World Cup: Netherlands, Senegal poised to progress from Group A
After 12 years of off-field scrutiny of Qatar since it was named host of World Cup 2022, the unflinching glare of the spotlight is now swivelling towards its football team.
Qatar head into the tournament with very little pedigree. The last hosts to never qualify for the World Cup were Italy in 1934, but that was only the second edition and the Azzurri went on to win it.
No debutant has made it past the group stage since 2010. South Africa are the only hosts, in that year, to never make it out of the group, and Qatar will hope to avoid joining them in infamy.
They have had no shortage of time to prepare to stave off this potential ignominy.
The Qatar Stars League paused just seven games into the season in mid-September to facilitate the national team’s preparations.
Meanwhile, the unprecedented timing of the World Cup – smack in the middle of the European season to coincide with winter in Qatar – has seen many leagues scramble to squeeze out as many fixtures as possible while offering their players little time to rest.
This has resulted in a spate of injuries in the lead up to the World Cup.
The Qataris have largely grown up together with their coach Felix Sanchez, from the Aspire Academy to the national age-group sides to the senior team.
Seventy per cent of Qatar’s 2014 Under-19 Asian Cup-winning team were farmed from the Aspire Academy. Eight of that U-19 squad graduated to the senior team who won the 2019 Asian Cup.
Van Gaal’s last hurrah?
Louis van Gaal’s third coming as Netherlands coach has allowed the Oranje army to dream again after fallow years under predecessors such as Frank de Boer and Danny Blind.
With signs that the 71-year-old could bow out after the tournament to focus on recovery from what he has described as “a pretty aggressive form” of prostate cancer, there might not be a better fairy-tale ending in Doha.
Picture the scene: Van Gaal riding off into the Arabian sunset with the World Cup trophy in tow, his legacy cemented as the man who banished the three-time finalists’ unfortunate reputation as the best team never to lift the trophy.
This isn’t a vintage Dutch outfit in the Rinus Michels mould. Van Gaal has largely eschewed the traditional Dutch 4-3-3, preferring to play a 3-4-3 or 3-4-1-2, perhaps because the Netherlands no longer have players with the same skill set as Johan Cruyff, Ruud Gullit or even Arjen Robben.
He has, however, fashioned a dangerous team with a sprinkling of top talent, like defenders Virgil van Dijk, Matthijs de Ligt and midfielder Frenkie de Jong.
Africa’s best hope
Senegal go to the World Cup as African champions, and the combination of their squad strength and a manageable draw means they are by far the continent’s best hope of knockout-stage representation.
While they have a balanced squad with experienced elite players like Kalidou Koulibaly and Edouard Mendy, augmented by young guns like Ismaila Sarr and Krepin Diatta as well as naturalised players, much will depend on the fitness of talisman Sadio Mane. His participation is reportedly in doubt after injuring his tendon in Bayern Munich’s 6-1 win over Werder Bremen on Tuesday.
If he is fit enough to fire, the Lions of Teranga should aim to break Africa’s World Cup quarter-final ceiling, particularly if they can top Group A.
Young and dangerous
For Ecuador, Qatar is no country for old men. One of the youngest squads at the World Cup, their starlets include Piero Hincapie (20) of Bayer Leverkusen, Brighton & Hove Albion’s Moises Caicedo (20) and Valladolid’s Gonzalo Plata (21) – who won the Bronze Ball at the 2019 U-20 World Cup.
While they are genuine, albeit outside contenders for a last-16 spot, Ecuador might be happy just being in Qatar after the Court of Arbitration for Sport overruled a late attempt by Chile and Peru to get them thrown out of the tournament, based on Byron Castillo’s alleged ineligibility for La Tri.
GROUP A FIXTURES
Qatar v Ecuador (Nov 20, 11.59pm)
Senegal v Netherlands (Nov 21, 11.59pm)
Qatar v Senegal (Nov 25, 9pm)
Netherlands v Ecuador (Nov 25, 11.59pm)
Ecuador v Senegal (Nov 29, 11pm)
Netherlands v Qatar (Nov 29, 11pm)
Last World Cup: Did not qualify
Best World Cup performance: Never qualified
Fifa ranking: 50th
Record in qualifying: Qualified as hosts
The coach: Felix Sanchez
A former coach at Barcelona’s famed La Masia academy since he was 21, the Spaniard has been in Qatar since joining its Aspire Academy in 2006. He then rose through the ranks of the national youth teams, leading the Qataris to their first Asian Under-19 Championship in 2014. Five years later, he led the senior team to their maiden Asian Cup triumph. The 46-year-old, who favours a 5-3-2 formation, is the eighth best-paid tactician at this World Cup, with a reported yearly wage of €2.4 million (S$3.4 million).
The star: Almoez Ali
If Qatar are to advance from the group stage, the 26-year-old will need to have a good campaign. He was named Player of the Tournament at the Asian Cup, where he set the record for most goals in a single campaign – nine in seven games. He also won the Golden Boot and was named in the Team of the Tournament when the Maroon were invited to the 2021 Concacaf Gold Cup. His partnership with fellow attacker Akram Afif, who was voted the best player in Asia in 2019, will be key.
Last World Cup: Did not qualify
Best World Cup performance: Round of 16 (2006)
Fifa ranking: 44th
Record in qualifying: 7 wins, 5 draws, 6 losses
The coach: Gustavo Alfaro
The Argentinian, 60, had never been in charge of a national team before taking the reins of Ecuador in August 2020. Not that his lack of prior international experience has shown. He got them back to the world stage after they missed out on Russia 2018. Often lining up in a 4-3-3, Ecuador scored 27 goals in 18 qualifying matches, second only to Brazil as Alfaro’s side took points off both the Selecao and Argentina at home.
The star: Moises Caicedo
It’s been quite the rise for Brighton’s all-action midfielder Caicedo, who signed straight from the Ecuadorian Serie A in 2021, made his English Premier League debut only in April 2022 and is now linked with Manchester United and Liverpool. Likely to operate on the left of Alfaro’s midfield trio, he will be key in linking the defence to the attack.
Last World Cup: Group stage
Best World Cup performance: Quarter-finals (2002)
Fifa ranking: 18th
Record in qualifying: 6 wins, 1 draw, 1 loss
The coach: Aliou Cisse
The former Paris Saint-Germain and Birmingham City midfielder was the captain of the Senegal team that beat holders France and reached the quarter-finals of their maiden World Cup in 2002. No African team has gone further. Since becoming a coach, he has continued his trail-blazing streak, helping the Lions of Teranga win their maiden Africa Cup of Nations in 2021 after reaching the final in 2019.
The star: Sadio Mane
While Koulibaly is their captain and defensive totem, the 30-year-old Mane is Senegal’s talisman. But a question mark now hangs over his availability after he suffered an injury on Tuesday. Should the African Footballer of the Year be unavailable, then Cisse will have to turn to the likes of Ismaila Sarr, Boulaye Dia and Krepin Diatta for goals.
Last World Cup: Did not qualify
Best World Cup performance: Runners-up (1974, 1978, 2010)
Fifa ranking: 8th
Record in qualifying: 7 wins, 2 draws, 1 loss
The coach: Louis van Gaal
There will be few coaches in Qatar more experienced than the wily, sometimes cantankerous van Gaal. The 71-year-old has not mellowed with age, bluntly opining in March: “It’s ridiculous that the World Cup is there... Fifa says they want to develop football there. That’s bullshit.. It’s about money.”
This is his third stint in charge of the Oranje, his last ended with the side overachieving to finish third in 2014. Since coming out of retirement to take the reins in August 2021, the Dutch have yet to lose a game (11 wins, 4 draws).
The star: Virgil van Dijk
While there have been wobbles this season, the Liverpool stalwart has been widely feted as the world’s best centre-back for several years. His role in the team takes on added significance, as the Dutch have underwhelming goalkeeping options.
But the 31-year-old captain won’t have to do it alone. Unlike the flamboyant Dutch sides of old, the depth in the class of 2022 comes in central defence, where van Gaal can also choose from Bayern’s de Ligt, Manchester City’s Nathan Ake, Inter Milan’s Stefan de Vrij and highly rated Ajax Amsterdam starlet Jurrien Timber.