Durban – In Group F, Croatia and Belgium are favourites to take the top two spots, with Canada making it to this level of the Fifa competition for the first time since 1986. Morocco, however, with so many of their stars exposed to big leagues in Europe, have the ability to turn the tables against expectations.
Eshlin Vedan looks at what is likely to become a three-horse Group F race in Qatar.
This will be the final time the Belgian golden generation, comprising the likes of Eden Hazard, Toby Alderweireld, Kevin de Bruyne, Thibaut Courtois and Romelu Lukaku, all play together.
They have underachieved on the international stage and are arguably at their weakest since bursting onto the scene in the 2014 World Cup.
However, in Courtois, the Red Devils do have the best goalkeeper in the world. They will still be the favourites to win Group F. Belgium have the quality to go far in Qatar, but there are doubts over the mentality of the team.
Canada will be making their first World Cup appearance since 1986 and have been one of world football’s most improved nations in recent years. Coached by John Herdman, who boasts the rare distinction of having also coached the Canadian women’s team, Les Rouges placed first in North American qualification for Qatar, impressively beating continental heavyweights Mexico and the United States.
In Cyle Larin, Jonathan David and Alphonso Davies, the Canadians have three players who can cause trouble against any side in world football. Advancement beyond the group stage for Herdman’s side is not outside the realms of possibility.
Armed with a squad who mainly play in Europe, the Atlas Lions will be aiming for nothing less than advancement beyond the Group Stage in Qatar, and they have the quality to do so.
The Moroccans have looked organised in their recent games and are unbeaten since their 3-0 defeat to the United States in June.
In their last two games, the North Africans also claimed a win over Chile and a draw against Paraguay, two physical teams that are never easy to play against. In Achraf Hakimi, Youssef En-Nesyri and Hakim Ziyech, Atlas Lions tactician Walid Regragui has the resources available to progress beyond the group stage.
The Croatians have been in brilliant form since June and have won four games on the trot, which includes beating France and Denmark twice.
The team will be led by 37-year-old Luka Modric, who has confirmed that he will be playing in his final World Cup. Though now close to 40, Modric remains on top of his game and played a vital role in helping Real Madrid win the La Liga and Champions League double last season.
With question marks hovering around the mentality of Belgium, Croatia could even back themselves to win the group.