World Cup Group F predictions: Croatia the value option
Two nations who made it to the final four in Russia four years ago might not have everything their own way in Group F. But while a section containing up-and-coming Canada and star-studded Morocco may prove trickier than expected, Croatia and Belgium should avoid an embarrassing group-stage exit.
Zlatko Dalic’s side finished as runners-up to France in the 2018 World Cup and are arguably even stronger now.
Luka Modric is deep into the autumn of his career, but his performances have not dipped for Real Madrid and Croatia’s star man is flanked by the excellent Mateo Kovacic and Marcelo Brozovic — there will be few stronger midfields in Qatar.
But it is at the back where Croatia have stepped up, with Josko Gvardiol and Josip Sutalo two of the finest young centre-back prospects in Europe.
A lack of elite striking options undermines Croatia’s chances of going all the way, but they have the midfield quality to dictate tempo and defensive strength to shut opponents out.
They remain a serious threat to even the top nations as they demonstrated in this summer Nations League campaign, taking four points off France and twice beating Denmark.
This is the last chance for a golden generation, with the likes of Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld and Axel Witsel surely heading to their last World Cup finals and Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne likely to be on the downgrade by 2026.
For now, it is only the rear-guard undermined by its advancing years, with stalwarts Vertonghen and Alderweireld well past their peaks. Manager Roberto Martinez must decide whether to stick with the tried and trusted or call on Wout Faes or teenager Zeno Debast to step into his back three.
Up front, the injury to Romelu Lukaku is a concern as he looks set to miss much of the group stage and Hazard’s lack of minutes at Real Madrid is also a worry.
It remains an excellent squad but underwhelming performances at Euro 2020 and in the Nations League suggest they will again fall short of glory.
Morocco should not prove cannon fodder to the group favourites as they boast a number of Champions League regulars in their ranks and have a world-class talent in Paris Saint-Germain full-back Achraf Hakimi.
Sevilla goalkeeper Yassine Bounou, Bayern Munich full-back Noussair Mazraoui, Chelsea forward Hakim Ziyech and Sevilla striker Youssef En-Nesyri bring serious quality to a well-rounded Moroccan squad that will see progress from the group as a realistic possibility.
Walid Regragui’s men have enough about them to take a point off the favourites and could not be entirely ruled out from landing an even bigger shock.
Canada are a nation on the rise under English manager John Herdman, but an injury to star man Alphonso Davies is a massive concern.
The Bayern man is key to a Canadian side that also boasts Lille’s Jonathan David and 25-goal Cyle Larin in their frontline but that offers very little further back.
If Davies fails to fully recover from a hamstring injury sustained only two weeks before the start of the World Cup, Canada’s hopes will be severely hit.
There are solid arguments to be made in favour of both Belgium and Croatia, but at the prices Croatia look the standout value.
Morocco have the quality to land a blow against the two European giants, but it is Belgium that look slightly more vulnerable given their growing defensive fragility and their issues up front with Lukaku and Hazard.
Canada finished top of CONCACAF qualifying but that arguably says more about the struggles of Mexico and the USA — Herdman’s squad remains a long way off the quality of the world’s top teams.