Analyzing the CanMNT’s 2022 World Cup group stage opponents, Belgium, Croatia and Morocco

The CanMNT officially found out their opponents for the 2022 World Cup on Friday thanks to the World Cup draw. Here is our analysis of that draw.

Not only do they have a ticket there, but they have dates and 3 opponents now. 

Because of that, it feels like the CanMNT can really officially start planning their journey to the 2022 men’s World Cup now, after having booked their spot in that tournament just a few days prior. 

So having made that happen, all that was left for them now was to figure out who they’d face in the group stages over in Qatar, and that we found that out on Friday morning, as FIFA held their official draw for that tournament.

And for Canada, that promised to be a fun process no matter what happened. 

With this being their first World Cup since 1986, just being back as a participant in these sorts of events is huge, but at the same time, you couldn’t help but be curious about who they’d draw. 

To be fair, as long as they avoided any sort of ridiculous group, such as the typical ‘Group of Death’ that always seems to pop up at these World Cups, you had to be happy with Canada’s draw, but you couldn’t help but pay close attention to how the procedure went.

And for those who did, you’ll probably know now that Canada will be playing Belgium, Croatia and Morocco in Group F, which certainly isn’t an easy draw, but isn’t a bad draw, either. 

Ultimately, if the main goal was to avoid a ‘Group of Death’, Canada certainly did that with this draw, and although it can’t be necessarily classified as a ‘Group of Life’, either, this is the exact sort of draw that you wanted for this Canadian team.

Heading into this process, it felt like an ideal draw would consist of a big power (just to give Canada a taste of playing that sort of team), a slightly smaller power and then a team that Canada can compete with. 

So to see that Canada drew one of the top teams in the world in Belgium, currently ranked #2 in the latest FIFA rankings, along with #16 ranked Croatia and #24 Morocco, this group certainly ticks those boxes.

Because of that, it gives Canada hope that they can really do something in this tournament. It won’t be easy, as Belgium made it to the semi-finals of the last World Cup, while Croatia bested them by finishing runners-up (and even Morocco was certainly competitive despite a group stage exit), but it’s hoped that can be nothing that this new-look Canadian team can’t handle. 

After the journey that they’ve been on just to get to this point, they’ve shown to be capable of holding their own no matter the opponent or the occasion, and will look to continue that mentality into this game. 

“We’re not just heading to Qatar,” Canadian head coach John Herdman warned after the draw. “We’re ready to play in Qatar.”

“(The draw is) brilliant,” Herdman added. “We wanted those types of games. We go into a World Cup, there are no easy matches, and any team can beat any team on any given day. That’s international football.”

So seeing that, here’s a quick look at the three sides that Canada will play later this year, including a look at each team’s journey here and a player to keep a close eye on, as they make their long-awaited return to this tournament. 

Belgium: 

FIFA Rank: #2

Elo Rating: #4

Number of World Cups (best finish): 13 (3rd place)

Head Coach: Roberto Martinez

And to start, there is no better place to dive in than with the Red Devils, who enter this tournament with all sorts of pressure on them. 

After a strong 2018 tournament, where they made the semi-finals for just the second time in their history, grabbing 3rd-place in their highest-ever finish, it’s expected that this Belgium side can at least repeat that this time around. 

With a core of players who are in their late 20s and early 30s, such as Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku, Thibaut Courtois and Eden Hazard, it feels like time is running out on this Belgian core, whom many consider to be Belgium’s ‘golden generation’. 

So seeing that, the pressure will be on the Red Devils to top this group, and they know that. 

You could feel that after they were surprisingly eliminated by Italy at the quarter-finals at the 2020 European Championships, they responded to that by topping their UEFA World Cup qualifying group in dominating fashion, remaining undefeated in 8 games (6 wins, 2 draws), scoring 25 goals and conceding just 6. 

Therefore, this is most definitely going to be Canada’s toughest game in the group. With it being the opener, too, it’ll really be a ‘thrust into the fire’ moment for Herdman’s side, who will have to quickly adapt by playing this well-worked Belgian team. 

Interestingly, Canada should match up decently to Belgium, though. Much like Canada, they typically play a back 3, but their back 3 isn’t what it used to be, especially with how Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld have aged in recent years. There are some intriguing names who are stepping up in their absence, such as Jason Denayer and Dedryck Boyata, but it’s never easy to replace two pillars such as Vertonghen and Alderweireld. 

Because of that, there could be room to exploit Belgium in transition, especially with how Canada likes to break through the likes of Alphonso Davies, Tajon Buchanan, Richie Laryea and Jonathan David via that avenue. 

At the same time, there are some areas where Canada could struggle against Belgium. For example, Lukaku is a force aerially and on crosses, which has been an area where Canada has struggled. 

Plus, there’s also the fact that Belgium’s midfield is very good (and that feels like an understatement), led by De Bruyne and supported by Axel Witsel, who will be expected to control the tempo when these teams play. 

So overall, don’t be mistaken – this is a very tough draw for Canada. This Belgian side is solid, and have a chip on their shoulder. 

But that’s not a bad thing for Canada. These are the sort of tests that they want at the World Cup, so they’ll be excited by that, and will look to surprise in their opening match, no matter how unlikely the odds might be.

Key Player: Kevin De Bruyne

Otherwise, when it comes to highlighting a player to watch, it’s rather easy with this Belgian side, as their chances of going far mostly rest on the shoulders of De Bruyne. 

And given the form that the 30-year-old has been in these past few years, it’s hard to dispute that. A key cog on a dominant Manchester City side, he has 11 goals and 8 assists in 33 games (all competitions), which for a midfielder, is fantastic production.

But that just gives a taste of what De Bruyne can do well. Playing in more of an attacking role, he can progress the ball via his passing or his dribbling, is very good at finding his teammates in space and is a lethal striker of the ball in his own regard.

So when you look at how he stacks up against fellow midfielders in the top 5 leagues, courtesy of his percentiles chart via FBRef, you can see that manifested statistically, too. 

Because of that, it’s key that Canada makes sure that De Bruyne is not given any space to roam, or else it feels like he’ll have a field day, much as he does with top teams around the world who dare give him that luxury, showing his status as a top player. 

Croatia: 

FIFA Rank: #16

Elo Rating: #16

Number of World Cups (best finish): 5 (2nd place)

Head Coach: Zlatko Dalic

But once Canada gets through their matchup against Belgium, things don’t get any easier for them in their next matchup against Croatia, who are looking to keep up their reputation as tournament darlings here. 

And given their success last time out in this tournament, where they shocked many on a surprise run to the final, where they lost 4-2 to eventual champions France, they’ll have the belief that what they showed then in their best-ever World Cup finish was no fluke.

Which, to give them credit, you’d be hard-pressed to challenge them on that. It certainly won’t be easy for them to catch teams by surprise once again, but they still have a core group of players in Luka Modric, Ivan Perisic, Mateo Kovacic, Marcelo Brozovic and Domagoj Vida, who all played for Croatia in the last tournament, among many other returnees. 

So although those players aren’t getting any younger, with just Kovacic (27) and Brozovic (29) even still in their 20s, this team has a lot of juice left in it. 

Because of that, don’t get fooled by their disappointing Round of 16 exit at last summer’s European Championships. There, they had the misfortune of drawing a dangerous Spain in that round, and did well against the eventual semi-finalists, but only narrowly lost 5-3 in extra time after a thrilling match. 

But seeing that they then followed that up by putting together an extremely professional qualifying campaign, topping their group in UEFA World Cup qualifiers with a record of 7W-1L-2D (23 PTS), scoring an impressive 21 goals and conceding just 4 along the way, should show how they’ll be expected to come out for this tournament. 

As a result, Canada will have to be ready for what will await them on Matchday #2. 

Much like with Belgium, you do fancy aspects of their matchup, such as the fact that Croatia’s backline isn’t exactly what one would call young or fast, and that they no longer have a #9 like Mario Mandzukic to impose fear on defenders (although don’t sleep on the not as physical, but very slick Andrej Kramaric), but at the same time, their midfield is magical. 

Therefore, much like with Belgium, Canada will need to find a way to be solid in the middle of the park, airtight at the back and really try to get that backline running. 

Arguably needing at least a point from their first two games if they’re to be alive by the last game, that’ll be a recipe they’ll look to make the most of in the first two games, and for good reason. 

Key Player: Luka Modric

Otherwise, sticking on a similar theme to Belgium, when it comes to a player to watch for Croatia, it starts and ends in the midfield, where you’ll find the magical Luka Modric. 

And there Canada will have their work cut out when it comes to defending the 36-year-old, where despite his age, continues to be one of the top midfielders in the world for Real Madrid. 

He might be supposed to be at an age where most players start to think about slowing down or retiring, he just continues to boss proceedings regularly for Real, with a knack of showing up in the big games. And with 3 goals and 7 assists (all competitions), you can really see why Real fans have been happy to see Modric on the team sheet regularly for their side.

Plus, what’s scary with Modric is while those stats are impressive on their own, it doesn’t really tell the picture of how he can control games, as he often does a lot of work in midfield that doesn’t end up in the goals and assists column. 

So like with De Bruyne, when you look at the underlying numbers, he’s among the best in Europe at the sort of things that you want from a midfielder, such as his ball progression, passing, chance creation and shooting. 

Because of that, it’s important that Canada makes life as difficult as possible for him. He has a knack of stepping up in big games for Croatia, with the fact that he won the player of the tournament (and Ballon D’Or) in 2018 off the back of his performances in that tournament being a big example of that. 

So although that’s much easier said than done, it’s a good place to start for Canada, because if not, you can easily imagine Modric making a few Canadian players chase his shadow when they take the field against him in Qatar later this year. 

Morocco: 

FIFA Rank: #24

Elo Rating: #34

Number of World Cups (best finish): 4 (Round of 16)

Head Coach: Vahid Halilhodžić

Lastly, once Canada gets through their first two tough games, they then get to Morocco, which Canada will definitely view as their most winnable game.

Yet, despite that, don’t be fooled – this Morocco side is not easy to play against. They proved that back in 2018, where in their first participation in 20 years, they competed, unfazed by the occasion. 

Despite being put in a group with Portugal, Spain and Iran, they were competitive in every game, even though they were eliminated at that stage having drawn 1 game and lost 2, with a memorable 2-2 draw to Spain being the highlight of that tournament for them. 

So because of that, they’ll hope to come into this tournament ready to take a step forward from that, showing that they can take a step towards doing something that they’ve done just once in their history – make the Round of 16. 

But while this Morocco side is very solid in how they play and on paper, led by a good group of players in their prime such as Achraf Hakimi, Romain Saiss, (Canadian-born) Yassine Bounou and Sofiane Boufal, they do come into this tournament in interesting form.

To give them credit, they were excellent in CAF World Cup qualifying, running the table in the second round (where they entered) with 6 wins in 6 games (with 20 GF and 1 GA), before dispatching DR Congo rather handily 5-2 on aggregate in the final round to make the World Cup.

Before that, though, they did have to wash the taste of bowing out of the African Cup of Nations in the quarter-finals to Egypt in extra time, which is no embarrassment, but a bit disappointing for a side expected to win it all. 

Plus, there has been turmoil in the squad these past few months, too, with Morocco’s Hakim Ziyech, who stars for Chelsea in England, retiring from international soccer a few months ago at just 29 despite being in scorching form for the defending UEFA Men’s Champions League champions, citing his relationship with Moroccan head coach, Vahid Halilhodžić. You could wonder if that’s an isolated incident, yes, but with 24-year-old Ajax full back, Noussair Mazraoui also rejecting call-ups as of late due to his relationship with Halilhodžić, that is a bit of a worry. 

Beyond that, though, there is a lot to be intrigued with when it comes to this Morocco side, however. 

They like to hold onto the ball and play possession-based soccer, which is when they’re at their best (in their last 6 games, they’re undefeated in the 5 games where they’ve held more possession than their opponents), which is something that Canada will have to watch out for. 

The good news for Canada is that they’re comfortable with playing in transition, which could come in handy in this game, but otherwise, Morocco could try to starve them of the ball. 

But if that tries to happen, Canada does have the advantage of having some very solid midfielders, who could give them an edge in the middle, which when looking at Morocco’s past results, is an area of the pitch they do not like losing. On paper, though, you’d back Canada’s ability to win that battle, though, which could certainly change this game. 

So overall, this will be the most fun matchup for this Canadian team. It’s not an easy one, but they certainly match up decently to this side, especially if the seeds of discontent that have been sowed by some members on Morocco’s team spreads elsewhere ahead of this tournament. 

Key Player: Achraf Hakimi

And speaking of individual players, one that Morocco will look to rely on is the dangerous Hakimi, who at just 23, is already one of the best right backs in the world for Paris Saint Germain. 

Having already played for the likes of Real Madrid, Inter Milan, Borussia Dortmund and now PSG already, his rise these past few years has been fascinating, as he is a very gifted offensive player, one that does damage from deep positions.

As a result, he puts up some big numbers, with his last three seasons seeing him put up 9 goals and 10 assists (all competitions) for Dortmund in 19/20, 7 goals and 11 assists (all competitions) for Inter in 20/21 and 3 goals and 4 assists for PSG so far this season. 

And not only that, his game is so much more than those numbers, too, as while his counting stats are very impressive, they’re just a part of a package that includes strong chance creation, ball progression, dribbling and defending, which we can see in his percentiles chart. 

So for Canada, they’ll have to be careful with how they deal with this matchup. You might wonder ‘oh how will a full back make too big of a difference?’, which is a fair question, but in the modern game, it’s one that doesn’t really apply, especially with a player like Hakimi. 

Plus, seeing that he plays in the more free role of wing back for Morocco (instead of in a back 4 as he does for PSG), they’ll do everything they can to get him in attacking positions, meaning that Canada will have to be watching closely to see what Hakimi will try to do down the flanks against them. 

Looking Forward:

So there we have it – Canada’s draw for the 2022 men’s World Cup. It feels surreal just to type it out, but it’s indeed real, it’s tangible, and that was just confirmed when their name was pulled out of the hat on Friday at the draw. 

And now, it’s going to be exciting just to look ahead to these games. 

Will Canada go out and win all three games? Probably not. Will they compete and make the most of this opportunity? Most certainly, and that’s what matters for this young team.

As seen when going through these teams, there’s so much to like with these teams, who enter this tournament battle-tested and ready to compete, which is all you could ask for if you’re Canada. 

Because of that, no matter how you think Canada will do in this group, it’ll just be exciting to see them go out and compete, because for far too long, they haven’t had that opportunity, just showing how special it’ll be to see them finally make that happen later this year. 

Cover Photo via: Canada Soccer/Martin Bayzl

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