Ten days before the World Cup began, we tried to predict which group might be the tournament’s Group of Death. In doing so, we discovered that Qatar 2022 contained two of the 14 most difficult groups by average pre-tournament Elo rating among all World Cups dating back to 1970.1 One of those groups — Group E — contained two of the past three World Cup winners (Spain and Germany), and two teams we labeled as “plucky underdogs” (Costa Rica and Japan).
As it turns out, that label was probably a bit patronizing: Japan beat Spain on Matchday 3 to top the group, and Costa Rica — despite getting throttled 7-0 in their opening match against Spain — came within 17 minutes (plus stoppage time) of finishing in second place. In the end, three late Germany goals broke Costa Rican hearts, but they weren’t enough to send Die Mannschaft through to the knockout stages. It was a Group of Death for somebody — just not necessarily who our model expected.
So with the caveat that predicting what will happen at a World Cup is more art than science (or more luck than art?), let’s survey the remaining field and handicap their chances of winning the most famous trophy in soccer.
Our model still has Brazil as favorites,2 and in fact it gives the Seleção better odds to win the tournament today (30 percent) than it did before it began (22 percent). All that, despite a nasty ankle injury for Neymar (who should be back for the knockout stages). Brazil has the fourth-best expected goals differential per 90 minutes (xGD/90) at the tournament despite playing in what probably ended up being the real Group of Death. (Again, Groups of Death are complicated.)
Expected goals isn’t the be-all, end-all statistic in a tournament that doesn’t allow for meaningful sample sizes, especially not in the group stage. (For example, in a domestic league season, xG offers more signal than noise after roughly 10 matches.) Germany has the best xGD/90 at the tournament so far, and they’re headed home before the knockout round in a second consecutive World Cup. Indeed, World Cup group stages are often about vibes and whatever the Soccer Gods are feeling from one moment to the next. But still, Brazil is scary good, and a worthy favorite going forward. Our model gives South Korea — Brazil’s likely Round of 16 opponent — just a 16 percent chance of advancing to the quarter-finals. Things are looking good for the Seleção — and they’ll look even better once Neymar gets healthy.
Meanwhile, Brazil’s major CONMEBOL rival Argentina — led by the GOAT himself, Lionel Messi — came out on top of their group, despite a disastrous Matchday 1 loss to Saudi Arabia, the third-weakest team at the tournament according to our Soccer Power Index. Messi and company went on to win their next two matches, and are set to square off against Australia — whom our model gave just a 22 percent chance of advancing beyond the group stage before the tournament began — in the Round of 16. With an 83 percent chance to move on, Messi’s probably got this one. (But again…it’s the World Cup, etc., etc.)
Of course, this wouldn’t be a World Cup without asking if football 3 is or is not coming home. England managed to top Group B — and did so playing better soccer than that nation’s mostly hysterical media would have you believe — which means they’re set to square off against Senegal on Dec. 4 at Al Bayt Stadium. Senegal is famously without Sadio Mané, but they were probably the best team in Group A despite finishing second. (They probably deserved a point or more in their opening-match loss to the Netherlands.) This will be anything but straightforward for the Three Lions, which could spell trouble for Harry Kane — whose legacy hinges on success in Qatar.
Among the European powerhouses, England is joined in the knockouts by France, Portugal, the Netherlands, Croatia and Spain, who will square off against Group F winner Morocco on Dec. 6 at Education City Stadium. Although La Roja has a negative goal differential aside from that landslide win over Costa Rica, its underlying numbers (sixth in xGD) have been among the tournament’s best so far, setting up an interesting clash versus the Atlas Lions.
At least those teams avoided the fate of the other European nations who stumbled out of the tournament before the knockout stages began. We all know about Germany’s “absolute catastrophe” by now, while Denmark, who was pegged by just about everyone as the dark horse in Qatar — and who we said would be “fun” to watch4 — lost two and drew one in Group D, managing to score just one measly goal. And it turns out that Belgium’s so-called golden generation is about as shiny as a hundred-year-old penny. After stealing a win against Canada on Matchday 1, the Red Devils lost to Morocco and drew against Croatia en route to yet another underwhelming tournament performance.5
As for Japan, their reward for topping our presumptive Group of Death (and beating two of the best teams on the planet) is a knockout-round showdown with Croatia, runners-up at the 2018 World Cup. Some reward for the Samurai Blue — but it should be a reward for viewers, as the most evenly matched battle of the Round of 16. (We give Croatia a slim 54-46 advantage.)
Finally, there’s the USMNT. Christian Pulisic’s heroic goal in the 38th minute against Iran put the Yanks through to the knockout stages for the first time since the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. 6 A hard-fought victory against a highly disciplined, exceptionally well-coached and technically gifted team like Iran proves that the U.S. is playing to win — not just for respect. Still, they’ll have to go through Virgil van Dijk and the Netherlands if they hope to make it another step closer to the promised land, and our model gives the Oranje a 66 percent chance to end the Americans’ tournament.7
And even if the Yanks do upset the Dutch, their next opponent would probably involve that Messi guy. In which case, it’s probably best not to look too far ahead.
Check out our latest World Cup predictions.