World Cup group stage deciders, early awards candidates

In 2026, the World Cup will expand from 32 to 48 teams, likely with a structure of 16 groups of three. I am all for expansion — it will allow us to get to know more teams, players, coaches and fan bases, which is almost always a plus in my book — but I hate the thought of teams being guaranteed only two games before elimination. With everyone having played two matches in the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, we’ve only just begun to get to know these teams and set the stakes for what’s to follow.

– World Cup 2022: News and features | Schedule | Squads

What is to follow over the next four days? Pretty much everything.

After two rounds of matches, only three teams have officially clinched advancement to the knockout phase (France, Brazil and Portugal), and only two have officially been eliminated (Qatar and Canada). Twenty-eight teams still have work to do, and the plot twists have already been legion.

Let’s take stock of where we’ve come over the past nine days and where we still have to go.

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Whose odds have changed the most (for the better)?

For the most part, the teams that began the competition as the most likely to advance have continued apace. Before the World Cup, FiveThirtyEight’s SPI ratings gave six teams at least an 80% chance of reaching the round of 16 — Brazil, Argentina, France, Portugal, Spain and England — and as things currently stand, five of those are at 90% or higher. (Argentina are at 78% after suffering a shocking upset loss to Saudi Arabia but responding to beat Mexico.)

Some other teams, however, have seen their stocks soar.

Morocco (91% chance to advance, up from 46% at the start of the competition). There was nothing enjoyable about Morocco’s 0-0 draw against Croatia in each team’s opener, but when combined with a 2-0 win over Belgium on Sunday, Walid Regragui’s squad are well-positioned to advance. Stars Hakim Ziyech and Achraf Hakimi have combined for an assist and six chances created, Fiorentina midfielder Sofyan Amrabat has been like a machine when it comes to ball recoveries, and the Moroccans thoroughly outplayed Belgium. Either a draw with Canada or a Croatia win over Belgium is all they need to advance.

Poland (75% chance, up 37%). As with Morocco, Poland’s second match told a vastly different story from a goalless opener. Their 2-0 win over Saudi Arabia positioned them atop Group C — one point ahead of Argentina and Saudi Arabia and three ahead of Mexico — and finally got star Robert Lewandowski his first World Cup goal. Goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny has been standing on his head, and while advancement is far from secure going into the Wednesday match with Argentina, they’re in solid shape.

Iran (58%, up from 34%). Iran flipped the odds on their head with the 2-0 win over Wales on Friday. Stoppage-time goals from Roozbeh Cheshmi and Ramin Rezaeian lifted their odds greatly, as they no longer need a win over the US to advance (providing Wales don’t beat England); now they only need a draw. Their defense-heavy structure suggests they would be happy to play for a stalemate against the US, but their best moments in this tournament have come in attack.

Ecuador (71%, up from 48%). A draw with Netherlands, combined with Senegal’s loss to the Dutch, has positioned Ecuador well. They can thank Enner Valencia for a lot of that — he has scored all three of Ecuador’s goals (and their past six World Cup goals overall) — but with the way they dominated Netherlands (they attempted 15 shots worth 1.7 xG and allowed only two shots worth 0.1) they probably should have secured all three points. As it stands, they still must at least draw with Senegal to assure advancement.

Australia (45%, up from 22%). A beautiful early header from Mitchell Duke in transition gave Australia a surprise 1-0 win over Tunisia on Saturday and flipped the Group D odds considerably. Despite a dreadful performance against France in their first match, the Socceroos now need only a draw against Denmark to advance. Denmark are the favorite, but they haven’t performed nearly as well as they were supposed to thus far, and their 0-0 draw with Tunisia in the opener has opened the door for the Aussies.

Whose odds have changed the most (for the worse)?

Canada (0% chance to advance, down from 37% at the start of the competition). Canada came into the competition as a team with loads of potential and no World Cup track record. In both of their first two matches, they flashed loads of the former before the latter overpowered them. They outplayed Belgium in their first match, but gave up a single perfect counterattack and lost; then, against Croatia, the most veteran of veteran teams, they took an early lead but got overrun 4-1. Call it a learning experience if nothing else.

Mexico (17%, down from 54%). Mexico have thus far been done in by the same thing afflicting all CONCACAF teams: goal-scoring struggles. The region’s four teams have combined to score only three goals in six matches, and none have come from Alexis Vega, Hirving “Chucky” Lozano and Mexico. They were better than Poland for most of their opening match, and they were Argentina’s equal at times Saturday, but they have managed a 0-0 draw and a 2-0 loss so far. Now they need a win over Saudi Arabia (which will require scoring) and either a Poland win over Argentina or a large Argentina win over Poland to advance.

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Shaka Hislop explains why time is up for many of Belgium’s stars after their loss vs. Morocco.

Belgium (33%, down from 62%). Nine players have recorded at least 120 combined minutes in Belgium’s first two matches; eight are at least 29 years old, and three are at least 33. For all the technical skill and obvious talent this team still boasts — creator Kevin De Bruyne, goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, et al. — both Canada and Morocco have made them look downright slow. And now they need to beat 2018 finalists Croatia to advance.

Tunisia (4%, down from 32%). After an encouraging performance in a 0-0 draw with Denmark, Tunisia could have positioned themselves well to advance with a win over what seemed to be an outmatched Australia. Instead, they lost to the Aussies despite creating better opportunities. Now they’ll need to both upset France and hope that Denmark don’t blow out Australia. That would be quite the miracle.

Wales (5%, down from 32%). On May 2, 1984, at Wrexham’s Racecourse Ground, Mark Hughes scored in the 17th minute as Wales took down Bobby Robson’s England in the final British Home Championship. That’s the last time they beat their neighbors — they’ve been outscored 11-1 in six matches since — and any hope of advancing starts with ending that nearly four-decade streak. They either need to beat England and hope that Iran and the US draw or beat England by four goals. Their chances likely ended with Iran’s stoppage-time goals against them.

Biggest remaining matches in the group stage

Led by Saudi Arabia’s upset of Argentina, we’ve seen some genuinely shocking results over the first week or so of the competition. While plenty of similarly wild results could shake up the competition — something like Wales blowing out England, Cameroon upsetting Brazil or Japan knocking off Spain — there are some matches that we know will be particularly impactful.

Tuesday: Ecuador (71% chance of advancing) vs. Senegal (30%). Ecuador would get through with a win or a draw, while Senegal need a win.

Tuesday: Iran (58% chance of advancing) vs. United States (38%). Unless Wales upset the apple cart with a shock win over England, Iran are through with a win or draw, and the US are through with a win.

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1:58

Sam Borden updates with the latest from the USMNT camp in Qatar, ahead of their crunch match with Iran.

Wednesday: Denmark (51% chance of advancing) vs. Australia (45%). Barring a Tunisia upset of France, Australia are through with a win or draw, and Denmark need a win. (Odds favor the Danes getting that win, but they haven’t played nearly as well as expected to date.)

Thursday: Croatia (76% chance of advancing) vs. Belgium (33%). After two underwhelming performances, Belgium need a win (or a draw, combined with a Canada blowout of Morocco) to advance. Croatia just need a draw (or help from Canada).

Friday: Switzerland (68% chance of advancing) vs. Serbia (30%). Tied with Cameroon at one point (and with a worse goal differential), Serbia need to beat Switzerland and hope Cameroon don’t pull a miracle against Brazil. Sans said miracle, the Swiss just need a draw.

Friday: Uruguay (49% chance of advancing) vs. Ghana (42%). It’s the 2010 World Cup quarterfinal rematch we’ve been waiting for, and it’s got high stakes, too. While South Korea could muddy things up by beating Portugal to get to four points, a winner in this one, be it Ghana (three points) or Uruguay (one), would have excellent odds of advancing.


Awards watch

FIFA hands out individual awards after the competition, including the Golden Ball (best player), Golden Boot (highest scorer), Golden Glove (best goalkeeper) and Young Player Award. Let’s check on how those competitions appear to be coming along.

Golden Ball

Of the 10 times the Golden Ball has been awarded, it has gone to a player from one of the two finalists eight times and to a semifinalist the other two. Based on current odds, then, it’s most likely to go to a player from Brazil (39% chance to make the finals, per FiveThirtyEight), France (27%) or Spain (23%). But while we wait to see how the knockout rounds take shape, let’s use this as an excuse to break out the nerd stats.

Here are the 10 players who have generated the most combined expected goals (xG) and expected assists (xA) thus far in the competition, excluding penalties:

Kylian Mbappe, France (2.79)
Antoine Griezmann, France (2.51)
Olivier Giroud, France (2.16)
Enner Valencia, Ecuador (1.60)
Aleksandar Mitrovic, Serbia (1.48)
Robert Lewandowski, Poland (1.39)
Dani Olmo, Spain (1.24)
Jean-Charles Castelletto, Cameroon (1.19)
Sardar Azmoun, Iran (1.13, in only 81 minutes!)
Jonathan David, Canada (1.09)

Four of the 10 are from France or Spain, so throw in Vinicius Junior (1.05) and Richarlison (0.99) of Brazil, and Lional Messi (0.56) because he’s Lionel Messi, and we’ve got ourselves a pretty good candidates list.

Golden Boot

Obviously, the Golden Boot is also going to go to a player from a team making a deep run — more games equals more goal opportunities — but here are the 14 players who have scored at least twice thus far, plus the number of shots it has taken them to get there.

Three goals: Mbappe (13 shots); Valencia (7)

Two goals: Giroud (7); Cho Gue-Sung, South Korea (7); Messi (6); Bruno Fernandes, Portugal (6); Andrej Kramaric, Croatia (5); Richarlison (5); Mehdi Taremi, Iran (5); Alvaro Morata, Spain (5); Bukayo Saka, England (4); Ferran Torres, Spain (4); Mohammed Kudus, Ghana (4); Cody Gakpo, Netherlands (2)

This is a fun mix of known stars (Mbappe, Messi, Fernandes) and entertaining stories. Unfortunately, the most enjoyable story on the list might not make it much further in the competition: while Ecuador currently have a 71% chance of advancing to the knockout stage, Valencia’s status is uncertain after he suffered a sprained knee in the draw with Netherlands.

Valencia’s club career has taken him from Ecuador (Emelec) to Mexico (Pachuca) to England (West Ham United and Everton), then back to Mexico (Tigres) and now Turkey (Fenerbahce), where he has scored double-digit goals for three straight years. He’s approaching 150 career club goals, and he has scored 38 in 76 career international matches. He is the ultimate grinder, and he has come up big for Ecuador.

Golden Glove

Three teams have yet to allow a goal in this competition — Poland, Morocco and Brazil — but clean sheets don’t necessarily tell you whose goalkeeper has performed the best. Brazil’s Alisson, for instance, has yet to face a shot on goal.

To gauge goalkeeper performance, then, let’s use another nerd stat: goals prevented, Stats Perform’s look at the difference between a keeper’s goals allowed and the post-shot xG for opponents’ shots on target.

Wojciech Szczesny, Poland (+3.10 goals prevented)
Andries Noppert, Netherlands (+1.45)
Shuichi Gonda, Japan (+1.40)
Yann Sommer, Switzerland (+1.12)
Thibaut Courtois, Belgium (+0.92)
Mohammed Al Owais, Saudi Arabia (+0.85)
Unai Simon, Spain (0.76)
Matt Turner, United States (0.72)
Yassine Bounou, Morocco (0.63)
Wayne Hennessey, Wales (0.50)

Szczesny has faced shots on target worth 3.1 xG, including a penalty against Saudi Arabia and three shots attempted within 5 meters of the goal. That Poland have posted two clean sheets tells you a lot about how well the Juventus keeper has done.

(If you’re feeling mean and want to know who has the lowest goals prevented figure to date, it’s Costa Rica’s Keylor Navas, at -2.42.)

Best Young Player

Pele, Franz Beckenbauer, Michael Owen, Landon Donovan, Thomas Muller, Paul Pogba and Kylian Mbappe have all won the FIFA Young Player Award. The bar is pretty high here, and thus far quite a few 21-and-under players — they must have been born after Jan. 1, 2001 — have cleared it.

Bukayo Saka, England. The 21-year-old Arsenal winger and reigning England men’s player of the year scored twice against Iran and has created a pair of chances as well.

Jude Bellingham, England. Only one player in the tournament has a) completed at least 120 passes, b) scored at least one goal and c) won at least 60% of his duels: the 19-year-old Borussia Dortmund midfielder and big-money target of every major Premier League team.

Gavi and Pedri, Spain. Pedri (20 years old) is the metronome that keeps time for the Spanish attack — he has completed 93% of his 142 passes with a trio of chances created. Gavi (18), meanwhile, is the line-breaker and one-on-one guy who forces the issue at all times. They are going to be making Spain a World Cup threat until about 2034.

Jamal Musiala, Germany. The burgeoning Bayern Munich star has gone from “this guy could be incredible one day” to “is he Germany’s best player?” in weeks. Through two matches, he leads the team in chances created, assists and ball recoveries, and he has completed 30 of 33 passes within the attacking third.

Josko Gvardiol, Croatia. The RB Leipzig stalwart has won 64% of his duels and completed 88% of his passes for a Croatia team that has allowed just one goal and shots worth just 0.8 xG through two matches.

Lee Kang-In, South Korea. The Mallorca winger has been a jolt of energy, attempting four shots and creating four chances with one assist in just 48 minutes as a substitute.


Non-Big Five Best XI

Two of the most enjoyable aspects of immersing yourself in the World Cup: the “who is that guy?” factor and the “oh right, that guy!” factor. Sometimes players you’ve never heard of shine, as do guys who have perhaps moved on from the spotlight of Europe’s Big Five leagues but are still plying their trade further down the ladder.

With that in mind, here’s a loosely assembled lineup of players from outside the Big Five leagues who have played great ball thus far in Qatar.

Goalkeeper: Andries Noppert, Netherlands (Heerenveen). Louis van Gaal left some bigger-name keepers at home (Jasper Cillessen, Tim Krul) and surprisingly handed the reins to Noppert, who has responded beautifully.

Centre-backs: Romain Saiss, Morocco (Besiktas); Diego Godin, Uruguay (Velez Sarsfield). Saiss only recently became available for this team (he played for Wolves until 2022-23), but the 32-year-old has been a major reason for Morocco’s back-to-back clean sheets. And while Uruguay haven’t gotten a ton from its veteran attackers, the 36-year-old Godin has been an absolute rock. (Also, hooray to anyone who doesn’t try to cover up the fact that they’re balding.)

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Julien Laurens explains his concern for Neymar after seeing the latest pictures of his injured ankle.

Full-backs: Ramin Rezaeian, Iran (Sepahan); Josip Juranovic, Croatia (Celtic). Rezaeian was a revelation against Wales, not only scoring but also completing 26 passes and recording 12 ball recoveries. He’s among the team leaders in both categories, and he didn’t even play in the first match! And with “Big Five” talent all around him, Juranovic has stood out for Croatia; he assisted the game winner against Canada, and he has made 12 ball recoveries and completed a number of passes into the attacking third.

Midfielders: Mohammed Kudus, Ghana (Ajax); Salem Al-Dawsari, Saudi Arabia (Al-Hilal). You might know Kudus by now. The 22-year-old Ajax (for now) star scored twice in Ghana’s vital win over South Korea, and only six players in the tournament can top his 16 ball recoveries to date. But Al-Dawsari’s game winner against Argentina has been maybe the biggest moment of the tournament to date. The 31-year-old has been the driver of almost everything good Saudi Arabia have done through two matches.

Attacking midfielder: Cody Gakpo, Netherlands (PSV Eindhoven). Another rising star at the club level, the 23-year-old has gotten two looks at the goal in two matches, and he buried both. The Dutch team overall have produced a disappointing number of chances, but they would be far worse off without Gakpo in the lineup.

Forwards: Enner Valencia, Ecuador (Fenerbahce); Cho Gue-Sung, South Korea (Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors). We’ve told Valencia’s story by now, but let’s talk about Cho for a moment: a club star in South Korea, the 24-year-old scored both goals in the 3-2 thriller his country lost to Ghana on Monday. With a couple more goals against Uruguay this coming Friday, he still might be able to help his team advance.

https://www.espn.com/soccer/fifa-world-cup/story/4818719/world-cup-group-stage-deciders-early-awards-candidates World Cup group stage deciders, early awards candidates

Emma Bowman

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