After another week of high drama in Qatar, the big teams are starting to position themselves for the business end of this unpredictable World Cup.
The final round of the group stage is traditionally where the tournament really comes to life, and Qatar 2022 has proven this in spectacular fashion this week.
The chaotic conclusion to Group E early on Saturday morning was a prime example, with all four teams poised to qualify for the last 16 at various stages of an exhilarating 90 minutes before Japan and Spain finally prevailed.
The big losers in a breathless finale were Germany, who were bundled out before the knockout round for a second successive tournament.
Here are five things we’ve learned in the second week of the FIFA World Cup.
Australia are overachievers in major tournaments
Despite the expected hype from local media surrounding the Socceroos in the build-up, Australia came into the tournament as the lowest rated team in their group, with Tunisia (ranked 30th), Denmark (10th) and France (4th) all above them in FIFA’s current rankings.
Once again the Aussies overperformed, with their heroic victory over Denmark securing safe passage to the Round of 16 ahead of their more fancied rivals.
Although a second-round match up with Messi’s Argentina proved a bridge too far for our green and gold warriors, Australia’s footballers proved again how they rise to the challenge in major tournaments, just like they did back in 2006 and, more recently, when winning the Asian Cup in 2015.
The scenes around the country as the nation embraced this latest journey were a joy to behold, and it all bodes well for 2026 in USA, Mexico and Canada, where a first ever quarter final appearance has to be the goal.
Belgium’s ‘golden generation’ is finished
The Red Devils don’t have the footballing pedigree of some of their more illustrious neighbours, but many thought the recent crop of talent from this small European nation had the potential to change this.
Inspired by the majestic Kevin De Bruyne in midfield, the wizardry of Eden Hazard out wide and the muscular fire power of Romelu Lukaku up front, the Belgians reached the semi-finals four years ago, losing out to eventual winners France.
They reached the same stage of the European championships three years later, but Qatar was perhaps the last chance of glory for an ageing team.
Needing to beat Croatia in their final group game to progress, they bowed out in disappointing style with a 0-0 draw, having been soundly beaten by Morocco 4 days earlier.
Although De Bruyne, Lukaku and Real Madrid goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois may still be around in four years’ time, captain Hazard is already considering international retirement, and ageing defenders Toby Alderweireld (33) and Jan Vertonghen (35), are unlikely to grace the World Cup stage again. The party could be well and truly over for Belgium.
Possession stats don’t win games
If this World Cup has proved anything, it’s that having the majority of the possession in a game doesn’t guarantee success.
Week one saw Saudi Arabia’s improbable victory over Argentina, with the Saudi’s having just 30% possession, and Japan having even less (26%) when beating the Germans.
The shocks have continued in week two, with Japan again managing to find a way to win despite only having the ball for a miniscule 17% of their game against Spain. Australia continued the counter-attacking trend by defeating Denmark despite only having 31% of possession.
The reason? Unfancied nations have been defending deep and making it difficult for technically superior teams to break them down. They’ve then relied on hitting their opponents on the break before returning to Plan A and holding out under immense attacking pressure.
It’s proved a recipe for success for many at this World Cup and may well lead to yet more shock results in the coming weeks.
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Kane is no longer the only avenue to goal for England
Much was made of England’s perceived over reliance on captain Harry Kane prior to the tournament, and his importance as a goal scoring threat for the Three Lions is without question.
However, Southgate’s team have proven in the group stages, where they scored a tournament high nine goals without Kane once getting on the scoresheet, that they can win without their talismanic striker bulging the net.
The Tottenham front man did open his account in England’s second round victory against Senegal overnight, but it’s been the rise of Bukayo Saka and Marcus Rashford as genuine goalscoring threats at an international level that has caught the eye.
Kane has still been pivotal, providing three assists already to his less heralded teammates, but the fact that the English have had eight different scorers in the tournament so far shows that their talismanic captain’s goals are no longer essential to it ‘coming home’.
This French team could be the real deal
Reigning champions France were always going to be a threat at this World Cup due to the simple fact that they have the lethal Kylian Mbappe in their line-up.
However, questions were asked about whether the loss of Ballon D’Or winner Karim Benzema and star midfielder Paul Pogba would hamper their chances of being the first nation to retain the title since Brazil in 1962.
The French have dispelled those fears in emphatic style in the last week, with veteran target man Olivier Giroud proving to be the perfect foil for the pace of wide men Mbappe and Ousmane Dembele, and the unproven midfield pairing of Aurelien Tchouameni and Adrien Rabiot dominating the ball in the centre of the field.
Mbappe took his tournament leading goal tally to five overnight with a dominant display against Poland, but it’s the all-round strength of this French team that has surprised.
Bigger challenges lie ahead, with a blockbuster quarter final against England next up on Sunday morning (AEDT), but few would bet against France going all the way based on their current form.
The next seven days will also see tournament favourites Brazil enter the knockout round along with Spain, and some mouth-watering quarter finals await.
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