So it begins, with Group A poised to set a lively tone for the 2022 World Cup.
According to the World Cup odds, this group looks like smooth sailing for Louis van Gaal’s slick Netherlands team, who are unbeaten in the 15 games since he took the reins for a third spell in charge. Expectations are high after recent form and a favorable draw.
Each of the four teams in Group A brings storylines and intrigue, starting with hosts Qatar in their World Cup debut. Can the home crowd help to paper over the team’s lack of experience against highly ranked opposition? Sadio Mane’s injury lingers over Senegal’s preparation for the tournament while a young, fearless Ecuador squad will be no pushovers.
Our Group A team breakdowns and best bet get you ready for the action, and be sure to check out our free World Cup picks page for more throughout the tournament.
World Cup Group A odds to advance
World Cup Group A team breakdowns
Netherlands (Odds to win group: -223)
Van Gaal is back for one more shot at World Cup glory — he guided the team to a third-place finish in 2014 — and this Dutch team has responded well, winning 11 of his first 15 games without tasting defeat.
Despite some goalkeeping question marks, the Netherlands can count on a strong spine, from Virgil van Dijk to Frenkie de Jong to Memphis Depay. They are heavy favorites to top Group A and, at their best, could make a deep tournament run in their quest to win the World Cup for the first time.
Expect to see a 3-4-3 formation, with de Jong’s vision and passing as the focal point in midfield, but other spots are up for grabs in midfield and attack. Van Gaal has options alongside Depay in the front three, with Ajax duo Davy Classen and Steven Bergwijn likely to feature prominently despite underwhelming club performances this season. Experienced striker Wout Weghorst could be another X-factor.
Best of all for the Dutch, key men have points to prove. Van Dijk has been short of his best for Liverpool this season while de Jong has endured some difficult months at Barcelona. This tournament provides the ideal stage for the pair to deliver a reminder that they are among the world’s elite players.
Player to watch: Memphis Depay. This could be a career-defining tournament for the 28-year-old who carried the Dutch attack during the qualifying phase with 12 goals and six assists. But, at club level, Depay's spell at Barcelona appears to have stalled — and a prolific World Cup run could set him up for a new start.
The champions of Africa were shaping up as a sneaky upset pick to top Group A before Sadio Mane’s injury, but now all eyes will be on their star man’s race against time to feature during the group stage. So often the difference-maker for Senegal, Mane has been included in the squad but it’s hard to believe he’ll be at his best, if he plays at all.
Still, there’s plenty of grit in this Lions of Teranga squad. They conceded just two goals on the way to African Cup of Nations glory last year and their game plan could pivot even further towards their solid defense in front of Chelsea keeper Edouard Mendy. A win and two draws might be enough to qualify.
Beyond Mane, where will the goals come from? Ismaila Sarr and Boulaye Dia must rise to the occasion in a tried and tested 4-3-3 formation, as Senegal’s compact, disciplined midfield is short on creative spark. Youngsters Pape Matar Sarr and Nicolas Jackson could give this team an attacking jolt in tight games.
Inspirational coach Aliou Cisse has signed a new deal and, having captained Senegal to a shock win over France at the 2002 World Cup, he knows what it takes to overcome the odds at major tournaments.
Player to watch: Abdou Diallo. The RB Leipzig defender has become a key figure next to captain Kalidou Koulibaly in the center of the Senegal defense, with his positioning and composure on the ball. A rock-solid defense might be the best hope for the Lions of Teranga to advance.
La Tri’s prospects in Group A largely depend on whether you view the squad through the lens of inexperience or youthful fearlessness.
Ecuador proved the doubters wrong by qualifying for Qatar, finishing fourth in CONMEBOL qualifying, and have prospered under Gustavo Alfaro’s bold style. Impressive wins over Uruguay, Colombia, and Paraguay, plus draws against Argentina and Brazil, paved the way for their fifth World Cup appearance.
This team is built to soak up pressure and burn opponents with counter-attacking raids, cashing in on the pace of Moises Caicedo, Michael Estrada, and Gonzalo Plata. Ecuador have found goals harder to come by in recent outings (two goals in their last five games), but striker Enner Valencia has a good World Cup track record, netting three times in the 2014 tournament.
At the back, La Tri gives little away — so don’t expect their games to contribute a glut of goals in Group A. Felix Torres has emerged as a key figure alongside 20-year-old Piero Hincapie in the center of defense, while left-back Pervis Estupiñán has caught the eye alongside Caicedo at Brighton.
Featuring several products of the renowned Independiente del Valle youth system, this is a tight-knit, physical group that prides itself on being difficult to play against.
Player to watch: Moises Caicedo. The 21-year-old is the midfield engine that powers Ecuador, and his tireless running leads to chances in the opposition box. His matchups with the Netherlands’ de Jong and a physical Senegal midfield will be worth watching.
The hosts have an uphill task as they take their World Cup bow. Though Qatar has played friendlies against Bulgaria, Chile, and Canada in the lead-up to the tournament, the squad has limited experience at this level. But coach Felix Sanchez, at the helm since 2017, brings stability and organization to The Annabi.
Don’t expect a lot of goalless draws from Qatar. Despite sometimes using a 5-3-2 formation, their defensive frailty is a concern, and the hosts will be vulnerable against the talented, speedy attackers in Group A. To counter those shortcomings, expect Sanchez’s men to attack in numbers, in the hope of outscoring their opponents.
Qatar, who showed plenty of tournament know-how in winning the 2019 Asian Cup, have had a longer runway than most countries in preparing for this big moment. The Qatari domestic league break came in mid-September, unlike so many other leagues around the globe, and the well-rested players will know how to navigate the hot weather conditions.
The Annabi have two other key factors in their favor: the familiarity within the Qatar setup, as many of the squad play their club football for Al Sadd, and the advantage of home crowd support. However, it remains to be seen whether the scrutiny and attention of being the host nation is a benefit or a burden.
Player to watch: Almoez Ali. The top scorer at the 2021 Gold Cup, Ali has a chance to announce himself to a global audience. He will need to be clinical with the limited chances that Qatar creates, and his link-up play with playmaker Akram Afif will be key to the hosts’ chances.
Group winner odds courtesy of PointsBet, as of November 15, 2022.
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World Cup Group A best bet
Ecuador to qualify from Group A (+100 at DraftKings)
With Senegal’s chances hampered by Mane’s rough injury luck, there’s an opening for a bold Ecuador team to snatch one of the top two spots and reach the knockout rounds. The focus in Group A will be on the host nation, Mane’s recovery, and a highly-rated Netherlands team, but La Tri will be happy flying under the radar.
The tournament opener against Qatar feels like a must-win game and, assuming a youthful team thrives in that spotlight, it should provide a platform for taking on the Dutch in their second game. A point might be enough for Ecuador in the final group fixture against Senegal.
While it’s fair to expect some mistakes from such a young group (the youngest Ecuador squad to reach a World Cup), Alfaro’s patience and trust have emboldened his players to fight through tough patches. Leaning on their speed and stamina, they won’t fear the global stage.
Facing the likes of Argentina and Brazil during the CONMEBOL qualifying round (and holding their own against both) should give La Tri plenty of confidence, and Moises Caicedo is poised to be one of the tournament’s breakout young stars. With solid value in these odds, I like Ecuador to spring some surprises and do just enough to squeeze through to the last 16.