One of the pre-World Cup favorites, Argentina, lost to Saudi Arabi on Tuesday. A few more contenders debut as heavy favorites on Wednesday. Will we see another big upset?
Two recent World Cup-winning nations, Germany and Spain, will start their World Cups on Wednesday. Both are heavily favored in Group E openers. Elsewhere in Group F, Canada takes on group favorite Belgium, and Morocco takes on Croatia, a finalist at the last World Cup.
Morocco vs. Croatia
Kickoff time: 5 a.m. ET/10 a.m. GMT
Venue: Al Bayt Stadium, Al Khor
Luke Modric is 37. Ivan Perisic is 33. Dejan Lovren is 33. Ivan Rakitic has retired from international play. Croatia had a talented squad that made it to the final of the 2018 World Cup, but many of the main figures on that team are past their prime. Modric is still a world-class player, but can he guide Croatia to another run? Chelsea midfielder Mateo Kovacic and Inter Milan midfielder Marcelo Brozovic will likely have to play major roles if Croatia is to replicate any of its success from the last World Cup.
Morocco doesn’t have any World Cup success to match Croatia’s, although the Moroccans did win a group with England, Poland and Portugal in 1986 en route to the country’s best-ever finish. There is World Cup experience on this squad from 2018, a showing that included a draw against Spain where Morocco led into second-half added time.
Chelsea’s Hakim Ziyech is the biggest name on the team, but PSG’s Achraf Hakimi and Bayern Munich’s Noussair Mazraoui are also top-tier players. Modric and co. are likely to dominate the midfield, but Ziyech and Hakimi can be deadly on the counter.
Germany vs. Japan
Kickoff time: 8 a.m. ET/1 p.m. GMT
Venue: Khalifa International Stadium, Al Rayyan
Germany had a remarkable run from 2002 to 2016 where Die Mannschaft made seven semifinals out of eight major tournaments with three finals, including winning the 2014 World Cup. That’s why the two major tournaments since have been so shocking. Germany went out in the group stage at the last World Cup and was knocked out in the Round of 16 at the last Euros.
Spain is slightly favored to win Group E ahead of Germany, but both are heavily favored to get out of the group.
Germany opens with a Japan squad that, despite making it out to the knockout round in three of the past five World Cups, doesn’t get much respect. Japan isn’t going to get much respect in a group with Spain and Germany, but it has talented players and can play well in possession. The Japanese have struggled in front of goal at times, which could be an issue against the group favorites, which will likely control the ball.
Spain vs. Costa Rica
Kickoff time: 11 a.m. ET/4 p.m. GMT
Venue: Al Thumama, Doha
Spain is the biggest favorite of the day against one of the biggest longshots in the tournament. The two nations are not only on opposite sides of the spectrum as far as tournament favorites and underdogs are concerned but also in age.
The Spaniards bring one of the youngest teams in the tournament. Spain’s squad median age is 25.5 years old, the sixth-youngest in the tournament. Two young midfielders, Barcelona’s Pedri (19) and Gavi (18), are at the heart of the youth movement. Pedri, 19, is a dynamic passer who was arguably Spain’s best player during a run to the semifinals at the Euros in the summer of 2021. He is already getting Andres Iniesta comparisons, fairly or not.
Meanwhile, Costa Rica is still clinging to some players who were key to the 2014 run to the quarterfinals. Los Ticos are in the upper tier of median squad age, with the likes of Keylor Navas (35), Celso Borges (34) and Bryan Ruiz (37) among the six players still on the squad from 2014.
Costa Rica did see some younger players step up during a late surge in CONCACAF qualifying to make the intercontinental playoff against New Zealand. After a slow start, Los Ticos went 6-0-1 in the last seven qualifiers, including wins against the United States and Canada and a draw at Mexico.
Belgium vs. Canada
Kickoff time: 2 p.m. ET/7 p.m. GMT
Venue: Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium, Al Rayyan
This may be the last chance for Belgium’s golden generation. The Red Devils have made it to the quarterfinals in the last four major tournaments, including third place at the last World Cup. That’s nothing to sneeze at, but it’s also not what was expected of this group.
Kevin De Bruyne is arguably the best-attacking midfielder in the world. Romelu Lukaku is incredibly tough for defenders and can be lethal in front of the goal when he is on. Thibaut Courtois is still one of the best goalkeepers in the world. Does this team have enough for a deeper run, or are the best days of this group behind it?
There are questions about the back line with longtime stalwarts Toby Aiderweireld (33) and Jan Vertonghen (35) in their mid-30s. That’s music to the ears of a young Canada side with some serious attacking talent with plenty of pace.
Canada has only been to one World Cup. That was in 1986 and the Maple Leafs lost all three matches without scoring.
Bayern Munich’s Alphonso Davies is one of the world’s fastest players and can be a blast to watch, but he comes to the tournament on the mend from a hamstring strain. Will he be able to show that elite pace? Lille’s Jonathan David and the Club Brugge pair of Cyle Larin and Tajon Buchanan can give Canada a dangerous attack even without Davies. Canada could be fun to watch on the counter, especially if it can isolate this Belgium back line in open space.
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(Photo of Pedri: Alex Caparros / Getty Images)