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Way-too-early predictions for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar

With the 2022 World Cup in Qatar exactly one year away, we’re looking ahead. Plenty can change in 365 days, of course, but that isn’t stopping us from offering up some predictions for world soccer’s showpiece event.

Final four

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  • France, Brazil, England, Denmark

Three of the betting favorites going into the tournament – chalk, we know – plus one team that captured the imagination of neutral onlookers everywhere at Euro 2020. Reigning champion France and perennial title contender Brazil are arguably the two most talented teams in the world. Gareth Southgate and England are making strides with each passing tournament. Denmark, so much more than a feel-good story, blasted through qualifying in dominant fashion.

At first glance, the Danes are the surprise addition here, but everything we’ve seen from Kasper Hjulmand’s team in recent months suggests that its semifinal run at Euro 2020 wasn’t a fluke or built only on emotion after Christian Eriksen’s frightening collapse. Denmark can beat anyone.

World Cup winner

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Tite’s team looks like the closest thing to a juggernaut in international football right now. Brazil steamrolled through South American qualifying, booking its World Cup berth with ease. This is the most complete version of the Selecao we’ve seen in years, with attacking firepower balanced out nicely by a solid spine.

The flair is there, of course, because this is still Brazil we’re talking about. But the likes of Fabinho and Marquinhos offer another element, ensuring that if the opposition is somehow able to slow down Neymar, Vinicius Junior, and Co., the winningest nation in World Cup history can still grind out victories.

Biggest surprise

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Don’t look now, but Canada is for real.

In what feels like the blink of an eye, the Canadians went from a relative afterthought in CONCACAF to undeniably being one of the best three teams the confederation has to offer. Maybe the best right now, full stop. An intoxicating win over Mexico in the previous international window put Canada top of the table with six qualifying matches remaining and put the world on notice: John Herdman’s team is skilled, speedy, energetic, and organized.

Crucially, it’s not just versatile star Alphonso Davies carrying the squad on his back. The Bayern Munich dynamo has plenty of support from a suddenly loaded group of attackers and a deep midfield contingent. There’s quality across the pitch with an ideal blend of youthful exuberance and veteran leadership, all led by a manager who is clearly capable of inspiring his group. As currently constructed, Canada has all the makings of an upstart side capable of catching more high-profile nations by surprise.

Biggest flop

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Even if it’s unwise to put too much stock in the official FIFA rankings, being the top-rated squad on the planet still means something. Unfortunately for Belgium, it means there’s only one direction to go. In what will serve as the final opportunity for the nation’s “golden generation” to win a title, Roberto Martinez’s side won’t be able to replicate its third-place finish from 2018.

When your expectation is to win the whole damn thing, anything less is going to be viewed as a failure. Eden Hazard’s drastic decline and Kevin De Bruyne’s increasingly worrying injury record will rob the team of a chance to hoist the trophy, despite Romelu Lukaku’s best efforts. There’s some exciting young talent coming through the pipeline, of course, but it’s not coinciding with the current crop’s peak. That highlights how important it is for all the stars to align if you’re going to capture the World Cup. Luck, as always, plays a huge role.

Unexpected absentees

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We’ve already lost some big names in qualifying, including Erling Haaland’s Norway and traditional African power Ivory Coast, and more high-profile nations are likely to join them. In particular, the new format for Europe’s qualification playoffs promises unpredictability, surprise, and – for some rabid football nations – outrage.

Italy, just months removed from being crowned European champion, looks in serious danger. An untimely injury crisis didn’t help, but even a return to fitness won’t guarantee the Azzurri a place in Qatar. There’s an unease around the team right now and the sense of deja vu from the 2018 debacle is palpable.

Meanwhile, Uruguay has lost four consecutive qualifying matches, just fired iconic manager Oscar Tabarez, and continues to rely on a core of aging stars. Sitting a lowly seventh in the CONMEBOL qualifying table, it looks like the tiny nation’s incredible era of footballing success is coming to an end.

Golden Boot winner

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As a rule of thumb, you should always throw your support in the Golden Boot race behind someone who is likely – at least in your mind – to play the full complement of matches at a given tournament. Having picked Brazil to go all the way and hoist the trophy, Neymar is the clear choice here. The fact that he takes penalties certainly helps, too. Although it seems inconceivable, the Selecao fulcrum will be 30 when next year’s tournament rolls around. This is another prime opportunity – perhaps the last – for Neymar to deliver the defining World Cup display that every icon of the sport has on their resume.

Breakout star

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Much can and will change 365 days from now, so we’re taking a leap of faith to some degree with any young player here. We also need to find someone who, at the time of writing, has yet to truly break out. That eliminates several electrifying young stars who are making waves on a global scale.

All that said, we’re going with Kamaldeen Sulemana, the 19-year-old Ghanaian winger who’s among the most explosive dribblers in the world. The blossoming Rennes star is putting up an absurd 4.8 successful dribbles per 90 minutes in Ligue 1 this season, eclipsing even Neymar in the category. Ghana still has to qualify for the tournament, but Sulemana will turn heads in Qatar if given the chance.

Honorable mentions: Yunus Musah (United States), Florian Wirtz (Germany)

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Serie A

Report: Pogba considering offer to return to Juventus

History could repeat itself for Paul Pogba.

The French midfielder is considering an offer to reunite with Juventus after his Manchester United contract expires at the end of June, reports Rob Dawson of ESPN.

Pogba left United for Juventus in 2012, establishing himself as an elite midfielder during a spell in Italy that lasted until 2016. He then rejoined United for an £89.3-million fee – a world record at the time.

He’s now contemplating a return to Serie A after receiving a “concrete proposal” that puts Juventus in the lead to sign the World Cup winner, Dawson adds.

The French international has yet to make a final decision, according to Dawson.

Marco Luzzani / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Paris Saint-Germain are also reportedly in contention and could attract Pogba with an offer to play in his home country.

Manchester City were surprise contenders, but Pogba rejected an offer to join Pep Guardiola’s squad due to reported concerns about backlash from Manchester United supporters.

Pogba has struggled to consistently replicate the form that made him a star at Juventus in the six years since he returned to Old Trafford; frustrated fans booed him in his last two games against Norwich City and Liverpool.

The 29-year-old recently admitted to experiencing depression, which began during Jose Mourinho’s volatile spell as Manchester United manager.

Pogba, who has missed the last four matches with a calf problem, could be in contention to play his final match for Manchester United on Sunday after returning to training.

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Serie A

2022 World Cup draw: Spain meets Germany, all smiles for USMNT and Canada

The countdown for November’s big kickoff begins.

The group draw for the 2022 World Cup was conducted in Doha, Qatar on Friday. Heavyweight nations Spain and Germany were pitted together in Group E, while the United States and Canada should travel to the Middle East with some optimism given the overall quality in their respective quartets.

Here are the groups in full:

Group A

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Slot Nation Confederation
1 Qatar AFC
2 Ecuador CONMEBOL
3 Senegal CAF
4 Netherlands UEFA

Match schedule

  • Nov. 21: Senegal vs. Netherlands
  • Nov. 21: Qatar vs. Ecuador
  • Nov. 25: Qatar vs. Senegal
  • Nov. 25: Netherlands vs. Ecuador
  • Nov. 29: Netherlands vs. Qatar
  • Nov. 29: Ecuador vs. Senegal

Group B

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Slot Nation Confederation
1 England UEFA
2 Iran AFC
3 United States CONCACAF
4 Wales/Ukraine/Scotland* UEFA

Match schedule

  • Nov. 21: England vs. Iran
  • Nov. 21: United States vs. UEFA playoff winner
  • Nov. 25: UEFA playoff winner vs. Iran
  • Nov. 25: England vs. United States
  • Nov. 29: Iran vs. United States
  • Nov. 29: UEFA playoff winner vs. England

Group C

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Slot Nation Confederation
1 Argentina CONMEBOL
2 Saudi Arabia AFC
3 Mexico CONCACAF
4 Poland UEFA

Match schedule

  • Nov. 22: Argentina vs. Saudi Arabia
  • Nov. 22: Mexico vs. Poland
  • Nov. 26: Argentina vs. Mexico
  • Nov. 26: Poland vs. Saudi Arabia
  • Nov. 30: Poland vs. Argentina
  • Nov. 30: Saudi Arabia vs. Mexico

Group D

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Slot Nation Confederation
1 France UEFA
2 Peru/Australia/United Arab Emirates* CONMEBOL/AFC
3 Denmark UEFA
4 Tunisia CAF

Match schedule

  • Nov. 22: France vs. Intercontinental playoff winner
  • Nov. 22: Denmark vs. Tunisia
  • Nov. 26: France vs. Denmark
  • Nov. 26: Tunisia vs. Intercontinental playoff winner
  • Nov. 30: Tunisia vs. France
  • Nov. 30: Intercontinental playoff winner vs. Denmark

Group E

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Slot Nation Confederation
1 Spain UEFA
2 Costa Rica/New Zealand* CONCACAF/OFC
3 Germany UEFA
4 Japan AFC

Match schedule

  • Nov. 23: Spain vs. Intercontinental playoff winner
  • Nov. 23: Germany vs. Japan
  • Nov. 27: Spain vs. Germany
  • Nov. 27: Japan vs. Intercontinental playoff winner
  • Dec. 1: Japan vs. Spain
  • Dec. 1: Intercontinental playoff winner vs. Germany

Group F

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Slot Nation Confederation
1 Belgium UEFA
2 Canada CONCACAF
3 Morocco CAF
4 Croatia UEFA

Match schedule

  • Nov. 23: Belgium vs. Canada
  • Nov. 23: Morocco vs. Croatia
  • Nov. 27: Belgium vs. Morocco
  • Nov. 27: Croatia vs. Canada
  • Dec. 1: Croatia vs. Belgium
  • Dec. 1: Canada vs. Morocco

Group G

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Slot Nation Confederation
1 Brazil CONMEBOL
2 Serbia UEFA
3 Switzerland UEFA
4 Cameroon CAF

Match schedule

  • Nov. 24: Brazil vs. Serbia
  • Nov. 24: Switzerland vs. Cameroon
  • Nov. 28: Brazil vs. Switzerland
  • Nov. 28: Cameroon vs. Serbia
  • Dec. 2: Cameroon vs. Brazil
  • Dec. 2: Serbia vs. Switzerland

Group H

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Slot Nation Confederation
1 Portugal UEFA
2 Ghana CAF
3 Uruguay CONMEBOL
4 South Korea AFC

Match schedule

  • Nov. 24: Portugal vs. Ghana
  • Nov. 24: Uruguay vs. South Korea
  • Nov. 28: Portugal vs. Uruguay
  • Nov. 28: South Korea vs. Ghana
  • Dec. 2: South Korea vs. Portugal
  • Dec. 2: Ghana vs. Uruguay

* World Cup berth to be decided in June.

The top two nations in each group will advance to the knockout stages of the competition. The full schedule for the knockout stages can be found here.

Why isn’t the entire field confirmed?

Three World Cup teams have yet to be determined: one from Europe and two from the intercontinental playoff paths.

  • Intercontinental playoff: Costa Rica vs. New Zealand
  • Intercontinental playoff: Peru vs. Australia or the United Arab Emirates
  • UEFA playoff: Wales vs. Ukraine or Scotland

Ukraine’s one-off semifinal against Scotland was postponed after the country was invaded by Russia. That will be played this summer – the exact date is yet to be announced – and the winner will meet Wales for a spot in Qatar.

The intercontinental playoffs were postponed as part of the widespread scheduling delays created by the COVID-19 pandemic. Those games are slated for June 13 and 14 in Qatar, at which point the entire 32-team World Cup field should be finalized.

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Serie A

4 takeaways from Tuesday's Champions League action

The Champions League last 16 rumbled on this week with the opening batch of second-leg matches. Below, we dissect the biggest talking points from Tuesday’s games in Europe’s premier club competition.

Inzaghi and Sanchez let Inter down

Alexis Sanchez’s red card spoiled what could’ve been a memorable night for Inter Milan. Lucky to escape with just a warning when he slid studs-first into Thiago Alcantara to end the first half, Sanchez was sent off for another overzealous tackle on Fabinho in the second. The red card – brandished minutes after Lautaro Martinez’s wonderful goal had offered Inter hope of an unlikely comeback – came at the worst possible time. Up a man for the remaining 25 minutes, Liverpool wrestled control of the tie and advanced 2-1 on aggregate.

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Sanchez may have cost his team, but manager Simone Inzaghi allowed the situation to spiral out of control. By choosing to keep Sanchez on the pitch, Inzaghi overlooked his panicky play and the team’s lack of offensive production; Edin Dzeko, the club’s leading scorer with 16 goals in all competitions, remained on the bench. Joaquin Correa, a similar darting presence to Sanchez, could’ve offered the same speed and pressing ability, and with Inter needing goals, Dzeko, an expert in the air, could’ve offered them an additional outlet up top.

In the end, Inter finished with just six shots – only half of them on target – on a night they needed to score twice just to have a chance of reaching the quarterfinals. Meanwhile, Liverpool hit the woodwork three times. It could’ve been so different for the reigning Serie A champions, who still won on the night but ultimately paid too little attention to detail to get past Jurgen Klopp’s side.

Mane slipping in big matches

Sadio Mane has four goals in his last eight appearances for Liverpool, which isn’t exactly a drought, but his production against top opponents belies his recent scoring record.

Mane struggled on the left of Liverpool’s front three Tuesday, with the majority of his touches coming well outside of the 18-yard box. Though his arching pass to Mohamed Salah in the 76th minute should’ve resulted in a goal, the Senegalese international still produced little substance in the most dangerous area of the pitch.

His performance echoed his relatively quiet outing in the first leg at the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza. Mane missed a clear header before making way for Luis Diaz in the 59th minute of that game, and he could only watch on the sidelines as his teammates, playing with renewed spirit, scored twice to win 2-0.

Peter Byrne – PA Images / PA Images / Getty

A similar storyline played out in the League Cup final against Chelsea. Mane registered just two shots playing as a No. 9 – one woefully wide – before coming off again in the second half.

Mane’s struggles predate the Africa Cup of Nations in January: he was ineffectual in games against Leicester and AC Milan and went goalless from the end of November to the end of December.

With Diaz raring to go, Mane can ill afford to go missing down the stretch. Scoring against the likes of Leeds United and Norwich City isn’t enough anymore. Liverpool have the depth to cope – and perhaps even play better – with Mane out of the starting lineup.

Bayern’s brashness can’t last

Julian Nagelsmann did it again. Kingsley Coman, Leroy Sane, Thomas Muller, and Serge Gnabry buzzed behind Robert Lewandowski just as they had in the first leg, with merely a midfield duo and defensive trio for protection.

It was an approach that indicated Bayern Munich wanted to rain punches from the first whistle, leaving Red Bull Salzburg bloodied and dazed before they could pick at the same vulnerabilities they exposed in the 1-1 draw to open the doubleheader.

Nagelsmann’s options were somewhat limited. Midfielders Leon Goretzka and Corentin Tolisso are injured, and the only senior attack-minded players on the bench were Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting and Marcel Sabitzer. But it still took extreme bravery for the head coach not to dilute his ambitious plan.

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Bayern were given a scare before two minutes elapsed. Karim Adeyemi stole the ball from Jamal Musiala – still learning on the job in a deeper midfield role – and cut it back for Nicolas Capaldo, whose straightforward finish was thwarted by Coman’s heroic block.

That was it, though. The German champions were soon on their way to a 7-1 win. However, this wasn’t necessarily a sign of things to come: Salzburg’s individual errors and overall weakness certainly helped disguise an imbalanced and defensively susceptible lineup. Bayern can’t afford to be so cavalier when they face a European heavyweight in this competition.

A victorious Champions League run requires a little more caution.

Lewandowski’s unrivaled consistency

It wasn’t a vintage hat-trick, but Lewandowski continues to produce numbers and prove he’s one of the greatest strikers in the sport’s history.

Lewandowski won both of his penalties through his technical excellence and slippery movement. The Polish marksman tickled a tricky pass with the bottom of his left foot and tempted Maximilian Wober into a clumsy challenge for the first spot-kick. For the second penalty, Lewandowski called the same unfortunate defender into action when he stepped across Wober and spun near the edge of the box.

The goal to complete his treble needed bounces off his shins and the woodwork before he tapped in – but can that be deemed fortunate when he’s hounding defenders and so often in the right position? His finish took him to an incredible 42 strikes with little under three months of the season remaining. He’s now scored 40 or more goals in seven straight seasons.

And at 33, there’s little evidence he’s slowing down.

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