A look at the World Cup group stage pairings
DOHA, Qatar (AP) — Lionel Messi possibly facing Robert Lewandowski, Spain definitely playing Germany, and Luis Suárez handed a rematch against old foe Ghana.
The draw on Friday for the World Cup group stage set up some intriguing prospects, with host Qatar playing Ecuador on the Nov. 21 opening day but not in the first game.
England will play the United States, and both must face Iran and potentially Ukraine which resumes in the playoffs in June. Ukraine was unable to field a team last week during the invasion by Russia.
A total of 37 teams were involved on Friday because three entries in the 32-team lineup are not yet known. Like Ukraine's playoff bracket, two intercontinental playoffs delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic finish in June.
The top two teams in the standings of each group advance to the round of 16 in the knockout bracket paths which are set through to the final on Dec. 18 — National Day in Qatar.
GROUP A — Qatar, Netherlands, Senegal, Ecuador
Qatar will make its World Cup debut against Ecuador on Nov. 21. A game between teams currently ranked Nos. 51 and 46, respectively, will have much more significance as the first World Cup finals game for a Middle East host.
Netherlands coach Louis van Gaal sees the historic moment a little differently. He said last week it was “ridiculous” the tournament was being played in Qatar and cited FIFA's interest in money.
Van Gaal's team will open the World Cup in a 1 p.m. (1000 GMT) kickoff against Senegal — a three-time runner-up facing the new African champion. The Dutch do not face Qatar until the last Group A games on Nov. 29.
GROUP B — England, United States, Iran, Wales or Scotland or Ukraine
A very political group, and even more so if Ukraine completes the lineup.
The U.S. and Iran previously met at the 1998 World Cup, where the Iranians won 2-1. England will open against Iran in a first ever World Cup game between them.
England and the U.S. meet in their second game. They drew 1-1 in the 2010 group from which both advanced.
England's final game could be a British derby against either of its neighbors, Wales or Scotland, or Ukraine — those three teams are in a playoff bracket in June.
“Ukraine is (a team) everyone’s pulling for in a way because of everything they are going through," U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter said, adding “you’d be thankful” if soccer could help Ukrainians return to normal daily life.
If Scotland does qualify, it is due to play England on Nov. 29. That's one day before the 150th anniversary of soccer's first international match, in 1872, between the two countries in Glasgow.
Group B teams also start on Nov. 21. That gives those teams fewer days to prepare for the World Cup but builds in more rest days if they go deep into the tournament.
GROUP C — Argentina, Mexico, Poland, Saudi Arabia
Lionel Messi and Robert Lewandowski — the holders of the Ballon d'Or and FIFA Best player in the world awards, respectively — are on track to meet when Argentina plays Poland on Nov. 30 in the last round of group games.
Argentina finally won a Copa América with Messi last year and opens against Saudi Arabia, which impressed in qualifying under coach Hervé Renard.
Poland starts against Mexico, which resumes what seems to be a national obsession to get beyond the round of 16.
GROUP D — France, Denmark, Tunisia, Peru or Australia or United Arab Emirates
Defending champion France and Denmark will know each other so well by November. They were in the same group four years ago and will meet twice more in June and September, in UEFA's Nations League.
France has the superstar forwards Kylian Mbappé and Karim Benzema, though Denmark has a sense of destiny with playmaker Christian Eriksen. He returned to the team last week just nine months after suffering cardiac arrest on the field at the European Championship.
“What a player. I can say he is back and maybe he’s even better," said coach Kasper Hjulmand, who led his team to the Euro 2020 semifinals
In 2018, they also faced Peru and Australia in their group and a three-team reunion depends on the outcome of an intercontinental playoff bracket in June.
GROUP E — Spain, Germany, Japan, Costa Rica or New Zealand
The 2010 champion Spain will face 2014 winner Germany in a Nov. 27 rematch of the semifinal the Spanish won in their title campaign.
“Easy group, easy group, eh?" Spain coach Luis Enrique quipped. "A great group, great rivals and I think we have to try to enjoy that.”
Costa Rica was a quarterfinalist in 2014, going deeper then than Spain, but must first get past New Zealand in a playoff in June.
GROUP F — Belgium, Croatia, Morocco, Canada
Belgium was a semifinalist four years ago and Croatia was the beaten finalist. Croatia coach Zlatko Dalić knows his team cannot be a surprise this time.
“Four years ago nobody believed in us, nobody trusted my team," Dalić said. "Now we deserve respect. We deserve everything.”
Canada is an intriguing and difficult option from the lowest-ranked teams after topping its qualifying group ahead of Mexico and the U.S.
It has two potential stars in defender Alphonso Davies and forward Jonathan David, and a history-making coach, John Herdman, who previously led Canada's women's team to a World Cup.
Morocco gets a group with two tough Europeans in back-to-back tournaments. Last time, it was Spain and Portugal.
Morocco coach Vahid Halilhodžić has made World Cup history in leading a fourth different nation through qualifying.
GROUP G — Brazil, Switzerland, Serbia, Cameroon
Brazil, Switzerland and Serbia are quickly reunited after all were in the same group in 2018. Brazil will open against Serbia, which it beat 2-0 four years ago.
The Switzerland-Serbia game was among the most controversial in 2018. Both Swiss scorers in a 2-1 win, Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri, made provocative double-headed eagle hand gestures to honor their Albanian family roots.
“I don’t care about politics,” Serbia coach Dragan Stojković said after the draw.
Now aged 30, Neymar is set to lead Brazil's attack into a third World Cup in search of a title his country last won in 2002.
Brazil vs. Serbia late on Nov. 24 makes them the last teams to start play — more time for the squad to prepare but a more congested 25-day program if it is to win a record sixth title.
GROUP H — Portugal, Uruguay, South Korea, Ghana
Cristiano Ronaldo is on track to open his fifth straight World Cup finals at age 37 by facing Ghana.
Coach Fernando Santos acknowledged “this will be a very tiring tournament," but preferred a late start in the congested schedule to help prepare his team.
The group reunites Luis Suarez and Uruguay with Ghana for the first time since their infamous quarterfinals game at the 2010 World Cup. Suarez was sent off for punching away an almost certain winning goal for Ghana deep in extra time. The penalty was missed and Uruguay went on to win the shootout.
Earlier in the 2010 knockout rounds, Suarez scored twice when Uruguay also eliminated South Korea 2-1.
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