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Unbeaten? The knockout stage is a whole new ball game

This is the first World Cup since USA 1994 that not a single team could maintain an all-win record at the group stage
German subs on the bench after being knocked out.
German subs on the bench after being knocked out.

Angshuman Roy   |   Doha   |   Published 04.12.22, 05:07 AM

This is turning out to be a fascinating World Cup, full of twists and turns, replete with tense moments and dramatic finales.

Who would have thought that at the end of the group stages, four-time champions Germany would miss out on a knockout stage berth for a second successive tournament or that the world’s second-ranked team Belgium, who finished third in Russia 2018, would also be packing their bags so early?


Who would have thought that powerhouses Brazil, Argentina, France, Spain would fail to remain unbeaten in their run to the Round of 16? And that leading into the knockout phase only five teams would remain unbeaten: the Netherlands, 2018 runners-up Croatia, England, USA and Morocco.

This is the first World Cup since USA 1994 that not a single team could maintain an all-win record at the group stage. Brazil were expected to buck the trend, but they lost to Cameroon on Friday night. 

So what does it take to stay unbeaten in the group stage? The answer is simple. Skill of course, tenacity, and luck. A lot of luck.

For example, at the Lusail Stadium on Friday night, Brazil had 21 attempts at goal, of which eight were on target, whereas Cameroon had seven but that was enough for Vincent Aboubakar, who headed in the all-important goal in the dying minutes of the game.

“We weren’t effective and the game became more dangerous as it progressed. Who lost? All of us (in the Brazil camp). History will remember me as the first Brazil coach to lose to an African team in the World Cup,” manager Tite, who had rested several of his first-team players, said.

“We had a very good game, it’s just that we did not take our chances. But it doesn’t affect our confidence. Four years of preparations cannot be judged by one match,” said Fabinho.

Croatia haven’t been anywhere near brilliant. Morocco, with a little bit of luck, would have beaten them in the first match, and against Belgium, Luka Modric and his teammates had a close shave as Romelu Lukaku just could not put the ball into the net. A defeat would have sent Croatia packing and put Belgium through, but it was the other way around at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium.

England also have enjoyed a fair share of luck. Against Iran and Wales they had a stroll but against the US they looked abysmally bad.

But does staying unbeaten or maintaining an all-win record in the group stage guarantee success in the knockout round? Not really. Football is so fickle that one slip and a team could be shown the exit door.

Denmark in 1986 had stormed into the pre-quarterfinal round beating Scotland (1-0), Uruguay (6-1) and West Germany (2-0) only to be hammered 5-1 by Spain, Emilio Butragueno scoring four. West Germany’s loss to Denmark was later seen as a blessing in disguise. They faced table toppers from Group F, Morocco, and despite a valiant fight from the north African team, Germany prevailed. They then went all the way to the final. Even Argentina in 1990 had lost to Cameroon in the first match but stayed in Italy till the last day only to lose to Germany courtesy of an 85th-minute penalty by Andreas Brehme. Spain in 2010 also did not have an all-win record in the group stage but they were good enough to have the last laugh.

Morocco have earned a berth in the last-16 for the first time since that loss to Germany 36 years ago and have topped a group in which Belgium and Croatia were favourites to advance. They had two wins, a first for them, and much of the credit for the team’s gallant show goes to coach Walid Regragui. “We trust in him,” Morocco defender Achraf Hakimi had said after the match against Canada. 

But it’s not staying unbeaten or topping the group that will matter. It’s just how a team performs on that particular day. And how much luck they are blessed with.

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