Canada vs Morocco
An invigorated Moroccan team will be seeking to reach the knockout stage of the World Cup for the first time in nearly four decades by defeating or drawing with Canada in their final Group F match on Thursday.
Morocco recorded their first World Cup win since 1998 by defeating second-ranked Belgium 2-0 on Sunday, sparking euphoria among players, wild celebrations among fans - and even riots in Brussels.
In their final group stage test, the Moroccans will play Canada, who will be looking to bag their first win in the tournament’s history after being eliminated from their first World Cup in 36 years.
A win or draw would help Morocco to their first appearance in the round of 16 of since 1986. If Canada prevail, Morocco will need Belgium to beat Croatia in the other Group F match, with the goal difference determining if they or the 2018 runners-up advance.
“If we get through to the knockout stage, I think we will be very dangerous going forward,” Moroccan manager Walid Regragui said ahead of their win against Belgium.
Morocco unexpectedly changed goalkeepers at the last moment before kickoff against Belgium as Munir El Kajoui came on to replace Yassine Bounou. A team doctor later said that Bounou had felt dizzy but would be fit to play against Canada.
Canada were knocked out after losing their two opening fixtures against Belgium and Croatia but managed to score their first ever World Cup goal - just 68 seconds after kick off - against the Croatians.
With nothing left at stake in the tournament, Canada will try to build on the strong performance they showed against Belgium and focus on leaving Qatar in good form as they prepare to co-host the World Cup with the United States and Mexico in 2026.
With the World Cup expanding from 32 nations to 48 from 2026, Canada can hope to take part more often in future tournaments after their automatic qualification as co-hosts in four years’ time.
Croatia vs Belgium
When Belgium were beaten by France in their 2018 World Cup semi-final there was some grumbling that the better team had lost and the so-called ‘golden generation’ had been robbed of their place in the final against Croatia.
Fast-forward four years and Belgium will get the chance to show what might have been against the Croats in a Group F encounter on Thursday that may lack the prestige of the tournament’s showpiece finale but remains an acutely important game for both sides.
The group is finely balanced.
Croatia are top, level on four points with Morocco and a point clear of Belgium with three, while bottom side Canada’s hopes have already been extinguished.
Belgium, ranked second in the world, must win to guarantee their place in the last 16, while 2018 runners-up Croatia need only a point to ensure they will remain in Qatar beyond the group stage.
Roberto Martinez’s side have been among the most disappointing of the favourites so far, with a narrow win over Canada and a humbling 2-0 defeat by Morocco leading to questions about whether this generation of Belgian gold has lost its lustre.
This was seemingly the view of playmaker Kevin De Bruyne, who was quoted in an interview with the Guardian dismissing his side’s chances at the tournament because “we’re too old”.
They are certainly not the oldest squad at the tournament, that honour goes to Iran, but there are concerns about the fitness and form of some key stalwarts.
Eden Hazard’s lack of playing time at Real Madrid this season, where he has started only one LaLiga game, has left him searching for match sharpness, while striker Romelu Lukaku, who came on in the 81st minute against Morocco, is another who is not up to speed.
Martinez pointed more to psychological aspects than physical in his post-mortem following their defeat to Morocco.
“We have to stay together now and become stronger. I know this group, we will be ready for Croatia,” he said.
“We haven’t been the best Belgium at this World Cup yet. Today I thought we played with the fear of losing. Without the ball we still work for each other but when we have the ball, we don’t stand out, we are not ourselves. We have to work on that.”
Croatia’s tournament also began with a lifeless performance against Morocco, although the goalless draw provided a platform for them to kick-on against Canada.
They looked far sharper in Sunday’s 4-1 win, with Andrej Kramaric’s double strike dispelling doubts about whether they lack a cutting edge up front.
A draw would see them over the line but coach Zlatko Dalic ruled out playing for such a scenario.
Get all the results for the FIFA World Cup 2022 here:Full list of all matches, scores, results, goalscorers
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Japan vs Spain
Spain and Japan made better starts than most at the World Cup but fans of both will approach their final Group E with their calculators out, still uncertain whether their teams will be staying on in Qatar after Thursday.
Spain are in much the stronger position at the top of one of the toughest groups in the tournament having followed up their opening 7-0 thrashing of Costa Rica with a 1-1 draw with Germany in a battle of former champions.
A draw at Khalifa International Stadium on Thursday would ensure Luis Enrique’s team of a spot in the last 16, while a win would secure top spot in the group.
Japan started the tournament with a stunning 2-1 comeback victory over the Germans but they threw away their advantage with a timid performance against Costa Rica, who stole a 1-0 win with their only shot on target in the tournament.
A draw could also get the Samurai Blue into the last 16 for the fourth time in the last seven World Cups but Germany could pip them even then if they beat Los Ticos and score enough goals.
Japan coach Hajime Moriyasu knows what he wants his team to do but appeared less certain about whether they would be able to do it.
“We are going for the win, that is all we need to think about,” he said after the Costa Rica loss.
“Beating Germany doesn’t mean we can beat Spain, both teams have won the World Cup and we have a lot of respect for them, but we did beat Germany.”
Japan fans might have been forgiven a little trepidation when Moriyasu promised yet another tactical shake-up against Spain after his conservative gameplan backfired so spectacularly against Costa Rica.
Any World Cup group game where one result would suit both teams will always raise the spectre of the so-called “Disgrace of Gijon” 40 years ago in Spain.
FIFA introduced simultaneous final group matches specifically to ensure there would be no repeat of the 1982 West Germany-Austria clash, where a 1-0 win for the former ensured the progress of both teams at the expense of Algeria.
Another early exit for four-times champions Germany might suit Spain very well, but Luis Enrique has committed his team to go all out for victory.
“We will not speculate,” he said after the Germany draw. “We will use our full strength and go for the win to secure the top in the group standings.”
Just how serious he is about that might only become apparent when his team is revealed after reports in Spain that he might rest captain and midfield stalwart Sergio Busquets.
Costa Rica vs Germany
Wounded Germany will have their backs to the wall when they take on Costa Rica in their final World Cup Group E match on Thursday and know they must bag their first win of the tournament, preferably by a large margin, to have any chances of advancing.
The Germans are bottom of the group having gained only one point from their two matches so far, raising the spectre of another first-round exit following their early elimination in Russia four years ago.
Even victory over the Costa Ricans may not be enough, and Germany will be looking to Spain to inflict defeat on Japan to open the door to the next round.
Spain top the group on four points ahead of Japan and Costa Rica, both on three.
Four-times world champions Germany will be hoping to score a bagful of goals against Costa Rica, who had just one shot on target in their two matches.
A win over Costa Rica coupled with victory for Spain will see Germany advance but a draw between Luis Enrique’s side and the Japanese, or even a win for Japan, would bring goal difference in to play.
Scoring has not been a strong point for Hansi Flick’s team but centre forward Niclas Fuellkrug’s excellent run for club and country in recent months has improved their prospects.
The 29-year-old, an unlikely addition to the squad prior to the tournament, snatched a late equaliser against Spain after coming on as a substitute to keep their hopes alive going into the final group match.
The burly striker is now a serious option to lead the line on Thursday with many German pundits and fans demanding he start.
However, assistant coach Marcus Sorg dampened expectations over Fuellkrug, saying he was “not a cure-all” for the team’s problems.
“We have to see what effect which player has at any given time,” Sorg said. “We need a certain structure, stability and security. Security comes with consistency.”
Whatever line-up Germany go with, they know their task is to preserve what remains of their once powerful tournament reputation, having failed to win the first two matches in a World Cup group for the first time.