World Cup: The experts' picks ahead of Qatar 2022

A mid-season World Cup has thrown up plenty of contention, not least in terms of creating further congestion in an already packed schedule.

There has also been plenty of criticism of FIFA's decision to award the 2022 edition of the tournament to Qatar.

Yet when the football starts on Sunday, it will dominate headlines around the world for the next month.

France are holders, but Brazil and Argentina are much-improved compared to four years ago.

Ahead of making their way to Qatar, three Stats Perform writers have made their predictions for not only who will become world champions, but possible dark horses to make a deep run, as well as those teams that might flop on the biggest stage, and the winners of the three individual awards - the Golden Boot, Golden Ball and Golden Glove.

And, at the end of the tournament, these predictions will be revisited, to see how right – or how wrong – they were.

The Champions

Ryan Benson – Argentina

This may not be the most talented Argentina squad, but they're arguably more unified than they've been in a generation. Last year's Copa America success saw them end a 28-year wait for a major title and it finally got the monkey off Lionel Messi's back. La Albiceleste were beset with off-field problems at the 2018 World Cup and then came up against eventual winners France in the last 16 as a result of finishing second in their group.

France got the better of Argentina in a thriller in 2018
France got the better of Argentina in a thriller in 2018

Lionel Scaloni has struck a balance between defensive solidity and getting the best out of Argentina's attacking talents, namely Messi. They work hard and have the greatest player of all time – success could be written in the stars for Messi's final World Cup.

Patric Ridge – France

Holders do not have the best of records when it comes to defending their world titles, especially in France's case. Yet even with players like Paul Pogba and N'Golo Kante - crucial cogs in the 2018 team – missing through injury, it is still difficult to look too far past Les Bleus when it comes to the favourites from Europe, at least. France have a habit of coming into major tournaments with chaos on their tails, but there does seem to be an element of calm on this occasion, even after last year's failure at Euro 2020.

Kylian Mbappe failed to deliver in that competition but has since scored 58 goals for Paris Saint-Germain. Team-mate Karim Benzema (50 goals, 16 assists) is one of the only players close to matching Mbappe's haul over the past 16 months, and France's firepower in the final third (let's not forget Kingsley Coman, Ousmane Dembele and Antoine Griezmann, though RB Leipzig star Christopher Nkunku suffered an injury on Tuesday that has ruled him out of the tournament) will be enough to see them go all the way once again.

Ben Spratt – Brazil

Brazil coach Tite has a wealth of talent at his disposal in perhaps the strongest squad in the tournament. Crucially, too, he can rely on one of world football's form stars in Neymar.

The Paris Saint-Germain forward appeared destined to lead Brazil to glory on home soil in 2014, only for a cruel injury to rule him out of a semi-final in which his team-mates were humiliated. Neymar will be hugely motivated to put that right this time, and he could face club colleague Lionel Messi and Argentina in a showstopping final.

Neymar has been outstanding at Paris Saint-Germain this season
Neymar has been outstanding at Paris Saint-Germain this season

The dark horses

Ryan Benson – Denmark

Euro 2020 was an emotional tournament for the Danes. After Christian Eriksen suffered a cardiac arrest on the pitch, the rest of the team battled their way to the semi-finals. Of course, Eriksen will be there to lead this time, and he's proven over the past year or so just how good a player he still is.

Denmark should fancy their chances of qualifying from Group D. Though facing holders France won't be easy, they beat Les Bleus twice in the Nations League, and Australia and Tunisia won't strike fear into the Danes, who would all likely come up against Poland or Mexico in the last 16 if they progress. A deep run at a second successive major tournament is certainly on the cards.

Patric Ridge – Netherlands

Labelling the Netherlands – who have made three World Cup finals without winning the tournament – as dark horses seems strange, yet given the Oranje failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, they have had to build back up from a low base, first under Ronald Koeman and then Louis van Gaal, either side of Frank de Boer's forgettable spell. Van Gaal returned for his third stint in charge after De Boer only managed to make the last 16 at Euro 2020.

Having taken the Netherlands to third place in 2014, Van Gaal has all the experience required to succeed on the biggest stage, and the strength in depth at his disposal was evidenced by his squad selection, with Sven Botman, Ryan Gravenberch and Arnaut Danjuma among the high-quality players to miss out. With Virgil van Dijk at the back and Memphis Depay (who was directly involved in 18 goals in qualifying, more than any other player in the European qualifiers) spearheading the attack, the Netherlands should top Group A, meaning they would likely face one of Iran, Wales or the United States in the last 16. The quarter-finals should be the least of their aims.

Ben Spratt – Qatar

Host nations do not always deliver – South Africa can attest to that – but there appears a very real danger of Qatar being taken lightly. While this might be their first World Cup, they won the last Asian Cup in 2019 and have threatened upsets in guest appearances at the Copa America and Gold Cup.

Qatar also look set to benefit from a kind draw. The Netherlands will be Group A favourites, but the hosts have every chance of progressing in second place – and setting up a second-round meeting with the winner of England's group – if Senegal cannot recover from Sadio Mane's injury setback.

In the knockout stage, anything can happen – as Russia proved four years ago in stunning Spain.

The flops

Ryan Benson – France

No nation has retained the trophy since Brazil in 1962, and four of the past five defending champions have been eliminated in the group stage. The last time France went into a World Cup as holders, they finished bottom of their group. While that doesn't necessarily mean anything, there has been a somewhat chaotic backdrop to Les Bleus' preparations over the past year.

That includes poor performances on the pitch, as they were almost relegated from their Nations League tier after crashing out of Euro 2020 in the last-16 stage. While Didier Deschamps heads to Qatar, France should have enough to get out of their group, but a potential second-round clash with a fired-up Argentina could prove uncomfortable.

Patric Ridge – England

Southgate's work in rekindling the national pride when it comes to the Three Lions, and blooding young players who have contributed to two wonderful runs deep into tournaments, cannot be doubted. Yet since Euro 2020 ended in penalty shoot-out heartbreak in that final defeat to Italy, it is hard to shirk the feeling that perhaps the cycle is coming to an end. A dismal Nations League campaign saw them fail to score a goal from open play until the 3-3 draw with Germany in September as they were relegated from the top tier.

That, of course, is of little consequence in the grand scheme of things, but it did lead to criticism of Southgate's conservative approach, and seeming inability to get the most out of the attacking talent at his disposal. Southgate's success has been built on solid foundations, but despite Jordan Pickford's continued good form, that defensive solidity has escaped them as of late. England should get through Group D, though matches against the USA and Wales could prove tricky. Even if they finish top, Sadio Mane's Senegal could wait in the last 16, and France in the last eight.

Ben Spratt – Germany

In becoming the latest defending champions to fall foul of the first round in 2018, Germany crashed out in the group stage for the first time – albeit they exited from a second group in 1978. Surely the perennial contenders will not crash out early again? Well, that is not necessarily a given.

After a promising start to life under Hansi Flick, Germany's Nations League woes would have been the subject of a great deal more scrutiny had they not been upstaged by England. They are a little too reliant on youth – which is fine in the case of Jamal Musiala but perhaps less so when concerning Nico Schlotterbeck – and a group also containing Spain and Japan is unlikely to be forgiving.

The awards

Ryan Benson – Lionel Messi (Golden Ball), Harry Kane (Golden Boot), Emiliano Martinez (Golden Glove)

This will be Messi's last World Cup – not speculation, the words of the man himself. In that sense, he's already got something of an advantage when it comes to an award handed out based on perception and opinion rather than a factual metric. If Argentina do well, he could potentially be outshined by several team-mates but because it's him and what this specific tournament means in the context of his international career, he'll surely be in Golden Ball contention. On top of that, he's heading into the tournament in brilliant form.

As poor as England have been in 2022, you can't argue with their record at major tournaments under Southgate. Similarly, Kane's goalscoring record is supreme. In fact, he heads to Qatar as the reigning Golden Boot holder (if that's technically a thing…) having scored six times at Russia 2018. No player has ever finished top scorer at more than one World Cup, so it would be a historic achievement were Kane to do it again.

Harry Kane won the Golden Boot in Russia
Harry Kane won the Golden Boot in Russia

Of the past four goalkeepers to win the Golden Glove, three have come from the champions, with Belgium's Thibaut Courtois the odd one out four years ago. Given I think Argentina will at the very least go deep into the tournament, it makes sense to back Martinez, who has been a reliable goalkeeper for La Albiceleste since becoming the undisputed number one and was vital to their Copa America success.

Patric Ridge – Karim Benzema (Golden Ball), Cristiano Ronaldo (Golden Boot), Thibaut Courtois (Belgium)

Benzema missed out on helping France to glory in Russia, but was recalled for Euro 2020 and scored four goals, a tally bettered by only Cristiano Ronaldo (more on him shortly) and Patrik Schick. The 34-year-old, who turns 35 the day after the final, was the rightful winner of this year's Ballon d'Or, having propelled Madrid to LaLiga and Champions League success last season. He has the quality to be the standout player in Qatar and be the driving force behind France's second straight triumph.

Now, let's talk Cristiano. Like Messi – and Benzema – this will likely be his final World Cup, though you never know when it comes to the 37-year-old. Ronaldo's sole Premier League strike this term took him to 700 goals in club football, and while his future is uncertain, there can be no doubting his potency in front of goal. Ronaldo has scored in each of the four World Cups he has appeared in, and all of his seven goals have come in the group stage. Portugal face South Korea, Uruguay and Ghana in an enthralling Group H, and if their creative players click, Ronaldo should be pushing for the Golden Boot.

It feels like the last chance saloon at a major tournament for many of Belgium's 'golden generation'. They finished third in 2018 but failed to spark at Euro 2020. While Kevin De Bruyne's brilliance cannot be disputed, Romelu Lukaku has struggled over the past 18 months and Eden Hazard is far from the player he once was. Goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, however, seems to be getting better and better. The winner of the Golden Glove in Russia, the Madrid shot-stopper was incredible for Los Blancos last season, including making a stunning string of saves in the Champions League final. He's the best goalkeeper in the world right now, and he'll have another award to prove it in Qatar.

Ben Spratt – Neymar (Golden Ball), Karim Benzema (Golden Boot), Alisson (Golden Glove)

Benzema has not been to a World Cup since 2014, but he is very much the man for a goal on the biggest stage, as last season's Champions League heroics would suggest. He netted four in four at Euro 2020 and should net plenty in a relatively kind group.

However, the Golden Ball is highly likely to go to a player who goes all the way, and success for Brazil would surely see their main man anointed. Neymar's form for PSG this season is deserving of such recognition.

Neymar could well be joined on the podium by Alisson, a leading Golden Glove candidate as perhaps the best goalkeeper in the world. If not for the Liverpool man, Selecao team-mate Ederson could make the same claim.

Alisson has excelled for Liverpool
Alisson has excelled for Liverpool