Saudi Arabia: Salem Al-Dawsari (Al-Hilal)
Group C opponents: Argentina, Mexico, Poland
Though Saudi Arabia scored only 12 goals through 10 World Cup qualifying matches, there is some attacking talent within the roster. Of course, we’re primarily speaking about 30-year-old winger Salem Al-Dawsari. During the qualification process (the span of three years), Al-Dawsari led Saudi Arabia in goals (7). He’s also been designated as the team’s official penalty taker. A tricky yet clever player on the ball, he primarily prowls the left wing for The Green Falcons. Though he has played virtually his entire career domestically, Al-Dawsari did have a short spell at Villarreal in La Liga (thus showing he is a dynamic player).
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Tunisia: Ellyes Skhiri (1. FC Koln)
Group D opponents: France, Denmark, Peru
Tunisia’s best player actually comes via France. Defensive midfielder Ellyes Skhiri was born and raised in a Montpellier suburb to a French mother and a Tunisian father. When Tunisia came calling, Skhiri didn’t think twice about representing his father’s native land. Skhiri plays at a much higher level compared to virtually all of his teammates. He’s staked a starting spot as the No. 6 for Cologne in the Bundesliga. A heady player, he’s equally as efficient in breaking up opposing counterattacks as he is getting into the final third and scoring. On the year, Skhiri has four goals and an assist (as of April 19th) in only 18 appearances. Those numbers are quite good considering his responsibility first and foremost is to defend.
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Costa Rica: Keylor Navas (Paris Saint-Germain)
Group E opponents: Spain, Germany, Japan
It’ll be a tall task for Los Ticos to actually make it to the knockout stage. Costa Rica has an aging roster with little in the way of proven youngers in bigger leagues. However, if there’s one player capable of single-handedly keeping them in matches, it’s world class goalkeeper Keylor Navas. He’s more than capable of standing on his head to prevent goal-scoring opportunities. Costa Rica has to hope it can gain a win versus Japan before attempting to nick a point versus Spain or Germany. Only then will it have a chance to advance.
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South Korea: Son Heung-min (Tottenham)
Group H opponents: Uruguay, Portugal, Ghana
Portuguese manager Paulo Bento leans heavily upon Tottenham star Son Heung-Min. Arguably the best player in all of Asia, he’s undoubtedly the center of Korea’s universe as it pertains to getting into the final third. Unsurprisingly, the Tottenham star led South Korea in goals (7) during the qualification process. Everything goes through Son — whether building the attack from the midfield or delicately trying to carve the opposition in the final third. In a group which appears to be relatively open, Son will have to be on top of his game for his country to advance.
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Qatar: Akram Afif (Al Sadd)
Group A opponents: Ecuador, Netherlands, Senegal
Afif is the most talented play on the host nation’s roster. A guest of CONCACAF during the Gold Cup, we saw Afif up close and personal. While naturally a left winger, he can also play up top as a striker, and also centrally behind the target man. Afif wants the ball at his feet, and thus he’ll float around the pitch to collect the ball before cascading upfield with a nice combination of pace and skill. A very technical player, defenses have to be cognizant of him at all times. Afif is also one of the few Qatari players to have experience playing abroad. The 26-year-old has accrued experience in Belgium (Eupen) and Spain (Sporting Gijon, Villarreal).
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Japan: Takumi Minamino (Liverpool)
Group E opponents: Spain, Germany, Costa Rica
Japan is in a tough group…there’s no other way to slice it. Germany and Spain are considered two of the favorites to win the entire World Cup. You’ll still see a pragmatic team leaning heavily on technicality rather than physicality. A perfect encapsulation of that includes Liverpool winger Takumi Minamino. Minamino led Japan through qualifying with 10 goals. Quick and decisive, Minamino is known his prowess as a finisher. Pairing with former Werder Bremen striker Yuya Osako, these two will be counted upon to give Japan goals in what looks like a very tough group.
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Ghana: Thomas Partey (Arsenal)
Group H opponents: Uruguay, Portugal, South Korea
This is not the Ghana of old. Gone are the days of Michael Essien, Stephen Appiah, and Asamoah Gyan. Arsenal midfielder Thomas Partey is currently the best player on the roster. While Ajax attacking midfielder Mohammed Kudus is a slippery, tricky player, Partey is the straw that stirs the proverbial drink for the Black Stars. The 28-year-old is highly accomplished having played the majority of his professional career with both Atletico Madrid and Arsenal. The young Ghanaian side will look to Partey as a leader in the middle of the park. He can cover a ton of ground, and is also a threat to score (tied for the team lead with three goals during the qualification process).
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Wales: Gareth Bale (Real Madrid)
Group B opponents: England, United States, Iran
Bale can make something happen out of nothing — and this is an aspect which makes Wales a not-so-fun opponent. Despite what you may think about his run at Real Madrid, he’s still a highly dangerous player with the ball at his feet — whether that’s in the run of play or on set pieces. When he’s at his best, few in the world are as threatening. Seeing as this is his first (and likely last) World Cup appearance, look for Bale to put on a real show.
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Canada: Alphonso Davies (Bayern Munich)
Group F opponents: Belgium, Morocco, Croatia
You heard this right: The best left back in the world hails from the lovely country of Canada. Despite some issues with injuries and COVID-19, Davies is without a doubt the most electric player on this roster. This is saying something considering Canada also has a world class No. 9 in Jonathan David and a burgeoning star on the wing in Tajon Buchanan. Davies can flip the match on its head in seconds with his blistering pace. Often times, Canada likes to employ the Bayern Munich star higher up the pitch as a winger. In these situations, he’s closer to goal — which often results in a plethora of tantalizing goal-scoring chances.
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Cameroon: Karl Toko Ekambi (Lyon)
Group G opponents: Switzerland, Serbia, Brazil
Les Lions Indomptables are in a tough group. Being paired with the tournament favorite (Brazil) isn’t easy — not to mention two rock-solid European sides with experience and pedigree (Serbia, Switzerland). Ajax keeper Andre Onana is a very good player. He gives Cameroon a puncher’s chance versus Serbia and Switzerland. Up top Bayern Munich striker Eric Choupo-Moting is an experienced player with strong poaching skills. However, the most dangerous player on the team is 29-year-old Lyon striker Karl Toko Ekambi. He was the player responsible for sending Cameroon to the World Cup (scoring the crucial extra time goal versus Algeria).
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Morocco: Achraf Hakimi (Paris Saint-Germain)
Group F opponents: Canada, Croatia, Belgium
Hakim Ziyech and Noussair Mazraoui would be in consideration for this honor. However, due to some unresolved issues with the federation, neither is a lock to represent Morocco in Qatar (which is a shame for the fans based upon how talented these two are). As such, we can concretely pencil right back/right winger/right wing back Achraf Hakimi as the team’s best talent. Possessing elite pace, Hakimi loves getting up into the attack on overlapping runs. He puts an inordinate amount of pressure on the opposition with a willingness to be spontaneous. It’ll be vital for Morocco to see Hakimi link up with its pair of Sevilla-based strikers in Youssef En-Nesyri and Munir El Haddadi.
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Iran: Mehdi Taremi (Porto)
Group B opponents: United States, England, Wales
Team Melli is more than capable of advancing from the group. Iran is measured with its attack, and is hard to break down. It’s also a technical bunch featuring a plethora of players who play their club football in Portugal, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Though youngster Sardar Azmoun garners many of the press clippings, the most important footballer for Iran is Mehdi Taremi. The Porto striker not only boasts ample Champions League experience, but he’s among the best players in all of Portugal. Having the versatility to play all over the front line, Taremi (as of April 19th) has 22 goals and 17 assists in 42 total matches this year for Porto.
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Australia: Mathew Ryan (Real Sociedad)
Group D opponents: Denmark, France, Tunisia
Though he’s not an every match starter for Real Sociedad, Mathew Ryan is arguably the most talented player on Australia’s roster. The captain is an athletic goalkeeper with good size and strong reaction skills. Ultimately, he’ll be called upon to save Australia if it has any chance at getting out of this group. Denmark and France are the prohibitive favorites, and Tunisia is no pushover, either. Ryan will have to stand on his head for the Socceroos to somehow advance to the knockout stage.
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Mexico: Edson Alvarez (Ajax)
Group C opponents: Argentina, Saudi Arabia, Poland
The front three for Mexico (Raul, Tecatito, Hirving Lozano) is undoubtedly the strength of the team. However, the most promising talent on the team is Edson Alvarez. He’s asked to do essentially everything for this aging midfield. This includes functioning as a typical No. 6 destroyer, and also acting as a fulcrum for igniting the attack upfield. His time at Ajax has made him even silkier on the ball. Duly, Alvarez has the wherewithal in knowing when to pick his spots as a player pushing the ball forward versus staying back to cover space. It won’t be long until he’s playing in a bigger league.
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Ecuador: Piero Hincapie (Bayer Leverkusen)
Group A opponents: Qatar, Netherlands, Senegal
Ecuador is a team where the sum is greater than its parts. On paper, you won’t see a ton of its players playing in the bigger leagues around the world. However, it’s a fast group with elite team chemistry. Remember, this team finished fourth in CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying (ahead of Peru, Colombia, and Chile). Veteran striker Enner Valencia is the biggest name on the roster. Augsburg midfielder Carlos Gruezo is a fixture for La Tri. However, center-back Piero Hincapie is the most promising player within the pool. At only 20 years of age, he’s already cemented himself as a starter for both club (Bayer Leverkusen) and country. The left-footed player is exceptional with his positioning, and is excellent in playing the ball out of the back.
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Poland: Robert Lewandowski
Group C opponents: Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Argentina
Whenever you’ve got the world’s best No. 9 on your team, you’ve got a chance to make some real noise. Poland will be relying heavily upon Robert Lewandowski for goals in this tournament. With that said, he’s far from alone as it pertains to quality within the side. Fiorentina striker Krzystof Piatek is more than capable of banging home a couple of goals. Napoli midfielder Piotr Zielinski is a maestro in the middle of the park, and veteran Kamil Grosicki still possesses some ability to give Poland some high-level play. Argentina is the favorite of the group. However, Poland is more than capable in advancing past Mexico and into the knockout stage.
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Switzerland: Denis Zakaria (Juventus)
Group G opponents: Brazil, Cameroon, Serbia
Switzerland is a mid-level European side with the upside of a team making the Quarterfinals. It lacks the high-end talent to advance further than that. However, it’s a group with considerable continuity and familiarity with one another. Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka still remain as key cogs in the midfield. Nico Elvedi and Manuel Akanji is a good pairing in the back. With that said, Juve midfielder Denis Zakaria adds some much-needed athleticism and mettle to the group. He represents a major upgrade centrally as a ball-winner with above-average technical ability.
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United States: Giovanni Reyna (Borussia Dortmund)
Group B opponents: England, Iran, Wales
There are a number of players who could theoretically fit the bill here. We’re talking about Juventus midfielder Weston McKennie, Barcelona fullback Sergino Dest, and of course Chelsea winger Christian Pulisic. However, we’re going to deviate away from Pulisic and focus on Reyna. Yes, he’s had injury issues at Dortmund. The hope is that he’ll get fully healthy this summer before enjoying a strong fall. Reyna is undoubtedly the most talented American currently (and perhaps ever). He glides effortlessly on the field, and boasts some impressive technical ability. It would behoove the U.S. to play Reyna centrally rather than on the wing. His quality on the ball could unlock some things for the U.S. should they have trouble breaking down teams opting to bunker in.
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Senegal: Sadio Mane (Liverpool)
Group A opponents: Qatar, Ecuador, Netherlands
The cream of the crop comes with Liverpool winger Sadio Mane. He is the danger man for Senegal — and is often the player it builds around for creation of scoring chances. You can have Mane isolated on the wing (where he relishes the opportunity to run at defenders). He can also tuck inside to collect the ball and create havoc in the final third. Simply put, this is a dangerous side. No one will want to see them in a knockout stage situation. They could give either England or the United States a lot of trouble in the Round of 16.
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Croatia: Luka Modric (Real Madrid)
Group F opponents: Belgium, Canada, Morocco
Croatia operates as the most consistent team in this grouping. There are some questions — especially when it comes to the collective age of the squad. Stalwart Luka Modric will be age 37 when the tournament kicks off, and much of the core is above the age of 30. However, the Croats are rock-solid tactically and technically. They should be able to advance. Modric’s game in particular has aged like a fine wine (see the assist he had in Champions League versus Chelsea). He still manages to cover a ton of ground, and has the high-level footballing I.Q. that players only dream of.
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Serbia: Dusan Vlahovic (Juventus)
Group G opponents: Brazil, Switzerland, Cameroon
Many people are pegging Serbia as a major darkhorse in this tournament — and for good reason. The striker pair up top featuring Dusan Vlahovic and Aleksandar Mitrovic is damn good. For good measure, Real Madrid striker Luka Jovic is normally considered the third option. In the midfield, the creative Dusan Tadic (of Ajax) pulls the strings with his ability to create for others. When looking at the roster as a whole, much of it plays in the top-five leagues (Italy, England, France, Germany, Spain). Ultimately, Vlahovic is good enough to carry Serbia a long ways in this tournament. He scores goals for fun in Italy — using his size and strength to pummel smaller defenders. His deft left foot is wand-like when unleashing shots outside the box (or slipping passes to teammates). Unquestionably, Vlahovic is one of the most prolific young strikers in the world at this point.
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Denmark: Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg (Tottenham)
Group D opponents: France, Peru, Tunisia
You should not sleep on Denmark. There’s talent littered throughout the team — and it’s a very manageable group for the Danes to get through. Christian Eriksen made an emotional return to international/club football following his horrifying cardiac arrest episode last year (on the pitch). Now plying his trade for Brentford, he’s starting to round into form. The midfield is deep with talent — led by the likes of Eriksen, Thomas Delaney, Emile-Pierre Hojbjerg, and rising star Mikkel Damsgaard. Up top, it’s not an easy proposition to deal with the likes of Kasper Dolberg, Yusuf Poulsen, and Jonas Wind (among others). Hojberg is the guy in the middle of the park for Denmark. He sets the tone physically, and is a great connector with teammates upfield. We’ve seen him play at a very high level for years with Spurs in London.
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Portugal: Bruno Fernandes (Manchester United)
Group H opponents: Uruguay, Ghana, South Korea
Thanks to a monumental collapse from European Champions Italy, Portugal finds itself backing into the World Cup in what likely will be Cristiano Ronaldo’s last appearance in the competition. This is not a team without talent — though it’s not exactly lived up to its potential. Diogo Jota, Andre Silva, and Joao Felix are all highly dangerous in the final third. The defense is a bit long in the tooth. If there’s one area to exploit Portugal, it could come in the backline. With all of that said, Manchester United’s Bruno Fernandes is the hub of creativity for this team. He’s got sublime skill on the ball, and poses as both a scoring threat and as someone who can assist teammates.
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Netherlands: Virgil van Dijk (Liverpool)
Group A opponents: Qatar, Senegal, Ecuador
In the last calendar year, Netherlands has lost only once in its last 17 matches. Louis van Gaal has this team playing with a considerable amount of confidence at the moment. The duo of Memphis and upstart striker Donyell Malen is highly intriguing. The trio of Atalanta players (Hans Hateboer, Marten de Roon, Teun Koopmeiners) offers nice depth next to captain Gini Wijnaldum and Frenkie de Jong. The center-back pairing of Matthjis de Ligt and van Dijk is among the best in the world. Despite being 30 years of age, the Liverpool stalwart is still the most important player on the roster for the Dutch.
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Uruguay: Fede Valverde (Real Madrid)
Group H opponents: Ghana, Portugal, South Korea
No one wants to face Uruguay in a World Cup setting. We’ve still got veterans Diego Godin, Luis Suarez, Fernando Muslera, and Edinson Cavani as fixtures within the group. Striker Darwin Nunez is likely the next great star striker for La Celeste. Defensive midfielder Lucas Torreira is among the best at his position in Serie A. However, Real Madrid man Fede Valverde is a fantastic midfielder. Valverde has world class potential, and represents the archetype Uruguayan footballer. We’re talking about a player with brains, dogged determination, and quality on the ball.
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Belgium: Kevin de Bruyne (Manchester City)
Group F opponents: Croatia, Morocco, Canada
This is it for Belgium. The Golden Generation is about to end — and as such we’re going to see a big personnel turnover in 2023. As it currently stands, de Bruyne is Belgium’s best player. He’s clearly a long range threat whether on set pieces or in the run of play. His vision is fantastic, as he can spray the ball effectively to all parts of the pitch. KDB will have to be clicking on all cylinders if Belgium has any shot at winning the entire thing.
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England: Phil Foden (Manchester City)
Group B opponents: United States, Iran, Wales
Harry Kane has a record of scoring goals for England. Yet, he’s not what anyone would call an overly dynamic player. Gareth Southgate’s conservative style of play sometimes has a habit of shackling the young talent within this team. If there’s one player ready to explode, it’s Foden. We’ve see his class on display for City. He’s an experienced player despite still being a pup, and as such you wouldn’t expect him to be overwhelmed by the atmosphere in Qatar. If Foden is consistently making things happen with his electricity on the ball, England could become a dark horse to win the World Cup.
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Spain: Pedri (FC Barcelona)
Group E opponents: Japan, Germany, Costa Rica
There might not be another national team possessing a future as bright as Spain’s. Two of their primary fixtures in the midfield (Pedri, Gavi) are both under the age of 20. Pedri in particular is undoubtedly set to become the next world class player representing La Roja. His understanding of the game is phenomenal — as is his ability on the ball. You’re looking at the next iteration of Andres Iniesta/Xavi. This very well could be his coming out party on the global stage.
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Germany: Joshua Kimmich (Germany)
Group E opponents: Spain, Costa Rica, Japan
Hansi Flick has reinvigorated this team with a plethora of new ideas and a host of inexperienced talent. Riding a nine-game unbeaten streak, we’re seeing fixtures from the past (Thomas Muller, Manuel Neuer) woven in with the emerging talents of Kai Havertz, Jamal Musiala, Florian Wirtz, and Robin Koch. The most important player for Germany, however, is none other than Joshua Kimmich. He possesses the versatility to functionally play a number of different roles for die mannschaft. Kimmich is fearless when defending, and is potent in the build-up. Above all else, he’s a true leader when out on the pitch.
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Argentina: Lionel Messi (Paris Saint-Germain)
Group C opponents: Poland, Saudi Arabia, Mexico
Is this it for Lionel Messi? By all accounts, this could be the last chance for the icon to help his nation win that elusive World Cup which previously slipped through his fingers. Based upon the team’s run up until this point, it could be Argentina’s most talented team we’ve seen in years. No longer are they exclusively reliant upon Messi’s ability to create magic out of nothing. On the contrary — this roster is flush with attacking talent. The midfield is as deep as it’s been in years, and the defensive unit is rock-solid. Still, the success of this side will ultimately start and end with Messi.
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France: Kylian Mbappe (Paris Saint-Germain)
Group D opponents: Peru, Denmark, Tunisia
The reigning World Cup champions are still a mega threat to repeat in Qatar. The roster/spine of the team remain relatively the same. There will be some questions as to the overall age of the team. By November, both Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante will be in their 30’s. Antoine Griezmann will be 32, Olivier Giroud will be 36, and Karim Benzema will be approaching his 35th birthday. Despite the age concerns, there are no worries over Kylian Mbappe. He is arguably the world’s best player at this point. Les Bleus will be totally content with Mbappe collecting the ball in order to unleash his tremendous talent — whether on the flanks or cutting inside.
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Brazil: Neymar (Paris Saint-Germain)
Group C opponents: Serbia, Switzerland, Cameroon
This is Neymar’s opportunity to rectify the failure of the 2014 World Cup in his native country. Right now, Brazil is the best team on the planet. It’s frightening how good the team was during the CONMEBOL qualification process (which is no joke). Over 17 matches Brazil won 14 games and drew three (no losses). Even more stunning, manager Tite’s team allowed five goals over a 17-match span (scoring 40 during the same time period). Despite the plethora of exciting attackers on the roster, Neymar still has to take the reins of this team as the dynamic goal-scoring threat. He’s certainly capable of being the Golden Ball winner come November.
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