The World Cup 2022 is here, with the showpiece event jammed into the middle of the domestic season in Europe.
Brazil are the favourites, but Argentina’s unbeaten streak and victory over the Selecao in the Copa America final have built confidence in a crowning moment for Lionel Messi on the international stage.
Gareth Southgate will hope it’s England’s time, after heartache at Wembley in the Euro 2020 final against Italy, while Gareth Bale leads a Wales side determined to harness memories of Euro 2016 in their first mundial since 1958.
From top goalscorer and the players that emerge as stars to the team that seizes glory, here are Indy Sport’s predictions for the spectacle in Qatar.
Who will win the World Cup?
Ben Burrows, editor: Brazil – The best squad in Qatar have a stout defence, midfield versatility and the firepower to blow anyone away. Conditions in the Middle East will play into their hands too and in Neymar they have a talisman who is bang in form.
Richard Jolly, senior football correspondent: Brazil – Admittedly, I tipped them in 2014 and that ended with a 7-1 defeat in the semi-finals, but it feels as though their dependency on Neymar is lesser now in a squad with depth, balance, match-winners and a brilliant goalkeeper. An excellent record in qualifying and friendlies bodes well, even if they are untested against European sides. But I am also going for Brazil because all the European teams look flawed.
Alex Pattle, sports writer: Argentina – As a lot of people have noted, this seems to be a rather open World Cup. In terms of the favourites, Brazil might not be mentally strong enough and France are weakened – and have to deal with the trend of recent champions bowing out in the group stage four years after going all the way. Argentina feel the best-rounded in terms of talent, depth and mentality; they will be fiercely motivated to help Lionel Messi lift the trophy.
Jack Rathborn, assistant sports editor: Argentina – Lionel Messi has rediscovered his edge at PSG just in time, while there is enough in support in attack (Lautaro Martinez, Paulo Dybala, Julian Alvarez) to break games open. Crucially, they have a reliable pair of hands between the sticks in Emi Martinez and a collection of warriors at the back, with Lisandro Martinez thriving in the Premier League at Manchester United – and remember that Euro 2020 was won by an Italian side with a habit of avoiding defeat. Argentina’s 35-match unbeaten streak is now two short of the Azzurri – this is Messi’s time.
Luke Baker, live editor: Argentina – It’s Lionel Messi’s time to finally lift the World Cup. Winning last year’s Copa America to end the 28-year trophy drought will be a monkey off Argentina’s backs and Lionel Scaloni’s system gets the best out of the 2022 version of Messi. Their 35-game unbeaten run is incredibly impressive but might actually be a slight concern because it feels like they’re due a loss...!
Karl Matchett, sports reporter: France – In the absence of any nation having a perfect XI and the probability of more injuries, it could just be that the side with the greatest depth prevails. That’s unquestionably France, who, with the exception of perhaps central midfield, have elite talent waiting in the wings for a chance in the side and who can affect the game off the bench. Back-to-back World Cup winners haven’t been seen since Brazil in 1958 and 1962, so France doing so in Qatar would be historic in the modern game.
Kieran Jackson, sports writer: Argentina – Despite Europe dominating the past four World Cups, I fancy a South American winner for the first time in 20 years and, on an unbeaten streak currently standing at 35, Argentina are my pick. A favourable group alongside Saudi Arabia, Mexico and Poland should see them emerge top and, in the lottery of the knockouts, expect their momentum – with their last loss coming in 2019 – to be crucial. After coming so close at Brazil 2014, it could well be fifth time lucky for Lionel Messi.
Jamie Braidwood, sports reporter: Argentina – This has to be the year for a South American winner. With a close and cohesive squad that has better balance than previous years and recent experience of winning a major tournament, plus the best player in the world fuelled by the aim of fulfilling a career-long ambition, it also has to be Argentina. Bring it home, Leo.
Who will win the Golden Boot?
BB: Lionel Messi – The best and most complete Argentina side Messi has played in gives him the strongest chance at crowning his career with the one trophy to elude him. As they so often have, they will go as he goes.
RJ: Karim Benzema – Partly because he has been the best player in the world over the last 12 months and scored 44 goals for Real Madrid last season. But also, more prosaically, because the easiest way to win the Golden Boot is to be prolific in the group stages and, with two outsiders – Australia and Tunisia – in France’s pool, Benzema stands a chance to get several goals before the knockout stages.
AP: Lautaro Martinez – In line with my (hesitant) prediction of Argentina winning, or at least going deep in the competition, I can see one of their forwards claiming this accolade. I expect Messi to create more than he’ll score, freeing up someone like Lautaro to win the Golden Boot.
JR: Lionel Messi – It’s hard to steer away from Messi, given my fancy for Argentina to go all the way, and I won’t, but Darwin Nunez intrigues me as a longer shot, with Uruguay well placed to win their group and threaten Spain or Belgium for a place in the semi-finals.
LB: Kylian Mbappe – Could be Lautaro Martinez if Argentina do go all the way, while Neymar should go deep with Brazil. However, it normally takes only around six goals to win the Golden Boot and it feels like Mbappe could easily have five by the end of the group stage, having faced Tunisia and Australia (and, to a lesser extent, Denmark) before he even reaches a potential last-16 clash with Poland/Mexico and maybe a quarter-final against England.
KM: Vinicius Jr – Assuming recent patterns continue, three group-stage goals or so and another one or two in the knockouts will be enough to be in the running. Brazil have two group fixtures against sides with defences that look susceptible to speed in behind and should go fairly deep into the tournament. Vini has been electric for the last 12 months and his composure in the box has improved so much. Key to build-up play and fearless on the big stage, he might prove the Selecao’s greatest route to goal.
KJ: Karim Benzema – After a six-year exile, the French Ballon d’Or winner has returned to international football in impressive style. It should be goals galore for Benzema in a group with Australia, Denmark and Tunisia, and, as Real Madrid’s run to Champions League glory last season showed, he is not shy of striking on the biggest of knockout occasions too.
JB: Harry Kane – Two goals against Iran, two against Wales and one against the United States, plus one against Senegal. Quiet and underwhelming performances throughout – defeat to France in the quarter-finals – but probably still enough to beat the half dozen or so players who score five.
Who will be the breakout star of the tournament?
BB: Jamal Musiala – How much of a breakout a player already starring for Bayern Munich can have is up for debate, but if Musiala takes his red-hot Bundesliga form with him to Qatar and takes Germany deep, the whole world will be talking about him.
RJ: Cody Gakpo – Admittedly, this relies on the ever contrary Louis van Gaal picking the PSV Eindhoven player and perhaps his 5-3-2 formation does not really suit Gakpo, whose pace and skill can be best utilised on the wing. But Gakpo looks to be improving at such speed he now seems a superstar in the making.
AP: Gavi – Ardent football fans will probably be aware of Gavi’s immense talent, which has been on display in Barcelona’s midfield over the last couple of seasons. This winter, however, the 18-year-old could introduce himself to a much wider audience, just as Barca and Spain teammate Pedri did at the Euros last summer.
JR: Xavi Simons – He has electric pace, trickery and enters the tournament purring after an impressive run of form with PSV. Just the type of player to bring a sterile World Cup game to life, and the Netherlands have a soft group and potential last-16 opponent.
LB: Pedri – Shone as an 18-year-old to win young player of the tournament at Euro 2020 and now, at the grand old age of 19, will do the same on the world stage for Spain. An incredible all-round player who has already been favourably compared to Andres Iniesta at the same age by his national team coach, which tells you all you need to know. Honourable mention to Jamal Musiala, who might be the best player in the Bundesliga at the moment and makes Germany tick.
KM: Rafael Leao – He has a massive chance to make himself a big name and a guaranteed starter for Portugal. A vital cog in Milan’s title win last season, he brings ball-carrying ability, great technique and good finishing – as well as much-needed pace in Portugal’s attack. With no Diogo Jota and with Cristiano Ronaldo struggling for form and game time, Leao has the perfect platform to make himself a standout from the left of the attacking line.
KJ: Jude Bellingham – A close call with Germany’s Jamal Musiala, but Bellingham gets the nod. His standout performance against the Germans in September – full of character, determination and poise – makes the 19-year-old a near shoo-in in Qatar alongside Declan Rice. His scoring threat from midfield will also be pivotal to ease the burden on Harry Kane.
JB: Cody Gakpo – The rules state that, in order to be a breakout star at a World Cup, you must then make an immediate move to a top club at an overvalued price. Jamal Musiala of Germany and Bayern Munich does not meet this criteria, but Cody Gakpo of the Netherlands and PSV certainly does.
How far will England and Wales go?
BB: It feels like one tournament too far for this version of England. After a semi-final and final, the quarters feel like where the ceiling is this time. Wales are playing with house money at their first World Cup in 64 years. If they emerge from Group B, expect them to give a big boy a proper scare in the knockouts.
RJ: The general rule with England, albeit one Gareth Southgate managed to break in Euro 2020, is that they can lose to the first genuinely good team they face in the knockout stages, which suggests they are possible quarter-finalists and could exit in the last 16. Certainly, a troubled 2021 does not bring optimism and too many players arrive in Qatar way short of their best form. Given the difference in resources and the rise of perhaps the most gifted generation the United States have ever had, Wales might be headed for a group-stage exit. And yet they have confounded expectations before, so I think they might get through to the last 16.
AP: England – quarter-finals. England have enough solid tournament experience under Southgate at this point to safely navigate – and top – their group, which is actually a bit more treacherous than some first suggested. Looking at the state of the squad, I’d say England then have one knockout-stage win in them. Wales – last 16. Spirit and a bit of Gareth Bale magic should be enough to make up for any of Wales’s deficiencies and get them through the group, probably in second place. Beyond that, I think they’re capable of an upset in the last 16 – but I’m not convinced enough to commit to that prediction in writing.
JR: The draw is enticing for England, if they win their group, because Croatia and Denmark could well upset favourites Belgium and injury-hit France for top spot in their respective groups. If they resist revenge for the Danes in the last eight, a tough loss to Spain in the semi-finals will end hope for the Three Lions. Wales, meanwhile, can grind their way to second in the group, but will be undone by the greater quality of the Netherlands in the last 16.
LB: In a vacuum, I don’t have a huge amount of confidence in this England team with so many players out of form, but it seems like the draw could open up with a winnable group and possibly a last-16 clash against Senegal. Then, even if it’s France in the quarter-finals, this Pogba and Kante-less version of Les Bleus doesn’t feel as formidable as four years ago. But let’s say that’s where the Three Lions’ run, and Gareth Southgate’s tenure, ends. Meanwhile, Wales will be unbelievably motivated for their first World Cup since 1958, especially that opening game against USA. If they win that, they’ve got one foot in the last 16. The Welsh don’t often qualify for major tournaments but, when they do, they always get out of the groups, so I’ll say they manage that again before a valiant last-16 defeat to a Netherlands side they’ve lost to all 10 times they’ve played them in their history.
KM: Both to get through the group, into the knockouts. It will take a big effort from Wales, but USA have looked a disorganised rabble in their last couple of friendlies so, if Gareth Bale and co can avoid defeat in the opener, they have a massive chance. If they finish second it’s presumably Netherlands in the round of 16, so the fun stops there for Wales. As for England, one stage further. Topping the group should give a very favourable last-16 tie regardless of who it’s against from group A, but the Three Lions haven’t looked capable of beating top teams in the past year, so a quarter-final exit when they come up against a notable opponent.
KJ: Without a win in six games, the opener against Iran will be so important as a confidence-builder for England. Get three points there and top spot should follow. Should the seedings go to plan, a quarter-final against France may well be a step too far. As for Wales – who’ve progressed from their group at both Euro 2016 and Euro 2020 – expect them to do the same again here, with Gareth Bale to star. A round-of-16 clash against Holland will be tight, but the Dutch should prevail.
JB: England seem tied to France and, although tournaments never work out that way, let’s just assume that the Three Lions will face the defending champions in Al Bayt on 10 December. Naturally, this will be make-or-break, but I just can’t see the equivalent moment of a Colombia or Germany win happening this time. I’m confident Wales can get through their group, setting up a comprehensive defeat to the Netherlands in the last 16.