World Cup preview: Everything you need to know about Group E

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With the 2022 World Cup just days away, we’re taking a deep dive into all eight groups, highlighting the star players to watch, examining the biggest storylines to follow, and offering some predictions for how things may play out. Here’s everything you need to know about Group E, which features Spain, Costa Rica, Germany, and Japan.

Group schedule ?

Spain ??

  • Manager: Luis Enrique
  • Nickname: La Roja
  • FIFA ranking: 7
  • Best World Cup finish: Champion (2010)
  • Betting odds: +800

Player to watch

Pedri. Unusual as it may be for a team with the pedigree and overall talent of Spain, it’s difficult to identify one standout superstar. That’s by design for manager Luis Enrique, who values the collective over all else. Players are selected based on their ability to fit his preferred 4-3-3 system and tactical plan, not the other way around. Luckily, the Spaniards have a 19-year-old midfielder who can flourish in any role and meet the demands of any coach. Pedri, in a word, is a breathtaking footballer, and he has the poise and vision that belie his youth. He’s already vital for Spain and Barcelona at the heart of midfield, keeping both sides ticking with his technique and passing. He’s a special talent who has the composure to handle the biggest stage.

Projected starting XI (4-3-3)

Simon; Alba, Laporte, P. Torres, Carvajal; Gavi, Busquets, Pedri; F. Torres, Morata, Olmo

Enrique’s playing style is non-negotiable. The task for his players, then, is simple. Adapt to the scheme or watch from the bench. Or from home. The 52-year-old is unyielding and believes his singular way of playing is the best way to win. In fairness, he’s often been right. La Roja will dominate the ball and probe for openings, press high up the pitch, and be aggressive for 90 minutes, even if it leaves spaces at the back. Those principles won’t change. “We do not want to play deep. We always want to be in our opponents’ half and take risks,” Enrique said of his approach. “In defense, we want to take the ball off our opponents as quickly as possible. When I am looking for players for the national team, I pick the ones (who) are best at interpreting our tactics.”

Key question

Can the full-backs provide the energy needed to make Enrique’s system function properly? Executing a successful high press requires several elements working in harmony, including indefatigable players on the flanks who can get up and down the pitch all game. Dani Carvajal (30) and Jordi Alba (33) were both excellent at their peaks but may not have the legs anymore. Cesar Azpilicueta, meanwhile, is probably the least mobile of the three. That puts a lot of stress on the central defenders to cover large amounts of open space, and Spain’s center-backs aren’t totally convincing.

Then there’s the opposite end of the field, where the lack of an established, consistent goalscorer looms large. Alvaro Morata will likely continue in the starting role, assuming he recovers from a recent injury. However, he’s long lacked conviction up front when tasked with being the primary scoring threat. The football remains lovely to watch, but this team is likely too flawed to replicate the success of the dominant generation that won three consecutive major tournaments from 2008-12.

Costa Rica ??

  • Manager: Luis Fernando Suarez
  • Nickname: Los Ticos
  • FIFA ranking: 31
  • Best World Cup finish: Quarterfinals (2014)
  • Betting odds: +75000

Player to watch

Keylor Navas. Now 35, the Paris Saint-Germain netminder remains the influential leader and star performer for Los Ticos. The team arguably wouldn’t even be at this World Cup if it weren’t for its talisman. Navas was spectacular in the latter stages of CONCACAF qualifying, where Costa Rica surged up the standings with six wins from its final seven games. He also played well in the intercontinental playoff win over New Zealand that ultimately got the team to Qatar. Navas isn’t getting many opportunities at the club level right now – Gianluigi Donnarumma has started every league match for PSG this season – but he always seems to deliver for his country. Backstopping a team that doesn’t score many goals, he’ll once again be crucial to Costa Rica’s chances of pulling off any upsets.

Projected starting XI (4-5-1)

Navas; Oviedo, Duarte, Calvo, C. Martinez; Bennette, Torres, Borges, Tejeda, Campbell; Contreras

Luis Fernando Suarez, who has crafted a nomadic coaching career, made sweeping changes to the Costa Rican setup when he arrived in 2021, trying to revamp the team by giving debuts to 22 players over a hectic 15-month spell. Due in part to that rapid upheaval, the Colombian manager’s tenure got off to a rocky start. But he eventually righted the ship in qualifying, as Costa Rica rediscovered the stingy defense that has long been the team’s hallmark. Los Ticos don’t score often – they notched just 13 goals in 14 Hexagonal qualifiers – but concede even fewer thanks to Navas and an established center-back pairing of Francisco Calvo and Oscar Duarte. A fastidious line of five midfielders in front of the defense helps create solidity.

Key question

Will Costa Rica feel right at home in this group? Navas and Co. will unquestionably be huge underdogs against Spain and Germany, and Japan will also be favored when the two sides meet. That could play to Costa Rica’s strengths. Los Ticos can sit in their low block with multiple banks of defenders, frustrate the opposition into attempting low-quality shots, and look to hit on the break with exciting teenage winger Jewison Bennette and veteran Joel Campbell in support of speedy forward Anthony Contreras.

Getting out of this group may be too tall an order. But, then again, that’s exactly what everybody said when Costa Rica went up against England, Italy, and Uruguay in 2014 and topped the quartet.

Germany ??

  • Manager: Hansi Flick
  • Nickname: Nationalelf
  • FIFA ranking: 11
  • Best World Cup finish: Four-time champion (1954, 1974, 1990, 2014)
  • Betting odds: +1000

Player to watch

Jamal Musiala. Though there’s a general sense of malaise around this Germany team right now, it’s still loaded with skill, especially up front. Kai Havertz, Leroy Sane, Serge Gnabry, and, of course, veteran stalwart Thomas Muller are all capable of the sublime at any moment. But the most exciting of Hansi Flick’s charges is Musiala, the 19-year-old who has everyone at Bayern Munich waxing lyrical. And for good reason. The versatile forward, comfortable playing several different positions, is the youngest player ever to record 100 appearances for Bayern. Musiala has taken his game to another level this season, scoring nine goals and delivering six assists in just 15 Bundesliga matches. Lively and intelligent, his finishing ability will be key for a team that won’t use a natural No. 9 – at least not to start matches – in Qatar.

Projected starting XI (4-2-3-1)

Neuer; Raum, Rudiger, Sule, Kehrer; Goretzka, Kimmich; Sane, Muller, Musiala; Havertz

Under Hansi Flick, Germany looks to dictate possession and play a more aesthetically pleasing brand of football than in previous years. Flick certainly has the squad to accomplish exactly that. However, Germany has yet to show consistency during his reign, often drifting in and out of games and relying too much on a moment of individual quality to procure results. The manic 3-3 friendly draw with England earlier this year was a microcosm of the team’s ongoing issues. Havertz scored a stunning goal in the match, and the team produced bright passages of play, but there was also defensive vulnerability and large portions where the Germans couldn’t control proceedings. If they put it all together, another World Cup title could be on the horizon.

Key question

Can Havertz adequately lead the line? The same question would have been asked of Timo Werner before an ill-timed ankle injury ruled him out of the tournament. While his absence almost certainly removes any debate over who will start up front for Flick, it doesn’t address the suitability of his top choices to operate as the de facto striker. Havertz, 23, has some of the skills necessary to thrive playing the central striker role. But the angular left-footer is more comfortable and looks more natural playing in the hole just behind, where he can float around, find space, and orchestrate moves instead of consistently being asked to finish them.

Goals will need to come from everywhere if Germany is to reverse its recent trend of faltering at major tournaments and reestablish its reputation as a “Turniermannschaft” – a tournament team – that thrives on the biggest stage. A repeat of the humbling group-stage exit four years ago would be an unmitigated disaster.

Japan ??

  • Manager: Hajime Moriyasu
  • Nickname: Samurai Blue
  • FIFA ranking: 24
  • Best World Cup finish: Round of 16 (2002, 2010, and 2018)
  • Betting odds: +25000

Player to watch

Daichi Kamada. One of the top scorers in the Bundesliga this season, the Eintracht Frankfurt star has notched 12 goals in 20 matches across all competitions this campaign. That tally is even more impressive considering he plays primarily in midfield for the German outfit. He’ll need to carry that fine form to Qatar. Hajime Moriyasu could ask him to be the central forward and main scoring threat amid a dearth of other options at the position. Strikers Daizen Maeda and Kyogo Furuhashi failed to impress during the September friendly window, with the latter subsequently being left out of the World Cup squad entirely. A lot is riding on Kamada’s ability to translate his club form to the national team.

Projected starting XI (4-2-3-1)

Gonda; Nagatomo, Tomiyasu, Yoshida, Sakai; Endo, Morita; Kubo, Kamada, Ito; Maeda

Look for Japan to rely heavily on Junya Ito. The lightning-quick Reims winger’s pace has been a constant outlet for the Samurai Blue since Moriyasu selected him immediately upon taking the job in 2018. Japan has technical quality across the pitch, but Ito’s blistering speed on the counter will be key for beating Spain and Germany, two teams that try to monopolize possession. A former defensive midfielder who made 35 appearances for the national side, Moriyasu has faced criticism from fans in Japan, especially for his team selection. He’s consistently received support from the country’s football federation, but a poor showing in Qatar could see that tune change.

Key question

Will this be unlucky No. 7 for Japan? The Asian nation is making its seventh consecutive World Cup appearance, but an unkind draw has tempered expectations. Advancing out of Group E will almost certainly take at least one win over Germany or Spain. That’s a very tall order, even if the current vintage of both those teams isn’t on par with previous versions.

Moriyasu has done an admirable – and important – job in bringing forward a new generation of players to form the core of Japan’s team. The task of taking that group to the next level may fall to his successor, depending on how things go in Qatar.

Predictions ?

Chalk? According to Opta, Spain and Germany each have better than an 80% chance of advancing from Group E. In any other group, Japan would fancy its chances of reaching the knockout stage and perhaps causing an upset once there – the Japanese were agonizingly close to shocking Belgium just four years ago, remember. But it’s hard to pick against the two European powerhouses here.

  1. Spain
  2. Germany
  3. Japan
  4. Costa Rica
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