Hive Fantasy World Cup - Preview Groups A and B
Welcome to the first preview of the Hive World Cup fantasy league! If you've not already signed up for the league then be sure to do so now before the action starts on 20 November.
Group A Preview
As per usual, Group A contains the host nation in this case Qatar who are one of the lowest ranked teams in the competition, as well as Ecuador who are currently ranked 44th in the World by FIFA. It means that if we were to look at the average ranking of every team in every group, that Group A is the weakest in World Cup 2022.
On paper then, you'd expect the Netherlands and Senegal to dominate this group and effectively be vying with each other for top spot but let's not underestimate home advantage especially in conditions which European teams may yet struggle to perform in.
Despite being one of the lowest ranked teams in the competition it's worth remembering that this Qatar side are the current Asia Cup champions having overcome Japan currently ranked 24th in the world in the final of that competition. Indeed, their run to the final saw Qatar net 19 goals and concede just twice which suggests that they'll enter this tournament on home soil with a degree of confidence.
Much will likely rest on their opening encounter with Ecuador if they are to avoid the fate of South Africa in 2010 to become only the 2nd host nation in the competition's history to not progress past the first stage.
Another bonus for this Qatar side is that many of them ply their trade in the Qatari Stars League which means they are very familiar with home conditions, will go somewhat under the radar and indeed a significant number of them play together week in week out for club side Al-Sadd SC meaning that this is a well oiled machine despite the lack of household names.
As far as fantasy picks are concerned, Akram Afif (FWD) is one of a handful of players in the Qatar side to have experience of the big European leagues during a brief stint at Villareal making him the first Qatari to play in La Liga.
Since then, he's been banging them in for fun in both in the domestic league and for his national team with 62 goals in 77 appearances for 16 time champions Al-Sadd SC and a further 21 international goals during his 76 international caps. However, it's not just goal scoring that makes Akram Afif an attractive buy, he's also contributed 30 assists in his international career, suggesting that his $4.5 million price tag is something of a bargain!
Qualifying out of the South American group is not to be sniffed at and indeed, this Ecudaor side have built a reputation as a tough nut to crack especially at home where they use the high altitude to their significant advantage (that won't be the case in Qatar).
In fact, they've been beaten just once in their last 15 matches but it should be noted that 9 of those games have ended in a draw and that Ecuador have scored just twice in their last 6 fixtures including yet another nil nil draw in a friendly against Iraq this weekend.
All in all this suggests that Ecuador are not going to be a team that plays expressive football and scores a lot of goals in this World Cup so if you are looking to bring in a player for your fantasy squad, then it might well be in the defensive or goalkeeping positions.
Pervis Estupinan (DEF) and Moises Caicedo (MID) have both been impressing for Brighton in the Premier League this season. Estupinan is very affordable $4.5 million and in a group that lacks any of the big pre-tournament favourites might be able to deliver at least a clean sheet. Caicedo is also cheap at $5.5 million and it's worth remembering that midfielders in this fantasy league are awarded points for successful tackles, suggesting that a more defensive minded player shouldn't be automatically be ignored!
The Dutch enter this World Cup as genuine dark horses and with a pedigree in the competition that simply can't be ignored. 3 times defeated finalists, they've never before failed to qualify from the group stage albeit that they do have a reputation for self-destruction at times. It's also worth remembering that they failed to even qualify for the 2018 World Cup meaning that for many of their squad this is their first major tournament away from home (they were joint hosts of Euro 2020).
However, since being knocked out of Euro 2020 by the Czech Republic, the Netherlands come into the tournament on the back of a 15 match unbeaten streak with 11 wins including 5 out 6 in their Nations League group which contained fellow World Cup qualifiers Poland, Belgium and Wales.
The Dutch are of course packed full of household names who need little introduction here with many of them plying their trade in the major European leagues and within the Champions League itself.
One player who might well be looking at this tournament as a chance to move onto bigger things is Cody Gakpo (FWD) who, like so many Dutch based players, was heavily linked with a move to Manchester United this summer. PSV have managed to resit so far but you feel that it's only a matter of time before their star asset is sold on.
Gakpo gave an impressive performance against Arsenal last month in the Europa League, while domestically he's scored 9 and assisted 12 so far this season. The fact that he is only $7 million is largely due to his inexperience at international level with just 9 caps to date. However, with the likes of Memphis Depay (who is more expensive that Gakpo) struggling for minutes at club level, Gakpo looks set to start for the Dutch as he has done in their last 5 matches running into this tournament.
The fitness of Sadio Mane remains the big question mark for the 2021 African Cup of Nations winners but Senegal certainly have plenty of experience in their squad beyond the former Liverpool man and will be hopeful that they can, at the very least, make it to the knockout stages of this World Cup.
Perhaps their biggest test will be against the Dutch in the first match. The winner of that game will feel that they have one foot in the 2nd round already but I do wonder what the mentality of both sides will be in that opening fixture. Might we see a pair of teams more keen on avoiding defeat than of chasing victory?
It's also worth remembering that Senegal were very slow off the mark in last year's AFCON, scoring just once in the group stage (a 97th minute winner) and relying generally on a tight defence in those early stages. Based on what I've already written about Ecuador above, it suggests that might be a fixture to pick up points via the defenders!
In regards individual players, Milan full-back Fode Ballo-Toure (DEF) may be worth a look at. Senegal do like to get their full backs high up the pitch when in possession but at the same time with Champions League standard centre-backs and goalkeeper, they are also good money to keep a clean sheet or two. At $4 million Ballo-Toure seems like a snip!
Group B has the makings of some exciting fixtures. On paper, England are the favourites to go through but their form has been awful since their defeat in the Euro 2020 final last summer.
Equally, if we are looking at FIFA rankings alone then this is the toughest group with all 4 sides currently ranked in the top 20. Granted Wales, USA and Iran aren't heavy hitters but you can bet that they'll be up for it against the English in a group that could well be decided by fine margins.
As far as the bookies are concerned, England come into this tournament as one of the favourites despite the fact that they haven't won in their last 6 games.
Defence looks to be the overwhelming weakness for the 3 Lions while in forward positions, manager Gareth Southgate has plenty of options but is yet to find a combination that can deliver success.
Their opening game against a stubborn and well drilled Iran will be crucial. Get off to a good start and England will feel confident that they can go deep, otherwise the pressure of an expectant nation back home knows no limits!
Harry Kane (FWD) won the golden boot for England in the 2018 World Cup and he will be crucial to his side's chances once again. The England captain comes into the tournament in stellar form with 12 Premier League goals in 15 appearances and is currently the 2nd highest point scorer in the FPL.
Other players performing well back in the domestic fantasy league include Kieran Trippier (DEF) and if you are looking for an unlikely hero James Maddison (MID) who had already booked a holiday before being a late call-up to this squad. Both these players are scoring fantasy points for fun at the moment for their respective clubs and yet both are cheaper buys in the World Cup version than in the EPL equivalent.
Iran have plenty of experience at these big tournaments but are yet to make it out of the group stages in their 5 previous apprearances.
Perhaps the biggest surprise pre-tournament was the sacking of their coach Dragan Skocic who had lead his team through the qualifiers before being replaced just 2 months ago by former Man Utd assistant coach Carlos Queiroz. Queiroz, however, did manage Iran at their last 2 World Cup appearances so despite the tight turn-around he is familiar with the squad.
Iran's big problem in previous World Cup's has been finding the back of the net with just 9 goals in their 15 games at the tournament to date. They do however possess Sardar Azmoun (FWD) who has 42 goals in 61 caps and currently plays with Leverkusen in both the Bundesliga and Champions League as well as Mehdi Taremi (FWD) who has been in fine form for Porto with 6 goals and 5 assists for the Portugese giants this season.
Winning 1-0 is very much a favourite score line of this Iranian team who have only won by 2 clear goals once this calendar year. That kind of defensive discipline and ability to nick a goal when the opportunity presents itself could serve them well in tournament football.
It's long been considered that the CONCACAF group is one of the easier qualification routes to the World Cup and yet despite this the USA only just managed to sneak through it finishing 3rd on goal difference ahead of the mighty Costa Rica!
The concern for their fans will be that they've played 6 times so far in 2022 against other teams featuring in World Cup 2022 and have won just once (3-0 vs Morocco). They certainly won't get any easy games in this group in which to steam roll minnows and inflate their FIFA ranking...
The squad contains some well known talent from the Premier League and Serie A and their options in central midfield certainly suggest they'll be combative in that area of the pitch.
Much rests on Cristian Pulisic's (MID) shoulders as far as goal scoring is concerned. He hasn't managed much of an impact at Chelsea this season but the fact that he'll likely take penalties and set pieces for his team and has the bonus of being listed as a midfielder despite likely playing in a front 3 means that he is definitely worth consideration. At the very least he'll be fresh having spent most of the season warming the bench in West London!
Wales return to the big stage after a wait of 68 years, the biggest gap in between appearances in the tournament's history to date.
They have of course enjoyed some success on the European stage during that time largely off the back of what some might call their 'Golden generation' but what really amounts to just a dynamic duo.
Gareth Bale (FWD) and Aaron Ramsey (MID) have been involved in 9 of Wales' 13 goals during the 2020 and 2016 Euro finals and you'd imagine that they will be key once again if Wales are to mount a serious bid to get out of the group stages.
Despite Bale's fading star, he has managed 4 goals in his last 8 appearances in a Welsh shirt and he showed his penchant for the big moment with a late equaliser for new club LA FC to help them to a domestic cup triumph earlier this year. Again, penalties, free kicks and the fact that the team will play almost exclusively to his strengths makes his $8 million price tag worth a look.