Qatar 2022 Group F Preview: Croatia and Belgium hope to give their 'Golden Generations' one more crack at the top

Joey Leizerowitz

i24NEWS Qatar 2022 World Cup Correspondent

8 min read
Belgium's Eden Hazard, center, is challenged by Croatia's Domagoj Vida, right, during the international friendly soccer match between Belgium and Croatia at King Baudouin stadium in Brussels, June 6, 2021.
AP Photo/Francisco SecoBelgium's Eden Hazard, center, is challenged by Croatia's Domagoj Vida, right, during the international friendly soccer match between Belgium and Croatia at King Baudouin stadium in Brussels, June 6, 2021.

Canada and Morocco won't be pushovers as Belgium and Croatia fight to keep the glory days alive

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Croatia 

After a Cinderella-esque run to the Final in 2018, Croatia are back again for more. The runners up in Russia have been cemented as one of the European big boys over the last four years, and they have the form to show it. In their recent UEFA Nations League matches, Croatia went 3-0-1 in a group with Denmark, France, and Austria.

Headlining the Croatian show is attacking midfielder Luka Modrić in what will most likely be his last World Cup with the national team. Modrić was a key reason why Croatia were able to shock the world four years ago, and he has the 2018 Ballon d'Or as proof. 

AP Photo/Manu Fernandez
AP Photo/Manu FernandezReal Madrid's Luka Modric holds his Ballon d'Or (Golden Ball) award as European Footballer of the Year prior of he Spanish La Liga soccer match between Real Madrid and Rayo Vallecano at the Bernabeu stadium in Madrid, Spain, Saturday, Dec. 15, 2018.

Solidifying the midfield with the Real Madrid superstar are Mateo Kovačić and Marcelo Brozović. Mario Pašilić will be one of the starting attackers in the front three, and it is also likely that 2018 semi-final hero Ivan Perišić joins him in the starting eleven. 

While the big question for Croatia will be who is there to fill the void left by Mario Mandžukić, Croatia have shown in recent tournaments that they can score by committee and are able to bring it all together when needed.

Unlike four years ago, it is unlikely that there will be a 'weak' side of the bracket, so Croatia better be ready to play consistent top tier opponents if they wish to go on another fairy tale run. 

Belgium

If there is any team in Qatar who has felt the affects of age the most it is probably Belgium. The 'Golden Generation' of Belgium players, ushered in as everyone's favorite new dark horse back in Brazil in 2014, have failed to live up to their hype and promise to become the country's first true world or continental champion.

Manager Roberto Martinez will likely continue to call on his favorites, such as Eden Hazard and Axel Witsel, to be in the starting lineup, even if their expiration date for those roles was years ago. Martinez also seems reluctant to change formations to accommodate Manchester City star Kevin De Bruyne, which is a bit puzzling considering what he has consistently done for the Premier League side. 

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The true test for Martinez's men may not be the match against Croatia, but the tilt against Canada. Martinez has practically allowed Belgium to play an open attacking style, allowing teams space to counter and relying on his own men to outscore the defensive holes his aging backline concede.

The match against Canada could be a true test of that theory, as the Canadian wingbacks, led by Bayern Munich star Alphonso Davies, will be licking their chops to have a go at the Red Devils defense on the counter attack.

Despite a semi-final appearance four years ago (which they were lucky to reach after Thibaut Courtois single handedly defeated Brazil in the quarters), it does seem more likely that this 'Golden Generation' of Red Devils ends with them taking a step back than reaching the crucial next step forward.

Canada

Speaking of 'Golden Generations,' welcome back to the World Cup Canada! Making their first appearance in 36 years, the Maple Leafs arrive in the desert with absolutely nothing to lose and the most to gain in Group F.

The Canadians announced their return to soccer's premier International tournament with an impressive qualification appearance in CONCACAF, finishing in first ahead of both the United States and Mexico. Not only did Canada finish first, but they looked convincingly better than their continental foes throughout qualifiers and into 2022. 

Tactically, Canada will like their matchups against both Croatia and Belgium. With Jonathan David and Cycle Larin in attack, and Alphonso Davies and Tajon Buchanan flying up and down the wings, the Leafs will be a serious threat to steal a place in the knockout rounds if given the space by the aging European sides. The Canadians will be happy to let Belgium and Croatia have the majority of possession and hit them on the counter, they've shown in qualifying (against the US and Mexico) and in friendlies (against Uruguay) that they can do some serious damage without holding much of the ball.

The key for Canada may just lie in the center of the park, where Stephen Estáquio, Samuel Piette, and Richie Lareya will need to be good enough defensively to allow the attackers to work their magic on the counter and in the final third. If the midfield can hold opponents, watch out, the Canadians could be serious threats to make some noise. 

Morocco 

The first ever African side to make the knockout stage back in 1986, Morocco will feel unlucky and unrewarded to be placed in such a difficult group after an impressive few years.

The Altas Lions went undefeated from 2019-2021 during World Cup qualifying, but the dominating performances on the pitch were overshadowed by drama off it. Morocco's manager at the time had issues that led to Hakim Ziyech quitting the national team, something that has been rectified following the hiring of Walid Regragru and the reintegration of Ziyech into the squad. 

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If Morocco are to repeat their 1986 performance and find a way to qualify out of the group, they'll need Ziyech's quality to get them there. Ziyech's chemistry with right back Achraf Hakimi will be crucial in attack, allowing Hakimi to ignite on those sweeping cut runs that practically make him an attacker around the edge of the box. The left side isn't too shabby either, with Bayern Munich's Noussair Mazraoui playing on his offside to accommodate Hakimi on the right, and Sofiane Boufal playing the left hand Ziyech role.

Despite the fierce completion in the group, Morocco will not be an easy match for any of their three opponents. But for Morocco to recreate their 80's magic, they'll need everything to go just right for a spot in the knockout stages. 

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