We’re just over a week away from Canada’s 2022 World Cup opener against Belgium in Qatar, and as soccer fans across the country prepare for a month of thrilling action on the biggest stage, it’s time to take a look at the teams standing in between Canada and the knockout rounds.
The boys in red and white have been drawn into a tricky Group F with Belgium, Morocco and Croatia. With elite talent spread throughout the foursome, Group F should be one of the more exciting ones to follow, with all four nations confident they have what it takes to advance to the Round of 16.
Here’s a breakdown of Canada’s three rivals, and what you can expect out of the highly-anticipated matchups.
Belgium (World No. 2)
Path to Qatar
Belgium breezed through qualifiers for Qatar 2022, topping UEFA Group E with 20 points in eight matches — recording six wins and two draws. The Red Devils scored 25 goals and allowed only six, with star striker Romelu Lukaku leading the group in scoring with five tallies.
Belgium will go as far as superstar midfielder Kevin De Bruyne will take them, and if his recent form with English club Manchester City is any indication, he can take them all the way to the final. The 31-year-old has three goals and 10 assists in 13 appearances in the Premier League this season, and has added three assists in four games in the UEFA Champions League group stage. On his best day, the attacking midfielder is up there with the best players in the world, flipping a game on its head with a brilliant pass, unreal defensive play, a perfect cross or a stunning strike at any given moment.
One to watch
One of the brightest young talents in world soccer, Charles De Ketelaere could be an x-factor for Belgium if given the opportunity. The 21-year-old forward is off to a slow start with Italy’s AC Milan after completing a $43-million move from Belgian side Club Brugge, registering only one assist in 18 appearances in all competitions. Still, there’s no doubting the youngster’s talent as a dribbler and creator, and if Belgium finds the key to unlocking his potential, look out.
Belgium is loaded with world-class talent and is widely expected to top Group F. While Canada should put up a good fight on Nov. 23, Belgium’s star-studded squad might be too much to handle for John Herdman’s men in what should be their toughest group stage match.
Croatia (World No. 12)
Path to Qatar
Croatia also finished atop their UEFA qualifiers group, edging out Russia by one point for supremacy in Group H. The Checkered Ones won seven games, drew two and lost their opening qualifier to Slovenia for a total of 23 points. They boasted one of the best defenses in European qualifying, allowing only four goals in 10 games, while scoring 21. Luka Modrić, Ivan perišić and Mario Pašalić led the team in scoring with three goals each.
Croatia’s hopes lie on the shoulders of legendary midfielder Luka Modrić, who is capable of putting a team on his back on any day — even at 37 years old. The Real Madrid star is one of the best deep-lying creators soccer has ever seen, and can pitch in with a key goal when needed. He’s carried his nation to a World Cup final before, losing to a mercurial French squad in 2018 but earning that year’s Ballon d’Or in the process. Another iconic tournament performance could put the cherry on top of a magnificent career.
One to watch
While Modrić’s career may be dwindling to an end, there seems to be another midfield maestro breaking through for the Croats. Rennes midfielder Lovro Majer may not yet be a household name, but if his form in France is any indication, he’ll be on plenty of scouting radars very soon across Europe. The 24-year-old is a talented box-to-box midfielder, capable of unlocking a defense with a through-ball or getting in the box to score himself. Majer was named to the 2021-22 Ligue 1 team of the season, and is tabbed for a big money move to a top-tier club in the near future.
Croatia represents another tough opponent for Canada, with the experience and talent to surprise anyone in the tournament. Still, if Alphonso Davies and Co. can overwhelm the Croatian defense with their speed, we may be in for an upset. If Canada wants any chance at qualifying for the knockouts, it’ll have to get a favourable result against the Baltic side.
Morocco (World No. 22)
Path to Qatar
After earning a bye for the first round of CAF World Cup qualifying, Morocco topped Group F in the second round with a perfect record, winning all six games while scoring 20 goals and only allowing one. In the third and final round, the Atlas Lions beat DR Congo 5-2 over two legs to book their ticket to Qatar.
Much of Morocco’s success depends on the performances of star full-back/winger Achraf Hakimi. The 24-year-old is one of the fastest players in the world, regularly speeding past defensive lines and playing balls into the box for his strikers to finish. Hakimi has three goals and five assists in 21 games in all competitions with French giant Paris Saint-Germain this season, making a habit of linking up with superstars like Lionel Messi, Kylian Mbappe and Neymar Jr. to fill the net with goals. Hakimi’s showdown with Canada’s Alphonso Davies should be one of the most exciting duels in the whole tournament, with both vying for supremacy on the flank they’ll undoubtedly be sharing for 90 minutes.
One to watch
Morocco’s most promising prospect comes in the form of 20-year-old winger Abde Ezzalzouli. Better known as Ez Abde, he is currently strutting his stuff at Spanish club Osasuna, where he has two assists in eight league appearances. Abde showed signs of promise in ten cameos with FC Barcelona last season, taking on defenders on the wing and threading dangerous balls into the box, and even scoring a goal with the big club. Barcelona signed the talented youngster to a contract extension in September before loaning him to Osasuna for the 2022-23 campaign. Expect him to be an impact substitute for an ambitious Moroccan side.
Despite the talent that Morocco can count on, Canada should look at this matchup as one that they can take three points from. Both squads rely on their speed, especially on the wings, but Canada has a clear advantage in front of goal with proven goalscorers like Jonathan David and Cyle Larin. They should make the difference in the Canadians’ final group stage match.
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