Qatar World Cup
Celebration time: (Clockwise from top left) Argentina, Brazil, Morocco and France celebrate during the Qatar World Cup 2022. Image Credit: Agencies

The Qatar World Cup is hurtling towards its climax on December 18. After 17 days of action, 32 teams were whittled down to eight. France, Brazil, Argentina, England, the Netherlands, Portugal, Croatia and Morocco survived tense and testy battles in the quarterfinals.

Who will win the FIFA World Cup? Here’s what the Gulf News football experts say.

A World Cup of surprises

Imran Malik, Assistant Sports Editor

Football fans had been watching an unprecedented four matches a day during the group stage of the FIFA World Cup in Qatar. Usually the tournament feels like a marathon but with so many fixtures being crammed in this one has felt like a sprint.

There have been several massive shocks so far — the biggest being Saudi Arabia’s 2-1 win over Argentina. But Japan surprised everyone by beating Germany and then Spain. The Germans were eliminated in the group stage just as they were in Russia four years earlier while it appears to be the end of the road for Belgium’s golden generation as they too faltered.

Major leagues all around the world hit the pause button to accommodate the tournament and due to its compressed nature we are already at the quarterfinal stage. The 2022 edition kicked off on November 21 and will conclude on December 18 making it the shortest tournament since 1978 when the competition only featured 16 teams. We had double that at the start in Qatar but with the last 16 completed, we are now down to eight. The knockout stage is where the best teams in the world assert their dominance, heroes are truly made, and where champions are crowned.

Lionel Messi’s swansong

Argentina, led by 35-year-old Lionel Messi who is playing in his final World Cup, beat off a frenzied Australia fightback to win 2-1 and reach the last eight where they will face the Netherlands who saw off the USA. The Dutch have yet to really explode onto the scene but with Cody Gakpo on fine form you cannot rule them out.

Brazil were without talisman Neymar for their last two group matches but he returned for the South Korea game where he scored a cool penalty in a match they won 4-1. They face Luka Modric’s Croatia who beat Japan on penalties to advance. England secured their quarterfinal spot with a 3-0 win over African champions Senegal to set up a clash with the favourites France who beat Poland 3-1 in the last 16 tie. Kylian Mbappe has looked lethal in the tournament but Phil Foden can be a match-winner too.

Last but not least, Morocco sensationally eliminated Spain on penalties to set up a mouthwatering fixture with Portugal who thrashed Switzerland 6-1. Cristiano Ronaldo has had a fairly quiet tournament by his standards, perhaps now is when he will come alive? Or will we see another huge upset from Hakim Ziyech and co?

Olivier Giroud
France’s forward Olivier Giroud celebrates with France’s forward Kylian Mbappe (top) after scoring his team’s first goal against Poland during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Round of 16 match at the Al Thumama Stadium in Doha on December 4, 2022. Image Credit: AFP

France will defend their crown

A.K.S. Satish, Sports Editor

Defending champions France look good to become the second team after Brazil to clinch back-to-back titles. Les Bleus have the firepower to achieve that.

The key figure in France’s scheme of things is striker Kylian Mbappe, whose electric pace and clinical finishing has attracted the attention of rival defenders. But France’s firepower goes beyond Mbappe in the form of Oliver Giroud and Antoine Griezmann, who is yet to score in Qatar after playing in a withdrawn role.

Griezmann, Giroud and Mbappe

It was not long ago when Griezmann top-scored with six goals to take France to the Euro 2016 final. The midfielder has now played 71 consecutive matches for France, beating the record of Patrick Vieira (44 games). The Griezmann Generation went on to win the World Cup in 2018 and are marching towards the final in Qatar.

The experienced Giroud, who became France’s highest scorer with 53 goals, has filled in the void created by the absence of Karim Benzema. Giroud and Mbappe, who has five goals in four games in Qatar, make for a deadly combination.

Les Blues, who showed their defensive qualities against Poland, have conceded only four goals in four games. France’s progress has been very dominant, and they are set to emulate Brazil’s 1962 feat of defending the crown.

Morocco’s Jawad El Yamiq
Morocco’s Jawad El Yamiq (top) celebrates with teammates after the penalty shootout against Spain during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Round of 16 match at the Education City Stadium in Al Rayyan on December 6, 2022. Image Credit: AP

Morocco will become first champions from Africa

Imran Malik, Assistant Sports Editor

I am convinced Morocco, an Arab country, will become the first African nation to win the FIFA World Cup and I am not just saying this based on their sensational victory over Spain. I am saying this because they look by far the best team in the tournament.

They play with electric pace down both flanks, their midfield doesn’t allow the opposition any time on the ball and their defence is rock solid. What’s more, they will have the support of every Arab nation willing them on.

Hakim Ziyech can produce individual moments of brilliance. The Chelsea man already has a goal and an assist among four chances created while Paris Saint-Germain’s Achraf Hakimi is a threat from right back. Sevilla’s Youssef En-Nesyri and Bayern Munich’s Noussair Mazraoui have been absolute pests and West Ham’s Nayef Aguerd and Fiorentina’s Sofyan Amrabat have been ball recovery wizards. Notice the clubs these players play for. That’s right. They are some of Europe’s best. These boys are competing at the highest level domestically and have brought their A-game to Qatar.

Morocco’s fight against the odds

Manager Walid Regragui has only been in charge for six matches but in that time he has managed to get the team to play beautifully together. Remember, they topped their group. And it wasn’t any old group. They had Croatia and Belgium in there. Those were the two teams everyone thought would finish in the top two places. Nobody gave Morocco a hope. But they beat Belgium – the team ranked second in the world by FIFA and boasting star names such as Kevin de Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku.

The fact is Morocco have made it to the last eight and have only conceded one goal in the entire tournament — that too an own goal. That tells you everything you need to know about this team. We all know winning sides are built on strong defences that give nothing away and Morocco absolutely have a solid backline. They kept Spain at bay, who don’t forget, put seven past Costa Rica.

We have seen a number of major shocks at this World Cup with Argentina losing to Saudi Arabia in the group stages probably the biggest yet. But, I firmly believe an even bigger one is to come when Morocco lift the trophy. No African side has ever made it to the semifinals of football’s biggest international tournament. Morocco have created history by reaching the last eight for the first time but I believe there is much more to come from them.

Argentina’s Lionel Messi celebrates with his teammates after scoring the first goal in the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Round of 16 match against Australia at the Ahmad bin Ali Stadium in Al Rayyan, Qatar, on December 3, 2022. Image Credit: Reuters

Argentina will win for Lionel Messi

Shamseer Mohammed, Staff Writer

I think Argentina will win the World Cup. Lionel Scaloni’s team came to the tournament with a 36-game unbeaten run, which included the Copa final victory against Brazil and the Finalissima win against the European Champions Italy. But that invincibility was shattered by a valiant Saudi Arabia in their group opener, which is one of the major shocks in World Cup history.

Soon everyone started to write Argentina off, but I believed the defeat was the spur they needed. Suddenly they became the underdogs, and many thought Lionel Messi’s last World Cup would end in the group stages. But the little man had other ideas. He inspired La Albiceleste in the remaining games to qualify as group champions.

Argentina suffered a blow ahead of the tournament when they lost Lo Celso, and Scaloni had little time to integrate replacements. The loss to the Saudis forced the manager to tweak his plans to find balance in the midfield quickly. He brought in young blood, such as Enzo Fernandez, Alex McCalister, Lisandro Martinez, and Julian Alvarez, and they proved effective. Since then, Argentina have remained unbeaten.

Scaloni’s tactical switch

Scaloni’s core is back at work: Emi Martinez in goal, Otamendi in defence, De Paul in midfield, and Messi pulling the strings. They are working with the young tyros to provide the much-needed thrust.

Argentina aren’t at their scintillating best and are not hammering rivals, but they are doing enough to sneak past teams with their sheer will. These players are fighting for each other: they are defending as a group and relying on Messi’s magic to win games. The system is set up so that Messi doesn’t have to worry about pressing and can concentrate on his ball skills: playmaking or scoring goals.

I believe this side has the ability and mental strength to go all the way and win the World Cup for their idol Mess in his last dance at the biggest sporting event in the world. It’s now or never for Messi, and I believe he will win it — the missing piece in his trophy cabinet.

Brazil’s forward Vinicius Junior (centre) celebrates with teammates after scoring his team’s first goal against South Korea during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Round of 16 match at Stadium 974 in Doha on December 5, 2022. Image Credit: AFP

Brazil will dance their way to sixth title

Shyam A. Krishna, Senior Associate Editor

Brazil have clicked into a higher gear, which is ominous for their opponents at the Qatar World Cup. After a bright start and a slump, the Selecao returned to their dominant form. So, my pre-tournament prediction of a Brazil win remains on course.

I was worried about a Brazilian stumble in the knockout phase after the loss to Cameroon and low-scoring wins over Serbia and Switzerland in the group matches. The below-par performance didn’t augur well for a star-studded Brazilian side, which have a bench of strength that is the envy of most teams. The demolition of South Korea put all the concerns to rest.

The real Brazil surfaced in the Round of 16, where the first 45 minutes must rank as the best football in Qatar. Vinicius’ raking runs down the left are matched only by Raphinha’s brilliance on the right. While Neymar is the key to unlocking stubborn defences, Richarlison has returned to his spectacular goalscoring ways.

The Samba firepower

The defence, marshalled by captain Thiago Silva, has stood up to the attacks well, although sterner tests loom. Alisson Becker’s superb saves against South Korea only reaffirmed his quality in the goal. Casemiro’s midfield work has been inspiring, with adequate support from Lucas Pasqueta.

Brazil’s main rivals would be France and Argentina. Barring the blip against Tunisia, France retain the look of champions. Argentina have put the heartbreak against Saudi Arabia behind them in a bid to give Lionel Messi a fitting farewell. That makes for some tight contests.

Brazil have the arsenal to overpower them and win the World Cup for the sixth time. So more dancing is in the offing.

The Qatar World Cup has been unique in many ways. The first World Cup in the Middle East and the Arab world, the second in Asia and the first winter World Cup, it has seen several upsets and the rise of the Asian and Arab teams. Notable among them was Morocco’s progress to become the first Arab team in the quarterfinals.

Are there more shocks in store? Will we have a new champion? December 18 will provide the answer.