With the 2022 World Cup in Qatar opening Sunday, a collection of theScore’s footy editors are breaking out the crystal balls and offering up some predictions for the tournament.
Most excited about …
Michael J. Chandler: Playing in his final World Cup, Lionel Messi has a great chance to capture the lone accolade that’s escaped his grasp. Argentina boasts a fortuitous group draw and arguably its deepest and most balanced squad in recent years. That combination could help the 35-year-old icon reach the summit of international football.
Anthony Lopopolo: Canada’s World Cup opener against Belgium on Wednesday will draw millions of viewers as the men’s national team plays in a major tournament for the first time in many Canadians’ lives. Even if Canada fails to reach the knockout phase, any and all achievements – a first World Cup goal, a first clean sheet, a first point – will be celebrated back home.
Gianluca Nesci: With Messi playing in his last World Cup and Cristiano Ronaldo likely to follow suit – even if he’ll never admit it – this tournament will see several of world football’s emerging phenoms step into the limelight in a passing of the torch. There has never been a more exciting collection of young players converging on a single World Cup tournament.
Chandler: Garang Kuol. Set to join Newcastle United in January, the 18-year-old Central Coast Mariners forward is arguably Australia’s best prospect of the last decade. Kuol’s bag of tricks includes deft dribbling abilities and blinding pace, precisely the kind of skill set that should turn heads at the quadrennial tourney.
Lopopolo: Noah Okafor. Though he’s made just three competitive starts for Switzerland, the 22-year-old is the Swiss team’s top attacking threat. He most recently demonstrated his eye-catching dribbling ability and composure in one-on-one situations during Red Bull Salzburg’s Champions League campaign, wowing spectators at San Siro in a match against AC Milan.
Nesci: Cody Gakpo. Lacking a bona fide scoring threat, the Netherlands will rely heavily on the athletic 23-year-old, who is flourishing this season with PSV Eindhoven. Gakpo has nine goals and 12 assists in just 14 Eredivisie appearances, and he should benefit from a favorable group that will allow the Dutch to craft plenty of scoring opportunities for him.
Chandler: England. The only way the coveted trophy is “Coming Home” is if Gareth Southgate stashes the iconic piece of silverware in his luggage. The England manager has done little to boost the team’s stock – or his own – following a tepid Nations League display. For Three Lions fans, only one result in Qatar will do. It might be time to lower those expectations.
Lopopolo: England. Southgate is approaching the end of his tenure as manager of the national team, and his unyielding loyalty to players like Harry Maguire will come back to haunt him. England enters this World Cup knowing it has expectations to meet. That wasn’t the case in previous tournaments. The pressure will be a burden this time around.
Nesci: Belgium. This is a team in steep decline. Kevin De Bruyne is an otherworldly talent, but most of his running mates from the Red Devils’ “Golden Generation” are regressing badly. Romelu Lukaku is ailing, Eden Hazard rots on the Real Madrid bench, and the backline is aging and painfully slow. Belgium, which finished third four years ago, will be lucky to reach the quarterfinals in Qatar.
Golden Boot winner
Chandler: Kylian Mbappe. Mbappe already has four World Cup goals to his name. Though France might get widespread contributions from a world-class attack that includes Karim Benzema and Antoine Griezmann, an abundance of goal-scoring options hasn’t hurt Mbappe’s club exploits: The PSG star currently leads Ligue 1 with 12 goals, more than teammates Neymar and Messi.
Lopopolo: Cristiano Ronaldo. The Portugal superstar will score at least six goals and prove Manchester United and his doubters wrong with typically clinical finishing. After giving the most explosive interview of his career, Ronaldo knows he has to deliver, and he’ll want nothing more than to leave his mark in his fifth and likely final World Cup.
Nesci: Neymar. Arriving at the 2022 World Cup in better condition than at any previous tournament, Brazil’s marquee star has everything to look for in a prospective Golden Boot winner. He leads the line for one of the tournament’s best teams, could play a full seven matches, and, crucially, takes penalties. Neymar also has the added motivation of trying to surpass Pele as Brazil’s all-time leading scorer.
Tournament final, World Cup champion
Chandler: France over Brazil. Despite concerns about Didier Deschamps’ relatively unproven midfield, the defending champions boast a star-studded squad littered with match-winners capable of incredible performances. Countless pundits are pegging Les Bleus to disappoint, but an attack featuring Mbappe and Ballon d’Or holder Benzema could be enough to guide France to the promised land.
Lopopolo: Spain over Belgium. Luis Enrique’s squad may be one of the youngest in the tournament, but its vibrant and progressive style of play makes it easy to love. Remember: Spain outplayed most teams at Euro 2020, only losing against Italy on penalties in a semifinal it dominated. Belgium will finally do away with its underachiever status, but Pedri, Ansu Fati, and Carlos Soler will lead Spain to a third World Cup.
Nesci: Argentina over Brazil. Messi’s final chance at a World Cup title is also his best. Riding a 36-match unbeaten streak, Argentina has developed into the most harmonious national team in the sport at the perfect time. Crucially, the onus isn’t on Messi to carry the squad, as has been the case at previous tournaments. Finally liberated with the Albiceleste, Messi hoisting the trophy at age 35 is the storybook ending the game deserves.
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