The hosts welcome the second-lowest FIFA-ranked nation from South American qualifying, three-time unfortunate finalists, and the reigning Africa Cup of Nations champions – Group A proposes to be hotly contested, especially for second place.
Qatar versus Ecuador will open the tournament as the home nation kicks their first World Cup ball in anger, whilst Senegal and the Netherlands lie in wait. The Europeans stand as 1.50 favourites to take Group A by storm, with Senegal and Ecuador providing the middle ground between 5.00-7.00. It would be a seismic shock, though Qatar’s 17.00 to win the group signifies just that.
Ecuador snuck in the South American back door of qualification, finishing fourth and occupying the continent’s final automatic spot to Qatar. La Tri finished just two points ahead of Peru, whose fifth-placed finish set up an inter-continental clash with Australia.
Nevertheless, Ecuador progressed to the Qatari World Cup in some style, recording their most significant goal tally in CONMEBOL qualification history with 27. The lofty goal figure is harvested from a 21.8xG total. That was the lowest expected goals total of all four South American sides heading to Qatar, though Ecuador won’t be too disheartened by that.
Showcasing what good hands Ecuadorian football is in moving forward, the average age of 25 years and 334 days ensured La Tri bragged the youngest side of any participating nation in South America.
Brighton and Ecuador left-back Pervis Estupiñan registered 22 chances on the road to Qatar, the most created by any defender in the qualification stages. Exploiting the flanks should promise to be a primary outlet in Qatar, something those competing in Group A will need to be aware of.
In forward areas, Michael Estrada’s six goals brought Ecuador closer to Qatar, with his total only beaten by five others in the qualification phases. The ‘others’ include Neymar (8) and Lionel Messi (7), to name just two – not bad company to keep.
Ecuador have reached the Round of 16 before, facing England in 2006. However, if La Tri are to find joy in the Middle East, one would think that the meetings with Qatar and Senegal would play a key role in Ecuador’s fourth showing at a World Cup.
The Dutch are in Qatar. Not long ago, that would be a guarantee, though failing to qualify for the Russian instalment in 2018 will still encourage sleepless nights for some. Well, not Memphis Depay, who appeared bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as he plundered twelve goals to rubber-stamp the Netherlands’ inclusion
In fact, the Barcelona forward was involved in more goals (12G/6A) and had the most shots on target (30) in European qualification than anyone else. So, it’s safe to assume Depay is in the manager’s thoughts as the tournament hurtles towards its start date.
The man in question in the dugout, Louis van Gaal, is currently in his third spell managing Netherlands, having previously steered them to a third-place finish in his one World Cup outing. According to the bookmakers, the former Manchester United head honcho is tasked with bearing fruits from the seventh-likeliest to lift Jules Rimet. After an unbeaten stretch from six Nations League outings, expect the Dutch to be full of life.
It’s a competition of mixed emotions for the Dutch. The nearly men. No nation has finished runners-up as many times as the Dutch without ever winning the trophy, coming second in 1974, 1978, and 2010.
With the Netherlands’ 36.6xG in the qualification stages being the most of any European team, alongside 33 goals, World Cup heartbreak may be a thing of the past. Well, the expectations are that Group A should be in the bag, that’s for sure.
As hosts, Qatar present as the one team heading to the World Cup without having to endure the trials and tribulations of qualifying. And rightly so, seeing it is being played in their backyard. As a result, the 2022 showpiece event will be Qatar’s first-ever appearance at the World Cup.
In 2019, Qatar’s developing football heritage proved to be a match for the best of Asian nations. The AFC Cup, similar to Copa America and the European Championships, is a quadrennial tournament comprising 24 competing countries. The next is in 2023 and will also be hosted in Qatar, where the current holders will act as hosts.
Qatar saw off the four-time and most-successful nation in AFC Cup history in Japan in the final in the United Arab Emirates. It was an outcome that may have shocked a few, considering Qatar had never reached the semi-finals.
Now, the focus is firmly on the World Cup. It will be the first time an Arab country has hosted the tournament.
The upcoming World Cup is the third Senegal has qualified for and the first time they’ve managed successive appearances. In 2008, Senegal vacated Russia feeling somewhat hard done by, becoming the only nation to be dumped out of the World Cup group stage through the fair-play rule. Level on points and goals scored with Japan, but crushingly for Senegal, the Africans had received two more yellow cards.
Interestingly, head coach Aliou Cisse has been involved in seven of the eight World Cup matches that Senegal have participated in – four as a player and three as a coach.
Progressing through a qualification group of Togo, Namibia, and Congo, the Senegalese faced Egypt not even two months after defeating Mohamed Salah and company on penalties in the African Cup of Nations. After two legs couldn’t separate the pair, penalties were needed once more. And again, Senegal came up trumps, joining four other African teams in Qatar.
Sadio Mané enters the competition with a solitary goal from three World Cup outings. However, two more strikes will bring him level with former Fulham midfielder Papa Bouba Diop (3), who boasts the most World Cup goals for Senegal.
In midfield, Idrissa Gana Gueye (12) registered the most tackles in the recent Africa Cup of Nations success. That kind of grit and determination in the middle will be needed in abundance facing the likes of the Netherlands. Behind Gueye, Edouard Mendy recorded a tournament-high of three clean sheets as Senegal lifted silverware, something Aliou Cisse will be hoping to draw upon in November.
Memphis Depay is currently out of action with a hamstring issue picked up on international duty in September. That’s nearly a month on the sidelines for the Dutch hitman, with the World Cup precariously close. However, the news coming out of Depay’s camp is that he’ll be fit for the Netherlands’ assault on Qatar.
With Depay fit and ready up top and the Netherlands coming into the tournament in as good of a shape as they’ll ever be form-wise, the Dutch to win Group A makes perfect sense on paper.
To harness an attractive price, let’s double this up with Qatar to fail to win a match in Group A. Considering Senegal and Ecuador’s stingy nature at the back, the underdogs should struggle to find the net in the two matches where they may feasibly be able to nick something.
For example, in the recent Africa Cup of Nations, Senegal conceded just two goals in seven games before lifting the trophy.
Group A – Netherlands win the group & Qatar fail to win a match
How and where to watch each match:
QAT vs ECU – 20th November – 16:00 (BBC One)
SEN vs NED – 21st November – 16:00 (ITV)
QAT vs SEN – 25th November – 13:00 (BBC One)
NED vs ECU – 25th November – 16:00 (ITV)
ECU vs SEN – 29th November – 15:00 (ITV)
NED vs QAT – 29th November – 15:00 (ITV)