The FIFA World Cup will now give Luis Suarez’s infamous handball against Ghana a stage where revenge can play out, as the pair meet in Group H alongside South Korea and Portugal.
It is likely to be the final World Cup for Cristiano Ronaldo. Stranger things have happened than CR7 dragging his side to untold riches with the bit between his teeth. He couldn’t possibly win the lot as a parting gift, could he? At 15/1, the bookmakers aren’t so sure, either.
Qatar’s 2022 World Cup will be Ghana’s fourth jaunt to the finals. They made it by progressing through the tightest of CAF qualification groups, where they and South Africa tied for points, had a mirroring (W4/D1/L1) record and both ended on a goal difference of four. However, Ghana’s seven goals scored compared to South Africa’s six was the difference maker.
The Black Stars’ ability to control games in the group and limit opponents to few chances was incredibly beneficial as they made their way to Qatar. A 6.62 shots conceded per90 sum backed up their two goals conceded in six group games.
West African rivals, Nigeria, posed the task in the final two-legged qualifying play-off. A goalless draw set up the clash in Nigeria, with a score draw needed for Ghana to progress to FIFA’s showpiece international event. A strike outside the box by Thomas Partey was enough to put Ghana in the driving seat. Late Nigerian pressure forced an equaliser from the spot, but nothing more. The Black Stars had done it.
Summing up the feel of the country, the Ghanaian football federation president, Kurt Okraku, described their participation in Qatar as feeling like they were going to heaven. But, unfortunately for Ghana, in a group with Portugal, Uruguay, and South Korea, Group H may not be so welcoming for long. If Ghana can mirror 2010 form and barge their way through to the quarter-final, the joint-furthest any African side has ventured, they’ll need to beat the strongest nations to do so.
Looking ahead, in terms of the personnel that may cause their Group H opponents trouble, Ajax’s Mohammed Kudus and Stade Rennais’ Kamaldeen Sulemana are top of the list. Strength, pace, and power in abundance, coupled with a willingness to beat a man. They’ll need to be at their best to cause a splash in this tournament, as will Thomas Partey in central midfield and Mohamed Salisu at centre back, who has turned heads in the Premier League all season long – not the worst spine of a side you’ll find in Qatar.
South Korea waltzed into the 2022 event after beating Germany 2-0 in the final group match of 2018. Granted, there may be a four-year gap, but only once before have they won back-to-back games in a World Cup finals – a first and second group phase match in 2002 when they acted as hosts.
It will be South Korea’s tenth consecutive World Cup, and eleventh in total, though it’s a first under the veil of the South Korean flag for manager Paulo Bento. The South Korean coach has experience at this level, but that comes in the shape of a failed group stage with Portugal in 2014, where he picked up a win, a draw, and a loss – one to forget.
Of course, when thinking of South Korea, Tottenham forward Son Heung-Min often takes centre stage. At the World Cup finals, Son is South Korea’s joint top goal scorer of all time with three. Yet, the Spurs forward’s participation has been thrown into doubt following a facial injury against Marseille in the Champions League, which would be a crushing blow for the nation. But, given his burning desire to play, don’t be surprised if he’s the first on the plane.
In Asian qualifying, South Korea could only muster a second-placed finish behind Iran, ending two points shy of the winning total. As you may have already guessed, Heung-Min Son finished as the top goalscorer in Group A. His four goals from 4.43xG ranked him on par with Iran’s Medhi Taremi, who shared the qualifying’s golden boot. Moreover, son’s 28 attempts at goal stood him as the most shot-hungry player in Group A, equipped with a 3.77 shots per90 total and a feverish desire to find the net for his country.
He was also head and shoulders above the rest in a creative sense. Son averaged 2.83 Key Passes per90. The closest to that figure was Dhurgham Ismail of Iraq, with 1.90. There’s no wonder this preview has centred around Heung-Min Son, as most things do football-wise in South Korea. However, Min-jae Kim, Napoli’s new central defender signed for just a touch under £20m, deserves mention. The commanding centre-back has showcased his ability on Europe’s most prominent stages. Kim was drafted to Naples to be the replacement for Koulibaly, with many suggesting he has the tools to go even further in the game.
Whether the double act, along with Hee-Chan Hwang of Wolves, can muster enough to progress to the knockout stages is yet to be seen. They may need a bit of luck, coupled with poor form elsewhere, but there’s a chance.
Cristiano Ronaldo has found the net seven times in the World Cup. Oddly, for such a big game player, all seven goals have reared their head in the group stage. Not once has Portugal’s talisman scored in the knockout stages, something you would assume needs to happen if the Portuguese have any chance of beating the big boys on the way to the business end of the competition.
Pipped by Serbia in World Cup qualifying, Portugal could only lock in a second-placed finish from their five-strong group. A defeat to Serbia on the final day confirmed that it would require a successful play-off route for Fernando Santos’ national team to be in the conversation for the World Cup.
Cristiano Ronaldo again sought the headlines in the qualifying stages. As he so often does. The six goals in nine games from a 5.67 shots per90 average only just edged past Diogo Jota’s five strikes. Unfortunately for the Portuguese, the Liverpool forward will now miss the tournament through injury. It’s a void in inventiveness that’ll need to be masked by the likes of Bernado Silva and Bruno Fernandes.
A 3-1 triumph against Turkey set up a World Cup decider with North Macedonia, a spot most presumed Italy would take before the Macedonians downed them in the previous game. However, Portugal proved too strong, North Macedonia failed to have a single shot on target, and Os Navegadores had booked their sixth successive World Cup.
Portugal have the quality to lift silverware at a major tournament. That’s not up for debate. But as a cohesive unit, under a manager with the tools to outwit the rest? The jury is out.
The Uruguayans are in unfamiliar territory. For the first time in 16 years, Uruguay readies itself to take on the rest of the world with a different manager in the dugout. World Cup debutant Diego Alonso will oversee proceedings, a head coach that has already proved his capabilities by booking a seat at the table in Qatar.
We’re all well aware of La Celeste’s strength up front, with Darwin Núñez ready and willing to replace Edinson Cavani and Luís Suarez to become Uruguay’s new frontman for years to come. At the back, however, Diego Alonso is also blessed. Araujo, Oliveira, Godín, and Giménez provide a sturdiness to proceedings that is more than welcome in the gaffer’s new office.
In South American qualifying, Luís Suarez was still up to his old tricks. The former Barcelona and Liverpool striker may have moved back to his homeland as his career winds down, but he’s not done with yet. A 3.01 shots per90 average underpins Suarez’s eight goals in 14 appearances.
No other Uruguayan featured in South America’s top ten goal scorers. Bolivia’s Marcelo Moreno, whose nation missed out on the World Cup, scored more than Suarez in qualifying. Suarez’s eight goals added to the 24 scored by Uruguay as a whole, slightly underperforming the underlying metrics across the pre-tournament schedule – 25.4xG.
At the World Cup, two-time champions Uruguay have won six of their last eight matches at the tournament, including a Portugal side in 2018, which they now share Group H. La Celeste sits comfortably in second in the eyes of the bookmaker at around 2/1 to win the group. South Korea and Ghana rank below them in that order, both of whom should be beaten if Uruguay are on it.
Portugal are 4/6 to win the group, and if you couple that up with Cristiano Ronaldo to score a couple of goals, you’ve got a great looking bet. Granted, he’s not in the form of his life right now. But this is his stage.
Cast your mind back to the 2018 World Cup in Russia, Portugal finished as runners-up on goal difference in the group they shared with Spain, but Ronaldo was the top scorer in that group with four goals. He scored a hat-trick against the Spaniards, and he missed a penalty vs Iran, so it could’ve been more.
Ronaldo has still been key for Portugal, he was their top scorer during World Cup qualifying as he bagged six times in nine. He does all of his work during the group stages at international tournaments, he bagged five times in the group of death of Euro 2020 and won the golden boot.
Group H – Portugal to win the group & Ronaldo to score 2+ goals
How and where to watch each match:
URU vs KOR – 24th November – 13:00 (BBC One)
POR vs GHA – 24th November – 16:00 (ITV)
KOR vs GHA – 28th November – 13:00 (BBC One)
POR vs URU – 28th November – 19:00 (ITV)
KOR vs POR – 2nd December – 15:00 (BBC TBC)
GHA vs URU – 2nd December – 15:00 (BBC TBC)