A messy group stage with more shocking results than ever before has now come to an end with an emerging picture of how this World Cup unfolded.
There were surprises and outstanding performances across all groups and, with some of the key players in fine form, it should be an intriguing knockout stage.
So what were the main takeaways from the opening section of the tournament?
No side is immune to shock
Most of the favorites – with the exception of Belgium and Germany – may have escaped their groups, but it hasn’t been easy.
The first surprise came on day three when Saudi Arabia, ranked 51st in the world, stunned argentina.
Not to be outdone, Japan followed suit a day later as they beat germany despite being late on an early penalty, before repeating their comeback round against Spain in the last game to dominate the group. In all honesty, though, with how Group E ultimately turned out, perhaps the biggest surprise was Costa Rica beats Japan in their second match.
It seems that we have witnessed the disappearance of Belgium. Admittedly, their squeaky backline was exposed by a vibrant performances from morocco and Roberto Martinez’s side, ranked second in the world, limped out of the tournament.
Even France and Brazil were not immune to a surprise result. Blues’ 1-0 defeat against Tunisia may have come after Didier Deschamps made nine changes to his starting lineup, but it exposed a few cracks in the armor of the reigning world champions. The same goes for Brazil, which also made nine changes to its 1-0 defeat against Cameroon.
In the end, nations from six continents reached the knockout stages for the first time.
According to Nielsen Gracenote analysis, Cameroon’s victory over Brazil was the 12th surprise (games where the winners’ chances of victory were between 16.7% and 33.3%) or shock (less than 16.7% ) of the tournament so far.
The 2022 World Cup therefore featured more group stage upsets and clashes than any of the other six 32-team tournaments, breaking the previous record of nine at the 2002 and 2010 World Cups.
Argentina’s loss to Saudi Arabia (8.7%) seemed to be the only clash of the group stage until it was joined by Cameroon’s win over Brazil (5.9%). ) on Friday, even though the Selecao had already qualified and made 10 changes.
The big names continue to play…
Questions have been asked about the superstars of this World Cup. Do they still have it? Can they do it in the desert?
The answer was an emphatic yes from many of them.
After a frustrating start to the tournament, Lionel Messi lit up Group C for Argentina, scoring a vital goal first goal against Mexico then dazzling against Poland – despite a missed penalty – to propel them to the round of 16.
Long-time rival Cristiano Ronaldo may have his issues in club football, but he has spoken on the pitch for Portugal. The 37-year-old showed his talent to win and then score a penalty against Ghana, becoming the first man to score in five World Cups. He then gleefully claimed he had a look in the opener of the win over Uruguay – although in the end it was just an entertaining but crucial run because ‘it has been decided Bruno Fernandes’ cross had not touched his forehead.
Even Robert Lewandowski joined the party. Poland hasn’t exactly been exciting, but their main man has his first world cup goal to help his country qualify for the knockout stages for the first time since 1986.
….but the next generation is emerging
So much has been written and said about Kylian Mbappe, but the French striker did not disappoint, producing electric performances and three goals in the group stage to ensure his side were the first to progress to the last 16.
The group of dynamic young Spaniards have also been delighted at times, with 17-year-old Gavi becoming the youngest World Cup goalscorer since Brazil legend Pelé in their opening 7-0 win over Costa Rica.
Cody Gakpo from the Netherlands was already one of Europe’s most in-demand strikers, but the 23-year-old potentially upped his asking price by becoming the first man from a European country to score in all three group games since 2002.
Performances by Canada’s Alphonso Davies, Ghana’s Mohammed Kudus and English duo Phil Foden and Bukayo Saka highlighted their talent on the biggest stage.
And another English player, Jude Bellingham, became a big star with his goal and all-around performance in the 6-2 win over Iran, which helped the Three Lions top Group B.
Brazil are still the favorites
The highest-ranked team in the world have dismissed their European opponents Serbia and Swiss, and were already through by the time a very different side lost to Cameroon.
BBC pundit Chris Sutton described their 2-0 win over Serbia as “a display of real authority”, with Richarlison’s spectacular second goal a typically skillful sign that Brazil are in town.
Losing Neymar to injury was disappointing, but with Vinicius Jr and Raphinha sparkling on the flanks and Gabriel Martinelli and Antony in reserve, the depth of their squad remains enviable.
Besides, the Paris St-German striker could return for the Round of 16 to support a route to the final which could include games against Spain and Argentina.
With the eternal Thiago Silva rallying their backline, Casemiro in the form that has won them everything at club level and strikers who can score from anywhere, the five-time World Cup winners arguably remain the team to beat.
What else have we learned?
- Games last longer: There have been 525 extra minutes of football stoppage time at the World Cup so far. That equates to nearly six more games. Fans certainly get their money’s worth.
- Fewer goals than in the last two World Cups, especially in the first half: 2.5 per game is the lowest of the last three World Cups, with just 36% of those going in the first half.
- Teams shoot less, but better: 22.3 per game, but with an all-time best World Cup conversion rate of 11.2%, although a record 8% of goals came from outside the box.
- Teams spend more: An average of 960 assists per game is more than any other tournament.