likely to play in No10 role and will be key to their attacks.

THE RISING STAR: Firas Al Buraikan

Six goals for his nation aged just 22 and should start up front.

FORM: Dull

Three goals (one for, two against) in their last five games.

KEOWN’S VERDICT

Respectable job in qualifying, finishing above Japan and Australia. Herve Renard is a two-time Africa Cup of Nations’ winning manager, now coaching his fifth national team.

GROUP D

France

RANK: 4th 

WORLD CUP BEST: Winners in 1998 and 2018

THE BOSS: Didier Deschamps

Celebrated 10 years in charge this summer and hard to argue with his record – Deschamps’ successful moulding of a team of superstars led to the 2018 World Cup win and last year’s Nations League triumph.

THE BIG STAR: Kylian Mbappe

Breakout player as a teenager in Russia four years ago has gone from strength to strength at Paris Saint-Germain since. Takes some stopping when in full flow and undoubtedly one of the most feared strikers in the world.

THE RISING STAR: Aurelien Tchouameni

Midfielder, 21, has starred for Real Madrid since his £60million move from Monaco in July and is set to be a key member of the team now Paul Pogba has been ruled out of the tournament with a knee injury.

FORM: Poor

World champions qualified for Qatar with ease but have only won one of their last six matches (at home to Austria) and are missing key players ahead of their defence of the trophy.

KEOWN’S VERDICT

Defending champions France have such a depth of talent to their squad, it’s hard not to look upon them as potential favourites to win this World Cup, just like they did in 2018.

They’re swimming in match winners, from Kylian Mbappe to Karim Benzema and from Antoine Griezmann to former Arsenal and Chelsea man Olivier Giroud. 

France will be looking to avenge their recent Nations League defeats to Denmark and cruise to this group’s top spot.

Kylian Mbappe (right) is France's star man and arguably the best player at the tournament

Kylian Mbappe (right) is France’s star man and arguably the best player at the tournament 

Denmark

RANK: 10th 

WORLD CUP BEST: Quarter-finals in 1998

THE BOSS: Kasper Hjulmand

Eventful two years in charge, to say the least. The 50-year-old led his side to a Euro 2020 semi just weeks after the collapse of Christian Eriksen and has a fine 67 per cent win rate with his nation.

THE BIG STAR: Christian Eriksen

Few imagined the former Tottenham star would return to the highest level but he has been superb for Manchester United this season and is back in the Denmark squad on merit.

THE RISING STAR: Mikkel Damsgaard

Brentford’s new midfielder impressed against England last summer and, at 22, will expect to play a big role this summer.

FORM: Impressive

Did the double over France in the Nations League and have only been beaten by Croatia, Holland and Scotland (when they had already qualified) since that dramatic Euros semi-final loss to England. Would be a surprise if they failed to make last 16. 

KEOWN’S VERDICT

Qualifying came easy to Denmark, who won their first eight fixtures in superb fashion, scoring 27 goals and conceding none.

It will be incredible to see Christian Eriksen back on the international stage after his collapse at Euro 2020, where his colleagues went on to reach the semis.

Denmark beat France twice in the Nations League and if they can do it again here, they will drastically change the World Cup’s latter stages.

Christian Eriksen has overcome the biggest of setbacks and should be a key figure

Christian Eriksen has overcome the biggest of setbacks and should be a key figure 

Australia

RANK: 38th 

WORLD CUP BEST: Last 16 in 2006

THE BOSS: Graham Arnold

Four years into the job having had spells as caretaker boss. With the exception of a brief stint in Japan, his career has been spent entirely in Australia.

THE BIG STAR: Aaron Mooy 

Former Huddersfield player, 32, is now at Celtic and will anchor the midfield in Qatar.

THE RISING STAR: Connor Metcalfe

Now playing in Germany with St Pauli after impressing at Melbourne City, the impressive 23-year-old midfielder can unleash powerful shots from range with his left foot.

FORM: Unspectacular 

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Made a meal of qualifying, only just finishing ahead of Oman to book a play-off with UAE, which they won. Then beat Peru on penalties to qualify.

KEOWN’S VERDICT 

Group D has a familiar look about it for Australia as they also faced France and Denmark in the group stages of the 2018 World Cup. Both made it to the knockout stages four years ago and are favourites to do so again. 

The Aussies will be looking to cause an upset but I’ve got them finishing third behind the European duo.

Tunisia

RANK: 30th 

WORLD CUP BEST: Group Stage

THE BOSS: Jalel Kadri

The 50-year-old was promoted from assistant in January.

THE BIG STAR: Ellyes Skhiri

Cologne midfielder, 27, offers much with and without the ball. 

THE RISING STAR: Anis Ben Slimane  

Brondby midfielder, 21, made international debut in 2020. 

FORM: Solid

Brazil ended their seven-game unbeaten run in September but they will fancy their chances against Australia.

KEOWN’S VERDICT 

Although Tunisia are Africa’s third-highest ranked team, they’re in a fight for third in this group with Australia unless they can cause a huge upset.

GROUP E

Spain

RANK: 7th 

WORLD CUP BEST: Winners 2010

THE BOSS: Luis Enrique

Spain’s boss of four years has favoured evolution not revolution, sticking with the style of football that saw Spain dominate Europe a decade ago.

THE BIG STAR: Sergio Busquets

The last remaining player from Spain’s 2010 champions, still thriving at 34. Key to their style, Busquets will run the midfield like he has done for Barcelona for so many years, with Pedri and Gavi as his willing runners.

THE RISING STAR: Pedri 

The best young player at Euro 2020 has made himself a fixture in the middle, with 14 caps aged just 19. Should go from strength to strength at Barcelona next to Busquets and coached by midfield legend Xavi. A superb prospect.

FORM: Steady

Since semi-final exit against Italy at the Euros, Spain have lost three times in 15 games, including against France in the Nations League final.

KEOWN’S VERDICT

Spain are full of young talent. Barcelona trio – 18-year-old Gavi and Pedri and Ansu Fati, both 19 – will look to emulate the successes of Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Co, who won three successive tournaments between 2008 and 2012. 

Busquets links both generations and will be hugely important. Maybe this tournament is too early to expect triumph from this young group and a potential quarter-final against Brazil may prove too much.

Barcelona duo Gavi (left) and Pedri (right) will be looking to help Spain back o the top

Barcelona duo Gavi (left) and Pedri (right) will be looking to help Spain back o the top

Germany

RANK: 11th 

WORLD CUP BEST: Winners in 1954, 1974, 1990 and 2014

THE BOSS: Hansi Flick 

After eight years as Joachim Low’s assistant, Flick proved himself at Bayern Munich before taking charge of the national team after last year’s Euros.

THE BIG STAR: Thomas Muller 

At 33, perhaps the veteran’s last chance to add to his 10 World Cup goals. Likely to play a fluid role behind a main striker.

THE RISING STAR: Jamal Musiala 

Former England U21 star is on the fringes at 19, but already has 17 caps and plenty of experience at the top level with Bayern Munich.

FORM: Surprising

Germany have played 15 games since England knocked them out of the Euros. They won the next eight (scoring 33 and conceding just two) before a run of four consecutive 1-1 draws. 

Then they beat Italy 5-2, lost 1-0 at home to Hungary and drew 3-3 with England at Wembley.

KEOWN’S VERDICT 

Germany want to prove they’re not losing the aura they’ve long held on the world stage. Hansi Flick’s task is to turn them into a winning team that can redeem themselves after the embarrassment of being the defending world champions who finished bottom of their group in 2018. 

Germany want to demonstrate they’re back and a possible last 16 tie with Belgium gives them the opportunity to prove just that.

Bayern Munich starlet Jamal Musiala is one of the brightest prospects in world football

Bayern Munich starlet Jamal Musiala is one of the brightest prospects in world football 

Costa Rica

RANK: 31st 

WORLD CUP BEST: Quarter-finals in 2018

THE BOSS: Luis Fernandez Suarez

Led Ecuador to the knockouts in 2006 – where they were beaten by England – and managed Honduras in 2014. Settled Costa Rica impressively after overseeing a bad start to the qualifiers.

THE BIG STAR: Joel Campbell

Former Arsenal attacker is now 30 and playing in Mexico. Still a key figure in the No 10 role, though his best days are probably behind him.

THE RISING STAR: Jewison Bennette

Sunderland winger will play to the left of Campbell and at 18 there are high hopes he will have a breakthrough tournament in a difficult group.

FORM: Encouraging

Beat New Zealand to qualify after finishing behind Canada, Mexico and USA but won’t be short of confidence after one defeat in 12 games in 2022, winning nine.

KEOWN’S VERDICT

Costa Rica is a country in a transitional period, still reliant on senior players such as 37-year-old Bryan Ruiz and 34-year-old Celso Borges from the 2014 tournament, when they finished above England in the group stage and went all the way to quarter-finalists.

They won seven of their last eight games to qualify, including a play-off against 10-man New Zealand, though Costa Rica still only managed 33 per cent possession in that match.

Former Arsenal attacker Joel Campbell remains the biggest name in the Costa Rica team

Former Arsenal attacker Joel Campbell remains the biggest name in the Costa Rica team 

Japan

RANK: 24th 

WORLD CUP BEST: Last 16 in 2002, 2010, 2018

THE BOSS: Hajime Moriyasu

A steady but unspectacular presence, often criticised for playing a conservative style.

THE BIG STAR: Wataru Endo

First name on the team-sheet and heartbeat of the side in the middle of the park.

THE RISING STAR: Takefusa Kubo 

The winger, 21, has impressed in La Liga with Real Sociedad and been on the Japan scene since he was 17.

FORM: Good

Qualified second behind Saudi Arabia and have lost just two of their last 15 games – against Brazil and Tunisia. Will fancy their chances against Costa Rica but will need to be at their very best to get out of this group.

KEOWN’S VERDICT

Qualifying for the knockouts will be incredibly difficult for Japan with their inconsistency. But their players are capable of being this group’s dark horses.

Manager Hajime Moriyasu has often been criticised for playing a conservative style

Manager Hajime Moriyasu has often been criticised for playing a conservative style

GROUP F

Belgium

RANK: 2nd 

WORLD CUP BEST: Third place in 2018

THE BOSS: Roberto Martinez

His six years have brought qualified success with exciting football, but questions are mounting over whether the 49-year-old can unlock his team’s undoubted potential.

THE BIG STAR: Kevin De Bruyne

Dynamic, intelligent Manchester City man knows that at 31 this might be his last chance to inspire his nation to the biggest prize. Undoubtedly one of the best in the world but can he deliver on the biggest stage?

THE RISING STAR: Charles De Ketelaere 

Club Bruges’ record sale when he moved to AC Milan for £30m in the summer, though how much the exciting forward will feature at 21 remains to be seen.

FORM: Shaky 

Since ltaly knocked them out of the Euros, Belgium have been beaten four times in 15 games – against France, Italy and Holland twice.

That does not bode well for a long run but with so much quality in their ranks, if they click, they will be dangerous.

KEOWN’S VERDICT 

Kevin De Bruyne is in his prime but he’s got an ageing defence behind him. And in front, he’s got Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku, who have hardly featured this season. 

To win this World Cup, De Bruyne needs them to spring into life. I see Belgium beating Germany in the last 16 and Portugal in the quarters, but France may prove too much in the semis.

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Kevin De Bruyne is in his prime but he has got an ageing defence behind him

Croatia

RANK: 12th

WORLD CUP BEST: Runners-up 2018

THE BOSS: Zlatko Dalic

The 56-year-old’s biggest challenge has been to rejuvenate an ageing squad that he took to the final last time in Russia.

THE BIG STAR: Luka Modric

Much will rely on Real Madrid’s midfield magician, who remains one of the best players in the world and keeps everything ticking over.

THE RISING STAR: Josko Gvardiol

One of Dalic’s emerging generation, the 20-year-old plays left back for Leipzig but centrally for his country.

Brings a physical presence at the back as well as speed and intelligence. Has been linked with a big-money move to to the Premier League, with both Chelsea and Tottenham keen to bring him to England.

FORM: Superb

One defeat in 15 since their Euro 2020 exit at the hands of Spain. Have won their last four including home and away games against Denmark and an excellent 1-0 win against France in Paris in June.

Always hard to beat and have the experience of reaching the final four years ago.

KEOWN’S VERDICT

Croatia are an ageing team reliant on their midfield three of Luka Modric, Marcelo Brozovic and Mateo Kovacic. Modric, at 37, is still their main man.

One worry is Croatia’s lack of a prolific goalscorer. They qualified easily enough for this World Cup and I expect them to come second behind Belgium, where their next likely opponent in the last 16 will be Spain, the winner of Group D.

Much will rely on Luka Modric, who remains one of the best players in the world

Much will rely on Luka Modric, who remains one of the best players in the world

Morocco

RANK: 22nd

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WORLD CUP BEST: Last 16 in 1986

THE BOSS: Walid Regragui

The 47-year-old was only appointed in August, having won the African Champions League with Wydad Casablanca this year.

THE BIG STAR: Achraf Hakimi

Impressive CV including Real Madrid, Inter Milan, Borussia Dortmund and now Paris Saint Germain after his £60m move in 2021. 

The 24-year-old right back has already won league titles in Italy and France and has scored eight goals for Morocco in his 53 caps.

THE RISING STAR: Zakaria Aboukhlal

Toulouse forward, 22, signed from AZ Alkmaar this summer. Played for Netherlands at youth level and scored on his senior debut for Morocco in 2020.

FORM: Impressive

Went the whole of 2021 unbeaten and thumped DR Congo to book their place in Qatar. 

Defeats this year against Egypt and USA will have dented confidence but they will be no pushovers. Looking for their first World Cup win since beating Scotland 3-0 at France ’98.

KEOWN’S VERDICT

After qualifying for this World Cup, Morocco sacked Vahid Halilhodzic and appointed Walid Regragui, who was given the job on the promise that he bring Chelsea’s Hakim Ziyech back into the national team fold. 

Has also brought back Bayern’s Noussair Mazraoui and, though he doesn’t want to place too much expectation on his players, he is confident the best has yet to come.

Walid Regragui was given the job on the promise that he bring Chelsea¿s Hakim Ziyech back

Walid Regragui was given the job on the promise that he bring Chelsea’s Hakim Ziyech back

Canada 

RANK: 41st 

WORLD CUP BEST: Group Stage

THE BOSS: Jon Herdman

Moved from the women’s team to the men’s in 2018.

THE BIG STAR: Alphonso Davies

Bayern’s left-sided attacker, 22, will be fun for fans to watch.

THE RISING STAR: Jonathan David

Lille forward has 22 goals in 34 games for Canada and has been tipped for a move to a big club.

FORM: Mixed

Qualified for their first World Cup since 1986 in style, topping their group ahead of Mexico and USA, but have lost four of their last seven games.

KEOWN’S VERDICT

Emerging nation’s strength is in their European-based forward line, particularly Alphonso Davies, who plays left back for Bayern but up front for Canada.

Bayern's left-sided attacker Alphonso Davies is undoubtedly his team's star man

Bayern’s left-sided attacker Alphonso Davies is undoubtedly his team’s star man

GROUP G

RANK: 1st

WORLD CUP BEST: Winners in 1958, 1962, 1979, 1994, 2002

Brazil

THE BOSS: Tite

Managed Corinthians to Club World Cup glory over Chelsea in 2012, the last South American side to win it. Took Brazil to the quarter-finals in 2018.

THE BIG STAR: Neymar

PSG forward needs two goals to equal Pele’s 77 for Brazil but has yet to really shine at a World Cup. At 30, could this be his last chance?

THE RISING STAR: Vinicius Jr.

Real Madrid man scored only goal in last season’s Champions League final against Liverpool.

FORM: Imperious

Qualified unbeaten with 14 wins and three draws and have only lost once in their last 29 games – to Argentina in the Copa America final – since 2019. The bookies’ favourites.

KEOWN’S VERDICT

Neymar is three goals from breaking Pele’s Brazil record. But Pele retired from international football at the age that Neymar is now, having won three World Cups. Thiago Silva, at 38, remains key.

He only missed one match at the 2014 World Cup and they lost 7-1 to Germany. With so much attacking talent, maybe pressure is eased on Neymar and Brazil can win it again.

Neymar is is the midst of a brilliant season and will be hoping to carry it on in Qatar

Neymar is is the midst of a brilliant season and will be hoping to carry it on in Qatar

Serbia

RANK: 21st

WORLD CUP BEST: Group Stage

THE BOSS: Dragon Stojkovic

Played for Yugoslavia at 1990 and 1998 World Cups and managed in Japan and China before taking the job in 2021.

THE BIG STAR: Dusan Vlahovic

Juventus striker is only 22 but already one of the best finishers in Europe. Averages a goal every other game for Serbia.

THE RISING STAR: Ivan Ilic

Defensive midfielder signed for Manchester City in 2017 but left three years later without playing a game for them.

FORM: Strong

Unbeaten in qualifying, relegating Portugal to second place, and have lost just three of their last 22 games. Dark horses.

KEOWN’S VERDICT

Serbia’s front three will be very recognisable to European football fans. There’s Aleksandar Mitrovic of Fulham, Vlahovic of Juventus and Dusan Tadic of Ajax – an exciting trio that can trouble any defence. 

Unbeaten in qualifying but only kept one clean sheet in eight games, which could be a concern.

Juventus Dusan Vlahovic striker is only 22 but already one of the best finishers in Europe

Juventus Dusan Vlahovic striker is only 22 but already one of the best finishers in Europe

Switzerland

RANK: 15th 

WORLD CUP BEST: Quarter-finals in 1934, 1938, 1954

THE BOSS: Murat Yakin

Former Swiss defender, who played against England at Euro 2004, has overseen mixed results since his appointment last year.

THE BIG STAR: Granit Xhaka

Arsenal man is in the form of his life for the Premier League’s surprise leaders.

THE RISING STAR: Noah Okafor

Salzburg forward, 22, has been prolific in Austrian league.

FORM: Inconsistent

Beat Portugal and Spain in the Nations League but went five games without a win earlier this year. Qualified top of their group at the expense of Italy.

KEOWN’S VERDICT

A fifth consecutive World Cup for Switzerland, who have recognisable Premier League players in Arsenal’s Xhaka, Manchester City’s Manuel Akanji, Chelsea’s Denis Zakaria, Forest’s Remo Freuler, Newcastle’s Fabian Schar and former Liverpool man Xherdan Shaqiri.

Switzerland captain Granit Xhaka is in the form of his life heading into the tournament

Switzerland captain Granit Xhaka is in the form of his life heading into the tournament 

Cameroon 

RANK: 43rd

WORLD CUP BEST: Quarter-finals in 1998

THE BOSS: Rigobert Song

Former Liverpool defender only took charge in March.

THE BIG STAR: Andre Onana

Inter No 1 made his name at Ajax and is Cameroon’s main man.

THE RISING STAR: Bryan Mbeumo 

Forward, 23, has played a key role in Brentford’s rise.

FORM: Unconvincing 

Recently beaten by Uzbekistan and Equitorial Guinea.

KEOWN’S VERDICT 

African country with the most World Cup appearances but last five ended in group stage exits.

GROUP H

Portugal

RANK: 9th 

WORLD CUP BEST: Third-place in 1966

THE BOSS: Fernando Santos

Now in his eighth year, Santos guided Portugal to their first tournament win at Euro 2016. Impressive squad at his disposal and will be quietly confident.

THE BIG STAR: Cristiano Ronaldo

Last chance of World Cup glory but will he be distracted after talking his way out of Old Trafford?

THE RISING STAR: Joao Felix

Atletico Madrid paid £113m for him in 2019, but despite flashes of brilliance he has struggled to justify that massive fee.

FORM: Underwhelming

Won 10 out of 15 since the Euros without any notable scalps, but did beat both Swiss and Czechs 4-0 in the Nations League.

KEOWN’S VERDICT

Made hard work of qualification and despite their talent over the years, they’ve still not yet won a World Cup. 

Like Lionel Messi, this will probably be Ronaldo’s last chance. If Portugal’s gifted group of players can come together, they could go all the way. A Ronaldo vs Messi final would be the perfect ending.

Uruguay

RANK: 14th 

WORLD CUP BEST: Winners in 1930 and 1950

THE BOSS: Diego Alonso

Has only lost one game since his appointment last year and has seven clean sheets in nine games.

THE BIG STAR: Luis Suarez

Uruguay have an abundance of big names – Cavani, Valverde, Nunez and Godin among them – but the former Liverpool forward is still the main man.

THE RISING STAR: Manuel Ugarte

Sporting Lisbon midfielder was superb in the Champions League this season.

FORM: Fluctuating

Lost six times during qualifying but won their last four to finish third behind Brazil and Argentina. A 1-0 loss to Iran in September was a shock.

KEOWN’S VERDICT

Diego Alonso is coming up to his one-year anniversary and needs to decide if he can use all three of his stellar attackers in Suarez, Cavani and Nunez. 

In midfield, he’s got Real Madrid’s Valverde and Tottenham’s Bentancur. A possible last-16 meeting with Brazil makes any further progress unlikely.

Former Liverpool and Barcelona forward Luis Suarez is still the main man for Uruguay

Former Liverpool and Barcelona forward Luis Suarez is still the main man for Uruguay

South Korea

RANK: 28th 

WORLD CUP BEST: Semi-final in 2002

THE BOSS: Paulo Bento

Former Portugal manager boasts an impressive record since his appointment in 2018.

THE BIG STAR: Son Heung-min 

Spurs striker has struggled at times this season and fractured his cheek just two weeks ago. A nation holds its breath he’ll be fit.

THE RISING STAR: Lee Kang-in 

Mallorca midfielder, 21, won the player of the tournament award at 2019 U20 World Cup.

FORM: Good

Qualified second behind Iran and have just one defeat in eight since a 5-1 thumping against Brazil in June.

KEOWN’S VERDICT

A 10th consecutive World Cup for South Korea but I don’t see them getting anywhere near their 2002 achievement of a semi-final appearance on home soil.

There is too much reliance on Tottenham’s Son Heung-min, a big worry as he is coming back from a fractured eye socket.

Ghana

RANK: 61st 

WORLD CUP BEST: Quarter-final in 2010

THE BOSS: Otto Addo

Only appointed in March in what is his first job as No 1.

THE BIG STAR: Inaki Williams

Switched nationality after winning one cap for Spain.

THE RISING STAR: Mohamed Salisu

Centre back has impressed at Southampton this season.

FORM: Bad

Only Madagascar and Nicaragua have been beaten in normal time over the last year.

KEOWN’S VERDICT

Lowest ranked team face a fight to avoid finishing bottom.

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